Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I want to talk about what I call auto-allusion. I use this term to refer to the moment at which a writer quotes his or her own earlier work. The resulting allusion is a return to an earlier self and an earlier text, and the return is done in such a way as to demonstrate both repetition (or sameness) and repetition with a difference. As Paul Ricoeur remarks, “Only a discourse other than itself … is suited to the metacategory of otherness, under penalty of otherness suppressing itself in becoming the same as itself.”1 The auto-allusion could be seen as an illustration of Ricoeur’s “discourse other than itself,” and its otherness from itself cannot be separated from its sameness with itself: the textual sameness or similarity is inextricably connected to the textual difference, since the context will have changed. My example here will be Shakespeare’s recycling of a phrase from King Lear in The Two Noble Kinsmen, and I will look at repetition through the lens of difference and sameness.2

The original line from King Lear is “O, the difference of man and man!” (4.2. 27). The line is spoken by Goneril as she compares her lover Edmond, who has just left, and her husband Albany, who is just about to enter. This line is explicitly about difference, but it also raises the question of difference in other ways than in its wording. For those who read one of the new editions of King Lear which reproduces both the Quarto and the Folio versions, for instance, difference is already present as one of the most important things to know about the text(s): there are two King Lears. For us now, King Lear has become an example—perhaps even the example—of the text (or, we could say, the textual self) that is no longer the same as itself. The line only appears in the Folio. What is more, as the quarrel between Goneril and Albany is much shorter in the Folio than in the Quarto, I would argue that the line is further emphasized. For these reasons, a reader switching from version to version will apprehend this line about difference as a concrete example of the textual difference that has become such a prominent aspect of discussions of Renaissance drama in general and of King Lear (but also of Hamlet and of Doctor Faustus and of other plays) in particular.

Goneril’s statement about difference appears in a context in which our attention has already been directed to difference, as she has just referred to her lover as “Gloucester,” a title to which he has no right and which confuses him with his father. King Lear as a whole directs our attention to sameness, since it gives us numerous situations in which a character is (at least partially) doubled, and therefore repeated: Gloucester and Kent; Gloucester and Lear; Edgar and Edmond; Goneril and Regan; Albany and Cornwall. In some of these cases we could say that sameness prevails: Gloucester and Lear both die and are, I would say, equally blameworthy and pitiable; Goneril and Regan both die, divided by their adultery but united by their wickedness. In others, however, difference prevails: unlike Gloucester, Kent is always right (not that it does him much good); Edgar is the good brother; Albany is the better of the two sons-in-law, if hardly inspiringly so. Behind all these individuals is the play’s primary motor for repetition, which is the family itself. Our family members are perhaps the most obvious example (and certainly the first one) of people who are simultaneously the same as ourselves and different from ourselves. The actions of the play demonstrate that in this context either difference or sameness may be either good or bad and that it is generally difficult to know in advance which will be the case.

 When Goneril says “O, the difference of man and man,” then, she taps into King Lear’s central concerns; in her confidence in her ability to recognise and properly evaluate the important differences between one person and another she appears to be the same as many of the play’s other characters—in particular, she appears the same as her father and (the dead) Gloucester. To her, however, she is fundamentally different from either. To her it is clear that Edmond and Albany are very different and that Edmond is the right one to pick. To the audience, it is more likely that Edmond will appear worse than either of the men in relation to whom he is somewhat the same: worse than his brother Edgar, busy emerging as the hero of the play; but also worse than Albany, who after a poor start is beginning to appear as a very faint ray of hope. On the other hand, while the audience may evaluate the difference between Edmond and Albany differently than Goneril does, this difference will probably not appear as one of the play’s central differences and will not seem as important as the difference between Cordelia and her sisters, for instance, or the difference between Edmond and Edgar. Because of its context and because of its relationship to King Lear’s general discourse of difference, the statement is already different from itself when Goneril makes it.

