A Theater of Envy Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

“What is love?” the clown asks in Twelfth Night (c. 1600-1602). René Girard would reply, “Mimetic desire,” by which he means wanting what another wants. According to Girard, William Shakespeare recognizes the role of envy in promoting both love and hate, and the plays demonstrate the operation of this passion.

Girard begins his discussion with The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1594-1595). Valentine and Proteus have been friends since childhood and have shared the same tastes. Grown older, they still seek each other’s approval. Valentine praises his beloved, Silvia, to his friend because he wants Proteus to admire her, to validate his choice. Proteus is disappointed that his own beloved, Julia, does not interest Valentine, and as a result Julia becomes less desirable. At the same time, Valentine’s praise of Silvia succeeds in stimulating Proteus’ desire, since it is natural for the friends to like the same things and the same people. Proteus’ attempt to rape Silvia results from Valentine’s acting essentially as a pander, and Valentine offers Silvia to his friend because he understands that only by removing the source of mimetic conflict can friendship be restored. Also, Valentine hopes that this action will atone for prompting Proteus’ aggression. Shakespeare knows that the friendship that unites the two men must divide them; as long as they are friends, they will pursue the same woman.

Yet Shakespeare does not here fully develop the paradox that friendship and enmity are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes Proteus appears as the typical villain, ruled by envy, Valentine as the conventional hero untainted by mimetic desire (hence his disinterest in Julia). Later, Shakespeare would find other, more subtle ways to mask his belief that love and hate proceed from the same source, envy. Such camouflage was necessary because most members of his audience would find his view unacceptable.

According to Girard, The Rape of Lucrece (1594), roughly contemporary with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, repeats the play but with a tragic rather than a comic outcome. Significantly, Shakespeare alters Livy’s account: According to the Roman historian, Tarquin’s passion is inflamed by his seeing Collatine’s wife, whereas in the poem he resolves to possess her after hearing about her. His desire therefore must be mimetic: What Collatine praises, Tarquin wants. Like Valentine, Collatine bears responsibility for the rape because his praises seek to arouse that very envy that leads to disaster. The foolish husband requires another to ratify his choice of a wife.

With A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-1596), Shakespeare offers his audience two explanations of love. Those who wish may believe in fairy intervention to overcome parental opposition, but Girard sees the real obstacle to love as the lovers themselves. Demetrius rejects Helena because she is too willing to be won. Hermia’s coldness attracts him, and Lysander imitates Demetrius’ love. (Thus, according to Girard, Demetrius loved Hermia before Lysander did; the text offers no evidence for such an interpretation. Girard’s case would be stronger here if he suggested that Demetrius is the imitator, playing the role of Proteus to Lysander’s Valentine. Later he sees Demetrius as imitating Lysander’s pursuit of Helena.) Mimetic desire, the source of love, creates the rivalries between Helena and Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. This competition is resolved, as it so often is, by finding a scapegoat, Puck. Both Lysander and Demetrius unwittingly pursue the fairy and so can awake as friends after a night of competition.

Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598-1599) offers yet another study in mimetic desire. Beatrice and Benedict love each other, but each fears that if either confesses the beloved will imitate rather than reciprocate that feeling, that the beloved will become...

(The entire section is 1601 words.)