Now is the time to listen to me read the fifteenth chapter of my novel TABLE 41. Stop whatever you are doing and listen to me:
Shakespeare the Punk | Lecture-Analysis-Commentary-Essay on Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE
by Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare is playing a prank on us. He is playing a joke on us.
There is only one way to defend this play, and that is to see it as a deliberate affront to the audience, in a manner that is comparable to the manner in which Lou Reed intentionally affronted his audience by releasing sixty-four minutes of painfully dissonant guitar feedback under the title Metal Machine Music in 1975.
Cymbeline is not quite as sadistic as Metal Machine Music is, and it contains a profusion of fascinating incongruities. King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen has a deep and rich inner life, and she seems out of place in a play that seems to be otherwise a slaphappy farce. There are other profundities, as well. Upon discovering what they believe to be the corpse of Innogen, now disguised as the waifish boy Fidele, the King’s lost sons Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal sing a dirge to their unrecognized sister, one of the most beautiful hymns to death written before Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht (1800). The death song, interestingly, recalls another play by Shakespeare. It alludes to a moment in Act One of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus in which the Roman general Titus laments the killing of his sons in the battle against the Goths.
Cymbeline is an auto-reflexive play, a play that refers often to itself. That the play evinces an awareness of the audience is undeniable. Posthumus addresses us directly in the beginning of the fifth act—or, at least, those of us who are married: “You married ones…” But it is also a meta-theatrical play that refers to other Shakespeare plays. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is only one of them.
To say that Cymbeline alludes to other Shakespearean works would be to say too little. Shakespeare’s other works swirl endlessly in the funhouse mirrors of Cymbeline. The Arden edition describes this play as “recapitulatory,” recapitulating, as it does, a gallimaufry of Shakespeare’s earlier plays (this is a late romance, composed in 1610). Cymbeline recapitulates quite a bit, but to what purpose?
What is the point of all of this auto-reflexivity and meta-theatricality? Harold Bloom thinks that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is fatigued with himself, exhausted, ennuyé: “Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays.” The implication here is that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is sterile, out of new ideas. Bloom also believes that Cymbeline is a clutch or constellation (my words) of self-parodies. Shakespeare, Bloom thinks, is play-weary and is making fun of himself.
But I see the play differently. Shakespeare is not making fun of himself; his play is making fun of its audience. All of the recapitulation seems wonderfully affrontive.
Cymbeline sets up and reaffirms the audience’s horizon of expectations and then undermines these same predeveloped expectations. It would be unpresumptuous to say that the play is contemptuous of its spectatorship.
As far as whether or not Shakespeare was weary as he composed the play (if indeed he was the only one who did compose the play): Not only is it impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a dead author, it is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a living author. All we have is the text.
Posthumus, too lowborn for his father-in-law Cymbeline’s taste, is exiled from Roman Britain and migrates to Italy. (Some commentators have noted that the Italy to which Posthumus retreats seems strangely like the Italy of the Renaissance, which would mean that Posthumus time-travels for about four hundred years.) His wife Innogen is a prisoner in the kingdom and is forbidden by the King, her father, from consorting with her husband.
While exiled in Italy, Posthumus encounters the oleaginous dandy Iachimo, who wagers that he can seduce Innogen. The husband agrees to wager his wife’s chastity and his diamond ring against ten thousand of Iachimo’s gold ducats.[i] Posthumus is, in effect, flogging his wife’s chastity (and the diamond which symbolizes that chastity) as if it were a saleable commodity.
The story about a bet between two men—one of whom is a rogue who wagers that he can seduce the wife of the other—is a trope in Western literature. You can find this story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the greatest works of Western literature, nearly equal to Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy and the best of Shakespeare (among which this underestimated play can, arguably, be said to be numbered). You can also find this subject fictionalized in a magnificent short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Switcheroo,” which should never be read by children.
Iachimo bluntly proposes to Innogen a copulatory revenge strategy: “Be revenged, / Or she that bore you was no queen, and you / Recoil from your great stock… I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure… Let me my service tender on your lips” [I:vi].
The innocent Innogen remains inseducible. She is understandably aghast at Iachimo’s overboldness and threatens to report him to her father, the King: “The King my father shall be made acquainted / Of thy assault” [I:vi]. Iachimo quickly turns things around and claims to have been merely testing her fealty to her husband: “I have spoke this to know if your affiance / Were deeply rooted” [Ibid.].
Innogen pardons Iachimo, the failed seducer, exactly thirteen lines after she condemns him: “You make amends” [I:vi]. Even more incredibly, she promises to share her kingdom with the rogue only twenty-four lines after she summons her servant to drag the scoundrel away: “All’s well, sir. Take my power i’th’ court for yours” [Ibid.].
Things swiftly become even more preposterous. Iachimo requests to leave his traveling case in Innogen’s bedroom, and Innogen agrees: “Send your trunk to me: it shall safe be kept / And truly yielded you. You’re very welcome” [I:vi]. You’re very welcome, indeed, my dear sir! Innogen not only pardons the lacertilian failed seducer; she welcomes him into her home, the man who lied about the infidelity of her husband and who proposed a night of coital vengeance on the basis of this lie.
I am citing these lines and summarizing the scene at length in order to highlight how absurd all of this is. We are supposed to be ingenuous enough to believe that Innogen will forgive the loutish failed seducer Iachimo after he confesses that he lied to her about her husband’s faithlessness. We are also supposed to believe that Innogen, daughter to the King, will forgive Iachimo after the libertine admits that he lied to her in order to provoke her into copulatory revenge. We are supposed to be naïve enough to accept that Innogen will not only pardon Iachimo, but allow him to put his traveling trunk in her bedchamber. Or are we? This conduces me to my main point: It might be the case that the improbabilities are calculated and the inhumanly sudden and suddenly inhuman metanoias are designed to thwart the received ideas of the audience.
The slithery Iachimo insinuates himself into Innogen’s bedchamber by hiding in the traveling case and then springs up out of the trunk like a Jack-in-the-Box while she is sleeping. Iachimo filches the bracelet given to her by Posthumus, slipping it from her sleeping arm, a bracelet which is as “slippery as the Gordian knot was hard” [II:ii].
Literate spectators will expect Iachimo—who likens himself to Sextus Tarquinius, the slobbering Roman patrician who ravished the plebeian girl Lucretia—to do the odious thing that Sextus Tarquinius did. He is also likened to Tereus, the violator of the tongueless Philomel, who transforms into a nightingale (as her name suggests). Iachimo finds a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Innogen’s bedside table: “She hath been reading late / The tale of Tereus: here the leaf’s turned down / Where Philomel gave up” [II:ii].
The same allusions appear in The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, which make the allusions in Cymbeline the allusions of allusions. Specifically, Iachimo reminds us of the lupine sons of the Goth Queen Tamora, who ravish and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in the wood. They are likened to Tereus and to Sextus Tarquinius, and Lavinia points with a stick to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And which story does she indicate, precisely? She indicates the story of Tereus.
The point that I want to highlight is that Iachimo never actually ravishes Innogen, even though he is likened to Tereus and Tarquin, two violators in Greek and Roman Antiquity, respectively.[ii] Rather, Iachimo crawls into her bed and ogles her and her bedroom as she is sleeping. Iachimo advances upon Innogen’s sleeping body and surveys both the décor of the bedchamber and the “cinque-spotted” mole upon her chest [II:ii].
Thank goodness Iachimo does not violently appropriate Innogen! But the fact that the audience is expecting the ravishment to happen and the fact that the ravishment does not happen fortifies my conviction that Shakespeare is pranking us better than even the most skilled prankster could do. What we are reading may only be described as a farce, as a spoof, as a lampoon. In the slightly underprized 2014 cinematic interpretation, Iachimo is played by Ethan Hawke. (Iachimo could be played by no one other than Ethan Hawke.) Hawke’s character leers at Innogen as she is slumbering and takes a picture of the “cinque-spotted” mole on her chest with his cellular telephone. In a staged production of the play (which I have not yet witnessed), I could imagine the “cinque-spotted” mole being screened on the cyclorama.
So, we, as an audience, move from the dreadful to the ludicrous. Humor comes from incongruity—when two disparate things clash in a way that is unexpected. An elephant that trundles into proctological conference would probably elicit laughter. When Iachimo, instead of violating Innogen, takes out a notebook and inventories the furniture in her bedroom and itemizes its architecture and decorations, this probably will stimulate laughter in the audience, though it perhaps will also provoke bafflement: “But my design—To note the chamber. I will write all down… Such and such pictures, there the window, such / Th’adornment of her bed, the arras, figures…” [II:ii]. One can imagine the questions that will surface in the mind of the spectator or reader: “What absurdity am I watching? What absurdity am I reading? This is Shakespeare?”
Iachimo manipulates Posthumus into believing that his wife is faithless and thus provokes his jealousy, recalling The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. But Iachimo is far too ridiculous to be equated to Iago. Iachimo is likely so nominated because he is an incompetent imitator of Iago, which is why the former shares the first two letters of his name with his nihilistic model. Iachimo is an inadequate who, at least, has the scintilla of a moral conscience and is, at least, not immalleable, as we see in Iachimo’s self-accusation and assumption of guilt in the second scene of the fifth act: “The heaviness of guilt within my bosom / Takes off my manhood. I have belied a lady, / The princess of this country, and the air on’t / Revengingly enfeebles me…” Iachimo is the Wal*Mart edition of Iago. Iago, by contrast, is a snarling void, a propulsion of pure negativity. Iago is anti-ontological. Iachimo is like a professional circus employee who twists balloons and wears face paint. He is a zany, not the enemy of existence that Iago is.
Iachimo’s false supposition is that no woman is monogamous; Posthumus’s false supposition is one of out-and-out gynophobia. “I’ll write against them” [II:v]: Posthumus tells himself, in his misogynous rant, that he will write misogynous novels and poems, condemning every woman on the planet because of his misapprehension of one woman, his wife Innogen. “We are all bastards…” [Ibid.]: All men, he means, are bastards, for all husbands, he thinks, are cuckolds. This is the source of male misogyny: A man has a negative experience with one woman and thus generalizes his experiences with that one woman to the whole of womankind. Posthumus appears to become a parody, a more extreme version of Iachimo in Act Two: Scene Five.[iii] We are also reminded here of the misogyny of Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, who repudiates the whole of womankind for the apparent treachery of the woman he loves. Posthumus suborns the assassination of his wife, who goes into exile after Pisanio’s attentat—for in the “great pool” of the world, Britain is but a “swan’s nest,” and there are “livers” elsewhere [III:iv]. And here is another meta-theatrical reference—to Coriolanus, who says, “There is a world elsewhere” in the play that is named after him.
To escape assassination, Innogen-Fidele escapes the British kingdom, where her life is at risk and where she is daily besieged by marriage proposals (I will return to this matter below). The self-exiled Innogen wanders through a forest and comes upon a cave that is inhabited by a CHAZ-like commune. The Chazians are the two boys who will later be recognized as the King’s lost sons—Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal—and their pseudo-father Belarius, who was “unjustly banish[ed]” from Cymbeline’s court [III:iii]. In the slightly underestimated 2014 cinematic interpretation, one of the boys is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.
The Chazians dispense with money. They dispense with the norms of capitalist society in the same way that the twenty-first-century Seattle anarchists claimed to dispense with the norms of capitalist society (though, as it later turned out, the Seattle Chazians did require money). Arviragus-Cadwal expresses his disgust for pelf in the following terms: “All gold and silver rather turn to dirt, / As ’tis no better reckoned but of those / Who worship dirty gods” [III:vi]. The transformation from prince into anarchist is complete; the transformation of prince into anarchist reflects Innogen’s transformation from woman into man.
The forest is much like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It: It is a realm that is free from the rigid roles and gestures of courtier life. As I mentioned above, Innogen moves from the feminine to the masculine and becomes Fidele. Here we have another allusion to As You Like It, with the self-masculinization of its female character Rosalind-Ganymede. This happens in the forest, since the forest is always a space of freedom and transmutation in Shakespeare, a transmogrifying space in which one can become whatever one likes to be, much like the internet, though more of a locus amoenus than the internet ever is.
Innogen also exiles herself in order to elude the entreaties of Cloten, who is her stepbrother, son to the poisonous witch queen. The punkish Cloten is so named because he is a clot, a dolt, a yokel, a buffoon, a dimwit, an imbecile, a cretin, a lump, a lug, a dullard, an oaf, a “harsh, noble, simple nothing” [III:iv]. She refuses to marry Cloten, and her rejection fills him with white-hot rage. Cloten’s violent rage toward Innogen is reminiscent of Posthumus’ violent rage toward Innogen, which makes Cloten a sinister-yet-unfrightening parody of Posthumus, who, in turn, is a diabolical parody of Iachimo, which makes Cloten the parody of a parody. All three of the male characters—Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cloten—are doubles of one another, but each successive double in the series is more grotesque than he who comes before him. They are all vile degenerates and incompetents, and it presses the limits of credulity to believe that Innogen would ever forgive Posthumus and Iachimo. But forgive both of them she does, beyond all plausibility, beyond all probability, beyond all comprehension. She forgives Posthumus and (temporarily) Iachimo with inhuman swiftness. (I will return to this matter below.)
Cloten’s interest in assuming the persona of a man of lesser station than he likely means that he is more interested in becoming Posthumus than he is interested in appropriating Innogen. Such is the triangular mimesis of rivalry: The double rivals for the model’s love-object because the double identifies with the model and wishes to become the model. Gratefully, the reader will discover that no such violation will take place in the space of the play, which confirms its prankish, farcical character.
Blazing with wild devilment, Cloten swathes himself in Posthumus’s clothing, a mark of his obsessive, envious identification with the low-born man whom Innogen chose as her husband and whose “meanest garment” [II:iii] would be dearer to her than the hair on Cloten’s head, even if each hair were to turn into a man! Cloten literalizes Innogen’s fetishization of her husband’s clothes in Act Two: Scene Three. The vile villain Cloten intends to violate her upon her husband’s dead body while he is clothed as her husband, recalling again The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus: “With that suit upon my back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined—which, as I say, to vex her, I will execute in the clothes that she so praised—to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge” [III:v]. In a hilarious inversion, Innogen will sleep on the “bloody pillow” of Cloten’s headless corpse [IV:ii].
It is difficult to take Cloten seriously, since, despite his disgustingly sinister intention to ravish Innogen, he is swiftly decapitated by Guiderius-Polydore. His hacked-off head will cast into the creek, presumably, where it will be devoured by fish: “I’ll throw [the head] into the creek / Behind our rock, and let it to the sea / And tell the fishes he’s the Queen’s son, Cloten” (Guiderius-Polydore) [IV:ii]. The creek represents bucolic life; the sea represents the life of the court.[iv] This is yet another allusion—to The Tragedy of Macbeth, with its multiple decapitations. The scene here, though, is high comedy. The first time someone is decapitated, it is a tragedy; the second time, it is a farce. The decapitation of Cloten is farcical, ridiculous—it provokes to laughter much in the same way that Shakespeare’s other late romance The Winter’s Tale provokes us to laughter when the old man Antigonus is mauled and devoured by a bear. Yes, the scene is one of carnage—it is a sanguinary scene—but no one has sympathy for Cloten, who is a psychopathic varlet, and his death is hilarious because it seems so incongruous in relation to its textual environment. Why “incongruous”? The incongruity comes from a happy moment of cosmic irony (for once, the term is earned): Cloten tells himself that he will decapitate Posthumus and then is decapitated while wearing Posthumus’s clothes: “[T]hy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be cut off” [IV:i].
Posthumus is death-obsessed, and with good reason. He is so called because he survived his childbirth, whereas his mother did not; she was “deceased / As he was born” [I:i]. He is also so called, perhaps, because he ardently wants to die, and yet his death is denied to him.[v] He says to the Jailer: “I am merrier to die than thou art to live” [V:iv].[vi] Posthumus, then, is posthumous. As his name implies, he is a survivor; he survives both his birth and his death sentence, despite his will to die. Spasming with guilt, he begs for a judiciary suicide: “O give me cord, or knife, or poison, / Some upright justicer” [V:v]. Posthumus’s wish for an assisted suicide recalls Marcus Antonius’ wish to be decapitated in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Antonius implores his servant Eros to chop off his own head. Not to psychologize, for all we have is the text, but there is a heavy yearning for the sweetness of death that pervades the work.[vii] Every member of Posthumus’s family is dead—his father, Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his brothers, the Leonati. Their apparitions hover over him as he sleeps in his prison cell, and he wishes to join them in the infinite nothingness.
The reconciliation between the father Cymbeline and the daughter Innogen is devoid of all pathos and is more risible than anything else. It does recall the restoration of Pericles’ thought-dead daughter Thaisa in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, yet another allusion which makes Cymbeline seem even more self-plagiaristic and almost (God help us all) postmodern. This is not intended as a commendation, since there is nothing sicklier, more anemic than postmodern art.
The resipiscence of Posthumus and Iachimo is far stranger; indeed, it is incredible. As I suggested above: Are we so credulous as to believe that Innogen will take Posthumus back after he gambled her virginity and suborned her assassination? Posthumus is ethically unrestorable and unpardonable. What he has done is unforgivable, and he has surpassed the possibility of redemption. And yet Innogen apparently forgives him, only to be struck to the ground by Posthumus, who does not recognize her. “Peace my Lord,” she implores him before she is struck. “Hear, hear—” [V:v]. This moment resurrects the final act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, wherein Pericles forcibly drives back his daughter Marina, whom he does not at first recognize. We are also supposed to believe that King Cymbeline will forgive Belarius for having kidnapped the princes, thus robbing the King of the opportunity to experience twenty years of their lives. Cymbeline even calls the abductor Belarius “brother” in the fifth scene of the fifth act!
There are other improbabilities. Bloom raises the reasonable question: How likely is it that Innogen will fail to recognize her husband’s anatomy?: “It seems odd that Imogen could mistake the anatomy of Cloten for her husband’s, but then she is in a state of shock.” Bloom is being too charitable, I think, in the final clause of his sentence (“but then she is in a state of shock”). And I would raise another improbability: Why does Innogen assume that the clothing of Cloten’s headless cadaver is that of Posthumus? “Where is thy head?” she asks, addressing the corpse as if it belonged to her husband. “Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” [IV:ii]. Does Posthumus wear the same clothing every day? Is Posthumus the only one who would wear the outfit that his ostensible corpse is wearing? Cymbeline is improbable as The Comedy of Errors, in which you have characters who are mistaken for one another and who wear the same outfits as their counterparts.
Not merely is the play fraught with improbability; there are leaps of false logic, as well. Paralogisms abound. Why, for instance, does Cymbeline muse aloud that it would have been “vicious” to have “mistrusted” the evil Stepqueen, even after he discovers that “she never loved [him]” and murdered his bio-daughter [V:v]? (This is not a rhetorical question, it is an instance of hypophora.) The King gives us an answer: Because the evil Stepqueen was “beautiful” and her “flattery” seemed to be sincere! The King’s “ears” and “heart” “thought her like her seeming” [Ibid.]—in other words, she was pleasing in a coenaesthetic manner and therefore, she was trustworthy! Do I need to point out that this does not follow logically?
We are mistreated by another paralogism at the opening of the text: The First Gentleman overpraises Posthumus because Innogen chose him over her stepbrother Cloten: “[Posthumus’s] virtue / By her election may be truly read / What kind of man he is” [I:i]. As if beautiful and virtuous women only choose handsome and virtuous men as their husbands!
Certain moments in this text are so fantastically bizarre that they surpass the limits of dramaturgical respectability. My favorite example of this is Innogen’s ejaculatory optation in Act One: Scene One. Innogen frothingly fantasizes that she would like to see her stepbrother and her husband sword-fighting each other in Africa! And she would “prick” with a needle the “goer-back”—i.e. whichever of the two backs away from the fight! Everyone’s fantasies are odd, I suppose, but you rarely read or hear fantasies such as this verbalized in Shakespeare.
