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The range of theories on laughter is testament to its complexity as a human reaction. Critics such as Hélène Cixous and Mikhail Bakhtin consider laughter to be a liberating force that resists authority. Alternatively, Dympna Callaghan views laughter as a neutralizing force against cruelty, which is complicated by the implied complicity with authority that justifies the cruelty. Similarly, in his influential essay, “Laughter”, Henri Bergson states that laughter “pursues a utilitarian aim of general improvement” (73) by targeting rigidity or the mechanical, for which laughter is a “corrective” (74). Finally, Adorno and Horkheimer contend in Dialectic of Enlightenment that laughter emerges so that “spectators can accustom themselves” to the “continuous attrition” of life (110) in a laughter that is self-imprisoning and even sadomasochistic. The application of these modern theories of laughter to Shakespeare’s King Lear and Middleton’s The Changeling should reveal the complexity of effects inherent in merging tragedy and comedy.
Hélène Cixous’ celebrated essay “Laugh of the Medusa” constructs a model of laughter as a mode of feminine resistance to, and liberation from, the masculine authority of language. According to Cixous, the feminine text exists “in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ with laughter” (888). So from this feminist standpoint, laughter acts as a force of resistance against social norms and what is considered ‘truth’, thereby liberating the participant from these authoritarian codes. Mikhail Bakhtin argues comprehensively that laughter is a force of resistance during the carnival period:
“Carnival laughter is the laughter of all the people . . . it is a universal scope . . . directed at all and everyone . . . this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking, deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives. Such is the laughter of carnival” (1984, 11-2).
The carnival acts as a period of inversion and derision of society, which temporarily liberates participants from the usual codes of conduct. Although these concepts of laughter are far more modern than Shakespeare and Middleton, Bakhtin creates his argument around the writing of the only slightly earlier Rabelais, and contends that ideas about defiant laughter were potent during the early modern period. Therefore, this notion can be usefully transposed onto King Lear and The Changeling to consider how both these tragedies use laughter as resistance against authority.
At the end of Act 3 Scene 2 of King Lear, the Fool prophesizes about the time when “the realm of Albion” shall “Come to great confusion” (3.2.90-1), ending with the line, “This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time” (3.2.94). The laughter prompted at this moment incorporates the Fool, the actor playing the Fool, and the audience. This purposeful metatheatricality allows the Fool to step outside of the constraints of the play and all its logic, including time. The audience and the actor are both historically situated after Merlin in real time, but the play is set before, so this self-conscious declaration of the artifice of time in the play “reveals a carnivalesque conception of the historical process” (Bakhtin, 1968, 126). By resisting the logic of arguably the ultimate authority, time, the Fool creates a comic moment that liberates him and the audience from ‘reality’. A similar moment of liberating laughter occurs during Act 3 Scene 6 in the Quarto version of the play, used in the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performance of King Lear. In the mock trial of Goneril, ‘reality’ for the audience is Lear’s insanity, so the spectators are temporarily willing to see the “joint-stool” (or the pot plant used in the RSC performance) as Goneril. Theatre relies upon the audience’s ability to ‘see’ what they are told to see, particularly on the early modern stage, creating new links between object and meaning. Having been absorbed into the ‘reality’ of Lear’s madness in the performance, the audience was made to laugh in self-mockery as the Fool candidly exclaimed, “Cry you mercy, I took you for a pot plant”, holding it up for the audience to see (Quarto 3.4.98, with RSC performance alteration). The audience is brought quickly back to reality outside of the theatrical moment, where the spectators must ‘logically’ see the material object rather than allow their sight to be instructed by language. The laughter at the metatheatrical moment resists the social authority of sight meaning truth, and then liberates the audience from the theatrical authority of madness.
