[VIDEOS] Love Is a Mental Disorder | THE TRAGEDY OF ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare AN ANALYSIS






Love Is a Mental Disorder—Love Is Psychosis—The Dark Side of Love: On Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA: Three Video Essays

by Joseph Suglia


The following is a series of partial transcripts of a video series that I created in May-June 2020. They are three lectures on Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. The interpretive horizon within which I am analyzing the play is the psychology and philosophy of love.



What is love? Love is a mental disorder. Love is a form of psychosis. And today, I would like to talk about the dark side of love.

Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I would like to speak about the experience of love, the experience of being in love, to set up a context in which to talk about Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.

What is love? First of all, love is an emotion. Not merely a feeling, but an emotion. The two concepts are not identical, though they overlap.

What is the difference between a feeling and an emotion? Well, feeling is a general category that encompasses all kinds of states of mind. An emotion is a specific form of feeling. An emotion is a solidified, focused, concentrated feeling.

So, what is love? Love is the most intense emotion; it is a very intense fixation on the other human being.

It is interesting that we use this one word to denote many different modes of loving. The word love may signify amatory love, the love of God, the love of one’s sister or brother, the love of humanity, the love of the friend, the love of one’s parents, the love of literature, etc.

The single word love verbally unifies all of these significations, all of these denotations and the connotations.

All of these different modes of loving are verbally unified by one word: love, l’amour, die Liebe.

What we will talk about today is not love of God, not the love of the father, not the love of the mother, not the love of the sibling, not the love of the political leader. We will discuss what is called “romantic love,” which is distinguishable from these other modes of loving.

Now, one way of understanding love is to say that it marks the passage from the indefinite article (“a” or “an”) to the definite article (“the”). When someone is in love, one does not love A person, but THE person, as if that beloved were the only person in the world. In a world populated by 7.8 billion human beings, you love one person; you singularize and particularize one human being. What is this if not madness?

Love means that we fall in love with our own hallucinations, ignoring the shortcomings of the beloved and exaggerating the beloved’s strong points, as if the beloved had nothing but strong points and no flaws, no weaknesses. And the lover attacks mercilessly anyone who would discredit the beloved, anyone who would point out any flaws in the object of one’s loving.

As Nietzsche writes in Paragraph Sixty-Seven of Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “Love for only one person is a kind of barbarity, for it is exercised at the expense of all other people. This also includes the love for God.”

Of all the people who can fall in love with, you fall in love with one person and believe that this one person is the only person who is worthy of your love. You are willing to sacrifice all other love objects for the sake of the one beloved. Again, what is this if not madness?

This is why I say that love is a form of psychosis.

There are three fundamental impulses in the human being. The first of these is the egoic impulse—the drive to self-preservation, the drive to conserve the self (hunger, thirst, the need for clothing, the need for shelter, the need for safety, the avoidance of pain).

Beyond the egoic instinct, there are two fundamental social impulses: the nurturing impulse and the erotic impulse which is called “love.”

Most human beings instinctually prefer to nurture those in whom they recognize themselves. The nurturing instinct must be intellectualized, must be rationalized, in the way that Jesus taught, if someone is going to want to nurture someone whom one does not resemble. The intellectualization of the nurturing instinct is called “altruism.” Value is based on rarity, and “altruism” is considered to be a value (a virtue). Something is considered a “value” only if it is rare, only if it is difficult. This is because altruism goes against our more basic proclivity, which is to prefer the familiar-looking to the unfamiliar-looking.

Love is a social instinct that, ideally, leads to reciprocal determination—the beloved defines me in my being. And I define the lover in one’s being.

The sex or gender of the beloved does not matter. Sex is not subject to time; gender is subject to time.

We care about what the beloved thinks about us because the beloved defines us in some profound sense.

Reciprocal love means that the lover defines the beloved, and the beloved defines the lover. In reciprocal love, I define you, and you define me.

This does not mean that two lovers fuse together into a single being. This is Platonic nonsense.

There is no harmonization in love; there is, to a much greater extent, division and antagonism. I am approaching my main argument.

To quote Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, which is a somewhat overrated book, lines from which are tattooed on the arms, legs, backs, and shoulders of countless people:

“For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation. I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. This is the miracle that happens every time to those who really love: the more they give, the more they possess.”

The concept of amatory love is not timeless; it has a history. Where does this myth come from? Where does our contemporary understanding of amatory love come from? It is probably traceable back to Petrarch, fourteenth-century Italian poet and scholar who dedicated a number of sonnets to his beloved Laura, whom he loved in a self-sacrificing and masochistic manner, and, much earlier, to twelfth- and thirteenth-century Spanish and French troubadours who sang love poetry. What we understand as “romantic love” is derivable from these sources.

No one will be surprised to hear that most popular songs are about love. Popular songs are hymns to love or prayers to love. Well-known examples of these include “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles or “What the World Needs Now Is Love” by Jackie DeShannon, a song that was used at the end of a film about polygamy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice from 1969. Or another, better song sung by Jackie DeShannon, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” All of these songs misrepresent the essence of love, as I will argue below.

Why should love be a value? Why should any emotion be regarded as a value?

Love has been praised as a virtue, as the affirmative emotion par excellence at least since Petrarch; indeed, it is quite possibly, along with the concept of freedom, the most dominant ideal in Western culture. (Is it even logical to make of an emotion an “ideal”?).

Love is a dark emotion. Love impinges on darker affects.

Let me discuss the darker dimensions of love—because love draws out our darker dimensions.

I freely admit that love offers some of the most exquisite delights that life has to offer. A loveless life is a life not worth living.

Love does offer some of life’s greatest delights, but love can also do a number on you; it can scuttle you, it can destroy you.

There is a dark side to love that is seldom acknowledged or addressed. Love is a mental disorder. Love is a psychological sickness.

The feeling of powerlessness that afflicts the lover is the reason that lovesickness is the most devastating subjective disaster that a human being can go through—unreciprocated love, the vertiginous experience of unrequited love, the viciously catastrophic abysses of unreciprocated love.

Why is it that the unreciprocated lover so often has thoughts of murder or suicide? Thoughts of murder and suicide are seldom absent from the mind of a beloved. The throes of unreciprocated love end often in death, in suicide or in parasuicide—parasuicide is an uncompleted suicide attempt in which the aim is not death.

There are many anecdotes that one could tell of the suicidally heartbroken. After multiple anecdotes are told, evidence ceases to be anecdotal.

Let me be empirical, then. There are neurophysiological reasons for the link between suicidality and unrequited love.

The experience of love leads to what psychologists call “limerence.”

Limerence refers to the obsessive thoughts that plague the mind of the lover. Love, again, is a kind of obsessive fascination with one human being as opposed to 7.8 billion other human beings. Even worse, amatory love suppresses the serotonin in the lover’s body. The serotonin levels of the lover plummet. Serotonin is helpful for sleep—serotonin is converted by your brain into melotonin, which helps you fall asleep. Lovers tend to have low levels of serotonin—again, this is the chemical predecessor of melotonin—which is why lovers tend to suffer from insomnia.

Moreover, low levels of serotonin make one easily irritable, irascible, querulous, peevish. Low serotonin tires you out, fatigues you, exhausts you.

And low serotonin often leads to appetite withdrawal. So: When you’re in the throes of love, you can’t sleep, you have no urge to eat, and you are besieged by insistent unwanted thoughts of the beloved.

That is what the word “obsession” means (it comes from the Latin verb obsidēre: to besiege): to be beleaguered, to be burdened, to be imposed upon.

More frighteningly, some neuroscientists have concluded that serotonin deficiency sometimes conduces to suicidal ideation. The entire world already knows this, though. Yes, unrequited lovers often ponder suicide and, disturbingly, violence against other human beings, which is another possible consequence of serotonin abnormality!

Here are the links to journal articles that give scientific evidence in support of the thesis that love has a narcoticizing essence:



One of the dangers of erotomania, of love-obsession, is that lovers are outsiders. Necessarily, always. A lover is an outsider, on the fringes, on the margins of society. Love is not a common experience. Being in love is a relatively rare subjective condition. Lovers appear wild, untrammeled—as if they had never been socialized.

Something that Nietzsche has taught us is that love is the desire for possession, for appropriation, for assimilation. Amatory love, for this reason, is ALWAYS accompanied by jealousy. Always, necessarily. There can be no love without jealousy.

You are not in love with your partner if you are not jealous of those who are erotically in proximity to your partner.

It is possible to be jealous of the love interest of someone you’re not attracted to. Sure. So it’s possible to be jealous and not to be in love. But there can be no love without jealousy. If you feel no jealousy for those who amorously surround the supposed object of your affection, then you are lovelessly related to that person.

The ubiquity of jealousy wherever there is love demonstrates that love is the desire for ownership, appropriation, assimilatory impulse. When the desire for possession is slaked, the lover ceases to desire the beloved. In other words: Reciprocal love is boringly disappointing.

As Nietzsche writes in the Paragraph 102 of Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “The discovery of mutual love should really make the lover sober about the beloved. ‘How is this possible? The person you love is unpresumptuous enough to love even you? Or stupid enough? Or—or—.’”

The other thing to consider is that love and hatred really do go together. Language is deceptive on this point. We have one word, love, and we have another word, hatred. Love and hatred form a single emotional complex. Love and hatred are intermeshed and intertangled. Language simplifies matters, as if we were discussing two discrete things. Love is always entangled with hatred, and, perhaps, hatred is entangled with love.

I hope that I have persuaded you, at the very least, that love is not pure. Love is not free from our most disagreeable impulses. Kafka said the following to Gustav Janouch about the interrelatedness of love and filth: “Love always inflicts wounds which never heal because love always appears hand in hand with filth.” Whenever you see an older person with a worn, ragged face, this person might have had the excruciating experience of being in love when young. Perhaps because love is intimately conjoined to pain, it leaves an indelible mark on our unconscious minds.

So, love is not immune from thoughts of destruction, from hatred, from pain—to the contrary. Moreover, the lover is analogous to a slave.

The lover exists in a one-sided dependency on the beloved, for the lover at the beloved’s whims, is subject to the beloved’s caprices. It would not be hyperbolic to claim that love is a form of enslavement. The lover is enslaved to the beloved, who is loveless or who is less in love than the lover. If you are in love with someone, you are bound to that person; being in love means the loss of independence. The one who is loveless has more power than the one who is in love. The one who is needed has power not the needful. As Baudelaire writes in his journal: “Even though a pair of lovers might be deeply devoted, full of mutual desires, one of them will always be calmer, or less obsessed, than the other. He or she must be the surgeon or the torturer: the other patient or victim.” That is, in love, one partner is more passive; the other is more aggressive. This same asymmetry or dissymmetry appears everywhere love exists.

All of this is to suggest that “true love,” that is, reciprocal love, does not exist. As La Rochefoucauld writes, “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” By love, he means so-called “true love,” which is equated to peacefulness and happiness, which like ghosts, many have spoken about, but no one has ever seen. For “true love” or “pure love” does not exist.

Bataille has a number of disturbing thoughts on love in his book variously translated as Erotism and Death and Sensuality. Though the second title is remote from the French original, it is more thought-provoking than the first. The word “sense” is contained in the word “sensuality.” The inclusion of the word “sense” in “sensuality” reminds me that there is a significance in sensuality, there in a logic in sensuality. There might be a logic in sensual love, but if there is, it is the logic of lunacy.

Bataille writes: “The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desires presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he or she exists in the realm of discontinuity.” In other words, love leads to the destruction of one’s self-possessedness, of one’s self-mastery. This passage sheds light on the co-extensivity, the co-terminousness between love and death: Love is death, as death is love. We are overcome, in love as in death, by something that is infinitely more powerful than us and have the experience of a non-experience of the annihilation of the individuated self.

The link between love and death has been a constant subject in the history of Western literature. We can find it in Goethe and in Shakespeare’s The Most Lamentable and Excellent Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and The Tragedy of Antony of Cleopatra.

Western literature has often concerned itself with the darker side of love. Let us begin with Goethe (though Goethe, of course, postdates Shakespeare). In Goethe’s first novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, twenty-four-year-old Werther falls in love with an inaccessible woman named Charlotte and shoots himself through the brain because he cannot have her.

If you have read The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, you know that Juliet is put into a coma and laid out in a tomb by the supremely idiotic Friar Laurence so that she can escape marriage to the repellent Count Paris. Romeo finds Juliet comatose in the tomb and mistakenly assumes that she is dead and commits suicide. The message that would have informed him of the Friar’s ill-advised stratagem arrives too late. Juliet discovers Romeo’s cadaver and dispatches herself in the vault, much in the way that Isolde does after discovering the corpse of Tristan.

Something quite similar happens in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, as if both of Shakespeare’s plays were suggesting to us that end of all erotic desire is misinterpretation and death.

As we shall see, Cleopatra dies from the bite of the venomous asp, but it is a self-envenoming, a self-inflicted envenoming. She envenoms herself.

In The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, we also have messages that don’t arrive on time—which might be read as an allegory of language, as a comment on the delay of meaning. Messages are always late. Poststructuralists would argue that the signified is never contained within the signifier, the signified forever comes after the signifier.

Let me, however, restrict my focus to amatory desire. Antony turns his back on Rome and migrates to Alexandria. He then expropriates territories held by the Roman Empire and donates these territories to Cleopatra’s children. Most scandalously, he gives a title of honor to the notorious Caesarion, the illegitimate son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The honorific makes Caesarion the rightful heir of Julius Caesar, implying the Caesarion should be the future emperor of Rome. This does not go over well with Caesar Octavius and causes a massive political conflict which leads inexorably to war.

To summarize: Loverboy Marcus Antonius commits treason against his homeland, gives away Roman territories to the children of his Egyptian lover while he was still married to Octavia (these are known as the “Donations of Alexandria”). He does all of this out of love.

If I may make a contemporary analogy: In 2009, the Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford vanished from the state that he was elected to govern. And where was he? He was spending his days erotically with Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentinian journalist, a woman who was not his wife, in Argentina.

The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra is hardly a prayer to love, hardly a hymn to love, as “All You Need Is Love” or “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” certainly are.

A more accurate song on the subject of love is “Love Is the Drug” by Roxy Music.

Joseph Suglia



The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare is no prayer to love. It is not a hymn to love. If anything, it is a critique of love in tragic form. It is a play that evokes the darkest dimensions of love. This is the thesis on which I will fasten my attention.

We are now within the second part of the video series in which I lecture on The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. My name is Joseph Suglia.

The personal is the geo-political, and the geo-political is the personal, in this play. The last war of the Roman Republic is the war with Alexandria, and this war is set in motion by personal conflict. Marcus Antonius represents the eastern territories of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra represents Egypt, and Octavius Caesar represents Rome proper.

The war is incited by emotion—Antony is a negligent, neglectful, love-obsessed leader, an erotomaniacal leader. Shakespeare’s play suggests that Antony is a ridiculously incompetent ruler. Why is he ridiculously incompetent as a political leader? Because he is in love!

One of Antony’s closest minions Enobarbus says of Cleopatra: “We cannot call her winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” [I:ii]. When she weeps, it is a meteorological disaster, metaphorically speaking. The passions of the main characters have super-geo-political consequences. The emotions of the characters set in motion geo-historical events.

The play perceives war—particularly, the war between Rome and Alexandria in 30 B.C.E.—through the speculum of two human beings who are erotically engrossed in each other—so the super-geo-political is the personal, and the personal is the super-geo-political.

In the opening scene of this work, one of Marcus Antonius’s followers Philo is discussing his master’s weakness for his Egyptian lover, his indolence and negligence. This is common technique in Shakespeare—before showing the main characters, have secondary characters talk about the main characters. (You see this in The Tragedy of Timon of Athens, for instance.) Philo says to his colleague: “You shall see in him [Mark Antony] / The triple pillar of the world transformed / Into a strumpet’s fool. Behold and see” [I:i].

Antony is one of the members of the triumvirate that runs the Roman Empire. The other triumvirs are Lepidus and Octavius Caesar also known as Augustus. Octavius is not the legitimate son of Julius Caesar; he is Julius Caesar’s great-nephew. Octavius’s mother is Julius Caesar’s niece, but he is Julius Caesar’s heir. Lepidus is an ineffectual buffoon who doesn’t understand when he is being made fun of.

This is the opening conflict of the play: Marcus Antonius is voluntarily marooned in Alexandria with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra, while being married to Fulvia. Mark Antony is summoned to defend the Roman Empire against the violent incursions of the army of Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, who was banished from the Roman Empire but took residence in Sicily.

Now, Sextus Pompeius is invading Rome and even has a groundswell of support from legions of young Roman men. But the observation that I want to make is that Mark Antony delays, postpones coming to the aid of Octavius and Lepidus. Why? Because he is in the thrall of Cleopatra.

Mark Antony is so besotted by his lover Cleopatra that he allows Rome to be infiltrated by the army of Pompey the Younger, Sextus Pompeius. Mark Antony is taunted and gibed and goaded and manipulated and provoked by Cleopatra—and he is so obsessed with her that he has been neglecting his official duties. He does not assist Lepidus or Octavius in their defense of Rome against the invasion of Sextus Pompeius, ignores the messages that they send, he doesn’t open their e-mails for days. And allows Rome to burn, metaphorically speaking!

Cleopatra is like Circe, marooning Odysseus on her island, beguiling Antony and bewitching him into remaining with her in Alexandria.

As Antony himself puts it: “Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch / Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space! / Kingdoms are clay!” [I:i]. Let the world burn, in other words; I would rather stay here with Cleopatra.

According to Plutarch, Antony and Cleopatra described their common life with the word amimetobion, which means “the life incomparable.” The problem is that it is a life that is shut off from responsibility—particularly, from Antony’s sovereign obligations, the triumviral responsibilities.

Because he is delaying his participation in the defense of Rome, his love-obsession has geo-historical consequences. The fact that Mark Antony is neglectful and inadvertent and is obsessed with his Egyptian lover Cleopatra is world-altering. The subjective experiences of the main characters—their affectivity, their emotions—sway the course of the world. The play concerns the relationship between the all-englobing engrossments of love—that is, it concerns the destructive effects of love.

Shakespeare’s play has a great deal to say about love and the fascinations of love and the obsessiveness of the obsessive fascination which is love, the destructive fixation upon the other human being, the One Human Being who is singularized and particularized, the One Beloved who becomes the single axis around which the world is oriented.