Since we are reading a play that is never entirely its own, we might reasonably question, what precisely are we reading? Is this a play about the character named in its title? Why is this play entitled Cymbeline? I can understand why The Tragedy of King Lear is so called, for it is the tragedy of King Lear. But why is this work called Cymbeline? King Cymbeline hardly dominates the play; he is given relatively little stage time. We see him screaming at his daughter and his son-in-law in the first scene of the play; he does not remerge before the beginning of the third act, wherein he discusses Roman-British diplomacy and conflict with the poisonous Queen and her slimily reprobate son Cloten. Cymbeline then vanishes again and resurfaces in Act Three: Scene Five, only to withdraw once more. Indeed, we only see him again at the very close of the play—to be precise, in the second scene of the fifth act, in which he is silently taken by the Romans and then rescued by his unrecognized sons and his substitute, Belarius.
The auto-reflexivity, the meta-theatricality, the improbability, the fallacious logic, and the overall absurdity of the play fortify my conviction that it is a prank, a farce, a comedy, a lampoon. A lunatic play, an antic play, a woozy play, Cymbeline unsettles the reader’s (or spectator’s) expectations, expectations that would be incubated and marinated by other Shakespeare plays. Taking all of these matters into consideration, Cymbeline comes across as an elaborate practical joke. Perhaps Shakespeare learned that to become a great author, one must have a seething contempt for the reader or for the spectator.
[i] Iachimo: “If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond, too. If I come off and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel and my gold are yours, provided I have your commendation for my more free entertainment” [I:iv]. Posthumus: “I embrace these conditions. Let us have articles betwitxt us. Only thus far you shall answer: if you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevailed, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate. If she remain unseduced, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion and th’assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword” [Ibid.].
[ii] Iachimo: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” [II:ii].
[iii] Notice that Iachimo has already expressed misogynous opinions: “If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting” [I:iv]. And in the next act: “The vows of women / Of no more bondage be to where they are made / Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing” [II:iv].
[iv] We know this from Innogen’s aside in Act Four: Scene Two: “Th’imperious seas breeds monsters; for the dish, / Poor tributary rivers as sweet fish.”
[v] Mournful Posthumus thinks that he killed his wife and longs to die: “[T]o the face of peril / Myself I’ll dedicate” [V:i].
[vi] And earlier: “For Innogen’s dear life,” Posthumus implores God, “take mine, and though / ’Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coined it…” [V:iv].
[vii] A superabundance of verbal cues informs us that Posthumus is a death-obsessed survivor. He tells Innogen that he will “cere up his embracements” of his wife from other women with “bonds of death” [I:i]. He apostrophizes his diamond ring, newly given to him by Innogen: “Remain, remain thou here / While sense can keep it on” [Ibid.]. “Sense” here refers to consciousness—hence, the duration of his lifespan. The dirge that the boys sing in Act Four: Scene Two is, again, an encomium to mortality which suggests that the sweetness of death should be welcomed, for it means the cessation of all fear and anxiety. The ghost of Euriphile (“The Lover of Europe”) hovers over the play. She was the nurse of the lost sons of Cymbeline the King and was taken as their mother [III:iii]. The dirge was originally written for Euriphile and then is sung for Innogen, who is only phenomenally deceased.
THE UNREADABILITY OF HAMLET
by Joseph Suglia
“No wavering mind, infected with Hamletism, was ever pernicious: the principle of evil lies in the will’s tension, in the incapacity for quietism, in the Promethean megalomania of a race that bursts with ideals, that explodes with convictions…”
—Emil Cioran, A Short History of Decay
“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
—T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Hamlet is not killed by Laertes, nor is he killed by Claudius; he is killed again and again by consumer culture, which is incrementally becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth. That is to say: The text entitled The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, which is attributed to a person named William Shakespeare, has been distilled to a compound of popular-cultural clichés. The text has been zombified. I do not mean that the language of the text is obsolete or irrelevant. I mean that the play “lives on” in the deathful form of clichés, for clichés are dead language.
Nearly every line of the play has become a platitude, a slogan, a title of a song or a film, a song lyric. Most have an at least sedimentary understanding of the play—in the form of the clichés that the play has generated. You might not have read Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark, but Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark has read you.
It is nearly impossible to read the words of the text in their original context, since the text now appears porous to any culturally literate person. It is not an open-source text; it is an open-sore text. It is leachy, pervious, permeable to the outside. That is to say, the text constantly refers to popular-cultural detritus, to bastardized commercializations of the play that Shakespeare was fortunate enough never to have seen or to have heard. Or, proleptically, to other works of literature; I have read about half of these lines in other works of literature. When I read “sweets to the sweet,” “ay, very like a whale,” or “beetles over his base into the sea,” I think not of Hamlet (or of the play of which he is the eponym), but of Joyce’s Ulysses, wherein these same phrases reappear. I am forcibly extricated from the initial text and redirected to another, much later work of literature.
It is not that my mobile telephone is pulling me out of the text. Staying alone with the text, without the buzzing and shrilling of our telephones, without the compulsive need to check one’s e-mail is a persistent challenge for most, it is true. Yet this argument is not so much incorrect as it is banal. It is an argument has been too easily and too often made before (most notably, by Nicolas Carr in “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”). My argument is not that the webware of our minds has been redesigned and redrawn—something that I have accepted as an immovable fact long ago. Yes, I know that most are distractible. I have known this for years. My argument is different.
What is pulling me out of the text is a set of exophoric references that has come long after the fact of the text’s composition.
I am arguing that the play is unreadable independently of its multiple references to consumerist culture. I do not mean that the text cannot be read (it is as compulsively readable as any text in the Shakespearean canon). Again, this is not my argument. I am suggesting something else. I mean that the text cannot be read as a text, so englutted is it with post-date media clichés and references to other works of literature. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a multiply linked polytext.
In an age in which Google is the New God, it is even less probable that one could read a text in its nudity. We have reached the point at which many of us cannot read a text as text, assuming that such a thing were even ever possible. As Nietzsche writes in the late notebooks, “To able to read off a text as text, without interposing an interpretation between the lines, is the latest form of ‘inner experience’—perhaps one that is scarcely possible,” einen Text als Text ablesen können, ohne eine Interpretation dazwischen zu mengen, ist die späteste Form der “inneren Erfahrung,”— vielleicht eine kaum mögliche… One would require an innocent mind to be able to read a text that is unalloyed.
And yet there are no innocent minds any longer—if there ever were! So supersaturated is the play with after-the-fact media clichés, so embedded is the play with alluvial deposits, so thoroughly is the play encrusted with post-date media messages that it is pre-contaminated. It is pre-inscribed, paradoxically, by cultural references that were superimposed on the text 400 years after the fact. Cultural references that have been superimposed to the extent that they are have become part of the text “itself.” The clichés are not extricable from the text “itself.”
The play cannot be ensiled, protected from the intrusion of clichés. To ensile means to prepare and store fodder (such as hay or corn) so that it is conduced into silage (succulent feed for livestock).
The lines of the play have taken on lives of their own outside of the play. Many of them have fallen into the flabbiness of ordinary language. Popular culture has engulfed the text and debased it.
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Here is a partial list of popular-cultural vandalizations and vulgarizations of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I will be citing the Second Quarto (1604-1605) exclusively, for it is the most expansive version of the play:
“’Tis bitter cold / And I am sick at heart” [I:i] is now the language of the weather report. Squalls and flurries are routinely described by meteorologists as “bitter cold.” Supporters of politicians are said to wait for their candidates in the “bitter cold.” “Bitter cold” is said to be the climate of beautiful Rochester, New York. Poeticism has been deflated, fallen into the stupidity of ordinary language.
“Not a mouse stirring” is now a verse in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. Moore defamiliarized and rescrambled the cliché: It has now become “Not a creature was stirring / not even a mouse.” And yet that itself has become a cliché. Readers and spectators of the play will call the Christmas favorite to mind—and digress from the text of the play into yuletide musings.
The stage direction Exit Ghost is now the title of a 2007 novel by Philip Roth.
“Stay, Illusion” is now the title of the book of poetry by Lucie Brock-Broido.
“A little more than kin, and less than kind” [I:ii]: Hamlet’s reproving words to his adulterous, fratricidal stepfather is now a Canadian television series called Less Than Kind (2008-2013).
“I shall not look upon his like again”: Whenever someone dies and the eulogist at the obsequy wants to sound literate, s/he will say, “We’ll not see his/her like again.” In their eulogies to David Bowie and John McCain, Will Self and Joe Biden, respectively, change the “I” to “we”—a common misremembrance, a common misrecollection of the line. It is originally Hamlet’s manner of saying that his father—his only father, his real father, his bio-dad—is irreplaceable and certainly may never be replaced by an incestuous, fratricidal drunkard and idiot.
“This above all, to thine own self be true” [I:iii]: These words no longer are counsel given by the unbrilliant Polonius to his son Laertes before the latter is dispatched to France to study at university. They now form an inscription tattooed on the faceless arms of hundreds of thousands of “social-media” mystics and cybernetic insta-priests (the words before the colon are usually deleted).
I place “social media” in quotation marks because there is nothing social about “social media.”
I suspect that the tattoo exists in order to be photographed and “shared” for the benefit of “Likes.” I wonder how many carve, chisel, these words into their flesh in order to display the insignia / imprint to their shadowy internet “friends” and “followers.” This is a good example of denaturing the body in order to receive approval from hollow cybernetic effigies.
In the twenty-first century: We do not experience and then represent; we represent and then experience.
“But to my mind, though I am native here / And to the manner born, it is a custom / More honoured in the breach than the observance” [I:iv]: As Philip B. Corbett illuminates in his The New York Times article “Mangled Shakespeare,” “to the manner born” is often misheard and misremembered as “to the manor born.”
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” [I:iv]: Once Marcellus’s baleful diagnosis of his country upon seeing the ghost of the dead king, the statement is now a cliché that can be found almost everywhere.
No longer the admonition of Claudius to his son to leave the boy’s mother unpunished by worldly vengeance, “leave her to heaven” [I:v] is now a 1945 film noir directed by John M. Stahl.
Once Horatio’s words of astonishment upon seeing the ghost of his friend’s father, “wondrous strange” is now the title of a young-adult fantasy novel by Lesley Livingston.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”: This was originally Hamlet’s gentle rebuke to Horatio for his Epicureanism (Epicurus denied the supernatural) after both characters see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The “your” is often changed to “our,” Horatio’s name is almost always deleted, and this is now the favorite weasel sentence of agnostics who condescendingly allow the probabilism of the supreme deity.
“The time is out of joint”: This is now the resaying of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who uses the quotation to explain what Kant means by the universal form of sensibility, which is time. Deleuze is unaware that “[t]he time” refers to the unspecified age in which the play is set, not to temporality itself. Though he is no marketer, Deleuze belongs on this list.
“Doubt thou the stars are fire” [II:ii] has been curdled into a line that can be heard in the films Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Letters to Juliet (2010).
“Thou this be madness yet there is method in’t”: The original context (Polonius’s interlude of lucidity) has been forgotten, since it is now a thought-annihilating platitude, with neither method nor madness therein. It is also the 2019 cinematic comedy Madness in the Method, directed by Jason Mewes.
“What a piece of work is man!” is no longer Hamlet’s ejaculatory paean to the intricate elegance and elegant intricacy of humanity. It is now “You’re a real piece of work!” which is a favorite insult of the insecure, one which is sometimes applied to a person who steps too far outside of the herd. Urban Dictionary makes the interesting point that a “piece of work” is someone who is needlessly difficult.
“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” One of the most stupid lines in the whole of Shakespeare has become an episode of the seventh season of SpongeBob SquarePants, “The Play’s the Thing.”
“To be, or not to be—that is the question” [III:i] has been transmuted into a 1983 film by Mel Brooks entitled To Be or Not to Be (superseding an earlier film with the same title which has been largely forgotten). It is also a 1965 song by the Bee Gees.
“Slings and arrows” is now a Canadian television series (2003-2006).
“Outrageous fortune” has been transformed into a 1987 film comedy starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long.
“Perchance to dream” is the twenty-sixth episode of the animated series Batman (1992).
“What dreams may come” has become a 1998 film drama starring Robin Williams. Few seem to remember that the film is based on a novel by the great Richard Matheson that was published two decades earlier.
“The undiscovered country” is no longer Hamlet’s metaphor for death. It is now the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
“Get thee to a nunnery”: Hamlet’s vicious insult to Ophelia, after he declares his non-love for her (and perhaps his lovelessness in general, his possible inability to love anyone), has been reduced to a meme, to an ironic, internet cliché. “Nunnery” might signify “brothel,” but it more probably signifies “convent,” since, in tandem with his To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy, Hamlet seems to be pursuing the antinatalist argument that it is better for humankind to stop breeding, that it is better never to have been born (following Sophocles and anticipating the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Cioran). What thwarts Hamlet’s suicide is his fear of the afterworld, of afterwordliness—this fear is the “conscience [that] does make cowards of us all.” There is no reason to breed, then. It is better never to give birth, for suicide is too dicey.
“[T]he mirror [held] up to Nature to show Virtue her feature” [III:ii] is now an infantile short story by David Foster Wallace called “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” (which, in turn, was based on a work of philosophy by Richard Rorty).
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”: Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, the Queen of Denmark, means that the Player Queen is affirming too much, she is over-emphatic in her declarations of love for her second husband. Protesting does not mean, here, negating. It is not an instance of Freudian Verneinung, as if a husband were to say to his wife, unprompted, “I am not saying that I’m attracted to the waitress.” Nor does it mean “to disagree with someone vehemently, in a suspiciously egregious manner.” In Shakespeare’s England, “to protest” meant to give repeated affirmations, “to over-assert,” “to pronounce a statement vigorously and forcefully.” In an interesting example of the Mandela Effect, there has been a collective misremembrance of the line as “Methinks you protest too much.”
“I must be cruel only to be kind” [III:iv] are no longer the self-exculpatory words of Hamlet, defending the very cruel words that he says to his mother, Queen Gertrude. It is now the advice of Nick Lowe, given in his 1979 hit song “Cruel to Be Kind,” a song that is sometimes cited by cruel people who claim to be honest.
“Hoist with his own petard” doesn’t mean lifting oneself by one’s own crane, despite what a number of political cartoons and political commentators suggest. “To hoist with one’s own petard” means “to blow oneself up with one’s own bomb.”
“This man shall set me packing” means “This man will provoke me into action.” It has nothing to do with eviction, with kicking someone out of an apartment, with expulsion, which is what it has come to mean colloquially or when Joe Biden says, “We will send Trump packing and keep Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.” Or when current Prime Minister of Great Britain Boris Johnson says that he is “absolutely confident that [the Britons] can send the Coronavirus packing in this country.”
“Goodnight, ladies, goodnight. Sweet ladies, goodnight, goodnight” [IV:v] has been demoted to the final song on Transformer (1972), Lou Reed’s worst album, which is really a bad David Bowie album (Bowie was its producer). The line does also reappear in intentionally, floridly bastardized form in “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot—a poem that concerns the cheapening, the coarsening, of literary values in the mass culture of the European twentieth century.
“A fellow of infinite jest” [V:i] is no longer a phrase that Hamlet uses to praise his father’s jester Yorick, who is now dead and whose skull Hamlet is holding. It is now the title of one of the most execrably written books ever published, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
“[T]he quick and dead” is now the 1995 film The Quick and the Dead, directed by Sam Raimi.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” [V:ii] is now the title of Tom Stoppard’s not-always-bracing postmodernist, auto-reflexive play. It has also been resurrected as the 2009 American independent film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead.
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As the snapshots of popular culture above demonstrate, popular culture has vulgarized and continues to vulgarize the play, for popular culture vulgarizes all art, degrading it until it becomes something other than art, something baser than art.
Each popular-cultural citation leaves a residue. Of course, there would be no “pure” text beneath the accrual of sedimentation. However, I am arguing something else: The text is even less pure than it would be otherwise, so buried is it under a mountain of kitsch, a garbage mountain of clichés in an ever-compounding media landfill.
We deviate from the text at hand. We are force-fed bowls of fuzz-word salad.
If I were able to approach the text in its “nudity”: My own approach to the text would be to examine it through the speculum of the question of the free will. Multiple essays have already discussed the question of free will in Hamlet, but none, as far as I know, have argued that the play is suggesting that free will is a delusion from which we would do well to disabuse ourselves. If the play is about anything at all, it is about the impossibility of anything like a free will.
The crux of the play, its pivotal question, is why does Hamlet delay? Why is Laertes a swift avenger whereas Hamlet is a sluggardly avenger? Whereas Laertes is undiscouraged and rushes headlong toward vengeance—Laertes, who all but breaks down the door to slaughter Hamlet, whom he blames for his father Polonius’ death—Hamlet is unnimble and delays the exaction of revenge for the murder of his father. Hamlet’s hesitancy, his hesitantism, has nothing to do with will, for Hamlet is consciously committed to exacting revenge for his father’s death “with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love” [I:v].
The answer is that Hamlet’s will is not his own, as Laertes himself says in the third scene of the first act to Laertes’ sister Ophelia. He has no free will for no one has freedom of will. Our decisions emerge from the abysses of the unconscious mind. The source of decisions is not consciousness; we are only free to choose what our unconscious minds have chosen for us.
We see that Hamlet believes in the mirage of the free will when he commands, “About, my brains!” in the all-important soliloquy of Act Two: Scene Two, a soliloquy that is far more significant than the To-Be-Or-Not-To-Be soliloquy. “About, my brains!” means “Get to work, my mind!” Or: “Activate, my mind! Impel me into action!” Hamlet (his consciousness and the Ego which is the nucleus of his consciousness) is commanding his brain (his unconscious mind, the hinterbrain) to prompt him to action. And yet Hamlet’s “I” (the Ego, the idealized and self-preserving representation of the Self) remains unprovokable. The “I” commands the brain to act—Hamlet apostrophizes his brains. It is a dialogue or a duologue between consciousness and the unconscious mind. Hamlet is both talking-to-himself and listening-to-himself-speak. The play is suggesting that action does not issue directly from the “I” but from the unconscious sources of human cognition and activity. Hence, it is a critique, in dramatic form, of the misbegotten concept of the free will.
It is only within the final scene of the play that Hamlet learns that all human thinking and acting is necessary, involuntary, inadvertent, unwitting: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” [V:ii]. He learns to leave things as they are, in a manner similar to stoicism or Heideggerean Gelassenheit: “Let be,” Hamlet says. “Let be”: Let things be in their being. Accept things as they are, instead of tyrannizing nature and expecting life to follow according to one’s subjective volition. Adjust to the swirl of experience, which is beyond anyone’s conscious control.
None of this will appear to readers and spectators of the play, so dumbed down has the text become by ordinary language and the stupiditarians of the entertainment industry. Language does change over time, as the descriptivists repeatedly claim to justify their unreflective assertion that language speakers do not need to be told what the rules of that language are. It is as if the descriptivists were calling out: “Let chaos reign!” and “All hail disorder!” I would say, in rejoinder: Language becomes more and more stupid over time.
Ultimately, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has become a cliché-manufacturing factory—generative of clichés that are more enduring than the Prince of Denmark’s sweaty vacillations and testy temporizations.
A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly, and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”
—Epictetus, The Enchiridion
“A friend asks only for your time and not money.”
—From a fortune cookie. Chinatown, Chicago, 2019
Athenian lord Timon has an embarrassment of wealth, and he doesn’t seem in the least embarrassed about it. He is generous—absurdly, promiscuously generous, prodigal to the point of profligacy. His Lucullan feasts are well-attended. Of course, he is parasitized by the mob—by the mob of disgusting parasites who call themselves his “friends.” As if they were a pack of baphometic daemons, his “friends” eat up his money until he has nothing left. When the creditors demand repayment, Timon has nothing to give them. None of his “friends” helps Timon in his time of need; the pseudo-friends to whom he appeals for money—Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius—refuse his entreaties, even while they are wearing the jewelry that Timon gifted them. Timon is soon on course for self-immolation. He is so aggrieved that he spends the rest of his life in a wasteland, where he execrates the whole of humanity.
So goes the epitasis of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (circa 1605-1608), largely based on Plutarch’s life of Antony and Lucian’s dialogue on Timon. It is an allegory of language (this is not something that I will pursue in depth here) and an allegory of misanthropy and sounds particularly allegorical when Timon declares dismally to Alcibiades: “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” [IV:iii]. It is clear that Timon is allegorizing misanthropy in the general and in the abstract. However, Shakespeare’s great play, one of the most underestimated in the Western literary canon, is not a misanthropic play, despite appearances, but a subtle critique of Timonian misanthropy.
