25 November 2013

Post-Nuptial Blues

This is my second column for The Sunday Guardian.

Jack shall have Jill;
Naught shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
(Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 3.2.461-3)

When I watched the 2000 Tamil film Alaipayuthey for the first time, I felt almost as though I was watching the sequel to every other romantic comedy I had ever watched. It seemed to me that the filmmakers were consciously addressing the problems that occur after a marriage, rather than before, as is more common in the Indian film industry. It dealt with discontent, jealousy and grudges – tensions that seem, in the general commercial film industry in India, to disappear magically at the end of a film, i.e., with marriage.

Often have the charges been levelled against Indian cinema of predictability, formulaic plots, inevitable weddings and happy endings. One wonders what happens to all the little problems that occurred during the film and are not resolved by the end. Commercial cinema prefers not to deal with messy realities; where there is a wedding, there is usually a happy ending. So too there is music, dance, and the extraordinary revelation of various misunderstandings.

This harmonious state that dominates the closure of commercial fare was never meant to be questioned; rather, it is part of the structure, and is expected and even looked forward to by audiences. The romantic union that inevitably concludes the film is a permanent and problem-free one, almost a restoration of social order: the leading couple attains wealth, happiness, and romance, and, often enough, various other minor characters get paired up as well.

That a happy story must end with a wedding is old Shakespearean formula. In part, both Shakespeare and commercial Indian cinema appear to be acutely aware that they create fictitious worlds that do not (and cannot) attempt to compete with reality. In Shakespeare's comedies, problems that seemed insurmountable are quickly and efficiently resolved and the union that the play seemed geared towards finally takes place on account of these easy solutions. Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost inconceivably granted her wish when Demetrius loves her in the end; Olivia in Twelfth Night somehow finds a heterosexual outlet for the feelings she has for a woman she believes to be a man, while Orsino discovers that the man he appears to have feelings for turns out to be a woman after all; Phoebe in As You Like It agrees to marry Silvius, who loves her, when Ganymede conveniently turns out to be a woman in the end; a lucky coincidence saves Hero’s honour in Much Ado About Nothing and the twin weddings take place; in The Merchant of Venice, injustice is averted merely with semantics; in general, shrews are tamed, villains are defeated, fortunes are won and heterosexual marriages are made possible.

That these comedies, more often than not, end in marriage is clearly indicative of an accepted norm for comic closure; that they end happily is more arguable. The repercussions of indiscretions, jealousy, mistrust and disloyalty, which are quite marked and disquieting in the tragedies, are dispensed with in the comedies. However, the magnitude of these repercussions in the tragedy appears to suggest that when these tensions are disregarded, they do not diminish; rather, they are magnified. In effect, this makes the tragedy but an extension of the comedy.

My favourite example of this is the difference between Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. The plots of the two plays are almost identical: the male protagonist (Othello / Claudio), based on the manipulations of an angry antagonist who believes himself unfairly treated (Iago / Don John), is led to believe that his beloved (Desdemona / Hero) has been unfaithful to him. The former ends in tragedy, while the latter ends in comedy. The introduction of a fortunate coincidence makes Much Ado About Nothing end with marriage and, consequently, happiness. The mistrust and jealousy that drove Claudio to humiliate and abandon Hero is suspended by a plot device – had it continued, Much Ado About Nothing too would have ended in tragedy. Hero’s immediate and unquestioning forgiveness of Claudio for her humiliation is questionable; there is also the possibility that this jealousy may resurface later in the relationship and destroy it completely. The (tragic) flaw is thus the same in the two plays. What's also interesting is that Othello takes place after the wedding of Othello and Desdemona, a clear indication that tragic reversals occur after the marriage, i.e., after the comic closure.

Is all really well that ends well? The brilliance, both in Shakespearean comedy and in commercial Indian cinema, is this: the journey is often so memorable that questioning the destination seems entirely to escape the point.

