Shakespeare as Hermes (8/2/15)

Tracing symptoms back to their source: I suffer from a chronic need to meaningfully interact with other persons. As outlandish as the following statement must sound to anyone ruled by commonsense, this need to play a meaningful role in others’ lives is contingent upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of these other persons—and that belief, in turn, is predicated upon the implicit belief in the reality and worth of my own personhood. If individual personhood were discovered to be an illusion—one that could be dismantled and dispensed with—this pressing, chronic need to be meaningfully involved in the lives of others would then be greatly weakened, easily uprooted, and dissolved.

What if I were to attempt to turn this analysis and dismantlement process into a work of art—of literature? How might I best approach such an undertaking?

Something that has long fascinated me about Shakespeare’s work as a poet-dramatist is the enhanced objectivity about human matters that his writing process provided him with. In the thoughtful-imaginative-creative process of differentiating and then interrelating the various characters in his plays, Shakespeare was at the same time working through—and working out—fundamental human problems/questions as they presented themselves in his soul, or imagination. What we, the readers and playgoers, see in the plays are, from one angle, the documented records of these interior explorations, mappings, discoveries, conundrums, and provisional evaluations.

Aside from the marvelous beauty and power of the language, what makes his best plays so profoundly interesting—400 years later and counting—is the depths, the heights, and the breadth of experience and understanding that are made accessible to us as we contemplate these compelling (and inwardly compelled) characters and their interrelationships. But rather than remain a mere admirer of the works themselves, I would like to employ them as beckoning doorways through which I might pass—and thereby enter, sympathetically, the workings of the poet’s mind and soul. Rather than stop at a thorough appreciation of the plays, I want to learn about the internal processes that Shakespeare suffered in order to give birth to them. The plays provide maps of this inner experience whereby the poet-playwright acquainted himself with figures, state of soul, tensions, and revelations that go unnoticed—or are shunned and avoided—by most of us.

I used the work suffered to denote these inner encounters. Why? Could it be true that as we acclimate ourselves more and more successfully to the peculiar terms and conditions of profound imaginative experience—as Shakespeare clearly did—we simultaneously experience a corresponding depotentiation of the literal, outer world of ‘sensible’ experience? As the imaginal realm—which is both subtler and far more elastic and polyvalent than literal, sensory phenomena and fixed abstract concepts—becomes increasingly real and vivid to us, the world of ordinary, external forms, events, and persons becomes hollower, more ‘schematic,’ ghostlike, superficial.

It seems likely to me that Shakespeare’s consciousness—at least during those fruitful hours when he was composing works like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, etc.—shifted quite decisively into this imaginal realm where potent imaginary forms possess greater ‘reality’ and psychic substance than the comparatively humdrum and prosaic events, objects, and even persons of everyday experience. But, due to his exceptional powers of balance, the familiar and practical realities of mundane experience were not shunned or categorically discredited—as might be the case with the mystic or the rapt ascetic. His special genius endowed him with an ability to straddle adroitly between these two very different levels of psychic experience—the literal-concrete level and the metaphorical-imaginal level. Unlike the materialist or the spiritualist, he did not ‘take a stand’ in one arena of experience against the other—but like Hermes, passed easily back and forth across the frontier between the two.

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