Villain, What Hast Thou Done?

Titus Andronicus, Act IV

I’d like to step back from the revenge frenzy to dwell for a moment on one of the things I love most about Shakespeare: his fondness for wordplay.

In Othello, characters toy with the word “think” – a metaphor for the speculation all people must engage in when evaluating the motives of others.  Such banter permeates the play, but one particular exchange between Othello and Iago exaggerates the point as if Shakespeare were knocking us over the head to assure we get the message.

In Titus, a tale of dreadful tragedy and murderous revenge, the setting does not discourage Shakespeare from once again demonstrating his pyrotechnical gifts with language.  My favorite exchange occurs in Act IV, a saucy back-and-forth between Aaron, Demetrius and Chiron that hinges on the multiple definitions of the verb “to do.”

DEMETRIUS: Villain, what hast thou done?

AARON: That which thou canst not undo.

CHIRON: Thou hast undone our mother.

AARON: Villain, I have done thy mother.

DEMETRIUS: And therein, hellish dog, thou hast undone her.

Aaron freely confesses that he has slept with Tamora, who has borne him a black child. This fact, of course, cannot be “undone.”  While at the same time, to “do” somebody is to, well, you know.

The subtlety of language goes further though, because “undoing” somebody also implies to undress them.  Or to sabotage them.  And to undress and to sabotage add their own shadings and complexities.

Thus, we can do something, undo something, do someone, do something to someone that can’t be undone, undo a dress, undo a queen, and on and on and on.

Listening to Shakespeare’s wordplay at times gives me the sensation I’m hearing a fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach.  To match these towering geniuses of musicality would be asynchronous, since Shakespeare died in 1616 and Bach in 1750.

More fitting perhaps to choose a Renaissance composer such as Palestrina (1525-1594) .  But even Palestrina’s mellifluous polyphony (that alone bespeaks his music’s beauty) can’t match how multi-directional, multi-valent and manifold Shakespeare’s harmonies are.

Here’s a stunning example of Palestrina:

 

 

Yet a key composer even closer to Shakespeare’s age like Monteverdi (1567-1643) might be more in keeping still.   Listen for yourself:

With a timeless master like Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that he was born and lived within a historical age and setting. Just as when we listen to Mozart or stare at a painting by Monet, our thoughts lift skyward toward the timeless, engaging in the Great Conversation that underlies all art since the beginning.

And yet we are all marked to some degree by the age in which we live.  Shakespeare didn’t watch television, fly in an airplane, talk on a cell phone or go online.  To what extent was he influenced by the artists and events surrounding him?  How was he able to break free from the fetters that have bound most works by his contemporaries and to achieve immortality?

This weekend I shall make headway in two Shakespeare biographies: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare: the Biography by Peter Ackroyd in the hopes of learning more.

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