Approaching Othello (8/1/15)

If we approach Othello as a dramatic portrait of psychological and moral negotiations within Shakespeare’s psyche at the time he wrote the play, the principal characters may be regarded as complex symbols of distinct psychological processes, standpoints, functions, levels, and values. The overall course of action may be seen to symbolize the natural outcome of the conflictual relationships between these differentiated psychic factors.

What if, for instance, we approach Iago not as we would a morally accountable human being who should be possessed of a modicum of human sympathy or compassion, but as the personification of an utterly inhuman, motiveless mode of thinking (instrumental reason) that can be arbitrarily employed to serve a wide variety of divergent and even contradictory ends?[1]

Allan Bloom’s thoughtful essay on Othello—‘Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community,’ from Shakespeare’s Politics—makes very insightful observations about Iago, Othello, and Desdemona (whose name in Greek can mean ‘superstitious’ or ‘ill-fortuned’). Of Iago, he writes:

Iago, as I have said, is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to become visible…Shakespeare is, in the final accounting, very hard. Iago’s speeches, read dispassionately, show that he is the clearest thinker in the play. ‘Honest Iago’ is not merely a tragically misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character. It is difficult to understand his motivation; no villain in Shakespeare seems to act without some plausible end in view, an end the value of which all men would recognize, though they might perhaps not be willing to commit the crimes necessary to arrive at it. But Iago, as does the Devil, seems to act from pure negativity. ‘I am not what I am.’ Whatever Othello wants, Iago wants the opposite. He is sub- or super-human. But, in opposing Othello, he shows that the world dominated by Othello is a world of fancy. He speaks out for a freedom which none of the others recognize. Iago wishes to live his own life free from the domination of other men, and especially of other men’s thoughts. He realizes that true tyranny is not imposed by force, but imposes itself on the minds of men. For Iago, man can free himself only by thought. He has thought through the emptiness of most beliefs and will not live in subordination to them. He cannot found his life on self-deception, as Othello does. (p. 63)

If we think of the prejudices or shared illusions (‘ideals’) that bind together, define, and—in a sense—constitute a community (in this case, Venice) as the matter upon which Iago’s caustic intelligence goes to work (‘I am nothing if not critical’), we get a clear glimpse of his function in the tragedy. To every particle of ‘matter’ he encounters, this spirit of ‘pure negativity’ stands figuratively as a particle of antimatter. When divested of all merely human desires, aims, and designs, Iago is indeed no more and no less than a sub- or super-human force of negation or contradiction—an ‘agent’ capable of nullifying or effectively dissolving all those positively asserted and believed-in prejudices upon which the individual (Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, etc.) and the community collectively depend.

Thus, only that being who is genuinely reconciled to the truth or the reality that transcends this war of opposites (i.e., personal/cultural prejudices and their negation) is capable of encountering Iago and coming away unscathed. Such a being (sub- or super-human?) would have already succeeded in reconciling and harmonizing the pairs of opposites that, together, comprise the matrix out of which dramatic, deluded, ordinary human experience is spawned. Such a being would indeed be free, not only of the prejudices that define all mere humans (as exponents of a particular culture), but of the desires and fears that are otherwise guaranteed to keep us mentally imprisoned in the endless cycle of suffering that life—which feeds upon itself—essentially is. (Incidentally, Harold Bloom, noted bardolator, argues that Iago would have been seen through and disposed of right away by two other Shakespearean characters: Hamlet and Falstaff.)

Iago certainly is not free—despite his apparent success in seeing through the delusions and myths that others live by. And why is he not free? He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Clearly he is still subject to desires (for recognition, advancement, power over others, etc.) and fears/anxieties (of being exposed for whom/what he is, of having been cuckolded by Othello, etc.), so we are not entitled to call him disinterested. He has merely pushed his consciousness to the cynical end of a spectrum, the other end of which is populated by equally deluded idealists and staunch believers in the sacrosanct inviolability of romantic love, the value and durability of reputation, etc. He has not—like the ‘transcendent’ being we hypothetically proposed earlier—succeeded in reconciling these opposites within himself. Only by harmonizing or reconciling them is it possible to neutralize the dynamic force naturally generated by the polarized pairs of opposites—a force that is most commonly experienced as fear and desire, which are but two sides of the same coin. Thus, upon close and honest examination, we find that the cynical-critical Iago is no less the captive of his desires and fears than are his idealistic, ‘gullible’ victims. His actual motives may be murky or not evident, but he certainly acts with drive and passion.