Now, Caesar Octavius doesn’t like any of this. Octavius notices that Antony is ignoring his sovereign responsibilities and is instead lounging around in bed with Cleopatra. Antony is charactered as a wastrel and a wanton who diverts himself with sport. Octavius says: “[Antony] fishes, drinks, and wastes / The lamps of night in revel” [I:iv]. He likens Antony to those “boys who, being mature in knowledge, / Pawn their experience to their present pleasure / And so rebel to judgment” [I:iv]. In other words, Antony won’t stop playing around—and this infuriates Octavius.

Octavius, we come to understand, is a much different human being than Mark Antony. Antony is forever enraptured with Cleopatra and forever lacerated by his emotions; it is said that he wept at the death of Julius Caesar and at the death of Brutus, even though Brutus was the arch-architect of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Octavius is raptureless, by contrast. He is sober, moderate, abstemious. Octavius is reluctant to dance at the celebration of the armistice between the Second Triumvirate and the forces of Sextus Pompeius. And Octavius is twenty-three years old; Antony is around forty-three-years old.

Antony is wasting away, lying around like a layabout, while Lepidus and Octavius, the other members of the triumvirate, defend the Roman Empire.

Antony, apparently, was not always a profligate, according to Octavius. There is a passage that suggests this. In the battle of Battle of Mutina, which took place on 21 April in the year 43 B.C.E., Antony and his forces retreated. They were famished, and Antony resorted to drinking puddles of urine and eating bark from the trees. Octavius gives us this anecdote to demonstrate how much he admired Antony’s former austerity. Like much of the play, this passage is inspired by Shakespeare’s only historical source for the play, Plutarch, in the translation of Sir Thomas North. Caesar Octavius apostrophizes the absent Antony: “[Thou fought’st against famine] with patience more / Than savages could suffer. Thou didst drink / The stale of horses and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at. Thy palate then did deign / The roughest berry on the rudest hedge. / Yea, like the stag when snow the pasture sheets, / The barks of trees thou browsed” [I:iv]. The passage is beautifully disgusting.

In Scene Five of Act One, we are back in Alexandria again! This is not an Aristotelian play, violating, as it does, the unity of space. The unity of space means that a play takes place at a single location for the entirety of its duration—this is a rule that Aristotle mandates and that Shakespeare follows in The Comedy of Errors. This is very much a disunified play. It is a sprawling, extravagant, opulent pantomime. One of the most striking things about the play is that it transfers us across the world. First, we are in Alexandria. Then, we are shuttled to Rome (in Act One: Scene Four). Now, in the fifth scene of the first act, we are back in Alexandria again. The play is a bit like a teleportation machine, transposing us from one place to another, and a time machine, shuttling us from one time to another.

We next see Cleopatra lounging on her divan like an odalisque, asking her minion Charmian for a drink: “Give me to drink mandragora” [I:v]. Madragora is mandrake juice—it’s a kind of narcoticizing juice. Again, as I discussed in the first video of this series, love is related to narcosis in this play. For indeed, love is the drug, the drug par excellence.

In the second scene of the play, the servant girl Charmian’s gives us a chilling anticipation of how the play will end—namely, tragically: Charmian says as she is getting her palm read: “I love long life better than figs” [I:ii]. At the play’s gruesome conclusion, Cleopatra serves herself a dish of figs garnished with a venomous asp.

So, in Act One: Scene Five, Cleopatra is writhing on her bed, dreamily thinking. Of whom is she thinking? Of Antony, of course. “You think of him too much” [I:v], Charmian says. She is correct. Love is an obsessive fascination with the other human being, and that idea is suggested by this text.

Cleopatra says: “Broad-fronted Caesar, / When thou wast here above the ground, I was / A morsel for a monarch” [I:v]. “Above the ground” means “alive.” Cleopatra is probably to alluding to the legend in which she was bundled up in a mattress strapped by a leather belt and delivered to Julius Caesar as a “morsel,” as a dainty delicacy, for his enjoyment (with her consent). At the time, Julius Caesar was the most powerful leader in the known world.

Both Antony and Cleopatra make extreme, absolute statements. This is one of the ways in which both figures mirror each other. Many of their statements are silly; they aren’t particularly intelligent. Cleopatra vows to write a letter to Antony every day at the end of Act One: Scene Five. Or, she says, “I’ll unpeople Egypt!” [I:v]. In other words, if Cleopatra doesn’t have the opportunity to write Antony a letter every day, she will subject the Egyptian people to genocide. Both Antony and Cleopatra are psychotically ridiculous—and their psychotic ridiculousness results in the death of countless people.

Cleopatra, again, hyperbolizes. This puts her at the furthest remove, at the antipode to the Roman Empire. Ancient Romans were known for their laconic speech; they were known for moderation, for sophrosyne. This is a Greek word, an untranslatable Greek word that basically refers to temperance, moderateness, abstemiousness. Caesar Octavius is the antithesis of Cleopatra. Cleopatra writhes luxuriously on her bed and makes extravagant statements about how Antony will receive a letter every day from her or she will commit genocide against her own people.

Antony’s gesture of profligate, extravagant generosity is known by historians as “The Donations of Alexandria”: “All the East… shall call [Cleopatra] mistress” [I:v], Antony writes in his correspondence to Cleopatra. To allay Cleopatra’s anger, Antony orders the transference of all of the eastern territories of the Roman Empire. What does this mean? He gives the Eastern Roman Empire to Cleopatra and her children! This promiscuous donation of his regime is done from erotic desire; it is a squandering, a wastefulness that is prompted by love.

The lives of thousands of soldiers are destroyed because of one man’s obsession with one woman—namely, because of Antony’s love-obsession with Cleopatra.

Their love affair gives rise to the last war of the Roman Republic. Love leads inexorably to misinterpretation and to death.

The Final War of the Roman Republic would never have taken place were it not for Antony’s libidinal obsession with Cleopatra

Emotions impel the action of the play—love drives forward military action and mass death. Love leads to unspeakable destruction, in this play.

What, precisely, is the relationship between love and destruction? That will have to wait for the third and final video in this lecture series.

Joseph Suglia




Hello, everyone. This is the third and final video in which I talk about THE TRAGEDY OF ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare. My name is Joseph Suglia.

Caesar Octavius has good reason to hate Antony. First of all, Antony divorces Caesar’s sister Octavia in 33 B.C.E., which is a good reason to hate Antony, I suppose. The marriage of Antony and Octavia is nothing more than a marriage of convenience; it is intended as an armistice between Caesar’s forces and Antony’s forces. But the armistice is short-lived. Antony says: “Though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” [II:iii]. Or, as Enobarbus puts it, “[Antony] will to his Egyptian dish again” [II:vi]. In other words, Antony will marry Octavia in order to smooth things out between him and Octavius, but he is obsessed with Cleopatra. So Antony soon divorces Octavius’s sister.

Secondly, Octavius resents Antony because Antony’s brother Lucius and Antony’s wife Fulvia waged war against Octavius.

Thirdly, Octavius bemoans Antony’s inactivity, his negligence of matters of state.

But what is the most impelling catalyst of the Battle of Actium, the final battle of the Roman Republic? Fought on 2 September 31 B.C.E. The Battle of Actium was fought in the Ionian Sea, near Greece, between Antony’s naval forces and Octavius’s naval forces.

What was the most impelling catalyst of the Battle of Actium? The fact that Mark Antony gave the eastern territories of the Roman Republic and honorifics to Cleopatra’s children. And one of Cleopatra’s children is Caesarion, who is Octavius’s arch-nemesis. Octavius is seething with white-hot rivalrous hatred for Caesarion, whom he calls that man “whom they call my father’s son” [III:vi]. Caesarion is the illegitimate love child between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.

Octavius declares war against the forces of Cleopatra and Antony, who are still militarily allied and now a conjugal team. Octavius’s forces invade Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Octavius is incensed that Antony has made Caesarion the heir to the Roman Empire and incensed that Antony has divorced his sister in order to marry Cleopatra.

So, again, as I discussed in the second video of this series, the final battle of the Roman Republic was prompted by love.

Antony is more skilled at land than at sea—and his army suffers multiple desertions.

Antony abandons his own soldiers in Greece, where they go hungry and are compelled to surrender to the forces of the Roman loyalists.

Antony flees the Battle of Actium—he abandons his fleet, abandons his army, coward that he is.

Antony’s naval campaign shipwrecks, metaphorically speaking, because of love. He retreats prematurely, “turn[ing] the rudder,” following Cleopatra’s fleet, leaving his own army to famish in Greece [III:x]. Antony describes his cowardice thus: “I have fled myself and have instructed cowards / To run and show their shoulders” [III:xi]. He is pursued by the “itch of his affection” [III:xiii]—his libidinal inclinations.

Antony is clearly losing his mind. He challenges Octavius to a swordfight, which Octavius laughingly declines. And Antony acts oddly around his servants, addressing them as “Thou, and thou, and thou” (“Thou hast been rightly honest”) and thanking them profusely and supplicating himself before them with almost unbearable deference [IV:ii]. His behavior grows bizarre; he is clearly having a mental breakdown.

Antony is provoked into battle by love and he abandons the battle out of love. Antony: “My sword [is] made weak by my affection” [III:xi]. He is not much a warrior anymore because he is in love. Perhaps love should be banished from the Republic in the same way in which poetry should be banished from Plato’s Republic. Poetry is a form of mimesis, which makes it the replication of a replication; the world is a replication of a constellation of ideas. Poetry is an imitation, a mimesis, of the world, so poetry is the imitation of an imitation. Poetry would lead to the mollification of warcraft—and, in this play, love leads to the mollification of warcraft.

Love is neither logical nor rational in any other sense (according to the metaphorics of this play). There is even more textual evidence that would support this interpretation. Enobarbus says of Antony: “He… would make his will / Lord of his reason” [III:xiii].

“Will” here does not mean what we today mean by the word “will”; it means passion, it means desire, it means love.

In other words, Antony’s decisions are not purely intellectual; they are grounded in feeling—in particular, in his impassioned feelings for Cleopatra.

And later, in the same, scene Antony has this to say of himself: “The wise gods seel our eyes, / In our own filth drop our clear judgments, make us / Adore our errors, laugh at’s while we strut / To our confusion” [Ibid.]. Seeling is a rather disgusting practice in which the eyelids of falcons are sewn shut by their falconers.

In other words, lovers are mesmerized by their own delusions and thus are incapable of lucidity of thought.

There is one more citation that I would like to adduce:

“I see men’s judgments are / A parcel of their fortunes, and things outward / Do draw the inward quality after them / To suffer all alike” [III:xiii]. Enobarbus, in an aside.

Shakespeare is suggesting, again, that the human beast is an emotional animal and that its decisions, its judgments, are based on feeling, based on desire—in this case, on the emotion that we simplistically name “love.”

Let us talk about the character Enobarbus, who calls himself a “considerate stone” [II:ii].

In Plutarch, there are two men named Domitius. One accompanied Antony on this Parthian campaign, the other was a soldier who deserted Antony. Shakespeare conflates both of these people into a single figure: Domitius Enobarbus. Now, why did Shakespeare use the name Enobarbus? Perhaps because Enobarbus often makes barbed remarks, but probably because Enobarbus means “red-beard” and that evokes the red-bearded betrayer Judas Iscariot.

Enobarbus does, indeed, betray his master Marcus Antonius, much in the way that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus.

Domitius forsakes Antony and joins the opposition in a Judas-like betrayal. Enobarbaus dies in a wasteland, sickened by his own sense of guilt.

Enobarbus at first appears as a raisonneur. What is a raisonneur?

A raisonneur is a character in a book who epitomizes and spells out the official meaning of that book—the authoritative, literal message of the book and often the author’s intentions or the author’s philosophy. Of course, this does not mean that every meaning that the book generates is the point of view of the raisonneur. Far from it. It is only suggests that the raisonneurs point of view is the official, surface point of view of the book. The raisonneur exemplifies The Meaning of the book. Other examples in Shakespeare include Gower in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida or Apemantus in The Tragedy of Timon of Athens.

At first, Enobarbus such a character. He functions as a Greek chorus, explaining what is going on, as he does when he describes the glorious pageantry that surrounded Cleopatra when was carried on a barge. He also philosophizes and pontificates and tells jokes to alleviate the grief of Antony immediately after Antony learns that his wife Fulvia has died by giving him a philosophical perspective from which to view her demise. Enobarbus, at first, seems a detached character, not so much a character who moralizes as he is a character who immoralizes.

So, at first, Enobarbus is a raisonneur. But look what happens in this play, in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. He reveals himself to be an unreliable raisonneur!

Before I explain why I say this, I must pause over Hegel.

Each one of Shakespeare’s characters, in all of the plays, is compact of disparate and contradictory elements. They are similar to how Hegel conceived the object of perception.

In the 1806 edition of The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel conceived the object of perception as an assemblage of Alsos. Each thing that we perceive is a cluster of disparate traits. This coalescence of disparate features is what Hegel called “indifferent passive universality.” For example: A piece of sugar is brown, and it is shaped like a cube, and it is dissolvable, and it is friable. It looks brown, and it is also in the form of a cube, and it also can be dissolved, and it also can be easily crumbled. It has all of these individual properties, so you could say that every object is this thing and also this thing and also this thing and also this thing. This is the first moment of perception, for Hegel.

You might wonder why I am bringing this up. Shakespeare’s characters are quite similar in that they are enormous complex. They contain a multitude of traits that are contradicting. They lack collapsibility—they are not collapsible, by which I mean they are not compact or simple. Octavius is cold, level-headed, and sober, and he is dead-set on defeating Antony, who is his mortal rival, and yet he also has an emotional breakdown when he learns of Antony’s death. Enobarbus is a raisonneur, and yet he also betrays his master Antony in the style of Judas—he is treacherous, and yet he also dies of grief for having been disloyal to his master.

During his meltdown, Enobarbus has this to say: “I am alone the villain of the earth, / And feel I am so most… I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die; the foul’st best fits / My latter part of life” [Act Four: Scene Six].

We get an impression from this text of how fragile, how contingent history is. It is interesting to talk about this play at a time of upheaval. I don’t know when you will be watching and listening to this video, but right now, it is a time of upheaval, a time of social upheaval, a time of cultural upheaval, a time of political upheaval.

There is a character in this play who might seem, at first glance, to be a minor character, but there are no minor characters in Shakespeare. One of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical tricks is that the characters that, at first, appear to be secondary or even tertiary characters turn out to be central characters of the play.

The wise water-thief Menas proposes slicing the throats of all three leaders of the Western world—Octavius, Lepidus, and Antonius—while they are wassailing on Pompey’s warship, on his galley. They are celebrating the armistice between the forces of Pompey the Younger and the combined forces of Octavius, Lepidus, and Antony.

The pirate Menas makes the following proposal to Pompey the Younger. He will finesse the elimination of all three pillars of the Western world. He will cut the mooring of the galley and cut the throats of all three triumvirs while they are in a drunken stupor: “These three world-sharers, these competitors, / And in thy vessel. Let me cut the cable, / And when we are put off, fall to their throats” [II:vii]. Menas, then, offers to cut the mooring of the ship and cut the throats of Octavius, Lepidus, and Mark Antony. This opens up speculative possibilities: What if the pirate had killed off the Second Triumvirate? How would world-history have been transformed? Everything that we consider “normal” today would have been destabilized. Anything that we consider to be stable in life could be unsettled at any moment. We could easily be thrown into a state of disequilibrium, into a state of dis-ease by a disease, such as the novel Coronavirus, for instance. The today of Western civilization and the today of Eastern civilization would be entirely different than they are today. Too often, we conceive of history as being, as it were, divinely ordained, necessary, stable, fixed, preprogrammed—and yet history is arbitrary. The play evokes the contingency of history. It evokes how unstable life really is.

One of the reasons why this play is transcendent, why it is so exciting to read, is that suggests an alternative, speculative history beside the history which it presents, the material of which is almost exclusively derived from a single source: Plutarch in the Sir Thomas North translation.

I have noticed that throughout this play are there are images of deliquescence. To deliquesce means “to de-congeal,” “to dissolve,” “to melt away,” “to discandy,” “to de-coagulate,” “to de-coalesce,” “to de-solidify.” I have noticed figures that are melting, forms that are melting, shapes that are melting.

Antony uses the verb “to discandy” (“to melt away”); Cleopatra uses the same word.

Cleopatra exclaims: “Melt Egypt into Nile, and kindly creatures turn all to serpents!” [II:v]. Incidentally, Cleopatra is metaphorically associated with pyramids, the River Nile, and snakes, in particular, the venomous asp. (Lepidus gives the incorrect plural of “pyramid,” when he says, “pyrimises” [II:vii].)

Upon observing the dying of Antony, Cleopatra says: “The crown o’th’ earth doth melt” [IV:xv].

Charmian says in Act Five: Scene Two: “Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain, that I may say / The gods themselves do weep!” [V:ii].

Cleopatra employs the verb to discandy in Act Three: Scene Thirteen:

Ah, dear, if I be so,
From my cold heart let heaven engender hail,
And poison it in the source; and the first stone
Drop in my neck: as it determines, so
Dissolve my life! The next Caesarion smite!
Till by degrees the memory of my womb,
Together with my brave Egyptians all,
By the discandying of this pelleted storm,
Lie graveless, till the flies and gnats of Nile
Have buried them for prey!

Antony also employs the same metaphor in Act Four: Scene Twelve:

O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am:
O this false soul of Egypt! this grave charm,–
Whose eye beck’d forth my wars, and call’d them home;
Whose bosom was my crownet, my chief end,–
Like a right gipsy, hath, at fast and loose,
Beguiled me to the very heart of loss.
What, Eros, Eros!

Notice that, at the very end of Antony’s soliloquy, he summons Eros—that is to say, erotic desire, love.

What is the significance of all of this imagery of deliquescence? The first answer is: Most of the principal characters have emotional meltdowns. Secondly, the fact that both Antony and Cleopatra use the word “discandy” is a verbal cue by which Shakespeare suggests that their fates are connected, which they surely are.

One of the hidden agreements that links Cleopatra to Antony is the fact that both maltreat their subordinates, their lackies, their minions, couriers who bring them messages. Cleopatra practices messenger abuse; she is immensely cruel to the messenger who brings her bad news. When a messenger comes to Cleopatra to inform her that her love Antony is married to Octavia, Cleopatra exclaims, “I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak’st” [II:v] and then beats the messenger, striking him down, haling him up and down with blows; these are the stage directions. She even draws a knife and brandishes it at the messenger. Antony has one of Caesar’s envoys flogged—his name is Thidias—in Act Three: Scene Thirteen. He does so out of jealousy, after descrying Cleopatra’s hand being kissed by Thidias (“Give me grace to lay / My duty on your hand,” he says before kissing her hand [III:xiii]. Antony is unaware that Cleopatra has done something much worse than kiss the hand of the messenger—she appears to agree to abandon Antony and give herself up to Caesar.[i]

Cleopatra and Antony are rude to their subordinates. This rudeness links them.