I have argued that Goneril exemplifies both difference and sameness, and I think that the same is also true of the line she speaks. Indeed, we could argue that in its wording the line actually demonstrates sameness because of its repetition of “man.” While the word “difference” prepares us for some differentiation of one thing from another, what we actually hear is the sameness of repetition. On one level, “man” and “man” are of course exactly the same, so that while “O, the difference of Edmond and Albany” is easily understandable we could hear “O, the difference of man and man” as tautological. Anticipating much recent philosophy (and especially Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition), Goneril demonstrates an understanding of the fact that repetition might really be difference disguised as sameness. Her point is that the word or concept ‘man’ is itself not identical with itself. The picture of Goneril as someone with a keen interest in epistemology may appear odd, but her actions throughout the play demonstrate her belief that the evaluative differentiations which we apply to life and on which we base our values—in the context of King Lear I would say that these are most importantly the respect due to parents from their children and the idea that the good of the kingdom or nation is one of the highest priorities, and perhaps the highest—are arbitrary criteria that we are free to ignore.

 A few years after King Lear, Shakespeare and his collaborator John Fletcher wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen, their dramatization (or repetition) of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. Differences are centrally important to this play as well; in my opinion the most important of these are the difference between Chaucer’s poem and Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play, the difference between men and women (both at the level of personal relationships, and especially marriage, and at the level of the difference between Athens and the land of the Amazons), the difference between Athens and Thebes, the difference between classes, and, of course, the difference between Palamon and Arcite themselves. In their handling of the eponymous characters Fletcher and Shakespeare deal at some length with the problems that both difference and sameness can pose for the marriage plot.

The most serious of these difficulties is the one posed by Palamon and Arcite. They begin the play as best friends and cousins who feel obliged to fight for their city against the Athenians; both are wounded, captured, and imprisoned in Athens. Up to this point, the cousins seem to exemplify sameness, but as they are two unmarried men and there is only one unmarried woman in the play (Hippolyta’s sister Emilia), the viewers are aware that they will have to become different in some way. The differentiation begins when the two men see Emilia from their prison window and fall in love with her. And the plot creaks into action, destroying much in the process and painting a picture of the miseries of enforced marriage—and the enforcers here are not cruel parents but the writers themselves. It is for this reason that we could see this as a grimmer play than King Lear, where at least most of the characters get to die. In contrast, The Two Noble Kinsmen gives us a picture of the sexual difference that is felt to be necessary to plotting as a machine that actually imposes sameness by ruling out different possibilities such as the love between Palamon and Arcite.

Those who adapt—repeat—a text are required to create difference out of sameness, and in The Two Noble Kinsmen this is not only Shakespeare and Fletcher’s task overall but also their solution to the play’s narrative impasse: in order to get Emilia married off, that is, they must make Palamon and Arcite somehow become different from each other. One of the most interesting things about the play is that the playwrights do not really succeed in doing this. From relatively early on Palamon and Arcite have different experiences from each other and at the end of the play one is dead and one is to be married to Emilia, but these differences do not disguise their continuing sameness: although their experiences are different they move through the play as parallel figures and, in fact, each ends up expected to marry Emilia, although in succession rather than in tandem.

It is open to a director to cast and stage The Two Noble Kinsmen in such a way as to make Palamon and Arcite appear different from each other, but Shakespeare and Fletcher refused to do so, and I think a better director would rather seek to increase the confusion. Within the play itself, the only character who sees them as different and who insists on their difference is the Jailer’s Daughter; her role in noting this all-important difference is fitting, as she is the only major character in the play added by Shakespeare and Fletcher. It is entirely appropriate, then, that it is she who makes the comment that is a reworking of Goneril’s line. When her father misidentifies Arcite as Palamon—significantly, even the Jailer responsible for the two men cannot tell them apart—she corrects him and then exclaims ‘Lord, the difference of man’ (2.1. 50-1). Like Goneril, the Jailer’s Daughter makes her point about difference in the context of a play that is obsessively committed to showing difference, although the crucial difference between King Lear and The Two Noble Kinsman in this regard is that in the former play apparent samenesses conceal important differences, whereas in the latter play difference never successfully emerges from sameness. With this in mind, we could say that Goneril is right and the Jailer’s Daughter is wrong. But although she does not succeed in convincing the audience that Palamon and Arcite are really or importantly different, she demonstrates that this difference is real to her by falling in love with Palamon and enabling him to make the escape that will lead to the play’s conclusion.

