The Unreadability of Hamlet

THE UNREADABILITY OF HAMLET

by Joseph Suglia

“No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with convictions…”

—Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay

“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent”

—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

Hamlet is not killed by Laertes, nor is he killed by Claudius; he is killed again and again by consumer culture, which is incrementally becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth.  That is to say: The text entitled The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which is attributed to a person named William Shakespeare, has been distilled to a compound of popular-cultural clichés.  The text has been zombified.  I do not mean that the language of the text is obsolete or irrelevant.  I mean that the play “lives on” in the deathful form of clichés, for clichés are dead language.

Nearly every line of the play has become a platitude, a slogan, a title of a song or a film, a song lyric.  Most have an at least sedimentary understanding of the play—in the form of the clichés that the play has generated.  You might not have read Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, but Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark has read you.

It is nearly impossible to read the words of the text in their original context, since the text now appears porous to any culturally literate person.  It is not an open-source text; it is an open-sore text.  It is leachy, pervious, permeable to the outside.  That is to say, the text constantly refers to popular-cultural detritus, to bastardized commercializations of the play that Shakespeare was fortunate enough never to have seen or to have heard.  Or, proleptically, to other works of literature; I have read about half of these lines in other works of literature.  When I read “sweets to the sweet,” “ay, very like a whale,” or “beetles over his base into the sea,” I think not of Hamlet (or of the play of which he is the eponym), but of Joyce’s Ulysses, wherein these same phrases reappear.  I am forcibly extricated from the initial text and redirected to another, much later work of literature.

It is not that my mobile telephone is pulling me out of the text.  Staying alone with the text, without the buzzing and shrilling of our telephones, without the compulsive need to check one’s e-mail is a persistent challenge for most, it is true.  Yet this argument is not so much incorrect as it is banal.  It is an argument has been too easily and too often made before (most notably, by Nicolas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”).  My argument is not that the webware of our minds has been redesigned and redrawn—something that I have accepted as an immovable fact long ago.  Yes, I know that most are distractible.  I have known this for years.  My argument is different.

What is pulling me out of the text is a set of exophoric references that has come long after the fact of the text’s composition.

I am arguing that the play is unreadable independently of its multiple references to consumerist culture.  I do not mean that the text cannot be read (it is as compulsively readable as any text in the Shakespearean canon).  Again, this is not my argument.  I am suggesting something else.  I mean that the text cannot be read as a text, so englutted is it with post-date media clichés and references to other works of literature.  The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a multiply linked polytext.

In an age in which Google is the New God, it is even less probable that one could read a text in its nudity.  We have reached the point at which many of us cannot read a text as text, assuming that such a thing were even ever possible.  As Nietzsche writes in the late notebooks, “To able to read off a text as text, without interposing an interpretation between the lines, is the latest form of ‘inner experience’—perhaps one that is scarcely possible,” einen Text als Text ablesen können, ohne eine Interpretation dazwischen zu mengen, ist die späteste Form der “inneren Erfahrung,”— vielleicht eine kaum mögliche…  One would require an innocent mind to be able to read a text that is unalloyed.

And yet there are no innocent minds any longer—if there ever were!  So supersaturated is the play with after-the-fact media clichés, so embedded is the play with alluvial deposits, so thoroughly is the play encrusted with post-date media messages that it is pre-contaminated.  It is pre-inscribed, paradoxically, by cultural references that were superimposed on the text 400 years after the fact.  Cultural references that have been superimposed to the extent that they are have become part of the text “itself.”  The clichés are not extricable from the text “itself.”

The play cannot be ensiled, protected from the intrusion of clichés.  To ensile means to prepare and store fodder (such as hay or corn) so that it is conduced into silage (succulent feed for livestock).

The lines of the play have taken on lives of their own outside of the play.  Many of them have fallen into the flabbiness of ordinary language.  Popular culture has engulfed the text and debased it.

* * * * *

Here is a partial list of popular-cultural vandalizations and vulgarizations of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  I will be citing the Second Quarto (1604-1605) exclusively, for it is the most expansive version of the play:

“’Tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart” [I:i] is now the language of the weather report.  Squalls and flurries are routinely described by meteorologists as “bitter cold.”  Supporters of politicians are said to wait for their candidates in the “bitter cold.”  “Bitter cold” is said to be the climate of beautiful Rochester, New York.  Poeticism has been deflated, fallen into the stupidity of ordinary language.

