An Analysis of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia
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.
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.
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.
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Perhaps the first of the Shakespearean comedies, and doubtless the least-performed and least-read, is The Two Gentlemen of Verona (circa 1590?). Even the bardolaters seem embarrassed by the play, and it is not difficult to see why. There are very few memorable lines. (Some exceptions: “Truly, sir, I think you’ll hardly win her” [I:i]; “In love, who respects friend?” [V:iv].) Groan-inducing clichés about love that were commonplace even in Shakespeare’s time: “Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all” [I:ii]; “Love is blind” [II:i]. Inhumanly sudden changes of heart (I will return to this problem below). A parade of puns, all of them halting and limp. Some interesting canine imagery (man is a dog)–the play has more to do with Dog than with God. To summon forth Harold Bloom, little of the “hearing-oneself-speak” that gives depth to Shakespeare’s more human inventions. When the characters do listen to themselves speak, it is strange that they don’t burst into laughter. (One remarkable exception: Act Two, Scene Six.)
Valentine and Proteus are the Veronese aristocrats of the title. Valentine is the loverboy. Proteus is the rake. Valentine is the constant one. Proteus, as his name implies, is inconstant (“Proteus,” of course, refers to the god of mutability).
Here is the logic of desire in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:
Valentine desires Sylvia, a Milanese lady. Sylvia desires Valentine. Julia, a Veronese lady, desires Proteus because Proteus “despises” Julia [IV:iv]. Proteus no longer desires Julia because Valentine does not desire Julia. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia.
Let me pause over this final proposition. Proteus desires Sylvia because Valentine desires Sylvia. Proteus states this clearly:
Is it my mind, or Valentinus’ praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus?
She is fair; and so is Julia that I love–
That I did love, for now my love is thaw’d;
Which like a waxen image ‘gainst a fire
Bears no impression of the thing it was [II:iv].
Julia, his first love in the play, might be a melting wax figure, but so, too, will Sylvia be. Proteus will exchange Sylvia for Julia in the final act of the play and assert that both are equally beautiful, that Sylvia is not more beautiful than Julia. One woman is interchangeable with any other, one woman is exchangeable for any other (according to Proteus). Proteus declares Julia dead not once, but twice–the second time, Julia listens to the man she loves declaring her dead–because of the protean character of (his) desire, the inconstancy of (his) desire. The image that love produces is a melting wax figure or an ice-image dissolving into water [III:ii]. If one woman is as good as any another, for Proteus, it is very likely “Valentinus’ praise” that incites Proteus’ desire for Sylvia, not any of Sylvia’s intrinsic qualities.
If anything, the play is suggesting that heterosexuality is a modification of homosexuality, not the other way around.
And what if this were the case? What if homosexuality were not a deviation from the norm of heterosexuality? What if heterosexuality were a deviation from the norm of homosexuality? What if men desired women not because of women’s intrinsic beauty or favour (Shakespearean for “charm”)? What if men desired women because women are desired by other men? What if desire for the beloved were mediated by the desires of others for the beloved?
If this were the case, then heteroerotic desire would be fundamentally homosocial.
The play concerns the war between Eros (other-sexual desire) and Philia (same-sex friendship), and it is male Philia that wins out in the end.
As the passage cited above suggests, Proteus desires simulations of women more than he desires women in the flesh. In our cybernetic culture, Proteus would be a pornography addict. Consider the fact that Proteus is more amorous of Sylvia’s portrait than he is of Sylvia-in-the-Flesh. Consider the fact the Proteus asks for an image of Sylvia–an image to which he can masturbate. Much like Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, Sylvia can never be apprehended in her divine nudity. The goddess is impalpable and divinely invisible–what Proteus-Actaeon sees is only the human shape that she assumes. (Shakespeare’s text supports this equation–at one stage, Sylvia is described as the “Queen of the Night,” which is one of Diana’s appellations.)
Not merely is Proteus a rake. We learn early on that he is a blockhead, as well. In his discourse with Valentine’s servant Speed:
“The sheep for fodder follow the shepherd; the shepherd for food follows not the sheep” [I:i].
