Category Archives: Shakespeare

“The clown’s name is Touchtone.”

The play’s name is As You Like It, and I used to like to invite my students to contemplate the clown’s name (let’s call him the Fool rather than the Clown) in relation to the title and to the multiple weddings that end the play.

The Fool, if you recall, lusts after Audrey, a country wench who considers herself “honest.” She’s attracted to him for his nimble wit, perhaps, and certainly for his courtly sophistication, stark contrasts to her friendly local suitor William, who can more accurately be called the clown in this play. The Fool-Audrey relationship nicely balances the other “country copulatives,” Phoebe and Silvius, a one-sided love match that becomes a marriage by default when Phoebe learns that the “man” she has a crush on is actually Rosalind. In the Phoebe-Silvius relationship, the male pines for lyrically pastoral love; in the Fool-Audrey relationship, the male just wants to jump some toothsome country bones.

So he has to find a way around her honesty, and he does: he proposes marriage, and she delightedly consents. Then he finds himself a drunken country priest who, he is sure, will not marry them “well,” in case he later needs to “leave my wife.” Unluckily for him, Hymen, God of Marriage, comes in in the last scene and blesses all four of the play’s marriages, which might tighten the bonds of wedlock just a bit.

Why do I invite the students to consider the Fool’s name? Because it’s Touchstone. Please note the “s”! The stone used by goldsmiths to test the purity of gold (rub this wedding ring on the stone, for example, and then apply certain solvents and observe the reaction: aha! 24k! aha! 18k! oy oy oy, base metal lightly plated…) is the name of the character in this play whose only motive for marriage is a case of the hots.

So when we look at the other couples—Silvius and Phoebe unevenly joined, Celia and Oliver newly but surely in love, Rosalind and Orlando over their crush and into earned devotion—and test their relationships by way of the carnal coupling of Touchstone and Audrey, do we find love that is spiritual, sane, practical, and lasting, or do we find that lust makes the world go round? Is Touchstone’s marriage the way we all secretly “like it,” or would if we could? or is it the cautionary note we should bring to our relationships, sorting out the motives and weighing their value?

The word “touchstone” may be unfamiliar to my students (although I can’t understand why: I knew it and had heard it frequently enough in various contexts by the time I was in college), but most people in Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up on it right away. Since the priest he finds is called Sir Oliver Martext, someone sure to make mistakes in the ceremony, the audience can entertain the probability that Touchstone’s name is substantive as well. Thus my question.

But this student here, and others of her generation, didn’t hear “touchstone,” probably because the word meant nothing to her; she heard “touchtone,” the latest and coolest kind of telephone.  She was a serious student, so I’m pretty sure she also read the play, but in that case her eye must have elided the “s” that made the word alien to her.

There goes the discussion. There goes the character—since the intrusion of communication mechanics into ideas of love and marriage may tempt students to think about the importance of communication in a relationship (but for that they would already have the clown William, a man of few words but those fairly honest) but not about the far more relevant issue that can be gleaned from the character’s behavior. Can you imagine looking at the Fool and seeing a phone receiver, or assuming all his clever words are nothing but beeps? (Well, now that I mention it, some of them arguably are.…)

Of course nowadays I never hear the word “touchtone,” either. I think we’re past it. The name is possibly now past all meaning—just a name.

So who’s the Fool now?

“Edmund is the older brother but was consumed before marriage.”

Here we are in the subplot (important enough to be considered a co-plot) of King Lear, with Edmund full of resentment for being denied his rights of primogeniture in the Gloucester family because of his parents’ tardy wedding.

I knew what my student meant, and I’m sure Edmund would have applauded her intention if not her utterance.

I don’t think it’s a mere wrong-word-choice or typo going on here. “Consumed” should have been “conceived,” of course. But, given her faith that the word in question did begin with “con,” she had plenty of words she might have chosen to write: he was “contrived” before marriage, perhaps; “constructed” before marriage; “conceded”; “consigned”; “confounded”? Why “consumed”?

At first I had quite an anti-choice-poster vision of Mrs. Earl of Gloucester feasting on a bloody fetus. I can think of a few playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, or even Shakespeare himself back in his Titus Andronicus days, considering writing such a scene. The problem is that had that happened, it’s unlikely that the fetus would have been actually named Edmund, and pretty certain that it would never have been considered anybody’s older brother. Completely consumed, the fetus would be no more, Edgar later would have been raised a spoiled “only,” and Gloucester would have retained his eyeballs.

I don’t think my student was under the delusion that Edmund was consumed before his own marriage…consumed by fire, consumed by lust, consumed by some spidery bride. She knew something had happened before his birth, and also before his parents’ marriage.

