Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

I’ve just returned from watching a stupendous Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night at West End. I haven’t read Twelfth Night for a while, and watching the play tonight, at a couple of points, I caught myself thinking of a few issues of inter-textuality.

It’s interesting how the intertwined themes of youth, time, aging, love, death and immortality occur and recur throughout the corpus of Shakespeare’s work – obsessively, almost. Sonnets 1 – 17 are collectively known as “the procreation sonnets“, and follow a common theme: Shakespeare accuses the youth of wanton cruelty, both to himself and to the world, for refusing to marry and bear children; because time will, eventually, erase and deface his beauty, and the only way in which it is possible to defeat time’s work is by begetting a son who will bear the youth’s image in the world, once he himself has become old and decrepit. So, Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The very famous Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And one of my personal favourites, Sonnet XVI:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Shakespeare’s brooding, melancholic preoccupation with time and mortality and their destruction of all beauty, has been familiar to me through his sonnets, where these themes form a very self-contained whole. But tonight, I started when I heard the identical sentiment voiced in Twelfth Nigh, this cry of anguish from Viola as she attempts to persuade the hard-hearted Olivia to accept the Duke Orsino’s suit:

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy(Twelfth Night, Act I Sc V)

Here again, you have the language of the sonnets: praise of beauty, anger at the beauteous one’s unwillingness to marry and procreate, and an affirmation that the only way to defeat time is through producing the likeness of your beauty in your children. I now wonder how often this theme recurs in this way throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

The second issue, even more interesting. Consider this famous wooing scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi:

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.

And Maria’s imitated letter, in the hand of Olivia, to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,
THE FORTUNATE-UNHAPPY.’

Ignoring for a moment that one is a dialogue, and the other a letter, there are some striking similarities in content (in Shakespeare’s case, let us suspend our knowledge of the farce for a moment). Both are instances of high-born women taking the (rare) initiative to initiate proceedings through a declaration of love, since they know that the difference in social hierarchy between themselves and the men they love will always prevent him from making the first move. Both contain very similar imagery, and the exhortation to the man that “his life is made“, if only he will overcome his inhibitions and take what is offered. And indeed, the two even use similar vocabulary, albeit in different contexts: “born great” is a striking phrase present in both.

Twelfth Night was performed in 1602, and The Duchess of Malfi ten years later. I suppose it is probable that Webster was well-aware of Twelfth Night, and consciously or sub-consciously modeled the essence of his scene on Shakespeare’s prototype. Of course, there is one crucial difference: in Twelfth Night, the fake letter is a device of the comic form, and is the starting point for some of the most farcical and hilarious incidents in the play. On the other hand, the parallel scene in Malfi is the foundation of all the tragic events that follow – you couldn’t possibly have a more serious scene, more gravitas, than when the Duchess decides to woo Antonio. So, same motifs – but in entirely different contexts.

This, I think, lets us reflect upon fascinating issues of inter-textuality and allusive reference within literary traditions. Allusion was the stock-in-trade of the classic scholars, and from what I’ve read, it served broadly two purposes: it allowed the poet to place himself within the tradition – and thus, in a sense, define himself (in a relatively stable way) to his readers; by referencing known and established authors of a canon, the poet defined his genre, placed at least approximate limits upon the scope of his creative exercise, and generated certain specific expectations of form and content within his readers. But in changing the context of the allusion, and thus making it mean or signify something different, the poet also established his own individuality and unique voice for the reader.

Here, as in most things classical, Virgil leads the way. Right from the opening line, “Arms and the man, I sing…“, which, in a dual reference to The Iliad (“arms”) and The Odyssey (“the man”) establishes that The Aeneid is going to be both a war-epic and a quest-epic, Virgil’s epic is full of allusions to Homer, to Ennius, and to all the other epic poets of note. And Virgil, as I’ve noted on a few occasions before, is master of subversion and defamiliarisation. It would be the subject of a full, separate post to go into the complexity of the allusions in The Aeneid (and I am only just about competent to skim the surface), but I think that even this much is enough for us to think seriously about our ideas of authorship, of originality, and of where the point lies in literature. Is it that when one writer has come up with a motif, or a theme, or a particular treatment of it, that we ought to recognise it as his, and to castigate others who incorporate it into their own works as lacking in originality? Or ought we to regard those motifs and everything else as part of the tradition, and simply judge a writer on the basis of how well he uses them? In his essay, What Is An Author?, Foucault points out that the idea of single, individual authorship in the strong sense as we know it is an invention of the modern world. Perhaps that explains the allusion-heavy, intertextual nature many classic writings; and also explains why, in responses to allegations of plagiarism, Virgil was able to reply, blandly, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer” – because it didn’t really matter whether he had used the same words or images, or motifs, or even themes as Homer – what mattered was how well The Aeneid read, how good an epic it was. Perhaps, then, there is no given, a priori, in-the-nature-of-things reason for our convictions about individuality, authorship and originality to be as they are (they certainly weren’t this way in the genre of oral epics, for instance). Perhaps we ought to think about them as deeply and as carefully as we think about, say, the ethical dimensions of writing literature; and perhaps, if we find that there is no basis or warrant for them, we ought to modify, or even discard, these basic notions with which we, now, approach all our texts.

The Duchess of Malfihttp://larryavisbrown.homestead.com/files/malfi/malfi_home.htm

Twelfth Night: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/twelfth_night/full.html

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3 Comments

Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Epic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Shakespeare, Virgil

3 responses to “Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

  1. Very interesting analysis.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Brian Joseph

    Thought provoking commentary as usual.

    I lean towards, but am not completely wedded to, the belief that it is of much greater importance how WELL an author uses themes, motifs, ideas, etc., rather then how completely original they are.

    I would just add to this that if an artist does come up with something original it is a wonderful thing that should also be celebrated.

    • There’s a brilliant article by Foucault, which I recommend – it is called “What is an Author”, and it challenges the presupposition on which your last paragraph rests – the idea of individual originality. Well worth a read. 🙂

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