TIMON IS NOT APART FROM HUMANITY; HE IS A PART OF HUMANITY
Timon retreats to the wasteland in order to avoid human contact and to correct the errors of his personal past, to correct the mistakes that he made when he was rich (profligate liberality, exploitability). And what does he do while in the wasteland? He socializes still!
Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon is thronged by other human beings. In the same way that the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is an overpopulated desert, there are too many people in the wasteland, and Timon can’t escape contact with them. Timon curses Alcibiades for approaching him: “The canker gnaw thy heart / For showing me again the eyes of man!” [IV:iii]. He withdraws from humanity and yet draws humanity to him at the same time.
The obvious question floating in my mind: If Timon wishes to be left alone, why does he ask Apemantus to report to Athens that Timon has money: “Tell them there I have gold” [IV:iii]. He knows well, and Apemenatus tells him as much, that he will soon be thronged with Athenians. Apemantus even affirms that the rogues of Athens will come for him, seeking money: “I’ll say thou’st gold: / Thou wilt be thronged to shortly” [IV:iii]. This is a strange paradox or a koan: If he wants to be left alone, why does Timon send Apemantus as a messenger to Athens? And why is the message that Apemantus carries, in effect, “I have money. Come to see me!”?
Apemantus and Timon are paradoxes: both misanthropes and social animals at the same time. If Apemantus dislikes humanity so much, why does he attend Timon’s well-attended dinners? He doesn’t eat the food that is prepared; he instead show-offily eats roots and drinks water. Why even go to one of Timon’s parties if he is not there for the food? Apemantus does relish piercing the revelers with caustic insults. Everyone appears to know who he is, and he interacts with the partygoers.
The most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s punk-rock play is that it is a condemnation of the whole of humanity—and of Timon along with it! This condemnation extends to misanthropy. Timon’s misanthropy does not go far enough; it leaves Timon immune. Timon is not apart from humanity; he is a part of humanity, even after he renounces it. The play suggests the impossibility of liberating oneself from humanity, the impossibility of ever being alone while being alive, something that brings the work—the strangest, darkest, most nihilistic, most heterodox work in the Shakespearean canon—in close proximity to the shocking literature of Roland Topor. Timon the Misanthrope thinks that he is soaring over the unhuman crowd, but he is one of them; he is a member of the crowd.
WHEN HIS LANGUAGE ENDS, ALL LANGUAGE SHALL END
Timon of Athens is an allegory of language. It suggests that language is empty. Timon’s parasitical “friends” make empty promises and justify the non-performance of their promises with empty words. Timon spends more money than he has and thus defaults on his loans. The Poet promises to craft a poem in honor of Timon that he will never present, the Painter promises to paint a likeness of Timon that he has no intention of completing, etc. Flavius claims that “the world is but a word” [II:ii], the world only extends as far as language does, and that the “breath is gone whereof this praise is made” [II:ii].
It is no wonder that Timon looks forward to the apocalyptic death of language, the reduction of human words to muteness, to silence. Ultimately, all we have are words. When human language dies, humanity dies—and this is something that Timon welcomes in his final words, as if the language of humanity will die when his language dies: “Lips, let sour words go by, and language end” [V:ii]. When his language ends, Timon suggests, all language shall end.
HE IS EITHER GENEROUS TO EVERYONE OR GENEROUS TO NO ONE
Timon moves from indiscriminate generosity to indiscriminate human-hatred. Life is a zero-sum contest, for Timon. He knows only absolutes. Much as Coriolanus, another one of Shakespeare’s simpletons, either loves his motherland Rome or hates Mother Rome, Timon either loves Athens or hates Athens.
Timon is either a profligate prodigal or a human-hater. There is no middle ground for him. He is a quasi-borderline, as if he were afflicted with a version of Borderline Personality Disorder. He absolutely loves or absolutely hates—not one individual, but the totality of humanity.
Note Timon’s use of the word “therefore,” as if he were drawing a logical conclusion:
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villainy. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men! [IV:iii]
He proclaims that he holds no brief for human beings and their communities and rituals, holds no brief for those who compose the human species because they are unequal (it is as if he were attempting to refute Hobbes, whom Shakespeare certainly read, and read with great admiration, according to Ben Johnson). Allow me to paraphrase further: “Human beings are unequal except that they are equal in villainy; therefore, all of human society should be hated!”
Again, Timon is either generous to everyone or generous to no one. As we have known at least since Hegel, opposites interpenetrate. Opposites are inwardly connected; they belong to the same system.
Leftism is nothing more than the inversion of rightism, and Satanism is nothing more than the obverse of Christianity. An opposite is not completely different from the original term. The opposite of something is related to that thing.
Timon, a man whose fortune suddenly changes to misfortune, is not a genuine misanthrope at all. For he only hates humanity after he has been exploited. Had he not been exploited, as Apemantus suggests, he would never have converted to misanthropy. As Apemantus phrases it, Timon’s misanthropy is forced: “This is in thee a nature but affected” [IV:iii]. Timon’s human-hatred is a pre-reflexive, ungenuine, affected misanthropy. It is an immature misanthropy.
Apemantus, who, in many respects, is the raisonneur of the play, is suggesting, quite rightly, that Timon’s rejection of sociality is the mere opposite of promiscuous sociality. Apemantus says, in prose: “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends” [IV:iii]. Apemantus has a more nuanced view of humankind than Timon does.
Jonathan Swift knew that Timon’s misanthropy is naïve and simplistic. This is likely why Swift refuses to identify as a Timonian human-hater. Swift acknowledges that he is a misanthrope, but not a misanthrope in Timon’s manner (see Swift’s letter to Alexander Pope, 29 September 1725). Timon’s misanthropy is not intelligent enough for Swift.
Similarly, in Paragraph 379 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche distances himself from Timonian misanthropy. Nietzsche knew not the love of hatred, but contempt. Contempt is hatred’s icy cousin, and Nietzsche knew well the aristocratic pleasures of contempt, as he knew well that hatred is an all-enmeshing obsession.
HE MOCKINGLY IMITATES THE MOCKING IMITATORS
Timon’s attitude toward art undergoes a change. First, he believes that art is almost the direct representation of human nature: “The painting is almost the natural man” [I:i]. Art is like reality itself; it shows things as they are: “[T]hese penciled figures are / Even such as they give out” [I:i]. He is naïve, again, and has a naïve, pre-reflexive attitude toward art. At the beginning of the play, he actually believes that art is honest!
In the fifth act of the play, Timon considers art to a sham, a kind of fakery, a confidence trick, a lie. The Painter is said to draw “counterfeit” and the Poet is said to compose “fiction” [V:i]. Timon mockingly imitates the mocking imitators.
What Nietzsche writes about Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar may also be written about Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: Shakespeare slyly ridicules poetry and all other forms of art. There is in Timon of Athens the playful disparagement of poetry as a kind of frivolity (see Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Paragraph Ninety-Eight).
HE IS A MISANTHROPE, IT IS TRUE, BUT IT IS ALSO TRUE THAT HE MISANTHROPIZES HIMSELF
Timon is a misanthrope, it is true, but it is also true that he misanthropizes himself. His misanthropy comes from his autolatry, his self-worship, his narcissism, and his inability to forgive himself for his prodigal liberality. It is for this reason that Flavius says of Timon: “[H]e is set so only to himself” [V:ii]
Timon, or Timonian misanthropy, presages the cultural movement in this century known as the “incel” movement. “Incel” is a portmanteau abbreviation of “involuntary celibate.” “Incels” are sexually disappointed young men, men who cannot find sexual release with women and who despise these same women for rejecting them. Often, “incels” are “black-pilled,” which seems to mean that they are anticipating a dreary, hopeless future for themselves and, often, for everyone else.
I see the similarity in that “black-pilling” involuntary celibates transfer their self-hatred onto a world that does not bend to them, much in the way that Timon transfers his self-hatred onto a world that is indifferent to him.
Misanthropy is founded on narcissism and on narcissistic self-hatred. Misanthropes project their hatred of themselves onto the numberless faces that they will never see.
Misanthropy is an immature response to the venality of humanity. Rather than inventing more nuanced, cleverer ways of dealing with people, the misanthrope thinks: “Because a small group of people mistreated me, all of humanity should be condemned.” It is as if the misanthrope were saying: “Because I was exploited and because no one helped me when I was abject, die, everyone, die!”
It is important to highlight that this play is critical of Timon’s liberality and his misanthropy.
HE REINTERPRETS HIS PERSONAL EXPLOITATION AS INFECTION BY PESTILENTIAL HUMANITY
In his final words, Timon says, dismally: “My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend” [V:ii]. Dying is the healing, the “mending,” of the sickness of life, the remedying of that disease which is life. Timon reinterprets his personal exploitation as infection by pestilential humanity.
Timon is someone who seems endlessly fascinated by Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), to the extent that I would describe him as a syphillographer, a syphillologist, and a syphillophile. This makes perfect sense when we consider that Timon associates venereal disease with human life, since, after all, human life is a Sexually Transmitted Disease.
ONE IS THE CANNIBAL AND THE OTHER IS THE CANNIBALIZED
Timon of Athens sets forth the dreariest vision of humankind of any Shakespearean play. In the fourth line of the text, the Painter says that the world “wears… as it grows” [I:i]: that is, the world is progressively wearing itself down, depleting itself, exhausting itself, decomposing, rotting, putrefying, in the same way that Timon’s fortunes are shrinking and shriveling.
Human relations are anthropophagous relations, the play is suggesting: In every relationship between any given two human beings, one is the cannibal and the other is the cannibalized, one is dominant and the other submissive. Alcibiades looks forward ghoulishly to a “breakfast of enemies” that would be “bleeding new” [II:i]. Apemantus knows that wherever two human beings meet, one is the predator and the other is the prey, one is more active and the other is more passive: “What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast? And what a beast art thou already that seest not thy loss in transformation!” [IV:iii]. In other words, humanity has devolved into the purely bestial: “The strain of man’s bred out into baboon and monkey” [I:i]. Apemantus asks, rhetorically “Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?” [I:ii], and it is the clear that Apemantus knows well that Timon’s friends are devouring him: “It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood” [I:ii].
The distinction between eater and eaten runs throughout the play. Timon’s friend-enemies are feeding upon him, eating his flesh, slicing him up: “Cut my heart in sums—” [III:iv], Thomas cries out as the creditors come for him. Flavius declares that the creditors ate of his “lord’s meat”; “they could smile and fawn upon his debts, / And take down th’interest into their gluttonous maws” [III:iv]. This is an interesting use of antiprosopopoeia (the representation of human beings as objects): Timon is represented as the meat on which his “friends” feast. The creditors come, demanding payment and charging interest—they are metaphorically ingesting Timon.
Timon is preyed upon by creditors who wear the jewels that Timon has given them. The “strange event,” Titus says of his master, is that “he wears jewels now of Timon’s gift / For which I wait for money” [III:iv]. Here is the sickening cosmic irony: Timon has given gifts to recipients who now demand payment for those same gifts. In the very diagesis in which he claims to have warned Timon about keeping a tighter purse, Lucullus says that he ate Timon’s food!: “Many a time and often I ha’ dined with him, and told him on’t, and come again to supper to him of purpose to have him spend less…” [III:i]. The “friends” who are wearing Timon’s gifts refuse to lend him any money and charge Timon for the gifts that he has given them.
It is as if Shakespeare were canalizing Machiavelli, whom Shakespeare might have read and who claimed, in The Prince, that human beings are, in general, “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous.” One might add, according to the metaphorics of Shakespeare’s underestimated play: self-interested, swinish, gruesome, callous, lazy, unreliable.
THE REAVING THIEVES AND THE WATERY NOTHINGNESS OF THEIR WORDS
At the end of the third act, Timon feeds the parasites lukewarm water. He tosses the water at the false friends and tosses them out of his house. “Smoke and lukewarm / water / Is your perfection” [III:vii], he declares. As Jesus evicts the money changers and the dove hawkers from the temple, Timon evicts the false friends from his house, baptizing them with tepid water, a kind of reverse christening.
Why water? Why smoke? The smoke is the vapor emanating, paradoxically, from the lukewarm water—and the vaporous, lukewarm water is the perfect metaphor for the reaving thieves and the watery nothingness of their words. Water literalizes the metaphor of friendship as liquid—that is to say, as not solid, not trustworthy, not constant. As Flaminius asks, rhetorically, “Has friendship such a faint and milky heart / It turns in less than two nights?” [III:i].
Liquid metaphors drench the text. Apemantus is a root-eater and water-drinker, and water, as I will explain below, symbols the reversion to nature and the desertion of fortune.
HE DIGS IN THE EARTH
Fortune overtakes nature, as it always does in Shakespeare. Timon tells us, recalling As You Like It (written around ten years earlier), that brothers who are twins by nature will fight against each other as soon as one brother grows more fortunate than the other: “Twinned brothers of one womb / Whose procreation, residence and birth / Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes, / The greater scorns the lesser” [IV:iii].
It is no wonder that Timon favors nature to fortune. It is no wonder that Timon reverts to nature, to eating roots and drinking water: “Earth, yield me roots” [Ibid.].
The stage direction makes it plain: Timon digs in the earth [Ibid.], excavating for roots, much in the way that his model Apemantus does—Apemantus, the ape man whom Timon is aping. Timon, then, turns against fortune and turns toward nature, for he knows well that fortune quickly converts into misfortune.
HE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS DESTRUCTION
Only a coarse and lazy reading of the play would suggest that Timon is innocent of his exploitation and eventual destruction. Sharper, more careful readers will not think of Timon as an innocent victim. Both meanings are supportable: His friends are parasitical, and Timon is complicit in his demolition.
HE GIVES MORE THAN IS ASKED FOR AND THEN GROWS SPITEFUL WHEN HIS LARGESSE IS NOT RETURNED
Timon refuses to allow the recipients of his gifts to give him anything of equal value. It might be tempting to describe his gifts as a kind of potlatch, but let us remember that (according to Mauss and Bataille) potlatch places the recipient of the gift in the uncomfortable position of having to out-give the original giver. This is not the case here. Timon does not accept the repayment of debts—in that sense, Timon does not loan money; he gives it. He refuses Ventidius’ offer to repay the money that Timon has given him. Timon’s response is that gifts should be given freehandedly: “[T]here’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives” [I:ii]. He gives promiscuously, but not entirely without the reciprocity of interest (I will discuss this matter later on).
Not only that: Timon cannot accept a gift without giving something to the giver in exchange. When Lucullus gives Timon two brace of greyhounds, Timon’s response is that they should not be received “without fair reward” [I:ii]. As the Second Lord phrases it: There is “no meed but [Timon] repays / Sevenfold above itself, no gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” [I:i]. In other words, Timon has the tendency of giving beyond compensation, beyond remuneration.
More so: Timon gives excessively. He gives more than is asked for and then grows spiteful when his largesse is not returned. He ransoms Ventidius from debtor’s prison—and even offers to support him financially after he is freed: “’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, / But to support him after” [I:i]. Timon is too trusting, too naïve, too credulous, and gives too readily, too quickly to the firstcomer; he guarantees more than is requested. (When Timon is down in a financial hole, incidentally, Ventidius does not come to his aid.)
Worst of all, Timon is financially illiterate; indeed, his knowledge of money is at best lineamental. He is not financially hyperopic enough to see that his lavish expenditures exceed his income. When Timon complains that Flavius never warned him about the rapid decrease in his funds, the servant says: “You would not hear me: / At many leisures I proposed—” [II:ii]. Timon interrupts Flavius before Flavius can conclude his sentence of explanation, inadvertently proving Flavius’ point: Timon is a terrible listener and hence a terrible learner. When, in his previous life, Timon is overly generous to those around him, he speaks of a “bond in men” to “build [the] fortune” of others [I:i; emphasis mine]. He uses this word—bond—as if it were a divine commandment to give his servant Lucilius a massive raise.
HE IS AS MUCH OF AN EXPLOITER AS THE FLATTERING PARASITES WHO FAWN OVER HIM
Timon seems to be a selfless giver—“more welcome are you to my fortunes / Than my fortunes to me” [I:ii], he says to Ventidius—and yet Timon does expect compensation. He just doesn’t expect monetary compensation. As Nietzsche reminds us, no one gives without expecting a reward.
Timon is every bit as parasitical as his so-called “friends.” Timon says: “[W]hat need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ’em?” [I:ii]. He is saying, in effect: “Because I give to you, you will give to me, if I ever need you!” But this does not follow logically; it is an argument that contains false inference. Timon discovers his non sequitur too late.
He is an exploiter in a culture of exploitation—he is as much of an exploiter as the flattering parasites who fawn over him.
EVEN WHILE WASTING AWAY IN THE WASTELAND, TIMON GIVES MONEY TO THE UNWORTHY
Unfortunately, there is one thing about Timon that only changes very late in the play: Even while in self-imposed exile, even after renouncing and repudiating humanity, Timon gives away his money!
He gives money to Alcibiades (“There’s gold to pay thy soldiers—” [IV:iii]), he throws gold at the prostitutes without getting or asking for anything in return (“There’s more gold” [Ibid.]), he squanders money on thieves. His gives money to everyone besides the Poet, the Painter, and the Senators. What, then, has changed about Timon—if anything?
(Interestingly, one of the prostitutes is named Phrynia, a name which almost certainly is an allusion to Phryne, the high-end batrachian call girl of Ancient Greece. And as deep readers of Greek history will know, the historical Alcibiades was a kind of prostitute himself.)
Has he changed at all? He gives now out of spite, not out of love—but the ridiculous excessive liberality has not changed. He gives out of different motives than he gave before, but he still gives—indeed, squanders—what he has. “More whore, more mischief first—” [IV:iii], he says to the prostitutes, whom he pays to sow discord, and pays Alcibiades to wage war against the Athenians. But he is still Timon the Spendthrift. As far as the thieves are concerned: Timon might curse them, but the thieves might as well say, in contemporary American English slang, “I still got your money, dude.”
Has Timon truly changed? Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon still gives money to the unworthy. If I were to be even more curmudgeonly, I would like to suggest that Timon hasn’t learned his lesson: He is still giving to the parasites who are feeding upon him.
Timon of Athens is the complex character study of a misanthrope who never succeeds in hating humanity as much as humanity deserves to be hated.
 Much like Thersites in Shakespeare’s earlier Troilus and Cressida, Apemantus is a cynical philosopher. In the fourth act, Timon has transformed himself into the likeness, into a grotesque burlesque of Apemantus, the ascetic who eats nothing but roots and who drinks nothing but water (perhaps in denial of the opulent pleasures of affluence). A defensible reading of Apemantus’ name would be Ape-mantus: the Ape Man, as well as the Man Who Is Aped. He is an ape man, and he recognizes that other human beings are apes. And he is aped by Timon, who takes on Apemantus’ misanthropy. There is a flaw in Timon’s imitation of Apemantus, however. Though Timon takes on the human-hating position of Apemantus, there is something forced, something affected in Timon’s misanthropy. Apemantus is not a hater of the whole of humankind. It would be accurate to say that Apemantus has contempt for humanity, but there is no evidence that he is gripped and entangled by that obsession which is called “hatred.” Apemantus seems to approach Timon in the desert only in order to torment him further and to prevent him from copying his mannerisms: “Do not assume my likeness” [IV:iii]. Timon and Apemantus are not pleased to see their doubles. It would not be relevant for me to pursue a sustained comparison between Thersites and Apemantus here.
 Here is another of the play’s cosmic ironies: In the sixth scene of the third act, Alcibiades pleads to the senators for the life of one of his rogue soldiers. They banish him for his alleged impudence. At the end of the play, these same senators will plead for their lives with the grinning submission of passive chimpanzees when confronted by a dominant chimpanzee. The Third Senator proposes “decimation and a tithed death” [V:v] for the Athenian people. “Decimation” does not mean “destruction.” It means “the killing of every tenth being.”
