Saturday, March 1, 2014
The World Must Be Peopled
use the Elizabethan term, "light" women. There's wicked Tamora in Titus Andronicus, who makes time with Aaron the Moor though her husband's the emperor. And Cressida of Troilus and Cressida is unfaithful, if not adulterous. (She betrays Troilus with Diomedes, but she wasn't married to Troilus. Not by a long shot.) It's possible that King Lear's Goneril (Mrs. Albany) has slept with ambitious young Edmund, though the play only reveals that she wants to. But the only female character on whose infidelity Shakespeare hung a whole plot is Hamlet's Gertrude, who may have been playing around with Claudius even before Old Hamlet's death. It's really hard to pin Gertrude down. (That's what he said.) What I'm trying to say is, against this limited number of Shakespeare women who do betray their men, we can place a more substantial list of Shakespeare men who are simply making themselves crazy with jealous fantasies, and whose unfounded jealousy is, moreover, central to the plots and meanings of their plays. And since I'm obsessed with listing, I will list them.
Antipholus E. in The Comedy of Errors
Master Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor
Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing
Posthumus in Cymbeline
Leontes in The Winter's Tale
And the most famous example: Othello in Othello
I thought about adding Oberon from A Midsummer Night's Dream, because he accuses Fairy Queen Titania of doing Jupiter Knows What with Theseus of Athens. But he doesn't really care. Oberon's just trying to get Titania's goat. Her fidelity matters so little that Oberon even arranges for her an erotic liaison with Bottom the Weaver. Those fairies are really promiscuous. They have different rules, because they're fairies.
The humans are a different story. In every one of the above-listed plays, men's angry obsession with their wives' (or, in one case, fiancee's) sexual behavior is a controlling theme. Claudio, Posthumus, Othello, and the rest are haunted by doubts about their women's "chastity," "honor," "honesty," or "virtue," once more to use Elizabethan terms for feminine sexual restraint. All those good words have a wider reference when used about men. With women, the words' limited meaning suggests that one particular thing is expected above all from a wife, or wife-to-be. And even when it -- I'm talking about monogamous behavior -- is offered, men still fear that the women are whores! (I used to think to be a whore you had to get paid for sex, but these Shakespeare men use the term more loosely.) In Othello, The Winter's Tale, and so on, the men's suspicions are brought to bear on living women named Desdemona, Hermione, Imogen, Hero, Mistress Ford, and Adriana. And the jealousies constitute, as I said, a major theme. Elsewhere, even in plays wherein wives are missing, dead, or barely characters at all, the husbands' only comments about them are frequently barbed, not-funny jokes about the wives' possible infidelities in the past. Examples? When, in Much Ado about Nothing, Don Pedro tells Leonato, "I think this is your daughter," Leonato replies, "Her mother hath many times told me so." Ho ho. When The Tempest's Miranda asks Prospero, "Sir, are not you my father?," he answers, "Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and she said thou wast my daughter." Ho ho. When King Lear gets really mad (I mean, one of the times), he warns his daughter Regan that if she doesn't act happy to see him, he's going to have to get a divorce from her "mother's tomb," since that tomb must be "sepulchring an adultress." In other words, no true daughter of Lear's would treat him rudely. Apparently even Shakespearean men who are widowers don't stop worrying about what their wives might have been up to, once upon a time.
By the way, modern women named "Regan" often dislike their name being pronounced in a way that associates it with that of Ronald Reagan -- "ay" instead of "ee" -- but I would think they'd be even more upset at being linked with the Regan of King Lear, the Duchess of Cornwall, who's a treacherous hussy, one mean enough to tear an old man's eye out. For this reason I was amazed when I heard that Camilla Bowles, upon her marriage to Prince Charles, was being awarded the "complimentary" title "Duchess of Cornwall." Then again, maybe Queen Elizabeth II knows her Shakespeare and doesn't like Camilla.
Anyway. To return to my subject: how are we to account for the great interest Shakespeare shows in men's jealous, proprietary fantasies? What is the cause?
