Our aural reinterpretation of HEDDA GABLER, written by Yours Truly and directed by Steve Balderson, won the Silver Award at the HEAR NOW festival!!! For God’s sake, listen to the audio play:
SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia
VIDEO: CHANGE TITLE [ADD VIDEO]
Table of Contents
THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES
OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE
VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES, PROBLEM PLAYS, AND LATE ROMANCES
VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES
MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM
What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?: Part One
NOTE: The original version of this essay was written when I was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, a much different person than I am today. For this revised and refined edition, I have cut out the superfluity and smoothed out many of its sentences. I have also reorganized many of the paragraphs. The original text was, in places, obscure; I have substantially revised the language so that it will be more legible.
Vraiment, c’était la une journée dont on se souviendrait.
—Pierre Klossowski, Le Souffleur
Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, published in 1969, was born out of the legacy of “the thought of May 1968,” and perhaps may be best understood within the context of the student riots and the decentralization of the Parisian university system that occurred at that time. These insurrections and destabilizations confirmed what had already been asserted in theory: that the concept of power, as well as the relationships power customarily assumes, should be expanded. According to this thought, the police are not the only manifestations of institutional control; the regiments of university professors,[i] priests, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, doctors, and media figures constitute homologous forms of social domination. Nor are philosophers—and this means, a fortiori, philosophy—exempt from institutional power relations. Whenever the philosophizing drive is subordinated to the function of the philosopher—as a social entity, as a representative of society—philosophy is prompted by institutional or social policy. And when that happens, philosophy might become a medium of manipulation and control. Philosophy might afford one a position from which one can legislate in the name of truth, but this “truth” is formulated, vouchsafed, or homologated by specific institutions. When a degree in Philosophy becomes a license to practice philosophy, philosophy becomes professionalized—and this means that it becomes departmentalized, divorced from the vital experiences of the human being who is called a “philosopher” and organized according to an institutional division of labor. The subjective experiences of a human being are relegated to the service of the society in which s/he functions as a member. The accents placed upon mystical thinking—as opposed to the thinking of a philosophical subject—in Klossowski and Bataille hint at an attempt to deinstitutionalize the philosophizing drive.
It is from this perspective—one that contests the metaphysics of subjectivity in favor of anonymous drives, impulses, inclinations, or, as they are called here, “experiences”—that one may approach Klossowski’s study of Nietzschean repetition. When it registers the inconceivable thought that all things recur eternally, consciousness is struck by a kind of delirious lucidity. In the experience of the eternal recurrence of the same, to move forward into “spiritual clarity” is always simultaneously to lose one’s advance. What Klossowski stresses is the non-narratable character of this experience; it is an experience which may not be preserved, since a forgetting is essential to this experience. The time in which the experience of the eternal recurrence is itself experienced must occur in time and so must be archaized; it is a time which must be relegated to an amnesia no less vital than an anamnesis. As Klossowski remarks, “It is inscribed in the very essence of the circular movement that the movement itself be forgotten from one state to the next.”[ii]
The “he” or “she” to whom eternal recurrence discloses itself is in the impossible position of a spectator of its own eternalization, for the time in which the “he” or “she” will have experienced the “fact” of eternal recurrence is not the time in which the “I” generally lives, subordinated to the everyday system of signs. Personal pronouns are the fossilized signs of ordinary language and crystallize through their repetition. The experience of eternal recurrence casts the stagnant character of the “I” into dispersion and transforms it into a “he” or a “she.” When I experience that all things will have returned, I am reconciled with myself only insofar as I become integrated within an infinite series of permutations of this self. Auto-affection is at this moment a kind of hetero-affection.
Klossowski’s ecstatic self is not a selfsame subject; the self of eternal recurrence is, rather, expropriated from its own identity. All the ecstatic self has in common with itself is reduced to a mere moment of disjunctive instantaneity, wherein the “presence” of its own self-sameness is forgotten, insofar as it is temporalized, disappropriated only to be taken up again, reappropriated not in the lucidity of self-consciousness, but reintegrated as a disjunctive member of an eternal series—what Klossowski calls “the successive realization of all possible identities.”[iii] It is here that one discerns an elision of sameness for the sake of similitude—the self takes on the resemblance of itself, the self takes on the resemblance of instantaneity, of the likeness of being-the-same-with-itself. The self takes form upon a play of surfaces.
The epiphanic moment at which I become aware that I shall come back, that I shall return eternally, constitutes a kind of formative blow. Klossowski describes the self as an undulating figure which loses its identity only to come back to this identity—but upon its return, this second identity is different than the first. The same is never the same or only provisionally the same. It is not difficult to discern that this passage from identity to difference is paralleled by that from lucidity to delirium—that passage which Klossowski determines as the course of thinking itself. Just as lucidity is overthrown by the delirium around which it revolves as though delirium were lucidity’s center, through recurrence, every given identity is carried into its dispersion. Every singularity multiplies, but this experience of fragmentation leads to an eventual recuperation, safeguarded by forgetting.
The moment at which I become aware that all things recur endlessly is one in which the fact of forgetting is raised to consciousness, for though I must forget the prolific sequence of selves I once was, I never, at the moment the truth of recurrence is revealed to me, forget the sheer fact that I have forgotten and I will have forgotten. Remembering that I am my own incessant repetition, I am surrendered to a movement of becoming-other (Anderswerden, to use Hegel’s term). The estrangement of the self will have been contradicted: The residue of my past selves must be sentenced to oblivion in order for me to constitute a self which I can call my own. When the meaning of the eternal recurrence is disclosed to me, my self is obliterated in the face of something objectively necessary and absolute—its own othering. The experience of the eternal recurrence is the experience of a non-experience, for it implies the dissolution of the very self that would experience it.