“Not a mouse stirring” is now a verse in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore.  Moore defamiliarized and rescrambled the cliché: It has now become “Not a creature was stirring / not even a mouse.”  And yet that itself has become a cliché.  Readers and spectators of the play will call the Christmas favorite to mind—and digress from the text of the play into yuletide musings.

The stage direction Exit Ghost is now the title of a 2007 novel by Philip Roth.

“Stay, Illusion” is now the title of the book of poetry by Lucie Brock-Broido.

“A little more than kin, and less than kind” [I:ii]: Hamlet’s reproving words to his adulterous, fratricidal stepfather is now a Canadian television series called Less Than Kind (2008-2013).

“I shall not look upon his like again”: Whenever someone dies and the eulogist at the obsequy wants to sound literate, s/he will say, “We’ll not see his/her like again.”  In their eulogies to David Bowie and John McCain, Will Self and Joe Biden, respectively, change the “I” to “we”—a common misremembrance, a common misrecollection of the line.  It is originally Hamlet’s manner of saying that his father—his only father, his real father, his bio-dad—is irreplaceable and certainly may never be replaced by an incestuous, fratricidal drunkard and idiot.

“This above all, to thine own self be true” [I:iii]: These words no longer are counsel given by the unbrilliant Polonius to his son Laertes before the latter is dispatched to France to study at university.  They now form an inscription tattooed on the faceless arms of hundreds of thousands of “social-media” mystics and cybernetic insta-priests (the words before the colon are usually deleted).

I place “social media” in quotation marks because there is nothing social about “social media.”

I suspect that the tattoo exists in order to be photographed and “shared” for the benefit of “Likes.”  I wonder how many carve, chisel, these words into their flesh in order to display the insignia / imprint to their shadowy internet “friends” and “followers.”  This is a good example of denaturing the body in order to receive approval from hollow cybernetic effigies.

In the twenty-first century: We do not experience and then represent; we represent and then experience.

But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honoured in the breach than the observance” [I:iv]: As Philip B. Corbett illuminates in his The New York Times article “Mangled Shakespeare,” “to the manner born” is often misheard and misremembered as “to the manor born.”

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” [I:iv]: Once Marcellus’s baleful diagnosis of his country upon seeing the ghost of the dead king, the statement is now a cliché that can be found almost everywhere.

No longer the admonition of Claudius to his son to leave the boy’s mother unpunished by worldly vengeance, “leave her to heaven” [I:v] is now a 1945 film noir directed by John M. Stahl.

Once Horatio’s words of astonishment upon seeing the ghost of his friend’s father, “wondrous strange” is now the title of a young-adult fantasy novel by Lesley Livingston.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”: This was originally Hamlet’s gentle rebuke to Horatio for his Epicureanism (Epicurus denied the supernatural) after both characters see the ghost of Hamlet’s father.  The “your” is often changed to “our,” Horatio’s name is almost always deleted, and this is now the favorite weasel sentence of agnostics who condescendingly allow the probabilism of the supreme deity.

“The time is out of joint”: This is now the resaying of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who uses the quotation to explain what Kant means by the universal form of sensibility, which is time.  Deleuze is unaware that “[t]he time” refers to the unspecified age in which the play is set, not to temporality itself.  Though he is no marketer, Deleuze belongs on this list.

“Doubt thou the stars are fire” [II:ii] has been curdled into a line that can be heard in the films Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Letters to Juliet (2010).

“Thou this be madness yet there is method in’t”: The original context (Polonius’s interlude of lucidity) has been forgotten, since it is now a thought-annihilating platitude, with neither method nor madness therein.  It is also the 2019 cinematic comedy Madness in the Method, directed by Jason Mewes.

“What a piece of work is man!” is no longer Hamlet’s ejaculatory paean to the intricate elegance and elegant intricacy of humanity.  It is now “You’re a real piece of work!” which is a favorite insult of the insecure, one which is sometimes applied to a person who steps too far outside of the herd.  Urban Dictionary makes the interesting point that a “piece of work” is someone who is needlessly difficult.

