Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The End of Illyria: Synthesizing Wednesday-Friday of Week 2

As we approached the end of Twelfth Night, it was apparent that doing one post a day was going to become tedious for me as the writer and, more importantly, more so for you as the reader. The design of the lectures and activities began to take a more synthetic shape: ideas and activities blending together in a more coherent whole.

Wednesday began with a lecture from one of our scholars on the idea of perspective in Twelfth Night. Using visual art as a point of access, and relating to the idea of practice as a trick, we dove into the text using a mathematical approach similar to that mentioned in a previous entry of this experience. Looking at all of the words related to perspective in Twelfth Night, we noticed that few of the references on their own were significant, but that the word vision itself does not appear in the text of the play. People can see, but they have no vision beyond what is apparent on the surface; thus does Viola masquerade as a man and others practice self-deception about what they want and what they can have. The characters must lack vision because unless they are complicit in the doubling present throughout the play, the poor disguises cannot work. Think about how "womanly" Orsino says Viola's voice is; she is no Frank Caliendo.

The doubling becomes part and parcel of an identity constructed in the liminal space of Illyria. Viola, acknowledging her own doubleness, says that she is a "poor monster" trapped between her womanly love for Orsino and Olivia's love for the young man Cesario. This fluid construction of gender created a porous border between sexes that was by turns humorous and discomforting (news flash: this is not the first generation to be uncomfortable with homosexuality). The mention of monster draws a parallel between The Tempest, the play that features the word monster the most, specifically between Caliban and Viola. In the end, acknowledging her two halves, one as man and the other as woman, Viola is caught in an inbetween world that is fraught with social danger; luckily, Sebastian arrives just in time to prevent the liminality of the moment from resolving in Viola's mortal end. After all, she couldn't very well be Cesario for the rest of her life with the demands being made of her.

After this discussion, we had a seminar and an interesting talk from Holly Doogan about the smells of Elizabethan England. Specifically, we discussed pomanders and their cultural connection with the plague, a topic I would encourage you to investigate further. Apparently, perfumes also existed in a liminal, inbetween space. Because perfumes were used to improve smell and to protect against the plague, they were both pestilence and prophylactic, a monstrous construct of scent. The olfactory imagery in Twelfth Night is mostly connected with Olivia's body, leading to interesting observations about Olivia and her scent.


The week ended, through lectures on both Thursday and Friday, focusing on the inbetween nature of the ending: the marriages that don't quite happen but will happen soon and the sadness of Feste's song. The liminality is spread thick, a veritable Nutella of uncertainty on the crispy toast of the play. The sweetness comes from the weddings that, though sudden, are the conventional outcomes for this play; the nuttiness is how much of it doesn't seem to resolve. When the play ends, Viola is still Cesario and Orsino cannot bring himself to call her Viola, Malvolio has stormed off somewhere doing who knows what, Andrew has been cast out to his destitution (yep, Toby spent it all), Toby and Mariah are married, Sebastian and Olivia are married, and nothing is resolved. Then, the damn clown starts singing. A sad song. To close the comedy. We are left where Viola's journey started: a vast and empty shore that is foreign to our eyes and understanding.

But, we are English teachers. We are nothing if not comfortable with unresolved, ambiguous stories. The gift we are giving our students is the ability to cope with these ambiguities. Daily, students wander our halls dealing with questions of sexual and gender identity, of personal identity, of love and desire, and of how their lives may progress when they step beyond the protection of our walls and onto the vast shores of their lives. The play becomes the liminal space wherein these ambiguous problems can be addressed, discussed, and played with in a way that avoids personalizing these issues (that is making them personal in a way that ends up setting a student up for ridicule and alienation).

As one of our visiting scholars pointed out, Twelfth Night is the end of the holiday season. Now are we turned out to the world to return to the daily rain that pours on until we can no longer focus on that bright future toward which we stumble with the best intentions. When we study this play, we give students surer footing in that all important journey to what we desire, or what we will.

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