The dramatic context of the lines makes a difference out of sameness, but so do the lines themselves, as the wording is not identical. It could be argued that I have created a repetition by treating as an allusion what may be a similar choice of words: like an inverted Jailer’s Daughter, I might have created sameness where there is only difference.3 Whether this is true or not, I think that the difference of the two lines is significant in itself. I wrote earlier that ‘the difference of man and man’ can be seen as a tautological statement; in “Lord, the difference of man” we do not even have tautology. The Jailer’s Daughter comments directly on the question of non-self-identity and says that even within the category of man there is considerable diversity: the difference between Palamon, whom she loves, and Arcite, whom she does not love, and the difference between either or both of them and her father, who cannot tell the difference between them. She is like Goneril in her perception that the category of man, seemingly so stable and self-evident, is really an arbitrary collection. She is also like Goneril in that in affirming the difference between one man and another each comments on the central theme of the play in which she is a character. And she is also like Goneril in that each demonstrates one of the important themes of the play: that men are really very different and that it is important to perceive this difference and to make judgments based upon that perception. Finally, I think that she is like Goneril in that the audience is unlikely to agree with the specific nature of her assessment: just as in King Lear we can see that Albany is better than Edmond so, in the same way but also in a different way, in The Two Noble Kinsmen we cannot see that Palamon and Arcite are particularly different from each other.

In a sense, while Shakespeare wants us to disagree with Goneril, he and Fletcher depend upon our agreement with the Jailer’s Daughter: we should be able to distinguish between the kinsmen as she does, or at least to pick one arbitrarily. But of course it is also possible that we are meant to disagree with the Jailer’s Daughter, and thus, in seeing the two men as the same, to begin our critique of the marriage plot that drives the story. While arguably a minor character, and certainly less crucial to the play as a whole than Goneril is to King Lear, the Jailer’s Daughter is central to the examination of difference that lies at the heart of The Two Noble Kinsmen. For one thing, as there is no equivalent to her character in the Knight’s Tale she is the most obvious symbol of the play’s difference from Chaucer’s poem—the extent to which the play itself is not a repetition. In her ability to tell Arcite and Palamon apart, she continues to represent difference and in her insanity she comes to be different from her (former) self. It is perhaps in relation to Emilia that we can see the Jailer’s Daughter as most significantly associated with sameness and difference. The two women are different in that Emilia shows no signs of being able to tell the men apart, but they are simultaneously the same and different in their function in the play. As young and unmarried women, they are both available as wives, but the difference in status, the fact that the Jailer’s Daughter is of low rank, rules her out as a potential solution to the dramatic problem posed by two unmarried men and one unmarried woman in the same play.

Their sameness and difference are most prominent at the conclusion of The Two Noble Kinsmen. In a chiastic reversal, Emilia does not want Palamon but has him while the Jailer’s Daughter wants Palamon but does not have him: repetition with a crucial difference. It may seem that their positions are actually very different. Emilia is still a princess, while when we last see the Jailer’s Daughter her father is involved in a plot to get her to marry her suitor by means of a lie in which she is told that he is Palamon. Her madness is being used to make her marry a man she does not love. But the wretched circumstances in which the Jailer’s Daughter finds herself (or, rather, does not find herself) at the end of the play are not really so very different from Emilia’s, after all. Both women are being forced to marry against their wills and in both cases it is only men (Palamon, the Jailer, the Suitor) who are happy—perhaps ‘Lord, the difference of man’ refers to the difference between man and woman. The Jailer’s Daughter’s belief in difference is denied by a marriage plot that works to suppress differences in favour of an infinitely repeatable picture: a man and a woman together at an altar. The ending of the play suggests a further similarity between Goneril and the Jailer’s Daughter: each is destroyed by the nature of her belief in difference.

These brief lines would probably not seem important in performance, and in King Lear, a play that is full of famous lines, “O the difference of man and man” might well go unremarked. Nevertheless, I think they are crucial in their contexts as they serve to draw our attention to the centrality of repetition as something that literature (and perhaps especially drama) must simultaneously employ and disavow. To return to the quotation from Ricoeur, we could say that literature is forced to be “a discourse other than itself” in order to continue to be economically viable (something that may be especially true of dramatic performance, with its built-in repetition), but that it always runs the risk of “becoming the same as itself.” Based as they are on earlier works, both King Lear and The Two Noble Kinsmen run the risk of being merely repetitions; one way to understand the auto-allusion in these plays is to see it as the result of Shakespeare’s decision to confront this risk head on.

  • 1. Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Other, trans. K. Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 326.
  • 2. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from Shakespeare are from the Norton Shakespeare.
  • 3. Although Eugene M. Waith notes the resemblance as a parallel in his edition of the play; see his note to 2.1. 54-5.