Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 3 – Shakespearean Resonance

It is high time I concluded my investigation into ritual patterning in Sita Sings the Blues [1].  But alas, that is not to be. Once I plunged into it, the Shakespeare connection has proven to be too rich to be given only the first half of a post, where the other half was to be a return to cosmology and such. So, that’s what we’ve got here, just Shakespeare and Paley. Cosmology will have to wait.

Multiple Plots

Much Ado About Nothing, like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, and Elizabethan comedy in general, is multiply plotted. We have two couples, Claudio and Hero, Beatrice and Benedick, who become engaged, though it takes a bit of work to pull it off. The play gets its dramatic shape from the Claudio-Hero plot, so let’s start there.

Claudio has returned from war (along with his friend, Benedick); he sees Hero and decides that she’s the woman he wants to marry. He asks his company commander, Don Pedro, to speak with Hero’s father, Leonato, to arrange a marriage. And so it is done, though not without a hitch or two.

Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s misanthropic and bastard brother, Don John, does not at all like the outbreak of happiness that is likely to follow upon this wedding. So he schemes to stop it. He arranges for Claudio to witness a tableau in which he thinks that Hero is having an assignation with another man. Thus it comes about that, when all are gathered in the chapel for the big wedding, Claudio himself has different ideas. When he arrives he denounces her as a whore.

The frame grab is from Sita, but the issue, woman’s purity, is as old as the hills.

Not only is the wedding called off, but in the ensuing anger and confusion, Hero faints. She is presumed dead by most of those present, who leave the scene before she revives. Those who remain determine to preserve the appearance of her death so as to watch and see what happens. Perhaps things aren’t as they seem – are they ever? What happens, of course, is that everything gets worked out and we have a happy ending; Claudio and Hero become engaged once again, and so do Beatrice and Benedick.

The first thing to note is that this botched wedding has become, in effect, a rite of separation (as I explained in the first post in this series [2]). Hero is socially dead – and presumed physically dead as well. This event takes place at the opening of Act Four (of five). That is to say, it happens a bit after the mid-point of the play. Thus it takes place at the same relative point in the play’s action as the point where Dave dumps Nina, 51 minutes into a 78 minute film (not counting the end credits).

In both cases we, the audience, saw the break coming. In Much Ado we saw Don John’s plot; in Sita we could see that Dave had lost interest in Nina – she saw it too, but didn’t want to draw the logical conclusion, not until the fateful email hit her over the head with it. The endings, of course, are different. Hero becomes reconciled to her man and so will re-enter society as his wife. Nina does not become reconciled to Dave, nor does she find another man. She finds the Ramayana and makes a film. That’s a very different kind of ending for a romantic comedy and reflects, among other things, 400 years of history between Shakespeare’s play and Paley’s movie.

My first point, then, is simply about relative timing. In both cases the woman goes into social exile at roughly the same time in the action – presumably this reflects some aspect of how the nervous system works, we need so much time for the build-up and then, Wham! break things wide open. My second point is, again, a simple one: it is the woman who goes into social exile, not the man. Yes, it is 400 years in the past, but we in the West are still in touch with Shakespeare’s world. On this point, his world is not so different from Valmiki’s rather older world half-way around the globe.

Verbal and Visual Style

Now things get more interesting. Paley used different visual styles to present her action. Shakespeare did something like it as well: he used different verbal styles. The verbal combat between Beatrice and Benedick is perhaps the most striking, and liveliest, aspect of Much Ado. Their wordplay is full of double meanings and other witty devices. Here’s their first encounter in the play:
BEATRICE: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick: nobody marks you.

BENEDICK: What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?

BEATRICE: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

BENEDICK: Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted: and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.

BEATRICE: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

BENEDICK: God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.

BEATRICE: Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.

BENEDICK: Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.

BEATRICE: A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.

BENEDICK: I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, i' God's name; I have done.

BEATRICE: You always end with a jade's trick: I know you of old.
By contrast, the language of the other high-born principals is noticeably lacking in wit. They speak straight-forwardly. That gives us two verbal styles. The third style is rather hard to describe. It belongs to the play’s commoners. Here, for example, is Dogberry reporting the crimes of the men who enacted Don John’s deception:
Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.
What is most interesting and most curious about Shakespeare’s linguistic stylization is what happens during the interval when Hero is presumed dead. Beatrice and Benedick drop their word games and openly profess their love for one another. And, wouldn’t you know it, the straight-talkers take up wit. Note, for example, how Don Pedro replies to Dogberry after Dogberry has delivered his charges against the miscreants:
First, I ask thee what they have done; thirdly, I ask thee what's their offence; sixth and lastly, why they are committed; and, to conclude, what you lay to their charge.
He replies to Dogberry in his own idiom. Here is an exchange between Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro. Benedick has been looking for Claudio to avenge Hero’s death (a promise he’d made to Beatrice).
CLAUDIO: We have been up and down to seek thee; for we are high-proof melancholy and would fain have it beaten away. Wilt thou use thy wit?

