Friday, 22 March 2013
The witty banter and rivalry that we encounter in the plays of William Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde, or the novels of Jane Austen, often presents difficulties for students who are unsure how to write about it. It's not enough just to say that a speech is funny or humorous. Even 'witty' is at times quite vague given the complexity of rhetoric and style that characters had available to them.
First, there are the professed attitudes to love and relationships. Typical roles taken up by characters include the scorner of love, and the woman who rejects her suitors. Whether the underlying motivation is authentic, realistic, or psychologically coherent and credible often matters less than the sheer pleasure to be had from the verbal battles that ensue.
Second, audiences are expected to enjoy the 'badinage' of witty courtiers. This is an opportunity for malicious sentiments to be expressed with wit. Communication shifts in mood and tone from shrewdness and wisdom to extravagance and absurdity. The Elizabethan theatre-goers delighted in merry conceits. They also enjoyed far more lewdness, rudeness and innuendo than our more polite culture affords. There is a strong element of language as a self-conscious game that requires an alertness in speaker and listener. Mood, tone, lexis and rhythm are bonded in the precise judgment required to forge a pert riposte. It's not enough to be carried away by your own extravagance, as this will lead to censure. Aptness, precision, clarity and felicity are highly valued as aspects of effective dialogue.
While the language and style of the pre-modern period may appear stilted, archaic, and old-fashioned, that's not how it would have been heard at the time when it was first composed. The deployment of affectation and difficulty was in fact frequently satirised. Medical, legal and theological jargon was a common subject for satire. Accordingly, the aim of one's speech utterances was to be natural, spontaneous and effortless. But for modern readers the linguistic games of fools and clowns, their quibbles and complex conceits that turned the world upside-down are too often treated as an impenetrable and esoteric discourse.
Yet refined speech was in a sense an acquired skill, the mark of education, refinement and gentility. But this should not be mistaken for mere aestheticism, vanity and decadence. Elegant speech tends to represent the self-possessed rather than the self-obsessed. There is often a mannered vivacity of style, but this tendency is often cut through with a sense that extravagance is being mocked.
The fluid and dramatic exchange of ideas, thoughts, sentiments and intuitions was part of the polyvocal exchanges favoured by renaissance writers. This means that there is a preference for dramatic forms of colloquy, for gallant realism. It is a safely antagonistic modes that favours civil retorts and delicate interruptions. Words are swords, and the relationship between people speaking is like a fencing. This means that the relationship between the sexes is a battle, and a torrent or volley of words is not uncommon when the stakes - real or imagined - are high.
Note also the frequent use of notions of the friend rather than the fiend; of the pleasant and familiar rather than the harsh and grating style that is reserved for the purely villainous characters.
Also worth noting is the significance of the strong roles attached to women's speech. far from being meek, mild, and modest, they range from the vixens and virago to the mocking, satirical. But women can also be melancholy, passive, modest or romantic heroines, at the other extreme. But these roles also serve to highlight the more extreme positions of the shrewish, shrill and belligerent.
Women are a strong match for men, and often just as combative. But we can become too stuck on the metaphor of fight. It is worth considering the dance or festive party scenes. These scenes balance physical and mental agility. Partners are poised and pattern in their fancy footwork and in the rhythms of their verbal exchanges. The playful force of the intelligent, sparkling 'rallies' is a common feature of spirited language.
Renaissance texts deployed a high degree of pointed phrases. Epigrams abound. Witty language is a learned activity and corresponds to humanistic goals of civility and effective communication. But the message is less about frivolity and artificiality than it is about the dynamic range of complex and effective characterisation and invigorating but subtle plot development.
To conclude, there follows a passage from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
[A Dance and a Dialogue between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Chapter 18]
They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:—"It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some sort of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."
He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.
"Very well. That reply will do for the present. Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. But now we may be silent."
"Do you talk by rule, then, while you are dancing?"
"Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together; and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible."
"Are you consulting your own feelings in the present case, or do you imagine that you are gratifying mine?"
"Both," replied Elizabeth archly; "for I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb."
"This is no very striking resemblance of your own character, I am sure," said he. "How near it may be to mine, I cannot pretend to say. You think it a faithful portrait undoubtedly."
"I must not decide on my own performance."
He made no answer, and they were again silent till they had gone down the dance, when he asked her if she and her sisters did not very often walk to Meryton. She answered in the affirmative, and, unable to resist the temptation, added, "When you met us there the other day, we had just been forming a new acquaintance."
The effect was immediate. A deeper shade of hauteur overspread his features, but he said not a word, and Elizabeth, though blaming herself for her own weakness, could not go on. At length Darcy spoke, and in a constrained manner said, "Mr. Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends—whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain."
"He has been so unlucky as to lose your friendship," replied Elizabeth with emphasis, "and in a manner which he is likely to suffer from all his life."
Darcy made no answer, and seemed desirous of changing the subject. At that moment, Sir William Lucas appeared close to them, meaning to pass through the set to the other side of the room; but on perceiving Mr. Darcy, he stopped with a bow of superior courtesy to compliment him on his dancing and his partner.
"I have been most highly gratified indeed, my dear sir. Such very superior dancing is not often seen. It is evident that you belong to the first circles. Allow me to say, however, that your fair partner does not disgrace you, and that I must hope to have this pleasure often repeated, especially when a certain desirable event, my dear Eliza (glancing at her sister and Bingley) shall take place. What congratulations will then flow in! I appeal to Mr. Darcy:—but let me not interrupt you, sir. You will not thank me for detaining you from the bewitching converse of that young lady, whose bright eyes are also upbraiding me."
The latter part of this address was scarcely heard by Darcy; but Sir William's allusion to his friend seemed to strike him forcibly, and his eyes were directed with a very serious expression towards Bingley and Jane, who were dancing together. Recovering himself, however, shortly, he turned to his partner, and said, "Sir William's interruption has made me forget what we were talking of."
"I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine."
"What think you of books?" said he, smiling.
"Books—oh! no. I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings."
"I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions."
"No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else."
"The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?" said he, with a look of doubt.
"Yes, always," she replied, without knowing what she said, for her thoughts had wandered far from the subject, as soon afterwards appeared by her suddenly exclaiming, "I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave, that your resentment once created was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created."
"I am," said he, with a firm voice.
"And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?"
"I hope not."
"It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first."
"May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly."
"I can readily believe," answered he gravely, "that reports may vary greatly with respect to me; and I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either."
"But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity."
"I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours," he coldly replied. She said no more, and they went down the other dance and parted in silence; and on each side dissatisfied, though not to an equal degree, for in Darcy's breast there was a tolerable powerful feeling towards her, which soon procured her pardon, and directed all his anger against another.
They had not long separated, when Miss Bingley came towards her, and with an expression of civil disdain accosted her: [...]
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.