Clowns and the Shakespearean South

About the Author: Dr. Irene Burgess is the founding executive director of the Andalusia Institute, a Georgia College initiative devoted to the public arts and humanities in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor’s a challenging writer, not so much because of her high-flown language, but because of the situations she puts you in as a reader. Characters are embarrassed and embarrassing, scorned and scornful, often die suddenly and violently.

What has been of interest to me as I’ve become more familiar with O’Connor is how she has a fan base that goes beyond the scholarly crowd you’d expect. Part of it is that she was a devout Roman Catholic who saw her fiction as explicitly expressing her faith. Part of it is that she was from a group of a flowering of mid-century southern women writers like Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. Another part of it is the appeal of the narrative voice, plain speaking, wryly humorous, carefully crafted.

But still, there are other writers who are Catholic, who are humorous and dark, who carefully craft. Our mailing lists show us that the scope and sweep of people who are O’Connor enthusiasts is varied and large.

As someone whose field of expertise is 16th and 17th century English literature, the only writer I’ve seen whose “non-scholarly” fan base is so fervent is William Shakespeare. Now, granted, Shakespeare has roughly 400 years on O’Connor, but from the start, Shakespeare has been seen as both a “high” and “low” culture fixture. His work started out as low-rent entertainment for commoners and royalty, where at least in the public venues, prostitutes, fighting bears, and orange vendors jostled with theater goers.

Shakespeare’s Dramatic Work (95-0340), image courtesy of The Old Governor’s Mansion, Milledgeville, Georgia.

Shortly after he died in the beginning of the 17th century, Shakespeare started the long slog from everyday entertainer to esteemed artist, but still, the entertainer leaks out in everything from bobble head dolls to barbecue aprons. Certainly, people “know” him and feel a greater need to interact with his work and cultural artifacts than other playwrights of his day or later.

Why? What’s the popular appeal?

I don’t know if I have a good answer, but in looking at their works, we can see some overlap. We know O’Connor took a survey of English Literature that probably included Shakespeare when she was at Georgia College, and certainly later in her life she talks about reading and enjoying Shakespeare, particularly King Lear, so although she likes to pretend that she is unlettered and unintellectual, she is participating in the long history of Shakespeare appreciation.

One similarity for both writers is the use of the “clown.” The clown is not a literally painted-face Bozo the clown type, but the rube, the unsophisticated person with little self-knowledge, overly inflated self-esteem, an unerring ability to misunderstand and misread situations. Both O’Connor and Shakespeare use these characters to great comic effect, but they also use them for something else.  A different kind of knowing, an understanding, emerges because of their often loud and annoying presence.

Mrs. Shortley of O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person” (1955) and Dogberry in Shakespeare’s  Much Ado About Nothing (1599) serve these clownish roles in the middle of very serious events for the other inhabitants of the world of the works.

In Much Ado, amid feverish wedding plans and dastardly plotting,we are introduced to a constable named “Dogberry” who is long on zeal and the need to be noticed, but short on actual ability. Dogberry ends up resolving the dastardly plotting that threatens the happy ending of the marriages, despite himself.

When he’s charged with doing the investigation, Dogberry is thrilled by having this opportunity to interact with the upper class and brings out his best words whether they mean what he thinks they mean or not, as in the arrest of “auspicious” instead of “suspicious” men.

All is resolved miraculously by Dogberry’s inept machinations, and we are left with the final exhortation from Dogberry, “Remember, I am an ass!” As though we would forget.

But why go to the bother of developing a Dogberry at all? You can say comic relief, but that’s a lot of stage business for a little comic relief. What’s he supposed to show us?

Andalusia, 2021.

To help us think about this, let’s look at what O’Connor does with a similar type of character in a very different type of story.

“The Displaced Person,” is about what happens on a small farm in Central Georgia when the owner of the farm brings, as an act of charity as well as a desire for inexpensive help, a family of emigres from Europe after the end of World War II. In the first part of the story, we see the arrival of these emigres through Mrs. Shortley’s eyes. While Mrs. McIntyre is the owner of the farm, Mr. and Mrs. Shortley are the white hired help.

When the displaced people come, Mrs. Shortley has very definite ideas about their value: “They ain’t where they belong to be at. They belong to be back over yonder where everything is still like they been used to. Over here it’s more advanced than where they come from.”[1]

Like Dogberry who is similarly convinced he has a straight line to the dark heart of the truth despite his inability to rationally put things together, Mrs. Shortley’s prophecies are both her wisdom and her hubris. She asks in her last prophecy when she realizes Mrs. McIntyre prefers the Guizacs to the Shortleys, “Who will remain whole?”[2]  Mrs. Shortley embodies this with a stroke in a crowded truck leaving the farm before Mrs. McIntyre fires her. At this moment of her death, she fulfills her own prophecy, surrounded by body parts and miscellany like the movie reels of the concentration camps that had scared her.

In both cases, the clowns, Mrs. Shortley and Dogberry, embody silliness and waste, but at the same time they provide comment on the serious story that they counterpoint. In the case of Dogberry, he actually does know the truth, even though he doesn’t have the acumen to communicate it so that others can stop the unfolding of the criminal plot. There’s a level of awfulness to these people that Dogberry reflects back to them and refracts into the splintered versions of what they understand and what they know. The idea that status shows deeper knowledge is undermined by the elaborate head-games the gentry play with each other; Dogberry is refreshingly straightforward, comparatively speaking.

In “The Displaced Person,” Mrs. McIntyre finds out about Mr. Guizac’s offer of his niece in marriage to Sulk if the black farmworker will pay to bring her over from the camps. No matter how much money Guizac saves her, upsetting the societal norms, displacing all the people on the farm into different roles that what her society says is proper, is more than she can take. Although her avarice fights with her understanding of what society demands, in the end, it is Mr. Guizac who must pay the price of displacing one too many people.

Mrs. Shortley proves more of a truth-teller than our first understanding may reveal. When we see her “prophecies” as examples of self-interest run amuck, it discounts the system she is part of, where blacks and whites are in different lines going to heaven. In Mrs. Shortley’s cosmology, Mrs. McIntyre displaces where people should be by firing the Shortleys before the black workers. Her prophecy of mixing of parts, suggests that she sees somehow the profound displacement the outsider can bring to the way her culture works .

O’Connor’s and Shakespeare’s use of these characters illustrates their appeal beyond the classroom. It’s as though they stick many-sided crystals throughout their work that require us to reflect on the many-sided crystals of our own lives. Someone can be both truthful and unknowing; someone can be both correct and incorrect and more incorrect the more correctly they behave; we laugh at that which often reflects our worst selves…how do we handle that? How do we reconcile that? How can we be, in the words of Mrs. Shortley, “whole”?

[1] Flannery O’Connor, “The Displaced Person,” The Complete Stories, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971), 199.

[2] Ibid., 210.

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