“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”  One of the most stupid lines in the whole of Shakespeare has become an episode of the seventh season of SpongeBob SquarePants, “The Play’s the Thing.”

“To be, or not to be—that is the question” [III:i] has been transmuted into a 1983 film by Mel Brooks entitled To Be or Not to Be (superseding an earlier film with the same title which has been largely forgotten).  It is also a 1965 song by the Bee Gees.

“Slings and arrows” is now a Canadian television series (2003-2006).

“Outrageous fortune” has been transformed into a 1987 film comedy starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.

“Perchance to dream” is the twenty-sixth episode of the animated series Batman (1992).

“What dreams may come” has become a 1998 film drama starring Robin Williams.  Few seem to remember that the film is based on a novel by the great Richard Matheson that was published two decades earlier.

“The undiscovered country” is no longer Hamlet’s metaphor for death.  It is now the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

“Get thee to a nunnery”: Hamlet’s vicious insult to Ophelia, after he declares his non-love for her (and perhaps his lovelessness in general, his possible inability to love anyone), has been reduced to a meme, to an ironic, internet cliché.  “Nunnery” might signify “brothel,” but it more probably signifies “convent,” since, in tandem with his To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy, Hamlet seems to be pursuing the antinatalist argument that it is better for humankind to stop breeding, that it is better never to have been born (following Sophocles and anticipating the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Cioran).  What thwarts Hamlet’s suicide is his fear of the afterworld, of afterwordliness—this fear is the “conscience [that] does make cowards of us all.”  There is no reason to breed, then.  It is better never to give birth, for suicide is too dicey.

“[T]he mirror [held] up to Nature to show Virtue her feature” [III:ii] is now an infantile short story by David Foster Wallace called “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (which, in turn, was based on a work of philosophy by Richard Rorty).

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, means that the Player Queen is affirming too much, she is over-emphatic in her declarations of love for her second husband.  Protesting does not mean, here, negating.  It is not an instance of Freudian Verneinung, as if a husband were to say to his wife, unprompted, “I am not saying that I’m attracted to the waitress.”  Nor does it mean “to disagree with someone vehemently, in a suspiciously egregious manner.”  In Shakespeare’s England, “to protest” meant to give repeated affirmations, “to over-assert,” “to pronounce a statement vigorously and forcefully.”  In an interesting example of the Mandela Effect, there has been a collective misremembrance of the line as “Methinks you protest too much.”

“I must be cruel only to be kind” [III:iv] are no longer the self-exculpatory words of Hamlet, defending the very cruel words that he says to his mother, Queen Gertrude.  It is now the advice of Nick Lowe, given in his 1979 hit song “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song that is sometimes cited by cruel people who claim to be honest.

“Hoist with his own petard” doesn’t mean lifting oneself by one’s own crane, despite what a number of political cartoons and political commentators suggest.  “To hoist with one’s own petard” means “to blow oneself up with one’s own bomb.”

“This man shall set me packing” means “This man will provoke me into action.”  It has nothing to do with eviction, with kicking someone out of an apartment, with expulsion, which is what it has come to mean colloquially or when Joe Biden says, “We will send Trump packing and keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.”  Or when current Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson says that he is “absolutely confident that [the Britons] can send the Coronavirus packing in this country.”

“Goodnight, ladies, goodnight.  Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” [IV:v] has been demoted to the final song on Transformer (1972), Lou Reed’s worst album, which is really a bad David Bowie album (Bowie was its producer).  The line does also reappear in intentionally, floridly bastardized form in “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot—a poem that concerns the cheapening, the coarsening, of literary values in the mass culture of the European twentieth century.

“A fellow of infinite jest” [V:i] is no longer a phrase that Hamlet uses to praise his father’s jester Yorick, who is now dead and whose skull Hamlet is holding.  It is now the title of one of the most execrably written books ever published, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

“[T]he quick and dead” is now the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead, directed by Sam Raimi.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” [V:ii] is now the title of Tom Stoppard’s not-always-bracing postmodernist, auto-reflexive play.  It has also been resurrected as the 2009 American independent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.