Two things that are on trial in this play—and which are being subjected to the fiercest and most stringent acid test—are ‘reputation’ and ‘romantic love.’ I think it is fair to say that by the play’s end, neither of these survive the ordeal, but are exposed for the deceptive, ultimately disappointing, and flawed pursuits that they, at bottom, are.

Othello’s personal power and security depend, as it turns out, almost entirely upon the maintenance of his reputation as a capable general. He has no protective birthright in Venice.[2] He possesses no great wealth. His valiant reputation and his skills as a general have won him a measure of authority and importance within the Venetian state. But he is essentially a foreigner and a mercenary—and even with his marriage to Desdemona, these facts cannot be fundamentally altered, so far as public perception is concerned. Cassio’s abrupt loss of his reputation (and his office as Othello’s lieutenant)—through ‘possession’ by drunkenness, a ‘devil,’ as he calls it—prefigures Othello’s ‘possession’ by an intoxicating jealousy and his rapid loss of status and position as a consequence of his unwarranted violence against Desdemona.

Desdemona’s ‘unconditional’ surrender to Othello’s will and authority constitutes the other side of the riddle of their joint demise. It is precisely because she submits so ‘selflessly’ to Othello—refusing to question or to prudently protect herself from this possessed husband of hers after he has become physically and verbally abusive to her—that she winds up a victim of his ‘honorable’ wrath. In behaving in this way, she is, at one level, enacting the flawed formula of the romantic love myth. This myth requires nothing less than the psychic-erotic merger (or mutual identification) of the lovers. The beloved is one’s ‘other half.’ This, in a nutshell, was Desdemona’s undoing—and this was her contribution to the tragic finale. She had ‘boundary issues’—in the sense that none existed for her.

But, as was noted, Othello’s violent action against his innocent (but equally possessed—if by a different fantasy) wife was consciously motivated by his wounded honor. He realized—all too abruptly and overwhelmingly—that without honor and a commanding reputation, he would be reduced to nothing. His equally real—and equally overwhelming—need for Desdemona’s love (or belief in the reality and faithfulness of her love) left him vulnerable and exposed to Iago’s manipulative lies. Othello was thus doubly—and, as it turns out, mortally—wounded by the collapse, in his mind, both of his honor and of the love that he had come to rely on from Desdemona. ‘Chaos is come again’ and he, the helpless agent of this chaos, felt compelled to take her down with him into the abyss that opened up before (or within) him.

[1] H. C. Goddard anticipates this approach in likening Iago’s thinking to Cold War strategizing.

[2] There was an energetic, prolonged attempt by his enemies and detractors to place Barack Obama in this frame—and by our current president (2/1/18).

Innocence (1/8/16)

The impulse or compulsive desire to defile and shatter innocence—such as we glimpse in Angelo’s behavior towards Isabella in Measure for Measure or Hamlet’s behavior towards Ophelia: where on earth does this come from? There are all kinds of innocence: sexual, moral, cultural, technological, political, psychological, spiritual, philosophical—to name some of the more conspicuous varieties. To what extent is innocence synonymous with ignorance? With unripeness or immaturity? With deludedness and unconsciousness?

If innocence does indeed share a lot of DNA with these acknowledged defects, lacks, weaknesses, and shortcomings, then why do so many of us warm up to it when we encounter it—say, in children, in a lover, in pleasant simpletons, and in pets? Aside from the ‘cuteness’ factor in innocence, isn’t there something inherently disarming about it for most of us? May it be claimed that innocence suggests a form of harmlessness—of vulnerability, even—qualities that, in most decent human beings, elicit warm feelings of affection, compassion, and even protectiveness?

