Lessons in quarrelling well from Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde

We were brushing up on Julius Caesar ahead of seeing the play at the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) this weekend when it dawned upon us that we had already witnessed Oscar & William2one of the finest quarrels in all English drama earlier in the summer — and that we were about to witness the other.

And the closer we looked, the more we thought that the magnificent quarrels between Brutus and Cassius, in one play, and Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, in the other play (The Importance of Being Earnest), had a lot in common. Himself pacific, conciliatory, and non-confrontational, Emsworth can only fantasize about quarreling as tactically as Brutus or as stylishly as Gwendolen. But we can take a lesson as well as the next person. Here’s what we’ve learned about the art of quarreling well.

Nurse your grievances and pick your moment

Satisfactory quarrels doesn’t just happen; there’s always a back-story. Cassius doesn’t just “happen” to bump into Brutus on a dark night near Sardis (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3); he comes looking for Brutus, full of his grievances, loaded for bear, spoiling for a fight. “Most noble brother, you have done me wrong.” (In the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, the high-minded Brutus has impoliticly executed Cassius’s friend Lucius Pella for taking bribes from the Sardinians.)

And Gwendolen Fairfax doesn’t just “happen” to wander by the Manor House in Woolton where the object of her jealousy, Cecily Cardew, lives with Gwendolen’s new fiancee (The Importance of Being Earnest, Act II). Gwendolen comes with daggers sharpened, fully intending to obliterate her supposed rival: “Cecily Cardew? What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you more than I can say.”

Don’t start the quarrel without a plan

As Caesar himself saw, Cassius was a calculating man. (“He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” Act I, Scene 2.) But Cassius surprisingly fails to bring any plan of attack to Sardis other than to air his complaints.

Michelangelo's Brutus

Michelangelo's Brutus

His adversary, on the other hand, is thinking strategically from the outset. Brutus first buys a little time by having Cassius send his men away (“our armies . . . should perceive nothing but love from us”). Then he nails down home-field advantage by inviting Cassius into his tent.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily Cardew has no time to plan quarrel tactics, since she is not expecting Gwendolen. But she instantly recognizes Gwendolen as her enemy, makes a telling counter-thrust, and (like Brutus) takes control of the battlefield: “How nice of you to like me so much after we have known each other such a comparatively short time. Pray sit down.”

Drive your adversary mad with personal aspersions

Brutus knows that nothing will put Cassius off his game like a personal insult. Sure enough, telling Cassius that he has a reputation for an “itching palm” infuriates his fellow assassin:

“I, an itching palm?
You know you are Brutus that speaks this,
Or by the gods, this speech were else your last.”

Cassius knows he’s being baited (“Brutus, bait not me, I’ll not endure it”), but it doesn’t matter; he never gets in another solid lick through the rest of the quarrel.  Brutus keeps up the jabs (“Away, slight man!”) and calls Cassius a madman.

The Importance of Being Earnest

At the Stratford Festival's 2009 production, Sara Topham is Gwendolen, and Andrea Runge is Cecily.

The Victorians are better able than Cassius to keep their composure under volleys of calculated insults.  Gwendolen and Cecily (temporarily under the impression that Ernest Worthing has engaged himself to both of them) are well-matched. Cecily alludes to Gwendolen as an “entanglement”; Gwendolen tells Cecily she is presumptuous.  The points are even.

Escalate!

The most entertaining part of any well-conducted quarrel is the moment in which the enraged combatants veer off on bunny-trails, take random potshots at each other, and reduce themselves to “did/did not/did too.” In Julius Caesar, Brutus knows how to hit the pugnacious Cassius where it hurts:

Cassius: When Caesar liv’d, he durst not thus have mov’d me.
Brutus: Peace, peace! you durst not so have tempted him.
Cassius: I durst not?
Brutus: No.
Cassius: What? durst not tempt him?
Brutus: For your life you durst not.

The Romans rise to greater heights of eloquence a minute later:

Cassius: I denied you not.
Brutus: You did.
Cassius: I did not.

Meanwhile, Cecily twits Gwendolen by putting unwanted sugar in her tea and by giving her cake when she has asked for bread and butter. Gwendolen takes off the mask: “From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt you were false and deceitful.”

Play the guilt card for a winning hand

No doubt recognizing that he cannot compete with Brutus in the arena of personal invective, Cassius resorts to infllicting guilt. He whines to Brutus that he “hath riv’d my heart” and that “a friend should bear his friend’s infirmities,” and he complains, “You love me not.” Brutus has only a weak retort: “I do not like your faults.” Cassius trumps: “A friendly eye could never see such faults.”

A minute later, Brutus — so masterly in the early rounds! — throws in the towel. Cassius claims victory amidst the lovefest:

Brutus: When I spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
Cassius: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
Brutus: And my heart too.
Cassius: O Brutus!

By the end of the second act of The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily and Gwendolen realize that their quarrel is really with their fiancees.  Their first tactic as a combined force is to shower guilt upon Jack and Algernon.  The boys cower under the attack:

Cecily: A gross deception has been practised on both of us.
Gwendolen: My poor wounded Cecily!
Cecily: You will call me sister, will you not?
[They embrace. Jack and Algernon groan and walk up and down.]
Gwendolen: Let us go into the house. They will hardly venture to come after us there.
Cecily: No, men are so cowardly, aren’t they?
[They retire into the house with scornful looks.]

All in all, where will you find two more satisfactory quarrels?

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (see this post)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/learning-to-quarrel-well-from-shakespeare-and-oscar-wilde/ From Emsworth comes this I suppose tongue-in-cheek guide to having a really good quarrel, using examples from Cassius/Brutus (Julius Caesar) but also Cecily and Gwendolyn (The Importance of Being Earnest): […]

  2. […] https://emsworth.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/learning-to-quarrel-well-from-shakespeare-and-oscar-wilde/ From Emsworth comes this I suppose tongue-in-cheek guide to having a really good quarrel, using examples from Cassius/Brutus (Julius Caesar) but also Cecily and Gwendolyn (The Importance of Being Earnest): Play the guilt card for a winning hand Tired of being called names, Cassius resorts to inflicting guilt. He whines to Brutus that he “hath riv’d my heart” and that “a friend should bear his friend’s infirmities,” and he complains to Brutus: “You love me not.” Brutus has only a weak retort: “I do not like your faults.” Cassius trumps: “A friendly eye could never see such faults.” A minute later, Brutus, who was masterly in the early rounds, gives it up. Cassius claims victory amidst the lovefest: […]


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