The virginity test in The Changeling employs laughter on multiple levels in a liberating manner. The laughter involved for the participants of the “treble qualitied” (4.2.141) test is liberating. Diaphanta’s laughter frees her from Beatrice-Joanna’s suspicion that she is lying about her virginity, but also liberates her body sexually so she may participate in the bed trick, defying all social authority that would ordinarily condemn her for sleeping with her mistress’ husband. As Barbara Goodwin has explained regarding Bakhtin’s theory of the carnivalesque, inversion is used to “infer serious criticism of existing society, and the need for change or revolution” (Goodwin in Gardiner, 35). Diaphanta takes the place of her mistress, and literally becomes a mistress, so the inversion of social status implicit in the dual meaning of ‘mistress’ serves as a form of resistance against social order and liberates Diaphanta. Indeed, she immediately imagines escaping her social position with the money that she will receive for helping Beatrice-Joanna: “The bride’s place,/ And with a thousand ducats. I’m for a justice now,/ I bring a portion with me; I scorn small fools” (4.1.122-4). The play acts as an area of carnival whereby laws are inverted and proof of virginity enables Diaphanta to become symbolically both diminished and heightened in social status. Therefore Diaphanta’s “Ha, ha, ha!” (4.1.109) acts as a moment of feminine liberation from masculine authority, ironically through means of a male test. Similarly, enacting the laughter of the virginity test frees Beatrice-Joanna from suspicion of sin, and theoretically also from the social codes that dictate female virginity until marriage, and fidelity in marriage. Although the play does not permit her to sleep with Alsemero before she is discovered, theoretically at least her laughter resists the male authority of science by faking the ‘evidence’, and undermines the institution of marriage by giving her the potential to ‘logically’ sleep with two men.
This defiance of the authority of bloodlines is not just taken up as a feminine liberation from masculine institutions, but also by Edmund in King Lear. Although the play begins with Gloucester mocking his illegitimacy in a recognition of his own foolishness, Edmund’s death allows him a final triumphant line: “I was contracted to them both [Goneril and Regan]: all three/ Now marry in an instant” (5.3.229-30). In the RSC production, the actor playing Edmund gave a small sardonic laugh: Edmund is liberated from any further punishment by death, and so is able to bitterly proclaim his defiance from all social authority. His status as illegitimate puts him outside law from the beginning of the play when he is introduced as a “whoreson” to Kent and the audience, and Edmund’s actions defy law throughout. His resistance against patriarchal rules of bloodline and inheritance not only causes destruction, but also infects Lear’s family by the end when he ‘marries’ both sisters in incestuous defiance of marital codes that were intended to clarify inheritance. His laugh as he dies at the end therefore acts as a final celebration of both his chosen and inherent illegality and liberation.
It is clear in these discussions how laughter can be seen as a force of resistance against authority and social order, and as such an act of liberation. Although the critics I have employed are modern, these concepts appear easily transferable to the early modern period. However, an undercurrent of discomfort detracts from the liberating qualities of the laughter in many of these scenes. For example, the Fool’s metatheatrical moment is still inevitably bound to the laws of time, despite his apparent defiance of history and time. His escape is from the play into the real world, or from the carnival into the realm of authority, before returning to the play. Thus the audience is made aware of the framing of the play and the ultimate ordering omnipotence of time and structure. Similarly, the “joint-stool” moment brings the spectators back to reality, making their laughter corrective, mocking both Lear and themselves. Their temporary freedom from ‘reality’ in the play and in sharing Lear’s insanity is destroyed by the Fool, who will not allow them to escape the logic of truth in sight. Edmund’s resistance against authority is also problematic because his death shows that the material law of death is inescapable regardless of how many human laws he may defy. Hence, his amusement at the end is both triumphant and self-corrective. Thus the laughter of resistance and liberation becomes problematic in a world where not all authorities can be disregarded.
Laughter of Correction and Neutralization
Sergei Averintser draws attention to the flaw inherent in Bakhtin’s theory of the carnival period, observing that “if freedom regulates itself according to premonitions of the ecclesiastical calendar and seeks a place for itself within a conventional system, our judgement . . . ought to be somewhat restricted and qualified” (14). In other words, the period of the carnival is a permitted, institutionalized period of chaos, and as such cannot represent the anti-authoritarian, anarchic period Bakhtin suggests. On the contrary, the institutions and authorities permit this period of inversion with a view to prompt laughter that ultimately highlights the difference from normality. Consequently, despite mocking social codes and authority, the participants of carnival unconsciously align themselves with the very authorities that they laugh at. As Bergson clarifies, “laughter always implies . . . complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary” (64), so in this way, the laughter of the carnival becomes corrective because the complicit ‘other’ is authority. Moreover, Dympna Callaghan asserts that the audience’s response is further complicated if we assume the laughter both corrects (aligning itself with authority) and resists (aligning itself with the subject to neutralize the cruelty of mockery). In Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque and the grotesque, laughing at the bodily that is supposed to be spiritual is significant because the recognition of the materiality of human life resists the authority that contends humans are more than just the material. There are several instances in both texts where corrective laughter recognizes and subverts an ideology at once, which neutralizes it and “allows it to masquerade as a sub-discourse . . . which permits and justifies its continual reiteration” (Callaghan, 125).
