Blue Wilderness Dog Food is running an ad on television which shows a household pet dog running alongside a wolf and the voiceover says that the two are related and so both need meat and that the dog food it sells will therefore suit your own dog. The ad is likely to bring a smile or a chuckle to a viewer who is not usually inclined to think that his pet dog is like a wolf. The idea of a wolf deep down in your dog is funny. So this joke is an irony in that it shifts the meaning of a dog to being a wolf in dog clothing and all that implies about being wild and dangerous. The idea is replaced in a second or two or after having watched the commercial once or twice by the realization that the comparison is itself a joke because there is no way the dog who likes to doze on your lap and have his belly rubbed has anything to do with a wolf even if they are genetically related. That too is funny, that a dog could be compared to a wolf. The first joke is the making of a strange or absurd comparison; the second joke is that the first comparison is absurd. The first joke says dogs are like wolves while the second one says that dogs are not at all like wolves. The ad agency should be complemented for having in a ten second commercial directed at a not necessarily highly literate audience led its audience to experience this double irony. I don’t know if it sells more dog food, but it must satisfy the aesthetic sense of the ad’s creators. Now apply this same concept to aesthetic objects that are universally recognized as being worthy of critical attention.
Polonius is well recognized as a comic figure because his patter is so glib and simplistic. He offers up platitudes such as “neither a borrower nor a lender be”. A reader on first becoming aware of the play will readily see him as a joke who is unfortunate enough to get stabbed while he is minding someone else’s business. It is an unfortunate accident. Upon further consideration, what he says is true rather than cliched. “To thine own self be true and then thou canst not be false to any man” is not bad advice even if people rarely follow it and that is certainly true of a man who is consigliore to his King. Polonius was behind the arras for a reason. He wanted to find out what Hamlet was up to and thought that Hamlet might confide in his own mother even if he was evasive with his girl friend and everyone else at court. (Why Polonius did not consult Horatio, who is Hamlet’s reliable and serious minded friend, may be because Polonius knew that Horatio would not spill the beans on his friend.) So there is a double irony here. Polonius is comic relief for those who don’t take him seriously and he is a skilled courtier for those who do take him seriously, like Claudius and his queen.
The significance of Polonius to the play as a whole was clearly laid out in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of it this summer. The director, Barbara Gaines, provided a performance of “Hamlet” that moved along briskly, avoided seeming episodic, as T. S. Eliot and so many others have claimed it is, and made the assassination of Polonius key to the play. Before that event, Hamlet had been a nuisance, an affected youth who seems off the bend. What is usually taken as the key point in the play, which is the play within the play, which is when Hamlet takes the King’s reaction to reveal his guilt rather than being only Hamlet’s latest and most brazen attempt to besmirch Claudius’ character, it is the death of Polonius that sets off the action of the rest of the play because now Hamlet must be gotten rid of. Hamlet is a real danger in the court, a murderer, and so it is shameful to protect him even though exiling him to England seems to be to protect one of the high and mighty when it is a stratagem to have him killed. Hamlet returns in disguise to discover that Ophelia is dead and yet he consents to take part in what is supposedly only a duel. Is he really a madman because he is insufficiently suspicious? Or is he so depressed by what has come before that he doesn’t care if he dies?
Either way, the heart of the play is whether Polonius is wise in the ways of statecraft and so gives his son Laertes misleading advice or whether Polonius is so wise in the ways of statecraft that he know to offer his son the advice a wise man would give a son rather than the ways in which he himself practices a corrupt statecraft. Noticing the ironies surrounding Polonius is crucial to understanding how the play is about the relations of surfaces to realities: the mannerly court to its tawdry politics; the once outwardly splendid young prince to the troubled and disheveled young man who has replaced him; the regal surroundings to the internal Renaissance self. Much is going on here, as even every high school student can appreciate.
Another English genius uses double irony, though in a very different way. It informs the entire body of Jane Austen’s work, not just one or another of her novels, and helps to explain why Jane is at the same time popular and entertaining and also extremely complex in her appreciation of human nature. Romance, for Austen, and in all of her novels, is the matching of the characters of the people who are wooing one another. People start out ready to get infatuated and end up knowing and appreciating one another’s souls. Sexual fidelity, or at least sustained sexual attraction, follows from that rather than gets imposed by marriage. This way of thinking about courtship is certainly suitable for Hallmark movies and other light romantic comedies. It works every time because it allows every reader (and viewer) to understand that the point is ironic, that it is an ideal many times undercut in life itself where people marry on the basis of circumstances and some degree of attraction and then find a way into a sex life which is only tangentially connected to the heart and soul of the person with whom they have become connected. Guys are always trying to talk themselves into a girl’s pants and that doesn’t mean every overture is true love. So we enjoy Jane Austen by letting the romance, for a moment, take over our lives, and that is satisfying as well as an escape into a slightly or very different universe, depending on how you look at it. Out of this are Janeites made, taken up with the surface of genteel courtships, fancy estates, and elegant talk.