 The thrust and the tenor of this essay is not to explore the ways in which the play is an allegory of language (I am more concerned here with the ways in which it is an allegory of misanthropy), but let me give some indications of how such an analysis would proceed. There are apostrophes, in the rhetorical sense, throughout the text. A (rhetorical) apostrophe is an address to someone or something that is absent. Here is a partial list of apostrophizing in the text: The Poet addresses an absent Timon as “Magic of bounty” [I:i]. Both the Poet and the Painter frequently speak of Timon in absentia. Flavius apostrophizes Timon in his lord’s absence: “My dearest lord…” [IV:ii]. Timon apostrophizes money: “O thou sweet king-killer…” [IV:iii]. In the third scene of the fourth act, Flavius apostrophizes the gods (“O you gods!”).
 This statement is every bit as insane as when Timon says to Apemantus: “[T]hou’rt an Athenian, therefore welcome” [I:i; emphasis mine].
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.
CONTRACT, OATH, AND THE LETTER IN THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?
It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts. All we have are the plays. The question, then, ought to be revised:
Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text. There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well. Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.
The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury. But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.
The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath. The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money. It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].
The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]). The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.
If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced. Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law. There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.]. For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness. Justice and mercy may not coexist. To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract. Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful. The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months. Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.
The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:
It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].
If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law. But what is the source of the transcendent law? What gives it its force? And what compels one to follow it? The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:
An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].
I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me. I stay here on my board [Ibid.].
The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed. Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.” Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man. The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance. Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument. The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig. Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.
Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:
Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].
“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter. “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote. There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean. The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.
Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio. Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One). The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act. Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.
The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play? My impression is that it is. The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors. The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.
The Neon Demon (2016) is a snuff film in which art is murdered.
Descent (2007) is superior to The Neon Demon because the former has an Aristotelian structure–which works.
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.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is German, Zambian, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.
My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.
My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Richard Matheson, and [NAME REDACTED].
An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Nicht, dass gekämpft wird, ist das Tragische der Welt. Sie selbst ist das Tragische.
—Christian Morgenstern, Stufen
Troilus and Cressida (circa 1603) does not seem to belong in the age in which it was written. This disenchantingly sordid play belongs to modernity. It demythologizes war, it demythologizes love, it demythologizes heroism, it demythologizes the supernatural. The sour luridness of the play, its fetid atmosphere, is so suffocating that it has obscured its status as one of the greatest works that Shakespeare ever composed.
LOVE IS WAR / WAR IS LOVE
Seven years deep into the Trojan-Grecian War, the Grecians and the Trojans alike are wracked with fatigue, demoralized, and insensitive to rank (e.g. Achilles is so arrogant that he dallies in bed with his male lover Petroclus instead of strategizing with the general). Shakespeare reminds us, again and again, the war is not the glorious campaign that it is in Homer.
There is in this play an erotics of war. By this phrase, I do not intend that the play beautifies war; I mean that it eroticizes war by conflating the martial and the erotic. There is in the play a kind of erotic bellicosity and bellicose eroticism. We see this when Aeneas issues a challenge to the Greeks: Let one of them defend the wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of their lady (Greece) against the superior wisdom, beauty, and faithfulness of Hector’s lady (Troy): “[Hector] hath a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did compass in his arms” [I:iii].
The entire Trojan-Grecian War is based on one man’s libidinal desires: Paris’ lust for Helen, Menelaus’ stolen wife. The play suggests this to us through its raisonneurs, Hector, Thersites, Cassandra, and Diomedes. So much blood is spilled over a “whore and a cuckold” [II:iii], as the divine slave Thersites phrases it: “Lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion” [V:ii]. Blood and death eventuate from one man’s sexual itchings.
Of course, Paris says the opposite. “Sir,” Paris says to his father, the King of Troy, “I propose not merely to myself / The pleasures that such a beauty [Helen] brings with it” [II:ii]. But who believes him? “[Y]ou speak / Like one besotted on your own sweet delights” [Ibid.], Priam says of his son Paris. And is it not true? Paris believes that the capture of one woman, the woman for whom he lusts, is worth infinitely more than the lives of the hundreds of thousands of men who are canalized into the slaughterhouse of war. He also believes that his own ecstatic transports are worth more than the sorrow of the men and women who will mourn over the dead.
It would be facile to say that the play is anti-war. It is anti-war, but it is anti-love in the same measure. Love leads inexorably to betrayal—or, at least, to the perception of betrayal. It is never entirely clear whether Cressida betrays Troilus or Troilus betrays himself. Young Troilus ends up hating the woman he once loved, which spurs him to hack away at the enemy. Its disenchantment with love removes the play from peacenik causes.
In all love, there is war, but one could evaginate this proposition: In all love, there is war, and in all war, there is love. Troilus and Cressida suggests the interpenetration of love and war in each scene. Empedocles knew well that love and conflict, attraction and repulsion, Philia and Neikos, were intimately bound together, and we see this Empedoclean dialectic bodied forth in Shakespeare’s play. War issues from love, as love is riven by war.
Before his love transforms into hatred, Troilus sees Cressida as a spoil of war, as booty that is worth fighting over. His infatuation with Cressida is the economic infatuation of a war-profiteer. He says of Cressida: “Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl” [I:i]. She is an exotic land to be conquered. Helen is first likened to semen-stained bedsheets, then also likened to a pearl. Troilus says of Helen, “We turn not back the silks upon the merchant / When we have soiled them” [II:ii]. Then: “Why, she is a pearl / Whose price hath launched above a thousand ships” [Ibid.]. Troilus is likely a virgin—or one who has been revirginized in the Virgin Machine—and, like many virgins, conflates the ecstasy of love with the ecstasy of death: “What will it be, / When that the water’y palates taste indeed / Love’s thrice-reputed nectar? Death, I fear me, / Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine, / Too subtle-potent, tuned too sharp in sweetness, / For the capacity of my ruder powers” [III:ii]. As Troilus reminds us earlier, there is a battle going on within the walls of Troy—it is a battle for Cressida’s desire. “[P]ress it to death,” Pandarus says of the bed in which Troilus and Cressida will couple [III:ii]. Again and again, there is war-in-love and love-in-war.
The paradox of war-in-love and love-in-war can be seen in the antiphrasis of friendly enmity that runs throughout the play. The warriors are friendly enemies and hostile friends. Grecian embraces Trojan, as Trojan embraces Grecian. The Trojan Hector embraces his Grecian cousin Ajax. Ulysses and Troilus become Best Friends Forever, despite the fact that Ulysses is Grecian and Troilus belongs to the other side. Enemies volley a fusillade of affectionate insults at one another. They insult one another fondly. Paris, overhearing Aeneas and Diomedes railing against each other lovingly, says that this is “the most despiteful’st gentle greeting, / The noblest hateful love, that e’er I heard of” [IV:i]. Diomedes, speaking to Paris, is never more admirable than when he condemns the unholy carnage of the war for the losses that it has inflicted on both sides. “For every false drop in [Helen’s] bawdy veins,” Diomedes says to Paris, “A Grecian’s life has sunk; for every scruple / Of her contaminated carrion weight / A Trojan hath been slain” [IV:i]. The Grecian general Agamemnon gives Aeneas, emissary of the Trojan army, a feast and the “welcome of a noble foe” [I:iii]. Hector, on safe conduct, feasts with the Grecians, etc., etc. Characters are friendlier to their enemies than they are to their friends; there are fractions within factions. Enemies are loyal to one another with the piety of traitors.
PANDARUS, THE INCOMPETENT MEDIATOR
Pandarus panders—as his name suggests, he is a pimp, a procurer. He solicits his own niece Cressida to Troilus and seems to care more about the promise of Troilus’ erotic victory than he does about Cressida’s state of mind when Pandarus learns that Cressida has become a commodity that will be gifted to the Greeks in exchange for the enfranchisement of the prisoner Antenor. This comes about thanks to the traitor Calchas, Cressida’s father, who is every bit of an agent of mediation, every bit of a “broker-lackey” [V:xi], as Pandarus is. Calchas solicits his daughter Cressida, as Pandarus panders Cressida his niece.
Troilus cannot come to Cressida except by way of her uncle Pandarus. This is yet another instantiation of what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third”: The one cannot relate to the other except by way of the mediator. And yet, even though Pandarus is a mediator, he is a mediator who mediates nothing. All of his intercessions, all of his intermediations, are in vain.
Whenever the two lovers meet, Pandarus is there, hovering in the background. “So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress,” he urges Troilus [III:ii]. “Have you not done talking yet?” [Ibid.], he says to the young lovers and “Go to, go to” [Ibid.], egging them on to put on a sex show while he slaveringly leers. He is clearly prostituting his niece—presenting her as a “picture,” as a pornographic icon for his scopophilic pleasure: “Come, draw this curtain, and let’s see your picture” [III:ii]. Pandarus’ scopophilia extends so far that he projects himself through the medium of the imagination into his niece’s body. “Well, Troilus, well, I would my heart were in her body” [I:ii], Pandarus says of his niece.
Shakespeare keeps reminding us, unto the final line of the play, that Pandarus is a syphilitic pimp. “My business seethes,” he says to the subtly deprecating Servant [III:i]—but the Elizabethans knew what the word seethe connoted. Shakespeare does not let us forget that seething connotes STDs and the sweating treatment that was used to cure them. In the play’s last verse, Pandarus threatens to “bequeath [his] diseases” to the spectators [V:xi]. It is indeed a sodden and sordid play that ends with the imaginary transference of venereal diseases to the audience.
THE LOGIC OF EXCHANGEABILITY
Troilus and Cressida contains a logic of exchangeability: Characters are fungible, and they interchange with one another. Paris substitutes for Menelaus as Helen’s new lover. Cressida substitutes for Antenor (her transference to Grecians liberates the imprisoned Antenor), and Achilles is replaced by Ajax. As Ulysses says, “Ajax employed plucks down Achilles’ plumes” [II:i]. Calchas and Ulysses are both agents who effect substitution. Calchas solicits his daughter in exchange for Antenor; the ever-crafty Ulysses exchanges Ajax for Achilles.
Most interestingly, we see the logic of substitutability, of taking-one-for-another, in the romance between Troilus and Cressida. Cressida is the replacement for Helen, as Troilus is the replacement for Menelaus, and Diomedes is the replacement for Paris. Just as Menelaus was cuckolded by Paris, Troilus will be cuckolded by Diomedes. One cuckold replaces another cuckold; one conflict replaces another conflict. Here is the dreary repetition of war prompted by sexual jealousy. The conflict between Troilus and Diomedes repeats the conflict between Paris and Menelaus—this suggests that erotically generated war will never cease.
When he lines up to Kiss the Girl with the rest of the Grecian army, Menelaus is the only suitor who is refused by Cressida. Could this be because he is superannuated, irrelevant, having been replaced by a newer cuckold—namely, by Troilus?
Such is the cosmic irony of the play: The Trojans refuse to give up the Queen of the Greeks, Helen, but willingly give up Trojan-born Cressida. Troilus presents specious arguments against giving back Helen to the Greeks, and yet his own beloved Cressida is given to the Greeks instead. History is presented as a series of infinite permutations; the same elements are infinitely rearranged.
FAKE NEWS FROM TROY
Characters refer to themselves in the third person, a practice which is usually coincident with a beclouded mind. “O foolish Cressid” [IV:ii], which Cressida says of herself, is one example of this.
Troilus, Cressida, and Pandarus historicize themselves—or are conscious of their being-in-history. Troy claims to be as “true as Troilus”; Cressida says that she should be known as “false as Cressid” [III:ii], if she betrays Troilus. Pandarus affirms, “Let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between panders” [III:ii]. And this auto-reflexivity is unimpugnable: Literate people today do indeed associate faithful men with Troilus, faithless women with Cressida, and officious mediators with Pandarus.
When Achilles kills Hector, he does so by way of a trick. He waits for Hector to unarm himself. Achilles does not even kill Hector himself—he has his Myrmidons do the dirty work for him. His Myrmidons ambush Hector when he is vulnerable. The murder of Hector and the grotesque desecration of his carcass are recreant and dishonorable—and yet this is championed and broadcast as if it were the result of valor and fair play.
“On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, / ‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’” The quotation marks are important. This is an act of speech and an act of writing that will be transmitted to the ages—the news is fake, but the fake news will be memorialized. All historical memory is fake news, Shakespeare appears to suggest.
The characters have historical consciousness—that is, they are conscious of their place in historical memory. They anticipate their reception in the future. They are conscious of their own status as representations in the future perfect; they are conscious of their readers and spectators. They are conscious of their reverberations through the abysses of time.
DEMYTHOLOGIZING THE GODS AND THE HEROES
There is almost no supernaturalism at all in the play. Whereas in Homer, the gods and goddesses, such as Athena and Aphrodite, intervene in human affairs and shape the Trojan-Athenian War, there are no gods in Troilus and Cressida. The closest we, as readers, come to the supernatural is by way of the brief appearance of the Sagittary—who is half-horse, half-man—the only creature who could be described as mythopoeticized. All of the other characters are human, all-too-human.
The play demythologizes both gods and heroes alike.
Most of the so-called Grecian and Trojan “heroes” are lazy, languid, lethargic, including Paris, who lounges about with his stolen mistress instead of battling against the enemy: “I would fain have armed today, but my Nell would not have it so” [III:i], he says to Pandarus.
Ajax, who is best known for having been bedeviled by Athena and bewitched into slaughtering sheep, is a “blockish” blockhead [I:iii].
Shakespeare’s Achilles is not the great warrior of the Illiad. Shakespeare’s Achilles is a layabout, lying in bed with his ladyboy Petroclus, who is described by Thersites as Achilles’ “male varlet” and as his “masculine whore” [V:i]. In the first scene of the second act, Petroclus is characterized by Thersites as a “brach,” an obsolete word that means “bitch hound,” “fawning hanger-on,” “prostitute,” or “catamite.”
In Hellenic mythology, Cassandra was cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo for refusing his advances. In Shakespeare, however, Cassandra is believed by Hector, at least. He commends her “high strains / [o]f divination” as genuine signs of prophecy [II:ii]. Her ravings are dismissed by Troilus as “brain-sick raptures” [Ibid.]—but this is the imputation of pathology. The point is not that Cassandra’s augury is pathologized by Troilus; the point is that she is not divinely sibylline. There is no evidence that she was ever gifted with prophecy by Apollo or cursed with unbelievableness by Apollo. Shakespeare breaks with the myth.
The general of the Greek army is openly slighted by Aeneas and Achilles, Menelaus is presented as a drowsy cuckold, and Helen, who hardly appears at all, appears as a non-entity. Achilles and Petroclus mock their fellows in the Grecian army, “break[ing] scurril jests, [pageanting them] with ridiculous and awkward action—which, slanderer, [Achilles] imitation calls” [I:iii]. Thersites mocks everyone indiscriminately. All of the great heroes of Greek mythology are subjected to deposition.
Troilus and Cressida is a fractured, disjointed play. The failed romance between Troilus and Cressida, which is itself elliptical, is elliptically presented. Instead of a sustained, continuous presentation, the play appears as a series of vignettes or tableaux vivants.
Not merely is the form of the play fragmentary; the characters are fragmentary, as well. Ajax is described by Alexander, Cressida’s man-in-waiting, as the agglomeration of scissile animal parts (he is of elephant, lion, and bear) [I:ii]. In the fifth scene of the fourth act, Ajax is characterized by his cousin Hector as the agglutination of fissile Grecian and Trojan parts.
And what of Cressida? Who is Cressida, in herself? The answer is that she is self-doubling. At first, it might seem that either she dislikes Troilus or she is pretending to dislike him. But this is a false dichotomy. One of her selves likes Troilus; another one of her selves dislikes Troilus. She has a fissiparous self—that is to say, she has a multiplicity of selves rather than a single self. She is divided into a “kind of self” and another “unkind self” [III:ii], a self that is loyal to Troilus and a self that betrays Troilus. She says to Troilus: “I have a kind of self resides with you, / But an unkind self that itself will leave / To be another’s fool” [Ibid.].
The self-duplication of Cressida prompts Troilus to say, “This is and is not Cressid” [V:ii], when he sights her at Diomedes’ camp. One should observe her ambiguous conduct: She both gives and snatches back the sleeve that Troilus pledged to her—she is both faithless and faithful, both disloyal and loyal.
There is a misogynistic logic in Troilus’ thinking: If one woman is impure, he suggests, then all women are impure. “Think, we had mothers” [V:ii], he says to Ulysses. Since mothers are pure, he implies, and since mothers exist, how could any one woman be impure? Epexegesis: It could not have been Cressida that he saw, since Cressida is a woman, and if the Being He Saw were a woman, this would impugn all womanhood.
As the play opens, Troilus urges the gods to reveal her selfsameness to him: “What Cressid is” [I:ii]. And yet Cressida is not One Thing, not a unified substance, not a substantialized, hypostatized self. On the one hand, she is dedicated to Troilus. On the other hand, she is doubtful of Troilus’ bedroom performance skills and seems hesitant to take things further with him: Men “swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform,” she says to Troilus [III:ii].
Cressida herself will be inaccessible, for she knows the finitude of male desire: Once a man gets what he wants, he doesn’t want it anymore. Once a man gets the woman he wants, he doesn’t want her anymore. Cressida says in the one scene in which she is alone: “Men prize the thing ungained more than it is” [I:ii]. She will be inaccessible, therefore; she will never be only One Thing.
Disenchanting love, disenchanting war, disenchanting heroism, disenchanting theophany, disenchanting the world of the supernatural—all of these forms of disenchantment make of Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s most curiously futuristic play. It looks backward in order to look forward.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
If Much Ado about Nothing (1598/1599) is about anything at all, it is about the social character of all desire, about the triangulations that make desire possible. Love comes about as a conspiracy. That is: Love is the result of a conspiracy. A love-relation is not an isolated relation between two individuals who feel affection for each other. Love-relations are arranged by the community. They have nothing to do with individual desires and feelings of fondness. It is the community that decides who loves whom. It is the community that makes love-relations possible.
We get a sense of this in the very first scene of the play. Claudio confesses to his lord Don Pedro, Spanish prince, that he is attracted to Hero, daughter to Leonato. Immediately, Don Pedro imposes upon his subject. He will be Claudio’s intercessor:
The fairest grant is the necessity. / Look what will serve is fit. ’Tis once, thou lovest; / And I will fit thee with the remedy. / I know we shall have reveling to-night; / I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio; / And in her bosom I’ll unclasp my heart, / And take her hearing prisoner with the force / And strong encounter of my amorous tale. / Then, after, to her father will I break; / And the conclusion is she shall be thine. / In practice let us put it presently [I:i].
Notice the metaphors: Don Pedro is a doctor who will supply the “remedy” to Claudio’s erotic sickness.
Why, precisely, must Don Pedro intervene in the prospective love affair between Claudio and Hero? Why does Claudio not speak of his desires in his own name? Why does Claudio not do the courting himself? Why does he require someone above his station to seduce his inamorata? Why must Don Pedro be his consigliere?
The answer seems to be that desire always requires a third. A third party, a mediator, a matrimonial go-between, a manipulator, an intermediary. Rene Girard is quite brilliant on this point—for his discussion of mimetic desire in Much Ado about Nothing, read pages 80-91 of A Theatre of Envy.
Before he learns that Don Pedro’s matchmaking operation has been successful, Claudio forswears his lord, the mediator: “Let every eye negotiate for itself, / And trust no agent” [II:i]. Afterwards, he accepts that all love requires what I have called elsewhere “the intervention of the third.”
As we will eventually discover, Don Pedro takes an erotic interest in his subordinates’ lovers. (He flirts openly with Beatrice in Act Two: Scene One.) And yet his eroticism resides in the role of the mediator, not that of the actor. Don Pedro insists on bringing both Beatrice, who has renounced all men, and Benedick, who has renounced all women, into a “mountain of affection” (an allusion, perhaps, to Seignior Montanto?).
Don Pedro, the most powerful human being in the play, makes the following statement:
I will… undertake one of Hercules’ labours; which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’ one with th’ other. I would fain have it a match; and I doubt not but to fashion it if you three [Leonato, Hero, and Claudio] will but minister such assistance as I shall give you direction [II:i].
Notice the use of the verb “fashion.” Notice the reference to Hercules and his twelve labors. What chthonic beast will he slay? Notice that it is Don Pedro who desires the match (“I would fain have it a match”), not Beatrice or Benedick.
