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THE DRIE MOCKE: Irony and the Merry Wives

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

Peter Bradbury


It’s a word we all use. I have used the words irony and ironic quite a few times in the past few weeks in discussing or writing about this deliciously ironic play. And one of the people - two of the people - I was talking to asked me if I have a decent and usable definition of the word. It is of course both a word and a concept, so not an easy question ...


I smiled and gulped at the question and thought back to the several years I spent in the late seventies and early eighties writing about irony in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I also recalled the 1996 Alanis Morissette song ‘Ironic’, which I loved and would sing in karaoke fashion with a colleague as we drove through the countryside from Oxford to her home in Sutton Courtenay: the only irony in that song is that none of its examples is the least ironic. We sang it with gusto.


And I still don’t quite know how to answer that simple question, a statement which itself is ironic because of course it is not at all a simple question, yet calling it so gets the listener or reader’s mind sparking between the simplicity and complexity of the concept.


Recent histories of the concept of irony* tend to emphasize the changing meanings of the word. They begin with the Greek eironia, which was first used to refer to an artful double meaning in the Socratic Dialogues of Plato, through the Roman Cicero’s ironia, to the philosopher Kierkegaard who said, in his book The Concept of Irony (1841): “Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it, but cherished by those who do.” And so on to the present. I have heard people call something ironic, or say they were being ironic, when in fact they were using the least subtle of all ironic tropes, sarcasm. And I have heard elitist Lit Crit professors saying that what distinguishes a good literature student from a poor one is the ability to read ironically. Ironic, really, since it turns out that what he really meant was that poor students were the ones who enjoyed reading and good students were those who made a meal of it.


Enough of this. Let’s get to the point. But first, when we’re thinking of irony in Shakespeare it is useful to know that our playwright probably read the following in a book published in 1589, The Arte of English Poesie, by George Puttenham:

“Ironia: or the Drie Mocke. Ye doe likewise dissemble, when ye speake on derision or mockerie, & that may be many waies: as sometimes in sport, sometimes in earnest, and priuily, and apertly, and pleasantly, and bitterly: but first by the figure Ironia, which we call the drye mock: as he that said to a bragging Ruffian, that threaterned he would kill and slay, no doubt you are a good man of your hands: or, as it was said by a French king, to one that praide his reward, shewing how he had been cut in the face at a certain battell fought in his seruice: ye may see, quoth the king, what it is to runne away & looke backwards…..

Puttenham also referred to “Sarcasmus, or the Bitter taunt.”


There are many differences in the words used by students of irony to describe the concept. But what everyone will agree on is that irony arises from a difference of perspectives. In verbal irony, at a microcosmic level, a speaker says one thing but means another, so the truthful, or sub-textual meaning is in conflict with the explicit but untruthful meaning. “That’s as clear as mud” is a concise example. One of my favorites, which is actually rather complex in the way it works, is quoted at the beginning of Muecke’s book: “When all else fails, read the directions.” A classic example of verbal irony is the satirist (and Dean of St Pauls) Jonathan Swift’s pamphlet A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick (1729). The proposal itself, which may well be secretly in use by the current White House administration as a role model, is this: “ I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.


Shakespeare was adept at verbal irony and even gave us a perfect illustration in Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt, and will do none

That do not do the thing they most do show

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone ….


But it is for his dramatic irony that he is probably best known. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play in which a great deal of the humor is ironic. For almost the entire play characters pursue their objectives blissfully unaware that the audience knows that they will never achieve them. The irony is sharper and deeper because people such as Slender, Dr Caius and Falstaff are all so convinced of their entitlement to success. The audience knows all the time that the two women are affronted by the idea of being “boarded” by the fat knight, but he continues happily believing unrealistically that they are enamored of him. In the first and second buckbasket scenes the irony is on everyone. The wives are pretending to Falstaff that Master Ford is on his way, and do not in fact expect him to appear. Yet the audience knows that he will, having witnessed the scene between Ford (masquerading as Brook) and Falstaff. And when he does appear he is standing forlornly around unable to find the villain while the audience knows that the culprit is hidden in the basket (or, in the second scene, disguised as a fat witch).