Of course, this is a specious, merely colorable argument. The sheep do not follow the shepherd for food. They can eat it from the ground. The shepherd follows the sheep. The shepherd tends the sheep because he wants to shear the sheep, eat the sheep, sell the sheep’s meat, sell the sheep’s wool, or befriend the sheep.
THE SHAKESPEAREAN CIRCUIT
The most remarkable aspect of the play is what I call the “Shakespearean Circuit” or the “Loop of Desire.” It functions in this manner: 1.) A giver gives a gift to a recipient. 2.) The recipient returns the gift to the giver. 3.) The gift is now directed at the giver, not the recipient.
Here is the first instance of the Shakespearean Circuit in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: Valentine (very reluctantly) writes a love letter on behalf of Sylvia. The letter, Sylvia tells Valentine, is intended for one of her suitors. Valentine presents the letter to Sylvia. Sylvia returns the letter to Valentine. The letter that Valentine wrote on Sylvia’s behalf is now addressed to Valentine.
This is how the Circuit works in this context: 1.) A lover writes a letter on behalf of his beloved–a letter that is addressed to the lover’s rival. 2.) The beloved returns the letter to the lover. 3.) The letter is, then, addressed to the lover, not to the lover’s rival.
Here is another example of the “Shakespearean Circuit”: Julia gives Proteus a ring. Proteus asks Julia, when she is disguised as a man, to give the ring to Sylvia, which she never does. Julia returns the ring to Proteus. End of circuit.
The Loop of Desire is not endemic to this particular play–one can find the Shakespearean Circuit in much of the dramatist’s work (e.g. The Merry Wives of Windsor). One character gives his desire to another character–and this expression of desire ends up being directed to the giver, not the intended recipient.
I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that the characters of The Two Gentlemen of Verona have “inhumanly sudden changes of heart.” Some instances of this:
A band of outlaws accosts Valentine and his page in a forest. Thirty-two lines later–may the reader count them–the outlaws coronate Valentine, making him their king!
Proteus attempts to ravish Sylvia. Valentine frustrates the ravishment before it is accomplished. Twenty-three lines later–may the reader count them–Valentine forgives the would-be rapist and then just as quickly offers him his fiancée!
Even Shakespeare’s idolaters cannot ignore the slipshod construction of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Unless the play is intended as a spoof (and not merely a “comedy” in the Shakespearean sense), it is indefensible. Then again, one of the play’s leitmotifs is metamorphosis, which might also explain why the valiant Sir Eglamour rescues the fair damsel Sylvia and then runs away comically as the bandits come near.
Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the English literary canon. If one takes The Two Gentlemen of Verona in isolation, one can only conclude that it was written by an unworthy versifier and not by a major poet whose talent exceeds that of Andrew Marvell. Its virtues are meager in comparison with the theatre of the great Scandinavian, Ibsen, and of the great Russian, Chekhov. It is time to explode the myth that Shakespeare was always a great writer, when, in plays such as this, he is an unimaginative, fatuous hack. A poet, yes, but a poet with the soul of an entertainer.
by Joseph Suglia
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader–indeed, the leader of the world’s sole superpower–but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program. She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.
Right-wing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar. One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid. The historical context of each point of reference is ignored. History is neutralized, reduced to space.
By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those whom the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title. See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.) Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am revising this essay on 12 May 2019. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired, what other faux-resignations will be announced, by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as D.H. Lawrence are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Trump, who represents the lowest values, is elevated to the heights of Shakespeare, who represents the highest values, but because the lowest values trump those that are the highest. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? Consumer culture debases the high, the lofty, the elegant, the dignified, the noble. American mainstream culture vulgarizes everything, it is true, but so is the opposite. In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.
An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Aimer grandement quelqu’un c’est le render inépuisable.”
—Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1944. Sans titre, XXVIII, 524)
In the wrestling match between Nature and Fortune, it is Fortune that chokeholds her opponent and flattens her on the mat. “Nature” refers to the qualities with which one is born; “Fortune” signifies all that comes post-natal. “Nature” is another word for “necessity”; Fortune is accident, preference, education, style. In Elizabethan England: That which God makes is Nature; that which you like belongs to Fortune. What you are born with is overthrown by what you like in Shakespeare’s most audience-accommodating comedy, As You Like It (circa 1599).