And a few lines later, Don Pedro gives us this rodomontade:
I will teach you [Hero] how to humour your cousin [Beatrice] that she shall fall in love with Benedick; and I, with your two helps [Claudio and Leonato], will so practice on Benedick that, in despite of his quick wit and his queasy stomach, he shall fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer: his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods [Ibid.].
Notice the irreligious way in which Don Pedro’s speech ends. Shakespeare always refuses extra-worldly transcendence.
This is no intercession on the behalf of a mooning lover (as was the case with Claudio). This is a conspiracy of marriage. Just as Signior John and Borachio sabotage the marriage plans of Claudio and Hero, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato fashion the marriage of Beatrice and Benedick. When Seignior John slanders Hero, is this not the exact obverse of what Don Pedro, Hero, and Leonato have done to Beatrice and Benedick?
Ensconced in the arbor, Benedick quickly changes his mind about women and marriage when he overhears his friends talking about Beatrice’s affections for him. He eavesdrops upon Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro, all three of whom praise Beatrice. Perhaps this is the clincher (spoken by Don Pedro):
I would she had bestowed this dotage on me; I would have daff’d all other respects and made her half myself [II:iii].
“All other respects” is an allusion to the class divide between Don Pedro and Beatrice. When he hears these words, Benedick falls in love with Beatrice, I suspect. His superior desires Beatrice. So must he.
In a series of asides, Claudio likens his friend to a “kid fox,” a “fowl,” and a “fish” [Ibid.]—all three metaphorical animals are to be trapped. Benedick himself is the quarry, the beast who is entrapped in the matrimonial cage.
The exact scene is replicated in the third act. Ensconced in the arbor, Beatrice quickly changes her mind about men and marriage when she overhears her friends talking about Benedick’s affection for her. Hero—Beatrice’s rival—praises Benedick:
“He is the only man of Italy, / Always excepted my dear Claudio” [III:i].
Ursula, lady-in-waiting to Hero, says in an aside: “She’s lim’d, I warrant you; we have caught her, madam” [Ibid.]. “Liming” refers to a trick that bird-hunters used to catch birds.
Hero’s reply: “If it proves so, then loving goes by haps: / Some Cupid kills with arrows, some traps” [Ibid.].
She utters what are utterly the worst lines in Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet’s “The play’s the thing. / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” More importantly, she casts light on one of the play’s most pronounced meanings: The one does not relate to the other except by way of the intervention of the third.
Ultimately, Much Ado about Nothing is conjugal propaganda. And are not all of the Shakespearean comedies marriage propaganda (with the exception of Love’s Labour’s Lost, All’s Well that Ends Well, and The Winter’s Tale, which are not even “comedies” in the Shakespearean sense of that word)? Much Ado about Nothing is a play in which the principal characters get married, whether they want to or not. The misogamist and misogynist Benedick is married, almost against his will. The misogamist and misandrist Beatrice is married, almost against her will. Claudio is married to a woman whose face is disguised with a veil. The exception to the marriage plot is Seignior John, who, we are told, is a bastard. A melancholic bastard. And those who were born illegitimately will die without ever being married and cuckolded.
What saves the play from being one of Shakespeare’s worst is the immense power of the first scene of its fourth act and Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most living female creations. Were it not for the crisis of Act Four: Scene One and the divine Beatrice, Much Ado about Nothing would be nothing more than an Elizabethan beach blanket bingo that ends with the characters swiveling and beveling their hips.
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.
ANALOGY BLINDNESS by Joseph Suglia
Over the years, I have invented a number of words and phrases. Genocide pornography is one that I am especially proud of (cf. my essays on Quentin Tarantino); anthropophagophobia is another word that I coined, which means “the fear of cannibalism” (cf. my interpretation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It). I would like to introduce to the world (also known as Google) a new linguistic term:
analogy blindness (noun phrase): the inability to perceive what an analogy represents. To be lost in the figure of an analogy itself, while losing sight of the concept that the analogy describes.
The Analogist: Polygamy is like going to a buffet instead of a single-serve restaurant. Both are inadvisable.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: People love buffets!
The Analogist: Being taught how to write by Chuck Palahniuk is like being taught how to play football by a one-legged man.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: A one-legged man who knows how to coach football? That’s great!
The Analogist: You should not have reprimanded her in such a rude manner for taking time off from work. You treated her as if she were guilty of some terrible offense, such as plagiarism.
The Person Who Is Blind to the Analogy: But plagiarism is bad!
Derived from Hui-neng: When the wise person points at the Moon, the imbecile sees the finger.
An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins. The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed. Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist. 2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence. Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting. The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master. 3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.
It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place. The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity. Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother. There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus. Hilarity ensues.
The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte. The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.
A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt). Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus. One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:
They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].
Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques. The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play. Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.
* * * * *
A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus? And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?
Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:
There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].
If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus? One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm. Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).
However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act. She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her. They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus. “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother. How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”? And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?
There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?
Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother. Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin. If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?
The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:
1.) In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant. The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money. The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.
2.) Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her. The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.
3.) Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner. Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.
4.) Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.
5.) Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.
6.) Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.
7.) Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement. Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus. Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship. (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)
8.) Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.
Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse. Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself. Doubled, he does not know himself. The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss. Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own. The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:
He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].
One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself. This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].
The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.
Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core. It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.
The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous. It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2]. This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice. While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.
In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice. He is invested with secular authority, as well. Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:
Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].
Well, mortality does, at least. But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.
The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.
In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery. Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:
[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].
“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play. She has been impregnated out of wedlock. For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.
Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority. He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses. Every crime is equal to him. In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii]. When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication. Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes. Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:
To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid. ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].
Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life. It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal. As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality. You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery. Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i]. Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s. Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.
A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio. And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.
There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate. The entire play is a web of substitutions. Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another. Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results. Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head. The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death. There are linguistic transpositions, as well: Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].
* * * * *
Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life. He knows the erotic power that she radiates:
For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]
In the city of *************************, brother prostitutes sister. Claudio would be his sister’s procurer. One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.” It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be. “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire. Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.
Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life. “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio. And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected. During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law! I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii]. After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so. Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].
Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner. Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law. It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death. Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse. Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:
There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].
Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life? If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully. She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:
Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].
The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death. The argument is specious.
Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite. When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence. As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:
Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].
Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest. Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].
Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:
Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].
She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].
William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality. Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality). The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course). Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv]. She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:
[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].
There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.” Nor is there any question that she is succeeding. There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will. She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv]. And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy. When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:
Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].
The question is rhetorical. Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy. Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him. He is corrupt. Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be? I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.
As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority. The Duke has the same designs as his substitute. After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.
When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:
No. Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].
This is trickery. The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.
Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]? According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii]. A “woodman” is a hunter of women. What if Lucio is telling the truth? And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?
Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella? This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella. He commands her to marry him. And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost. As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.
Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him. Her silence is ear-splitting. How are we to understand Isabella’s silence? Is it the silence of shock? The silence of assent? And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?
Reading the play is like looking into an abyss. Every depth leads to a deeper profundity. It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.
THE TRACE OF THE FATHER
by Joseph Suglia
One of the most enduring myths in the history of literature is that the traces of a writer’s paternity can be erased, that the literary artist is parthenogenetically or autogenetically created. One witnesses this myth not merely in the work of authors who have taken it explicitly as their subject, such as Joyce or Artaud; as Peter Schuenemann suggests in Spur des Vaters, the reader may also discover the lineaments of this myth in less likely places. Each of the five authors Schuenemann analyzes–Lessing, Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Benn, all giants of the German literary canon–self-deceptively struggles to wipe out the traces of fatherhood in his writing, only to discover, despairingly and belatedly, that these traces are, in fact, ineffaceable.
Schuenemann examines the points at which each author’s psychological history collides with the trajectory of his writing. Lessing’s desire to detach himself from the sway of the father corresponds to his desire to detach himself from all forms of heteronomy and religious orthodoxy. According to Schuenemann, “Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts” is, at once, a history of humanity’s progress from intellectual obscurity to enlightenment and also Lessing’s self-interpretive attempt to document his movement from slavish dependence on the father to the attainment of total self-sufficiency. When, in the “Duplik,” Lessing voluntarily loosens his grip on “the truth itself,” this renunciation corresponds to Lessing’s own disillusionment with his father, who, like a mendacious and deceptive god, reserves the truth “for himself alone.” The Patheismusstreit and the quarrel with the apoplectic pastor of Hamburg are interpreted through the speculum of Lessing’s conflict with his father’s dogmatism. Lessing’s transcendental interpretation of Goethe’s “Prometheus,” for instance, is derived from a personal desire for self-sovereignty that, in its extremism, anticipates Stirnerian egoism. Nonetheless, there is no absolute break with the father, no clear point at which Lessing moved toward self-sufficiency. One of the central contradictions in Lessing’s work–and, by extension, in the Aufklaerung as such–consists in its uncanny resemblance to the conventional theologies that it professes to despise.
Schuenemann discovers analogous traces of fatherhood in the writing of Goethe. In the years following his return from Italy (1797), Goethe takes on his father’s resemblance, in spite of his repeated attempts to dissolve all ties to his biological provenance. For his entire life, Freud is deeply preoccupied with parricide (Die Traumdeutung, Totem und Tabu, Dostojewski und die Vatertoetung, and Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion all contain this motif). Nonetheless, Freud is unable to kill off the father, and his seeming atheism (Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Unbehagen in der Kultur) does nothing to change this fact. Classical psychoanalysis is inextricably entwined with Talmudic religiosity. Soldiers sacrifice their lives to satisfy their fathers’ bloodlust in the danse macabre that concludes Mann’s Der Zauberberg. Though his Nietzschean anti-humanism explicitly distances Benn from involvement in the forms of religiosity, there persists in his lyric a “Fanatismus zur Transcendenz.” In every context, the author in question confronts the paradox of sublation.
Since Hegel, it has been assumed that what is annihilated is absorbed and brought to a higher level. One of the meanings to be derived from Schuenemann’s account is that the dialectic of paternity is merciless in its omnipresence. Try to destroy the father. Try to erase every trace of his existence. The more you try to negate the father, the more you shall resemble him.
A review of LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
We fall in love with our own hallucinations, according to the most rigorous of the “comedies” (if it is one), Love’s Labour’s Lost (circa 1595-1597). As the title itself announces, this will not be a typical Shakespearean comedy in which everyone gets married, whether they want to or not. From the final scene:
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Jill [V:ii].
Courtship does not result in conjugality, but rather in the weak promise of deferred gratification: King Ferdinand “falls in love” with the Princess of France, who forces the Navarrean ruler to wait for her for an entire year. Berowne “falls in love” with the mysterious Rosaline, who forces the Navarrean lord to wait for her for an entire year (all while doing charity work at a hospital). There is absolutely no reason to believe that the Princess of France will give herself to King Ferdinand, nor is there any reason to believe that any of the French ladies will give themselves to the Navarrean lords, Berowne, Dumain, and Longaville. The play ends, without ever ending, with the indefinite postponement of erotic fulfillment.
The King demands payment for the province of Aquitaine from the Princess of France. In vain. Just as his desire to be paid for Aquitaine is disappointed, the King’s lust for the Princess is disappointed. Not merely is it the case that the male desire to conquer the female fades into libidinal nonfulfillment (or “erotic defeat,” to use Harold Bloom’s term); the male desire to accumulate wealth fades into financial nonfulfillment. Women outwit their male suitors in this puckish farce, a sophisticated problematical comedy that ridicules all of its male characters and extols the brilliance of its ladies, who emerge looking far from foolish. To quote the Princess of France:
[P]raise we may afford
To any lady that subdues a lord [IV:i].
A feast of language in which the characters dine on scraps, the play mocks the speech of the hypereducated and of the undereducated alike. The speech of the pedants Holofernes and Nathaniel is all but unintelligible, since they speak Latin as often as they speak English and obsessively employ synonymia. (Synonymia: a long sequence of successive synonyms.) The magnificent Don Adriano de Armado, who avoids common expressions as if they were strains of the Ebola virus, is admirable and ridiculous at the same time. He obsessively employs synonymia and tatutologia. (Tautologia: a tiresome repetition of the same idea in different words.) The rustic Costard only talks in malapropisms, mistaking “reprehend” for “represent,” “adversity” for “prosperity,” “manner” for “manor,” “desolation” for “consolation,” “collusion” for “allusion,” and so forth. Somewhat implausibly, Costard is also the bearer of a word that seems above him, one of the longest words in the English language: honorificabilitudinitatibus (“to be gifted with honors”). Berowne is perhaps Shakespeare’s linguistic ideal, since he neither utters malapropisms nor translates his every word into Latin. He is mocked in other ways.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is probably Shakespeare’s filthiest play, as well, with at least two lines that sound like they belong to a hit song by Ke$ha:
Thou canst not hit it, hit it, hit it,
Thou canst not hit it, my good man [IV:i].
Two metaphorical strands are woven throughout the play. The first series of metaphors concerns the opposition between the spring and the winter. This one leaves me cold. The second metaphorical filament is immeasurably more interesting than the first: Ocular and optical metaphors proliferate throughout the play, which concerns the act of seeing and the relationship between seeing and desiring.
The men of this imaginary world have a purely visual interest in their female “beloveds.” For example, the entire sensorium of Navarre, according to Boyet, attending lord to the Princess of France, is housed in his eyesight:
All senses to that sense [eyesight] did make their repair,
To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
Methought all his senses were lock’d in his eye,
As jewels in crystal for some prince to buy [II:i].
Berowne’s fear, or so he says, is the loss of his eyesight from reading too much. He would much rather study a woman’s physiognomy:
Light, seeking light, doth light of light beguile
So, ere you find where light in darkness lies,
Your light grows dark by losing of your eyes.
Study me how to please the eye indeed,
By fixing it upon a fairer eye [I:i].
The meaning of the first verse quoted seems to be: “Eyes that seek intellectual enlightenment are distracted from the light of truth, which comes from the eyes of a woman.” In the late sixteenth century, it was still believed that the human eye produced light beams. This idea, known as the “emission theory,” is at least as old as Plato.
All the eyes disclose are illusions. Moth, Armado’s page, makes this point in rhyme:
If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known;
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred,
And fears by pale white shown.
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know;
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe [I:ii].
What the peasant woman Jaquenetta is thinking and feeling Armado will never know. (Here we have the charming mixing of social classes that is so common in Shakespeare.) What the even more enigmatic Rosaline is thinking and feeling Berowne will never know. Again, the desire to master the totality of Woman is frustrated.
The unknowability of the object of desire is perfectly dramatized in the second scene of the fifth act. At the beginning of the scene (the scene itself is 1,003 lines long), the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting are in the park, ridiculing the gifts, letters, and attentions that they have received from their gentlemen callers. Boyet informs the Princess that he eavesdropped upon the king and his lords, who are planning to accost the ladies while disguised as Russians. The Princess orders the ladies to wear masks and swap the gifts that they received from the lords so that Katherine will be mistaken for Maria, and the Princess will be confused with Rosaline. When the men arrive, disguised, the ladies have their backs turned to them. As Moth remarks:
A holy parcel of the fairest dames / That ever turn’d their—backs—to mortal views!
Each man is disguised and therefore exchangeable with another; each woman’s face is veiled and is therefore exchangeable with another. Bodies are clothed; faces are inscrutable. All that is visible is the eyes. If you would like to find the authentic precursors of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), look no further.
The women of Love’s Labour’s Lost are unknowable to the male characters, for the men only know the figures that they have created. In scene after scene of Shakespeare’s great play, we encounter men who love themselves more than the women they profess to adore. For instance, Boyet loves not his mistress, but his own language. As the Princess says of his overblown encomium to her beauty:
I am less proud to hear you tell my worth
Than you much willing to be counted wise
In spending your wit in the praise of mine [II:i].
Ingenuously or disingenuously (which will never be discovered), Berowne asks Rosaline (some versions, erroneously, say ‘Katherine’):
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once? [II:i].
Berowne does not even seem to recognize the woman whom he “loves.” She mockingly repeats his leading question:
Did I not dance with you in Brabant once?
Repeating his question, she neither confirms nor denies its suggestion that such a dance had ever taken place. Whereas Bloom proposed Did I Not Dance with You in Brabant Once? as an alternative title to the play, I would suggest Last Year at Brabant, echoing, of course, the cinematic masterwork of Resnais and Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (1962). We know nothing of the prehistory of these lovers, if lovers they be. It is indeed entirely possible that their prehistory is wholly imaginary, that Rosaline is playfully assuming the fictitious role that Berowne has imposed on her. For Berowne loves only his own reflection, the mirror image that is reflected in her eyes. As he says (in prose):
By this light, but for her eye, I would not love her—yes, for her two eyes [IV:iii].
Berowne loves Rosaline, then, because she is a reflective surface. “What do you see when you look at me?”: This is Berowne’s implicit question. And Berowne is not the only autoeroticist in the play. From the King of Navarre himself, in a letter to the Princess of France:
But do not love thyself; then thou wilt keep
My tears for glasses, and still make me weep [IV:iii].
Translation: “Don’t love yourself! Love me!”
With these words Berowne describes the beauty of Rosaline:
A whitely wanton with a velvet brow,
With two pitch balls stuck in her face for eyes;
Ay, and, by heaven, one that will do the deed,
Though Argus were her eunuch and her guard [III:i].
Argus, the monster with one hundred eyes, is the castrated guard who protects the woman with sightless eyes. And into those null eyes Berowne looks and sees what he wants to see. He introjects his own images into the blackness. What does he see in Rosaline’s eyeless eyes? Nothing but himself. Her pitch balls are as black as the eyes of a chicken, and there is nothing but his own Self to be seen within their unfathomable, fathomless blackness.
All interpretation is projection, since interpretation is drawn not to objects, but to the absence of objects. We desire to interpret not when there is something to interpret, but when there is nothing to interpret.
An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
J’énonce que le discours analytique ne se soutient que de l’énoncé qu’il n’y a pas, qu’il est impossible de poser le rapport sexuel.
Shakespeare’s time believed in the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the cosmos is linked together by a natural order. Human beings ascend above non-human animals; vegetation descends below both. Inanimate matter has its place at the bottom of the hierarchy. All entities are connected in relations of interdependence; every thing has its own place, and every thing is dependent upon every other thing. There are hidden agreements between all things in the world.
Social classes, too, are organized by the Great Chain of Being. Monarchies have their proper place and were preordained by the cosmos. Shakespeare’s early and middle comedies shore up the idea that social order is a manifestation of the natural order. As I have stated repeatedly, the comedies are works of conjugal propaganda in which the principals are coerced into marriage. Marriage was seen as the threshold to total socialization, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. No matter what disturbances destabilize the relations between the characters in the first four acts of each comedy, all of these relations will be restored in the fifth act with the compulsion of marriage.
This is not quite always the case in the problematical plays. Love’s Labour’s Lost ends without ever really ending; it fizzles out with the vague promise of erotic fulfillment. All’s Well That Ends Well only ends well from a purely formal and external point of view. I have written that Shakespeare is both the most underestimated and the most overestimated of writers in the English canon, and this is absolutely evident when one considers that the order-restoring comedies (such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are overrated and the order-destabilizing comedies (if this is the right word) are underrated (though there has been a surge of interest in the latter in recent years).
The problematical plays show the unlinking of the Great Chain of Being. The Winter’s Tale, which is one of Shakespeare’s late plays (composed circa 1610), does not allow the young boy Mamillius to be revived, even though both Perdita and Hermione are resurrected. Though there is a reconciliation of what has been ruptured at the close of the play, it is a queasy and uneasy reconciliation. These are discordances in the harmonizations of the Great Chain of Being.
Not only that: The Winter’s Tale is paradoxically heterogeneous and heterogeneously paradoxical. One cannot, without simplification, say that the play is a comedy, nor can one say, with justification, that it is simply a tragedy or even a romance. It is a gallimaufry of tragedy, comedy, and romance. Boundaries are crossed within the play itself. In Act Three: Scene Three, the Clown points out that the rain along the shore of Bohemia is so intense that he cannot tell what is sea and what is sky (though Bohemia does not have a shore, and this was generally recognized in the early sixteenth century!); the boundary between sea and sky has been traversed and has become indistinguishable: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! but I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust a bodkin’s point.” While this might seem a throwaway line, there are no throwaway lines in Shakespeare.
