On Friday night, I went with some friends to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to see Twelfth Night (again) at the Mary Rippon outdoor theatre. We knew it was likely to rain — we’d seen the forecast — so we brought our ponchos and raincoats and plastic garbage bags to cover our laps. We were prepared.
It drizzled and dripped. It rained and poured. Right before intermission, lightning flickered. They extended the intermission in hopes that it would pass… and it did. We went back to our seats in a light drizzle. I even took my hood off for a little while.
The actors came back out to begin the second half. The rain returned. I put my hood back up. It started to pour. The actors went on, and I have to give them credit for how focused they were, how they stayed in the moment.
Then suddenly, hail. Small balls of ice cracking on the stage, bouncing off our heads, our hands, rattling on plastic ponchos, pinging on the metal frames of stadium seats.
The actors froze. Their faces went blank as their lines fled, as they lost their blocking. They tumbled out of the moment. They stared at each other, at us, at the ice hitting the stage floor. They went numb with shock, and so did we.
Here was an entire theater full of people in the middle of a completely new experience.
Suddenly, the disembodied voice of the Stage Manager came over the intercom: “Actors! Exit the stage immediately! Audience, I’m sorry, we are calling the show. Please get home safely.”
As though released from a spell, the cast rushed from the stage and the audience sprang to their feet.
I relate this tale partly because it’s so rare to be able to say “I have literally never experienced this before,” and partly because there is always a lesson to be learned when viewing a Shakespeare play for the millionth time.
This time, I noticed — really noticed — how Shakespeare lets the subplots take over the show.
Let’s be clear. I knew this intellectually prior to Friday night. But when you’re forced to flee Twelfth Night with ice balls dropping on your head, and you’re disappointed because you were eagerly anticipating the yellow-stockings-cross-gartered scene, you become deeply aware that the main plot has receded into the background and your attention has been snagged by the subplot.
The same thing happens in Much Ado About Nothing. Ask people who the main characters are, and they’ll say, “Beatrice and Benedick.” Of course. Naturally. Except, no. Hero and Claudio are the main characters, and the main plot is the arc of their marriage-betrayal-reunion. Beatrice and Benedick’s “merry war” is supposed to be the side show, a jest to occupy us until the main event of Hero and Claudio’s wedding.
Look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Can you name any of the four lovers of the main plot? There’s two women with H names and two cookie-cutter, interchangeable guys. But the Rude Mechanicals? Bottom and the other workers who want to put on a show for the Duke’s wedding? Everybody remembers them, even if you can’t remember their names. They are the highlight of the play, aside from the fairies who — by the way — also not the main plot.
Ever heard of a guy named Falstaff?
I think I’ve made my point.
One reason for this trend may have been that Shakespeare’s theatrical company had some very talented comedic actors, so he wanted to write great parts for them. William Kempe, for example, originated roles such as Dogberry and Bottom (and possibly Falstaff).
Another reason may have been a sense of dignity and propriety that attached to the nobility, even in a comedy. It’s not that Don Pedro or Lady Olivia don’t have some great moments, it’s just that most of the time, they have to be serious. Their lives are important, meaningful. They were born to rule over others, and so they carry that weight, even into their lighter moments.
Thus, the real comedy often falls to the lower classes: maids and manservants, tinkers and carpenters, whores and panders, soldiers and jesters. Beatrice and Benedick are an exception, but remember, their humor is a battle of wits and not the hilarious slapstick of the Mechanicals’ ridiculous performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” or the hide-in-the-bushes gulling of Malvolio. (Sure, Sir Toby is a knight, but there’s nothing noble about him.)
What does all this have to do with anything?
Realizing this disproportionate relationship between the plot and the subplot helped me to understand some of the issues I’ve been having in writing my next novel, which is based on Twelfth Night. The plot, with its gender-role swapping and lost twins, is fascinating and fun, but the subplot keeps getting in my way. Every time I open the book of the play, I seem to land on a subplot page, with Sir Toby Belch lurching drunkenly around and tormenting born loser Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Sure, I’ll deal with the subplot — I have a plan — but for my first draft, I want to deal with the main characters first. I need to put Viola in a room with Orsino and see what happens.
Because without that, the rest of the story doesn’t matter.