What Klossowski understands by “the eternal recurrence of the same,” then, it is not the reconstitution of a static identity, for the self that experiences the eternal recurrence must reactualize all possible selves, revealing itself as nothing more than one of a series of masks. The self is revealed, in Klossowski’s language, as a “fortuitous moment the very fortuity of which entails the necessary and integral return of the whole series.”[iv] The subject that experiences recurrence is not an individuated, intending consciousness, but every self in history in succession, is the communication of one self with another, is nothing more than this pure communication. Each self which communicates with the other is disjoined from the other and yet connected to the other selves within a reiterative series, for each self within this series has forgotten the other until the epiphanic moment comes which will have revealed that the self is othered and so undone within an integrative sequence. The meaning of the self is accrued only with respect of its intensity. Klossowski’s choice of this term is not accidental: “Intensity” is etymologically derivable from the Latin verb intendere, which means “to draw out” or “to stretch across.” Intensity is that series of instants which stretches across time within which each moment of identity differs from all other moments, for intensity is this difference between identities. In the intensification of time, both extremes, the past and the future, communicate with each other.
The instant accrues its significance only through this intensification. Incessant repetition drains the individual moment of all significance it would have if it were set aside from all other moments within the series. Infinite repetition divests every “unique” instant of its meaning, but this withdrawal of meaning is the constitution of sense; it is the sheer possibility of signifying. For signification is nothing other than the “rise and fall” of this intensity. As Klossowski phrases it, “Either all returns because nothing has ever made any sense whatever, or else things never make any sense except by the return of all things, without beginning or end.”[v]
The moment when the eternal recurrence is experienced is one when the disjointed self says, “Yes” to that intense and infinitely repetitive series which is temporality itself. Yes, this present instant is occurring, but it has occurred before countless times, and it will have occurred countless times again. The pronouncement of this affirmation discloses that the present moment is devoid of singularity—it will recur and recur endlessly. Conjoined with the impassioned lucidity of this affirmation is a countermovement. The moment of revelation—affording the greatest clarity—is also the moment of madness. The mind grows giddy, is seized with vertigo at the advent of such a thought.
Despite the power of such an analysis (a power that is surpassed only by that of Heidegger, Deleuze, and Karl Löwith), we cannot follow Klossowski along his path of reflection. We cannot follow him, for nothing survives his treatment except the experience the subject of recurrence has of its own undoing. Klossowski’s analysis dovetails into a desubjectifying, polysubjectifying subjectification of the return. A fractured self is still a self. Similarly, Fichte’s “I-am-not-I” is a closed system, for the self always returns to itself, despite its unremitting self-laceration. Nothing else emerges from Klossowski’s account of the eternal recurrence than the unraveling of the subject who experiences it as it confronts the multiplication of itself into duplicable selves or non-selves. Klossowski, in effect, reduces the eternal recurrence to the marks, the notches that impress themselves upon the human subject that is the spectator of its circularity and is this circularity. The subject is disconnected, as it were, from all existing, worldly actuality, is destroyed in its particularity and opens to nothing other than the absolutization of itself, the eternalization of itself in all of its multiple and proliferating forms. To quote once more Klossowski: “I am not even this fortuitous moment once and for all if, indeed, I must re-will this very moment one more time! For nothing? For myself?”[vi] This statement and its follow-up questions might indicate the extent to which Klossowski’s post-subjectivism is also, unwittingly, a subjectivism.
The experience of eternal recurrence, according to this interpretation, bears similar features in common with the experience of mysticism. Indeed, Klossowski’s description of this experience is nothing besides the description of an ecstatic, mystical experience—this is also the limitation of Bataille’s analysis and marks out clearly enough that for which Bataille’s study fails to account.[vii] Klossowski places a strong accent upon an experience through which the self is dissolved into a frantic and proliferative sea of copies of itself or “simulacra” and is surrendered to the necessity of the “divine” absolute. But if this experience constitutes anything like an epiphanic moment, it discloses only that there could be no epiphany, there is no moment independent of recurrence; the transcendence afforded by this revelation is a negative transcendence. Nietzsche emerges from this treatment as a mystic without a god, with no divinity other than of the divine vicious circle. But despite the disclosure of the circular character of temporality, there could be no Second Coming—there are only a multitude of resurrections. The chiliastic or messianic aspects of religious dogma are rendered absurd by such a thought, since the repetitions of historical instants are swept into their redundancy and so are made ridiculous.
Somewhat dubious is Klossowski’s description of Nietzsche’s thinking of the eternal recurrence as possessing a “doctrinal” character: “[T]he idea itself emerges as a specific doctrine…”[viii] From the evidence found in the all the scattered notebooks of Nietzsche’s literary estate, one might argue that perspectivism or the will-to-power are subsumable under an ideology or a dogma, perhaps, but the eternal recurrence? One wonders how Klossowski could remark upon a “doctrine” of eternal recurrence at all, since, according to his own claims, the experience of eternal recurrence is an experience to which forgetting is essential and that could never be doctrinal, since it dissolves the very subject who would experience the miraculous “fact” that all things recur endlessly. In the absence of a subject who would promulgate it, what possible doctrine could emerge?
This account abstracts from the time in which and through which all of the world would repeat itself; the temporality of world-time is ignored by Klossowski. For he is less interested in how the universe and humankind are regulated by eternal recurrence than in the effects this thought upon Nietzsche’s lucidity and in the conditions of passivity and receptivity one must assume in order to become a sacrificial altar upon which the meaning of this experience would be made manifest. Klossowski’s interpretation, furthermore, underplays the complex temporal paradoxes of eternal recurrence.
There is a series of questions that Klossowski does not pose that seems to be essential to this topic. For example: Why must the same eternally come back to itself? Why must the same return? And if the same is not equatable to the identical, by what possible criterion could one make that distinction? Does the same maintain its constancy even when subjected to postponement? What befalls the same through its repetition? Does recurrence exclude the same, given as something unified, given as a totality? Is the same the same if it recurs? Would the same be the same if it did not recur? Or is it the case that the same is nothing other than its own recurrence?[ix]
If the eternal recurrence of the same is pure repetition, nothing would recur, strictly writing, for there would be no present instant that would be subject to recurrence. If the eternal recurrence of the same were to be taken seriously as a philosophical concept, one would have to exclude from it from the category of presence altogether. I will try to demonstrate this in the following argument.