* * * * *

As the snapshots of popular culture above demonstrate, popular culture has vulgarized and continues to vulgarize the play, for popular culture vulgarizes all art, degrading it until it becomes something other than art, something baser than art.

Each popular-cultural citation leaves a residue.  Of course, there would be no “pure” text beneath the accrual of sedimentation.  However, I am arguing something else: The text is even less pure than it would be otherwise, so buried is it under a mountain of kitsch, a garbage mountain of clichés in an ever-compounding media landfill.

We deviate from the text at hand.  We are force-fed bowls of fuzz-word salad.

If I were able to approach the text in its “nudity”: My own approach to the text would be to examine it through the speculum of the question of the free will.  Multiple essays have already discussed the question of free will in Hamlet, but none, as far as I know, have argued that the play is suggesting that free will is a delusion from which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.  If the play is about anything at all, it is about the impossibility of anything like a free will.

The crux of the play, its pivotal question, is why does Hamlet delay?  Why is Laertes a swift avenger whereas Hamlet is a sluggardly avenger?  Whereas Laertes is undiscouraged and rushes headlong toward vengeance—Laertes, who all but breaks down the door to slaughter Hamlet, whom he blames for his father Polonius’ death—Hamlet is unnimble and delays the exaction of revenge for the murder of his father.  Hamlet’s hesitancy, his hesitantism, has nothing to do with will, for Hamlet is consciously committed to exacting revenge for his father’s death “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” [I:v].

The answer is that Hamlet’s will is not his own, as Laertes himself says in the third scene of the first act to Laertes’ sister Ophelia.  He has no free will for no one has freedom of will.  Our decisions emerge from the abysses of the unconscious mind.  The source of decisions is not consciousness; we are only free to choose what our unconscious minds have chosen for us.

We see that Hamlet believes in the mirage of the free will when he commands, “About, my brains!” in the all-important soliloquy of Act Two: Scene Two, a soliloquy that is far more significant than the To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy.  “About, my brains!” means “Get to work, my mind!”  Or: “Activate, my mind!  Impel me into action!”  Hamlet (his consciousness and the Ego which is the nucleus of his consciousness) is commanding his brain (his unconscious mind, the hinterbrain) to prompt him to action.  And yet Hamlet’s “I” (the Ego, the idealized and self-preserving representation of the Self) remains unprovokable.  The “I” commands the brain to act—Hamlet apostrophizes his brains.  It is a dialogue or a duologue between consciousness and the unconscious mind.  Hamlet is both talking-to-himself and listening-to-himself-speak.  The play is suggesting that action does not issue directly from the “I” but from the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity.  Hence, it is a critique, in dramatic form, of the misbegotten concept of the free will.

It is only within the final scene of the play that Hamlet learns that all human thinking and acting is necessary, involuntary, inadvertent, unwitting: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” [V:ii].  He learns to leave things as they are, in a manner similar to stoicism or Heideggerean Gelassenheit: “Let be,” Hamlet says.  “Let be”: Let things be in their being.  Accept things as they are, instead of tyrannizing nature and expecting life to follow according to one’s subjective volition.  Adjust to the swirl of experience, which is beyond anyone’s conscious control.

None of this will appear to readers and spectators of the play, so dumbed down has the text become by ordinary language and the stupiditarians of the entertainment industry.  Language does change over time, as the descriptivists repeatedly claim to justify their unreflective assertion that language speakers do not need to be told what the rules of that language are.  It is as if the descriptivists were calling out: “Let chaos reign!” and “All hail disorder!”  I would say, in rejoinder: Language becomes more and more stupid over time.

Ultimately, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has become a cliché-manufacturing factory—generative of clichés that are more enduring than the Prince of Denmark’s sweaty vacillations and testy temporizations.

Joseph Suglia

Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last! by Joseph Suglia / Romeo and Juliet / Shakespeare’s THE MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET / The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare / ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare / William Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET: Analysis, Interpretation / twentieth-century French philosophy and Shakespeare / Romeo and Juliet

Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last!

by Joseph Suglia

“Zu wenig Liebe, zu wenig Gerechtigkeit und Erbarmen, und immer zu wenig Liebe…—das bin ich.”