Is the ethical worth of a person not determined by the way in which one treats one’s subordinates?

With the exception of one favorable message (Act One: Scene Five), all of the messages in this play fall into one of three categories: There are messages that are bad, messages that are late, and messages that are false. The network of communication does not communicate—it is endlessly falling apart. The disrupted system of communication between Cleopatra and Antony suggests that there is only misinterpretation between lovers. Messages do not arrive on time, messages are flat-out false, or messages are unwelcome.

Characters are linked by a system of communication that is malfunctioning and only gives bad, late, and false messages. All of this suggests:

Love leads to reciprocal misinterpretation, and love is inextricably bound to death.

I will write very little about Cleopatra’s self-annihilation, for it has nothing to do with love. Cleopatra’s suicide, in contrast to Antony’s self-demise, does not appear to emerge from any intense passion for Antony. Cleopatra is afraid of ritualistic public humiliation. She is afraid that she will be subjected to the puerile defilements of the rabble. She suspects, correctly, that Octavius intends to humiliate her, the Pharaoh Queen, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, perhaps leading her through the streets naked with a lariat around her throat in a triumphal procession, as if she were a trophy of war.[ii] She decides, for this reason, to be “noble to [herself]” [Ibid.], to exert mastery over herself, to become godlike by choosing her own death instead of allowing it to be chosen for her, to become the goddess of her own finality. She prefers death to being subjugated to the whims of the rabble, of the mob, where she should be paraded around as if an “Egyptian puppet” [Ibid.], along with Iras, her servant.

Again, Cleopatra’s suicide does not appear to emerge from any deep, intense passion for Antony.

The self-demise of Antony is a much different matter. When Antonius sees that his soldiers have deserted him, he grows enraged against Cleopatra, whom he accuses of treachery against him. There is little textual evidence that she has indeed betrayed him, other than the conversation with Thidias. But there is no textual evidence that she actually has done so.

Cleopatra, terrified by Antony’s ebullition of rage, locks herself in a sepulcher and sends out a messenger to Antony to tell him that she is dead (“Mardian, go tell him I have slain myself” [IV:xiii]). Antony’s response is to assassinate himself.

Antony’s self-assassination is not romantic, but pitiful, protracted, abject, and absurd.

Antony destroys himself, he kills himself on the basis of an uncorroborated false rumor, a rumor for which he does not seek evidence. Much in the way that Romeo who finds Juliet comatose falsely assumes that she is dead, Antony assumes that Cleopatra is dead on the basis of a false report. Remember: Almost all messages in the play are bad, late, or false. In this case, we get a message that is false and another message that is late. A system of communication is installed that does not connect the characters, but which disconnects them from one another, as if to suggest that love is founded on misinterpretation.

The fact that we know something that Antony does not know is classical dramatic irony. What is dramatic irony? Dramatic irony is when we, the spectators or readers, know a piece of essential information that is denied to the characters on stage.

Antony suborns his own assassination by turning to his servant, Eros, and commanding him to strike off Antony’s head: “Thou art sworn, Eros, / That when the exigent should come—which now / Is come indeed… Thou then wouldst kill me. Do’t” [IV:xiv].

Now, if Shakespeare were an inferior dramatist, he would have had Eros kill off Antony directly.

Of course, this would have contravened the source from which Shakespeare derived nearly all of his material, Plutarch in the North translation. More pointedly, it would have been laughably fatuous and simplistic. It would not have been allegorical; it would have been symbolic in the Greek sense, sumbellein, which means “the coming-together” of meaning and image in a transparently obvious manner. Eros kills Antony, and this would mean: “Love kills the lover.” That would have been stupid. A much lesser dramatist than Shakespeare would have written the scene in such a fashion.

Instead, Eros (love) prompts Antony to end himself. Antony says: “There is left us / Ourselves to end ourselves” [IV:xiv]. One might object to this interpretation: The historical Eros is the name of the servant, as recorded by Plutarch. If the significance of the name Eros is limited to historical documentation, why is it, then, that Shakespeare manifests Eros in Act Three: Scene Eleven and has Antony incant the name Eros three times in Act Four: Scene Four, whereas Plutarch only cites the name once?

Shakespeare highlights, emphasizes, accentuates the name Eros in order to turn Eros into an allegorical figure. When Eros’s self-demise prompts Antony to assassinate himself, an allegory is being set up: an allegory about the relationship between amatory passion (love) and destruction, which is what I have been speaking about for three videos, the destructiveness of love.

I am tempted to read these lines metaphorically: Antony addresses Eros as “[t]hrice nobler than myself” and says, “Thou teachest me, O valiant Eros, what I should and thou couldst not” [IV:xiv].

Eros, Love, does not kill the lover directly; it prompts lovers to destroy themselves. Love and Death issue from the same source: an experience in which the self is overwhelmed and obliterated. I am arguing that Shakespeare is suggesting to us that Love (Eros) flows into Death (Thanatos).

This is, again, what psychologists call limerence.

Sadly, this is all too common. As I have discussed above, we know empirically that limerence, lovesickness, leads to a decline in serotonin, which, in turn, sometimes leads to thoughts of self-assassination. Antony is nothing if not limerent.

This is why Antony’s self-assassination is not romantic, but pitiful, protracted, abject, absurd.

It is strange that we use the word “love” to denote both the love of the parent for the child AND the love of one amatory partner for another. These are two different types of love, or they should be.

However, there is a telescopic coincidence between both types of love. Love is a form of intense emotional dependency on another human being. The parent is intensely emotionally dependent on the child, as the romantic lover is intensely emotionally dependent on the beloved. But this similarity ends there.

I quoted Georges Bataille earlier. He believes that Eros and Thanatos, love and death, issue from the same source. For both love and death afford the experience of a non-experience in which self-possessedness, self-mastery is overtaken.

What is it that drives us crazy about the beloved? What drives us crazy about the other human being, the human being whom we love, is the beloved’s freedom from our desire. The person we love has the freedom to do whatever one wants, independently of us. The beloved is uncontrollable, and this drives us insane. The absolute self-sufficiency of the other human being drives us into a frenzy. No one can control absolutely what the other person says or does; the other person can always respond negatively to something positive that we say or respond affirmatively to something negative that we say. Insofar as the beloved is absolutely free from our desire, the beloved forces us to experience the limits of our own presumptions.

We are drawn to what is within the beloved that escapes our mastery. This inevitably converts the desire for the other human being into the desire for the destruction of the beloved’s freedom. What do I mean? The lover wants to control the beloved, to turn the beloved into an object. And this desire for objectification is the desire for dehumanization and the desire for the destruction of the other person’s liberty. The end of all desire, it may be said, is destruction. The lover desires to turn the beloved into oneself, to nullify the beloved’s “otherness,” which means to reduce the other person into nothing.

Why else would thoughts of murder and suicide seldom be absent from the mind of the lover? The Oscar Wilde cliché “All men kill the thing that they love” is a propos to this context.

If you would allow me to quote myself, I would like to quote an essay that I wrote entitled “Dennis Cooper and the Demythologization of Love”:

It is perhaps the case that what is called “love,” the most intense form that desire may take, draws out the deeper dimensions of human selfhood. It exposes, perhaps, our most profound valences; it makes apparent our drive toward aggression, our desire for domination, our wish (whether conscious or unconscious) for the annihilation of the beloved.

So: Love is intimately bound to death. The idea that love is the absolute good is a myth. Love is an obsession, a fascination, and it is a form of psychosis.

Love flows into death, in this play. Love travels down a descending scale that results in death.

Joseph Suglia



[i] “Tell [Caesar] I am prompt / To lay my crown at’s feet, and there to kneel / Till from his all-obeying breath I hear / The doom of Egypt” [III:xiii].


[ii] Some of her apprehensions: “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the dull varletry / Of censuring Rome?” [V:ii]. Cleopatra learns from Dolabella that Caesar Octavius will “lead” her in “triumph” [Ibid.].


[VIDEOS] Nietzsche’s ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALITY: Three Video Lectures



Nietzsche’s ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALITY: Three Video Lectures

by Joseph Suglia


The following is a partial transcript of three video lectures on Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, also translated as On the Genealogy of Morals. In the German, the title is Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift. The videos were published on YouTube in June 2020.



All of the idols are devils, and “Good” is “Evil.” Morals are already vices—and our so-called “vices” aren’t so bad. These are corollaries that we may derive from the writing of Nietzsche.

This is the first video in the series in which I will be lecturing on Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift, translated as On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic by Friedrich Nietzsche, published in 1887.

My name is Joseph Suglia.

This is the very opening of the Preface, Paragraph One: “We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers,” Wir sind uns unbekannt, wir Erkennenden

That is to say: The core of the human beast goes beyond the perceptual scope of the human beast; the essence of the human beast is inaccessible to the human beast.

No one knows oneself, but free spirits are the ones who know that they do not know ourselves.

Consciousness is only a part of the mind; it is not the entire mind. Indeed, the preponderance of all mental activity is unconscious. The “I,” the Ego, is an illusion—the Ego, which is the self-preserving idealization of the self, is an illusion. What I think that I am is not what I actually am. I might tell myself that I am unconditionally compassionate, but I might not be unconditionally compassionate. The core of my selfhood is inaccessible to my Self. We are all strangers to ourselves, for the core of the human being is the unconscious mind.

In Paragraph Three of the Preface, Nietzsche tells us that, as a thirteen-year-old boy, he playfully described God to be the father of Evil in a schoolboy writing exercise. But later, he tells us, he learned that Good and Evil are inventions, fabrications, human concepts that are not prescribed and preinscribed in the world by the divine. Nietzsche writes, “I no longer searched for the origin of evil beyond the world,” [ich] suchte nicht mehr den Ursprung des Bösen hinter der Welt.

So, Nietzsche’s a priori, his axiom, his absolute premise and presupposition, is that Good and Evil are not objectively given in the world. Now, there are those who are stuck at this stage and believe, because of inherited faiths which they cannot disinherit, that Good and Evil are not confabulations but are objectively real. Nietzsche, of course, does not, and this is his point of departure.

“Good” and “Evil” are much like general customs. Offering water to guests in one’s home is a general custom is certain places of the world. In India and Pakistan, water is offered to guests. But in Pakistan, children give garlands to guests who pass over the threshold of their home. Just as not every culture offers garlands to visitors, not every Good is a Good for every culture.

For instance: Suicide in Ancient Rome was considered as an act of the noble and therefore a “Good”—we prohibit suicide and consider it an “Evil.”

So, this book seeks to answer two questions that English psychologists never pose or pursue, two questions which German psychologists never pose or pursue, including Paul Rée, Nietzsche’s former friend and current enemy, the man who absconded with the woman Nietzsche fell in love with. Paul Rée and Nietzsche had a falling out in 1882 over the woman they both loved, Lou Andreas-Salome. One year after Nietzsche died, Rée died. Rée went hiking in the Swiss Alps, precipitated from a slippery precipice and tumbled into a gorge.

In any event, the book seeks to answer two questions: 1.) Where do moral concepts, such as Good and Evil, come from? 2.) What is the value of moral concepts? In other words, do moral concepts, such as Good and Evil, promote life? Do they intensify life? Do they enhance life? Or are these concepts that are anti-life? Would we be better off without these concepts? Should we dispense with these concepts altogether and think in different categories? In a different language?

The second question puts Nietzsche is close proximity to Aristotle, who believed that what is moral is what promotes human flourishing, eudaemonia.

In Paragraph Five of the Preface, Nietzsche takes a distance, again, from the morality of pity.

Schopenhauer believed that the fundamental proposition of morality, in his 1840 essay “On the Foundations of Morality,” is: “hurt no one, and help others whenever you can.” Schopenhauer regarded pity to be the fundamental affect of morality.

Now, this terrible translation (The Cambridge University Press translation) renders the word Mitleid as “compassion.” The correct translation is not “compassion”; it is “pity.”

What is wrong with pity? Why does it make no sense to make pity the basis of moral judgments? Well, to begin with, asserting one’s superiority over other human beings is a form of cruelty. If you pity someone, you are implying, in a sanctimonious way, that the person you pity is beneath you. We don’t pity our equals; we pity those we consider to be subjacent to us, below our level. We pity wounded dogs, wounded cats, college professors, organisms we think are worthy of our pity and who are therefore not even powerful enough to wound us. The pitiful are incapable of hurting us; they are regarded as being unworthy of becoming our adversaries. Those who are pitied are viewed as undignified by those who think of themselves as dignified enough to bestow pity. And if you have the ability to bestow pity, you also have the ability to withhold pity or to revoke pity.

So, “hurt no one”? Neminem laede? That sounds good on the surface, but if you pity someone, you are hurting the person you are pitying, and the person who is being pitied probably knows it. It is insulting to be pitied.

Even worse, the pitier takes pleasure in pitying the pitiful.

Now, Kant has a different problem with making pity the basis of morality—Nietzsche cites Kant as a philosopher who thought that pity may not be the basis of morality.

According to Kant, whenever we are making moral decisions, reason must refer to itself absolutely, it must give itself its own law (such is the autonomy of reason: reason legislates independently, purely). The affect of pity is external to pure reason.

In order for any action to be moral, it must be performed without the interposition of any feeling, except for the one pure feeling, which is respect (Achtung), according to Kant.

Again, Nietzsche will be addressing two questions in this book: What are the origins of the fabrications “Good” and “Evil”? Secondly, what is the value of the concepts “Good” and “Evil”—if they have any value at all?

Why choose “Good” over “Evil”? Is “Good” always good? Is “Evil” necessarily “evil”? Are there cases in which what is called “Good” is not good? Are there cases in which “Evil” is not necessarily evil?

Nietzsche is not some Mephistopheles who comes from the abysses of the underworld and declares, “Let Evil be my Good!” He is wondering, from a place of disequilibrium: Why are the most vigorous, life-affirming, and creative human beings nominated as “evil”? Are they necessarily evil? Why are the meekest, weakest, and the most passive called “good”? Are they necessarily good?

Killing is wrong, most would agree, but would it have been wrong to kill Hitler before he became dictator?

Is obedience to authority always an absolute good? Is obedience a universal and necessary good? “Universal” meaning “occurring everywhere” and “necessary” meaning “occurring at all times.”

Is it thinkable, could it be the case that morality is preventing humankind from vaulting to and reaching its highest heights, from evolving into overhumanity, der Übermensch? Is conventional morality (and is there any kind of morality other than the conventional variety?) restraining humanity in the way that the swingletree restrains the horse?

* * * * *

In the first essay, Nietzsche sets up a typology between two kinds of dominant morality, two moralities: There is patrician morality, and there is plebeian morality. The patricians are the rulers of a society; the plebeians are the commoners, the common people, the common run of humanity.

The patricians are those who belong to the ruling classes, they belong to the dominant and often domineering classes. They name themselves “good.” So, “Good,” in Greek and Roman Antiquity, means “dignified,” “distinguished,” “distinctive,” “elegant,” “sophisticated,” “noble.”

In Paragraph 45 of Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Menschliches allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für Freigeister, we learn that the hierarchical class, the aristocracy, is “good” because it nominates itself as “good”—but the enemy of the Good is not evil because the enemy can requite the good. The enemy is our equal and therefore good, insofar as the enemy also comes from another ruling class. So, the Ancient Greek did not regard the Trojan as “evil,” but as “good,” even though the Trojan is the enemy of the Ancient Greek. In the Corinthian War, the Spartans did not describe the Athenians as “bad,” even though the Athenians were the adversaries of the Spartans. The Spartans recognized their Athenian adversaries as “good” in the same way that they recognized themselves as good. Aristomenes of Messenia was the supreme enemy of Sparta, but I doubt that the Spartans characterized him as “bad,” much less as “evil.” Aristomenes was of high enough standing to be named the enemy of Sparta, which made him not “bad,” but “good.”

The enemy, the opponent, the competitor, the rival, the adversary is good because she or he is our equal. What was considered “bad” in Greek Antiquity was whatever or whoever was regarded as lowly, contemptible, dust under the feet of the hierarchical, ruling classes. The plebeians were considered “bad” because they were ignoble, low, undistinguished, servile, undistinctive, unvornehm.

For the first time in my brief YouTube career, I will deploy a visual aid.


Sie kleiden sich schlicht. = They dress simply (or plainly or modestly).

Sie kleiden sich schlecht. = They dress badly.


Sie sprechen schlicht. = They speak simply (or plainly or modestly).

Sie sprechen schlecht. = They speak badly.


Schlicht (“plain,” “modest,” “unassuming,” “unadorned,” “unembellished”) is etymologically related to schlecht (“bad”).

Nietzsche also mentions schlechtweg (“plainly”) and schlechterdings (“simply”), but he does not mention schlechthin (“as such,” “per se,” “as it is”), for some reason.


The aristocracy will be replaced by the priestly caste, the clerical class.

Nietzsche does not specifically name Byzantium, but I surmise that he is thinking partly of Byzantium, which was rechristened by the Emperor-Pope Constantine in the year of 330 C.E. as Nova Roma, The New Rome. Byzantium was a theocratic, caesaropapistic state—a state in which religion and politics were one.

Arguably, the priest is the most significant figure in this book. The book begins with the priest and ends with the priest, approximately speaking.

The priest is the one who transforms the previous morality. What is “good” becomes “evil,” and what is “bad” becomes “good.”

The sneering unconcernedness of the patrician, the blithe, ironic indifference of the patrician, the worldliness of the patrician—all of these qualities are now decried as “evil” by the priest. The priest is the megaphone of the mob.

The patrician is hated because she or he is preponderant and she or he displays one’s preponderancy, one’s superiority, one’s sovereignty, one’s majesty, one’s prestigiousness, one’s transcendence in relation to the plebeian. This is reason enough to hate anyone, I suppose—the ostentatious self-display of the patrician’s magnificence.

Here is a citation in which Nietzsche makes this point clear (in Essay One, Paragraph Two):

“The pathos of distinction and distance… the continuing and dominating feeling of complete and fundamental superiority of a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind, to those ‘below’—that is the origin of the antithesis ‘good’ and ‘bad.’”

