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  I do not mean that the language of the text is obsolete or irrelevant.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

An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE – by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

PART ONE

A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?”  Well, why does anyone hate anyone?  Why does anyone love anyone?  The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious.  Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency.  They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind.  The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however.  We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.

There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:

  • Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.

Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.”  He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage.  Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i].  And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three.  Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?

  • Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.

This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii].  Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him.  Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.

  • Iago is sexually jealous of Othello.  He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.

This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation.  If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].

Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i].  This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over.  He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.

  • Iago despises Othello for his race.

It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.”  Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone.  George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”

There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.].  Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed.  Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father.  Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii].  He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness.  He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.

Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself.  While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.

Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation.  A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].

Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello?  Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?”  In other words: Who are you in relation to me?  Are you similar to me?  Are you different from me?  To what degree are you different from me?  How do I measure myself against you?  In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility.  This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.”  Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello.  If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed.  This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.

Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being.  There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.

PART TWO

Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences?  This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd.  However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.

Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?

My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona.  He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello.  Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him.  From the third scene of the third act:

OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.

Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions.  Iago is reactive, not active.  It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:

OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?

IAGO: Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO: What does thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown.  Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?

The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s.  Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time.  It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches.  It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago.  Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.

It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism.  One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady…  This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels.  ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].

The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s.  Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind.  Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end.  Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.

Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation.  When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon.  She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence.  Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals.  She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death.  As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii].  Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii].  Is Iago wrong?  As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday?  The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other.  Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.

In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be.  By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being.  Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is.  When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself.  Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is.  From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse.  Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature.  I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text.  If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written.  The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text.  After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract.  It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.

Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all?  From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect).  Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot.  This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots.  They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation.  But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment.  Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.

Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600).  By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot.  I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play.  Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.

The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage.  He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves.  She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love.  The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law.  It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest.  The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest.  Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law.  The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play.  He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the hierogamy of Theseus and Hippolyta.  (A hierogamy is the sacred marriage between a god and a goddess.)

The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen.  Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World.  Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.

There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings.  Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer.  He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon).  The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further.  The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius.  Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower.  The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.

We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia.  Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.

As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander.  When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man.  Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.

The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic.  Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest.  While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice.  Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated.  Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.

The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head.  After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy.  Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.

Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius.  Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander).  Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.

The forest is a place of disunification.  Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers.  The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies.  Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest.  This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius.  (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.)  And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine.  This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better.  Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness.  Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”

The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen.  The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.

The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth.  The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.

Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire.  Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer.  Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles.  Helena to Demetrius:

“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].

Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena.  She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:

“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].

I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent.  This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural.  Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage.  I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however.  Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them.  Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac.  When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.

All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner?  Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.  They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity.  A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase.  This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term.  It is more of a switching than it is a splitting.  Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.

*****

The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored.  The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap.  Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies.  The play-within-the-play is interrupted.  Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters.  The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other.  There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius).  The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.

In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married.  I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:

  • No more drugs.
  • No more separateness.
  • No more interruption.
  • No more perverse sexuality.
  • No more conflict.
  • No more bestialization.
  • No more confusion of identity.
  • No more bachelorhood.

Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love.  At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander.  The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages.  It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.

Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law.  As Theseus says to Hermia:

“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].

Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State.  As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:

“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].

Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off?  His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower.  Is his desire for Helena now authentic?  On what basis could we say that it is?  In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not.  Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot.  Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same.  Demetrius:

“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].

He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena.  Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body.  The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self.  Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?

*****

There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.”  Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed.  The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):

Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].

The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream.  As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding.  This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play.  The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality.  The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) are tamed by marriage.  As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding.  The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.

*****

From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized.  But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia