Elusive Happy Medium

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

Quoted centuries before Shakespeare’s birth, the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus believed that “in everything the middle course is best; all things in excess bring trouble to men.” Often times, society focuses its sights on the attainment of concrete and comparable perfection: being the most outgoing, the most intelligent, the most generous, and the wealthiest. Coupled with this desire for excellence comes a fear or disdain for mediocrity: being the least social, least clever, least charitable, and least rich. Rarely does humanity strive for a balance. Shakespeare illustrates that a healthy moral life relies upon the balance of an individual’s conflicting desires by revealing the downfall of characters that act out of accordance with this principle-by those individuals that live their lives from one extreme to another. More strikingly however, Shakespeare reveals negative, and occasionally crippling, outcomes caused by entertaining these extremes through the range of disposition of a single character in each play. Evident in the historical plays, Prince Hal’s humor ranges from the excessively lackadaisical rogue in Henry IV Part One to the valiant though conceited war-hero-crowned-king in Henry IV Part Two, wherein he retains little of his former goodwill. In the darker aspects of the comedy Twelfth Night, the servant Malvolio abandons his former logical and intellect-driven decision-making in favor of an entirely illogical and emotional reaction to the letter he receives. Most evidently, in the tale of Timon of Athens, the title character is driven from his former life of generosity and compassion into a life of miserable solitude and misanthropy. These characters experience equal hardships when blinded by either extreme. In all cases, the battle waged within these characters is the favoring of either head or heart. The historical plays, while written in an attempt to glorify English history, focus on almost seedy aspects of the royals’ rise to and maintenance of power through usurpation of the throne and projection of false images. For young Prince Henry, the pressure to be king at times seems daunting. Rather than cultivate the image of an admirable and promising future king, he prefers to spend all of his time associating with lowlifes at the Boorshead Inn, the seediest bar/brothel in town. Carousing, drinking, plotting, stealing, and flirting serve to adequately distract him from the reality of his future responsibility. More specifically, Hal’s association with Falstaff represents the very essence of his misbehavior. Falstaff’s irreverence to laws and customs, revealed through his schemes to get rich and take over the kingdom as Hal’s right hand man. Hal fits in seamlessly with this crowd. Through this friendship, Hal projects an image of knavery and irresponsibility. Once crowned, King Henry V establishes himself in an entirely new light. In renouncing Falstaff before the entire kingdom on his coronation he establishes himself as a responsible leader but he does so in a fashion that neglects the former loyalties and relationships on which he used to rely. Looking back, Falstaff transcends the boundaries of a mere “drinking buddy” to become a father figure and confidante to the young prince. Falstaff desires little more from life than to aid and be near the prince, evident in the scenes in which he helps Hal prepare for his discussion with King Henry IV and when he talks of their future rule of England. This drunken knave, while dishonest and ignoble beyond the walls of the tavern, is the very essence of honesty and loyalty within the confines of his friendship with Hal. Because Hal strives to attain a new reputation, he abandons this lifelong friend with little warning. He changes immediately overnight from being a carefree man of the people to an image-absorbed king, neglecting those that have supported him over the years. In his conversion from Prince Hal to King Henry IV, he avoids any “golden mean” when he changes from loyal to disloyal, approachable to haughty, irresponsible to responsible, acting from heart to from head-all evident because of his (mis)treatment of Falstaff. Had Hal attained a happy medium, he could be both connected to the common people and his past as well as treat seriously the responsibilities he assumes as king. Perhaps the very essence of the darker comedic side of Twelfth Night is Malvolio’s inability to embrace a balance of humors. Throughout the first half of the play, Malvolio acts as the straight man to Toby’s bumbling idiocy. He is the character that sets, follows, and enforces all of the rules of the house to perpetuate organization and order. This meticulous precision and intellect serves to mark Malvolio as one of the few (perhaps only) logical characters throughout the first half of the play. Unlike Orsino, he is not guided by passion. Unlike Toby, he is not guided by indulgence. Unlike Olivia, he is not guided by obsession/mourning. Unlike Viola, he is not guided by secrecy. Malvolio is guided by his head alone. In his eyes, rules are meant to be followed under any circumstance, especially concerning late-night revelry and Olivia’s wishes. Because of this strict policy, Toby, Maria, and Aguecheek seek their revenge. Perhaps tired of being ruled by his head alone for so long, Malvolio eagerly entertains the thought that Olivia may actually love him. He neglects to more deeply evaluate the circumstance: Olivia is young and beautiful, Malvolio is old and plain, Olivia is rich, Malvolio is her servant, Maria and Olivia have the same handwriting, etc. Under any other circumstance, the logical and meticulous Malvolio would have deliberated more heavily on the truth behind such fabrications. However, knowing no middle ground between his head and heart, Malvolio swings to the other extreme of following his heart alone. He makes a fool of himself with his cross-gartered yellow stockings and his overtly rude treatment of the other household members. Having supposedly “lost his mind” in order to pursue his heart, Malvolio is locked up for insanity. Had he struck a balance between the head and heart, Malvolio may have been more inclined to bend the rules for Toby and the others while still maintaining his standards for order and policy. Toby would no longer feel the need to blackmail Malvolio into thinking Olivia cared for him. Many problems would be solved before they become problems in the first place. Living life purely out of logic and intellect is emotionally stifling, while living life purely out of emotion is draining. A balance breeds compassion but also discernment. Malvolio manages to be both stifled and drained, never having experienced that “golden mean.” After having proven that the concept of a happy medium exists both in history and comedy, Timon of Athens serves to illustrate that its attainment (or lack thereof) is also relevant in a tragedy. Timon, opposite of Malvolio but more extreme than Hal, initially exhibits a lifestyle guided by the heart over the head. This wealthy benefactor eagerly spreads his wealth among friends and strangers, believing in his heart that the good he does is truly appreciated by its recipients. In being guided so strongly by his heart, Timon neglects the cold, logical facts of pending poverty. While his intentions are pure, he does not logically consider his actions in several aspects: he does not bestow gifts on true friends, he gives gifts to already-wealthy peers, he gives gifts at the expense of mortgaging his land. He realizes all of this too late. Blind compassion turns to an eye-opening realization of the facts. Quickly turning from his initial generosity and philanthropy, Timon leaves Athens to live, hoarding the remainder of his wealth (and the wealth he uncovers in the woods) and despising the fickleness of society. Although intellect and logic does not necessarily replace compassion, Timon certainly lacks the sense of heart that he formerly possessed and exhibited. In this sense, his heart has been replaced by his concentration on the facts of his situation: he gave money, did not get any back when he needed it, humanity is fickle. Because he focuses merely on the facts, he decides to perpetuate disease (through prostitutes) and destruction (through Abliciades) of Athens. Never able to find compassion in his heart again, Timon dies, believing the entire world hates him. Had Timon incorporated more logic into his generosity, he may have given less or given to people actually needing the gifts. Had Timon incorporated more heart into his logic, he may have acquiesced to the senators’ requests that he return to Athens, whereupon he discovers that he is actually respected. Finding neither compromise, Timon dies alone and bitter. Throughout these three plays, several characters neglect to fully embrace the “golden mean” that Shakespeare indicates to be the ideal. Rather than work with that which is dealt to them, these three characters fight nature. Prince Hal, a lazy but congenial boy, suddenly transforms into a responsible but uncompassionate man. He never quite attains the status of a responsible and congenial leader. Malvolio, likewise, begins as a boring servant, bent on the enforcement of rules but develops into a lovesick fool. He never quite reaches the status of being compassionate but forceful and discerning when necessary. Timon epitomizes a person guided by generosity, but he does so blindly and carelessly, eventually leading himself to be jaded. Had he been more aware but still giving, perhaps he would have earned the both the love and respect of his peers while being content himself. Each of these characters exhibits both extremes in their personalities, arguably not finding happiness in either state. Contentment and fulfillment comes from attaining the ever-elusive happy medium. The actions-past, present, and future-of these characters reveal that this goal will remain elusive.

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