Gloucester’s relationship with Edmund, his illegitimate son, is a useful example of this in King Lear. Henri Bergson maintains that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion” (63), but the modern day audience must react to this relationship with an acute sense of horror and pity for Edmund. Gloucester’s first spoken emotions about his son, “I have so often blushed to acknowledge him that now I am brazed to’t” (1.1.6-7), are followed by a joke about illegitimate conception (1.1.10-11). Screech points out that “Laughter is one of the ways in which crowds…may react to the sight of suffering” (17). Gloucester’s reactions to his son are also perceived as mechanical, in that his insensitivity towards his son seems habitual. In Act 2 Scene 1 after Edmund’s supposed fight with Edgar, he calls attention to his self-inflicted wound, “Look, sir, I bleed” (2.1.41). Gloucester does not stop to view the wound; he is too mechanically intent upon finding Edgar and is thus unable to see anything else, a problem he retains throughout the play and that he is punished for by the literal loss of his eyes. “This rigidity is the comic, and laughter is its corrective” (Bergson, 74), and so the scattered, shocked laughter at the RSC performance served to correct Gloucester’s actions rather than victimize Edmund. However, whilst the laughter neutralizes “the vicious nature” (Callaghan, 125) of the jokes about illegitimacy, it also implies audience collusion with authority, so that the jokes are institutionalized as a “sub-discourse” (Callaghan, 125) of correction against illegitimacy. Furthermore, illegitimacy was celebrated within the carnival period of inversion as a form of resistance to social authority. However, celebrating illegitimacy as inversion can only serve to strengthen its exclusion from the authoritative system. Therefore, the laughter both corrects Gloucester’s rigidity of emotion, and justifies his comments about Edmund’s illegitimacy by highlighting its place outside of law and society.
Furthermore, in Act 1 Scene 2, Edmund’s mockery of Gloucester’s complete belief in the established authorities is aimed at making the audience collude in mocking laughter against him:
“This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune – often the surfeits of our own behaviour – we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and stars, as if we were villains on necessity . . . an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star!” (1.2.93-99).
The laughter of the audience joins Edmund in his mockery of his father’s ability to avoid guilt and to extend logic to the point of absurdity. The laughter is a corrective to Gloucester’s inability to see beyond what he perceives as authorities of truth. In this way, the laughter is liberating because the audience participates in Edmund’s resistance to authority, but it also becomes part of the dominant discourse that condemns the extension of logic to deny free will, thereby removing this as a possible act of liberation from the pressure of choice.
The plethora of sexual and misogynistic jokes in The Changeling provokes a laughter that simultaneously condones and condemns. Part of this laughter is also in response to the carnivalesque aspect, as Middleton repeatedly draws attention to the bodily and material at moments when talk of spiritual love is anticipated. This juxtaposition is made clear in Act 1 Scene 1, immediately following the elevated, loving conversation between Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero: Jasperino degrades the talk of music, love and honour with, “Yonder’s another vessel [Diaphanta], I’ll board her; if she be lawful prize, down goes her top-sail” (1.1.89-90). He then proceeds to discuss with Diaphanta his need for a cure which would involve “an ingredient that [they] two would compound together” to “tame the maddest blood i’th’town for two ours after” (1.1.141-3). This carnivalesque reduction of love to bodily lust provokes laughter that celebrates liberation from authority, but which in its complicity with other laughers, re-institutionalizes this freedom. The jokes and innuendo are neutralized so they can continue as a defined “sub-discourse” (Callaghan, 125). However, the neutralizing effect apparently makes it acceptable to demand sex as a medicine, and by implication, in exchange for payment. If the dominant discourse accepts an equation between sex and money, an extension of this logic allows Deflores to take sex in payment from Beatrice-Joanna, and for Beatrice-Joanna to pay Diaphanta to act as a replacement for her in bed. Thus, by laughing out of a desire to neutralize and correct the crude innuendo, violent aspects are allowed to enter the legal and logical discourse of the play.