I suspect that this disarming and heartwarming quality of innocence is present only when the innocent one happens also to be modest and incapable of posing any real threat to us. But when we reflect upon the close connection between innocence and ignorance we remember that not all innocent persons—including, of course, young persons—are modest and incapable of doing harm, either to themselves or others.

It is precisely this strong (if not always apparent) link with ignorance and inexperience, is it not, that makes innocence such an ambiguous or problematic attribute? We can see that ignorance and immaturity are not normally associated with modesty, let alone circumspection. ‘Spirited’ or turbo-charged innocence—say, of the idealistic political zealot or the spuming religious fanatic—is rarely ‘cute,’ ‘disarming,’ or pleasantly endearing. But perhaps it will be objected that I have strained and stretched the concept of innocence to such an extent that I have deformed it into some entirely debased or bastardized version of itself. Or have I?

Could it be true that innocence, like the beauty of a nubile maid, has an all too brief ‘shelf life’—and after its expiration date has passed, it swiftly declines into less and ever less pleasing forms? Why is it so often the case that ‘cute’ or endearing displays of innocence—after they’ve been repeatedly, or rather, cloyingly served up to us—become as annoying and tiresome as, before, they were appealing and captivating when we have had our fill of them? Perhaps it’s the case—for mature souls—that innocence is optimally appreciated in economical, and by no means prodigious, doses. And when the mature soul gets a more walloping dose than he or she can politely stomach, what usually happens? Doesn’t the slightly caustic quip—Grow the fuck up, you pesky little whippersnapper!—creep temptingly to the tongue? Possibly, but the mature soul remembers its own (perhaps abrupt or hurried) passage through and beyond such cutesy innocence, and so remains patiently silent.

What, then, excites the cruelty of Hamlet towards the innocent-obedient Ophelia—or the sadistic advances of Angelo towards the ‘pure’ and righteous Isabella? Could it be an eruption of hatred and disgust with ignorant innocence itself—an eruption occasioned by their own battered and shattered innocence? No doubt, Hamlet’s superior intelligence, nobility, honesty, and imagination provide us with much more to work with, here, than Angelo does, who is a mental-moral pygmy when set beside Hamlet (even if both of them show disquieting signs of misogyny). With Hamlet, the ‘occasions’ or detonators for the traumatic dis-illusionment he suffers are plainly evident. The murder of his father by his treacherous, lecherous ‘adulterate beast’ of an uncle, who has seduced Gertrude, his mother, is the most conspicuous blow he receives, but his crushing disappointment with Ophelia—precisely because of her innocence and lack of spiritual-psychological independence—deserves every bit as much critical attention here. There are other—lesser—disappointments, as with his false-hearted ‘friends,’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who deceive and betray him at the behest of cunning Claudius. In the psychological avalanche triggered by these domestic and conjugal-romantic upsets, Hamlet is, in effect, catapulted into a full-blown spiritual-existential crisis of monumental (one might even say archetypal) proportions, insofar as it is proleptic and emblematic—anticipating similar existential crises to come. And in order for this extraordinary work of dramatic-psychological genius to have been produced, Shakespeare, the poet-dramatist, must have suffered an analogous crisis—which is perhaps peerlessly depicted in this groundbreaking text.