I understand the concept of the eternal recurrence of the same to mean that all worldly acts and events will have repeated themselves ceaselessly. If one were to accept this definition, then it follows that the past and the future are, in a certain sense, conjoined. That is to say, the future would have been anticipated by each moment in the past, while the past would have projected itself into the future. The time of recurrence is a time that throws itself backward, but only in order to cast itself forward. To phrase it concisely: The past is recoverable in its futurity. If this is the case, the “present instant” does not recede into a “present instant” that is no longer. Each moment would not only occur once and never again; each moment would rather occur “this” time and yet again, and so on eternally. If this is the case, no instant could be said to be singular, for each instant would be the reiteration of an infinite series of moments. Of course, the notion of the instant—understood as a discrete temporal unit the integrality of which cannot be reduced—is here problematized.
Each instant moves forward into the future; the past is projective, insofar as each instant anticipates its own futurity. Yet the future, according to this conception, is retrocessive because the future is determined in advance. The future has already occurred, for each instant in the past determines a futural series of instants. By the same token, the past is determined after the fact, inasmuch as the past only has meaning in its futural recuperation. In other words, the time of the eternal recurrence is of a progressive-regressive temporality. Progression and regression are one and the same.
What, then, of “presence,” of the present instant? The instantaneity of the moment is already a futurity because the present is already subject to a necessary repetition. The “now” is always what will have occurred and will have recurred ad infinitum. What is occurring only occurs because it will have occurred. The future perfect tense is here appropriate, since each instant is predetermined as proleptic. But if what we call the “present moment” is already determined as the repetition of a prior series of moments, then presence has already been outlawed before it could begin. There is nothing new under the sun: As Nietzsche writes in his posthumously published notebooks, “The world lacks the capacity for eternal novelty,” Es fehlt der Welt… das Vermögen zur ewigen Neuheit.[x] What would be the present moment is already marked as the futurity of the past. As Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power Fragment 684, recurrence is a regressus in infinitum or “a temporal infinitude of the world going backward,” eine Zeitunendlichkeit der Welt nach hinten.[xi]
The time of the eternal recurrence is a time without the “now” because no instant ever occurs once. Everything in the present has already happened and has happened eternally and will have happened eternally. Nor is this time a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect. It is a time of reversible futurity, but this does not mean that future moments may be prophesized. No moment is forecast; every moment will have occurred and will have recurred.
Let me return to one of my earlier questions: Is the same ever itself, if it recurs? Thrown into the disjunctive repetitions of recurrence, being is never being. Nothing in time is ever absolutely itself, for what is in time is never absolutely present. What occurs is the necessary possibility of its being-repeated. The illusion of transcendence—understood here as abstraction from temporality—founders in endless repetition. The present is nothing more than a mode of possibility.
- Only time is determinative of time.
- The past is not the past. The past and the future are one. The past is the to-come, the comeback. It is the Wiederholung, the re-draw, the re-tow, the re-pull, the re-haul, the re-traction.
- Being is subordinate to its temporalization.
- The beginning and the ending are reduced to the interregnum.
- Recurrence is not the permanentization of finitude, but the permanentization of intermittence.
- Intermittence is the Law of Recurrence.
- Without presence, time is nothing but becoming. Time is Law. What is, is in time or not at all.
- Time is nonlateralization.
- Whatever returns, is not or is not simply. The “is” is already the “was” and the “will be.” What will be, is. The “isness” of the “is” is the “will have been.”
- The eternal recurrence of the same means the impossibility of periodization.
- Whenever an event occurs, it does not occur. At the same time.
- What of the “I” that occurs in time? “I was” and “I will be”: These are the two modes of being-a-self. I am only a moment of disjunctive instantaneity.
- The law of temporality is the law of recurrence.
- I am pure circularity. I am nothing besides this circularity. Whenever I turn back to myself, I am a likeness, a similitude of what I once was.
- When I perceive the circle of recurrence, when I become aware that time reiterates itself, I am conscious of the fact that I am not. I am conscious of the fact that I am in the world as a disjunctive member of an intensified series. But then this knowledge will be forgotten. So, forgetting is essential to the experience of the eternal recurrence of the same. It is an experience that will perish, but the perishability of this experience gives to it a strange beauty.
[i] Even though Foucault never wrote a genealogy of the university as an institution that appoints dispositions of power.
[ii] Pierre Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation. Ed. David B. Allison. Trans. Allen Weiss. Cambridge: p. 110. I draw from Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux. Paris: Mercure de France, 1969.
[iv] Ibid. p. 109.
[v] Ibid. p. 113.
[vii] Cf. Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche. Trans. Bruce Boone. New York: Paragon House, 1992, pp. 139-140.
[viii] Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” p. 108.
[ix] Maurice Blanchot attempts to answer similar questions in his The Infinite Conversation. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 82. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993.
[x] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Wille zur Macht: Eine Auslegung alles Geschehens. Ed. Max Brahn. Stuttgart: Alfred Kroener, 1921, p. 372.
[xi] Nietzsche, p. 370.
My screenplay has become an audio play. And it is available for free, on YouTube, here: HEDDA GABLER: a sonic melodrama of Ibsen’s masterpiece – YouTube
In 2010, I wrote a screenplay for Ibsen’s HEDDA GABLER. I discovered recently that filmmaker Steve Balderson committed my screenplay to sound. That is fine with me; I am not angry at all. He gives me due acknowledgment, for which I am profoundly grateful. The sonic melodrama is stately, elegant, and incredibly intense. I might quibble over the fact that the director changed my ending slightly, but on the whole, I approve of what he has done. I highly recommend entering this aural landscape.
Click here to watch my best video:
Now is the time to listen to me read the fifteenth chapter of my novel TABLE 41. Stop whatever you are doing and listen to me:
Shakespeare the Punk | Lecture-Analysis-Commentary-Essay on Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE
by Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare is playing a prank on us. He is playing a joke on us.
There is only one way to defend this play, and that is to see it as a deliberate affront to the audience, in a manner that is comparable to the manner in which Lou Reed intentionally affronted his audience by releasing sixty-four minutes of painfully dissonant guitar feedback under the title Metal Machine Music in 1975.
Cymbeline is not quite as sadistic as Metal Machine Music is, and it contains a profusion of fascinating incongruities. King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen has a deep and rich inner life, and she seems out of place in a play that seems to be otherwise a slaphappy farce. There are other profundities, as well. Upon discovering what they believe to be the corpse of Innogen, now disguised as the waifish boy Fidele, the King’s lost sons Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal sing a dirge to their unrecognized sister, one of the most beautiful hymns to death written before Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht (1800). The death song, interestingly, recalls another play by Shakespeare. It alludes to a moment in Act One of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus in which the Roman general Titus laments the killing of his sons in the battle against the Goths.