In German:

Das Pathos der Vornehmheit und Distanz… das dauernde und dominirende Gesammt- und Grundgefühl einer höheren herrschenden Art im Verhältniss zu einer niederen Art, zu einem “Unten”—das ist der Ursprung des Gegensatzes “gut” und “schlecht.”

The priest, fraught with hatred, hates the aristocrat, hates the patrician. What is distinguished is now diabolized, as if to say: “You might have worldly power, O rich man, but you will be poor in the underworldly afterdeath!”

What is sophisticated is demonized, and what is mediocre is angelized.

And the mediocre shall inherit the Earth.

The priest inverts the values of the noble classes—this the famous Nietzschean inversion of values or transvaluation of values. Now, the common, the plebeian, the undifferentiated, and the unindividuated are valorized, and the exceptional, the patrician, the distinguished, and the individuated are deposed.

Nietzsche clearly sides with the distinguished, the vornehm, which he associates with creativity, fertility, strength, vigorousness. Again, the distinguished, the patrician, the intelligent, the complexly minded are codified as “evil” with the rise of the priestly classes.

What is “good” today is not what was “good” yesterday, and what is “good” tomorrow will be different from today’s “good.” Of course, if Nietzsche had his way, there would be neither “Good” nor “Evil”; we would think in a different language altogether.

The “good” are now the meek, the mediocre, the ordinary, the boring, the unintelligent, the simple and the simple-minded simpletons. This does not mean that the common people are unintelligent and that the rich are intelligent. It does mean that unintelligence is praised as a virtue in plebeian morality, however. Why? Because there is only so much intelligence to go around. Genius is rare; therefore, genius cannot be a common value.

No value can be common, for value is based on scarcity.

According to Nietzsche, most human beasts are herd beasts, “mobsters,” if you like, members of the mob. Crowd animals. For that reason, they identify the “Good” with the “Plain,” the “Unassuming,” the “Unremarkable,” the “Mediocre.”

Again, according to the patrician, what is plain is bad.

The hieratic class emerges as regnant and with it, plebeian morality.

How destructive does Nietzsche think the priest is? To cite the text directly:

“Priests make everything more dangerous,” Bei den Priestern wird eben Alles gefährlicher [Essay One, Paragraph Six].

Why is this? Why does everything become “more dangerous”? Because the concept of Evil comes in the world for the first time through the mediacy of the priest, through sacerdotalism.

It was the priest who upholds “that shuddering paradox of a god on the Cross,” jener schauerlichen Paradoxie eines ‘Gottes am Kreuze,’ as Nietzsche phrases it in Book One: Paragraph Eight. It is the priest who espouses the concept of kenosis—that is to say, the humanization, finitization, and mortalization of the Christian God.   The encarnalization of God.

(This is something that Karl Barth writes about in his magisterial book The Epistle to the Romans.)

So, this is the revenge of the priest: The priest endorses undignified self-debasements and self-annihilations before the divine. But this is nothing more than the attempted display of the priest’s holiness! This, again, is the revenge of the priest. The patrician will be from now on described as “evil.” The revenge of the priest is the hatred of the powerless for the powerful. It is ressentiment.

Now, at American colleges and universities, Nietzsche’s phrase “man of ressentiment” is often garbled as “man of resentment.” But ressentiment does not mean “resentment” or “resentfulness.” The man of ressentiment is not a man of resentfulnesss.

Resentment is spiteful, envious bitterness.

So, what is ressentiment?

Ressentiment is a deep, tarantula-like, pathological desire for revenge on the dominating classes who equate goodness to distinguishedness and who equate distinguishedness to beauty and happiness. Ressentiment is the aggrievement of the mediocre. Ressentiment goes beyond mere grudge-holding, bitterness, and envy. Ressentiment is the revengefulness of the weak or, to phrase it slightly differently, the will to exact revenge on the strong.

The person of ressentiment cannot let anything go. One’s every action is a reaction to the words and the acts of the powerful.

This is precisely what Nietzsche writes: Plebeian morality needs external stimuli in order to act at all—“its action is basically a reaction,” ihre Aktion ist von Grund aus Reaktion [Essay One: Paragraph Ten].

The person of ressentiment adheres to, clings to, gloms on to the “It Was,” the Before, the Used-to-Be, one’s youth, one’s past-life. Because the Before is irrecoverable, is irretrievable, is beyond the scope of his mastery. One might be able to do almost anything one pleases, but one lacks the ability to revise or to recover the past. One cannot alter one’s youth or the errors that one made in one’s youth. The person of ressentiment is the first one who would reject the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. The Spirit of Revenge comes from the feeling of impotence that we have from changing the past; the way of emancipating oneself from the past is by joyfully affirming the past and wishing to repeat it endlessly. This is the Nietzschean categorical imperative: “Act in such a way that your actions will recur eternally.”

The man of ressentiment finds his meaningfulness through those who are superjacent to him. He is the fragile, priestly type who is dependent on the strong and the sophisticated. He requires the recognition of the patrician in order to love himself. Nietzsche, through his Zarathustra, teaches us to love ourselves, and self-love gives meaningfulness—and that is all that matters.

The man of ressentiment seeks causes of offence in advance.

The real problem is when the man of ressentiment turns creative and invents values. These values are known as “virtues.” Why do virtues exist? Virtues exist to make human beings tame, to turn them into domesticated, submissive, slavish herd beasts. Consider the virtues of obedience, chastity, piety. If you consider obedience, obedience exists in order to restrict the self-assertion of the self and to keep people in line. Chastity is a war against one’s natural impulses. Piety is the negation of the self in relation to God; instead of learning to love oneself, one loves God and exists in a state of undignified self-debasement in relation to God. Self-control is also a virtue, but so is modesty. What are these but forms of self-minimization, perhaps even forms of self-hatred? Passivity, meekness, modesty—these are virtues. Virtues actively negate human self-esteem, human self-worth. Self-rapture is certainly not a conventional virtue.

To summarize:

Patrician morality is the morality of the ironically and playfully unconcerned, the morality of the distinguished, the active, the spontaneous, the creative, the fertile, the self-sufficient.

Plebeian morality is the morality of the passive, the dependent, the reactive; essentially, it is the morality of the crowd.

The concept of “Bad” is an invention of patrician morality; the concept of “Evil” is an invention of plebeian morality. The concept of “Good” which is opposed to the concept of “Bad” is not the same concept of “Good” which is opposed to the concept of “Evil.” The concept of “Good” which is opposed to the concept of “Bad” is distinguishedness, die Vornehmheit. The concept of “Good” which is opposed to the concept of “Bad” is commonness, die Gemeinheit.

In Paragraph Thirteen of Essay One, Nietzsche gives us his own fable of a little lamb, which represents the man of ressentiment, and the raptor, the bird of prey, which represents the patrician, the person of distinction.

To quote the text: “It is not strange that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for snatching up the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘These birds of prey are evil, and whoever is as far removed from being a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb—is that lamb not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil at in the setting up of this ideal, though it may also be that the birds of prey will regard it a little sneeringly, and perchance say to themselves, ‘We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even like them: Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’”

To quote the German: Dass die Lämmer den grossen Raubvögeln gram sind, das befremdet nicht: nur liegt darin kein Grund, es den grossen Raubvögeln zu verargen, dass sie sich kleine Lämmer holen. Und wenn die Lämmer unter sich sagen “diese Raubvögel sind böse; und wer so wenig als möglich ein Raubvogel ist, vielmehr deren Gegenstück, ein Lamm,—sollte der nicht gut sein?” so ist an dieser Aufrichtung eines Ideals Nichts auszusetzen, sei es auch, dass die Raubvögel dazu ein wenig spöttisch blicken werden und vielleicht sich sagen: “wir sind ihnen gar nicht gram, diesen guten Lämmern, wir lieben sie sogar: nichts ist schmackhafter als ein zartes Lamm.”

The point here, I think, is that the raptor is not responsible for its predations; nor is the lamb responsible for its desire for revenge on the raptor. Both the person of ressentiment and the patrician are nodal points of the will-to-power. The will-to-power precedes the individuals through which it manifests itself.

In other words: It is a linguistic seduction to personalize the predation. There is no reason to say that the raptor is responsible for its predation or that the lamb is responsible for resenting the raptor. Predation is not the deed of a subject; it is a pure doing without a doer.

To elucidate what he means, Nietzsche gives us the famous example of lightning. Excuse me, who is doing the lightninging? Lightning is an asubjective phenomenon. There is no subject who is responsible for the lightning. Es blitzt, IT is lightninging.

Nietzsche writes, in Essay One: Paragraph Thirteen: “Just exactly as the people separate the lightning from its flash, and interpret the latter as a thing done, as the working of a subject which is called lightning, so also does the popular morality separate strength from the expression of strength, as though behind the strong person there existed some indifferent neutral substratum, which enjoyed a free position as to whether or not it should express strength. But there is no such substratum, there is no ‘being’ behind doing, working, becoming; ‘the doer’ is a mere appendage to the action—the action is everything.”

In the German: Ebenso nämlich, wie das Volk den Blitz von seinem Leuchten trennt und letzteres als Thun, als Wirkung eines Subjekts nimmt, das Blitz heisst, so trennt die Volks-Moral auch die Stärke von den Äusserungen der Stärke ab, wie als ob es hinter dem Starken ein indifferentes Substrat gäbe, dem es freistünde, Stärke zu äussern oder auch nicht. Aber es giebt kein solches Substrat; es giebt kein “Sein” hinter dem Thun, Wirken, Werden; »der Thäter« ist zum Thun bloss hinzugedichtet,—das Thun ist Alles.

Let me adduce my own example of a subjectless statement that is more common in English: “It is raining”

Who is doing the raining? No one! It is raining, es regnet.

Both the man of ressentiment and the patrician belong to the pure willing of the will-to-power. They are not free agents; they are not autonomous subjects.

So, what is the will-to-power? That will have to wait for another video.

One of the fundamental lessons of Essay One of On the Genealogy of Morality is that nothing on Earth has ever been given its rightful name. Let me say that again.

Nothing on Earth has ever been given its rightful name.



Follow your natural inclinations, and you will be tormented by an incubus of the conscience.

Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will lecturing today on Essay Two of On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift by Friedrich Nietzsche.

The dominant questions of Essay Two are the following (this is my own language): 1.) How are responsible subjects constructed? 2.) Secondly, how is it that irresponsible, unrestrained, untrammeled subjects come into the world?

There is a new typology that is set up in Essay Two: There is, on the one hand, the reactive human animal and, on the other hand, there is the spontaneous human animal.

Let me begin by discussing the reactive type of human beast.

The reactive type is obligated to keep promises. This kind of person is geared not toward the past, but toward the future. The point is that the reactive human being is trained to keep promises and thus is turned into a servile, subservient, manipulated herd animal.

The reactive human being is trained, manipulated, into obeying the norms of culture and the laws of society, whatever society that might be.

So, if I am a reactive human animal, I must keep my promises in the future—I will have been obligated. I promise to avoid transgressing social laws and cultural norms, and it is incumbent upon me to do so.

How do society and culture train the individual subject to be submissive, subordinate, servile, subjugable, obedient?

How do society and culture compel the reactive type to obey their laws and norms?

By imprinting their laws and norms on the body of the human animal (all human beings are animals). “Justice” is implemented by means of punishment.

Hideous techniques of torture have been employed for centuries to inculcate plebeian morality within the reactive subject. The scar of “I don’t want to,” ich will nicht [Essay Two: Paragraph Three] is indelibly imprinted in the body and in the memory by means of torture: “I do not want to steal because if I steal, somebody is going to torture me. I will be tortured because my thieving ancestors were tortured.” Centuries of torture—centuries of religious cruelty and legal cruelty—have evolved the responsible human subject. Nietzsche is a forerunner of evolutionary psychology as we know it today.

(Why do we feel a chill of apprehension when we enter an unknown, dark, cavernous space? Because our ancestors lacked artificial coruscation. Why are so many of us afraid of snakes, even though the preponderance of snakes are non-venomous? Because our ancestors were ophidiophobes, perhaps for good reason.)

Centuries of religious and legal cruelty have trained us to be “good,” docile subjects.

“Keep your promise to be lawful, or you will be tortured”: Generations of human beings have been trained, manipulated, programmed to think in this reactive fashion.

So, the reactive type unconsciously, physically, corporeally knows the logic of equivalence between transgression and penalty, “the idea of equivalence between injury [to society] and pain” [Essay Two: Paragraph Four]: “If you transgress the law, you will suffer a penalty.” But the body of the human animal is trained to know this; it is a physiological knowledge, not a conscious knowledge.

A relationship between creditor and debtor is installed. The reactive human beast is the debtor; society is the creditor.

So, turn the subject into a debtor—one who owes society, one who is responsible for paying back to society what one owes. I am thinking of, for example, military conscription, in which young people are willing to pay the ultimate debt to the societies into which they were born. I am thinking, as well, of taxation, suffrage, census completion, volunteerism, civil service. I am thinking also of the ideology that expects the young to become married and produce a family.

The human animal is perpetually in debt to society—and the word for “debt” in German is Schuld, which also means “guilt.”

So, the reactive obedient subject is instilled with the consciousness of guilt, the memory of guilt, and is forced into the position of debtor—the one who is indebted to the laws of the society.

Thus, the feeling of guilt is what powers the responsible subject to follow the laws of society and the norms of culture—you will feel guilty if you do not do so, and the feeling of guilt is the affective mark of the indebtedness of the responsible subject to the society to which one belongs.

Is the feeling of guilt, the feeling of indebtedness, connatural? For Nietzsche, it certainly is not. It is a feeling that is inculcated within us, after centuries of breeding.

Who invented guilt? Nietzsche gives us an answer rather late in the second essay.

It was the person of ressentiment who invented guilt, the reactive sentiment par excellence. Justice comes from the active individual, to whom we shall soon return, not from the person of ressentiment, who is seething with the lust for revenge.

Nietzsche has changed his mind about justice. In Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885), Nietzsche believes that justice is the sublimation of revenge. Justice is just another name for revenge. Strangely, in 1887, Nietzsche no longer believes this. In 1887, with On the Genealogy of Morality, his thought has undergone a change. The 1887 Nietzsche does not think that justice is derived from the sphere of ressentiment, from the sphere of revengefulness.

The person of ressentiment invents guilt and the bad conscience, not justice.

How is indebtedness to society enforced? How is the reactive subject made responsible? (The self-responsible subject will be discussed later; the reactive subject is not the self-responsible subject.)

When the criminal breaks one’s promise to society, the consequence is punishment.

The origin of the concept of responsibility is blood.

The history of responsibility is drenched, bedraggled, supersaturated with blood.

If you do violence to the creditor, which is society, you are not keeping your promise—and the penalty is pain. (First, it is corporeal pain; then, the pain will become psychological.)

“If you break your promise, you will feel pain”: This is the message that is indelibly burned into the mind of the responsible subject—but also:

The legislators and administrators of pain must take pleasure in inflicting pain in order for the programming of the responsible subject to be effective.

The creditor takes pleasure in exacting repayment from the debtor. The creditor takes pleasure in inflicting the pain of punishment. If there were no pleasure, the system of justice would fall apart.

The pain that is inflicted on the responsible subject is not the effect of an act of revenge—it is a positive, active, formative pleasure in the spectacle of suffering. Judiciary pleasure comes from the eroticization of pain—the pain of the criminal, who is the promise-breaker.

This is Nietzsche’s a priori supposition, and it runs throughout all of his works: Human beings have an innate taste for cruelty. We can see this in the love that so many have for horror films, for tragedies and tragic dramas, we can see it in the Crucifixion of Christianity and in the crucifixion of thousands of slaves in Roman Antiquity, we can see it in the Roman Circus, we can see it in tauromachy (bullfighting), we can see it in the televisual sadism of “Reality Television,” we can see it in the videographic sadism of “fail” and “cringe” videos on YouTube, which have millions of views. Why else is it that so many take delight in the misfortunes of others? Why is the spectator so often a malicious, spiteful spectator?

Human beasts are not merely pleasure-seekers, though we are.  Human beasts are pain-seekers, as well.

There is a festive atmosphere that surrounds the punishment of the criminal. As Nietzsche writes in Essay Two: Paragraph Six: “No cruelty, no feast,” Ohne Grausamkeit kein Fest.

The reactive type of human, however, turns the impulse to be cruel against itself. So, the drive toward cruelty is reintrojected, is interiorized, by the reactive type. The reintrojection of cruelty, which is naturally directed outward, conduces to the invention of the soul, which is the imaginary seat of the bad conscience, which is also imaginary. Permit me to quote the text directly. Nietzsche writes in Paragraph Sixteen of the second essay: “All instincts that are not discharged outwardly turn inwards—this is what I call the internalization of man: with it, there now evolves in the human being what will later be called its ‘soul,’” Alle Instinkte, welche sich nicht nach Aussen entladen, wenden sich nach Innen—dies ist das, was ich die Verinnerlichung des Menschen nenne: damit wächst erst das an den Menschen heran, was man später seine “Seele” nennt.

The bad conscience is the spiritualization of torture. The impulse to enjoy spectacles of cruelty is transformed into self-torment, which is legitimated as the “bad conscience.”

This is how responsible subjects are constructed—the reactive types are trained, disciplined, manipulated into feeling that they owe everything to society. The responsible, reactive type is programmed and indoctrinated into fulfilling one’s imaginary debts to society.

Again, the criminal is the one who breaks his promise to society to be a responsible, passive subject. But why do the police have no bad conscience about what they do? As Nietzsche points out, quite rightly, the police and police detectives spy, they dupe, they bribe, they set traps [Essay Two: Paragraph Fourteen]. Both criminals and the police are two sides of the same paper take-out menu. Both criminals and the police are attracted to the same thing: criminality. And both use criminal tactics. It is just that the police are able to use criminal tactics with impunity, with legitimacy.

The spontaneous, sovereign individual emerges at the final stage of a society; s/he is the “ripest fruit on the tree” reifste Frucht an ihrem Baum [Essay Two: Paragraph Two]. The reactive type is disciplined and manipulated until the sovereign individual blossoms.

The final stage of society, and the final product of society, is the blossoming of the autonomous, sovereign individual.

Who is the sovereign individual?

The sovereign individual is a spontaneous, self-responsible, self-mastered self-legislator: One makes laws and then might choose to follow those laws. But only the sovereign individual is permitted to follow those laws—or to forbear from following them.

The sovereign individual is not moral but is also neither immoral nor amoral. The sovereign individual is extramoral—that is, outside of conventional, plebeian morality, beyond Good and Evil.

