(I realize this isn't specifically and totally about Shakespeare... but he's in here... I promise. More than that, though, this is a muse on Literature in general. And because I can, I'm putting it up here.) :-)
I went for a stroll in the forest the other day, got lost and haven’t made it out yet. It all started with Robin Hood, although the forest was not Sherwood. It was the Forest of Literary Criticism.
I don’t suppose I should be surprised that Robin led me thither: his, after all, is one of the Old Stories. References to Robin Hood date back to the 13th century, and he has featured in tale and story ever since. Even Shakespeare mentions the famous outlaw, comparing a banished duke and his entourage to Robin and his Merry Men in As You Like It.
But it wasn’t the evolution of an epic or the staying-power of certain tales that led me off the path and into the Wild Woods, although I will admit to wandering up those paths along the way.
It was clichés.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen so many clichés in one place as I did when I watched the BBC’s Robin Hood show. I wondered, and still wonder, if the writers were perhaps in a competition to see who could include the most… and the most inappropriate for the setting. If I am ever brave enough to watch an episode or two over again, I will count exactly how many make an appearance. And it’s not just the catch-phrase type of cliché. It’s the whole spectrum, from major plot arcs to smoldering glances and everything in between.
But as I sat, puzzled by the depths to which some people lower their writing by filling it with clichés, I remembered that not too terribly long ago, I was praising Shakespeare’s use of tropes. And what, exactly, is the difference between a cliché and a trope? A literary trope is a device or a convention of a certain genre, a commonly recurring motif. A cliché is, perhaps, a trope that has been done to death, to the point that it no longer has any meaning. But they really are just shades of the same thing. If we are talking about a cliché, we call the character a “stereotype”; if it’s a trope, it’s a “stock character.” We belittle the one and admire the other. An author who uses clichés is a hack, whereas one who employs a literary trope is clever, playing with intertextuality, doing something Literary!
And, with that, I looked around and realized that I was deep in the Forest of Literary Criticism, with no hope of finding my way out any time soon. But there was the faintest glimmer of a path over by Intertextuality, and for lack of a better direction, I took it.
Intertextuality is the way that one text references another. It could be Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Hobbit echoing Beowulf. Or Shakespeare directly comparing Duke Senior to Robin Hood. Or the new version of Hawaii Five-O referencing its previous incarnation. Or Doctor Who’s Christmas Special paralleling A Christmas Carol. It’s Ray Bradbury writing “Usher II,” deliberately playing off a preexisting understanding of all the best Poe stories. It’s Agatha Christie titling her book By the Pricking of My Thumbs, or The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (a line from “The Lady of Shalott”) or even One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.
Intertextuality exists. There’s no use denying it. To what extent does it exist? Well, that’s another question.
Ecclesiastes tells us there’s nothing new under the sun. If you believe that, then every story has been told before. And with part of my mind I heartily agree. The Quest, the Coming-of-Age Story, perhaps even the Robin Hood Story – they’re all types, forms. As readers, we recognize them subconsciously. And that’s why we’re incensed when the BBC turns Robin Hood into Hamlet. It’s the wrong form, the wrong story.
But, even though half my mind deeply believes the idea that there are really only a few stories out there, the other part of me looks at my big, beautiful bookshelves and heartily denies it. If there are only a few stories, how do we get Austen and Dickens, Kipling, Lewis and Poe, Shakespeare and Sayers, Tolstoy and Wodehouse?
But surely even the book-loving part of my soul has always known this “few story” theory to be correct. How, otherwise, do I have The Mark of Zorro right next to The Scarlet Pimpernel on my shelf? Is that anything but an admission that they are, in fact, the same story?
But now the author part of my brain is kicking and screaming, so we must give her a chance to speak. How, she wants to know, is one expected to write under these circumstances? Originality is such a virtue, and the fear of someone dismissing your hard work as “copycat” or, worse yet, plagiarism is overwhelming.
And we’re back to clichés and tropes. Can one get away with writing the same stories if one acknowledges the fact and embraces it? Can I, like Shakespeare, deliberately pick stock characters to people my book, and by that make people think back to the original source of those characters and deepen their experience with my story?
In Cymbeline, Shakespeare uses fairy tale tropes, and a lot of them. How does he get away with that? How is his audience not groaning, throwing popcorn at the stage, and thinking, “Seriously? Another wicked step-mother queen?” “A girl dressing as a boy! Never seen THAT one before!” “Lost princes. How original. NOT!”
