A Strange Servant and a Stranger Master
Katie Cunningham (left) as Isabelle and Brandon Burk as Cliton in The Liar
By Kathryn Neves
There are many types of relationships in Shakespeare— but if there’s one that really stops and makes you think, it’s the relationship between masters and their servants. From The Taming of the Shrew to King Lear to The Comedy of Errors, the ways that masters interact with their hired (or enslaved) help can reveal a lot about the play’s themes and even the characters themselves. This isn’t only true in Shakespeare; the master/servant relationship is a very important part of this season’s The Liar, by Pierre Corneille (with a new translation by David Ives). However, the master/servant dynamic is somehow very different in The Liar than in anything we’ve really seen in Shakespeare.
This sort of bond between employer and employee is very clearly defined in Shakespeare. In comedies, the servant is a witty buffoon. He’s almost a punching bag within the script; he’s the unfortunate character who serves as the butt of all the jokes. The master in these plays usually tolerates his servant, even though he might take part in all the ridicule. The master is almost always right, he is always intelligent, and he is usually very noble (to some extent); think Shrew’s Petruchio and his servant Grumio. Then take the tragedies: the master is often dignified, sober, and often very sad; the servant in this dynamic is usually there to both cheer up the master, and point out his flaws. Often, the servant can be wiser than the master. A good example of this is Lear and the Fool.
If we take a look at The Liar, it’s pretty obvious from the start who our master and servant are: Cliton, one of the main players, tells us outright that he’s a servant looking for employment. He has many of the traits of a literary servant: he is goofy, he’s witty, and he spends most of his time making blunt, honest observations about the world around him. Then we have Dorante, the master; he accepts Cliton’s suit and takes him as a servant. However, he seems almost reluctant in his role as the master— he accepts Cliton but has no intention of paying him, and he doesn’t seem to have a real need for Cliton in many ways. It’s right here that the master/servant dynamic begins to be subverted. There is less of a power imbalance between the two; Cliton and Dorante seem to be more friends and confidantes than employer and employee.
Cliton certainly seems to fit the role of the servant— but it takes two to make the master/servant relationship. And Dorante’s actions don’t fit the Shakespearean or traditional “master” model. Dorante is not honest or noble like most of Shakespeare’s masters; he is foolish, and he is a dirty-rotten-liar. Not only that, he knows it; he is aware of his faults and doesn’t care to try to change them. Now, you might argue that there are plenty of masters in Shakespeare’s canon like this. Going back to King Lear, it’s clear that the king is prideful, flawed, and unwilling to listen to advice. The difference in King Lear, though, is that Lear’s servant possesses many of the noble qualities that his master doesn’t; the Fool works hard to show Lear his own faults and fix them. The Liar’s Cliton, though, doesn’t do this at all. Quite the opposite, actually: throughout the play, Cliton tries to become more like his foolish master. There’s an entire scene where Cliton begs Dorante to teach him to lie. This is something you probably won’t find in your run-of-the-mill Shakespearean play.
In the end, The Liar shows us a master/servant relationship that is different, fresh, and exciting; it certainly makes for an extremely entertaining play. And after you watch the play, you might understand why the characters don’t fit well into that master/servant dynamic. Cliton and Dorante, though practically complete opposites of each other, have much more in common than meets the eye. So come and see The Liar here in Cedar City; it’s different from anything you’ve ever seen, and you definitely don’t want to miss it!