Sunday, August 16, 2009

Call home thy ancient thoughts from banishment...

I had to start with that line, because I love it. Will's plays have so many little treasures like that--lines and passages that don't make it into the lists of "great quotations," but nonetheless say something powerful and so well that they make the rest of us amateurs pause with our fingers hovering over the keyboard, humbled. When Sly wakes up in the nobleman's house, the lord (who remains nameless, a generic representative of his class) tries to convince him that he's been in the throes of a "strange lunacy" for the last fifteen years, and has only now come to his senses. Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer with mental illness or alcoholism could relate to that line, I think. "Call home thy ancient thoughts..." remember who you used to be, and be that person again, please. I don't know who you are anymore...

Induction 2

The second induction sets up the frame for the rest of the play. Frame stories have been used throughout literary history, and are still used today. The frame story is one in which you have someone outside the main narrative either telling the story, or, as is the case here, viewing it as a drama. One of the oldest frame narratives is the Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade saves her own life by telling her husband, the king, a thousand stories, night after night. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is another. The device was popular in the nineteenth century, too...Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Alice in Wonderland, and later, Lewis's Narnia stories all use a version of the frame story. It appears in films--Forrest Gump and Slumdog Millionaire, for example, use a modified "framing" structure where much of the action is in the form of "flashbacks." What's the appeal of this structure? Sometimes it forces us to question the reliability of the narrator (as in the film Amadeus, for example), and thus causes us to wonder about the relationship between stories/fictions and truth.

People in Will's time worried about that a lot. Puritans (those same spoilsports who first settled in New England in 1620) hated the theater. In fact, they hated fiction altogether, because it wasn't true. As if life isn't made up of various competing fictions about the world--and about ourselves! How many people do you know who subscribe to a fiction about themselves that everyone else knows to be completely untrue? "I'm a victim," "I'm a hard worker, and everyone else is lazy," "I'm beautiful," or, conversely, "I suck." In politics it's rare to see anything that resembles the "truth" of our experience. Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Obama was born in Kenya, Bill Clinton didn't really have sex with Monica, John Edwards is a family man, and Larry Craig just has a "wide stance." And so on. Frame stories implicitly ask "what's true? and "what/whom can you believe?" The urgency of those questions hasn't faded with time.

When Sly wakes up to his new life, he asks "do I dream? Or have I dreamed till now?" It's a good question, isn't it? Science fiction asks that all the time. Neil Gaiman's wonderful Sandman series of graphic novels explores that idea, as does one of my favorite Star Trek TNG episodes, "Ship in a Bottle." It's a holodeck story--bear with me if you don't know the series. Data, the android, loves to play Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck (which is a computer-generated world in three dimensions). Holmes's nemesis, Moriarty, is a holodeck construct who, for some mysterious reason, becomes "self-aware." He realizes that he's a "fictional man," and wants to be "real." Because he's a genius, he is able to seize control of the ship (yeah, this happens way too often in ST) and force the crew to find a way to bring him into the Real World. They can't do that, obviously, but what they can do is make the frame bigger--they create the illusion of an "outside" for his holodeck reality, so it seems as if he's in the real world, although he's still inside the fictional one. At the end of the episode, one of the crew members looks up and says, "computer, end program." Just to see if we, here in the real world, are part of someone else's fiction! Do we dream, or have we dreamed till now? If there is a God, is He just watching some divine version of reality TV? Hmm.


SLY For God's sake, a pot of small ale!
SERVINGMAN Will't please your lordship drink a cup of sack?