—Georg Trakl, in a letter to Ludwig von Ficken, June 1913

THE PRODUCTIVITY OF DESIRE

One of the great lessons of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) is that most of our desires are not our own.  Despite the turbidity of their language, I believe that this is what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they suggest that most desire is embedded in the social order itself: “The truth of the matter is that social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself under determinate conditions.  We maintain that the social field is immediately invested by desire…  There is only desire and the social, and nothing else.”  That is to say: Most desires are not individual; they are social.  They are manifest in the world; most of our desires are already part of the world as such.  Deleuze and Guattari make no distinction between social production and the production of socially conditioned desires.

It is not the case that desire is geared toward an absence.  It is not the case that we want what we don’t have.  Quite otherwise: We don’t long for what we don’t have—for the most part, what we want is already part of the really existing concrete landscapes of the cultures in which we live.  We want what others want; we want what we are prescribed to want.  Most of our desires are premanufactured and mass-manufactured; they are herd-desires, group-desires.  The Platonic-Lacanian theory of desire, which posits that desire is based on absence, is erroneous.  Desire is not empty; it is already full.  Nothing is missing from desire; it already has all that it needs.

Needs do not produce desires.  The exact opposite is the case: Desires produce needs.  Most of our desires do not respond to preexisting needs.  No one is born wanting an Automated Robotic Friend.  Desire creates the need for an Automated Robotic Friend.  Desires rapidly convert into needs; in consumerist culture, there is an infinitely accelerating and multiplying conversion of our desires into needs.  Now, it becomes a need for me to have the newest Bluetooth-compatible selfie stick.  Such things, such commodities, are appendages without which I cannot live.

There is a different kind of desire for Deleuze and Guattari, a desire that they denominate “real desire.”  Real desires would not be desires for our own repression, desires for our own persecution, desires for our own exploitation, desires to reproduce an army of docile consumer-workers, but an altogether different kind of desiring—a desiring that is not socially configured or designed.  I will use the word “love” to describe this other-desire.

Love means the undoing of the community, since love is not reducible to the norms of any community.  This thought is metaphorized beautifully in Shakespeare’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (circa 1591-1595).

The desire of Juliet Capulet for Romeo Montague and the desire of Romeo Montague for Julie Capulet are not herd-desires; they are not collective desires.  Both Romeo and Juliet are created by the desire that they have for each other.  It is only a social desire in the self-productive sense—for do Romeo and Juliet not form a society of two?  Though their social is desire, their desire is not the social.  In other words: The love of Romeo for Juliet and of Juliet for Romeo is not familial desire, is not collectivized desire, is not acculturated desire.  It is the subversive desire of each for the other (I will return to this subject below).

The desire of the young lovers is spontaneous (self-productive) and active: As soon as they see each other, they are transformed.  There are at least two signs of this transformation: 1.) Romeo is willing to repudiate his own birth name for the sake of Juliet.  2.) Romeo immediately forgets his erstwhile beloved, Rosaline, as soon as he fixes his eyes on Juliet.  From the moment that they see each other, Romeo and Juliet become entirely other.

Now, Romeo would not be Romeo outside of his relationship to Juliet, as Juliet would not be Juliet outside of her relationship to Romeo.  Who are they apart from their desires?  From this point forward, they do not exist apart from the desires that they have for each other.  Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Romeo.  Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Juliet.  The relation precedes the relata.  In other words: The impulsions and propulsions of real desire imply the loss of the self-sufficient subject.  I believe that this one of the things that Deleuze and Guattari mean when they write: “Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack an object.  It is, rather the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject.”

We see this clearly in the second scene of Act Three.  Juliet asks the maddeningly tangential Nurse: “Hath Romeo slain himself?” [III:ii].  Juliet is No One without Romeo, as Romeo is No One without Juliet: “I am not I if there be such an ‘Ay’” [III:ii].  Such is the subjectlessness of the desire, the asubjective character of all real desire.