The clearest instance where corrective laughter is utilized in response to The Changeling is after Deflores has killed Alonzo and brings Beatrice-Joanna Alonzo’s finger with the ring on it as “a token” (3.4.26). This provokes a disgusted laughter that emerges from shock at this vastly misunderstood and improper method of seduction. The laughter is corrective in response to Deflores’ apparent idiocy in thinking that the presentation of a dead man’s finger could be an appropriate love token. But the black humour runs deeper, because the audience must also realize it is an appropriate love token for a couple brought together by murder. Furthermore, Deflores’ theft of the ring on the finger represents a theft of the symbolic promise of sexual union between Alonzo and Beatrice-Joanna. The ring stands as a symbol of the vagina, so that even before Deflores ‘deflowers’ Beatrice-Joanna, she is already a fallen woman. Deflores makes this abstract promise bodily, enacting a carnivalesque concept of marriage by turning it grotesquely sexual and mutilated. The laughter of the audience would recognize the self-liberating carnivalesque nature of Deflores’ actions, in his undermining of the codes of engagement and the concepts of logic. However, the primary emotion must be disgust, so that laughter is primarily a corrective force, as Deflores’ extended logic lapses into violent insanity.
This neutralizing laughter serves ultimately to make the dominant ideology stronger by bringing what is ‘strange’ or ‘other’ into opposition with the laughing majority to be recognized as wrong. Thus, just as laughter of resistance was diminished to the function of correction or neutralization, so this corrective laughter can be diminished further. The recognition of the mechanical or grotesque in others is condemned because it involves recognition of the capacity for the mechanical in the self. Moreover, it becomes a mode of self-regulation upon realization of the futility of resistance against authority. So the audience celebrates Edmund’s temporary liberation from all authority, at the same time as mocking him because ultimately authority will punish his transgression. As Jan Kott remarks, the tragic hero and the grotesque actor ultimately lose against the absolute, including the tragic structure of the play, which always ends by punishing evil (105). The corrective laughter at Gloucester therefore extends to Edmund too, whose belief that he can defy authority can only last for the duration of the carnivalesque period of the play; the spectators realize that resistance and escape are impossible.
Laughter of Self-Imprisonment
In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer suggest that “laughter copes with fear by defecting to the agencies which inspire it. It echoes the inescapability of power” so that it becomes “the instrument for cheating happiness” (Adorno, 112). They suggest that laughter usually involves recognition and reinforcement of the pain that is inflicted upon the self by daily life. Laughter is the only possible response to the “organized cruelty” that confirms “the old lesson that continuous attrition, the breaking of all individual resistance, is the condition of life in this society” (Adorno, 110): ultimately, the violence against the victim “turns into violence against the spectator” (Adorno, 110). This laughter includes an element of the corrective, mocking the victim for their attempt to stand up against authority, but by doing so, the spectator acknowledges their own complete imprisonment by society and reinforces it by “forgetting suffering” through laughter, which prevents “the last thought of resisting that reality” (Adorno, 116). Therefore, the laughter presented by Adorno and Horkheimer is self-imprisoning and sadomasochistic, in that it takes apparent pleasure in the pain of others that can only serve to increase the pain for the self, which is likewise accepted with a smile.
In Act 2 Scene 2 of King Lear, Lear’s threat against his daughters became grotesquely comical in both the RSC production and the film because the pauses and the words revealed that he had no ideas left: they disappeared alongside his power. “I will have such revenges on you both,/ That all the world shall – I will do such things – /What they are yet I know not, but they shall be/ The terrors of the earth!” (2.2.468-71). The pauses make clear the lack of power and ideas that Lear has been left with, despite his protestations of violence. Lear’s sentence structure becomes significantly shorter, simpler and fragmented, which not only signifies his growing madness, but also contributes to the image that his Fool makes clear in Act 1 Scene 4 when he goads, “thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers: for when thou gav’st them the rod and put’st down thine own breeches,/ Then they for sudden joy did weep” (1.4.125-7). Lear’s speechlessness prompts carnivalesque laughter, in that the inverting power of the carnival period has reduced the wise old male king to a foolish, powerless child, under the domination of females. This inversion of social order resists hierarchy and celebrates its downfall. However the audience must also recognize and pity Lear’s self-imposed reduction and entrapment. By giving away his power he has become the subject of his daughters, and therefore represents the other subjects of society who, like him, can only rage ineffectually against authority. The laughter at his inability to threaten anything significant therefore becomes self-imprisoning for the audience, who are likewise completely subjected to authority, and who, by laughing, help to strengthen the dominant ‘truth’ that social power and authority are insurmountable.