Even the matter of the Bear is non-arbitrary, no matter how much its appearance elicits laughter in audiences. Without the becoming-comedic of the action, the seriousness of the play would have become laughable. The comedy of the third and fourth acts enhances the seriousness that precedes it. With the intrusion of the Bear, which devours Antigonus, the play transforms from a tragedy to a comedy. We get a prescient sense of this transformation when, at one of the darkest moments of the play, Antigonus says that the wrongful accusation of the queen will bring everyone to “laughter” [I:ii]. It is as if, when he says this, he is predestinating his own ursinely induced death, which will bring about a change in genre.
The Bear is at the center of the play. By this, I do not merely mean that the intrusion of the Bear changes the play from a tragedy to a comedy (for what could be more laughter-provoking than an old man being eaten by a bear?). I mean that the word bear, and variants thereof, proliferates throughout the text.
The overbearing King of Sicilia, Leontes, is convinced that his wife, Queen Hermione, has cheated upon him. I shall return to his conviction that she is a barefaced adulteress below; it is most likely a bugbear of his imagination (please bear this in mind). Leontes makes the bearish suggestion to Camillo, his lord, that the latter poison the man who allegedly cuckolded him: Polixenes, King of Bohemia. Camillo is embarrassed by the idea and forbears from poisoning Polixenes. He cannot bear the thought of killing the Bohemian king. Leontes accuses all of his lords of treason and declares the bearing of his children, Mamillius and Perdita, to have issued from Polixenes. The beardless boy that Hermione has borne, Mamillius, who is likely barely five years old, dies when he hears the unbearable news that his mother has been sentenced for adultery and treason. Hermione cannot bear the strain and collapses. The pallbearers bear their bodies away to be buried in the same grave. Antigonus leaves the barne Perdita in the barren wilderness of Bohemia, where Antigonus is devoured by the Bear.
Is Hermione an adulteress? There is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is; there is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is not. One of the many ambiguities of the play, Hermione’s putative adultery can neither be definitively affirmed nor definitively rejected. Leontes is persuaded of her faithlessness when he sees her clasping hands with Polixenes. On the surface, this appears to be a faulty inference from inductive logic. In fact, it is a faulty inference from deductive logic.
Students of logic will recognize the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. “Induction” comes from the Latin inducere, means “to lead into.” It is logic that journeys into an assertion from evidence. “Deduction” comes from the Latin deducere, which means “to move away from.” It is logic that moves away from an assertion to evidence.
Leontes has decided in advance that Hermione is an adulteress, and this implies that he is practicing deductive logic, though fallaciously. He begins with his fixed idea and then seeks evidence to support his idea. He is engaging in confirmation bias: that is, he seeks out evidence to corroborate the hypothesis to which he is emotionally pre-attached. All of the “evidence” that he uncovers is faulty; it does not prove what he wants it to prove. However, the opposite is also the case: Anyone who says that Hermione is innocent is being suppositious; such an idea is purely notional in the absence of proof. She might be innocent; she might be guilty. The question of her innocence remains unanswerable.
Unlike Othello, who, at least, does not believe in his wife’s infidelity until he uncovers articles of ocular proof (which hardly prove anything at all), Leontes automatically (for once, the adjective is justified) believes in his wife’s infidelity. Polixenes stays at his wife’s behest, not at his own. Polixenes and Hermione clasp hands. This is all of the “evidence” of his wife’s infidelity that Leontes requires. The flimsiness of such “evidence”—or of such non-evidence—should nourish our suspicion that Leontes is finding what he is seeking.
Leontes is desperate to find a reason to condemn Hermione of faithlessness. Hermione herself comments on Leontes’ insistent passionate desperateness to find evidence of treachery where there is none, to find a spider in the wine that he drinks when there is no such spider: “I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, / Howe’er you lean to the nayward” [II:i]. Like all of the jealous, Leontes leans to the nayward: He is inclined to believe in infidelity of his wife, not to disbelieve in it. When he is challenged by his retinue to give reasons for his suspicion, Leontes asks, rhetorically, “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation?” [II:i]. Instigation: The word suggests impulsiveness without reason.
Jealousy makes projective interpreters of us all. When we are jealous, we find what we project. As La Rochefoucauld puts it, jealousy has much more to do with self-love than it has to do with love.
Leontes is married to his own opinion that his wife, Polixenes, and Camillo are treacherous, and this marriage-to-his-own-opinion throws him into transports: “How I blest am I / In my just censure, in my true opinion!” [II:i]. He delights when his fantasies of jealousy are imaginarily confirmed. Why is this?
I would posit the following: It does not matter whether Hermione has cheated upon Leontes. Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him.
The question now is not: Is Hermione unfaithful? The question is rather: Why does Leontes need to believe that Hermione is unfaithful? Why does he have the emotional and psychological need to believe that his wife is cheating upon him?
Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him because he wants her to be an impossibility. He wants her to be inaccessible. He wants her to be desirable yet without desire for him. She can only remain desirable by having no desire for him.
Leontes is a masochistic narcissist. Even if the husband were correct and Hermione were unfaithful, Leontes’ jealousy would still be pathological (to again channel Lacan). He must sustain the fantasy of infidelity in order to maintain his status as the desirer of the impossible. To be loved by a faithful wife would collapse the distance between the masochistic Leontes and the woman he desires.
When Lacan wrote that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant,” one of the things that he might have meant was that the desirer does not have a relationship with the one whom he desires. The man who desires a woman is self-related; even if there is physical contact with the woman he desires, this is only the culmination of his self-relatedness. If he experiences any pleasure, it is his own pleasure that he is experiencing. He is only interested in the woman as a medium for his own pleasure (the masculine pronoun seems justified, since I am alluding to Leontes). Sexuality forecloses a relation, a rapport, with the other human being. All eroticism is autoeroticism. At this point, Professor Alain Badiou, former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, would interject that only through love could one gain access to the totality of the other human being, but this implication is not contained in Lacan’s statement. And how could one ever gain access to the totality of another human being?
“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant”: This means (among other things) that it is impossible to find love through eroticism, since eroticism is without relation to any human beings other than to the self.
At the conclusion of the play, a magnificent statue is unveiled before Leontes and his entourage. It is the statue of Hermione. This has led four centuries of readers and spectators to wonder: “Did she die and then come back to life? Or was she alive all along, ensconced by Paulina?” Even more strangely: “Is this really a statue that we are seeing, and, if it is, how could the statue have been reanimated?”
To turn to the first question: Did Hermione die, and was she then revived from the dead? At the end of Act Two, we are told that both mother and son will be inhumed in the same grave—but were they? This remains a supposition. If Hermione does not die, why does she appear to Antigonus as a floaty revenant “in pure white robes” [III:iii]? Or is this a dream? Antigonus tells us that he does “believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death” [III:iii], but why should we believe what he believes? In a play that is fraught with disguises and self-disguisings (Polixenes, Camillo, and Autolycus all dissimulate themselves), is it not thinkable that Hermione has been concealed for fifteen years until the mourning of the King has transmuted into full-blown melancholia? What does Paulina mean when she says that she will “choose [for Leontes] a queen: she shall not be so young / As was [his] former; but she shall be such / As, walk’d [his] first queen’s ghost” [V:i]? Such lines might fertilize our supposition that Hermione has never died and has been kidnapped by Paulina or that, still more incredibly, that Paulina has intentionally fashioned, Pygmalion-like, a statue that will come to life. Is Paulina a thaumaturge who has fashioned a replica of Leontes’ dead wife and animated that replica? Has Paulina orchestrated a tableau vivant? Perhaps Paulina is practicing an art that does not perfect or supplement nature, but rather, is practicing “an art / [t]hat nature makes” [IV:iv], to cite Polixenes. Is the new “Hermione” a verisimilar impostor—a work of art that is wholly natural? Are we looking at the real living-and-speaking Hermione, or are we looking at her duplicate? Is the Hermione at which we are looking a zombie?
None of these questions is answerable. She might or might not be an Alcestis coming back to the overworld. Whether Hermione is a zombie or not matters as little as whether she was unfaithful or not: This is one of the many ambiguities and paradoxes of late Shakespeare. She crosses the distinction between livingness and unlivingness, between lifefulness and deathfulness. She is dead yet alive. Is this not implied in Leontes’ seemingly necrophiliac remark that he would “again possess her corpse” on “stage” [V:i]? In the previous act, Perdita denies that her beloved Florizel is “like a corpse” [IV:iii] (wonderful foreshadowing!), for she apprehends his living-and-speaking reality. This is not the case for Leontes’ non-relation to Hermione, however. The manifestation of the statue at the end of the play only proves that she is like a mechanical object: She speaks, but only in a mechanical way. She appears to be artificial and without vitality.
What does matter, I propose, is that Hermione was always a stony image to Leontes. She always was a lifeless-yet-living effigy to him; she was always a reanimated corpse-image, or perhaps an android or automaton, to him. Leontes has long since, from the moment that he first saw her, sacrificed her living existence for an unloving-unalive replica. Leontes’ narcissistic masochism demands that there be an infinite separation, an irrelative void, between him and the woman through whom he loves himself. Let us not forget Lacan’s remarks on courtly love: The courtly-lover establishes obstacles / impedimenta between him and the object of his desire in order to perpetuate his desire. He sets up artificial barriers to keep her at a distance. She must remain remote, deathlike—an apparition of the courtly-lover’s desire for her impassivity. This is precisely what Leontes does in The Winter’s Tale. He idealizes and idolizes Hermione in order to compensate for the absence of a relation between them. She is an idol and has always been an idol to Leontes, an idealized imago. From the beginning of the play unto its deus-ex-machina ending, she has been a lithic Lilith.
An Analysis of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so? He kills because others kill. He tortures because others torture… I kill because you kill. You and he and all of you torture; therefore, I torture. I killed him because you would have killed me if I had not. Such is the grammar of our time.”
—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume One, 1953
In his 1927 essay “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” T.S. Eliot called The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” Whether Shakespeare had any hand in the play is unknown, though I suspect that the insert Act Three: Scene Two, which concerns muscicide, was not inked by the Bard. However, we do know something about the hands of the play’s characters. One of the characters of the play, Lavinia, ends up with no hands at all, and her father, Titus, ends up with only one hand. Moreover, Lavinia is reduced to tongueless inarticulacy, and the flesh of two teenage boys is baked into a pie that is fed to their mother. All of this is to suggest that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s goriest, grisliest, ghastliest play, a work that telegraphs and anticipates Jacobean Tragedy, Grand Guignol, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and splatter cinema.
REVENGE IS EXCHANGE
Fresh from a ten-year battle against the Goths, Titus Andronicus is implored by his son Lucius to sacrifice “the proudest prisoner” of the enemy [I:i]. At the opening of the text, the Goths, the immigrants of the play, are the enemy; at the end of the play, the immigrants will become the friends of the Andronici and will overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Saturninus. We are reminded that the incursion, the influx, of the Goths will lead to the breakdown of imperial Rome on 24 August 410 C.E.
Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed. The son is brutally sacrificed—his limbs abscised, his intestines fed to the flames: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky” [I:i]. The ritualistic disembowelment and dismemberment at the beginning of the play initiate a revenge series. The Queen of the Goths, Tamora, will exact her revenge against Titus. Her reckoning is a form of exchange. In exchange for the death and mutilation of Alarbus, the tongue of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is excised and her hands are severed off; Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated. The maimed bodies of Lavinia, Quintus, and Martius correspond to the maimed body of Alarbus—anatomical parts of three children are torn off in exchange for the lopping off of the limbs of the child of the rival family.
A bloody pattern unfolds—one revenge leads to another revenge. The decapitation of Titus’s sons will, in turn, lead to the decapitation of Demetrius and Chiron. One plate of heads replaces another plate of heads. Such is the logic of revenge: Revenge is exchange. And yet the acts of reckoning do not equalize one another.
The attacks on Titus’s children take place in the forest. “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull,” says Aaron to the future rapists and mutilators Chiron and Demetrius [I:i]. The forest is a place of uncivilized desires, of desires far from the ritualized boundedness of civilization. The forest is not a locus amoenus. (A locus amoenus is an innocently pleasant site in a work of literature.) As we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest in Shakespeare is a place of deception, of dissimulation, of lying, of self-masking, of delusion, of chimera.
Titus dramatizes insanity, which allows Tamora and her sons to underestimate him. Disguised as Revenge, Rape, and Murder, respectively, Tamora and her sons are incompetent dramatists, whereas Titus is an inspired dramatist. In the 1999 cinematic interpretation of the play, directed by Julie Taymor, Titus hatchets off his hand with a meat cleaver in the kitchen—presaging his final self-staging as a cook in the hyper-stylized, meta-theatrical vengeance against Tamora and Saturninus. He dramatizes revenge at the end of the play, in a space that is a theatre, a banquet hall, and a kangaroo court all at once. The play-within-the-play is an ambush dinner, a prandial revenge. Choreographed revenge leads to imperial succession—at the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus declines the emperorship. At the end of the play, his son Lucius assumes the emperorship.
Why should Titus be more sympathetic than Tamora? Why does Titus have the right to vengeance—and not Tamora? Does she not have equal cause?
Titus doesn’t seem to care about his son Mutius, whom he summarily slays out of duty to the emperor, who, in turn, has no problem betraying his own people by marrying the queen of the enemy, but Titus does care about his only daughter, Lavinia, after he learns that she has been mutilated and (later) learns that she has been violated. Only after Lavinia is raped and mutilated does Titus becomes a full, empathic human being. Paternal filicide is supposed to be accepted by the audience with relative equanimity; the violation and mutilation of one’s daughter by strangers is supposed to outrage that same audience.
Consider that the slaying of Mutius takes place onstage, whereas the violation and mutilation of Lavinia take place offstage: The visibility of Mutius has the effect of making Titus appear more sympathetic to us than Tamora, I would argue, since what is seen is more manageable, more tolerable, than what is unseen. What is unseen is always more horrifying than what is seen—our imagination exaggerates the unseen to obscenely grotesque proportions. The one truly horrific mutilation—that of Lavinia—takes place offstage and is nothing to laugh at. The fact that Lavinia’s violation and mutilation take place offstage make these acts unspeakable—as she is rendered an unspeakable presence.
It is not Aaron the Moor who initiates the sequence of retaliations. One of the Romans says that Aaron incited the series of vengeances, the blood-saturated revenge series, but this is not so: “Give sentence on this execrable wretch / That hath been breeder of these dire events” [V:iii]. It is not Aaron who breeds the dire events of the play—it is Titus Andronicus himself! It is Titus, again, who orders the killing of Alarbus, the dismembering of his arms and legs, the engulfing of his viscera in flame. Why, then, should we spectators and readers care more about Titus than we do about Tamora? Both Titus and Tamora say to their children, to paraphrase: If you love me, you will kill my enemies.
SHE CANNOT SPEAK, BUT SHE CAN WRITE
Lavinia endures a terrible glossectomy and a terrible dismemberment: Again, her tongue is cut out, and her hands are cut off. What remains of her power of speech? Only tormented and inarticulate groanings. She cannot phonate, but she can communicate in other ways. That is to suggest: She is afflicted with aphonia (the inability to vocalize), not with agraphia (the inability to write) or with aphasia (the inability to communicate).
Marcus teaches his niece how to write. He takes his staff and writes his name in the dirt. He then encourages his daughter to imitate his scrawl: “Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain” [IV:i]. She then takes the staff in her mouth and guides it with her stumps and writes out the name of the heinous crime that was committed against her and the names of the heinous criminals.
Lavinia’s body becomes a book that is readable by her father. The word is made mutilated flesh. Titus is able to read her tears. Titus the Father knows that his daughter is a “[s]peechless complainer” [Ibid.]. Her body becomes a “map of woe, that thus doth talk in signs” [Ibid.]—her body has a language, even though that language is silent. “I understand her signs,” Titus says of Lavinia’s soundless weeping [III:i]—Marcus’s napkin can never dry her tears. When she kisses the decapitated heads of her brothers Quintus and Martius in Act Three: Scene One, this is a sign—if this is not a sign, then what is a sign?
By becoming her interpreter, Titus has become a strong parent for the first time in his life, both father and mother at the same time. He vocalizes what his only daughter cannot. He is the interpreter of her spastic mutism, of her mute language. “I can interpret all her martyred signs,” he says [III:ii]. The father will “wrest” from his daughter an “alphabet” and “learn to know [her] meaning” [Ibid.]—and Lavinia’s body is a sign of martyrdom. For to be a martyr means to give testimony, to write. Self-sacrifice is absolute loss; martyrdom is self-loss that enhances a cause or a program. In the case of Lavinia, her rape, mutilation, and eventual killing lead to a revolution—much in the way that the rape and suicide of Lucretia did (I will return to this point below).
With her father’s hand in her mouth, Lavinia still has the power of language—the power of silent language, of writing, which is always silent. The hand in the mouth—is this not the perfect symbol for writing? The vocalization of her written language is under the guidance of her father, her interpreter, who still has the power of speech.
Wittgenstein writes, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” Though I am not a Derridean, this line of Derrida against Wittgenstein seems a propos to the context: “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.” Lavinia writes when she does not speak—this might mean that writing is something other than a substitute for speech. When she inscribes words on the dirty ground with a stick that is guided by her tongueless mouth and her handless arms, Lavinia makes the names of the crime and the criminals readable, even though her mouth is silenced and even though she is deprived of the ability to write with her hands: “Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius” [IV:i]. Her tongue and her hands are erased, and yet she still produces language—again, with the guidance of the father.
There is one moment in the play, however, in which the father’s temporary inability to speak mirrors the daughter’s inability to speak. What does Titus do when he learns that his daughter has been hideously mutilated, to the point at which she can no longer speak, when he learns that his son Lucius has been exiled from the city of his birth to the otherlands, the shadowlands of the Goths, when he learns that his sons Quintus and Martius have been falsely accused of a crime and then executed, when he learns that he has been tricked into chopping off his own hand to save their lives, in vain? He laughs. Indeed, he erupts in maniacal laughter: “Ha, ha, ha!” [III:i]. Titus gives up all pretensions of comfort and enters wordless despair, an abyss of non-verbality. From that abyss comes vengeance; his laughter issues in the spawning of the plot of revenge. Non-verbal expression—wordless laughter—corresponds to Lavinia’s wordlessness. Her silence corresponds to her father’s non-verbal-yet-signifying language: “Ha, ha, ha!”
It is not the case that laughter is an inappropriate response to the irremediable. Laughter might be the only appropriate response to the irremediable.
This raises the question of the status of humor in the play. Some audiences find it funny to watch Titus, Lucius, and Marcus squabble over whose hand should be severed (in Act Three: Scene One). What makes this scene so morbidly hilarious and hilariously morbid to them is the contrast, the incongruity, between the hyper-seriousness of the context and the silliness of the conversation. Some audiences find it funny to watch Lavinia clutch her father’s severed hand in her teeth (Titus: “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth” [III:i]). The humorousness of such scenes highlights and intensifies the play’s seriousness; the humor does not erode the seriousness. Shakespeare knows well that his jocoserious play would become ludicrous if it were humorless, if it were uninterruptedly serious. Without humor, there can be no seriousness. Why is this? Because humorlessness is laughable.
Is it inappropriate when Marcus rhapsodizes and poeticizes upon discovering his niece hideously disfigured in the wood? Strangely, there are literary critics who think that it is. I don’t think that his soliloquy, the longest in the play (it is forty-six lines, longer than Titus’s soliloquy as he slices the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, which is thirty-nine lines long), is inappropriate (as some other critics do); I do think of it as a coping mechanism, as a means of coming to terms with trauma, as a means of coping with the violation and mutilation of his niece. Still, it must be written: Marcus speaks on his niece’s behalf, whereas Titus speaks in her behalf.
To return to the main argument: Lavinia is hyper-literate, even after her disfigurement. One should contrast Lavinia’s superior reading skills with the illiteracy of the children of Tamora. The dull-witted Chiron and Demetrius cannot interpret the meaning of Titus’s citation of Horace, though Aaron can. When the voices of Chiron and Demetrius are silenced (they are gagged by Publius; this is their metamorphosis, their becoming-bestial), this answers to the silencing of Lavinia. Lavinia, says her father, is “deeper read and better skilled” [IV:i] than those who waste their time on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. These days, only graduate students read the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Shakespeare is reminding us of the ineluctableness of language. Language is not reducible to the organ that we normally associate with language: the tongue (speech, phonē). Shakespeare is suggesting that language is not phonocentric; he might even be suggesting that language is graphocentric, which is to suggest that written language is more fundamental than speech.