There may be some debate about the extent to which Shakespeare gets away with using these tropes, but I think there’s a reason for them. The easily-recognizable fairy tale motifs remind us that Shakespeare’s story, too, is a fairy tale, not a tragedy. They also give us a feeling of recognition – this is a story we know. Maybe it has twists and turns we didn’t expect, but what keeps us on the edge of our chairs is not the fascinated horror of inevitable doom (that’s for tragedies), but more of a Wodehouseian “how are they going to untangle this mess?” feeling.
So, the “go back it’s a trap!” feeling we get when Juliet gets the poison-that-is-not-a-poison-but-makes-you-look-dead is not the feeling we have when Imogen gets the same mixture. With Imogen, it’s more of a “here we go again, and won’t this make a convoluted and amusing mess!” They’re different stories… and we know this by the way Shakespeare uses what has been written before.
And we’re back at the Intertextuality Path, because this understanding of genre and types of stories only comes as one story references another. And maybe this path isn’t that far away from the tropes vs. clichés path after all. Dare I suggest that a trope enhances our understanding of what’s going on and deepens our appreciation for the work, but a cliché doesn’t add any layers of meaning or any depth? It’s a working theory, at least.
This may be why we find tropes so satisfying and delightful, while clichés make us roll our eyes and throw popcorn: When we see a trope, we realize that the author is deliberately entering into conversation with texts of the past. We greet the stock characters like old friends. We’ve seen the jealous stepmother many times before. We realize that the author isn’t putting his characters on a boat simply because it’s there or a way to get from Point A to Point B… because boats are made for shipwrecks just like forests are made for getting lost. (If you don’t follow me on that one, don’t worry. I didn’t believe it for the longest time.) And this understanding comes from the older texts.
If we know those older texts, we have Light Bulb! moments. Like the moment we realize that the Prince Florizel of Bohemia in Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights is at least as old as Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale. Or the time we find the line “Abandon hope all you who enter here” in Dante’s Inferno and realize that Disney has just called the Pirates of the Caribbean ride Hell. (Or is the “abandon hope” line a cliché? Either way, it gave me a light bulb moment!)
Does that mean, the author side of me wants to know, that clichés are used unwittingly while tropes come from a conscious decision? Perhaps. I’m not positive that all clichés are used unwittingly. If using a cliché is a conscious decision, is it a wise one? Not usually. Should the author have known better? Undoubtedly. But tropes… Can an author include a trope that she doesn’t intend? (And though the Path of Authorial Intent beckons, I’m just not going there. There be dragons!) For a trope to enhance our understanding of a text, doesn’t it have to be conscious on the part of the author? Can an author include layers of meaning that she herself isn’t necessarily aware of? (I thought I wasn’t going there!)
And does intertextuality play by the same rules as tropes? We know that intertextuality is everywhere. As a child, you read the Chronicles of Narnia and fall in love with Edmund. Sure, he has his problems… but he turns out to be a great chap. Then later you read King Lear and find that maybe there’s more to Edmund than you thought. Perhaps, Lewis is giving us the other side of the story: If Edmund hadn’t learned his lesson, if Aslan hadn’t sacrificed himself in Edmund’s place, would he have turned out like Shakespeare’s duplicitous villain? Edmund’s transformation in Narnia takes on a deeper significance when compared with Lear. But how much of that was a conscious connection on Lewis’s part?
My author side wants to observe that it is possible for an author to reference another work without being completely aware of it. What we read becomes part of who we are and then can’t be separated out again, and it can resurface when we least expect it and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I have had light bulb moments with my own writing – and that’s just plain weird. (I was re-reading a Doug Adams book when I came across a sentence that I had chuckled over in my own novel, and realized that I was somehow channeling Adams when I was writing that day.) On the other hand, I think this unaware intertextual conversation doesn’t happen as often as my author side would like to think. And why should it? The times when the conversation works best is when the layers of meaning are intentional. And once again, I abandon the Path of Authorial Intent. That way madness lies.
But this perhaps helps us understand also why the Forest of Literary Criticism and the Woods of Lit Theory can be such a daunting and frightening place. Forests are for getting lost in, and being lost can be scary. But it can also be a time of discovery. This particular forest is filled with many paths… some to beautiful glens with sparking streams, and some to dark places as frightening as Mirkwood. But it isn’t completely inaccessible. The Intertextuality Path, especially, is a lovely place. But if one doesn’t know the stories – the Old Stories, the Great Stories, the Few stories (because there really are only a few) and the Many (because there are oh so many!) – one will never find the Intertextuality Path. So go read a story. Introduce a child to a fairy tale – not a Disney one, although they, too, are a part of the Intertextuality Conversation. Bring a book and sit just inside the edge of the Forest and enjoy the cool shade and beautiful view. And if you see Robin, tell him “hi” for me.