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|Those are wonderful, Cheryl......
Written by Arnie Perlstein
(3/6/2007 10:55 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, The Rivals and Shakespeare, penned by Cheryl
...but that is only the beginning! The subtlety of Sheridan's Shakespearean allusions in this play are breathtaking. The allusions you mention are prime examples. Hamlet is right at the top of Shakespeare's list in terms of density and complexity of punning and wordplay, and also in embodying the theme of the elusiveness of reality, how things seem one way but really are another. Beneath the intense comic surface of The Rivals is an unstated attempt by Sheridan to emulate his master, Shakespeare. Funny as those 2 allusions are, they are also thematic and very learned, as I just found out with a little bit of sleuthing.
First, we have Hamlet analogizing his dead father to Hyperion, who was the Titan god of light, and one of the four Titan brothers who conspired with Kronos to depose their father Uranus. So Shakespeare is invoking Greek mythology in an ironic reversal, in that it is Claudius who successfully deposes his brother King Hamlet.
Sheridan shows that he "gets" Shakespeare's mythological allusion, by having Mrs. Malaprop inadvertently convert Hyperion into Hesperian (it seems to me that Herperian is a printing or computer-caused typo, substituting an "r" for the "s"). This is a reference to the mythological hundred-headed dragon which guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides and which tormented ANOTHER Titan, Atlas, the guy many of us have seen at Rockefeller Center!
Hercules, who was sent to recover the golden apples, kills the Hesperian dragon, and sends him up into the sky to become part of the constellation Draco. In the night sky, the Hesperian dragon twists itself around the North Pole. Now we see that Sheridan has taken advantage of another aspect of the semantic resemblance of Hyperian to Hesperian, because that twining of the dragon fits perfectly with an entirely different meaning of "curls" than was the case with Hamlet's allusion to Hyperion's nobly curly hair.
Imagine what a scholar Sheridan was, to pack all this erudition into a single word out of the mouth of his greatest fool!
But this is just the beginning. "Jove", of course the master of Mount Olympus, becomes "Job", the all-suffering hero of the Bible. And in a comic way, this fits, because Jack is caught in a seemingly hopeless whipsaw between his father and Lydia. Another inadvertently accurate comment by Mrs. M.
But the best part for me in this is that the second Shakespearean allusion you mention, turns out, incredibly, to be related to the first one! Here's how.
I mentioned the role of Hercules earlier, as the killer of the dragon. I also argued that Mrs. M is inadvertently casting Jack as that dragon. But do we have a Hercules in The Rivals? Indeed we do! We have Acres, who has been pumped up by O'Trigger (a clear allusion to Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheek in another Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night, but that's a whole OTHER layer to all of this!) to go fight Jack in a duel.
On the surface, it is hilarious to think of the incredibly naive Acres as Hercules in this context. But does Sheridan really intend it? I think he does, and the evidence for that is suggested in Act IV, scene 1, which contains the passage that Cheryl quoted, in which David tries to argue Acres out of fighting the duel for honour's sake.
First, I see this as a comic sendup (e.g., Acres worrying that he may "disgrace" his "ancestors") of Hamlet's very real and tragic dilemma, which underlies the "Hyperion" speech, i.e., if he fails to take revenge on Claudius, will HE disgrace HIS ancestor? And David's reply "Our ancestors are very good kind of folks; but they are the last people I should choose to have a visiting acquaintance with" takes on a whole new meaning when we think about Hamlet being "visited" by his father's vengeful ghost!
Second, I see it as a comic sendup of Hercules who was sent on his mission to kill the Hesperian dragon. And Sheridan, I think, invokes Hercules by the hint of a reference to one of Hercules's most famous feats, the cleaning of the Augean stables, when David continues to try to discourage Acres from the duel, saying "I wouldn't lend a hand to it for the best horse in your stable". And, apropos Jack as the Hesperian dragon, it cannot be coincidence that Acres, the minute that Jack shows up and David finally gives up his desperate attempt to dissuade Acres from fighting, mentions another famous mythological monster: "If I hadn't the valour of St. George and the dragon to boot..."
And I would not be surprised to learn that there is even more that I have not seen in the play that connects to the above.
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