JULIET IS A NOMINALIST

I am not the first literary critic to notice that Juliet Capulet is a nominalist: The title of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is predicated on this premise.  A nominalist is one who thinks that words are generalities that, in order to signify anything at all, must transcend any particular context.  (The deconstructionists are therefore nominalists by another name.)  A word is only a word—and does not refer to any being or object in the world.  My question to the nominalists would be: Can a word not also be a thing in the world?  When a word is written, is it not a thing?

Juliet refuses to accept that Romeo is defined and confined by, restricted and reducible to the name “Montague,” the name of the familial clan that opposes her familial clan.  From the window, she serenades Romeo:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy. / Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. / What’s Montague?  It is nor hand nor foot, / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man.  O be some other name! / What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without the title.  Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself [II:ii].

The olfactory sensation—the aroma of the rose—is independent of the word “rose.”  What is this if not nominalism?  Juliet is suggesting that the word “rose” is an abstraction that is abstracted from the referent, the physical rose, as it is from any other referent.  She implores Romeo to retain his “dear perfection”—his essence, his character, his quiddity, his haecceity, his ipseity—even if another surname were substituted for “Montague” and even if another given name were substituted for “Romeo.”  Charmingly, Juliet has an intuitive understanding of the arbitrariness of naming.  Names are artificially grafted to things and to people; they are mere universals that never touch particulars.  That it is possible to “doff [one’s] name”—this is Juliet’s charmingly naïve belief that beings are beings without language.  Endearingly, she pleads with Romeo to strip away his name in exchange for any other.  And Romeo agrees.  He hates his own name since that name is hateful to Juliet and, were it written, would rend it to pieces: “Had I it written, I would tear the word” [Ibid.].  Her distrust of language shows itself again when she implores Romeo not to swear his love to her: “Well, do not swear” [Ibid.].  A contract between them would have no more weight than the words “It lightens” [Ibid.].  Much as the lightning that ceases to be before one can say, “It lightens,” the contract between them might cease to be before the terms of the contract have been uttered.

The fact that Romeo is willing to discard—and, if necessary, mutilate—his surname implies that he does not see himself as reducible to his clan or definable by his clan.  Again, his desire for Juliet is not a communalized desire.

THE INVISIBLE CENTER OF THE PLAY IS ROSALINE

Readers should note that the seemingly minor characters in Shakespeare are often the most significant characters.  In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the most significant figure in the play is, arguably, Alarbus, who is a superficially peripheral character: Without Alarbus, the sequence of vengeance would never be instigated.  I believe that the key to understanding this play is Rosaline, though “key” is probably the wrong metaphor.  Better: I believe that the invisible center of the play is Rosaline.

When we first meet him, Romeo is mooning over Rosaline:

O brawling love, O loving hate, / O anything of nothing first create, / O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, / Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, / Still-waking sleep that is not what it is. / This love feel I that feel no love in this [I:i].

Such is the Shakespearean paradoxology of love.  The use of antiphrasis (the combining of opposites) is remarkable: “love” blends with “brawling,” “loving” blends with “hate,” “heavy” blends with “lightness,” “serious” blends with “vanity,” “misshapen chaos” blends with “well-seeming forms,” “feather” blends with “lead,” “bright” blends with “smoke,” “cold” blends with “fire,” “sick” blends with “health,” “still-waking” blends with “sleep.”  Opposites are interlaced.  There is a coalescence or interpenetration of opposites, which means that love, for Shakespeare, is unsystematizable—for only that which is simple and undifferentiated can be systematized.

Rosaline is not named explicitly until the second scene of the first act, when Romeo recites the list of invited guests to Capulet’s feast.  She is first anonymous and then, the audience of readers / spectators only learn of her name from the recitation of the guest list, which foretokens her imminent departure from the thoughts of Romeo.  On the guest list, her name is nothing more than one name among other names.  She will quickly be replaced by Juliet Capulet, who is not listed on the guest list, since she is not a guest at all, but the only child and daughter of the great rich Capulet.

Oppressed by his love for Rosaline, Romeo cannot forswear Rosaline until he falls in love—instantaneously—with Juliet.  Sunday night, when Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo are masquerading themselves for the feast, Juliet will supplant Rosaline in Romeo’s mind.  This substitution of Juliet for Rosaline will take place in the span of no more than one hour—both Scene Four and Scene Five of the first act take place Sunday night, the night of the feast.  There is no more than an hour or so between the scenes.  The new beloved, Juliet, quickly kills off, interchanges with, the old beloved, Rosaline.  As the Chorus phrases it: “Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie, / And young affection gapes to be his heir” [II:0].