Even though she is tongueless and handless, Lavinia still has the power of language—in the form of writing, of graphē, of hypergraphia, of graphomania.
Lavinia inscribes words upon the Earth. She is metaphorized as a storm cloud—a cloud that gives forth rain. She writes with her tears upon the Earth. Her tears are the ink, and the Earth is the paper upon which she is writing. Lavinia writes upon the Earth with her tears and thus revivifies, rejuvenates, refreshes, renews, revitalizes the Earth. Her tears—her sufferings and the accusations against her attackers, her assailants, her assaulters—will bring about a transformation of the City of Rome. She will transform the Holy Roman Empire—it will be reconfigured into a Gothic-Roman state, a republic that welcomes and integrates outsiders.
Lavinia is a figure of democracy and of democratization.
THE ORIGIN OF THE LAVINIA STORY
There are at least three literary and historical references that frame the rape of Lavinia:
a.) We are reminded of the rape of Lucretia. Shakespeare, after all, would write his poem “The Rape of Lucrece” in 1594, almost exactly the same time as he wrote this play. The rape of Lucretia led to the driving-away from Rome of the last of the kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose slobbering, sinister, psychopathic son Sextus raped the poor girl. She killed herself out of shame. The plebeian Lavinia is here placed in the position of a figure of republicanism and anti-tyrannousness. Just as the tyranny of the Tarquins is expelled from Rome, so will the tyranny of Saturninus be.
b.) To accuse her attackers of the crime of rape, Lavinia opens a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turns over the pages with her stumps until she arrives at the Rape of Philomela. Now, there is no mystery of what happened to her. Every tragedy contains anagnorisis, and this is the moment of recognition: “Lavinia,” her father asks her, “[W]ert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravished and wronged as Philomela was…?” [IV:i]. This recognition comes by way of reading. Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomela, whom he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods. Philomela, however, survived and wove a tapestry that both identified the crime that was committed against her and revealed the identity of her rapist. Both sisters exacted a dreadful revenge against Tereus by killing his son Itys and feeding the offspring to the father in the form of a pie. Swallowing one’s own offspring, of course, will inspire Titus’s prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius. Tamora is conned into consuming her issue, conned into ingesting her offspring, conned into digesting her discharge, much as Tereus was. What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomela myth is that his Lavinia points to a passage in Ovid—making her a reader and a teacher of reading. She, after all, is the Young Lucius’s reading teacher. Marcus says of the boy’s aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i]. Tully’s Orator is a book of rhetoric. The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is one who teaches how to write well.
c.) The myth of Diana and Actaeon appears and reappears throughout the play. Bassianus mock-wonders of Tamora, whom he accosts with Lavinia in the forest, if he is looking at the Goddess Diana herself: “Or is it Dian, habited like her, / Who hath abandoned her holy groves / To see the general hunting in this forest?” [II:ii]. Tamora will become Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, quick-transforming the interloper Bassianus into a metaphorical stag that is torn to pieces by her metaphorical bloodhounds. Bassianus is the cuckold. He spies on the naked bathing goddess, exposing her in her divine nudity. Of course, in the myth, the goddess does not assume any particular female shape—she is mutable, transformative—which means that Actaeon is spying upon not the goddess herself, but rather upon a hollow image, before being rent to pieces by her bloodhounds. The bloodhounds, in Shakespeare’s play, are Tamora’s sons, who murder Bassianus and make of him a cuckold (they be-horn him, fastening metaphorical antlers upon his head). After she catches Actaeon spying on her divine nudity, Diana screeches: “Tell that you saw me here bathing naked—if you can tell at all!” Lavinia, voyeuse, will be robbed of the power of speech. Female voyeurism is a rare subject—but it is presented in Shakespeare. Actaeon thus figures both Bassianus and Lavinia.
DID HEIDEGGER HAVE SMALL HANDS?
Why the removal of hands? Heidegger gives us a possible answer in What Is Called Thinking? / Was Heißt Denken?:
The hand is a peculiar thing. In the common view, the hand is part of our bodily organism. But the hand’s essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp. Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands. The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs—paws, claws, or fangs—different by an abyss of essence. Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.
We now know that some of Heidegger’s comparative anatomy is false. Chimpanzees do have hands—they even have opposable thumbs—and some animal biologists tell us that chimpanzee hands are more complex than human hands. The next passage is more interesting. Heidegger goes on:
But the craft of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine. The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes—and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries. The hand signs, presumably because the human being is a sign.
The English translation is wrong at this point, and I have corrected it. In the German, the text reads: “Die Hand zeichnet, vermutlich weil der Mensch ein Zeichen ist.” Heidegger continues:
Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry the human being into the great oneness. The hand is all this, and this is the true handicraft. Everything is rooted here that is commonly known as handicraft, and commonly we go no further. But the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language, in their most perfect purity precisely when human beings speak by being silent. And only when human beings speak, do they think—not the other way around, as metaphysics believes.
So: Humankind is practiced through the hand. The hand is not an implement of the human; the hand holds within itself the essence of the human. The hand is the distinguishing trait of human essence. The hand is not a form of property, something that belongs to us; the hand has us. Only that being which has language is handed. Language is not language without the hand. Only with the hand does the human come about; the hand is the essential ground of humankind.
Is there a relation to the word without the hand? It seems not. There is, for Heidegger, a co-belongingness between word and hand. There must be a hand in order for human language to be. This means that writing is more fundamental than speech, than phonē.
When hands are removed, the intention is dehumanization.
HOLORHYMING WITH THE BIEBMASTER
So many have declaimed that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a bad play that people believe that it is a bad play. It is, I would argue, one of Shakespeare’s ten greatest plays, but it does contain some weaknesses.
There are some rather weak puns: “Deer” is rhymed with its homophone “dear” in Act Three: Scene One. And yet even this pun is defensible. Marcus calls Lavinia a “deer,” whereas Titus calls his daughter a “dear.” For Marcus, Lavinia is a wounded sylvan beast; for Titus, she is a darling. For Marcus, Lavinia is a premature corpse (“This was thy daughter”), whereas for Titus, she is a living human presence (“so she is“) [emphases mine]. The parechesis of “throats” and “threat” in the same scene is not very strong. (Parechesis is the repetition of the same sound in quick succession.)
Titus offers to chop off his hands before he is prompted to do so, even before Aaron comes by: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too” [III:i] and “[S]hall we cut away our hands like thine [Lavinia’s]?” [Ibid.]. Titus offers to hack off his hand before he is given the fake opportunity to redeem his sons by hacking off his hands. But his sons are unrehabilitatable in the eyes of the emperor. The overplay of “I-will-cut-off-my hand” derogates from the power of the moment in which Titus is actually tricked into hacking off his own hand.
Worst of all are the final two lines of the play (in the Arden edition, not in the MIT online edition):
[Tamora’s] life was beastly and devoid of pity, / And being dead, let birds on her take pity [V:iii].
This is bad writing. One thing that I tell my students is never end two successive sentences with the same word. When writing verse, never rhyme the endings of the lines of a couplet with the same word.
Rhyming a sound with itself (holorhyming) is never a good idea. Consider the closest thing that our time has to Shakespeare, the great poet Justin Bieber. In his otherwise masterly ballad “Yellow Raincoat,” from the 2012 album Believe, Bieber intones these lines:
Well never do I ever do I ever want this to phase me
Well never do I ever do I want this thing to make me
Rhyming homophones is an infelicity; rhyming a word with itself is an even more infelicitous writerly fault. Shakespeare is a slightly greater poet than Justin Bieber, and there might be justification for his rhyming of the word pity with itself. What if Shakespeare wants to evoke Lucius’s lack of pity for Tamora by repeating the word pity? The repetition of the word might drain the concept of its significance. Lucius’s coldness, his glaciality, might mean that he is no more compassionate than Tamora.
EVERY ACT OF REVENGE PRODUCES A REMAINDER
The desire for revenge is the desire for superiority over another human being. By inflicting pain on the revengee, the revenger demonstrates his or her superiority over the revengee. This explains why the most selfish, the vainest, the most egoic human beings also tend to be the most vengeful. However, as Schopenhauer reminds us in Parerga and Paralipomena, “[J]ust as every fulfilled wish is more or less unveiled as a delusion, so too the desire for revenge.” The word delusion is in English in the original text, which is mostly written in German.
Why is the desire for revenge a delusion? I would submit the following: The avenger is dependent on the avengee. Doesn’t revenge make the avenger dependent on the consciousness of the avengee? If you seek revenge on someone, are you not dependent on the person on whom you wish to avenge yourself?
Try not to place yourself in a position in which vengeance is necessary. What if my “revenge” were one day ineffective? What if my acts of “vengeance” were in vain? What if the objects of my “vengeance” were indifferent to my actions and inactions?
If the object of “revenge” is indifferent to the avenger, the avengee has won and the avenger has lost. This means that the avenger is emotionally enchained to the emotional state of the avengee. Revenge means that one is dependent on the object of vengeance, “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” as the Buddha says. Or holding on to hot coal and expecting the other person to be burned, as Confucius says.
The desire for revenge is an obsession with the other human being who, imaginarily or not, has wounded us. But revenge only enlarges that wound.
In the third scene of the fourth act, there is a great deal of talk of justice, which, like revenge, is often conceived as a form of exchange. As his kinsmen are drawing their bows, Titus says that there is as little justice in the sea as there is on Earth. And he also says, in Latin, “Terras Astraea reliquit,” which means: “Justice has left the Earth.” A just world would be one in which the Romans join forces with the Goths and create a democratic republic in Rome, a republic that would welcome and integrate immigrants. But currently, in Act Four, there is no justice under the moon, there is no fairness, there is no one-to-one exchange.
Consider this: For the death of Alarbus, Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus are killed (three for the price of one), Lucius is banished, Titus is conned into hacking off one of his hands, and Lavinia is ravished and mangled. There is no equitableness, and justice would mean fair exchange of one thing for a thing of equal value. The counter-revenge of Titus and his tribe does not posit equivalence between the losses that they have suffered and the violence that they have inflicted on Saturninus and Tamora. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the desire for revenge results in the almost total self-destruction of the revengers and their families.
In revenge, there is always a remainder.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
 Lucius is banished to the otherlands of the Goths, but unlike Coriolanus (who is explicitly referred to in the play, in Act Four: Scene Four), he is not scuppered by one of his parents. Lucius, unlike Coriolanus, wages a war against Rome, the city of his birth, and crashes its gates—with the approval of one of his parents, his father Titus. I am revising this essay in 2019, at a time of seismic immigration crises throughout Europe. Since the Goths assist Lucius in overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship, we can safely infer that Shakespeare’s great play is friendlier to immigration than his own later Tragedy of Coriolanus will be.
 Tamora: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth called my children” [II:ii]. Titus: “And if ye love me, as I think you do, / Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do” [III:i].
 Chiron: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe” [II:iii]. / Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.” But she can write, even though her hands are now stumps.
 In Act Two: Scene One, Aaron says: “Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love.” In Act Four: Scene One, Titus asks: “What Roman lord it was durst do the deed: / Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst, / That left the camp to sin in Lucrece’s bed?”
 Marcus, upon finding his niece in the wood, already identified her with Philomel: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, / And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, / That could have better sewed than Philomel” [II:iii].
 And later: “Far worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” [V:ii].
 Tamora’s response: “Had I the power that some say Dian had, / Thy temples should be planted presently / With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds / Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs. / Unmannerly intruder as thou art” [II:ii].
 In the shelter of the wood, Aaron says to his forbidden lover Tamora: “[Bassianus’s] Philomel must lose her tongue today” [II:ii]. Bassianus’s Philomel is Lavinia, of course.
HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES (Friedrich Nietzsche)
A commentary by Joseph Suglia
MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886
VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)
WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)
The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human. It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say. “How to silence?” In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?
An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another. A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.
Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism
Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive. For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought. However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.
In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten). The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings. This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed. The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral. The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].
The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons). As well as lying. Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true. This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.
Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says. The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52]. The thing in itself is a phenomenon. Everything is appearance. There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.
As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed. I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful. Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self. Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self. To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre…? [MAM: 133]. Only a god would be purely other-directed. Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard. Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:
“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”
“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”
Whatever is considered “good” is relativized. We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum. Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations. Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition. When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition]. The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.
What is a “free spirit”? A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument. A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides. As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No. They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them. They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.
All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives. Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error. And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided. In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided. Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292]. The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34]. It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective. Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition]. A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.
There Is No Free Will. Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.
Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.
The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center. A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.
The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.
There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology. I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche). Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.
I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878. It was a silent revolution. Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.
It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality. Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.
[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]
The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions. It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think. This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text). It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts. Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one). The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.
We do not think our thoughts. Our thoughts appear to us. They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind. Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.
This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism. If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will. Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis. Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence? Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform? If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less. After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?
Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance. After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated. Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less. No more desire for revenge, no more enmity. No more guilt, no more regret. No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did. In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains. There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice. No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself. No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself. Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness. It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will. There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such. There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.
If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either. The second presupposes the first. Do you call a monster “evil”? A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does. Do we call earthquakes “evil”? Do we call global warming “evil”? Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals. We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will. We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39]. No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder. Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”? No one chooses one’s genetic constitution. You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.
Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801). Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.
Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung). A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly. As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution. It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does. All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil. Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].
If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107]. All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary. Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals. I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen). The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].
The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity. Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility. If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List. We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character. We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University. He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will. Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?
Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.
In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree. Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.
Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist. But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.
At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist. To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann). Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411]. The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men. Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.
Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].
To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense. He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women. Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated. This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness. And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits? Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time. Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific. Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].
Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative? Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity? And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage? Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”
This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings. Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible. My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity. For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.
To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche. (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.) Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator. In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us. Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36]. In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’ For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.” Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal. If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words? The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.
Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”
Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”
My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond? Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy? Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with? Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?
Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically. We do not require their answers in order to live. All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions. Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?
Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being? I am looking at you, Heidegger.
The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.” Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous. Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.
Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist. He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder. Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.
Nietzsche Contradicts Himself. Often. But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.
Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking. He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book. After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291]. In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions. If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking. Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche
On Religion and Politics
What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.
Morality depends on opportunity.
A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication. (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.) Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.
The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable. Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].
On the Voice
We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice. We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.
In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.” This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.
On Censorial America
In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.
An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia
I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts. His métier was, perhaps, mathematics. David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).
Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed. I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997). Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.
In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can. He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38). Perish the thought!
Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television. Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television. Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):
1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.
Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).
“Trust what is familiar!” in other words. “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase. Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television. David Foster Wallace was wrong. No, writers should NOT trust television. No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see. The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.
There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste. That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s. Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65). He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time. They did not, of course. One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification. To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television. But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?
It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist. Let me enlarge an earlier statement. Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer. It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32). Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it. Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them. We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.). Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!” That is your false dilemma. If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY. Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.
Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection. There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism. There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.
Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).
To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance. The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990). Did Wallace never see this film? How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart? Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?
To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence. No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political. How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness? How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets? And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?
Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are. Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book. It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.
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
A review of EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES (Tom Robbins) by Joseph Suglia
Literature has always had a hard time justifying itself. And how could it justify itself? Literature does no work. Nor does it ground itself in any socially productive activity or engagement. Not only does literature not serve the interests of society, often, in fact, it seems to playfully subvert these interests, though only in a powerless and purely “theatrical” way. Departments of Literary Studies seem to have been designed to disguise the “fact” of literature’s essential frivolity.
Literary artists often have bad consciences. Consider the fact that Don Quixote seems to be a novel that is directed against novels–against the chimeras of literature and of literary language.
No novel seems more flamboyantly frivolous than Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1976). The work is often breathtakingly, magically, and intoxicatingly eloquent–and also, at times, bombastically written, ostentatious, empty, and light as air. It is easy to be seduced and enchanted by the playful language of this work. But one must nonetheless ask oneself: “What is the point of it all? Where is this book going? Why was it written?” Perhaps these are questions that go against literature’s essence. Perhaps the purpose of this book–and the purpose of literature–is purposelessness.
Sissy Hankshaw is all thumbs. In Richmond, Virginia, where she was born and raised, the gigantic-thumbed girl is ostracized because of her so-called “deformity.” When she reads in a dictionary that the thumb affords the hand a greater “freedom of movement,” she decides to use her strangeness to her advantage by becoming the very “spirit and heart of hitchhiking” . As she traverses the United States and beyond, she meets and marries a Native American and asthmatic watercolorist from Manhattan named Julian who, unlike Sissy, has renounced his difference from the dominant collective. Since she is perpetually in a state of motion, Sissy departs from her husband and takes up a modeling assignment given to her by “the Countess,” the misogynistic magnate of a feminine deodorant firm, on the Rubber Rose Ranch, an exclusively female-staffed, Western-themed beauty salon for older women who want to juvenilize their appearances. Under the leadership of neo-cowgirl revivalist Bonanza Jellybean, the cowgirls take possession of the ranch and claim ownership of the whooping cranes that populate it–a species that is imperiled by a technologized, male-dominated society that offsets the balance of nature.
If this narrative sounds silly, that is because it is. This is not to suggest that the work is meaningless or without “theme” (to mention a meaningless word). Of course, it is possible to “thematize” any work. One can always pretend to have “excavated” its “themes” (whatever this word is supposed to mean), to enumerate them, and to present them to the reader. There is in the book an unapologetic environmentalism, the “allegory” of burgeoning feminism, and the championing of social misfits, freaks, deviants, lunatics, outcasts, and other “endangered species”–in particular, the novel celebrates hitchhikeresses and cowgirls, both of whom represent women who affirm their differences from male-defined normality. According to the logic of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the sick are normal, and those who attempt to normalize themselves are the sick; by denying their singularity, the latter mutilate themselves. And yet all of these “themes,” as serious as they might seem, are tossed off with such gleefulness that their seriousness as “themes” is eroded.
The book’s frivolous style of writing casts light on what one might call its “politics of playfulness.” Even Cowgirls Get the Blues joyfully affirms the irruption of the frivolous and the extraordinary in everyday life and the rupturing of our sedimented responses “in a rational world where even disasters are familiar and damn near routine” . An earthquake, to use one of the book’s many of metaphors for strangeness, interrupts the rhythms of ordinary life and thereby opens up new spheres of possibilities, breaking open the fabric of the normal and powering a more vital experience of the world–this is a “concept” that is clearly inspired by the philosophy of surrealism. Sissy Hankshaw, with her massive thumbs, has a destabilizing effect on one’s rigidified perceptions. Through her difference from others, she reminds the more “normal” characters in the book that the world is multiple, that stability is not rigidity, that the most “authentic” experience of life is one that is afforded by ceaseless movement. As she explains to Julian, “I’ve proven that people aren’t trees, so it is false when they speak of roots” . Hitchhiking is here a figure of endless motility–perpetual movement without origin or goal, motion for motion’s sake. Systems, the book suggests, that do not incorporate the instability of motion–that is to say, that do not include chaos–are doomed to destruction. Systems that are air-tight and shatterproof not fortuitously resemble fascist dictatorships; they attempt to impose order on disorder, they prefer homogeneity to heterogeneity. As a result, they unravel, for the extraordinary can never be contained or managed. Every system has “chinks” and leaks. In order for systems to endure, they must bear disorder within themselves. Stability and instability are–paradoxically–conjoined. As Sissy remarks to her psychiatrist, Dr. Robbins, “Disorder is inherent in stability” .
And yet, even beyond this cluster of meanings, the work’s most essential “theme” (to mention this empty word one last time) is simply the joyous dance of language; its eloquence is absolutely overpowering. When confronting the eloquence of someone like Tom Robbins, the literary critic should step aside, bow out, walk off the stage, and let the author take the floor. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is replete with surrealist disanalogies more striking than the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table. So exuberant is his writing that the author throws a party for the hundredth chapter of his book. What Friedrich Schlegel once said of Diderot could also be said of Tom Robbins: Whenever he does something truly brilliant, he congratulates himself on his brilliance.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.
Corregidora / Corrigenda
by Joseph Suglia
A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah. Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.” The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.