I bring Hamlet into this essay on the problematic character of innocence because this play—perhaps as profoundly as any rivaling work of literature—is implicitly and explicitly preoccupied with the problem of lost innocence.[1] When this unmasking of the truth about ourselves and about our actual existential predicament is unveiled in this initiatory crisis of awakening, the ‘victim’ simultaneously perceives the thick web of lies and deceits in which virtually everyone he knows—or is likely to know—is snugly and (usually) unconsciously ensnared. Something of this order of magnitude ‘happens’ to Hamlet—and after he digests it, by Act V, he is a changed man. Instead of hysterically and antically ‘acting out’ his disordered, chaotic passions (as he does while in the throes of his ordeal before going to England), he displays a surprising degree of poise and mature understanding of his own (and perhaps our) existential situation.[2]

Clearly, I am no stranger to these ambivalent feelings about innocence—nor to those ‘traumatic,’ destiny-forging disappointments and dis-coveries that expose the dark underbelly of childlike, unconscious innocence. Does this make me hate innocence so intensely that I wish to attack and destroy it wherever I see it? No. Or rather, not anymore. When those ‘betrayals’ and ‘exposés,’ those terrible revelations and stark unmaskings, occurred—starting in my early teens—before I had learned what I would need to learn before, like an anaconda, I could both swallow and digest these massive, squirming and kicking ‘life lessons’ that were bigger than I was—I often felt as ‘mad’ as Hamlet—as bitterly outraged and impatient with puffed-up simpletons, craven cowards, and shallow hypocrites as the ‘melancholy Dane’ was. Perhaps I am now entering my own ‘fifth act’—learning to let the natural course of life go where it will, without rebuke or interference from me. Does this mean that I am ‘going slack’ inside? Au contraire.

[1] In a similarly profound, but more mythical, manner, Oedipus the King was also concerned with this loss of innocence/ignorance—which is essentially the process of coming to honest and ‘dis-illusioned’ consciousness of oneself.

[2] Something analogous happens to—or inside—Lear after his ‘storm’ scene on the heath.

A (probably vain) Attempt to Restore a Nearly Forgotten Word to Popular Usage: Caitiff (1/6/16)

Anyone who’s spent a little time reading Shakespeare has surely come across this word—‘caitiff’—which basically translates as ‘coward.’ But ‘caitiff’ conveys even more contempt by the user than is normally conveyed by the word ‘coward,’ just as ‘knave’ conveys more contemptibility than its modern equivalents, ‘scoundrel’ and ‘loser.’ The caitiff is naturally disposed towards lying—first, to himself and, then, to everyone else. Why is this? For one thing, timidity sets strict limits to what is acceptable, endurable, or tolerable so far as what life throws at him—and life, lest we forget, is no ‘respecter of persons.’ Instead of honestly acknowledging that it is his fearfulness—and not the malicious will of life or of other persons—that paints him into a narrow mental corner of his own making, the caitiff simply blames ‘fortune’ and demonizes others while illegitimately rationalizing and justifying his own reality-distorting stratagems and opinions. If the caitiff, however, is sufficiently courageous to admit (again, first and foremost, to himself) that he is disposed to cowardice—and that he seeks chiefly to protect and insulate himself from life’s ‘slings and arrows’—then a certain measure of honesty can develop.

But alas, the honesty of clever caitiffs tends, like Hobbes’, to derive from a reductive, jaundiced—basically fearful—response to existence and to other human beings. This is the ‘nothing but’ breed of timid posers and pontificators who are always saying “this (or that) noble (or dignified) person (action, or ideal) is nothing but a base, self-serving (and/or deluded) so and so.” In making this sweeping, ‘categorically debunking’ move, the clever caitiff implicitly justifies his guarded, cynical, or pessimistic stance towards…well, just about everyone and everything. We all know the type. These are the ‘lily-livered,’ ‘yellow-bellied’ scaredy-cats whose formerly tender and precious sensitivity has been deeply wounded by the shrapnel regularly delivered by that superficially polite but profoundly hypocritical war zone otherwise known as ‘everyday life.’