The irony in these comic scenes makes us laugh, and irony is usually associated with laughter of some kind. However, irony can also be dark so that our laughter has an edge that can cut into our psyche and bring bitterness or doubt. Take for example the scenes between Falstaff and Brook, Ford’s alter ego. Falstaff lies boastfully about foreplay with Alice Ford, and Ford (disguised as Brook) squirms in a torment of pain and (some) pleasure. The audience of course knows that Falstaff didn’t make first base (excuse the anachronism, which is not ironic unless you start playing with the meanings of ‘base’) with Ms Ford, and we laugh at the deluded knight and also at the foolish Ford, knowing his pain is founded on nothing but unjustified suspicion. Ford might well be saying to himself: be careful what you ask for.


A more tragic, profoundly darker irony is at work in better known examples from Shakespeare. In Othello we the audience know the story of Iago’s malicious intent to drive Othello mad. We know the racism, the misogyny, the envy that drives Iago, and we know the weakness of self doubt and suspicion that makes Othello gullible. We watch in ironic horror as the driven moor takes his pain, which has no foundation in any objective reality, to its ultimate end and smothers his wife Desdemona until she is dead. In Romeo and Juliet we watch as the lovers commit suicide in the mistaken belief that the other is dead.


In Othello, there is a verbal irony that works within the dramatic irony, which makes a connection with the darker side of Merry Wives:

O, tis the spite of hell, the fiend’s arch-mock,

To lip a wanton in a secure couch,

And to suppose her chaste. (4,1,20-22)


Of course, in our supposedly postmodern world, many cultural and social critics will say that life itself, our society and the way we think and act like humans, are fundamentally ironic, given that people rarely say exactly what they mean and we all inhabit something of a meta-life in which we are observing and commenting on the various narratives that make up our lives. In this sense the social media are intrinsically ironic, presenting pictures of each other which can only ever be fragmentary while seeming to give the world open access to our secret selves. It is a further irony that social media operators and companies tend to make a big deal out of the constant renewal of privacy policies while abusing them without, often, having the slightest idea that they are doing so. I would probably enjoy swishing around in debates and discussions of this kind but I will spare you, at least on digital paper.


Theater is much given to irony because it brings together multiple perspectives in one place, including that of the audience. Shakespeare is particularly resonant in irony because he makes such a buoyant use of the audience. Characters tend to speak both to the other characters and to the audience as though to invite participation in the emotional and moral trajectory of the play. And he uses the aside frequently in which a single character communicates something to the audience that is not communicated to other characters.


In a previous blog I talked about negative capability, the quality in Shakespeare, identified by the poet Keats, that allows a single character to have multiple true features in conflict with each other without trying to resolve them through fact or reason. This is a quality that is very close conceptually to the ironic perspectives that I have illustrated in this brief blog; I would suggest that the concepts of negative capability and irony be considered together as demonstrating complexity and multiplicity in a way that teases our reason, spikes our emotions and subverts our prejudices.


There is one further irony of Shakespeare that I would like to mention. For several centuries Shakespeare was seen as a conservative who upheld the Tudor and Elizabethan worldview reflected in the characters, often noble, of his history plays. In 1943, a time when Britain was facing its most profound challenge since the Norman conquest (now repeated in Brexit), the literary historian E.M.W. Tillyard wrote a book called The Elizabethan World Picture. One of its purposes was to show the extent to which Shakespeare upheld the philosophical and political principles of his time. Several generations of schoolchildren were taught that our greatest poet espoused such principles as the divine right of kings. Until we realized that what Tillyard had done was to extract a coherent model of a worldview from Shakespeare and present it as the actual world view of Elizabeth's reign. Historical evidence has since given us a much more diverse and rather dirtier picture, and we can see that Shakespeare was selecting aspects of his own society and holding them up to see what made them tick and to poke a little fun at them. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which the position of women in Elizabethan England is turned on its head to create a narrative for the future and a warning to men, albeit one that has not been much heeded until very recently.


Notes

The picture that accompanies this blog shows Janet Dale (Meg Page) and Lindsay Duncan (Alice Ford) in the RSC’s 1985 production of Merry Wives.

* I’m thinking of: D.C.Muecke’s Irony and the Ironic, Methuen, London & New York, 1982; and Claire Colebrook’s Irony, Routledge, New Critical Idiom series, London & New York, 2004.

** George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, first published in 1589 by Richard Field, London. Now a Public Domain e-book, p. 199.

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