Jan Kott contends that it is necessary for the stage to be empty for the attempted suicide in Act 4 Scene 5 of King Lear, because it suggests that “The abyss…is everywhere” and that “Death is only a performance” (Kott, 117). Gloucester’s state is completely tragic, but the humour of this small moment serves to heighten the intensity of his suffering and pain because he is even mocked in his failure to escape it. Part of the laughter appears a rather involuntary reaction to the appearance of the mechanical again in Gloucester’s character, but this previously comical mechanical inability to see beyond language and authority becomes immediately tragic here because he can literally no longer see to be able to judge between reality and the presentation of reality. Furthermore, the laughter mocks and corrects his attempt at escape, because life serves to destroy all hopes of “individual resistance” (Adorno, 110). Death is the ultimate absolute, which humans do not have the power to resist or bring about. Life must be endured, and as Jan Kott suggests in his denial of the possibility of suicide, earthly human life may be all there is in King Lear (Kott, 117-8). The laugh of the spectator at the expense of Gloucester then is also a further recognition of the ineffectuality of human action against authority of any sort, social or otherwise. The spectators laugh to show that they “identify wholeheartedly with the power which beats them” (Adorno, 124), creating a moment of sadomasochism that takes pleasure in Gloucester’s pain because it echoes the pain and imprisonment of life that the spectators welcome and reinforce with “stereotypical smiles” (Adorno, 124).
In The Changeling, one of the funniest scenes is the fire scene of Act 5 Scene 1, where the audience is made complicit in the evil and deception that is occurring amidst the chaos on stage. As was discussed in the workshop, far from being a central point of power in this scene, Beatrice-Joanna appears completely unable to move – Deflores remains decisively in control of all the movement in the scene, whilst she stands waiting for Diaphanta to finish bedding Alsemero, waiting for Deflores to start a fire, and waiting for Diaphanta to be killed. In this manner, she becomes the powerless static object around which all the action rotates (Workshop). In the workshop, we played upon the chaos of this scene, which provoked laughter. However, this laughter highlighted the darker underside of sin that the comic chaos disguises: the scene is ultimately one of betrayal, adultery and murder. The chaos of life is shown to hide evil, thereby enabling it to thrive and continue. Therefore, the laughter of the audience that celebrates the apparent lack of order in this scene simultaneously celebrates crime and sin. This becomes problematic because in being complicit in the wrong-doing, the audience must recognize the inevitability and inescapability of evil in society, and the inability of the authority to counter it. All that authority can do is recognize and punish it, but in recognizing it, it becomes part of the dominant discourse and therefore is paradoxically condoned and expected.
Thus, far from realizing a dream of resistance and liberation, the inversions and chaos that are symptoms of the period of carnivalesque serve to reinforce social order and the concept of higher authority, and further, serve as moments of false relief from the system. The participants who laugh and enjoy themselves do so under the impression that they are enjoying free, anti-authoritarian time, when in fact they merely strengthen their imprisonment in society. However, such self-imprisoning laughter arguably completes the circle to return to the laughter of liberation again in both The Changeling and King Lear. Both plays focus on madness and insanity, and it is important that much of the laughter prompted in both texts is prompted by or aimed at a madman or a fool. This laughter works on the multiple levels that have been discussed because it resists authority, it is corrective, it neutralizes the jokes, and it is self-imprisoning. However, the multiplicity of reactions to insanity and foolery enables those that ‘suffer’ from it to become the most liberated beings of both plays in terms of their position in relation to authority, despite their literal imprisonment and social condemnation.