Now, the spontaneous, autonomous human being is not obligated to keep promises. The spontaneous human being is alone a promising human being. Only the spontaneous human being is allowed to make promises.

Promises are made for the reactive type; memories are made for the reactive human being. The reactive human being is obligated to keep promises, whereas only the spontaneous, sovereign, self-mastered human being is authorized to make promises.

We learn at the beginning of the second essay that the human animal is the only animal that is bred in order to have the right to make promises. To quote the opening directly: “To breed an animal that is permitted to make promises—is this not exactly the paradoxical task which nature has set up for itself in relation to humankind? Is this not the proper problem of humankind?” Ein Tier heranzüchten, das versprechen darf—ist das nicht gerade jene paradoxe Aufgabe selbst, welches sich die Natur in Hinsicht auf den Menschen gestellt hat? Ist es nicht das eigentliche Problem vom Menschen? Nietzsche is not alluding to the common, reactive human animal. He is alluding to the sovereign human individual. That is to say, the sovereign individual human being is the only animal that is authorized to make promises, the only animal that is entitled to make promises. Only the sovereign individual has the prerogative to make promises, whereas the reactive type has no such privilege.

The sovereign individual blocks out, shuts out the memory of plebeian morality. This what Nietzsche calls die aktive Vergesslichkeit, active forgetfulness. So, oblivion, forgetfulness, amnesia is not a negative or passive faculty, for Nietzsche.

While you are eating a cheeseburger, do you think intensely of the cow that you are devouring? Probably not, which is why French Latin is used (in English) to camouflage what we are eating. We do not say that we are eating “cow flesh” (which would be German, which has a much closer proximity to the referent). We say that we are eating “beef,” which is French Latin, which camouflages the reality of what we are ingurgitating.

Forgetting is an active faculty that permits us to ignore the disagreeableness of reality—and hence to live.

Let us remember that morality is dependent on memory, according to the Nietzsche of Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile, Daybreak: Thoughts on Moral Prejudices. To be moral, you have to have a good memory. And if your mnemonic faculties are defective, how could one expect you to be moral? We are given an armamentarium of mental and physical faculties, and whether or not we are “moral” depends on the congenital equipment that we have been given.

The sovereign individual is a voluntarily oblivious, an actively forgetful beast who can suspend forgetfulness when the individual chooses to make a promise.

Again, it is not incumbent upon the sovereign individual to keep any promise.

This is known as the “I shall do” of the sovereign individual. The “I shall do” is an original formative act. It is antithetical, antipodal to the Kantian “You Must Do It,” the Du solltest, the “You Have to Do It” of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. The sovereign individual says, in effect, “I will make a promise, and I will keep a promise, if I choose to do so.”

The promising, sovereign individual is not reactive, but active. S/he WILLS to obey. But then again, s/he might will not to obey. The self-mastered, spontaneous individual actively wills, actively desires—s/he has what Nietzsche calls “a will to remember,” ein Gedächtnis des Willens [Essay Two: Paragraph One]. S/he alone has the will to not invent a law.

The sovereign individual is accountable to no one but oneself. S/he is emancipated, liberated, free from conventional plebeian morality. The sovereign individual has an “instinct for freedom,” Instinkt der Freiheit [Essay Two: Paragraph Eighteen].

The artist—the genuine artist—is a sovereign individual. The artist is free from the manacles of conventional plebeian morality; everyone knows this. Artists are weightless, irresponsible, guiltless—and not afflicted by the bad conscience or the Spirit of Revenge (der Geist der Schwere).

(Milan Kundera, a Nietzschean novelist, derives his conceit of “the unbearable lightness of being” from Nietzsche. Hermann Hesse and D.H. Lawrence are also Nietzschean novelists. Hesse is Kundera’s superior, and Lawrence is Hesse’s superior.)

Artists practice violence, but not violence in the literal sense of the word. They discharge creative violence, they release stylistic violence in their works of art. Art is beyond Good and Evil; it is extramoral [Essay Two: Paragraph Seventeen].

Whereas the reactive type is like a non-holonomic robot that is programmed to be responsible, the spontaneous individual might choose to be responsible. The sovereign, spontaneous individual exercises the privilege of self-responsibility; one is the legislator of value.

If you have seen and listened to the first video in this series, or read Essay One, you will know that there are two inversions in the first essay. “Good” becomes “Evil,” and “Bad” becomes “Good.”

Now, in the second essay, there is also an inversion. Firstly, at the reactive stage of humankind, society is above the individual.

Secondly, with the appearance of the spontaneous individual, the individual is situated above society.

The sovereign individual affirms the will-to-power from an extramoral perspective.

But it is not yet time to speak about the will-to-power. That will have to wait for a future video.



If you want demons to stop existing, all you must do is stop believing in them.

Nietzsche never actually writes this. That sentence is a thought that struck me as I was reading Essay Three of Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, written by Friedrich Nietzsche, on which I will be lecturing today.

Essay One is schematic and quite simple. Essay Two is extraordinarily complex and gruesomely unpleasant. Essay Three is rather delightful and charming, by contrast.

I read the third essay with undisguised delight.

Essay Three concerns asceticism, which is the renunciation of all sensuousness. Sensuousness means whatever is worldly, whatever strikes the sensorium, whatever can be perceived. In particular, whatever delights the senses.

Asceticism is the surrender of worldliness, physicality, corporeality.

According to Nietzsche, morality is useless to the artist, except, perhaps, as a subject of art. Art is not moral—it exists in a sphere beyond Good and Evil. Artists are irresponsible, extramoral, irrespective of whatever moral opinions the artist might have. This is why Nietzsche asserts the division between the artist as a human being and the artist as a maker of art. If Shakespeare were the Prince of Denmark, it would have been impossible for him to have created the Prince of Denmark. It is true that novelists, for example, have characters inside of them, but let us not forget that characters are internal to the novelist and external to the novelist at the same time. A novelist is no more one’s character than a mother is her son—the creator is not the creature. The artist is the manure, and the work of art is the flower that blossoms from the manure.

This is one of the reasons that Nietzsche is ironically hopeful that Richard Wagner’s final opera Parsifal (1882) is a joke, is a parody of Christian tragedy rather than the ponderous, portentous Christian tragedy that it appears to be. The subject of Wagner’s Parsifal is the sacrifice of sensuality. If the work is a serious one, Nietzsche suggests, it is precisely the palateless, overblown, unintentionally ridiculous abomination that it appears to be. In other words: If Parsifal is a work that is born from asceticism, then it is bad art, for art and asceticism are incommensurable.

The artistic genius is not what Nietzsche’s unofficial mentor Schopenhauer thinks that an artist is. Schopenhauer believes that the artistic genius is a hypertemporal and hyperspatial genius, an entity that is constrained neither by space nor by time. It is as if the artist were somehow outside of the world when one creates art.

Schopenhauer calls the artist “the pure subject of knowledge,” by which he means that the artistic genius is free from all individuality, from all particularity. This is, of course, nonsense. Does this mean that the artist is not subject to the will-to-life? Does the artist not want one’s works to perdure? Even if the artist is celibate, the artist wants one’s works to survive beyond the artist.

Art, for Schopenhauer, would then be an an-aesthetic.

Now, Nietzsche identifies Schopenhauer’s will-to-life with the libido. So, these reflections are those of a twenty-six-year-old man who wants to contemplate life purely without the intervention of his insistently bothersome libido. Schopenhauer wants to “free himself from torture,” von seiner Tortur loskommt [Essay Three: Paragraph Six]—that is, from the torture of the libido, the daemon that pursued Sophokles until old age. I don’t believe that the Will in Schopenhauer is equatable to the libido, exactly, though the libido is a form that the Will does take. However, the point remains: Schopenhauer thinks that the artistic genius is unshackled by all sensuousness and sensuality. He is wrong, of course. Artistic production is of the body and is traceable back to the cravings, to the graspings and the gaspings of the body.

But this attitude toward art, too, is asceticism, which is why Nietzsche is giving it to us as an example thereof.

Likewise, Kant is wrong about art, which he only conceives from the perspective of the spectator, not the artist. In Die Kritik der Urtheilskraft, The Third Critique, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, Paragraph Two, Kant writes:

“Das Wohlgefallen, welches das Geschmacksurtheil bestimmt, ist ohne alles Interesse.”

Translation into English: “The pleasure which is determined by judgments of taste is without any interest.”

Kant considers aesthetic judgment to be without interest—that is, it suppresses the hungers of the body. Aesthetic judgment would be, for Kant, the suspension of the human appetites.

Now, this is nonsense. How could one judge something, anything, without being interested in it?

Is this “uninterestedness” the case for judgments of all representations of human beauty?

Are people supposed to look at paintings and sculptures and feel nothing physical at all?

If Botticelli’s Venus or Michelangelo’s David stir up sensual feelings in the spectator, does this mean that they are not works of art, according to Kant? If one looks at a beautiful vista in the work of Caspar David Friedrich and a feeling of exhilaration is stirred up within the spectator, is that work then not beautiful?

By contrast: Aesthetic judgment, for Nietzsche, is somatic, physiological, by no means free from interestedness. If you judge a work of art, you are interested in that work of art. Indeed, the concept of disinterested judgment is paralogical, that is, it is a fallacy. There is no such thing as a “disinterested judgment,” and even the very concept is self-contradictory.

Philosophy is riddled with ascetic ideals, with moralistic prejudices. The most basic ascetic ideal is: Hate the world, hate life, sacrifice the flesh. So, asceticism is the renunciative position toward life; it is a repudiation of all sensuousness and sensuality. Nietzsche does psychologize here—why is it, he wonders, that philosophers such as Kant, Leibniz, and Schopenhauer never got married? (He never wonders in writing why he never got married.) Why is it that classical philosophy is generally so antagonistic toward the body?

I want to highlight Nietzsche’s overall argument by citing the following sentence: “Every animal, including la bête philosophe, instinctively strives toward an optimum of favorable conditions under which it can completely release its force and attain its maximal feeling of power,” Jedes Thier, somit auch la bête philosophe, strebt instinktiv nach einem Optimum von günstigen Bedingungen, unter denen es seine Kraft ganz herauslassen kann und sein Maximum im Machtgefühl erreicht [Essay Three: Paragraph Seven].

One of the ways in which the human animal attains its maximal feeling of power is self-sacrifice.

Giving up is giving over to. Renunciation is access.

Yes, the ascetics give up life, but they do so in order to affirm their own will-to-power, which is life itself.

The ascetic gives up life in order to intensify, to enhance, to augment one’s own feeling of life.

Asceticism is not a repudiation of life; life is not cancelled out by asceticism.

Yes, most classical philosophers surrender the physical world and the body in particular, but that is in order to discharge their own philosophical will-to-power.

So, the ascetic philosopher gives up marriage in order to optimize one’s philosophy.

The philosopher secludes oneself from noise—Schopenhauer had a pathological hatred of noise—in order to create optimal conditions for his philosophizing.

Schopenhauer hated marriage and noise, not because he thought that celibacy and quietude are virtues, but because he considered marriage and noise to be hostile to his philosophy. And his drive to philosophize is superior to his drive toward companionship and sociability.

So, the renunciative process is not a virtuous one. The ascetics might give up sensuousness (it might be tautologous even to say this), but they are still exercising their will-to-power.

Literary artists and philosophers want to give birth not to literal children, but to books. Children are a form of non-literature.

Writers and philosophers are pregnant with books. They fear living an unmediated existence—an existence in which they would live in order to die, without producing a work of literature or philosophy that might survive them.

And this desire for survival, long after their death, is an instantiation of the will-to-power, which, again, is life itself.

So, again, asceticism optimizes philosophical reflection. There is an exchange of interest here: You give up one thing in order to get something else in return.

The argument in Essay Three really begins with the analysis of the mind of the ascetic priest. This is a characterology; Nietzsche is at his best when he gives us characterologies. Now, here, I want to underline the point that life must have a reason for allowing the ascetic priest to exist.

Why are there so many ascetic priests on the Planet Earth—despite the fact that they are so anti-life? To the point that, if an alien species were to come to the Planet Earth, the extraterrestrials would think that Earth is the Planet of the Ascetic Priests so teeming is the planet with ascetic priests, who are aswarm everywhere.

Here I want to highlight Nietzsche’s central argument: Yes, the ascetic priests desensualize themselves and try to impose their will on everyone else.

They are ragingly antagonistic toward sensuousness.

However: Even as the ascetic priest is giving up the pleasures of the flesh and demanding that everyone else to do the same, he is still exercising his fleshly impulses.

And the ascetic priest belongs to the economy of life—so, even he contributes to the economy of the human species and conserves the human species as he serves as a kind of toxic agent. In the same way that some poisons are curative and serve to drive out other poisons.

The ascetic priest is nauseated by life, he is sick from life and sick of life, and, like any person of ressentiment, wants everyone around him to be as unhappy as he is. He looks discontentedly at those who are happy, at those who enjoy living. He wants to exact revenge on the happy, basically. As Huysmans writes (to paraphrase), those who are miserable do atrocious things—so that everyone else will be as miserable as they are. He is a doctor, but a sick doctor—and a doctor who wants to sicken everyone with whom he comes into contact and even those with whom he does not come into contact.

The ascetic priest is a bit like Malvolio, if you’ve ever read Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will by Shakespeare. If you know the play, you will remember that Malvolio is anti-fun, a person of ressentiment. He says to the happy characters of the play, in Act Five: Scene One: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

The ascetic priest is like a doctor who is sick himself and who wants to sicken everyone around him—especially the vigorous, the life-affirming, the strong, the creative.

To cite the text: “The ascetic priest must be accepted by us as the predestined savior, herdsman, and champion of the sick herd: thereby do we first understand his awful historic mission. The lordship over sufferers is his kingdom, to that points his instinct, in that he finds his own special art, his master-skill, his kind of happiness. He must himself be sick, he must be kith and kin to the sick and the abortions so as to understand them, so as to arrive at an understanding with them; but he must also be strong, even more master of himself than of others, impregnable, forsooth, in his will for power, so as to acquire the trust and the awe of the weak, so that he can be their hold, bulwark, prop, compulsion, overseer, tyrant, god. He has to protect them, protect his herds—against whom? Against the healthy, doubtless also against the envy towards the healthy. He must be the natural adversary and scorner of every rough, stormy, reinless, hard, violently-predatory health and power,” Der asketische Priester muss uns als der vorherbestimmte Heiland, Hirt und Anwalt der kranken Heerde gelten: damit erst verstehen wir seine ungeheure historische Mission. Die Herrschaft über Leidende ist sein Reich, auf sie weist ihn sein Instinkt an, in ihr hat er seine eigenste Kunst, seine Meisterschaft, seine Art von Glück. Er muss selber krank sein, er muss den Kranken und Schlechtweggekommenen von Grund aus verwandt sein, um sie zu verstehen,—um sich mit ihnen zu verstehen; aber er muss auch stark sein, mehr Herr noch über sich als über Andere, unversehrt namentlich in seinem Willen zur Macht, damit er das Vertrauen und die Furcht der Kranken hat, damit er ihnen Halt, Widerstand, Stütze, Zwang, Zuchtmeister, Tyrann, Gott sein kann. Er hat sie zu vertheidigen, seine Heerde – gegen wen? Gegen die Gesunden, es ist kein Zweifel, auch gegen den Neid auf die Gesunden; er muss der natürliche Widersacher und Verächter aller rohen, stürmischen, zügellosen, harten, gewaltthätig-raubthierhaften Gesundheit und Mächtigkeit sein [Essay Three: Paragraph Fifteen]

How does the ascetic priest act as if he were a doctor? Well, he sets as his mission the anaesthetization of pain.

How does the ascetic priest anesthetize pain?

He anesthetizes pain by excessive emotion. By stirring up excessive emotion in his “patients.”

In doing so, in numbing the pain of his “patients,” he enlarges their wounds.

Self-dissatisfaction is common. Most people are dissatisfied with themselves. What the ascetic priest does: He enlarges the wounds of his “patients” and parlays their wounds to his own advantage. He magnifies their feelings of self-discontentment and thus minifies their feelings of self-worth.

What is the analgesic for the pain of his patients? The ascetic priest narcoticizes his “patients” by changing the direction of their pain. The patient would naturally say, “I hate the person who hurt me.” The ascetic priest has a different opinion. “The person who hurt you is not responsible for your pain,” the ascetic priest says. “You are responsible for your own pain!”

In other words, the ascetic priest narcoticizes the pain of his flock by inflicting them with the feeling of guilt. This is the watchword of the ascetic priest: “Torment yourself with paroxysms of guilt! The more intense, the fierier, the more fervid the feeling of your own guilt, the less pain you will feel.” The “patients” of the ascetic priest are enraptured with paroxysms of guilt and the feeling of their own lowliness—which, in itself, is a manifestation of the will-to-power, for self-denigration, in a paradoxical manner, is the exercise of control over oneself.

The result, of course, is that the human animal feels worthless, and this leads to the self-minimization of the whole of humanity.

The mass feeling of guilt has calamitous effects on the human species.

To summarize:

Asceticism is life turning against life—but it is still a propulsion of life. We mustn’t deceive ourselves into believing, falsely, that asceticism has nothing to do with life.

Negation is affirmation.

Devitalization is revitalization.

Those who seek to devitalize life unwittingly affirm life.

* * * * *

Let us now discuss the amazing opening and closing of the third essay: “The human being would rather will nothingness than not will at all…” Lieber will noch der Mensch das Nichts wollen als nicht wollen… [Essay Three: Paragraph Twenty-Eight].

This statement is written at the beginning and at the ending of Essay Three.

Now, I believe that this statement is indebted to a novel by Goethe, to Goethe’s last novel, which he told a female railway passenger was his “best book” after she claimed that she disliked it.

“Damn it, that is my best book,” Schade, das ist mein bestes Buch, Goethe said.

That is Elective Affinities, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809).

Goethe fashioned three novels: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, Wilhelm Meister (which is a book in two parts), and Die Wahlverwandtschaften.

A character named Charlotte says to her husband Eduard, at the end of the first chapter:

“Und doch ist es in manchen Fällen… notwendig und freundlich, lieber nichts zu schreiben, als nicht zu schreiben.”

My English translation: “And indeed, it is, in many cases… necessary and friendly, to write nothing instead of not writing at all.”

This, I believe, is the literary precursor of Nietzsche’s statement.