Well. Were I as complete a fantasist as the scholar Stephen Greenblatt, I would propose, as has he, that the widespread adultery-fears in Shakespeare's plays mean Shakespeare himself endured a troubled marriage. In fact, I myself (though I wasn't the first) imagined this situation for Shakespeare, in a book called Will. I called Will a novel, though, right on the cover, to call attention to the fact that it was fiction. People who think information about Shakespeare's own life is encoded in his characters think, "Shakespeare frequently dramatized masculine jealousy, so he must have struggled with such torments in his own life." But people who know what fiction is -- it's strange how many folks don't --understand that such characters are mostly products of the creative imagination. That's why I don't care why Shakespeare chose this theme, and why this post is not going to turn into a post about Shakespeare's life. Who even brought it up? Oh, yeah. I did. Sorry.
Shakespeare's creative suggestions about baseless jealousy are more interesting than his own experiences, whatever they were. First, he suggests that cuckoldry-fear is linked to two things: horror at the thought of other guys pointing and laughing, and a desire only to raise "legitimate" offspring. On the first theme, Othello is eloquent. He complains that "a horned man's a monster and a beast." The horned man -- the symbol of the cuckold -- is outrageous and outlandish. Like a monster, he's a figure of fun, to be mocked by others. Later Othello accuses Desdemona of having made him "A fixed figure for the time of scorn / To point his slow unmoving finger at." He's not embarrassed to end a sentence with a preposition, but foresees eternal shame in the published "fact" of his wife's dishonor. (I mean, "dishonor.") Similarly, in The Winter's Tale, Leontes, having morphed into the consummate paranoiac, with hopeful worry asks a servant for assurance that his wife's alleged "bed-swerving is "not noted . . . but of the finer natures? By some severals of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes perchance are to this business per-blind? Say." (This piece of insane babbling is to my mind one of the best passages in Shakespeare.) For Leontes, suspicion of Hermione is identical with the fear that her children might not be his. Suspecting his infant daughter Perdita to be the offspring of his erstwhile friend Polixenes (nice name, suggesting a pollinator), Leontes sends the baby off to be exposed in the wilderness. (Spoiler: she survives.) In another romance, Cymbeline, Posthumus's misogynistic fears are blunt and universal. "We are all bastards," he sneers. He insults even his own mother! The word "cuckold" is derived from the cuckoo's habit of laying its eggs in another bird's nest, and this idea that a mother's kids might not be her husband's is seen even in a joke made by soon-to-be-married Benedick at the close of Much Ado about Nothing: "some . . . strange bull leapt your father's cow, and got a calf much like to you," he mocks Claudio. Again, ho ho.
Literary or dramatic interest in sexual jealousy, in fears of mockery and the substitution of outsiders for heirs, is not unique to Shakespeare. But in his comedies, Shakespeare does something with the theme that is unique, and also wonderful. He turns the men's fears on their heads. He does this not -- or not mainly -- by making the women innocent of the men's charges, but by suggesting that it need not matter so much even if they're guilty. I say this only because Shakespeare's comic male characters finally admit it themselves. In one case, they sing it. In As You Like It, Rosalind's suggestion that Orlando give up any idea of controlling his wife is capped with the "cuckoldry celebration" song of the exiled lords: "Take thou no scorn to wear the horn, it was a crest ere thou wast born. Thy father's father wore it, and thy father bore it. The horn, the horn, the lusty horn is not a thing to laugh to scorn." And "Get thee a wife, get thee a wife," Benedick tells his friend Don Pedro at the end of Much Ado about Nothing. Why? Because "There is no staff more reverent than one tipp'd with horn." Since a horn is the cuckold's symbol, Benedick's saying, "Go ahead and risk being a cuckold. It's a dignified office." More profoundly, he's saying, don't let fear of betrayal stop you from loving. After all, in the grand scheme of things, does it matter if you're raising someone else's biological child? Aren't all children everyone's children? As Benedick has said earlier, taking a step of faith almost too brave for comedy, "The world must be peopled." Yo!