But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered? Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?
Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?
Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?
The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.
Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.” That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment. These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.
Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis. Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated. They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers. They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent. Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.
But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory? What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?
Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.
At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.” Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.
Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children. From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.
Why did Freud reject seduction theory? Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.
The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.
This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying. It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious. Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.
The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.
It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this. Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically. It shows itself in disguise. It dramatizes itself. It retraumatizes. It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.
From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.
There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over. It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors. Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.
Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.
The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.
The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.
When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”
Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.
* * * * *
At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.
Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous” — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.
It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this. A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance. We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother. Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies. According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers. Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement. “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver. As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.
As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.
To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery. All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself. According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.” And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem. Memory cripples her. Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past. And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy. Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women. This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present. Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community. The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”
At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely. When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively. The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.
At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act. Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband. Oral sex replaces oral transmission. Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference. Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.” For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo. Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.
By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past. The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”
End of quotation, and the end of the essay.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
Bedre godt haengt end slet gift.
Better well-hanged than ill-wed.
—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs
Better well-hanged than ill-read.
The wildness of this frantically antic and antically frantic play extends to its title: Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. The Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in various forms of Christianity, commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. It commonly takes place on the sixth of January, twelve nights after Christmas. The Feast of the Epiphany has its roots in the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn, which celebrated the Winter Solstice. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will is a yuletide play, but it is also a saturnalian play. In Roman Antiquity, on Saturnalia, hierarchy was inverted. The King was deposed, and the mob took over the city. And yet this rising ochlocracy was purely theatrical; it was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a show. The inversion of ordinary relations was temporary and staged.
Disorder is likewise invoked in the subtitle of the comedy: What You Will. The subtitle is evoked in the text, twice. “[T]ake it how you will” is said by Andrew Aguecheek in the third scene of the second act. “Take it how you will”: Interpret my words in any sense you please, for words very quickly become “rascals” and easily grow “wanton,” as the Clown puts it later in the text [III:i]. The intended meaning of a word speedily slips into its opposite or into a meaning other than what the speaker or writer intended. Take my words how you will, Augecheek seems to be implying, for it won’t matter, one way or the other. Language slides; it flows where it pleases. In the first scene of the third act, the Clown compares a sentence to a chev’ril glove that may be turned inside out—the wrong side is easily turned outward, and the intended wittiness of a sentence easily devolves into witlessness. Witticisms swiftly become witlessisms. Though he is praised by Uncle Toby for his linguistic skills, Augecheek is hardly a wordsmith. He lacks facility in basic English (he doesn’t know the word accost), in basic French (he doesn’t know the word pourquoi), and in Latin (he is ignorant of the phrase diluculo surgere).
“What you will” is spoken by Olivia in the fifth scene of the first act. “What you will” could be translated as: “Anything you say.” Or: “Anything you want.” Or even: “Who cares?” Or (and this is not too much of a stretch): “Whatever.” Quodlibet. All hail disorder! Let chaos reign!
And chaos does indeed reign. The customary order of things is turned upside down—hence, the chaos of the play. It might be worth pausing over a few of the characters and their lunacy, their fettered reason. As Olivia says to Cesario-Viola, “[R]eason thus with reason fetter” [III:i].
Count Orsino is a proto-Romantic personage and anticipates the Knight-in-arms of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” as well as Goethe’s Werther. A dandified dreamer, he is neither young nor old, both unyoung and unold. As Malvolio phrases it, he is
[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a
cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man [I:v].
As Romantic protagonists will do, Orsino is forever sighing over a love that he doesn’t even want reciprocated—the love of Olivia, which, if we take his advice to Cesario-Viola seriously, he appears to think will be short-lived:
[B]oy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are [II:iv].
Orsino’s mind displays various colors; it is “a very opal,” as the Clown poeticizes it [II:iv]. He changes his mind in the first lines of the play—first, he wants music to play; then, suddenly, he wants it to stop. It is not merely Orsino’s mind that is Protean—the entire play is a play of shifting surfaces.
The crepuscular Uncle Toby seems to do most of his socializing after sundown. He is a fanatical nyctophiliac: Instead of preferring to be active during the day, he prefers to be active at night—and justifies his noctambulations by saying that by staying up late, he goes to bed early: “To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes” [II:iii]. The customary order of things is again reversed.
Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, board a ship together, and both end up separately in Illyria. For reasons that escape me, Sebastian disguises himself as a character named Roderigo; he befriends a fellow traveler named Antonio during the voyage. The ship capsizes and wrecks. Sebastian loses his twin sister in the storm. The homoerotic passion that Antonio has for Sebastian is plangent: Antonio declares himself servant to Sebastian after Antonio saves Sebastian’s life. In the fourth scene of the third act, Antonio mistakes Cesario-Viola for her twin brother and is baffled when s/he does not recognize him. It is as if we were reading or watching an immeasurably more sophisticated version of The Comedy of Errors.
Viola’s gender is shifted: She becomes Cesario, the myrmidon of Orsino; Olivia falls in love with Viola while the latter is dressed as Cesario. The play does not hint at lesbianism as much as it hints at andromimetophilia, and andromimetophilia—the fetishization of women who dress as men—is one of Shakespeare’s most insistent fetishes. Viola becomes other-than-what-she-is, and Olivia wishes that Cesario were the same as what he appears to be:
OLIVIA: Stay. I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.
VIOLA: That you do think you are not what you are.
OLIVIA: If I think so, I think the same of you.
VIOLA: Then think you right. I am not what I am.
OLIVIA: I would you were as I would have you be [III:i].
Viola transmutes herself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia. Sebastian transmutes himself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia. The Clown transmutes himself into Sir Topas and torments Malvolio. One character after the other metamorphoses into another.
Amid the maelstrom of all of these transformations and inversions, there is one Aspergeroid character who is boringly moralistic and selfsame, until he, too, is drawn into the maelstrom: Malvolio.
Malvolio is a natural-born killjoy. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to name him the one anti-saturnalian character of the play. He refuses to let anyone have any fun. He is an enemy of drunkenness, and drunkenness, as everyone over the age of twelve knows, is transformative. He looks down upon the poor, even though he is poor himself. Rightly is he called a “Puritan” [II:iii] by Maria—to paraphrase something that Mencken once wrote, a Puritan is someone who suspects that someone, somewhere, is having a good time. The imaginary betrothal of Olivia and Malvolio will result in an interdiction against Uncle Toby’s dipsomania.
Maria writes a counterfeit love letter in handwriting that resembles that of her mistress, Olivia. Malvolio, who is such a narcissist that he believes that every word of praise must be directed at him and that every word of praise that is said about him must be genuine, is taken in by the forged letter. Malvolio must be the scapegoat of the play, since he is the only character who is anti-fun and anti-revelry. He is the sacrificial victim, for he refuses to dance to its swinging and swaying motions, all of its manic undulations. He is catfished, and as any conscious victim of catfishing would do, swears his revenge and does so in the unforgettable line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” [V:i], thus opening the portal for a sequel to the play that might be entitled Thirteenth Night, Or, The Revenge of Malvolio.
Even more humiliatingly, Malvolio is gulled into wearing ridiculous yellow stockings—yellow is a color that Olivia detests, since it reminds her of melancholy, something from which she has been suffering since the death of her brother—and smiling inanely in Olivia’s presence. His smiling will be seen as inappropriate by Olivia, who, again, is still undergoing the work of mourning.
Though this might be a superficial remark about a play that is only superficially superficial, let me set down that Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will has the virtue of being the most theatrical of Shakespeare’s comedies and problematical plays. Most of the utterances are short; one character speaks after the other in machine-gun succession. There are few lengthy and lapidary soliloquies. This kind of staginess is unusual for Shakespeare. The fact that Shakespeare was ever a dramatist is one of life’s greatest mysteries.
The value of this insane play resides in its bouleversement of all relations. Bouleversement: This was one of Georges Bataille’s favorite words and indicates the woozy overthrow of propriety, decency, and stability. The world is turned on its head. Never has topsy-turviness been presented with such elegance.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last!
by Joseph Suglia
“Zu wenig Liebe, zu wenig Gerechtigkeit und Erbarmen, und immer zu wenig Liebe…—das bin ich.”
—Georg Trakl, in a letter to Ludwig von Ficken, June 1913
THE PRODUCTIVITY OF DESIRE
One of the great lessons of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) is that most of our desires are not our own. Despite the turbidity of their language, I believe that this is what Deleuze and Guattari mean when they suggest that most desire is embedded in the social order itself: “The truth of the matter is that social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself under determinate conditions. We maintain that the social field is immediately invested by desire… There is only desire and the social, and nothing else.” That is to say: Most desires are not individual; they are social. They are manifest in the world; most of our desires are already part of the world as such. Deleuze and Guattari make no distinction between social production and the production of socially conditioned desires.
It is not the case that desire is geared toward an absence. It is not the case that we want what we don’t have. Quite otherwise: We don’t long for what we don’t have—for the most part, what we want is already part of the really existing concrete landscapes of the cultures in which we live. We want what others want; we want what we are prescribed to want. Most of our desires are premanufactured and mass-manufactured; they are herd-desires, group-desires. The Platonic-Lacanian theory of desire, which posits that desire is based on absence, is erroneous. Desire is not empty; it is already full. Nothing is missing from desire; it already has all that it needs.
Needs do not produce desires. The exact opposite is the case: Desires produce needs. Most of our desires do not respond to preexisting needs. No one is born wanting an Automated Robotic Friend. Desire creates the need for an Automated Robotic Friend. Desires rapidly convert into needs; in consumerist culture, there is an infinitely accelerating and multiplying conversion of our desires into needs. Now, it becomes a need for me to have the newest Bluetooth-compatible selfie stick. Such things, such commodities, are appendages without which I cannot live.
There is a different kind of desire for Deleuze and Guattari, a desire that they denominate “real desire.” Real desires would not be desires for our own repression, desires for our own persecution, desires for our own exploitation, desires to reproduce an army of docile consumer-workers, but an altogether different kind of desiring—a desiring that is not socially configured or designed. I will use the word “love” to describe this other-desire.
Love means the undoing of the community, since love is not reducible to the norms of any community. This thought is metaphorized beautifully in Shakespeare’s The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (circa 1591-1595).
The desire of Juliet Capulet for Romeo Montague and the desire of Romeo Montague for Julie Capulet are not herd-desires; they are not collective desires. Both Romeo and Juliet are created by the desire that they have for each other. It is only a social desire in the self-productive sense—for do Romeo and Juliet not form a society of two? Though their social is desire, their desire is not the social. In other words: The love of Romeo for Juliet and of Juliet for Romeo is not familial desire, is not collectivized desire, is not acculturated desire. It is the subversive desire of each for the other (I will return to this subject below).
The desire of the young lovers is spontaneous (self-productive) and active: As soon as they see each other, they are transformed. There are at least two signs of this transformation: 1.) Romeo is willing to repudiate his own birth name for the sake of Juliet. 2.) Romeo immediately forgets his erstwhile beloved, Rosaline, as soon as he fixes his eyes on Juliet. From the moment that they see each other, Romeo and Juliet become entirely other.
Now, Romeo would not be Romeo outside of his relationship to Juliet, as Juliet would not be Juliet outside of her relationship to Romeo. Who are they apart from their desires? From this point forward, they do not exist apart from the desires that they have for each other. Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Romeo. Their amatory desire for each other gives birth to Juliet. The relation precedes the relata. In other words: The impulsions and propulsions of real desire imply the loss of the self-sufficient subject. I believe that this one of the things that Deleuze and Guattari mean when they write: “Desire does not lack anything; it does not lack an object. It is, rather the subject that is missing in desire, or desire that lacks a fixed subject.”
We see this clearly in the second scene of Act Three. Juliet asks the maddeningly tangential Nurse: “Hath Romeo slain himself?” [III:ii]. Juliet is No One without Romeo, as Romeo is No One without Juliet: “I am not I if there be such an ‘Ay’” [III:ii]. Such is the subjectlessness of the desire, the asubjective character of all real desire.
JULIET IS A NOMINALIST
I am not the first literary critic to notice that Juliet Capulet is a nominalist: The title of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose is predicated on this premise. A nominalist is one who thinks that words are generalities that, in order to signify anything at all, must transcend any particular context. (The deconstructionists are therefore nominalists by another name.) A word is only a word—and does not refer to any being or object in the world. My question to the nominalists would be: Can a word not also be a thing in the world? When a word is written, is it not a thing?
Juliet refuses to accept that Romeo is defined and confined by, restricted and reducible to the name “Montague,” the name of the familial clan that opposes her familial clan. From the window, she serenades Romeo:
’Tis but thy name that is my enemy. / Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. / What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot, / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man. O be some other name! / What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without the title. Romeo, doff thy name, / And for thy name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself [II:ii].
The olfactory sensation—the aroma of the rose—is independent of the word “rose.” What is this if not nominalism? Juliet is suggesting that the word “rose” is an abstraction that is abstracted from the referent, the physical rose, as it is from any other referent. She implores Romeo to retain his “dear perfection”—his essence, his character, his quiddity, his haecceity, his ipseity—even if another surname were substituted for “Montague” and even if another given name were substituted for “Romeo.” Charmingly, Juliet has an intuitive understanding of the arbitrariness of naming. Names are artificially grafted to things and to people; they are mere universals that never touch particulars. That it is possible to “doff [one’s] name”—this is Juliet’s charmingly naïve belief that beings are beings without language. Endearingly, she pleads with Romeo to strip away his name in exchange for any other. And Romeo agrees. He hates his own name since that name is hateful to Juliet and, were it written, would rend it to pieces: “Had I it written, I would tear the word” [Ibid.]. Her distrust of language shows itself again when she implores Romeo not to swear his love to her: “Well, do not swear” [Ibid.]. A contract between them would have no more weight than the words “It lightens” [Ibid.]. Much as the lightning that ceases to be before one can say, “It lightens,” the contract between them might cease to be before the terms of the contract have been uttered.
The fact that Romeo is willing to discard—and, if necessary, mutilate—his surname implies that he does not see himself as reducible to his clan or definable by his clan. Again, his desire for Juliet is not a communalized desire.
THE INVISIBLE CENTER OF THE PLAY IS ROSALINE
Readers should note that the seemingly minor characters in Shakespeare are often the most significant characters. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the most significant figure in the play is, arguably, Alarbus, who is a superficially peripheral character: Without Alarbus, the sequence of vengeance would never be instigated. I believe that the key to understanding this play is Rosaline, though “key” is probably the wrong metaphor. Better: I believe that the invisible center of the play is Rosaline.
When we first meet him, Romeo is mooning over Rosaline:
O brawling love, O loving hate, / O anything of nothing first create, / O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, / Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, / Still-waking sleep that is not what it is. / This love feel I that feel no love in this [I:i].
Such is the Shakespearean paradoxology of love. The use of antiphrasis (the combining of opposites) is remarkable: “love” blends with “brawling,” “loving” blends with “hate,” “heavy” blends with “lightness,” “serious” blends with “vanity,” “misshapen chaos” blends with “well-seeming forms,” “feather” blends with “lead,” “bright” blends with “smoke,” “cold” blends with “fire,” “sick” blends with “health,” “still-waking” blends with “sleep.” Opposites are interlaced. There is a coalescence or interpenetration of opposites, which means that love, for Shakespeare, is unsystematizable—for only that which is simple and undifferentiated can be systematized.
Rosaline is not named explicitly until the second scene of the first act, when Romeo recites the list of invited guests to Capulet’s feast. She is first anonymous and then, the audience of readers / spectators only learn of her name from the recitation of the guest list, which foretokens her imminent departure from the thoughts of Romeo. On the guest list, her name is nothing more than one name among other names. She will quickly be replaced by Juliet Capulet, who is not listed on the guest list, since she is not a guest at all, but the only child and daughter of the great rich Capulet.
Oppressed by his love for Rosaline, Romeo cannot forswear Rosaline until he falls in love—instantaneously—with Juliet. Sunday night, when Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo are masquerading themselves for the feast, Juliet will supplant Rosaline in Romeo’s mind. This substitution of Juliet for Rosaline will take place in the span of no more than one hour—both Scene Four and Scene Five of the first act take place Sunday night, the night of the feast. There is no more than an hour or so between the scenes. The new beloved, Juliet, quickly kills off, interchanges with, the old beloved, Rosaline. As the Chorus phrases it: “Now old desire doth in his deathbed lie, / And young affection gapes to be his heir” [II:0].
At the beginning of Act Two: Scene Three, it is the dawn of the day, and Friar Laurence is gathering baleful weeds and precious-juiced flowers into an osier cage. Friar Laurence sights Romeo and asks the young man if he spent the night with Rosaline. Romeo’s response:
With Rosaline, my ghostly father? No, / I have forgot that name and that name’s woe.
Friar Laurence is understandably shocked: “Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!” [Ibid.]. The change that Romeo undergoes underscores the mutability and the malleability of love. The fact that Rosaline is unnamed in the first act and is easily interchangeable likewise highlights the ductility of love—it is articulative of the thought that desire persists for as long as life persists. If love is mutable yet ductile, it cannot be systematized and what is unsystematizable cannot be socially integrated. Romeo’s desire is mutable and therefore his desire is revolutionary. More precisely: The love of Romeo and Juliet issues in a revolution, literally.
DESIRE IS REVOLUTION
There is a war in the play between two Veronese families, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague, as is well-known. The love of Juliet and Romeo is, above all, a subversive love. The offspring of one rivaling clan falls in love with the offspring of another rivaling clan. What is this, if not transgression / subversion / insubordination? Juliet’s and Romeo’s transgressive, subversive, insubordinate desire remind us that all amatory desire is transgressive, subversive, insubordinate. Romeo and Juliet are insubordinate to their respective families, transgressive of the laws of familialism, subversive to the will of their respective fathers. For contemporary examples of this, one has only to think of current practices of exogamy, of interracial, interreligious, or transgenerational sociosexual / conjugal relationships.
No wonder that Romeo’s uninvited presence at the feast is decried by Tybalt as an “intrusion” [I:v], as the trespass of private property. Romeo is there to seek out Rosaline, not Juliet, but no matter: He is a lover, and lovers are intrusive; they are interlopers. No wonder that Romeo himself claims to “profane” the “holiest shrine” of Juliet’s hand [Ibid.]. Romeo’s desire for Juliet is metaphorized as blasphemy, as intrusion, as the infringement of the holy. Desire profanes the sacred, for the sacred is nothing if not that which should not be desired. Seconds after they fall in love at first sight and kiss at the feast, both Romeo and Juliet use the language of “trespass” and “sin” [Ibid.] to describe their mutual fascination. And they say these words even before they know that they belong to enemy camps, reminding us that love is the transgression and profanation of the social order.
To return to Deleuze and Guattari: Real desire is revolutionary. They argue: “Desire does not ‘want’ revolution, it is revolutionary in its own right, as though involuntarily, by wanting what it wants.” In a culture wherein citizens are labile, wherein citizens are neurotic subjects who are subject to the desires of capitalist culture, psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists are enlisted to keep them in line. The analysand is kept in line by the psychoanalysts, psychologists, psychotherapists who direct one’s neuroses to the father or to the mother. “What are your problems?” the psychotherapist asks. No matter what your problems might be, the cause of your problems will forever be named “The Father” or “The Mother.” Deleuze and Guattari are intimating that psychoanalysis supports fascism, since both systems of thought relegate singularities to authority.
Even before draining the ampoule of sleeping potion, Juliet has already infringed the social order. Such is love’s unfettered character. The desires of Romeo and Juliet are still social—but they are not the desires of the herd, of the family, of the clan. Just as today, cult leaders, marketing firms, parents, teachers, bosses, psychiatrists tell you what to desire, Capulet and Lady Capulet tell Juliet who she should desire: the mediocre Paris. For this reason, the desire of Romeo and Juliet for each other is anti-familial, explosive, liberated, and liberating and realigns the whole of the Veronese society. Their desire for each other reminds us that desire is resistant, recalcitrant, renitent.
The Prologue summarizes the entire play:
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life, / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other, “their death-marked love,” a love which inescapably ends in death, is transgressive and literally revolutionary. It effects radical political change: the harmonization of the House of Capulet and the House of Montague.
Dr. Joseph Suglia