02
Jan
08

#13: Wrangling With My Reason

Dear Friends,

Interesting table-work story for word-nerds like me (if you don’t like long cerebral discussions about semantics, do yourself a favor– skip this one):

Yesterday we tabled Act IV scene 3 and, among other things, discussed the meaning of Sebastian’s big monologue:

This is the air; that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t;
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not madness. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant:
Yet there he was; and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.
His counsel now might do me golden service;
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some error, but no madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad,
Or else the lady’s mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does: there’s something in’t
That is deceiveable. But here the lady comes.

We (myself, Gale the text coach, Paula the director, Molly Rhode (playing Olivia) and Leslie the stage manager) agreed completely about the overall meaning of the speech.  Sebastian’s just left Olivia’s company (where she mistook him for Viola, who is disguised as Cesario) and is dizzy with happiness.   He doesn’t understand what’s going on – why she thinks she knows him, why she’s calling him Cesario, etc – but she’s a babe, so he’s loving it.  So the thrust of the speech is: my brain’s telling me I’m not crazy- look, this is air, that’s the sun, here’s the pearl she just gave me – but this whole situation is so unbelievable that I’m ready to “distrust my eyes” and admit that I must be bonkers.  Either I’m bats, or she is – but that’s not possible, considering how totally with-it she seems to be…

And then Olivia walks up and the scene continues.

Like I said, everyone in the room agreed about the overall meaning of the soliloquy.  But then we wrestled (verbally- not in mud or anything) for, I don’t know, thirty minutes or something rediculous, about the literal meaning of one stinking line:

And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust but that I am mad

Again, everyone agreed that the overal meaning behind the speech is that Sebastian is willing to believe he is mad.  But as to the literal interpretation of that line, I think it means:

I’m ready to believe that I’m mad: first, to stop trusting my eyes, and secondly, to defy my reason (which, as I’ve been saying this whole time, is trying to convince me that I’m anything BUT crazy).

Everyone else (I think) disagreed with this reading, arguing that it means:

I’m ready to believe that I’m mad: to stop trusting my eyes, and instead, to listen to my reason, which is now telling me that I can be nothing else but MAD.

Paula and Gale argued that by the end of the speech, Sebastian’s reason – his soul, his sense – has changed positions, and has come to the conclusion that he’s crazy.  But while I  agree that Sebastian has changed positions, I don’t think his reason has.  The whole speech, to me, is about how the only thing suggesting that he is crazy is the magnitude of this “accident,” this “flood of furtune.”  Everything else is telling him he’s sane.  And THAT is precisely what is so maddening about the situation.  

Here’s how this silly cerebral argument manifests itself in the reading of the line:  I would argue that the stress is on but:  “my reason that persuades me to any trust BUT that I am mad.”  Paula and Gale argue that because his reason has changed positions, the stress is on mad: “my reason that persuades me to any trust but that I am MAD.”

The principle behind all of this is a concept called “operative word.”  The idea is that operative words get the stress, and a word is considered “operative” the first time it is used.  For example, in the sentence, “Buy me an apple, and be sure to pick a red apple,” the word apple is used twice, but only stressed the first time: “Buy me an APPLE, and be sure to pick a RED apple.”  Because the operative word – the second time around – is red.

So, it sounds funny to me to stress “mad” when it (or a form of it- “madness”) has already been operative.  Look at the monologue again:

This is the air; that is the glorious sun;
This pearl she gave me, I do feel’t and see’t;
And though ’tis wonder that enwraps me thus,
Yet ’tis not MADNESS. Where’s Antonio, then?
I could not find him at the Elephant:
Yet there he was; and there I found this credit,
That he did range the town to seek me out.
His counsel now might do me golden service;
For though my soul disputes well with my sense,
That this may be some ERROR, but NO madness,
Yet doth this accident and flood of fortune
So far exceed all instance, all discourse,
That I am ready to distrust mine eyes
And wrangle with my reason that persuades me
To any other trust BUT that I am mad,
Or else the LADY’S mad; yet, if ’twere so,
She could not sway her house, command her followers,
Take and give back affairs and their dispatch
With such a smooth, discreet and stable bearing
As I perceive she does: there’s something in’t
That is deceiveable. But here the lady comes.

 So according to the “operative word” rule, to stress “mad” halfway through the speech would suggest that he’s considering madness for the first time, and hasn’t been talking about it all along.  It makes it sound like new information.  Now, Paula and Gale argued that it is new information, in a way: that because his reason is changing positions, the rational side of his brain is admitting madness for the time.  But to me, if his reason is now saying that he’s mad, then why would Sebastian, who WANTS to believe he’s mad (despite what his eyes are telling him), be wrangling with it?

All of that said, the line is pretty convoluted, and reading it the way I’m arguing it was written runs the risk of communicating the idea that Sebastian DOESN’T think he’s mad.  And while Paula and Gale would say that his reason is persuading him he’s mad, and I would say that Sebastian believes he’s mad in spite of what his reason is telling him,  we all agree that he thinks he’s mad.  So, in the spirit of making things as clear as possible to you, the audience – and also because at the end of the day, Paula’s my boss 🙂 – I relented, and if you see the show, you’ll hear MAD stressed earnestly… and if you look really closely, you’ll see the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

The fact that anyone can get worked up about something this inconsequential is a bit absurd, isn’t it?  But what can I say, I love this stuff.  Shakespeare’s verse is a giant puzzle– like Sudoku with words.

But due to my inability to convince a single person in that room that I was making any sense whatsoever (everyone was looking at me like, what is he talking about?), I left rehearsal feeling totally insane.  Kinda like Sebastian.  So there- the rehearsal was a success!

kr

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2 Responses to “#13: Wrangling With My Reason”


  1. 1 actorsjourney
    January 2, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    When I used to do this speech for auditions (I had hair then, okay?), I would stress “AM”

    I like where Paula and Gale are going as far as the energy of the speech… It’s why I went with “am”: it drives to the end of the line, while obeying your law of operatives. Plus it scans. If you don’t contract “I am”, “mad” gets a little extra stress anyway by virtue of being out of meter. But “am” sets up the joke of the next line.

    That said, I think your interpretation is sound, but the way around it would be to define wrangle as “to corral” rather than “to wrestle” and come around to the fact that reason has changed. This seems more active somehow.

    Try it. If you like it, it’s yours.

  2. 2 actorsjourney
    January 2, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    I’m Matt Daniels, the blogger from 1 Henry IV, by the way.


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