BENEDICK: It is in my scabbard: shall I draw it?

DON PEDRO: Dost thou wear thy wit by thy side?

CLAUDIO: Never any did so, though very many have been beside their wit. I will bid thee draw, as we do the minstrels; draw, to pleasure us.

DON PEDRO: As I am an honest man, he looks pale. Art thou sick, or angry?

CLAUDIO: What, courage, man! What though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.

BENEDICK: Sir, I shall meet your wit in the career, and you charge it against me. I pray you choose another subject.

CLAUDIO: Nay, then, give him another staff: this last was broke cross.
Just as Paley blended her visual styles [3] after the Agni Pariksha, so Shakespeare has blended his verbal styles after Hero died a social death. Each artist has used similar devices in a similar situation.

To what end?

One for the Price of Two

After the Agni Pariksha Paley moved beyond simply paralleling the lives of Nina and Sita. She moved to blend them. We enter the Agni Pariksha from Nina’s world and exit it into Sita’s.

When Sita invokes the gods in her final test, she speaks with Reena Shah’s voice, but through the cartoony body that had previously been associated with Annette Hanshaw. The boundary between the cartoony style and the Indian miniature style has thus collapsed. And when, at the very end, Nina is in bed reading Valmiki, that reaffirms the dissolution of the boundary between her and Sita that took place in the Agni Pariksha segment.

I believe that Shakespeare was doing something similar. His two plots are both concerned about the place of sexuality in intimate relationships. Much of the cracking-wise between Beatrice and Benedick is about sexual matters. In the case of Claudio and Hero, suspicion of infidelity derails the nascent relationship. But the relationships themselves are conducted on quite a different basis.

Beatrice and Benedick have known one another since before the time the play opened. The interaction between them is the continuation of an ongoing relationship. And that relationship seems to be conducted as equals. Neither defers to the other in their games of wit nor is either a clear victor. This equality, of course, is suspended during the interval where Here is presumed dead, and Beatrice “leans on” Benedick to promise to punish Claudio for what he’s done. But then, all normal relations are suspended during that interval.

In contrast, the relationship between Claudio and Hero is quite different. They had no relationship prior to the events in the play. And once Claudio decides upon marriage, he ‘goes through channels,’ using the feudal hierarchy to arrange the marriage. He doesn’t speak directly to Hero on this, nor does she make her acceptance directly to him. The whole business is conducted through intermediaries.

In a post over at The Valve [4] I’ve argued that these two styles of relationship – egalitarian (B & B) and hierarchical (C & H) – inhere in human nature. Thus Shakespeare is presenting two aspects of our nature through these two plots and showing that each alone has difficulty in assimilating sexuality to an intimate and affectionate relationship. It is only through their interaction that sexuality and affection can accommodate one another. Within the play that interaction involves two plot-lines. But both of those plot-lines, of course, are experienced by each member of the audience. Just as each member of Paley’s audience experiences the events of Sita’s life as well as Nina’s.

The Nina story is very spare, involving just Nina, Dave, and two cats (one at the beginning and a different one at the end). In contrast, Sita’s story is bound with the lives of many others – beyond her husband, Rama, there’s the mother-in-law who schemed to have Rama go into exile, Rama’s father, there’s Ravana, Hanuman, Laxman, Valmiki, Sita’s sons, Dohbi (the launderer) and his wife, and thousands of others (remember, major battles were fought over Sita). Where Shakespeare was juxtaposing two modes of social interaction in his two plots, Paley is juxtaposing public life (Rama and Sita) and inner life (Nina). Beyond the fact the each member of the audience experiences the whole story, Paley’s two plots are bound together by the three commentators, whose comments apply to Nina as well as Sita (see my previous post [5]) and by the ritual and cosmological patterning that pervades the entire film.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Shakespeare’s multiplicity and Paley’s, after all, is that his two plots are set in the same time and place. Paley’s are not; they are separated by thousand of years. Nina and Sita never interact with one another, nor do Dave and Rama, and so forth. And yet their stories are, in some sense, one story. To make that happen, Paley needed to establish nothing less than a cosmic context for her film.

It is to that that we will turn in what I hope is the last post in this series.


1. You can find links to all my Sita work on the Sita Chronicles page.

2. Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 1, New Savanna, 14 July 2010. Accessed 22 July 2010.

3. The Agni Pariksha in Context, New Savanna, 5 July 2010. Accessed 22 July 2010.

4. Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature, Or: Was Marx Right? The Valve, 29 March 2010. Accessed 22 July 2010.

5. Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 2b, New Savanna, 20 July 2010. Accessed 22 July 2010.

No comments:

Post a Comment