At the beginning of Act Two: Scene Three, it is the dawn of the day, and Friar Laurence is gathering baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers into an osier cage.  Friar Laurence sights Romeo and asks the young man if he spent the night with Rosaline.  Romeo’s response:

With Rosaline, my ghostly father?  No, / I have forgot that name and that name’s woe.

Friar Laurence is understandably shocked: “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” [Ibid.].  The change that Romeo undergoes underscores the mutability and the malleability of love.  The fact that Rosaline is unnamed in the first act and is easily interchangeable likewise highlights the ductility of love—it is articulative of the thought that desire persists for as long as life persists.  If love is mutable yet ductile, it cannot be systematized and what is unsystematizable cannot be socially integrated.  Romeo’s desire is mutable and therefore his desire is revolutionary.  More precisely: The love of Romeo and Juliet issues in a revolution, literally.

DESIRE IS REVOLUTION

There is a war in the play between two Veronese families, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague, as is well-known.  The love of Juliet and Romeo is, above all, a subversive love.  The offspring of one rivaling clan falls in love with the offspring of another rivaling clan.  What is this, if not transgression / subversion / insubordination?  Juliet’s and Romeo’s transgressive, subversive, insubordinate desire remind us that all amatory desire is transgressive, subversive, insubordinate.  Romeo and Juliet are insubordinate to their respective families, transgressive of the laws of familialism, subversive to the will of their respective fathers.  For contemporary examples of this, one has only to think of current practices of exogamy, of interracial, interreligious, or transgenerational sociosexual / conjugal relationships.

No wonder that Romeo’s uninvited presence at the feast is decried by Tybalt as an “intrusion” [I:v], as the trespass of private property.  Romeo is there to seek out Rosaline, not Juliet, but no matter: He is a lover, and lovers are intrusive; they are interlopers.  No wonder that Romeo himself claims to “profane” the “holiest shrine” of Juliet’s hand [Ibid.].  Romeo’s desire for Juliet is metaphorized as blasphemy, as intrusion, as the infringement of the holy.  Desire profanes the sacred, for the sacred is nothing if not that which should not be desired.  Seconds after they fall in love at first sight and kiss at the feast, both Romeo and Juliet use the language of “trespass” and “sin” [Ibid.] to describe their mutual fascination.  And they say these words even before they know that they belong to enemy camps, reminding us that love is the transgression and profanation of the social order.

To return to Deleuze and Guattari: Real desire is revolutionary.  They argue: “Desire does not ‘want’ revolution, it is revolutionary in its own right, as though involuntarily, by wanting what it wants.”  In a culture wherein citizens are labile, wherein citizens are neurotic subjects who are subject to the desires of capitalist culture, psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists are enlisted to keep them in line.  The analysand is kept in line by the psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists who direct one’s neuroses to the father or to the mother.  “What are your problems?” the psychotherapist asks.  No matter what your problems might be, the cause of your problems will forever be named “The Father” or “The Mother.”  Deleuze and Guattari are intimating that psychoanalysis supports fascism, since both systems of thought relegate singularities to authority.

Even before draining the ampoule of sleeping potion, Juliet has already infringed the social order.  Such is love’s unfettered character.  The desires of Romeo and Juliet are still social—but they are not the desires of the herd, of the family, of the clan.  Just as today, cult leaders, marketing firms, parents, teachers, bosses, psychiatrists tell you what to desire, Capulet and Lady Capulet tell Juliet who she should desire: the mediocre Paris.  For this reason, the desire of Romeo and Juliet for each other is anti-familial, explosive, liberated, and liberating and realigns the whole of the Veronese society.  Their desire for each other reminds us that desire is resistant, recalcitrant, renitent.

The Prologue summarizes the entire play:

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other, “their death-marked love,” a love which inescapably ends in death, is transgressive and literally revolutionary.  It effects radical political change: the harmonization of the House of Capulet and the House of Montague.

Dr. Joseph Suglia