We see the clash between Nature and Fortune in the very first scene, one in which Orlando grieves that he, a natural gentleman, is reduced by Fortune to the status of a stalled ox. This, the work of his brother Oliver, who mars what God made. Orlando moans: “My father charged you [Oliver] in his will to give me good education. You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities” [I:i]. Fortune will ever have her revenge.
Orlando is pursued by his fratricide-minded brother and banished by the skinless Duke Frederick. After the first act, we are no longer in the duchy of Frederick, with the exception of the space-flash of Act Three: Scene One. We are fleeting time with the exiled Duke Ferdinand and his fellows in the Forest of Arden.
The Forest of Arden is described as a “desert,” as a deserted, unpopulated place. The Duke Senior calls the forest “this desert city” [II:i]. Rosalind calls the forest “this desert place” [II:iv]. Orlando says to Adam: “[T]hou shalt not die for lack of a dinner, if there live anything in this desert” [II:vi]. Later, Orlando: “this desert inaccessible” [II:vii].
Here we discover the first of the many paradoxes that will come to meet us in the Forest of Arden. How could the forest be a “desert” if it is populated by more people than there were in the duchy of Frederick?
Disguise abounds in the Forest of Arden, as well. Duke Ferdinand expresses the desire to hunt “venison” [II:i]. Who hunts venison? Instead of using the words “deer flesh,” which would be Anglo-Saxon German, the Duke uses the French-Latin term (“venison”). Nothing is more common than the use of linguistic camouflage to disguise the reality of the animals that we ingurgitate. Instead of saying, “swine flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say, “pork” (French Latin). Instead of saying, “cow flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say “beef” (French Latin). And yet people seem to have no problem saying that they want to eat chicken, doubtless because they can imagine, without disgust, swallowing our squawking and bawking relatives. Chickens (and fish) are seen as being remoter from human beings than deer, pigs, and cows. Many would be afraid of nominating a Pulled Pork Sandwich a “Pulled Swine-Flesh Sandwich” for the visceral reason that pigs are perceived as being genetically close to human beings (which they certainly are). Food-applied French Latin is the articulation of anthrophagophobia, which is a word that I have invented that means “the fear of cannibalism.”
Another paradox emerges when Duke Ferdinand praises the forest as a place where everyone is oneself. Extolling the virtues of sylvatic life (as opposed to courtly life), Duke Ferdinand claims that the feeling of seasonal difference feelingly persuades him of what he is:
“The seasons’ difference—as the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, / Which even when it bites and blows upon my body / Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say: ‘This is no flattery. These are counsellors / That feelingly persuade me what I am’” [II:i].
Far from being unlike “the envious court” [Ibid.], the Forest of Arden is the Forest of Envy. How can everyone be himself or herself in the Forest of Envy? Rosalind is herself AND himself. She envies, and identifies with, the male figure of Ganymede. The Forest of Envy is a forest in which Jacques the Melancholy envies Touchstone the clown: “O that I were a fool. / I am ambitious for a motley coat” [II:vii]. It is a forest in which one is one-who-is-other-than-what-one-is. Oliver transforms into a New Self. Celia alienates herself from herself when she becomes Aliena; she is other-than-what-she-appears-to-be (“Aliena” means “stranger”). Everyone is a stranger to oneself in the Forest of Envy.
Much like the internet, the Forest of Arden is a transformative, metamorphic space in which anyone can become anything that one wishes to become. It is an indifferent space that comes before masculinity and femininity. It is an indifferent space that comes before gender. In the forest, men behave in the way that women are expected to behave and women behave in the way that men are expected to behave. Jacques the Melancholy weeps when he considers a fallen deer–surely, this is an instance of a man acting in a way that would be considered feminine. When the lioness tore flesh away from his body, Oliver reports to Rosalind-as-Ganymede and Celia-as-Aliena, Orlando fainted: “The lioness had torn some flesh away, / Which all this while had bled; and now he fainted / And cried, in fainting, upon Rosalind” [III:iv]. Surely, fainting is generally, and falsely, regarded as a symptom of female psychology. And yet in the very same scene, exactly fifteen lines later, Oliver taxes Rosalind-as-Ganymede for swooning: “Be of good cheer, youth; you a man! you lack a man’s heart.”