What does Nietzsche’s statement mean?: “The human being would rather will nothingness than not will at all…”

When Nietzche writes, “the will,” he means “the will-to-power.” The will-to-power has a horror vacui, a horror of the vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum, as every schoolchild knows.

Meaninglessness is intolerable to the human animal, which is determined by its will. Because the human animal cannot tolerate the idea of a senseless existence, a shabby logos is better than no logos at all. As far as we know, the human animal, the inbestial animal, is the only animal that requires meaning and which prefers meaning to non-meaning.

The will confers significance, the will introjects meaning into every vacuity. We interpret not when there is something that is explained for us but when there is nothing which is explained.

Even the ascetic-pessimistic will is an instantiation of the will-to-power. The pessimistic will is the world-negating will, it is the will that hates the world and desires the annihilation of the world. The pessimistic will, even the nihilistic will, is a manifestation of the will-to-power. The will-to-power is the living itself, which means that all of life is bound up with relativities of power. Each living organism has the irreversible desire to become tyrant of the whole of existence. Even the will to demolish oneself, to annihilate oneself in the face of the imaginary divine, is an instantiation of the will-to-power. Because the self is assuming that it has the power to negate itself. By pretending to negate itself, it gives itself the feeling of the enhancement of its own power.

The will-to-power is irreducible, it is fundamental.

Joseph Suglia





by Joseph Suglia


The following is a partial transcript of a YouTube video in which I lecture on Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer [Götzendämmerung: Oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert] and muse over the aphorism “Lesson from the School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” which appears in this book.—Joseph Suglia


It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still sufficiently love yourself.

Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will be holding a lecture on Götzen-Daemmerung: oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, translated as Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Let me begin by expatiating on the title.

The main title Twilight of the Idols, Götzen-Daemmerung recalls the fourth part of Richard Wagner’s Ring opera, which is entitled Twilight of the Gods, Götterdämmerung. Twilight of the Gods concerns Ragnarök, which is the spectacular destruction of the world and the gods by submersion in water. However, Twilight of the Idols means something quite different. Nietzsche is suggesting by his title that there are no gods, but there are certainly idols.

All idols are anti-life, and all idols should be demolished. An idol is the deification of nothingness, and Nietzsche proposes that we would be better off without any idols, that we would do well to dispense with all idols, idolatry, and idolization.

If you idolize an imaginary entity, you diminish yourself. Even to hold up rationality as an ideal and to call the human animal “the rational animal” is to disgrace the body and to disgrace the totality of the human beast. The vital impulses, such as selfishness, are diabolized, and the anti-life impulses—such as asceticism, such as chastity, such as meekness—are angelized by classical morality and classical religion. What Nietzsche does first is depose the angelized impulses, such as self-denial. Then, he valorizes the demonized impulses, such as selfishness. Finally, he displaces the difference between “virtue” and “vice” altogether. There are no virtues, and there are no vices. There are, however, values, and each human being should invent one’s own values. A common value is no value at all, since value is based of rarity, not on commonness. That, in a nutshell, is Nietzsche’s argument.

The secondary title How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert: What does this mean? It has at least two connotations. The first is that Nietzsche intends in this book, as well as in most of his others, to shatter ideals, to blow them up, to explode them into flinders, to de-idealize the idealization of ideals. All of Nietzsche’s late polemical writings have as their object the defamation of ideals.

What is an ideal? An ideal is any principle, any idea, any concept that is placed above humanity. Such as the soul, such as the gods, such as the Beyond. If you believe in ideals, this means that you believe in the ideal world, the πέκεινα. And if you believe in the ideal world, this implies that you are defaming the this-world, the actual world, the only world there is.

If you believe in the purity of ideality, then you are devaluing yourself.

As I said: It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still love yourself. And what Nietzsche wants to do is to raise humanity, elevate humanity to the status of gods. Be your own idol, be your own hero, be your own god. (Do not even have Zarathustra as your idol. To paraphrase Zarathustra: “Follow me with the piety of a traitor. If you betray me, then I will come back to you again”—this is the inversion of what Jesus said.) Every human being has the desire to become a god, and all idols deserve to be slaughtered (not in the literal sense!).

So, Nietzsche’s philosophizing is the hammering of ideals, the destruction of all ideals, for every ideal posits a transcendence, a beyond, a world that is higher than the world in which we are living.

Ideals are a slander to life. Every ideal humiliates humankind, lessens humankind, which means that ideals narrow human possibilities.

So, that is the first connotation of “philosophizing with a hammer.” The second connotation that is likely intended is that of the reflex hammer. This book was published in 1888, and guess what else was released in 1888! The tomahawk reflex hammer—also known as the Taylor reflex hammer—was developed by John Madison Taylor in 1888, in the United States of America. Now, perhaps Nietzsche was unaware of this development, but he did read newspapers, albeit with a thick admixture of contempt and disgust, and this was the first reflex hammer ever invented. The second connotation, then, is that Nietzschean thought tests the soundness and healthiness of ideals—and always reveals such ideals to be hallow. (“Healthiness” means “the degree to which an ideal intensifies or promotes life.”)

Nietzsche does not exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Or: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This statement is one of the most famous statements that have ever been attributed to Nietzsche, and one can find it in the music of Kayne West and all over MySpace.com. The original statement is Aphorism Number Eight, and it occurs in the first section of the book (after the Preface) entitled “Epigrams and Arrows,” Sprüche und Pfeile. However, again, Nietzsche does NOT exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is one of the most miscited passages in the history of philosophy.

What Nietzsche actually writes is this: “From Life’s School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens.—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.

What does Nietzsche mean by this, precisely?

When he writes, “What does not kill me,” Nietzsche is referring to the crisis of deep suffering. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of one’s property, the loss of a spouse, any gnawing, debilitating illness, forms of abuse, forms of violence: All of these things are examples of profound crisis and the crises of deep suffering.

What does Nietzsche mean by the first “Me”?: “What does not kill me.” Who am “I”? I am anyone, anyone who is not yet distinguished, anyone who is not yet distinctive, anyone who is not yet differentiated, anyone who is still immature and not yet vornehm. At this stage, I am mobbish; I am a member of the mob, of the crowd, of the canaille.

What does Nietzsche mean by “makes me stronger”? He means this:

What does not kill me makes me distinguished, distinctive, elegant, dignified, vornehm. Deep crisis confers upon me the right to separateness—the ability to experience long solitude. Deep suffering makes me capable of living separately from other human beings; it also makes me more profound. The crisis of deep suffering transforms me into a free spirit.

What does not kill me kills me.

Deep suffering makes one deeper. Deep suffering makes us profound—but who are we? We are the free spirits. And what transforms us into free spirits? The crisis of profound suffering or pain.

(I know that “pain” and “suffering” are not identical concepts. What distinguishes pain from suffering is time. Pain is short; suffering is long.)

To put it another way: Deep trauma gives birth to the sovereign individual. It is not just that trauma allows us to grow; it is that trauma is necessary for growth into the sovereign individual.

What does not kill me, the crisis of deep suffering, transforms me into the free spirit.

Now who is the free spirit? The free spirit is, negatively, one who does not think according to a program, an ideology, a dogma, a policy, or a party. The free spirit is capable of thinking for oneself and is capable of thinking two or more thoughts at once, both Pro and Contra, both “Yes” and “No” simultaneously.

Another word for a free spirit is “libertist” or “antinomian.” A free spirit is opposed to all idols, to all traditions, and the free spirit destroys ideals in order to clear a space for one’s own freedom.

The free spirit, the libertist, the antinomian, makes trauma the organ, the function, of one’s own power.

So, the free spirit converts trauma into strength. The free spirit transforms trauma into an appendage of the will-to-power.

Now, we should discuss the will-to-power.

The will-to-power means that the whole of life is a perpetual sequence of power struggles and that every living entity seeks to exert its superiority, its sovereignty, its preponderance over all other living entities. Life is violence, but not violence in the literal sense. Life is violence in the sense that every living organism seeks to overthrow obstacles that impede its growth and wants to escalate its degree of power. This is a peculiarly Nietzchean idea: Life is violence.

Ressentiment is inimical to life, it is an anti-life position. You might not know what I am talking about. If this sounds strange, please watch and listen to my videos on On the Genealogy of Morality, especially the second and the third video in the series, in which I discuss ressentiment.

Ressentiment is what Nietzsche calls, in On the Genealogy of Morality, “misarchism” because it denies that all organisms seek mastery, domination, lordliness over all other organisms. Misarchism holds that all government, all administration, is evil, but it is a necessary evil, whereas anarchism holds that all government should be annihilated.

Life, by its very essence, is dissymmetrical and hierarchical, according to Nietzsche.

Let us not be ungrateful toward those who have power, he is suggesting, for they impel us to take power away from them.

Nietzsche is no conservative or reactionary (I will return to this matter below.)

So, Nietzsche is affirming life as the power-will from an extramoral perspective, beyond Good and Evil, without the interference of moral prejudice, more judgment, or moral evaluation.

Nietzsche developed the theory of the will-to-power on the basis of Schopenhauer, who conceived the Will as a metaphysical force of Nature, the will-to-life. Nietzsche modulates Schopenhauer’s will-to-life and transforms it into the will-to-power. The point of life is not to promote life (that is Schopenhauer); the point of life is to promote power.

Some assume that Nietzsche must be a fascist because he developed the theory of the will-to-power. Those who believe this have no understanding of fascism and no understanding of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a lifelong anti-nationalist and vituperates endlessly against anti-Judaism or what he calls “anti-Semitism.” Nietzsche was a friend of the Jews. He loved the Jewish people and even loved the Hebraic Bible, the central text of Judaism. Let no one therefore mistype Nietzsche as a “fascist” or a “proto-fascist.” Nietzsche was an enemy of, if not fascism, then at least of many of the lineaments of what would come to be known as “fascism.”

Neither was he a misarchist or an anarchist, for hierarchies do exist in nature, he thought.

He had a certain sympathy for the idea of an aristocracy, it is true. But he was no proto-fascist, not at all.

So, what affects me calamitously, what affects me catastrophically paradoxically intensifies my personal power. That is what Nietzsche means when he writes, in this book, “From life’s school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

* * * * *

The first idol that Nietzsche smashes is “the problem of Socrates.” What is the problem of Socrates? The problem of Socrates is the following problematical equation: Reason = Virtue = Happiness. Vernunft ist gleich Tugend ist gleich Glück.

We learn from Socrates—particularly, in the Charmides—that the wise person is the one who restrains one’s desires and the person who restrains one’s desires is the happiest person. This restriction of the impulses, of the desires, of the inclinations, of the appetites, of the proclivities, of the predilections is called sophrosyne, and it is linked to human flourishing or eudaemonia.

Nietzsche never actually uses the term sophrosyne in this text, but he is clearly thinking of it.

The Socratic problem, then, is that the restriction of the desires leads to virtuousness or the virtuous character and the virtuous character leads to human flourishing or eudaemonia.

Now, there are massive problems with this Socratic equation. The first—and the one on which Nietzsche fixes his attention—is that restraining one’s impulses will lead to happiness. No, it will not.

Nietzsche writes: “When people need reason to act as a tyrant, which was the case with Socrates, the danger cannot be small that something else might start acting as a tyrant,” Wenn man nöthig hat, aus der Vernunft einen Tyrannen zu machen, wie Sokrates es that, so muss die Gefahr nicht klein sein, dass etwas Andres den Tyrannen macht (“Das Problem des Sokrates,” Paragraph Ten).

What might that “something else” be? Nietzsche does not give us a direct answer to this question, but I think that I know. Restraining the desires by reason will lead to the recrudescence, the resurgence of the desires in their fullest force. The more you try to repress your desires, the more your desires will surge upward. This is what Freud calls “the return of the repressed,” Die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten.

(Freud based his psychoanalysis on Nietzsche; there would be no modern psychology without Nietzsche, who is unavoidable. All roads lead to Nietzsche, despite the attempts of contemporary psychologists to commit parricide against him and against Freud, his unofficial student and successor.)

Repression is one attempt to manage the unruliness, the untrammeledness, the fractiousness of the riot of emotions and the other feelings and moods. But there is another form of self-maintenance, and that is the justification of the feelings and the moods.

For instance: Rationalized love.

Rationalized love is not instinctual love. Think of a woman who tries to find a man attractive, even though she has no genuine passion for him. She rationalizes her desire for the man—that is to say, she gives reasons to desire him. This sort of thing seldom works. Rational desire is not authentic desire at all.

Happiness comes from the release of the instincts, the liberation of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts, not from the repression of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts (according to Nietzsche). I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to say something in German: Die Moral ist eine Qual. Morality is a kind of torment. That is to say, the inhibition of the inclinations is a form of torment. Every child knows this, but let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a hedonist. Let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a eudaemonist, a sybarite, a hedonist. No, not at all.

In the section of the book entitled “Morality as Anti-Nature,” Moralität als Widernatur, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he is not endorsing the running-wild of the desires, the running-amok of the desires, the running-riot of the desires.

No, not at all. The passions ought to be intellectualized, cosmeticized, sublimated, rather (Nietzsche is suggesting). And the name of the intellectualization, cosmeticization, and sublimation of the passions has a name. Its name is “love.”

Nietzsche writes: “The intellectualization of sensuality is called love: It represents a great triumph over Christianity,” Die Vergeisterung der Sinnlichkeit heisst Liebe: sie ist ein grosser Triumph über Christenthum.

Well, first of all, let me say that this is reminiscent of something that Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “What is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil,” Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.

The meaning of both of these statements is essentially the same. Classical religious morality separates two different kinds of romantic love. The first kind of romantic love is the pure kind, the sacred kind. And the second is what is called concupiscence—that is to say, carnal love or lust.

Now, classical morality condemns carnal love. It seeks to extirpate desires that are inextirpable. Morality is inimical to the impulses; it rebels against life, it revolts against the impulses of life.

Nietzsche is affirmative of the impulses of life, but he is not a carnalist, either. He doesn’t believe in a rigid distinction between “pure love” and carnal love. (He suggests this, as well, in the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality.)

This is a false antinomy, according to Nietzsche, even though he does not explicitly write this in the passage that I am citing. The antithesis between “pure love” and fleshly passion is a false distinction. What Nietzsche names “the intellectualization of sensuality” is the supersession of the false dualism between the so-called “spiritual love” and the so-called “carnal love.” I believe that this is the main point which Nietzsche is making, even though he does not make this point explicit.

What is love in the Nietzschean sense?

Love—Nietzschean love—exists beyond conventional morality because it is the synthesis of the pure and the crude; it is the marriage between the dove and the pig.

Happiness comes from the feeling of the enhancement, the intensification of one’s vitality. But this is not some kind of do-whatever-you-want, let-chaos-reign, all-hail-disorder. It is not some kind of unconstrained scruffiness, some kind of laisser-aller.

Nietzsche teaches us this in a different book, but one that was written in the same year as this book was written, The Anti-Christian: “What is happiness?—The feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome,” Was ist Glück?—Das Gefühl davon, dass die Macht wächst, das ein Widerstand überwunden wird.

According to Nietzsche, Socrates had a pathological obsession with reason. Socratic philosophy is the pathology of rationality (according to Nietzsche).

Nietzschean thought is not a rationalism. It is an agonistics and an erotics.

* * * * *

The second ideal that Nietzsche explodes is the idea of absolute being, the permanency of absolute presence. The idea of a permanent being behind the whirlwind of the senses. Now, this permanent being might be the stability of the “I” (the unchanging center of the Self). It might be the eidos of Plato, which would exist in some spaceless space, in some timeless time.

It might be the idea of a signified meaning that would exist behind words, behind language.

Meaning does not exist behind words—it is generated by the relations among words and among letters and syllables, their interwebbing.

Permit me to quote Shakespeare, Henry IV: Part One, which is relevant to this context. The lines are spoken by Falstaff:

​“What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!”

What Falstaff says about the word honour may be fairly said about all words, all signifiers. What is a “man”? “Man” is a word, first of all. What is within that word? Air.

The subject “I” is a grammatical superstition, and our concept of the Self (as an unchangeable and unageable center of consciousness) comes from a prejudice of Western grammar. Because so many of our sentences begin with the word “I” (or some other subject), we assume, unconsciously, that every action has an agent.

As Nietzsche writes in this book, famously, “I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar,” Ich fürchte, wir werden Gott nicht los, weil wir noch an die Grammatik glauben…

It is quite rare for a philosopher to write about the body. Schopenhauer was one of the first philosophers to take the body seriously, in a positive manner. In fact, he was one of the philosophers to take animals and animality seriously.

Nietzsche, fascinatingly, writes about the nose, the nose which can detect motion (I have no idea whether this is scientifically accurate). Nietzsche thinks that the nose can distinguish subtleties that a spectroscope would miss. That is an intentional allusion to a Brian Eno song. Nietzsche inspired many musicians, including Marilyn Manson. It is clear that Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christian inspired many of Marilyn Manson’s lyrics (there are many correspondences between them).

I’m not sure if the nose can detect motion, but I do know that the olfactory sense plays a role in hearing and gustation (the sensation of taste).

Nietzsche writes about the nose in order to highlight his argument that the so-called world of the appearances, the world of phenomenality, IS the so-called “true world.” Our senses do not lie, as Plato believed. The sensorium gives us the only information about the world that we can have: sensory information.

All of this is to highlight the argument that the nose and the other sense organs bring us into closer contact with reality than do mathematics or logic. This might be another Nietzsche contradiction; it is an apparent contradiction or a quasi-contradiction. As I have written in other essays, Nietzsche contradicts himself often, but this is not a flaw in his thinking. Nietzsche bashes logic, yet elsewhere in this text (to be precise, in Paragraph Seven of “What the Germans Are Lacking,” “Was den Deutschen abgeht”), he bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer late nineteenth-century German students are mastering logic.

There is no logos behind the maelstrom of appearances. There is no Parousia, no permanence of absolute presence. Everything is motion without fixity, everything is change without stasis. (Nietzsche is here making a concession to Heraclitus.)

Neither is there the absolute origin or the absolute finality. The “absolute” is what is without conditions, qualifications, exceptions, or pre-origins. What seems to be a terminal point is a node in a web. There are no absolute beginnings or absolute endings. There is only becoming, not being—if by “being,” one means “the stasis of presence.” Another way of saying this is the distinction between being and nothingness is a false distinction; again, all is becoming.

So, appearances—what appears to our senses—are not errors. The dichotomy between the so-called “true world” and the so-called “world of appearances” is a false dichotomy. There is only one world, and that is the world of the senses. This is why Nietzsche writes, in italics: “[W]e got rid of the illusory world along with the true one!” [M]it der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!

The true world is a fiction (I mean “fiction” in the sense of “something that has been fabricated”).

The importance of art, for Nietzsche, is that art reminds us that phenomena are all that we have. Art repeats “the world of appearances.” Art highlights, emphasizes, accentuates phenomenality—works of art illuminate the “fact” that there is only one world, the “fact” that the only demonstrable, probative, provable, livable world is the phenomenal world.

* * * * *

The third idol that is twilit in this book is imaginary causation.

We know now that devils do not cause illnesses. We know now that angels do not heal the sick; most do not believe that the COVID-19 patients are healed by the grace of an angel. We no longer believe that daemons imprecate humanity by diffusing plagues throughout the world. But there was a time when such things were believed.

There was a time when people believed that meat gave birth to maggots. Maggots emerge from meat left out in the sun. This, of course, is imaginary causation. There was a time when people believed that grain gave birth to mice. This is another form of imagination causation.

There was a time when people thought that certain babies were evil. I don’t believe this! Don’t blame me! They also believed that evil babies came from incubi—the mother mated, perhaps unknowingly, with an incubus who crawled into her bed at night. The products of such an unholy union were called cambions, half-human, half-daemonic hybrid offspring.

Imaginary causality works in this fashion: A phenomenon is experienced and then an imaginary cause is superadded after the fact. A chimerical cause is chimerized where a natural explanation would do much better. Instead of applying Occam’s razor, one introjects an imaginary cause to a natural process. Flies are attracted to meat and lay their eggs on meat to which they attracted; the larval stage of a fly is a maggot. Mice are attracted to the grain in the barn. The farmer sees a mischief of mice in the barn and assumes, erroneously, that the grain gave birth to the mice. A child is born, and that child is fractious, unruly, unmanageable. The father believes, falsely, that his wife coupled with an incubus. This superstitious nonsense is imaginary causation.

This false logic might also take the form of the confusion of chronology and causality. I went to a Japanese restaurant and woke up sick this morning. I am now convinced that the food that I ate last night sickened me. This might be the case, but it is not necessarily the case. A creepy, irritating man leaves an insulting comment on someone’s YouTube channel. The next day, the person who runs the YouTube channel deletes it. I suppose that the manager of the YouTube channel deleted her channel because she was offended. But there is no immediate evidence that would support this assertion. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this because of this,” is the confusion of chronology with causality. Simply because something happens first does not mean that it is the cause of something else.

* * * * *

Morality is based on imaginary qualities or causes, such as human responsibility or the free will, to which I shall presently return. There is a great deal of talk in this culture about whether or not it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Then there is the theodical cliché: How can you reconcile the idea of a beneficent god with a world that is overflowing with misery?

But one doesn’t have to go that far. Atheists have the tendency to attack theists for believing in an intervening God, but that seems hypocritical to be. So many of the godless seem to believe in the imaginary. Consider the imaginary presuppositions of traditional morality. Traditional morality, even without religion, is based on the imaginary; it is fraught with imaginary causalities.

There are a number of famous atheists who seem very religious to me, for these atheistic public intellectuals believe in imaginary causes, such as moral responsibility. It has never been proven that any human being is morally responsible. Now, one might say that being morally responsible has its benefits, but isn’t that another question?

If someone believes in moral responsibility, that person believes in imaginary causation. And it is very likely that such a person believes that morality is universal, as well, which it is not.

I have expanded on this subject elsewhere, but let me say a few words to refute the fallacious claim that morality is universal.

Anyone who believes that morality is universal is ignoring the historical fact that marriage, for example, was at one time regarded as something transgressive—transgressive because private. Today, marriage is regarded as a virtue; at other times, it was regarded as a vice. For instance, throughout Europe, there was a practice known as the droit de seigneur. That is the putative right of a feudal lord to take possession of a bride on the day of her wedding or at any time he wanted to. This was a practice that we would regard as disgraceful today, but the point is that marriage was once regarded as something that was contrary to the right of the lord.

Hubris was regarded as a transgression in Ancient Greece. Consider the myth of Prometheus—Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished by being shackled to a rock. Every night, an eagle would devour his liver, which would then regrow only to be re-devoured. In Ancient Greece any violation of nature (the gods were emblematical of nature) was seen a transgression, but look at the violation of nature which is mountaintop blasting! This is something that is often practiced in our societies.

Revenge was considered a virtue in Ancient Greece (read the Orestia), but we disapprove of it today, etc., etc.

* * * * *

The fourth idol which is toppled from its pedestal is the argumentum ad consequentiam, “the argument from consequence,” though Nietzsche does not use this term. The argumentum ad consequentiam is a logical fallacy. It gives me pleasure to believe that I will be revived, after my death, as a hammerhead shark, or an Ashera cat, or an Egyptian wolverine; I believe this with every fiber of my being. But pleasure proves nothing. The pleasure produced by an idea proves absolutely nothing about the soundness of that idea. Nietzsche makes the point that hope ferments comfort—it could just as easily be argued that hope ferments discomfort, but fine. Irenicism might bring me comfort, I might desire with my entire being for there to be peace in the near future, but that doesn’t mean that one can look forward to the prospect of an irenic future. It is impossible to make absolute statements about the future with any degree of justification, and the future doesn’t care about me and my emotional state. Just because I desire a comforting cause, this doesn’t necessarily imply that the ostensible cause is the cause.

* * * * *

The fifth mythology is already one of the best-refuted mythologies in existence: voluntarism, the mythology of the freedom of the will. Nietzsche doesn’t actually demolish the concept of the freedom of the will in this book. He already annihilated the factitious concept of the free will in other of his books. Instead, Nietzsche is wondering: What is the benefit of having other people believe in the freedom of the will? Cui bono?

This is the argument, and it is an interesting one: Those who are invested in the propagation of free-will theory are practicing a form of sadism. “Whenever a particular state of affairs is traced back to a will, an intention, or a responsible action, becoming is stripped of its innocence. The notion of will was essentially designed with punishment in mind, which is to say the desire to assign guilt,” Man hat das Werden seiner Unschuld entkleidet, wenn irgend ein So-und-so Sein auf Wille, auf Absichten, auf Akte der Verantwortlichkeit zurückgeführt wird: die Lehre vom Willen ist wesentlich erfunden zum Zweck der Strafe, das heisst des Schuldig-finden-wollens [Paragraph Seven of “The Four Great Errors,” “Die vier grossen Irrthümer”].

Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I have the emotional need to believe in the free will” (this is another version of the argumentum ad consequentiam). But there is a specific emotional need at play here:

Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I want to punish people. And I cannot punish them by inflicting them with guilt unless they believe that they are free to choose whatever they choose.”

The entire criminal-justice system is built on the concept of the freedom of the will (cf. United States v. Grayson, 1978).

Now, we were taught in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morality that all human beings are cruel, but some of us interiorize our impulse toward cruelty. When cruelty is reintrojected in the human self, that is called “guilt” and “the bad conscience.” And the inculcation of guilt actively negates my self-esteem, my feeling of self-worth.

But all human beings are cruel. Nothing is more natural to the human animal than a taste for cruelty (it might take the form of watching horror films, “fail videos,” or other malicious spectacles). Though Nietzsche never writes about sociopathy, this idea makes me rethink modern psychology’s take on sociopathy. Perhaps it is inaccurate to throw certain people into a bucket labelled “Sociopaths.” Perhaps there is an economy of sociopathy. Perhaps everyone has the capacity for sociopathy. If I am wrong about this, why do so many people enjoy violent sports, such as boxing or tauromachy (bullfighting)? Is there a certain moment at which any human being can read about the destruction of other human beings with coldness, with indifference?

* * * * *

The sixth idol which is blown into smithereens is the ideal that life has a transcendent purpose. Another of the most famous statements that Nietzsche ever made also appears in this book, and you will find it in form of memes all over social media. It is Aphorism Twelve: “If someone has a Why? in life, one can get along with almost any How?” Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?

However, this aphorism has been often misinterpreted. Nietzsche is suggesting that the idea of a purpose in life makes life tolerable, to be sure, but he is not suggesting that life actually has a real purpose. Life has no purpose at all, according to Nietzsche. As I wrote in my essay on Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister:

All is purposeless yet necessary.

Life does not move in the direction of some transcendent goal, unless death and decomposition would be considered a “goal.”

But everyone is necessary in relation to the whole economy of life. There is an amazing profusion of human types in the economy of life. And one should never wish to wish away any human being, for each human being is necessary for the operation and self-maintenance of the whole economy of the human species. Every mediocrity is essential to the economy of life; without the mediocre, the remarkable would be unremarkable. To cite one example of this: Bad books are essential because they are consonant with the tastes of undiscerning people.

* * * * *

The seventh idol is that the idea that humanity is progressively improving, which it manifestly is not, and it is refreshing to read Nietzsche’s counter-argument to the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung. If you’d like an example of the Enlightenment hypothesis that humanity is gradually refining itself, read Lessing, “The Education of the Human Race,” Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts.

I already discussed Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity in my lecture series on Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. The malady of modernity, for Nietzsche, is the paralysis of the will. Nietzsche also writes about the stupidification, the idiotization, the mediocritization, the banalization of culture in the modern world. In Götzen-Dämmerung, Nietzsche has a slightly different critique of modernity. In modernity, according to the logic of this book, progression and regression are one and the same. The ostensible “refining” of humankind is really a taming, a domesticating, a making-docile of the human beast. Animals are trained—this doesn’t mean that they become sophisticated. Neither is it the case that the human beast becomes sophisticated, becomes refined simply because it is trained to be “civilized.” Making-civilized is retrogressive; it is the manipulation and curtailing of the life-instincts. An uncaged animal is more advanced than the modern human being.

Nietzsche is in good company. Kafka said something similar to Gustav Janouch: “In the light of Darwinism, human evolution looks like a monkey’s fall from grace.”

H. L. Mencken wrote something quite similar, but regrettably, I can’t find the citation. Mencken made the argument that the human being devolved from the ape. Of course, it is a falsification to think that human beings evolved from apes; they did not. Mencken, who journalistically covered the Scopes trial, was inverting the common misconception of Darwinian evolution.

As I have said above, Nietzsche is an antinomian. He reminds us, again and again, not to believe in any traditional concept that you haven’t evaluated yourself. It makes no sense to believe in a concept merely because it is old. To do so is to enter the logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad antiquatitam, the argument from tradition. Simply because an idea is hoarily old, this does not imply that such an idea is valid.

Permit me to enumerate all of the ideals that are detonated in this book, all of the idols that are twilit:

False Idol One: Reason leads to virtue, which leads to happiness.

False Idol Two: Absolutes exist. There is such a thing as absolute, motionless, changeless being, whether it is the Self, permanency, an unconditional origin, absolute finality, signified meaning that comes before language, etc.

False Idol Three: Imaginary causes are real causes.

False Idol Four: A belief that gives me pleasure is a true belief.

False Idol Five: There exists something like a free will.

False Idol Six: Life has a transcendent purpose.

False Idol Seven: Humanity is progressively improving.


Joseph Suglia





Joseph Suglia


Below is a partial transcript of a video that I published on YouTube. It concerns Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.


I hate this play, in the same way that I hate all of Shakespeare’s order-restoring plays and treasure most of his order-deconstituting plays. Shakespeare is, at once, both the most overestimated writer of all time and the most underestimated of writer of all time.

My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will give a lecture on Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare.

Let me say this before carving up the play as if it were a cooked turkey. If one is a child, Pericles, Prince of Tyre by Shakespeare is an unanswerably beautiful, unfadably exquisite, magical fairy tale, fletched with lovely verse, and that is fine for children, but for adults, it is drivel that is insulting to the intelligence of any person of maturity.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a late-period play, probably composed circa 1607; in some places, the manuscript is mutilated, and Harold Bloom surmises that the opening two acts of the play were not even fashioned by Shakespeare.

We learn (from the chorus) that Pericles comes to Syria in order to win the hand of King Antiochus’ daughter, who is named merely “Daughter.”

Our chorus is John Gower, the medieval poet, who serves as one of Shakespeare’s primary sources. He addresses the audience directly.

Like The Tempest, the play contains direct appeals to the audience and seeks to appease the spectator in an ingratiatory manner. Pericles, Prince of Tyre contains a superabundance of direct appeals to the audience, far more than The Tempest does.

We learn from the chorus that “the father” took a “liking” to the Daughter and “her to incest did provoke” [Chorus: Act One].

“Incest” and “crave” are the two most significant and signifying words in the play. “Incest” appears five times in the text, and some form of the verb “to crave” appears seven times.

The Daughter is described as a “[b]ad child” and as a “sinful dame” [I:i] by Gower.

This is strange, for surely the Daughter is not responsible for her own violation by the Father. We will return to this matter presently.

Much as Hercules was charged to pluck the golden apples in the dragon-guarded orchard of the Hesperides, Pericles is challenged with an impossible task. Why this task is impossible I will explain in a moment.

The challenge with which he is presented is the same challenge with which all of the Daughter’s prospective suitors are presented: Solve a riddle, much in the way that Oedipus was challenged to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.

Antiochus the Father says: “Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, / With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touched, / For death-like dragons here affright thee hard” [I:i].

What are the death-like dragons in the golden-apple orchard?

Antiochus explains: “[W]hoso asked [the Daughter] for his wife, / His riddle told not, lost his life. / So for her many a wight did die, / As yon grim looks do testify” [I:i].

The stage direction indicates that Antiochus points to a series of decapitated heads displayed above him, heads that bedeck the walls—presumably, the severed heads that are nailed to the wall are those of the failed suitors.

The corpse-heads are glowering at Pericles from above.

The heads that are fastened to the wall are described as those of “martyrs slain in Cupid’s wars” [I:i], which would be an excellent title for a hard-rock album.

Decapitation signifies, of course, emasculation—the destruction of the Son’s masculinity by the Father who assumes the role of the lover of his own daughter. The Son is pitifully inadequate in relation to the Father.

In these lines, Pericles expresses how “little” he feels in relation to the “greatness” of the artificial Father, Antiochus: “The great Antiochus / ’Gainst whom I am too little to contend, / Since he’s so great can make his will his act, / Will think me speaking, though I swear to silence…” [I:ii]. He is here listening to himself speak. Pericles experiences himself as “little”; the Father is experienced as “great.”

Though Pericles does not expound the solution, it is evident through his silence and his elusive remarks that he has decrypted the riddle. He refuses to disclose the meaning of the riddle, but he does show that he understands its meaning. He does not name the sin of incest, but he points at it. His language, though indirect, condemns him.

This is what Pericles says to the King when the former is commanded to expound the riddle (from Act One: Scene One):

Great king,
Few love to hear the sins they love to act;
’Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.
Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown:
For vice repeated is like the wandering wind.
Blows dust in other’s eyes, to spread itself;
And yet the end of all is bought thus dear,
The breath is gone, and the sore eyes see clear:
To stop the air would hurt them. The blind mole casts
Copp’d hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng’d
By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth die for’t.
Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s
their will;
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?
It is enough you know; and it is fit,
What being more known grows worse, to smother it.
All love the womb that their first being bred,
Then give my tongue like leave to love my head.

Antiochus says, in an aside: “Heaven that I had his head!” [I:i].

So: If Pericles correctly explicates the riddle, he will be killed; if he does not correctly explicates the riddle, he will also be killed.

The Father is a mendacious, unfair, unjust, dangerous, “sinful” father, since any man who solves the riddle incorrectly is decapitated AND any man who solves the riddle correctly is decapitated.

If a suitor guesses the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.

If a suitor does not guess the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.

There will be decapitation—that is to say, emasculation—either way.

Pericles imperils himself by showing without showing that he comprehends the perverse character of King Antiochus’ relationship with his daughter.

Incest is unmentionable, unspeakable, unutterable and must remain unspoken before the King. Some things are too dreadful to be brought into utterance, some things are too dreadful to be vocalized in the presence of majesty. And yet the word does appear elsewhere in the text.

Pericles solves the riddle, much as Oedipus does, further fortifying the incestuous love triangle.

In Act One: Scene One, Pericles describes the Daughter in the following way (talking to himself silently, while apostrophizing her in his head): “You are a fair viol…” Now, a viol is a stringed musical instrument, and one can hear the resonances of the word “vial” within—for the Daughter is like a receptacle, a vial that allegedly contains vileness. But V-I-O-L are contained in the word “violation,” as well.

The Daughter is violated. She is forced into an incestuous relationship with her father, a relationship for which Pericles and the Chorus nonetheless blame her.

The relationship between Antiochus and the Daughter is obviously an aberrant, perverse relationship. This is the incestuous triangle: Antiochus has turned his daughter into his wife, in effect, since they are in an incestuous yet monogamous relationship. This makes the daughter the mother of Pericles, since Pericles looks upon Antiochus as if Antiochus were the Prohibiting Father, the Father who says, “No.”

This might seem far-fetched, but hear me out. Traditionally, the young man will ask the father of the daughter for the daughter’s hand in marriage. If the daughter becomes the young man’s wife, the father of the daughter will become the son’s father. So, the father of the wife is the surrogate, substitute, artificial, proxy father of the husband. It is true that Pericles does not become married to Antiochus’ daughter, but that changes nothing.

Pericles’ passion for the Daughter appears to be stimulated, of course, by the fact that he is essentially prohibited from having her. This is almost epigrammatic: What is forbidden, interdicted, prohibited is appealing.

Now, Pericles is not Antiochus’ literal son, but neither is the “Daughter” reducible to the role of Antiochus’ daughter. Incest warps and invalidates anything like a defensible father-daughter relation.

The Son, Pericles, desires the Mother, who is both the daughter to the Father, Antiochus, and the wife to the Father.

Antiochus is the Bad Father—the son-destroying, emasculating, perverse, mendacious, totalitarian father who sees the son as a competitor. In totalitarian dictatorships, the totalitarian dictator prosecutes the feelings, the thoughts, the dreams, the desires, the fantasies of his/her subjects, if those feelings, etc., are not sanctioned by the dictator. The dictator claims the soul, in the inner life, of his/her subjects. Antiochus is not prosecuting Pericles for the latter’s actions, but for Pericles’ intentions, thoughts, dreams, desires, etc.

The Father wants the Daughter-Dash-Wife all for himself, and the son is interdicted from having access to the Mother-Daughter.

And Pericles wants the Mother-Daughter precisely because of the totalitarian prohibition of the Sinful Father. Pericles uses the phrase “sinful father” in Act One: Scene Two in conversation with his understudy Helicanus. Antiochus is the Father who stimulates his son’s desires by prohibiting those desires and who punishes the Son for having such desires. For desiring the Mother, who is sacred. “Sacred” means “that which may not be touched or desired.”

Pericles, the Artificial Son, desires Antiochus’ Daughter because she belongs to the Father, not despite the fact that she belongs to the Father. To the extent that the Daughter is the Wife to the Father, this disrupts Pericles’ desired identification with the Father. Pericles will not become the Father until he reconciles with his own daughter, Marina, in the fifth act of the play.

At the close of the play, the artificial Son, Pericles, will become The Naturalized Father, and the circle will be complete.

* * * * *

Thaliard is the assassin who is suborned to kill Pericles. Thaliard intends to kill Pericles until he assumes that Pericles will perish by sea.

The crane descends. So, the assassin suddenly gives up his mission to assassinate Pericles as soon as the assassin learns that Pericles is at sea. This is the first deus ex machina of the play.

What is a deus ex machina? A deus ex machina, a “god out of the machine,” is a plot convenience in which a character in a literary work is suddenly rescued from some brutal fate. This happens, for instance, at the end of Euripides’ Medea when the Georgian infanticidal murderess is rescued by Helios, the Sun God. A deus ex machina is more than a contrivance of plot; it is contrived-appearing. In Ancient Greek tragedy, a literal crane descends on to the stage and seizes the misfortunate and pulls him or her up to safety. And the audience smiles and feels warm inside.

My central criticism of the play is that it is a chockablock with instances of deus ex machina.

The crane descends, and the god saves the misfortunate.

There is one deus ex machina after the other in the text.

God is not in the machine, but out of it, rescuing Medea, putting her in the passenger seat of Helios’ chariot.

The crane comes down and snatches up Pericles, rescuing him from possible assassination.

We learn from Helicanus, in Act Two: Scene Four, that Antiochus and his daughter will be struck by divine lightning and incinerated for the transgression of incest: “A fire from heaven came and shrivelled up / Their bodies even to loathing…” The gods come out of the machine and destroy Pericles’ enemies or otherwise impede their projects.

Pericles flees Syria and sails to Turkey—particularly, to the city of Tarsus—where he is heralded as a messiah for saving the starving, impoverished Tarsians from immiseration, starvation, emaciation, maceration.

Here is another deus ex machina. Down comes the crane! There is a rapid shift from immiseration to grateful celebration. The Tarsians cease their lamentations; they will be fed.

In the chorus of Act Two, Gower gives us sing-songy perfect rhymes which sound less than perfect.

But they do serve as a transition from the first act to the second act, in which we learn that Pericles, upon discovering that Thaliard came full-bent with sin to murder him, decides that Tarsus is not the best for him to make his rest and puts forth to seas where men have seldom ease, ’til Fortune, tired of doing bad, throws him ashore to make him glad. I’m just lightly paraphrasing, lightly paraphrasing.

Upon what shore is Pericles thrown? Upon the shore of Pentapolis, which means “a group of five cities.” He is greeted on the shore by fishermen, who mock him mercilessly. He begs for help, but the fishermen laugh at him, until he talks about how he is a “man throng’d up with cold,” by which he means that he is assaulted by the cold as if the cold were a mob [II:i], which activates the altruistic social instinct of the First Fisherman, who proclaims:

I have a gown here;
come, put it on; keep thee warm. Now, afore me, a
handsome fellow! Come, thou shalt go home, and
we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for
fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks,
and thou shalt be welcome

So, notice that the First Fisherman has a suddenly inhuman and inhumanly sudden change of mind and change of heart, a burst of metanoia. The First Fisherman moves from callousness toward outsiders and malicious mockery to the warm embracement of the Tyrian Pericles. Now, Pericles will, apparently, become an artificial appendage of the First Fisherman’s family and can look forward to repasts of puddings and flap-jacks. This is one of the many squirmy, wince-inducing, improbable metanoias that pock the entire text of the play.

It strikes me now that Pericles, who moves from one synthetic family to another, is desperately trying to find the Father. He tried to find the Father in Antiochus and fails. He tries to find the Father in the First Fisherman. He will finally find the Father in Simonides.

The crane descends again and snatches up Pericles. Pericles will soon, beyond comprehension, plausibility, and probability, be welcome by the King Simonides and will marry his only daughter, Thaisa.

Simonides is the benevolent authoritarian father; Antiochus is the “sinful” totalitarian father.

However, Simonides pretends to be the Absolute No-Father that Antiochus is. Let us remember that Antiochus is the father who always says, “No,” much like the No-God of Karl Barth, the God Who Forever Says, “No.”

Just as Simonides is the replacement of Antiochus, Thaisa is the replacement of Antiochus’ daughter.

The drama that will unfold among Pericles, Simonides, and Thaisa is an ironic repetition of the drama among Pericles, Antiochus, and Antiochus’ daughter at the beginning of the play. Things turn out much better the second time around for all parties involved.

Notice that, in his asides, Simonides confesses to the audience that he wants Pericles to marry his daughter “with all [his] heart” [II:v]. However, he gives a show of resistance and demands “subjection” [Ibid.]. It is a display of refusal, it is pure theatre. In Shakespearean philosophy, all of human existence is the dramatization of roles, even in the intimate sphere of the family. The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides should be distinguished from the actual totalitarian father Antiochus.

The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides demands that both his daughter and his prospective son-in-law “frame [their] will” to his. In other words, the totalitarian-appearing father outwardly demands submission in order to enhance Pericles’ desire for his daughter, knowing, as wise Simonides doubtless does, the essence of human desire. We chase after that which is not easily available.

Simonides pretends to be as imperious and as preemptory as Antiochus, but he is not so. The effect is, whether “conscious” or “unconscious,” the stimulation of Pericles’ desire for Thaisa. Desire desires only what is not easily accessible, what is remote, what is receding. It is likely that Simonides knows this, and so he stages a barrier between Pericles’ desiring and the object of his desiring, Thaisa.

If desire does not seem to be transgressing a law—in this case, the Father’s edict—desire cannot exist.

Why does Antiochus orchestrate such a cruel form of gamesmanship? I suspect that he does so in order to feel his own power. He is so insecure, as all tyrants are, that he rigs the game in advance so that each suitor will lose. He is like the casino owner who will always win at his slot machines and roulette wheels.

Think of the gamesmanship of Simonides, who actually wants Pericles to win. Simonides also rigs the game in advance such that the player, Pericles, will win; Antiochus rigs the game in advance such that every player will lose.

In Act Three, Pericles is on a ship with his new bride, underway to Tyre, where he must land soon or else forsake his kingship. His wife Thaisa appears to die while giving birth to Marina, so-called because she is born at sea. As Marina later describes herself: “Ay me, poor maid / Born in a tempest when my mother died, / This world to me is as a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends” [Act Four: Scene One]. The physical world is the world of Neptune; Marina, like her mother, is dedicated to the world beyond the physical world, which is the world of Diana. The play stages a conflict between Neptune and Diana.

What is strange about this scene—the first scene of Act Three—is that Pericles immediately assents to the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of the mariners. The mariners tell Pericles that the (phenomenal) cadaver of his wife must be pitched over the side of the ship, for it is bad luck (they think) to have a dead body aboard. Incredibly, Pericles submits to the will of the mariners, invertebrate that he is: “As you think meet. Most wretched queen!” Pericles is still weak—he is excessively deferential, even to his own subjects.

The sailors throw Thaisa overboard in a coffin, seasoned with eleven herbs and spices, as if she were a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is not a joke; it actually appears in the text (the corpse is seasoned with spices). There is even a passport within the coffin. This is also not a joke; it actually appears in the text.

The coffin sails to Ephesus, where it is discovered by its inhabitants. Either the Ephesians revive Thaisa’s corpse, or they reinvigorate and awaken the still-living-yet-comatose Thaisa.

There is a certain ambiguity here (though far less interesting than the concluding ambiguity of The Winter’s Tale). Does Thaisa actually die and is then revivified? Or did she merely fall into a coma while undergoing the agony of parturition?

Another question that floats in my mind as I read the play: Why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs?

Now, one might object to me that medical science in the Age of the Elizabeth did not reach any degree of sophistication, but Elizabethan England did, in fact, have a knowledge of vital signs. Indeed, Shakespeare and Pericles both have a knowledge of vital signs. We know this from the very play that we are discussing.

In Act Five: Scene One, in their scene of reconciliation, Pericles asks Marina if she is imaginary or real. He asks her if she has vital signs: “Have you a working pulse and are no fairy?”

So, why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs before pitching her over the side of the ship and into the briny sea? Presumably because he is an idiot.

At this stage, Pericles is still weak; at the conclusion of the play, he will become The Father.

In any event, Thaisa retires to the Temple of Diana—“A vestal livery will I take me to,” she says in Act Three: Scene Four—and Marina ends up in a bordello.

So, to summarize, Pericles brings his sea-born daughter Marina to the Tarsians, for the sake of her safety, and solicits them to raise her. When she turns fourteen, Marina is admired by all of the Tarsians, and Lady Dionyza’s less prepossessing daughter Philoten is ignored. (Dionyza is the wife to the Lord of the Tarsians, Cleon.) So, Dionyza does what any mother would do and suborns the murder of Marina. Dionyza is another version of Lady Macbeth. The Tragedy of Macbeth was composed circa 1606, and this play was composed, again, circa 1607. It is very likely that Shakespeare was thinking of Lady Macbeth as he was fashioning the character of Lady Dionyza. In Act Four: Scene Three, Dionyza asks her husband, rhetorically, “Can it be undone?” She is alluding to the phenomenal murder of Marina, and her words are consonant with Lady Macbeth’s famous line “What’s done cannot be undone.” Interestingly, Dionyza’s name might be traceable to Dionysus, I’m not sure. I might be mistaken about this, but the thought did occur to me. In any event, Dionyza commissions Leonine, whose name means “The Lionlike One,” to assassinate Marina.

As you might expect, there is yet another deus ex machina.

Out of nowhere, pirates appear and prevent Leonine from slaughtering sweet Marina! Leonine says of Marina (in a soliloquy): “I’ll swear she’s dead / And thrown into the sea” [Act Four: Scene One].

The pirates will now sell poor Marina into prostitution at a brothel in Mytilene, which is a city in Greece that was founded in the eleventh century before the Christian era.

But wait, there is another deus ex machina! Even though Marina is prostituted against her will, she shames all of her clients with her purity, with her eloquence, with her elegance, with her grace, with her high-mindedness.

Those licentious men who steal into the bordello at night come out physically unfulfilled but with pure thoughts (and presumably as votaries of the Goddess Diana). Marina emerges from the entire ordeal vestally unviolated. As the Bawd phrases it, in Act Four: Scene Five, “[Marina] is able to freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation.” Shades of Measure for Measure.

So, Marina gets through her ordeal unviolated. Her name means, again, “She Who Was Born at Sea” and who navigates through the world unshipwrecked, without a fatal naval disaster. She is a votaress of the Goddess Diana, much like her mother. They are devoted in soul and in mind and in heart to the world beyond the senses. The physical world is likened to the dominion of Neptune. This world—this tempestuous, turbulent, mutable world—belongs to Neptune, for it is as unstable as the sea; the suprasensible world belongs to the Goddess Diana.

One of Marina’s clients is Lysimachus—yes, the same, the very Lysimachus who was the successor to Alexander the Great and is currently the Lord of Mytilene. Yet again, Marina shames her client.

Marina calls herself “the meanest bird” that flies in the “purer air” [IV:vi], but the exact opposite is more accurate. Is she not the purest bird in the meanest air?

Students of rhetoric will be familiar the Pathetic Appeal, which is when the speaker or the writer attempts to stimulate pity—it is an argument-enhancer, an argument-intensifier, an argument-decorator, not the core of the argument itself, which should be logos. If logos is ever superseded by pathos, then the argument becomes an argumentum ad misericordiam, which is a non-argument, but I can’t discuss that here.

There is also an unnamed rhetorical device, which I would call the “Shame Appeal.”

So ashamed is Lysimachus by Marina’s rhetoric that he bates himself, he bates his libidinal cravings. He demands nothing of Marina and gives her more than what was required of him. This client—originally, a hardened libertine who frequents houses of prostitution—will eventually become Marina’s husband.

So, the woman who is forced into prostitution and who yet refuses to prostitute herself marries one of her own clients. That is exactly what happens in this text.

The panderer has enough of this and intends to have his way with Marina. He threatens to abscond with her virginity (“Come, mistress…” [IV:v]).

But the crane descends again! The panderer is so impressed by Marina’s resume that he offers to find her a job elsewhere. The very traits that make Marina an object of envy—her singing skills, her weaving skills, her sewing skills, her dancing skills (“I can sing, weave, sew, and dance,” she says in Act Four: Scene Five)—are the same traits that make her marketable elsewhere and allow her to escape prostitution.

So: Marina’s skillfulness at sewing—a quality that nearly got her killed by the hand of Leonine, under the direction of Dionyza—will prove to be her redemption. She will become a sewing instructress at an all-girls’ school.

Are we supposed to believe that a dissolute panderer, a hard-hearted procurer, a snakelike pimp, is proficient at job placement and is able to find Marina a teaching position at a school for the daughters of wealthy families? Apparently, Shakespeare thinks that we are credulous enough to believe this, if he indeed is the author of this play.

Marina again escapes unviolated. As is stated in Chorus Six, “Marina thus the brothel scapes…”

Let us pause over this moment. This is astonishing: Lysimachus is a hardened libertine who uses prostitutes and might actually be syphilitic. And we are supposed to allow that it is perfectly wholesome for him to marry the pure-hearted and virginal Marina, who staves off lecherous men by shaming them and who is a votaress to the Goddess Diana, much like her mother.

This is but one of the many improbabilities, one of the many implausibilities with which the play is fraught. And yes, it is yet another deus ex machina.

In Act Five: Scene One, there is a beautiful reconciliation and recognition between father Pericles and daughter Marina. The recognition gives way, as it always does traditionally, to a turnaround in the plot. Pericles says to his rediscovered daughter: “O, come hither, / Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” [V:i].

Translation: “You created the one who created you.” If one were to take this passage literally, the Father creates the Daughter, who then becomes the Mother to the Father—but the Daughter never becomes the King’s wife, the Queen (as happens between Antiochus and his Daughter).

This temporal paradox is reminiscent of one of the chief paradoxes of Christianity: God creates the Virgin Mary and then becomes the Son of His own Mother, His own creation. So, the Father creates His own Mother.

By contrast, one of the heresiarchs of Christianity, Arius, held that the Son has a separate existence and a separate divinity from God the Father. Allegedly, Arius was slapped across the face and exiled because of this heretical belief that the Son does not encarnalize the Father.

To return more immediately to the text of the play: Marina is the involuntary prostitute who is too pure for the role that has been imposed upon her. She, the daughter to Pericles, rejects a life of perversity, unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, who exists in an unholy, incestuous alliance with her father. Unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, Marina has a name—an identity apart from the Father.

Thus, the play turns full circle. It is a cosmically ironic circularity. Marina at first presents herself to her initially unrecognizing father Pericles not as his daughter, but as a comely young woman. She says, in Act Five: Scene One, that she is often “gazed on like a comet,” an astral body streaming through the heavens.

Marina does not present herself to Pericles initially as her daughter but as a woman who would inflame his senses and who, to quote Lysimachus, “would allure” him [V:i]. Now, “allure” is not a word that I would choose to describe the effect that a daughter normally has upon her father, at least not in healthy relationships between daughters and fathers.

The plot swiftly moves in a more wholesome direction. So, the recognition scene between Pericles and Marina begins as if it were incestuous, much as the relationship between Antiochus and his daughter was certainly incestuous. And yet the relationship between Pericles and Marina moves beyond the perverse into a realm of legitimacy.

Pericles expresses his intention to shear his hair and beard, which he grew long while mourning his daughter and wife: “And now this ornament [which] / Makes me look dismal will I clip to form” [V:iii]. The word form, like the word frame, suggests restraint, rather than the boundless depravity of Antiochus.

There are, within the text, altogether too many ingratiatory appeals, too many appeasements of the audience. Art should never attempt to ingratiate itself with the spectatorship.

In this play, the Evil perish—Cleon, Dionyza, Antiochus, Leonine all are enemies who are rapidly vanquished—and the Good win.

* * * * *

What is life? Life is the unanalyzable swathe of all possible experiences, and many of these possible experiences are conflictual experiences. All of us living must participate in the struggle for existence, and existence is largely conflict. There is the conflict between Self and Self (we see the gradual self-overcoming of Pericles), the conflict between Self and Other Human Beings, and the conflict between Self and World or Self and Nature (represented by the naval disasters set in motion by Neptune, the Sea). But this play, which dramatizes the second conflict (between Self and Other Human Beings) in a tepid manner, makes such conflicts seem easily won. Again and again, the crane descends, saving one protagonist or another.

I admit that this might be a personal disinclination, but I cannot tolerate art (or entertainment) that gives easy answers to life’s insoluble and indecipherable riddles. That is the task of entertainment; art should never do so. Art should highlight and dramatize the conflicts of life, not soft-soap them. Pericles, Prince of Tyre mollifies interhuman conflicts; it narcotizes the reader (or spectator).

As I was re-reading this play, I thought of another dramatist: Berthold Brecht.

You might be familiar with the East German dramatist Brecht. At the end of his play The Three-Penny Opera, Die Dreigroschenoper, the life of the gangster Macheath is saved when the King inexplicably pardons him.

A character named Herr Peachum reminds us that “in reality,” the lives of “the poorest of the poor” end in a terrible manner, denn in Wirklichkeit ist gerade ihr Ende schimm.

In reality, the poorest of the poor are not saved from a dismal end by the King!

At the very end of the play, the Morality Singer, Moritatensänger, intones the following lines. First, I will cite the German, then my rendering of the stanza into English:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln,
Und die andern sind im Licht.
Und man sieht die im Lichte,
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

For some are in darkness,
And others are in light.
You see those in the light,
Those in the darkness no one sees.

Why do I cite these lines? To suggest the following: Art is a lie, but it doesn’t have to be an insultingly patronizing lie. This play is a pretty fairy tale, if you are a child, but one doesn’t have all of life to grow up. Complex art deals with the glories of life, to be sure, but also its misfortunes. Pericles, Prince of Tyre gives nothing other than false consolations.

Joseph Suglia






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.

Joseph Suglia


[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.