Cymbeline is an auto-reflexive play, a play that refers often to itself. That the play evinces an awareness of the audience is undeniable. Posthumus addresses us directly in the beginning of the fifth act—or, at least, those of us who are married: “You married ones…” But it is also a meta-theatrical play that refers to other Shakespeare plays. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is only one of them.
To say that Cymbeline alludes to other Shakespearean works would be to say too little. Shakespeare’s other works swirl endlessly in the funhouse mirrors of Cymbeline. The Arden edition describes this play as “recapitulatory,” recapitulating, as it does, a gallimaufry of Shakespeare’s earlier plays (this is a late romance, composed in 1610). Cymbeline recapitulates quite a bit, but to what purpose?
What is the point of all of this auto-reflexivity and meta-theatricality? Harold Bloom thinks that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is fatigued with himself, exhausted, ennuyé: “Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays.” The implication here is that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is sterile, out of new ideas. Bloom also believes that Cymbeline is a clutch or constellation (my words) of self-parodies. Shakespeare, Bloom thinks, is play-weary and is making fun of himself.
But I see the play differently. Shakespeare is not making fun of himself; his play is making fun of its audience. All of the recapitulation seems wonderfully affrontive.
Cymbeline sets up and reaffirms the audience’s horizon of expectations and then undermines these same predeveloped expectations. It would be unpresumptuous to say that the play is contemptuous of its spectatorship.
As far as whether or not Shakespeare was weary as he composed the play (if indeed he was the only one who did compose the play): Not only is it impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a dead author, it is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a living author. All we have is the text.
Posthumus, too lowborn for his father-in-law Cymbeline’s taste, is exiled from Roman Britain and migrates to Italy. (Some commentators have noted that the Italy to which Posthumus retreats seems strangely like the Italy of the Renaissance, which would mean that Posthumus time-travels for about four hundred years.) His wife Innogen is a prisoner in the kingdom and is forbidden by the King, her father, from consorting with her husband.
While exiled in Italy, Posthumus encounters the oleaginous dandy Iachimo, who wagers that he can seduce Innogen. The husband agrees to wager his wife’s chastity and his diamond ring against ten thousand of Iachimo’s gold ducats.[i] Posthumus is, in effect, flogging his wife’s chastity (and the diamond which symbolizes that chastity) as if it were a saleable commodity.
The story about a bet between two men—one of whom is a rogue who wagers that he can seduce the wife of the other—is a trope in Western literature. You can find this story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the greatest works of Western literature, nearly equal to Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy and the best of Shakespeare (among which this underestimated play can, arguably, be said to be numbered). You can also find this subject fictionalized in a magnificent short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Switcheroo,” which should never be read by children.
Iachimo bluntly proposes to Innogen a copulatory revenge strategy: “Be revenged, / Or she that bore you was no queen, and you / Recoil from your great stock… I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure… Let me my service tender on your lips” [I:vi].
The innocent Innogen remains inseducible. She is understandably aghast at Iachimo’s overboldness and threatens to report him to her father, the King: “The King my father shall be made acquainted / Of thy assault” [I:vi]. Iachimo quickly turns things around and claims to have been merely testing her fealty to her husband: “I have spoke this to know if your affiance / Were deeply rooted” [Ibid.].
Innogen pardons Iachimo, the failed seducer, exactly thirteen lines after she condemns him: “You make amends” [I:vi]. Even more incredibly, she promises to share her kingdom with the rogue only twenty-four lines after she summons her servant to drag the scoundrel away: “All’s well, sir. Take my power i’th’ court for yours” [Ibid.].
Things swiftly become even more preposterous. Iachimo requests to leave his traveling case in Innogen’s bedroom, and Innogen agrees: “Send your trunk to me: it shall safe be kept / And truly yielded you. You’re very welcome” [I:vi]. You’re very welcome, indeed, my dear sir! Innogen not only pardons the lacertilian failed seducer; she welcomes him into her home, the man who lied about the infidelity of her husband and who proposed a night of coital vengeance on the basis of this lie.
I am citing these lines and summarizing the scene at length in order to highlight how absurd all of this is. We are supposed to be ingenuous enough to believe that Innogen will forgive the loutish failed seducer Iachimo after he confesses that he lied to her about her husband’s faithlessness. We are also supposed to believe that Innogen, daughter to the King, will forgive Iachimo after the libertine admits that he lied to her in order to provoke her into copulatory revenge. We are supposed to be naïve enough to accept that Innogen will not only pardon Iachimo, but allow him to put his traveling trunk in her bedchamber. Or are we? This conduces me to my main point: It might be the case that the improbabilities are calculated and the inhumanly sudden and suddenly inhuman metanoias are designed to thwart the received ideas of the audience.
The slithery Iachimo insinuates himself into Innogen’s bedchamber by hiding in the traveling case and then springs up out of the trunk like a Jack-in-the-Box while she is sleeping. Iachimo filches the bracelet given to her by Posthumus, slipping it from her sleeping arm, a bracelet which is as “slippery as the Gordian knot was hard” [II:ii].
Literate spectators will expect Iachimo—who likens himself to Sextus Tarquinius, the slobbering Roman patrician who ravished the plebeian girl Lucretia—to do the odious thing that Sextus Tarquinius did. He is also likened to Tereus, the violator of the tongueless Philomel, who transforms into a nightingale (as her name suggests). Iachimo finds a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Innogen’s bedside table: “She hath been reading late / The tale of Tereus: here the leaf’s turned down / Where Philomel gave up” [II:ii].
The same allusions appear in The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, which make the allusions in Cymbeline the allusions of allusions. Specifically, Iachimo reminds us of the lupine sons of the Goth Queen Tamora, who ravish and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in the wood. They are likened to Tereus and to Sextus Tarquinius, and Lavinia points with a stick to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And which story does she indicate, precisely? She indicates the story of Tereus.
The point that I want to highlight is that Iachimo never actually ravishes Innogen, even though he is likened to Tereus and Tarquin, two violators in Greek and Roman Antiquity, respectively.[ii] Rather, Iachimo crawls into her bed and ogles her and her bedroom as she is sleeping. Iachimo advances upon Innogen’s sleeping body and surveys both the décor of the bedchamber and the “cinque-spotted” mole upon her chest [II:ii].
Thank goodness Iachimo does not violently appropriate Innogen! But the fact that the audience is expecting the ravishment to happen and the fact that the ravishment does not happen fortifies my conviction that Shakespeare is pranking us better than even the most skilled prankster could do. What we are reading may only be described as a farce, as a spoof, as a lampoon. In the slightly underprized 2014 cinematic interpretation, Iachimo is played by Ethan Hawke. (Iachimo could be played by no one other than Ethan Hawke.) Hawke’s character leers at Innogen as she is slumbering and takes a picture of the “cinque-spotted” mole on her chest with his cellular telephone. In a staged production of the play (which I have not yet witnessed), I could imagine the “cinque-spotted” mole being screened on the cyclorama.
So, we, as an audience, move from the dreadful to the ludicrous. Humor comes from incongruity—when two disparate things clash in a way that is unexpected. An elephant that trundles into proctological conference would probably elicit laughter. When Iachimo, instead of violating Innogen, takes out a notebook and inventories the furniture in her bedroom and itemizes its architecture and decorations, this probably will stimulate laughter in the audience, though it perhaps will also provoke bafflement: “But my design—To note the chamber. I will write all down… Such and such pictures, there the window, such / Th’adornment of her bed, the arras, figures…” [II:ii]. One can imagine the questions that will surface in the mind of the spectator or reader: “What absurdity am I watching? What absurdity am I reading? This is Shakespeare?”
Iachimo manipulates Posthumus into believing that his wife is faithless and thus provokes his jealousy, recalling The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. But Iachimo is far too ridiculous to be equated to Iago. Iachimo is likely so nominated because he is an incompetent imitator of Iago, which is why the former shares the first two letters of his name with his nihilistic model. Iachimo is an inadequate who, at least, has the scintilla of a moral conscience and is, at least, not immalleable, as we see in Iachimo’s self-accusation and assumption of guilt in the second scene of the fifth act: “The heaviness of guilt within my bosom / Takes off my manhood. I have belied a lady, / The princess of this country, and the air on’t / Revengingly enfeebles me…” Iachimo is the Wal*Mart edition of Iago. Iago, by contrast, is a snarling void, a propulsion of pure negativity. Iago is anti-ontological. Iachimo is like a professional circus employee who twists balloons and wears face paint. He is a zany, not the enemy of existence that Iago is.
Iachimo’s false supposition is that no woman is monogamous; Posthumus’s false supposition is one of out-and-out gynophobia. “I’ll write against them” [II:v]: Posthumus tells himself, in his misogynous rant, that he will write misogynous novels and poems, condemning every woman on the planet because of his misapprehension of one woman, his wife Innogen. “We are all bastards…” [Ibid.]: All men, he means, are bastards, for all husbands, he thinks, are cuckolds. This is the source of male misogyny: A man has a negative experience with one woman and thus generalizes his experiences with that one woman to the whole of womankind. Posthumus appears to become a parody, a more extreme version of Iachimo in Act Two: Scene Five.[iii] We are also reminded here of the misogyny of Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, who repudiates the whole of womankind for the apparent treachery of the woman he loves. Posthumus suborns the assassination of his wife, who goes into exile after Pisanio’s attentat—for in the “great pool” of the world, Britain is but a “swan’s nest,” and there are “livers” elsewhere [III:iv]. And here is another meta-theatrical reference—to Coriolanus, who says, “There is a world elsewhere” in the play that is named after him.
To escape assassination, Innogen-Fidele escapes the British kingdom, where her life is at risk and where she is daily besieged by marriage proposals (I will return to this matter below). The self-exiled Innogen wanders through a forest and comes upon a cave that is inhabited by a CHAZ-like commune. The Chazians are the two boys who will later be recognized as the King’s lost sons—Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal—and their pseudo-father Belarius, who was “unjustly banish[ed]” from Cymbeline’s court [III:iii]. In the slightly underestimated 2014 cinematic interpretation, one of the boys is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
The Chazians dispense with money. They dispense with the norms of capitalist society in the same way that the twenty-first-century Seattle anarchists claimed to dispense with the norms of capitalist society (though, as it later turned out, the Seattle Chazians did require money). Arviragus-Cadwal expresses his disgust for pelf in the following terms: “All gold and silver rather turn to dirt, / As ’tis no better reckoned but of those / Who worship dirty gods” [III:vi]. The transformation from prince into anarchist is complete; the transformation of prince into anarchist reflects Innogen’s transformation from woman into man.
The forest is much like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It: It is a realm that is free from the rigid roles and gestures of courtier life. As I mentioned above, Innogen moves from the feminine to the masculine and becomes Fidele. Here we have another allusion to As You Like It, with the self-masculinization of its female character Rosalind-Ganymede. This happens in the forest, since the forest is always a space of freedom and transmutation in Shakespeare, a transmogrifying space in which one can become whatever one likes to be, much like the internet, though more of a locus amoenus than the internet ever is.
Innogen also exiles herself in order to elude the entreaties of Cloten, who is her stepbrother, son to the poisonous witch queen. The punkish Cloten is so named because he is a clot, a dolt, a yokel, a buffoon, a dimwit, an imbecile, a cretin, a lump, a lug, a dullard, an oaf, a “harsh, noble, simple nothing” [III:iv]. She refuses to marry Cloten, and her rejection fills him with white-hot rage. Cloten’s violent rage toward Innogen is reminiscent of Posthumus’ violent rage toward Innogen, which makes Cloten a sinister-yet-unfrightening parody of Posthumus, who, in turn, is a diabolical parody of Iachimo, which makes Cloten the parody of a parody. All three of the male characters—Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cloten—are doubles of one another, but each successive double in the series is more grotesque than he who comes before him. They are all vile degenerates and incompetents, and it presses the limits of credulity to believe that Innogen would ever forgive Posthumus and Iachimo. But forgive both of them she does, beyond all plausibility, beyond all probability, beyond all comprehension. She forgives Posthumus and (temporarily) Iachimo with inhuman swiftness. (I will return to this matter below.)