At another moment, Rosalind does indeed act in the way that a man is expected to act. The unwept tears of Rosalind tell us everything that we need to know about Rosalind’s “performance” as a man. It is a performance that ceases to be a performance, that erases itself as a performance, and becomes the reality of what is being performed. Rosalind:
“I could find in my heart to disgrace any man’s apparel and to cry like a woman, but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. Therefore courage, good Aliena” [II:iv].
Let us remember that these words are spoken to an audience that is conscious of the comedic irony that is being enacted: Touchstone, Celia, and everyone in the Globe Theatre. We are not unaware of Rosalind’s biological sex.
Other Shakespearean comedies contain female characters who dress as men (cf. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice, the latter which contains no fewer than two female characters who dissimulate themselves as men). Not to psychologize matters, this transformation of women into men almost certainly says something about Shakespeare’s paraphilia.
Note the attraction that Orlando has for Rosalind-as-Ganymede. It might not be invidious to suggest that Orlando finds Rosalind more attractive as Ganymede than he finds Rosalind attractive as Rosalind. David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993), anyone? If I am incorrect about this (and I am not), why would Orlando agree to court Ganymede in his hovel? And why would he agree to marry Ganymede—even if we allow that the marriage is presented as fictitious? Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, which means, as I have written elsewhere, that all of the principals marry in the fifth act, whether they want to or not. A comedy in the Shakespearean sense is one that ends in forced marriage, forced dancing, and forced mirth-making. Jacques the Melancholy is among the few who escape the coerced marriage, the coerced dancing, and the coerced merriment: “I am for other than for dancing measures” [V:iv], he wisely intones as he wisely steals from the stage.
The resonances produced by the name “Ganymede” would not have escaped Shakespeare’s audience. “Ganymede” connoted homoeroticism in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, as Ganymede, famously, is the young boy who was given a first-class flight to the Olympian Lounge, where he worked part-time as a bartender to the gods and where he was romanced by Jove. It is probable that the attraction that Orlando has for Ganymede is not homoerotic in the usual sense, but an instance of andromimetophilia. The late Dr. John Money and Dr. Malgorzata Lamacz coined the term “andromimetophilia” to denote the sexual attraction to women who dress as men.
Each line in Shakespeare has become a cliché, which means, as Harold Bloom suggests, that everyone has read Shakespeare even without having read Shakespeare. Who has not heard the verbal fossil that crawls from the downturned mouth of Jacques the Melancholy?: “All the world’s a stage.” And yet most people stop quoting there. The soliloquy continues: “And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances” [II:vii]. If nothing else, these lines mean that life is itself performance, that the dramatizations of Fortune supersede the nature of Nature. This is surely why Shakespeare reminds his spectatorship that the play that he is writing is nothing more than a play, both in the Epilogue in which Rosalind expresses the desire to kiss every man in the audience, and in the words of Jacques the Melancholy, who calls attention to text’s shift from lyricism to blank verse: “Nay, then, God be wi’ you, an you talk in blank verse” [IV:i]. The reference to blank verse reminds us that the play that we are reading / watching is nothing more than a play in the literal sense. Life is a play in the metaphorical sense.
All of the players in the Globe Theatre were male, which means the following: On the stage, there is a man (the male actor) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind) who dramatizes a man (Ganymede) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind again, the Second Rosalind). The gender metamorphoses in Shakespearean comedy suggest that gender is not a natural category. Calling it a “choice” might imply that gender is a matter of free will, for Shakespeare, and this concept is something that might be disputed. Nonetheless, if you follow the metaphors of the play, the theorems are implied: If you decide to become more feminine, you might become more feminine. If you decide to become more masculine, you might become more masculine. But this has absolutely nothing to do with maleness or femaleness. Gender does not exist below or beyond the expressions of gender. Sex is Nature. Gender is Fortune. “Sex” signifies the secondary physiological characteristics with which one is born. Gender is as you like it.
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