And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. (2 Samuel 12:5-7)
None of my lord’s ring? Why, he sent her none./ I am the man. (Twelfth Night II.2.22-3)
I’m sure I’m not the first to notice that Viola/Cesario’s exclamation at a climactic moment in Twelfth Night, when she realizes that her disguise has made Olivia fall in love with her, echoes the prophet Nathan’s denunciation of King David for his abuse of royal power. But I hadn’t noticed it before today, and they present us with strikingly parallel moments in which a character realizes they are caught up in a narrative being played out in around them. David, having arranged for Bathsheba to be brought to him for sex, and then for her husband to die in battle to cover up his crimes, is incensed at a story told by Nathan in which a rich man stole and slaughtered the lamb belonging to a poor man in order to feed his guest. His judicial fury finds its expression in a somewhat jumbled sentencing proposal, which would have the man killed, and then compelled to make reparations for his crime. This illogical outburst itself demonstrates the point behind Nathan’s story: David does not rule justly or consider what is right (or even possible) when administering his kingdom. The prophet’s sudden turning of the spotlight from the action of the narrative onto the audience with “thou art the man” catches David exposed in a reaction which places him squarely in the fictional world they have been conjuring up together. And not in a role he relishes.
Viola/Cesario’s realization is less prompted by a sudden narrative switchback, though also plunges her into a fiction she thought she was observing from outside. The ring sent to her by Olivia, as a tacit declaration of her love, makes her declare “I am the man”, in a line which so neatly sums up this action of the play that it was used to title the film adaptation She The Man. Of course there is no story being told here which contains a “man” for Viola to identify herself with, but she has been doing her duty to Orsino by engaging Olivia in the rhetorical dance of courtship. They have been peopling their conversation with men – such as Count Orsino:
Your lord does know my mind; I cannot love him:
Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;
In voices well divulged, free, learn’d and valiant;
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person: but yet I cannot love him
Or an imaginary Cesario who, if he was desperately in love with Olivia in his master’s place, would
Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!
Olivia’s gift declares that she is deciding which role Cesario suits: her lover. Viola finds herself pulled back into the figure of the imaginary courtly serenader she had sketched to advance Orsino’s suit with Olivia, placed at the centre of a discourse which seeks to establish her identity and script her actions. This moment of realization, or shock, is the result of interpellation, to borrow Althusser’s term which has been developed by many later scholars. The subject which thought it was standing outside the situation, observing the action from a secure vantage point of uninvolvement, realizes that its identity is being determined by the action going on. It is caught up in an ongoing set of discourses, forced to see itself as spoken into identity by other people, and faced with questions which have been posed of it.
The notion of interpellation has been fruitful for thinking about Shakespearean performance, particularly in the work of critics like Susan Bennett, Pascale Aebischer or Roberta Barker, who highlight moments when audiences refuse to be interpellated. Female college students who go to watch a performance of Taming of the Shrew and refuse to find themselves and their identity being produced onstage. Catholic spectators who squirm in their seats at The Duchess of Malfi as the production assumes they are all Protestants. It is in these moments of resistance, of the failure of interpellation, which attract our attention and encourage us to think about the other times when we haven’t noticed. When the play has been asking questions, or shaping our reactions, which slid easily by us because we didn’t feel the need to object or push back. In turn, this can encourage us to think about the other performances we carry out in broader society, as citizens, professionals, students, etc, and how they enmesh us in systems of discourse which impute us roles and shape our sense of who we are.
The interpellation of the listener is also a major theme in scholarship on the Bible. Nathan’s “thou art the man” could stand as the epigraph for an awful lot of engagement with Biblical texts. Ellen Clark-King found herself bothered (in Theology by Heart) by a Bible study group which read the Psalms and immediately slotted themselves into “the righteous” whilst casting other people as “the wicked” mentioned, whilst Elina Vuola walked the via crucis in Esteli with women whose sons and daughter had been killed in the political conflicts in Nicaragua, and who recited Biblical narratives to understand themselves as standing “under the cross of our children”. On a more textual level, the Gospel of John is a work which stubbornly poses questions of the reader, replaying scenes of judgement and discernment, and refusing to function as a neutral historical narrative for readers who prefer not to place themselves within the story. Rowan Williams’ most recent book suggests that the Bible as a whole can be approached as “the word of God” by understanding it as a set of texts which insistently ask “where are you in this?”
Neither of those who suddenly saw themselves as “the man” in the texts quoted above found it a comfortable experience – nor did they accept themselves as simply located by the story being told to them. Nathan’s narrative does not just condemn David as a man who had done a bad thing like another man once did, but opens up another set of narratives and ideologies which are operating upon him (and the audience) – of the history of Israel, the demands and duties of political power, the narrative and spiritual structures of sin, repentance and forgiveness. Likewise Viola/Cesario does not find herself unproblematically identified as Olivia’s sighing lover, and the resistance to it makes her and the audience aware of the forces and narratives which are shaping this character – gender, sexual desire, theatrical performance, family relationships, grieving – and which are shaping them also. Probably even more disorienting if they realized they were echoing each other, come to that.