Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Etiquette - shaking hands, and "thees & thous"

(Sorry if this post is a bit "Olivia-centric" - hopefully some of the points I've put down will be useful to someone...!)

Anyway, I have been thinking about the etiquette of Edwardian society, and how this impacts on the play. It seems to me that the unusually strong emotions the characters experience makes them break the rigid forms of etiquette that would otherwise bind them. Thus, Cesario's rapid advancement at Orsino's court, Olivia's blatant wooing of Cesario, Malvolio's disastrous wooing of Olivia... The whole play is full of people acting against the codes of behaviour that are laid down by Edwardian society.

These codes are evident in every word spoken and gesture made. For instance, how two characters shake hands speaks volumes about their relative status. In Vita Sackville-West's novel "The Edwardians" (which is a great first-hand insight into the period, incidentally) one of the characters realises that she is now persona non grata because of the way a social better shakes her hand:

"Her social vanity... had received its death-blow. She knew it, when she met the Duchess... and was given two fingers instead of three - she had never been given five."

Therefore, Olivia (for example) would give three fingers to Orsino, two fingers to Sir Andrew, and initially two to Cesario (though five the next time she sees "him").

The text also gives clues as to social status by the use of "you" and "thee/thou". At the time the play was written, "you" was used when speaking to someone of equal or higher rank, or when the speaker was being courteous and respectful. "Thee/thou" was more familiar - used when speaking to family, lovers or social inferiors.

Olivia calls Cesario "you", up until the point where she lays her cards on the table and tells him how much she loves him. After that, she calls him "thou".

Olivia generally calls Malvolio "you" - as Steward, he was a trusted and respected member of the household. This whole business of "you" versus "thou" leads to an interesting moment in the scene where Malvolio has come to Olivia in his yellow stockings - she calls him "thou" because he is, ultimately, a servant and one who is being totally inappropriate. But Malvolio must think she "thous" him as a sign of her love!

(NB. Shakespeare isn't totally consistent in the way he uses "you" and "thou" - heck, the guy never spelled his name the same way twice - but it does give some definite clues as to the characters' relationships).

Ummm, that's about it. Hope it's of some use to someone other than me!


Blogger pauljosling said...

Great stuff."Besides she uses me with a more exalted respect than anyone else that follows her."This line begins to take shape in its meaning for me, now ,in terms of the complexity of the relationships between the characters.Perhaps we need to work more on the working actions of the characters and practice specifically the relationships until we get it right..!

19 May 2005 at 14:05  

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