Who is Viola? What is She?

  • Gary Taylor

Abstract

In asking how or by what means a fiction approximates fact, it is necessary to define the real. The art critic, confronting a painting, can bring to bear a number of facts about the nature of the visual world: the law of perspective, the known structure of the human anatomy, the refraction of light through water. In the case of a portrait or a landscape, he may even be able to compare the painting with the place, or with a photograph of the sitter. By such means he can analyse how the image of the painter reflects or distorts known features of the physical world. The literary critic lacks such guidelines. To compare Shakespeare’s Caesar with the Caesar of his sources, or the Caesar of modern historians, does not tell us whether or why the character is dramatically convincing (though it may tell us something about Shakespeare’s interpretation of him). But, even if such comparisons were useful with historical figures, with fictions such as Viola even they are denied us. Where the art critic refers to anatomy, the literary critic, attempting an anatomy of mind, can refer only to the sciences of psychology; however, attempts to make use of psychological models usually, for a variety of reasons, fail.

Keywords

Foam Sponge Refraction Ghost Heroine 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Levin L. Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeares Plays (1922) 173–6. Schücking and his kind, of course, do not represent contemporary critical orthodoxy. But such critics do raise a number of relevant and unanswered questions about the artificiality, the irreality, of dramatic characters, questions which critics interested in themes and images naturally ignore, but which any investigation of response must eventually face. Hence my rather unusual attentiveness to the misguided opinions of these rather old-fashioned critics — my interest being in why we all agree that they are misguided. (Psychoanalytic criticism has, ofcourse, recently become fashionable again.)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    As G. E. Bentley points out in Shakespeare and Jonson: Their Reputations in the Seventeenth Century Compared, 2 vols (1945) I, 128, neither the romantic comedies nor any of Shakespeare’s female characters attracted much praise later in the seventeenth century: his brand of romantic comedy was considered old-fashioned, and the female roles are usually rather small, easily upstaged by comic characters such as Malvolio. Since the eighteenth century, however, Viola’s theatrical and critical reputation has not been in doubt.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, Bollingen Series, xxv, no. 5, 3rd edn (1968).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    G. K. Hunter sets these sexual transformations in the wider context of Elizabethan staging in a stimulating recent essay, ‘Flatcaps and Bluecoats: Visual Signals in the Elizabethan Stage’, Essays and Studies, 33 (1980) 37–8.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    John Fuegi gives some interesting examples of this principle at work in ‘Meditations on Mimesis: the case of Brecht’, in Drama and Mimesis, ed. James Redmond, Themes in Drama 2 (1980) pp. 103–12.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare and Other Masters (1940) p. 29.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Arthur Miller, Collected Plays (1957) p. 21.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    A. D. Nuttall makes a similar point in ‘Realistic Convention and Conventional Realism’, Shakespeare Survey, 34 (1981) 37.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    For a detailed and illuminating analysis of the speech of one of this very different class of characters, see Stanley Wells, ‘Juliet’s Nurse: The Uses of Inconsequentiality’, in Shakespeares Styles: Essays in Honour of Kenneth Muir, ed. Philip Edwards, Inga-Stina Ewbank and G. K. Hunter (1980) pp. 51–66.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (1951) p. 87.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927) p. 93.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    Ralph Berry, in ‘Twelfth Night The Experience of the Audience’, Shakespeare Survey, 34 (1981) 115, points out that ‘Swabber is one who swabs down decks — and is therefore pure metaphor — but contains the lingering hint that Maria was engaged in a similar activity, as chambermaid. The social insult is all part of what the play identifies as the fluid and shifting lines of social demarcation.’Google Scholar
  13. 14.
    I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), p. 94. See also William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) p. 32: ‘Statements are made as if they were connected, and the reader is forced to consider their relation for himself. The reason why these statements should have been selected is left for him to invent.’ I should only add that the invention is rather strictly controlled.Google Scholar
  14. 15.
    R. W. B. Burton, The Chorus in SophoclesTragedies (1980), p. 117.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    V. O. Freeburg, Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama (1915); Bertrand Evans, Shakespeares Comedies (1960). Evans’s recent Shakespeares Tragic Practice (1979) is, by contrast, merely eccentric: see my review in Review of English Studies, 33 (1982) 78–9.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    J. R. Brown, Shakespeares Plays in Performance (1966) p. 211.Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    Dean Frye, ‘Reading Shakespeare Backwards’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 17 (1966) 19–24.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    George Stubbs, ‘Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, 6 vols (1974–81) III, 66.Google Scholar
  19. 28.
    Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik, new Arden (1975) p. lxxvii n. 3 (‘I distinguish between consistency and plausibility’) and 2 (of another, similar inconsistency: ‘the inconsistency will go unnoticed in the theatre’).Google Scholar
  20. 33.
    Elizabeth M. Yearling has an illuminating discussion of this moment in ‘Language, Theme, and Character in Twelfth Night’, Shakespeare Survey, 35 (1982) 85.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    Emrys Jones, in Scenic Form in Shakespeare (1971) p. 14, discusses the general principle by which Shakespeare constructs scenes (Othello’s temptation, the gulling of Benedict) so that a character’s position at the end is the polar opposite of his position at the start.Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    Harold Jenkins, ‘Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night’, Rice Institute Pamphlet Xlv (1959); repr. in Shakespeare: The Comedies, ed. Kenneth Muir, Twentieth Century Views (1965) pp. 81–2.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    John Dover Wilson argued that Viola originally sang the song, and that Feste was substituted in a subsequent revival, in which there was no boy actor available for Viola’s role who could sing: see his New Shakespeare edn (1949) pp. 91–5. Like most recent editors I find this implausible: see the new Arden edn, pp. xvii–xxiii.Google Scholar
  24. 40.
    Edward Gordon Craig, ‘On the Ghosts in the Tragedies of Shakespeare’, On the Art of the Theatre (1911; repr. 1968) esp. pp. 276, 279. Casca’s speech is itself preparation for the appearance of Caesar’s ghost at Philippi, but the preparation has in this case (unlike the Soothsayer’s) been poorly executed.Google Scholar
  25. 42.
    Dowden defended the character in a similar way, as a ‘piece of higher art’, Shakespeare showing ‘the dramatic inconsistency of his characters’. Granville Barker replied, ‘If this were so the thing would still be very clumsily done. What means is the actor given of showing that this is a dramatic inconsistency?’ — Prefaces to Shakespeare (1958) II, 376.Google Scholar

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© Gary Taylor 1985

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  • Gary Taylor

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