Cloten’s interest in assuming the persona of a man of lesser station than he likely means that he is more interested in becoming Posthumus than he is interested in appropriating Innogen. Such is the triangular mimesis of rivalry: The double rivals for the model’s love-object because the double identifies with the model and wishes to become the model. Gratefully, the reader will discover that no such violation will take place in the space of the play, which confirms its prankish, farcical character.
Blazing with wild devilment, Cloten swathes himself in Posthumus’s clothing, a mark of his obsessive, envious identification with the low-born man whom Innogen chose as her husband and whose “meanest garment” [II:iii] would be dearer to her than the hair on Cloten’s head, even if each hair were to turn into a man! Cloten literalizes Innogen’s fetishization of her husband’s clothes in Act Two: Scene Three. The vile villain Cloten intends to violate her upon her husband’s dead body while he is clothed as her husband, recalling again The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus: “With that suit upon my back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined—which, as I say, to vex her, I will execute in the clothes that she so praised—to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge” [III:v]. In a hilarious inversion, Innogen will sleep on the “bloody pillow” of Cloten’s headless corpse [IV:ii].
It is difficult to take Cloten seriously, since, despite his disgustingly sinister intention to ravish Innogen, he is swiftly decapitated by Guiderius-Polydore. His hacked-off head will cast into the creek, presumably, where it will be devoured by fish: “I’ll throw [the head] into the creek / Behind our rock, and let it to the sea / And tell the fishes he’s the Queen’s son, Cloten” (Guiderius-Polydore) [IV:ii]. The creek represents bucolic life; the sea represents the life of the court.[iv] This is yet another allusion—to The Tragedy of Macbeth, with its multiple decapitations. The scene here, though, is high comedy. The first time someone is decapitated, it is a tragedy; the second time, it is a farce. The decapitation of Cloten is farcical, ridiculous—it provokes to laughter much in the same way that Shakespeare’s other late romance The Winter’s Tale provokes us to laughter when the old man Antigonus is mauled and devoured by a bear. Yes, the scene is one of carnage—it is a sanguinary scene—but no one has sympathy for Cloten, who is a psychopathic varlet, and his death is hilarious because it seems so incongruous in relation to its textual environment. Why “incongruous”? The incongruity comes from a happy moment of cosmic irony (for once, the term is earned): Cloten tells himself that he will decapitate Posthumus and then is decapitated while wearing Posthumus’s clothes: “[T]hy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be cut off” [IV:i].
Posthumus is death-obsessed, and with good reason. He is so called because he survived his childbirth, whereas his mother did not; she was “deceased / As he was born” [I:i]. He is also so called, perhaps, because he ardently wants to die, and yet his death is denied to him.[v] He says to the Jailer: “I am merrier to die than thou art to live” [V:iv].[vi] Posthumus, then, is posthumous. As his name implies, he is a survivor; he survives both his birth and his death sentence, despite his will to die. Spasming with guilt, he begs for a judiciary suicide: “O give me cord, or knife, or poison, / Some upright justicer” [V:v]. Posthumus’s wish for an assisted suicide recalls Marcus Antonius’ wish to be decapitated in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Antonius implores his servant Eros to chop off his own head. Not to psychologize, for all we have is the text, but there is a heavy yearning for the sweetness of death that pervades the work.[vii] Every member of Posthumus’s family is dead—his father, Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his brothers, the Leonati. Their apparitions hover over him as he sleeps in his prison cell, and he wishes to join them in the infinite nothingness.
The reconciliation between the father Cymbeline and the daughter Innogen is devoid of all pathos and is more risible than anything else. It does recall the restoration of Pericles’ thought-dead daughter Thaisa in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, yet another allusion which makes Cymbeline seem even more self-plagiaristic and almost (God help us all) postmodern. This is not intended as a commendation, since there is nothing sicklier, more anemic than postmodern art.
The resipiscence of Posthumus and Iachimo is far stranger; indeed, it is incredible. As I suggested above: Are we so credulous as to believe that Innogen will take Posthumus back after he gambled her virginity and suborned her assassination? Posthumus is ethically unrestorable and unpardonable. What he has done is unforgivable, and he has surpassed the possibility of redemption. And yet Innogen apparently forgives him, only to be struck to the ground by Posthumus, who does not recognize her. “Peace my Lord,” she implores him before she is struck. “Hear, hear—” [V:v]. This moment resurrects the final act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, wherein Pericles forcibly drives back his daughter Marina, whom he does not at first recognize. We are also supposed to believe that King Cymbeline will forgive Belarius for having kidnapped the princes, thus robbing the King of the opportunity to experience twenty years of their lives. Cymbeline even calls the abductor Belarius “brother” in the fifth scene of the fifth act!
There are other improbabilities. Bloom raises the reasonable question: How likely is it that Innogen will fail to recognize her husband’s anatomy?: “It seems odd that Imogen could mistake the anatomy of Cloten for her husband’s, but then she is in a state of shock.” Bloom is being too charitable, I think, in the final clause of his sentence (“but then she is in a state of shock”). And I would raise another improbability: Why does Innogen assume that the clothing of Cloten’s headless cadaver is that of Posthumus? “Where is thy head?” she asks, addressing the corpse as if it belonged to her husband. “Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” [IV:ii]. Does Posthumus wear the same clothing every day? Is Posthumus the only one who would wear the outfit that his ostensible corpse is wearing? Cymbeline is improbable as The Comedy of Errors, in which you have characters who are mistaken for one another and who wear the same outfits as their counterparts.
Not merely is the play fraught with improbability; there are leaps of false logic, as well. Paralogisms abound. Why, for instance, does Cymbeline muse aloud that it would have been “vicious” to have “mistrusted” the evil Stepqueen, even after he discovers that “she never loved [him]” and murdered his bio-daughter [V:v]? (This is not a rhetorical question, it is an instance of hypophora.) The King gives us an answer: Because the evil Stepqueen was “beautiful” and her “flattery” seemed to be sincere! The King’s “ears” and “heart” “thought her like her seeming” [Ibid.]—in other words, she was pleasing in a coenaesthetic manner and therefore, she was trustworthy! Do I need to point out that this does not follow logically?