But Jane Austen has as revolutionary an agenda as did Beaumarchais some two generations before her. She too does not just work out the Romantic conventions that since her time have become cliches, and she should be given credit for that even if that had been the only thing that she did. It is also the case that she wants the reader to take her new conventions seriously, to regard this as the way life really works, just as Beaumarchais wanted his audiences to think that a maid in the house of a nobleman could really want to settle down with another servant in a conjugal relationship that had an integrity which should be and might in the future come to be respected. Jane Austen is producing a new ideal for marriage that is very much of the same sort that Samuel Johnson championed. Think more about what it will be like to live with someone on a day by day basis than on what riches or position they bring with them to the marriage. That is what is really going on. Romance is at the heart of modern relationships and not just a pleasant illusion created for the purpose of making marital relations a bit less stiff and forbidding.
So the second irony is that Jane shocks her audience, makes them take another look, because she means what she says. What was a joke, a play on convention, is the honest truth, and therefore a very different take on life than the cynical view that underlay the first joke. The “idealistic” mode of courtship is the real thing; the idea that we go through the conventions of courtship just to get sex on a reliable basis is the fake perception. People get to know and respect and like one another before they open up their personalities to one another, though I gather that the sequencing of various forms of intimacy has become somewhat fuzzy. The modern romantic comedy is about people falling in love after they have had non-commital sex with one another. Jane Austen wants you to take both of her meanings, both of these interpretations, both of these ironies, both at once, and doing that, fostering that in her readers, is an artistic triumph, conventionalized courtship and essential courtship both at work in all real relationships, as people work out how they want to or want not to express their feelings.
Consider Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the ones who are bound to fall in love, every bit as much as Fred and Ginger, even though they don’t know it, but the readers and audiences do. She is the only one in the county who stands out for her wit and perspicacity and only Darcy is perspicacious enough to notice that, most of the people in the environs country bumpkins, even if, like Elizabeth’s sister Jane, they are decent enough as people, and even though some of them, like Mrs. Bennet, are not so nice at all and is indeed awful enough to be a laughing stock. At first, and so as to move the plot along, Elizabeth and Darcy get in one another’s way, not knowing how to talk well enough to one another, at first, to break through the conventions. So Darcy treats their courtship as a matter of lust overcoming good sense and so tries to impose reasonable conditions on it, which is what one would do if one were considering circumstances rather than the state of one’s heart alone, and Elizabeth rejects that for no good reason other than that she wants a proper and fully Romantic relationship and will settle for nothing less, which seems mad to any contemporary observer but understandable to someone schooled on romantic fiction. Not that a real woman would turn down his first proposal, but this is fiction, after all. And then the tables are turned, the circumstances of their alliance less important than the alignment of their hearts, impressed as they each are by the nobility of the soul of the other. And so it turns out that romance is not an evasion but the heart of the matter, not a convention but the way people really tick, even as they fight with one another and succeed in turning back conventional objections to their alliance, both of them in need of this time to allow their own emotions to bloom to the point where they can be reckless in the pursuit of romance.
Consider Fanny Price and Edward Bertram. She always knew she loved him and he always loved her even if he did not know it. Each bide their time rather than try to take down the thickets that separate them, as was the case with Elizabeth and Darcy. The first joke is that they don’t care about the social circumstances in which they find themselves. Clearly, Fanny is very self conscious about moving into the household of such swells and Edmund knows he is out of place in his own family-- that is why he wants to settle for being a clergyman. So this is a pleasant romance about how two ducklings find their way in the world by finding one another. But on another level, and this is deep, they find their way by turning down pairings which would be conventionally regarded as much more advantageous, Jane Austen making clear that those pairings would be quite pleasant and suitable, so as to go their own way, which is to isolate themselves from their families, to go it alone by themselves, because it suits them even if it will look shabby to those around them. The irony is that Fanny gives up her claim on the family just when the family needs her most and she is ruthless about doing so. There is a dark side to being Romantic. It means swirling just about one another, as Dante knew, and cutting one’s moorings to ordinary emotions, as Goethe also knew. So Jane Austen is both light and heavy, one joke reversing the other and letting the reader decide which feelings will abide -- or maybe decide, somehow, to maintain the cognitive dissonance between the two. Maneuvering towards that is very high art.