Andersen's Allegorical Nightingale
Hans Christian Andersen's 1843 fable The Nightingale concerns an Emperor's discovery of a plain-looking bird that sings the most beautiful songs. In the course of the story, the Emperor captures "her," cages her, and attempts to domesticate the creature into courtly service. However, when a rival monarch sends him a mechanical replica of the nightingale, he loses track of the living bird, and she escapes. Ultimately, when the Emperor faces his demise, the Nightingale returns to negotiate with Death through song. She engineers the Emperor's return to the living, and in exchange, the Emperor accepts that she may come and go as she sees fit.
By many, including his contemporaries, the fable was read as an allegory about Andersen's failed romance with opera singer Jenny Lind. Andersen was a devoted suitor, but his advances, including a proposal for marriage, were rebuffed. The Nightingale became indelibly associated with Lind, so much so that she eventually came to be known as the Swedish Nightingale .
In the allegorical world of The Nightingale, characters function primarily as archetypes, quite different than those that populate contemporary narratives. For example, The Emperor (who lacks a given name) initially seems to represent power and avarice, the absence of emotion, and a disconnectedness from nature. Unlike modern narratives, Andersen does not disclose a clear interiority that orients us to the Emperor's behavior through complex and conflicting psychodynamic processes. Indeed, the story predates the development of psychoanalysis by decades, as it does modern theater—from Chekhov on—in which subtext (the meaning hidden beneath the immediate level of story) drives the plot. In Andersen's era, as was the case in Shakespeare's time, the characters pretty much mean what they say.
Subtext and the layered meaning it implies are now key to our understanding of love and relationship in the theater as well as on the stages of our personal lives. We make very different assumptions about what people say vs. what they may know or mean, and this has been made immeasurably complicated by the Freudian construct of the unconscious which alleges that there is much that is hidden about why we do what we do. We may reasonably treat a person or character's claims with skepticism with the knowledge that they may not mean what they say. In fact, all of our relationships are informed by the awareness of a possible schism between speech and intention.