Such caitiffs—regardless of how clever they may be—have souls that are simply too cramped and shallow for the deeper sort of suffering—which, as it turns out, is the only sort of suffering capable of bringing about a substantial moral-spiritual transformation of the personality, and of purging it of any lingering frivolity and residual frippery. More than a few jabbering, twittering, and supercilious ‘modern’ atheists belong to this carping camp of critical caitiffs. Such vain and voluble mediocrities are able to proliferate—and even preponderate—in a semi-barbaric and soulless ‘information age’ where they have few natural predators and plenty of protectors against the harsher, stinkier, and more honest realities of life from which they instinctively recoil. But as soon as such favorable and shielding conditions change for the worse—and, eventually, they always do—these imposters and pretenders are the first to be devoured and done away with by the first big wave of ‘corrective,’ order-restoring reality. And, of course, in being thus laid low, their worst fears and suspicions are thoroughly confirmed. But again, because genuine, redemptively transformative suffering can find no place to ‘conduct its business’ in the tiny, cramped soul of the caitiff, such blows and hardships only make him more bitter, resentful, and convinced that life is a cheat.

Caitiffs instinctively avoid genuine solitude, even when they retreat from society. This is not simply because they are deathly afraid of being deprived of the assistance and company of others—but because they desperately need to have persons close at hand who are even more cowardly and spineless than they are, in order to produce the optical illusion that they have an actual ‘pair’ growing down there between their legs. Thus, they seek the society of others not out of love, which actually requires and entails courage and generosity, but from self-interest and a need to feel superior to those who are even more fearful, needy, impotent, and helpless.

Those persons, on the other hand, who are naturally courageous—how do they instinctively respond to the veritable army of self-serving, lying, knavish, pea-souled caitiffs in their midst? Well, of course they cannot help but regard them with politely muted contempt or with the sort of forgivable indulgence that a compassionate, mature parent sometimes shows towards a silly, immature nincompoop of a child. The contempt that is felt is the natural response of real strength or virtue to what amounts to a cluster of interrelated vices and failings—all of which have their roots in a cowardly flight from reality and sobering truths. The indulgence—which, mind you, has its limits—stems from the sober acknowledgement that such born caitiffs and self-deceivers cannot be other than they are—and must simply be tolerated, just as other natural pests, nuisances, banes, and ‘skin irritations’ must be borne with patient forbearance. But to trust—and invest one’s hope—in a caitiff? The courageous person knows all too well what folly that would be!

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.

A Note on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear (7/12/15, 7/28/15)

Danby argues that Shakespeare gradually arrived at the firm conclusion that the truly good person (exemplified by Cordelia and the humbled-regenerated Lear) can thrive only in a good state or healthy community. When corruption, disorder, anarchy, cynicism, shallow individualism, hypocrisy, and other evils undermine the health and goodness of the society, the good person either ceases to exist[1] or lives permanently at odds with the disordered state. If we accept this general thesis, a number of implications follow—most of which I have treated, in one form or another, in earlier essays.

One of the implications of this thesis is the problem of adaptation or accommodation to degenerate or seriously degraded cultural-moral norms.


Danby’s thesis: The good man can thrive only in the good community, or culture.

If, by ‘good’ we merely mean good in the moral sense, Danby’s point seems plausible enough. Likewise, if he means full development, or wholeness. It seems reasonable to assume that unless we grow and reach maturity within a community that, at its core, is not corrupt to its core, we will be denied two crucial components that are necessary for wholeness (or wholesomeness) and goodness: 1) a critical number of exemplary figures of moral-intellectual excellence and 2) occasions for the reciprocal, mutually supportive practice of virtue with moral-intellectual peers and betters—and not merely with faithless knaves, blinkered simpletons, self-serving cowards, and feckless mediocrities.

But we have plenty of evidence that good persons can—and do—exist in corrupt and vicious societies, despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the obstacles they bravely confront each day—since they are constantly obliged to define themselves in contradistinction to these deplorable norms and collective habits. Perhaps the crucial, qualifying word is ‘thrive.’ A good man certainly may survive—but seldom or never thrive, or flourish—in a degenerate or thoroughly corrupt community. Why? The conspicuous or public presence of such a figure will necessarily draw ‘sniper fire’ and opprobrium from the corrupt majority whose vices and shortcomings are thrown into sharp relief by contrast with the Socrates or Jesus who philosophizes or preaches in the open air. Peter was no doubt a good man, but his ‘prudent’ denial of affiliation with the sentenced Jesus—as cowardly and weak as it may seem at first glance—delayed his eventual martyrdom long enough to get years of fruitful evangelizing behind him before he met with ultimate mischief. Plato and Aristotle were good men living in corrupt and volatile times, but they had the good (i.e., ‘prudent’) sense to teach philosophy to select students within the walls of the Academy and Lyceum instead of taking on (and thoroughly pissing off) Athenian big shots and rancorous nitwits in the Agora, as the martyred Socrates did.