We are mistreated by another paralogism at the opening of the text: The First Gentleman overpraises Posthumus because Innogen chose him over her stepbrother Cloten: “[Posthumus’s] virtue / By her election may be truly read / What kind of man he is” [I:i]. As if beautiful and virtuous women only choose handsome and virtuous men as their husbands!
Certain moments in this text are so fantastically bizarre that they surpass the limits of dramaturgical respectability. My favorite example of this is Innogen’s ejaculatory optation in Act One: Scene One. Innogen frothingly fantasizes that she would like to see her stepbrother and her husband sword-fighting each other in Africa! And she would “prick” with a needle the “goer-back”—i.e. whichever of the two backs away from the fight! Everyone’s fantasies are odd, I suppose, but you rarely read or hear fantasies such as this verbalized in Shakespeare.
Since we are reading a play that is never entirely its own, we might reasonably question, what precisely are we reading? Is this a play about the character named in its title? Why is this play entitled Cymbeline? I can understand why The Tragedy of King Lear is so called, for it is the tragedy of King Lear. But why is this work called Cymbeline? King Cymbeline hardly dominates the play; he is given relatively little stage time. We see him screaming at his daughter and his son-in-law in the first scene of the play; he does not remerge before the beginning of the third act, wherein he discusses Roman-British diplomacy and conflict with the poisonous Queen and her slimily reprobate son Cloten. Cymbeline then vanishes again and resurfaces in Act Three: Scene Five, only to withdraw once more. Indeed, we only see him again at the very close of the play—to be precise, in the second scene of the fifth act, in which he is silently taken by the Romans and then rescued by his unrecognized sons and his substitute, Belarius.
The auto-reflexivity, the meta-theatricality, the improbability, the fallacious logic, and the overall absurdity of the play fortify my conviction that it is a prank, a farce, a comedy, a lampoon. A lunatic play, an antic play, a woozy play, Cymbeline unsettles the reader’s (or spectator’s) expectations, expectations that would be incubated and marinated by other Shakespeare plays. Taking all of these matters into consideration, Cymbeline comes across as an elaborate practical joke. Perhaps Shakespeare learned that to become a great author, one must have a seething contempt for the reader or for the spectator.
[i] Iachimo: “If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond, too. If I come off and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel and my gold are yours, provided I have your commendation for my more free entertainment” [I:iv]. Posthumus: “I embrace these conditions. Let us have articles betwitxt us. Only thus far you shall answer: if you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevailed, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate. If she remain unseduced, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion and th’assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword” [Ibid.].
[ii] Iachimo: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” [II:ii].
[iii] Notice that Iachimo has already expressed misogynous opinions: “If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting” [I:iv]. And in the next act: “The vows of women / Of no more bondage be to where they are made / Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing” [II:iv].
[iv] We know this from Innogen’s aside in Act Four: Scene Two: “Th’imperious seas breeds monsters; for the dish, / Poor tributary rivers as sweet fish.”
[v] Mournful Posthumus thinks that he killed his wife and longs to die: “[T]o the face of peril / Myself I’ll dedicate” [V:i].
[vi] And earlier: “For Innogen’s dear life,” Posthumus implores God, “take mine, and though / ’Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coined it…” [V:iv].
[vii] A superabundance of verbal cues informs us that Posthumus is a death-obsessed survivor. He tells Innogen that he will “cere up his embracements” of his wife from other women with “bonds of death” [I:i]. He apostrophizes his diamond ring, newly given to him by Innogen: “Remain, remain thou here / While sense can keep it on” [Ibid.]. “Sense” here refers to consciousness—hence, the duration of his lifespan. The dirge that the boys sing in Act Four: Scene Two is, again, an encomium to mortality which suggests that the sweetness of death should be welcomed, for it means the cessation of all fear and anxiety. The ghost of Euriphile (“The Lover of Europe”) hovers over the play. She was the nurse of the lost sons of Cymbeline the King and was taken as their mother [III:iii]. The dirge was originally written for Euriphile and then is sung for Innogen, who is only phenomenally deceased.
I am not a lyrical poet, but for some reason, these two lyrical poems surfaced in my mind recently. If you like them, you will love my novel TABLE 41, the novel which predicted the novel Coronavirus.–Joseph Suglia
by Joseph Suglia
The zoogenic and zoonotic pestilence is encoiling and ensnaring the quiet city
Encoiling and ensnaring
The plan-disruptive plague
There are pigs in the alley
These pigs do not squeal; they screech
There is a screeching outside in the quiet city
CRUISE SHIP POEM
by Joseph Suglia
A scintilla of space
in a sea of time
not fixed to any place
A migratory, nomadic space
with an affinity to the flows of water
Read my novel TABLE 41 for free at table41thenovel.com
This is an extraordinary interview, and everyone should watch it. I have something important to tell humanity.
THIS IS MY BEST INTERVIEW!
An Analysis of The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) by Joseph Suglia
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) is an unclassifiable book. It seems to tolerate no generic distinction. Yes, it is a work of history–there are copious end notes and a substantive bibliography; its research seems historiographically sound (though it is not; read Adam Seltzer’s book H.H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil); every direct quotation is taken from an imposing armature of sources. And yet it reads as if it were a novel.
The book is concerned with two figures who are said to be diametrically opposed to each other: Daniel Burnham, one of the chief architects of Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, murderer of young women (despite Larson’s claims, Holmes was a serial failure; he even failed at being a serial killer). Both are said to be emblematical of the Gilded Age, that is, late nineteenth-century industrial America. And both are said to have converged at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The book’s premise seems to be that, in America’s Gilded Age, two polar energies were at work: that of technological construction and that of destabilization, the grandeur of architecture and what erodes stability and what reverses progress. Larson further qualifies this opposition in his introductory “Note”: “[I]t is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
But are architecture and destructuring, “good” and “evil” parallel oppositions? Where can “good” and “evil” be seen in the Gilded Age outside of these two isolated figures? Are architecture and destructuring indeed opposed to each other? Where else was this vague disassembling at work in the Gilded Age? Outside of a description of what Holmes and Burnham did and said, Larson does not provide answers to these questions.
