Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

I N T E R P R E T I V E   R E A D I N G
HAZARDING CHANCE
r e a d i n g   a n g e l a   c a r t e r ' s   W I S E   C H I L D R E N

BY S.L. DEEFHOLTS

P A R T   F O U R
All The World's A Stage
WISE CHILDREN is full of allusions to various Shakepearean works. Of course, given that the Hazards have such a venerable tradition of Shakespearean performance, this is hardly incongruous.

On the structural level, Wise Children is a comedy in both the contemporary and the Shakespearean sense of the word, but for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the older version of the tradition. In that sense, Wise Children is about renewal and life. The villians are outwitted while the various protagonists are joyously vindicated in the course of the story. Of course, Dora and Nora's triumph, at the age of 75, departs from the tradition of youth versus age, but then, it is abundantly clear that they do not see themselves as old, except in body. By the same token, however, other characters that are believed to be dead, such as Tiffany and Perry, make miraculous reappearences. Both of them bear new lives --Tiffany is expecting Tristram's child, and Perry arrives with a set of baby twins from lands far distant. These two little newcomers are the offspring of his nephew. Birth and babies remind us of our earthy origins, and are in keeping with the spirit of vigour, renewal and life that is the hallmark of good comedy.

Certainly, Dora reminds us often enough that she only does comedy -- tragedy is not her area, and she certainly does not propose to chronicle it. She does not deny the darker side of life -- she simply chooses to omit it from her account because such things "do not belong in the world of comedy" (227). Similarly, citing Austen's epigram: " 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery' ", Dora assures us that she does not wish to talk about the war: "Suffice to say, it was no carnival, not the hostilities. No carnival." (163).

Yet, I must hasten to add that there are darker moments in the novel as well. The tragedies are as vividly evoked as the comedies in certain scenes. But Shakespearean allusion is more than just tragedy versus comedy, and the Bard's influences run deep in Wise Children.

Here is a sampling of other, specific Shakespearean elements as they are employed by Carter:

The Chances have lived all their lives on Bard Road, in Brixton.
The Hazards have been long-time Shakespearean actors, as mentioned. Any discussion of their lives therefore involves the mention of any number of plays, characters and quotations from Will's works.
Tiffany first comes on the scene at the game show as Ophelia, singing and delusional. In Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad after a number of emotional shocks. She then wanders the palace, singing and handing out flowers while explaining their significance with rather cryptic statements. Later, she starts singing a dirty song. Tiffany is also trailing flowers, and like Ophelia, she hands one to an astonished spectator with a little explanatory comment and sings a bawdy song (42-46). For a few moments she turns into a deranged King Lear, who, having been stripped of everything by his own daughters, goes mad. In the midst of a fierce storm, he wanders out onto the heath and is suddenly siezed by the insight that if his lands, title and prestige were all so easily stripped, they could not truly have been his -- that, like all material posessions, they are "lendings." He tries to remove his clothing, wishing to repudiate it all, given his own state of rejection. Tiffany also pulls off her shirt, while paraphrasing his words: "'Off with it! You only lent it to me! Nothing was mine, not ever!" Later, she is nowhere to be found, until the next day, when a body is found in the Thames -- drowned, like Ophelia (50).
The two eminently over-the-top productions in which Dora and Nora are involved:
1) What? You Will? (it is punctuated differently for virtually each usage. It also happens to be the alternative title of the play, Twelfth Night) is a musical revue with crazy numbers, such as the Hamlet sketch, where the twins, dressed as bellhops, question whether a package should be delivered " '2b or not 2b' ". There's also the Macbeth number, when the twins burst out of a giant haggis during the banquet scene and then begin a syncopated Highland fling in tassled sporrans. The other sketches are equally dazzling.

2) The Dream, a full-fledged, Golden Era Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, complete with "kaleidoscope effects," a cascade, a water ballet -- all the requisite aspects to transform the work from classical to kitsch. The twins play Peaseblossom and Mustardseed.