[1] Both Cordelia and Lear are dead by the end of the tragedy.

Notes on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (4/30/10 – Salta, Argentina)

Measure for Measure is an interesting examination of the themes of sex, repression, asceticism, and power—and of where genuine love stands in relation to all this. The central character of Isabel, who starts off as a bit of a proud virgin, is a nun-to-be whose chilly chastity appears somehow to be intimately bound up with an unforgiving moralism. Although her outbursts of venomous rage against the hypocritically ‘austere’ Angelo—after she learns of his intentions to seduce and rob her of her chastity as part of a dirty deal to free her brother from his trumped up death sentence—are understandable, we wince when she opts to pray for her brother’s death, rather than his emendation, showing how cruelty can often be found lurking behind strict and repressive attitudes about the human-all-too-human sex drive. From a certain angle, she and Angelo are mirror images of one another—at least in terms of their extreme ‘uptightness’ about eros. When she unintentionally awakens his lust—virtually tossing a lit match into the powder keg of his repressed eros—he is ‘quite undone.’ Interestingly, and not without a hefty dose of psychological irony, he then abuses the power he has won (by virtue of his hitherto exemplary behavior, backed up by his very austerities) to discharge his lust, the repression of which earned him his power in the first place. It’s a kind of pendulum swing from will-to-power to eros—from cold, Apollonian chastity to the molten lava of Dionysus.

Claudio, whose sentence of death mirrors Angelo’s ascetic drive to extirpate his own naturally occurring sexual impulses, typifies a decent man who channels his sexual desire within the wholesome (but not yet conventionally legalized and sanctioned) relationship with his beloved, which has given them a child. Not only is Claudio warmly liked by most of those who know him, his sentence is regarded as far too severe for having merely ‘fornicated’ with a woman he has every intention of marrying. When, upon being visited by the chaste Isabel in prison, Claudio learns of Angelo’s proposal that his release can be purchased only if Isabel will yield up her virginity to his unlawful lusts, a curious thing happens. While initially as outraged by Angelo’s proposal as Isabel is, upon further contemplation of the horrors of death, Claudio wonders aloud if perhaps Isabel’s ‘sin’ and indignity (for yielding to Angelo) wouldn’t be erased by the greater good of saving him from an undeserved murder. This seemingly undignified and fearful lapse of his moral uprightness in suggesting such a thing is somehow less surprising and even less objectionable than Isabel’s extreme reaction of implacable indignation and disappointment with the poor, wronged Claudio. She actually goes so far in her self-righteous rejection of his appalling suggestion that she pleads for her brother’s swift execution. Is it here that we are given a glimpse into the inflexible and slightly inhuman character of her moral rigidity? She seems far more concerned about her honor and her purity than about Claudio’s life and the future welfare of his wife and unborn child. She’s not an especially likable or sympathetic character precisely because she takes her own inflexible moral principles so seriously. She comes across in these scenes as a subtle and exceptionally articulate prig—a kind of prisoner of her fastidious and immaculate scruples concerning goodness. In Blake’s terms, she exhibits ‘negative purity’—chastity based on repression of desires that she prudishly maligns. She seems to be so blinded by these constraining, dogmatic principles that both her heart and her capacity for a healthy understanding of herself and other persons are severely limited. Eventually—at the very end of the play, in fact—Isabel’s heart undergoes a rather abrupt expansion when, responding to Mariana’s moving request that she plea to the Duke for Angelo’s life, she lays aside her demand for vengeance and forgives him, despite the fact that at this point, she still believes that Claudio has been wrongfully beheaded. If her ‘conversion’ from moralistic, vengeful prig to an all-forgiving compassionate saint seems a bit sudden and not a little unlikely, it certainly helps to round out and wrap up this ‘problem play’ of Shakespeare’s.