The “voice” of the work is that of the grandfatherly storyteller. Nearly every sentence is bloated with hoary bombast. Patiently, bombastically, the author recounts the stories of the murderer and the architect. And yet what is the meaning of it all? Does this book have a clear and defensible thesis?
The Devil in the White City never affords its readers access to the killer’s mind. In the section of book entitled “Notes and Sources,” Larson concedes, “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known.” He defers to “what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers.” But should forensic psychiatry be given the last word? Is the dossier then closed after they have spoken?
What, exactly, is the relationship, for Larson, between the architect and the murderer? Is Larson suggesting that Holmes’s desire for “dominance and possession” was also the desire of Burnham? Does Burnham merely wear a more socially acceptable mask? Do they represent two variations of the same impulse? Regrettably, Larson never pursues any of these questions.
A review of THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
You know the rumor already: Queen Elizabeth commanded Shakespeare to write The Merry Wives of Windsor (circa 1596) in two weeks. Well, not The Merry Wives of Windsor specifically, but a play in which the fat old knight Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most developed creations, falls in love. This rumor was first set down by John Dennis (1702), over one hundred years after the play was composed. For three centuries, Shakespeare scholars have debated the question: “Did Queen Elizabeth ever issue such an edict? Did she command the poet to write his play in two weeks, for Her pleasure?”
The answer is, who cares? You may either buy the royal-command hypothesis or reject the royal-command hypothesis. Either way, the play seems to have been written for money, and it seems to have been written in two weeks. As every conscientious writer does, Shakespeare reserved his genius lines and genius staves for his stronger plays. The wordplay here is less than dazzling; there is not a single memorable line in the entire play (though the play does have the virtue of having contributed to Orson Welles’ masterly Chimes at Midnight (1965)).
Whenever he wants to make fun of one of his characters, Shakespeare has that character make fritters of the English language. Clearly, Shakespeare valued English more highly than he did anything else. It is a pity that his love for English isn’t particularly legible in this work. There are some amusing countrified insults: “cony-catching rascals” [I:i]; “Banbury cheese” [ibid.]; “Let vultures gripe thy guts!” [I:iii]; “jack-a-nape” [I:iv]; “his guts are made of puddings” [II;i]; “mechanical salt-butter rogue” [II:ii]; “your cat-a-mountain looks” [II:ii]; “jack-an-ape” [II:iii]; “Jack dog” and “John ape” [III:i]; “Jack-a-Lent” [III:iii]; “polecat” [IV:ii]. Characters liken one another to animals and food products. Contemporary readers of the play might begin insulting their irritating neighbors by calling them “Banbury cheese.”
Shakespeare seems to have disobeyed the queenly command (if one was ever given). Falstaff doesn’t actually “fall in love” with anyone. He has a purely financial interest in the merrily sadistic wives of the title, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. He attempts to seduce and exploit both of the women for money–unsuccessfully, of course. I write “seduce” but should qualify that Falstaff appears to have no erotic desire for the wives, nor for anyone else. Mistress Page and Mistress Ford quickly disclose Falstaff’s scheme and dispatch the fat old knight.
In the Arden edition, the editor makes the incisive claim that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not a humorous comedy at all. I partially concur with this assertion. Approaching the text as a black comedy is probably the best way of going about it. A “black comedy” in the sense that Andre Breton defined the term (in relation to Jonathan Swift): a comedy that provokes the audience to laugh, even though the author is never laughing.
The play has the shape and the style of an erotic nightmare. If you know the early films of Peter Greenaway–particularly, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) and Drowning by Numbers (1988)–you have some idea of what to expect. The resemblance between these two excellent films and The Merry Wives of Windsor is uncanny. To truly appreciate what Shakespeare is doing, I would recommend viewing both of these films before reading the play.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford gang up on poor Falstaff. He is thrown into a laundry basket and tossed into a river. He nearly suffocates in the laundry basket and nearly drowns in the river. He is dressed up as a woman–feminization is a classic form of humiliation in the vocabulary of sadism and perhaps also in the vocabulary of masochism, though not in the writings of Sacher-Masoch–and beaten with a cudgel. Antlers are mounted on his head. He is pinched and burned. He becomes a sacrificial figure.
This last form of torture and humiliation does fascinate me, I must confess. The antlers give to the play an even darker valence. In at least three ways: 1.) We learn that Falstaff is a deer-stealer in the first act–the antlers thus create a cosmic irony. 2.) What Falstaff said he would do to Mr. Ford (literal cuckoldry) is done to Falstaff instead (metaphorical cuckoldry). 3.) Falstaff is an Actaeonian figure.
The myth of Actaeon is alluded to implicitly and explicitly throughout the play. The name ‘Actaeon,’ in fact, appears twice in the text: “Like Sir Actaeon he, with Ringwood at thy heels” [II:i]; “divulge Page himself for a secure and wilful Actaeon…” [III:iii].
The myth is simple and powerful. Actaeon spies on the naked bathing goddess, Diana. Since the goddess is not containable in any human form, Actaeon stares at an empty appearance, a simulation. A rustling in the bushes reveals all. Diana raises herself in her divine nudity and screams at the voyeur: “Tell that you saw me bathing here naked–if you can tell at all!” The hunter is transformed into a stag and ripped into pieces by his own hounds.
What we are given here is a sadistic fantasy, a masochistic fantasy, or a sadomasochistic fantasy. The play culminates in a ritual persecution in which a human being is sacrificed.
Of all the many attempts to ideologize Shakespeare and to press him into the service of a sexual-political cause, this might be the best play to use as a vehicle. And yet the play has been strangely ignored both by specialists in Gender Studies and Shakespearean scholars in general. An Emeritus Professor of Renaissance Literature wrote a book entitled Shakespeare on Masculinity without ever so much as mentioning The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The play does have a great deal to say about disgraced masculinity. Every full-grown man in this play is a puddinghead–even Mr. Ford, who is cuckolded without being cuckolded and who commits adultery with his own wife (prefiguring All’s Well that Ends Well). The women are the crafty ones. Whether this vision of hell is making an ontological claim about the differences between men and women is ambiguous; whether this vision of hell is misogynistic, misandristic, or both is non-obvious. Reading the play is rather like watching two cackling little girls flinging apples at an old lion in the zoo.
Reading over what I have written so far, I see that I am making the play appear more interesting than it actually is.