Opposites Collide: A Return to Laughter of Resistance and Liberation
“Comedy exposes the fallacy inherent in every monolithic interpretation of human experience: it refutes exclusiveness, points out inconsistencies, and harmonises them in a renewed pattern of relationships” (Cavaliero, 4). The main error of Lear (and Gloucester) is to believe that words have an absolute meaning, and therefore equate to truth or reality. The frequency of the verb “to speak” and other words associated with speech is especially noticeable in Act 1 Scene 1 of King Lear when Lear commands his daughters to verbalize their love for him in return for a share of the kingdom. Like Gloucester, who loses his legitimate son Edgar because he was too ready to believe the words of a letter, Lear loses his “joy”, Cordelia (1.1.74) because of his blind belief in the monolithic association between word and truth. Wit is used in these plays by the madmen and fools, and “takes language seriously, acknowledging its capacity to generate meaning and not merely to convey it (as in the monolithic attitude to language, which insists on a one-to-one correspondence and confuses the signified with the sign)” (Cavaliero, 37). Therefore, the Fool teaches Lear to extend and therefore subvert logic beyond the confines of language. This act liberates Lear from the monolith of language and from the authority of society, which he resists through extension of its own logic: “Get thee glass eyes,/ And like a scurvy politician seem/ To see the things thou dost not” (4.5.170-2) and “If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes” (4.5.175). In recognizing the abstract truth of these words – that schemers only appear to see truth and that if Gloucester wishes to weep he must borrow another pair of eyes – the spectator recognizes their own imprisonment within the world of logic, from which the only escape is insanity. Lear’s madness and the Fool’s status give them the freedom to act outside of the confines of authority and social codes of behaviour, at least within the confines of the play, revealing truths about society that the spectators can laugh at uncomfortably because ultimately the joke is aimed at them. Lear and the Fool appear to conform to the logic of society and language by simply extending it to the point of absurdity, playing with varied meanings in order to subvert the very authority that they use. So while Lear and the Fool laugh and resist authority, the audience is left to laugh at itself for being imprisoned within it. Fools and the insane arguably represent the ever-present carnival spirit in society, with a part on both sides of the divide between reality and the carnival.
The madmen in The Changeling are confined to the madhouse, but contrary to the idea of imprisonment, the disguise of madness employed by Antonio and Franciscus is used to attain the freedom to seduce Isabella. Again, by extending the logic of society and the play, Antonio and Franciscus judge that if both madmen and women are to be locked up from society, they are equal and therefore free to love each other outside the institution of marriage. Their assumed status as insane liberates them from social codes and expectations of wooing, so that the role of romantic hero is reduced dramatically until the disguise of ‘fool’ is cast off: “Cast no amazing eye upon this change…This shape of folly shrouds your dearest love,/ The truest servant to your powerful beauties,/ Whose magic had this force thus to transform me” (3.3.113,115-7). As Bergson points out, disguise is always comic because it appears an artificial attempt against what would normally be expected of the body, and against nature (Bergson, 87-91). The laughter that is directed at these men in disguise is therefore corrective on the part of the audience, because they should realize that such authorities as nature cannot be countered, but is also envious of their ability to subvert the social order and attain freedom by utilizing the codes that are already in order. By acting the part of madmen, Franciscus and Antonio are permitted the freedom to act outside the law without truly losing their places in the ‘sane’ reality of the world. Disguise is comic because it is carnivalesque, and like neutralizing laughter and the Fool character, suggests a duality that links authority and the carnivalesque.
Ultimately of course for all of these characters, the liberation from social codes and expectations is short-lived. Antonio and Franciscus are discovered for frauds, and are very nearly punished for the murder of Alonzo; Edgar must reject his assumed persona of Mad Tom to kill his brother in the embodiment of authority and law; and Lear dies after Cordelia’s murder. In this manner, authority is arguably restored to entrap each transgressing character and restore order as the spectators return from the world of the play to that of reality. However Isabella provides a notable exception: her triumphant amusement upon revealing herself to Antonio after disguising herself as mad is truly liberating for her, because she goes against every expectation in order to subvert the authoritative system and gain freedom in her marriage. Alibius promises, “I see all apparent, wife, and will change now/ Into a better husband, and never keep/ Scholars that shall be wiser than myself” (5.3.212-4). By working within the allowed time slot of inversion but by refusing to break any moral codes within it, Isabella resists the dominant discourse that places women as sexually voracious and lascivious, less intelligent than men and naturally disloyal. Instead, she paradoxically uses methods of deception to prove herself loyal, intelligent and able to resist temptation. Therefore Isabella’s triumphant speech reveals that Antonio’s faked insanity means he is still unable to separate between appearance and reality, and by duping the men in the play she is librated from all their laws; “I have no beauty now,/ Nor never had, but what was in my garments” (4.3.123-4).
Although Bakhtin excludes theatre from his notion of
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