When hot passion is kindled in the cold, ‘ice-pissing’ Angelo by the unmolested virginity of Isabel, his soul is riven between his long-nurtured will-to-power and eros, which would ‘undo’ him. It is worth noting that eros is not quite the same thing as love (understood as care and concern for the well-being of another), but it may be a (big baby) step on the way towards love. We may think of it as a lower octave (or a smoky version) of love. At least Isabel (who, as I said, shares certain unerotic or ascetic traits with Angelo) is capable of feeling and displaying genuine love to her brother (up to a point!), while Angelo, by contrast, seems almost incapable of seeing or feeling beyond himself—and his organs. He seems almost to regard the excitement he feels for Isabel not as a welcome or expansive event but as an intrusive violation, a menacing threat to his formerly impenetrable isolation within his little citadel of sanctity. There is a chink in his armor and this pretty little virgin slithered right through.

Is it ‘she’ or ‘he’ who sins? He wants her to be guilty and when she uses the word ‘bribe’ in entreating him, he jumps all over this as if he’s nailed her, only to find that she meant it figuratively, referring only to the prayers she was going to make to heaven on her brother’s behalf. Angelo’s cruelty to Mariana (in the past) and to Claudio may be said to begin with his cruelty towards himself—in the form of his unforgiving asceticism and his stern austerities. Since he treats his own lusts and appetites like wild animals that are more deserving of a whipping and harsh suppression than of tolerant understanding and compassion, it only follows that he should turn a deaf ear to all entreaties for lenience towards Claudio. As soon as his lustful designs for Isabel take shape within his tormented imagination, he is a man divided in his soul. But instead of honestly admitting his human ‘weakness’—an admission that might pave the way to a sympathetic understanding of Claudio’s ‘sin’—his pride compels him to keep it hidden from everyone—including himself—to the best of his ability. He exploits his reputation for saintliness in the service of his villainy, making him despicable as well as dishonest.

The character of Lucio seems to move around in a liminal zone between a commonsensical, frankly realistic attitude toward sex and an ignoble, bawdily licentious one. He is familiarly related to both Claudio (healthy, love-ruled sexuality) and to Pompey the Pimp (prostitution, sex for money, sex without love, sex as mere rutting). But, for all his posturing as an unfettered man of the world—one who unashamedly endorses the free expression of instinctual sexuality—he is actually just an opportunistic hypocrite who is every bit as false and self-serving as any of the other characters. When Pompey is being sent to jail and he begs Lucio to pay his bail, Lucio spurns and mocks him. He’s happy to make regular use of Pompey’s services as a bawd when it suits him, but he can scarcely be bothered to help someone of such ‘contemptible’ social status when he could use a little help from him. This same cavalier, exploitative attitude is exhibited again, later, when we learn of his neglect of the care of a child he sired with a prostitute. He would rather be hanged than be forced by the duke to marry a ‘punk.’

This leaves the duke, himself, to be considered. He’s a strange sort of fellow—a kind of tester and secret assessor of men—a psychologist or student of human virtue and vice. And in order to do this, it is necessary for him to conduct his experiments under the cloak (or cassock) of disguise. His ostensible or expressed reason for leaving Vienna under the ‘care’ of the cruel Angelo is that he has secret business to attend to elsewhere, but then he confides to the priest that he wants Angelo to be the one who enforces the laws concerning brothels—the ones that are in the books but have been winked at under the duke—so that he, the duke, doesn’t earn for himself a reputation for harshness. Let the humorless and strict Angelo take the credit—and the blame—for the enforcement of these unpopular laws.

