Thursday, February 9, 2012

Three's a Crowd, Four is Chaos

Love triangles are one of the oldest tricks in the book. The drama of choice never gets old, especially if the characters in a triangle are all sympathetic and compelling. If you need to raise the emotional stakes, nothing does it faster than cornering the protagonist between two love interests and watching things go crazy.

But you know what's even better than a love triangle? A love quadrangle. At least that's what Shakespeare thought, and who am I to argue with him?

Shakespeare never bothered with three lovers when he could have four. In context, it makes perfect sense: his audience would be frustrated if the spurned lover just wandered offstage at the end. But this profusion of lovers and the promise of a happy ending does something very weird to the tension of a love triangle. Gone is the real potential for heartbreak and loss. Instead of waiting with bated breath to see who's chosen and who's rejected, we wait only for the revelation that will sort out the couples as they're clearly supposed to be.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Jeff L. Davis
Take A Midsummer Night's Dream, arguably the most famous love quadrangle Shakespeare ever wrote. Even before the love juice enters the picture, it's very clear how things should be for maximum harmony. Lysander and Hermia are in love; Demetrius once loved Helena, and should really just man up and love her again so everyone can relax. Lysander even spells it out in the first scene of the play. Shakespeare goes out of his way to engage audience sympathy toward the single happy couple and (possibly) the lovelorn Helena. From that point on, we know how this will end.

The complications of the love juice are far more horrifying than we ever quite register, watching the play. Three innocents - Titania, Lysander, and Demetrius - are all brainwashed for spite or for the fun of playing God. At its worst point, the enraged men chase each other through the forest, intent on murdering their rival for a girl who's terrified by them both. On its surface, this is the stuff of horror movies. But it's treated as hilarious in the play, and in the context of the happy ending we know will come. So we laugh, and we accept as "happy" the fact that Demetrius is still brainwashed at the end of the play. Why is it a good thing that his will isn't his own indefinitely, or that Helena winds up married to a man who, in his right mind, doesn't want her? Because that's the way it's supposed to be. Don't think too hard about it; this is how we wanted it to end, right? Hermia and Lysander are happy again, and we liked them. Helena's got what she wanted (although her reasons for wanting Demetrius remain rather obscure). Friendship is restored, marriages are celebrated, and no one's fighting anymore. Just like we knew would happen.

I love Midsummer. But if you think about it for even a minute or two, it's actually horrifying.

Luckily, Twelfth Night isn't so scary. Shakespeare makes it even easier for us in this one.

Twelfth Night, Fine Line Features
One of these men is a girl. It's all okay.

No matter how much chemistry Viola has with Olivia (and let's be honest, unless your Orsino is ridiculously talented, she's going to have more chemistry with Olivia than with Orsino), it's obvious how this goes. Girl with boy; boy with girl. Because Viola's male masquerade never actually harms anyone, it's a lot easier to laugh at her misadventures. And the play itself is far more self-aware than Midsummer, actually addressing the issues it raises of gender and sexuality. Viola is assertive and in control whether she's in pants or a skirt; Sebastian, on the other hand, is a passive nonentity who, faced with a beautiful stranger hot to marry him, just shrugs and goes with it. It's very clear that the take-charge women will call the shots in their marriages, and the men obviously enjoy being ordered around.

Besides, unlike the lovers of Midsummer, these four are unique, individualized, and sympathetic characters. While the Midsummer lovers do nothing but squabble, the Twelfth Night leads get to know each other, share compelling backstories, and actively engage in running their own damn lives. Even Orsino becomes suddenly impressive in the last scene, when jealousy and his conflicted feelings for his pretty page-boy remind us all why he's someone Antonio fears. These characters are real people, and their depth puts the Midsummer lovers to shame.

Arguably, the only Shakespearean love quadrangle involving real tension is also his worst. The Two Gentlemen of Verona gives us a naive schoolboy, a selfish backstabber, a stalker
Valentine Rescuing Silvia from Proteus, William Holman Hunt
girlfriend, and an ice queen, and demands that we care about them. Valentine's gumption is undercut by his total obliviousness to his best friend's upcoming betrayal, as is his devotion to Silvia by his instant readiness to surrender her to her potential rapist. There is nothing admirable about Proteus, as false a friend as he is a lover. Julia is a classic spunky cross-dressing heroine, but deeply problematic since, while she has trouble telling Proteus to his face that she loves him, she sees nothing wrong with disguising herself to spy on him. And Silvia shows guts in defying her father and spurning Proteus, but that courage disappears when it's not plot-convenient, most notably when she's captured by bandits and threatened with rape by Proteus.

