William Shakespeare

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Peter Quince's Ballad: Shakespeare, Psychoanalysis, History

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Catherine Belsey, University of Wales, College of Cardiff

In The Rose and the Ring, Thackeray's fairytale of 1854, the sadly unprepossessing, plump Prince Bulbo falls in love with Betsinda, and in this romantic condition Bulbo at once becomes—citational. "I never saw", he says, "a young gazelle to glad me with its dark blue eye that had eyes like thine. Thou nymph of beauty, take, take this young heart. A truer never did itself sustain within a soldier's waistcoat."1 The amorous prince here misquotes not only Shakespeare's Othello (V.2.260-61)2 but also the Irish poet Thomas Moore, whose gazelle had already provided considerable entertainment thirteen years earlier in The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens's text in turn shows the verbose and villainous Dick Swiveller also misquoting Moore in the process of indicating his own unrequited passion for the perfidious Sophy Wackles:

"It has always been the same with me," said Mr Swiveller, "always. [ … ] I never nursed a dear Gazelle, to glad me with its soft black eye, but when it came to know me well, and love me, it was sure to marry a market-gardener."3

Comic characters in love, we are invited to understand, are impelled, like all lovers, to formulate their passion in poetry; but, unpoetic in themselves, they have recourse to a textual memory, and declare their love in quotation marks. When in A Midsummer Night's Dream Nick Bottom the weaver wakes from his night of passion with the Queen of the Fairies, he too seeks a quotation which would do justice to what has happened. Bottom's name, and his transformation into an ass, invite the audience to associate him with the least poetic aspects of life, and yet even as an ass, Bottom has been touched by something special but mysterious, a power which he finds unusually hard to specify. In quest of a way of talking about a half-remembered sublimity, Bottom reaches for the language of the Bible at its most visionary, St Paul's account of the future glory that God has prepared for human beings (1 Corinthians 2, 9), though inevitably he misremembers the text: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was" (MND, IV.1.211-14).

The experience of love cannot be made present in words, and the impulse to represent it draws on a remembered fragment of culture, which has once evoked a corresponding intensity and which therefore serves to define and memorialise the moment. The quotation does not recover the experience, but it takes its place, even if in the process something slips away. What makes Bulbo, Dick Swiveller and Bottom comic here is not so much that they quote, but that they get it wrong. Shakespearean lovers we are invited to take much more seriously also communicate with each other and with the audience by means of shared memories, shared precisely because they are culturally produced and textually transmitted. Lorenzo and Jessica, newly married and alone by moonlight in the fairytale castle at Belmont, seek a common romantic idiom by reference to the classic love stories of the past: Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida, Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, Virgil's Dido and Aeneas (MV, V.l.1-12). It is as if love sets out to transform the quotidian and transfigure the banal by borrowing for the lovers the romance which belongs to their heroic counterparts.

And what invests with grandeur those who are heroic already? The answer, of course, is their inscription in cultural artifacts, a process which commonly includes a similar regress of textual allusion. Even Cleopatra derives something of her cosmic desirability from "o'er-picturing" the famous painting of Venus by Apelles (Antony and Cleopatra II.2.200), and from her own allusion to Virgil's epic:

Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
  hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.

(The entire section is 7,718 words.)