I find that the duke is shrewdly Machiavellian in his manipulation of virtually everyone he deals with—and far too ambiguous a figure, morally—to simply call him ‘good.’ On the other hand, without his continual assistance and guidance (stage managing and plot devising) in a drama that he has himself set into motion, nothing of interest would happen in Measure for Measure. He has some of the characteristics of the spirit ‘Mercurius’ of the alchemical tradition, or Hermes from Greek mythology. Hermes is a deceiver and trickster, but he often employs these morally ambiguous ‘gifts’ to reveal hidden secrets and neglected truths. He is an able interpreter of signs and symptoms that are opaque and enigmatic to the many. He moves easily between the Gods as a kind of messenger or translator—and this signifies an ability to move expertly across borders and through the tiniest of orifices. The duke might be seen as a kind of substitute or proxy for the poet insofar as his apparent powers of imaginative invention and resourcefulness resemble those of Shakespeare himself.


A Note on Shakespeare’s Tragedies and Romances (5/1/10)

There is much of interest in the whole question of a balanced redress of evils committed against us—a theme dealt with in Measure for Measure, as the title clearly announces. This theme also occupies Shakespeare’s careful attention in The Merchant of Venice, where ‘Christian’ mercy and forgiveness are repeatedly (and somewhat ironically) contrasted with Old Testament justice. The superiority and the redemptive power of self-abnegating forgiveness is also a central, recurring concern of the late ‘romances’—Cymbeline, A Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest—so I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare wrestled with this profound and weighty question till the very end of his career.

I wonder if H.C. Goddard isn’t the scholar who has devoted the closest attention to the moral vision underlying Shakespeare’s plays. Others have sought to emphasize the absence in the plays of any prescriptive moral doctrine—and that Shakespeare’s true gift as a teacher about human nature lies primarily in his refraining from any sort of moral didacticism or prescriptive program.

It could be argued, perhaps, that even the most exemplary moral actions and attitudes are ultimately little more than candles in the strong and snuffing winds produced by nature and by passions under extreme circumstances. ‘Good’ persons in Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello—persons like Duncan, Banquo, Gloucester, Edgar, Cordelia, Desdemona—are usually the unfortunate victims of villains and ‘slaves of passion’ who, despite (or because of) their amorality and vice, are reliably more capable of doing harm than the decent ones are of spreading good. One almost cannot avoid coming away from the tragedies with a pessimistic view of the human condition—and of the chances for goodness to prevail against the evils of this world.

In the late plays, however, good does generally prevail, but not without the slightly discomfiting occurrence of (let’s call it like it is!) miracles to turn an otherwise stuck and hopeless situation around. The presence of such unlikely or un-natural miracles (and in The Tempest, magic) may have a good deal to do with why these last plays are commonly referred to as the ‘romances.’

If it proved to be a general truth that the human, when left to the promptings that come most naturally and automatically, is prone, where opportunity allows, to return blow for blow, evil for evil received, then perhaps any overcoming of this natural ‘eye for an eye’ justice must be regarded almost as a kind of miracle, since our first ‘nature’ is more apt to follow egoistic rather than the altruistic or ‘Christian’ course. Is this perhaps what Shakespeare was showing us in the contrast between the very different ‘worlds’ presented in the tragedies and the romances? The tragedies present us with a depiction of the human condition where the egoistic ambitions, the ‘animal’ passions and instincts, prevail so decisively and so thoroughly that acts of true goodness and altruism have but the slenderest chances of prevailing. The tragedies of Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, and Othello create little worlds where the climate and the soil conditions are too parched, too cold, too stormy, or too toxic for the tender plants of gentleness, forgiveness, and honesty to take firm root and flourish. In such harsh, treacherous, and ‘rotten’ realms, hypocrisy—or the counterfeit of virtue—grows more hardily. Authentic virtue can scarcely breathe in such environments—where it is perceived as mere weakness and foolish disregard for one’s own advantage by characters like Iago, Edmund, Claudius, and those gracious hosts, the Macbeths, who prey upon and exploit others’ goodness for their own villainous purposes.