Ultimately, I think my student’s subconscious mind offered up a nice little pun here. Edmund was conceived when Gloucester and his lady consummated their relationship (before there was an actual marriage to consummate). “Consume” and “consummate” may look a lot alike, but their etymologies differ—one meaning “to take or use up,” the other “to make perfect.” Actually, in the first Lear I ever saw, the actor playing Edmund was drop-dead gorgeous and Edgar was only so-so, and I’d be happy to consider that production’s Edmund the product of consummation. But, even though in my then-adolescent state I could have eaten him up, I couldn’t have considered doing so before his parents’ marriage (born or unborn, he wouldn’t yet have reached that state of perfection I’d observed); and the consumption would have been figurative, anyway.

I like my student’s error very much. The couple who conceived him while consummating their loving desire did marry, after all. He was conceived while they consummated: unintended consequences, a thoughtless moment that precipitated complex disaster. Kind of like the moment Yeats contemplates in “Leda and the Swan.”

I wouldn’t let the error stand, but I’m grateful for the intellectual adventure conceived from it.

“A lyric poem is a poem written in prose.”

You just can’t trust literature. It’s never called what you think it should be called, and the words…well, for example, as one student wrote, poetry “is when the writer never says what he means.”

As for the “poem written in prose,” we could offer the prose poem as an example, and yes, I’d agree that this seems quite a contradiction in terms. But for lyric poetry, which I always make my poor students sing some examples of, I don’t think the prose thing comes into it, unless they think song lyrics are a form of prose.

Anyway. Yesterday my BritLit class crossed the great divide, leaving the joys of the Middle Ages, Middle English, and Chaucer behind to move forward into the ecstasies of the Renaissance, Modern English, and Shakespeare. Our first ventures were Sidney’s “Defense of Poesie,” admittedly a challenging piece of prose, and a selection of sonnets from Wyatt through Sidney and Spenser to Shakespeare with a quick glance at Petrarch. I love to talk about the sonnet form, with its architecture of argumentation and shining conceits; I love to look at the rigors of rhyme and meter and discuss the easy fit between the sonnet and the Italian language, and then the adaptations that make it a graceful fit with English as well.

But, hence, the statement boldly written several years ago on an exam for this course: “The Petrarchan sonnet was created by the Italian Francesco Petrarch and is also known as Italian Poetry.” Ah, she was going along so well until that last word! My simple blackboard chart comparing the Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet and the Shakespearean (English) sonnet somehow reduced, by means of the parenthetical a.k.a., all of Italian poetry into the work of a single writer. Why it didn’t do the same for all of English poetry I don’t know. Actually, I can’t say for sure that it didn’t do the same, since there was no opportunity on the exam to equate the Shakespearean sonnet with English poetry. This just goes to show me, once again, that one has to be careful what one writes on the blackboard, whatever color the blackboard may be (perhaps a blackboard is when they never say what color it really is?).

“I think in Shakespeare’s time it was easier to express yourself. William Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry. Probably because it was his job.”

We begin here with a student’s frustration at not being able to say what she means. Reading a poem by Shakespeare that speaks eloquently of love, time, death, art, she notes not the complexity of thought, the demands of the sonnet form, the wit driving the flexible central image, but the seeming ease of the verse. Ah, expressing yourself was easier back then, evidently, because this poem never gropes for words, never stops to think: it’s so inevitable.

Then on to the observation that Shakespeare was “good at expressing himself through poetry.” Well, that’s a fact; or, rather, it’s a fact that Shakespeare was good at expressing ideas and emotions through poetry. So much of what a working poet had to say “in Shakespeare’s time” was suggested by convention, model, and genre expectations. Granted, Shakespeare was one of the writers actively developing those conventions and genres; but reading sonnets by other poets of his day will reveal some of the same thoughts, some of the same images, also eloquently expressed.

But why quibble with whether Shakespeare was expressing himself or expressing ideas associated with the sonnet form, filtered through his own experience or beliefs? The wonderful thing here is the afterthought, the tagged-on speculative explanation, that not only undercuts Shakespeare’s achievement but also nicely flips the cause-effect relationship usually implied by “because.” Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry because it was his job.

Maybe today it may seem as if people get jobs and then become good at them: witness any number of pop stars, for example. In fact, to an extent that is always true: in “my day,” before people could major in business as undergraduates, plenty of liberal-arts majors took their BAs into the marketplace and found jobs in business, jobs they actually did learn to be good at once they had them. But generally speaking, I do like to continue to believe that a person enters a profession (or lands a job) because he or she has a talent for it, or has achievements that show an ability or preparation for it: the readiness predates the opportunity.

I know a fair number of poets, but none of them would claim to have gotten the “job” of poet and then become “good at” it.

Well, the student may just have been expressing a wistful notion that if she had the job of poet, she, too, would be good at expressing herself…but until that happy day, she is stuck having a hard time.

Of these possibilities—envy, resignation, desire—which do you think she meant?

Happy Labor Day.