From the beginning of the second Induction, the focus on class hierarchy is clear. Upon waking, Sly yells for a beer, but the servingman says, more or less, "how about some fine champagne?" Thus begins the rather brief attempt to convince Sly that he's really an aristocrat--he argues a little, but let's face it, most of us would just go with it if we woke up in some mansion in the Hamptons with servants ready to wait on us. The Lord of the manor urges him to "banish hence these abject lowly dreams" and check out all the fun stuff he can do now that he's come to his senses:

Wilt thou have music?
Hark, Apollo plays,
And twenty caged nightingales do sing.
Or wilt thou sleep? We'll have thee to a couch
Softer and sweeter than the lustful bed
On purpose trimmed up for Semiramis.
Say thou wilt walk, we will bestrew the ground.
Or wilt thou ride, thy horses shall be trapped,
Their harness studded all with gold and pearl
Dost thou love hawking? Thou hast hawks will soar
Above the morning lark. Or wilt thou hunt,
Thy hounds shall make the welkin answer them
And fetch shrill echoes from the hollow earth.

Who needs a holodeck? Certainly the things the Lord promises him are more the stuff of daydreams than reality for most of Will's audience. It would be like having your favorite rock band on call, gorgeous sex partners (that's what all that Semiramis stuff was about), and...let's say, a yacht to sail around in, since hunting is no longer an upper-class activity (more the opposite, where I live). I don't think many of us would insist we don't belong in that dream.

The final piece of the illusory puzzle is Sly's "wife," who is really a young servant named Bartholomew. Here things get kind of interesting. Although we know he's a guy, in Will's day all the female parts were played by boys. So Sly is only being asked to believe what Will's audience is asked to swallow all the time, namely, that a boy dressed as a woman is a real woman. It's easy to imagine this sort of thing in the comedies, which have lots of cross-dressing characters anyway (sometimes this gets really complicated, as in Cymbeline or The Merchant of Venice, when a male (actor) plays a woman who dresses as a man...). But imagining Juliet, or Cleopatra, or Desdemona as a boy-dressed-as-a-woman is harder. Wouldn't it just seem like a drag show? Of course it didn't...but it would be interesting to see a production that really tries to be authentic this way, if only to gauge our own responses. It seems to me that it would be hard to ignore the homoerotic subtext. Will himself had rather ambivalent sexual preferences, as evident in the sonnets, some of which are addressed to a "fair young man."

I suppose I should mention that there's a whole field of academic research devoted to uncovering/affirming the "queer" (homosexual) aspects of just about every work of literature. Sometimes those critics can be very persuasive, but sometimes "queer theory" seems to want to bend and shape everything to fit its preconceived notions--of course, that's what academics of all ideological stripes do. But since I'm not an academic anymore, I don't have to! Suffice it to say, there's something interesting and culturally complex about gender roles in Will's plays...but because we're pretty far removed from them, historically, it's doubtful we can ever fully understand what that something is, or how it seemed to his original audience.

What is interesting in terms of the play is that it's only after Sly gets his "wife" that he fully believes he's a nobleman. Maybe he just needed someone to feel superior to--and who better than a wife? Of course, wives aren't always that easy to dominate, as we'll see in the play-within-a-play.

Next time, we'll meet one of my very favorite literary characters, "Kate the Curst."


  1. Riveting and thought provoking! To share the writings of "Will" with the spirit of today is brilliant. If I am to be truthful...I must admit never being interested in Shakespeare...guess I didn't get it. But this method of blending scenes has me interested and anxious for more.

    History does tend to repeat...if you are willing to look at is a curse or a trap.

    How many times have I heard the excuse "well he/she drank too much"...or worse, said.."I drank too much." The only "poison" being consumed in America is from the is not being spewed from the lips of Obama and being referred to as Cool-aid...

  2. Thanks for being my first and only "follower!" I'm glad you find it interesting--it's not for scholars, just for smart, curious people who may or may not have been interested in Will (I'm already thinking of him as a buddy--or maybe a long-lost cousin!) in the past, but never had the time or energy to read the plays. I hope I can find the time to keep it up when the school year starts...

  3. That makes me number two and that's just not right. I just discovered that the link took me to the latest posts instead of the earliest (I really do know these things when I'm not in a hurry) so I have some catching up to do.