Wheelchair, like King Lear, is robbed of her fortune and cast out of her ancestral home by her two ungrateful daughters.
Saskia, in particular, echoes several of Shakespeare's villainous women. As mentioned, with Imogen, the pair can be likened to Lear's two evil daughters Goneril and Regan. Any implicit lasciviousness between the sisters and Edmund finds its parallel in Saskia's incestuous relationship with Tristram. She also echoes Lady Macbeth with her ruthlessness and anger. And Saskia's penchant for poison finds a match in Claudius, Hamlet's father and uncle. In the final scene of Hamlet, he drops a poisoned pearl into the drink with which Hamlet is meant to propose a toast. His plan backfires when Gertrude, his beloved wife -- and, according to the law of the time, sister -- drinks the poison. Of course, Claudius does try to stop her, but it is too late. In Wise Children, it is a poisoned cake for her father, and Tristram -- Saskia's incestuous protégé -- who is about to partake of it. Saskia manages to stop him before he has a bite, and the extent of the poison is never revealed.
Mix-ups resulting from twins can be found in several of the comedies. The Twelfth Night features a pair of fraternal twins who look sufficiently alike that when the woman dons a drag get-up, she is indistinguishable from her brother, while A Comedy of Errors features two sets of twins -- one highborn, one lowborn. Unlike Wise Children's many twins -- with the possible exception of Melchior and Peregrine -- each of the sets are separated when they are still young by one of the many shipwrecks featured in Shakespeare's works (that's also how the pair in The Twelfth Night are left without the other). Of course, the dualities they present can be interesting in other ways as well.
This last works if you agree with the "family romance" interpretations of various Shakespearean works. Evidently, based on Dora's innuendo, she does. As mentioned, there is the incestuous relationship between supposed "brother and sister" -- Saskia and Tristram's link has similarities to (though it is by no means an exact echo of) Claudius and Gertrude's relationship in Hamlet. There's the fact that male Hazards of two different generations -- Ranulph and Melchior--played King Lear. Both of them fell in love with their much younger, very beautiful Cordelias and married them. Of course, Cordelia is the honest, good, devoted daughter, who is willing to leave husband and security in order to rush to her father's side -- in other words, he is the man who, in his pride and susceptibility to dishonest flattery, disinherited and repudiated her, his actions leading to her death. The Hazard wives do not have sinister sisters lurking in the background (though Melchior's wife was once Saskia's best friend), but Dora certainly winks and nudges her way through those passages. Cordelia's daughterly love suddenly acquires Oedipal innuendo, as does the regard that the young wives have for their much older husbands. Of course, Dora makes no secret of the fact that both her and Nora's adoration -- from afar -- of Melchior is more than a little tinged with sexual admiration, evoking echoes of Hamlet's possible attraction for his mother. They both recognise his sexual magnetism, and although they do not tell each other until years later, they both kept hidden photos of their father in their underwear drawers (57). He was their first crush. And there are many more incestuous links beyond these.
As discussed in Dualities, Wise Children also contains a number of fascinating variations on the notion of the play-within-a-play that Hamlet orchestrated to such great effect in that reknowned, eponymous theatre piece.

Of course, all these links to the Bard once again stretch credibility. It is as if the Chances and the Hazards have an almost magical, fated connection to Shakespeare. As, in fact, they do, for here we find yet another manifestation of Magical Realism -- in the form of both structural and explicit allusions to the other texts. This kind of intertextuality - -in which the story told is veritably steeped in allusions to one or several other works -- stretches the bounds of realism to a taut extreme and then steps gently over the boundary into a place where, for all its realistic elements, the magical remains ever possible. All the Shakespearean-style villainy, comic relief and intricate plot elements are revisioned and re-enacted in this other place, though they have been magically transformed into a new story, in a different time and with a fresh cast of vivid, lively characters.

PART 5 ~ CONCLUSION

return to INTRODUCTION

return to PART 1 ~ DUALITIES

return to AN INVENTORY OF TWINS

return to PART 2 ~ …AND DUPLICITY

return to PART 3 ~ LIFE AS A CARNIVAL

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Rev'd 2003/03/27