The "happy ending" here is as inevitable as ever: Valentine with Silvia, Proteus with Julia. But in this play, you could almost wish for some brainwashing love juice to make it at all palatable. Silvia marries the man she loves, knowing that he cares more about his treacherous friend's happiness than about her own. Proteus settles for second best, having made his future wife privy to his schemes to supplant her. Valentine is as naive as ever, forgiving Proteus with astonishing ease and expecting his life with Silvia to be sunshine and roses. Julia's faith in her fiance is shattered. The tension comes from the escalation of complications, from the way events tangle together to make a reconciliation seem almost impossible. And the falling action is so short and rushed that the ending is deeply unsatisfying, and not very happy.

The underlying problem of the love quadrangle is characterization. Even in triangles, with one less character to manage, the rejected lover is frequently underused in comparison to his or her rival. In Shakespearean quadrangles, there simply isn't enough time to establish all four as fascinating individuals from the get-go. Twelfth Night, by far the most successful, gives Sebastian short shrift and has to shoehorn in a spotlight moment for Orsino. In Midsummer, where the lovers' plot is one of three (and not even the most interesting), it's a miracle that they have as much depth as they do. And even though the love plot is the focus of Two Gentlemen, the lovers get buried in the side characters, subplots, and contrivances, as well as falling victim to the main pitfall of early Shakespeare: the play is more ambitious than skillful. Mid-career Shakespeare would have made a masterpiece of a story about betrayed friendships and forsworn love; in those very early days, he was still learning craft and structure.

A fourth lover is a security blanket. His or her very presence assures us that nothing will be so very catastrophic. No hearts will be irreparably broken; things will work out just like they're meant to; everyone will be suitably happy at the end. It leeches out all the tension that makes a love conflict one of those eternal plots. And it's very much to Shakespeare's credit that he managed to make such a reassuring trope as involving as he did.


  1. I'm going to get this out of the way right now. You're wrong about Two Gentlemen. The only true pairing is Proteus and Valentine. You know it's true. Those two are soul mates. They deserve each other. And Julia and Silvia deserve better. Much better. Why did Oscar Wilde never rewrite Two Gentlemen with P and V as lovers? The possibilities.

    Your second to last paragraph is really interesting. I guess "As You Like It" isn't really a love quadrangle, but it kind of applies. Orlando is rather bland and Oliver has almost no development at all. They're both one note at best. Rosalind owns the play and Celia, depending on the actress, can be a lot of fun too. I wish Shakespeare had spent more time developing the male heroes and less time and the shepherds and Jaques. Then in the last act, they're all in love. So jarring. Like Two Gentlemen in reverse.

    1. Great. Now my heart is aching for the Wilde-ified Two Gentlemen we will never have, which would have been so unspeakably glorious. And yes, Proteus and Valentine belong together, just like Antonio and Bassanio. A plague on both your houses, canon! (Although we do eventually get Orsino/Cesario and Olivia/Viola, which are worth the wait.)

      Shakespeare really is not kind to his male leads in terms of character development. In romantic pairings, you can pretty much always count on the woman being more interesting. (The one great exception, of course, being Beatrice and Benedick. Which is my favorite. I wonder why.)

      I hadn't considered As You Like It because of its non-quadrangle-ness, but you're right, the exact same thing happens there as in the others. I've seen Orlando played very well, but on paper he's a total cypher in comparison to Rosalind. (Granted, everyone is a cypher in comparison to Rosalind, but he's her love interest - you want him to be worthy of her.) And there's no way not to wish for better for Celia.

      As a general rule, I don't think Shakespeare was that into romance. His lovers rarely have a convincing falling-in-love period (we only buy Romeo and Juliet because the poetry is so damn beautiful), and he spends so much time with the side characters because they don't have to conform to dramatic conventions of romance. He's got freer rein with shepherds and fools. You could totally argue that he's perfectly capable of giving the same depth to his lovers that he gives to the side characters, but alas, he didn't.