10 November 2013

Innocent Adulterers

I've begun a fortnightly column on The Sunday Guardian called The Upstart Crow. Here's the first column, which begins a series on Shakespeare in contemporary context. It first appeared here

‘Why I should fear I know not,
Since guiltiness I know not, but yet I feel I fear.’
(Desdemona, 5.2.37-86, Othello by William Shakespeare)

If Renaissance women were, in general, a fairly adulterous lot, it is no surprise that their adultery is widely discussed in the literature of the time: the incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet, the untrue Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, the iniquitous sisters Goneril and Regan from King Lear, and even the heartless dark lady of the sonnets. We would not be amiss if we were to look upon them as Shakespeare’s realistic portrayal of the women of his time. And certainly, as these plays show, women’s adultery was more than enough cause for reproof and censure.

If Renaissance men were equally adulterous, there is little in Shakespeare to account for it; rather, men are shown to be more fickle than adulterous, more mercenary than lustful. More disappointingly, they are never castigated as vociferously as women. Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, who swiftly shifts affections when it seems profitable, is never fittingly reprimanded; not an eyebrow is raised when Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona flits easily from Julia to Silvia and back to Julia again or when the same Romeo in Romeo and Juliet who eloquently professed love to Rosaline suddenly decides that it is Juliet who is his one true love or when Duke Orsino in Twelfth Night declares himself in love with Viola, the very woman to whom he volubly confessed his love for Olivia. In fact, it hardly seems fair that Julia, who bore such painful, firsthand witness to Proteus’s indiscretions, should forgive him so easily or that Cleopatra should content herself with revenge on a hapless messenger and poor reports of Octavia’s beauty, rather than confronting and indicting Antony when they meet next.

Shakespeare, though, plays for variety. Several of his adulteresses are not adulterous at all. They are falsely accused and, with no proof, denounced far more than men who have actually been unfaithful – Desdemona in Othello, Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, Imogen in Cymbeline, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Three out of these four plays are comedies and the woman is saved by accident, but in Othello, the tragedy ends with honour killing and suicide. Our worlds, sadly, are more often defined by tragedy than comedy.

A close look at case accounts of slander litigation in early modern England shows that the indiscretions of men were never brought out into the open as often as women’s or even penalised with the same kind of severity. In fact, it often seems as though women were thought of as more capable of these indiscretions than men. Actual court histories show cases in which women accused of infidelity were brought to court and the marriages were terminated with no actual proof, leading, of course, to women being considered naturally perverse and genetically given to adultery. Even female lust is seen as problematic within the idiom of accusation, a phenomenon we frequently bear witness to in the 21st Century.

As the primary targets of insult, women occupy a very particular place in the negotiation of sexual guilt and honour. Insults towards women play on a culpability for illicit sex that is unique to them. The personal, verbal, social and institutional sanctions against “whores” and “bawds” had no counterpart for men in Renaissance vocabulary and this is as true today as it then was. I spent hours trawling through court records in England a few years ago to discover that not only were men less likely than women to be presented (in court) for illicit sex, but also that men’s adultery was never an accepted ground for marital separation, as women’s was. This meant that transgressions could just as well have been fabricated for the purpose of obtaining a divorce for reasons that could include monetary gain, the legalisation of other relationships, and even vengeance.

If men’s transgressions were never made public – in the court and otherwise – and if they were not even considered gross misdemeanours, then maybe there's a backstage story in Shakespeare that we're never told about. One could speculate that his male characters were surreptitiously unfaithful, but that this was neither considered important enough to bring up nor could it be held against them. The likelihood is no less with characters as staunch about their morality as Claudio and Othello (although Iago does indicate the possibility of Othello having had an affair with Emilia at the beginning of the play, but the notion is never referred to again in the play).

These are trifling and pointless speculations that create a meta-fictitious world within well-loved fiction. But it becomes meaningful within the negotiation of female sexuality today to be aware of the heavily discriminatory patterns of our roots. Feminism may have come a long way since the murder of Desdemona, but it is still to wipe her blood from our collective conscience.