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.

Shakespeare in Context (8/21/15)

It is worthwhile to contemplate the verbal-linguistic treasures that Shakespeare had at his disposal when he wrote his plays and sonnets. Aside from the over-rich lexical resources he inherited, his ‘public’ was capable of ‘hearing’ and appreciating complex poetical/syntactical constructions that are, for the most part, lost on modern, educated persons who have grown up in an excessively visual, iconographic culture—and not a liberally-educated, reading-auditing culture. Because of the generally cohesive humanist-Biblical culture of Elizabethan England, readers and playgoers were attuned to stories, historical names, fables, religious and moral doctrines, etc., that are not integral components of our more technical and narrowly specialized educations. It is difficult for us to gauge how this nexus of meaningfully interconnected words, images, Biblical references, historical names and events pulsed and throbbed with diverse, scintillating meanings on a variety of different levels for the Elizabethan audiences. And all of this is embedded in the plays of Shakespeare. Of course, unless and until the contemporary reader is able to reconstruct—and then inhabit—at least a rough semblance of that Elizabethan worldview, his response to these peerless works will be markedly curtailed and weakened. I say this not to deter or discourage modern, narrowly- or sparsely-educated Americans from undertaking a serious study of Shakespeare’s plays and the cultural ‘world’ in which he wrote them—but to encourage the bold to jump in and learn how to swim there.

This sort of challenge is certainly not confined to a serious study of Shakespeare but could just as rightfully apply to learning about Catholic doctrine or Plato’s philosophy, Sufism or Renaissance painting. Once the student gets past a certain depth in his study of particular works, he realizes that the works themselves cannot come fully alive unless he is able to imaginatively recreate the mental or cultural conditions/presuppositions out of which these works emerged—and of which they are, to a greater or lesser extent, symptomatic—like the fauna and flora native to a particular eco-system.

Misanthropy and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (2/27/14)

I suspect there are corrective measures I could undertake—significant ground-level adjustments in my outlook and bearings toward my ‘warped’ culture and its conscriptees—which, if adopted, might temper my easily provoked antipathy toward that culture. I continue to ‘go after’ the misguided and ‘infectious’ culture with all the passion and clarity I can muster. Nay, I don’t even have to work at it! I merely need to position myself near any one of the several bubbling calderas or active volcanoes that are close to hand and voila!—my mouth and pen become spewing magma-spouters.

So—assuming my proposal has real merit—what would the reformed attitude or the new bearings towards the culture and its ‘infected carriers’ consist in? My strong sense is that unless and until I can learn how to see through and neutralize the ‘apocalyptic’ magma-passions, I will simply continue to write more or less the same super-charged harangue over and over again (like the fiery Chris Hedges does)—and never go on to abidingly inhabit the next, presumably more serene and peaceful, depth.

Here I cannot help but remark upon the likely connection between the prophetic (‘Jeremiah’) posture, on the one hand, and the degree of deafness shown to me, personally, by ‘the world’ (as that world is represented, in miniature, by those persons within earshot of me). I could, for instance, produce a rather impressive list of names of persons who flatly refuse to respond to my ideas, my invitations (to jointly investigate matters), my efforts to reach out, and so forth. I’ve been here before—and this creepily unsettling condition of feeling shunned and dismissed presents me with a great challenge. There is much love and much hate crammed into this genie’s bottle that I seem to have uncorked—almost unwittingly and unintentionally. I keep thinking of Timon of Athens—the overly generous simpleton turned bitter misanthrope—and of Coriolanus, whose contempt for the rabble and for cowardice is both thoroughly understood by me and deeply problematic for me.

Sometimes I honestly wonder if my investment in ‘humanity’ isn’t in the balance here. What does this mean, really? How can we not be invested in our own species, it will be asked? Is it possible to turn one’s back upon one’s kind and not, at the same time, suffer a correlative self-mutilation? Is misanthropy a viable option for me? I don’t think so. Why? As I see it, genuine misanthropy can only arise when certain stubborn hopes and ideals (respecting humans and human nature, in toto) are discovered to be utterly groundless, fatuous, and naïve—while life without these hopes and ideals is, at the same time, untenable, pointless, and thoroughly unacceptable. The love for humanity (phil-anthropia) has been shattered and replaced by hatred for mankind (mis-anthropia), and the nasty taste of disappointment cannot be gargled out of one’s mouth. The bitter taste henceforth blots out every last flicker of enthusiasm and hope for one’s thoroughly discredited and devalued species. The misanthrope may, at the same time, be personally affiliated with one or two other ‘exempted’ or exceptional humans whose companionship he sincerely cherishes—persons he can love unstintingly and unguardedly. But the mere possession of such boon companions, which is certainly not to be scoffed at, can scarcely compensate for the incalculable loss entailed in the misanthropic stance—unless one believes that the whole ‘damned human race’ can be redeemed by one or two sympatico chums. A world in which we are able to envision this species, in toto, rising to the fundamental challenges (moral, spiritual, political) of existence is a radically different world from one wherein these fundamental challenges are deemed beyond the collective moral will and intelligence of humanity. Somehow, the idea that we can only hope for a few ‘lucky hits,’ sparsely and haphazardly sprinkled here and there—often without any fanfare or ‘publicity’ spotlighting them—should be spiritually repugnant and vexing to us. And while many of us are ready and willing to admit that nothing of great value comes to us unearned or by chance, we are nevertheless baffled by this apparent scarcity of inarguably wise, upright, and dauntless homo sapiens, while skittish, blinkered, and complacent mediocrities abound.

What does Hamlet say?

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more. Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unused. (IV, iv)

It seems to me that Shakespeare was also occasionally oppressed by these torturous feelings of demoralization and disappointment with a species that he must, at the same time, have cherished dearly to have doted on with such a careful, unflinching, and uncannily observant eye! And yet that all-piercing, all-unmasking eye of Shakespeare seems, in the end, to have laid bare all the blind ambition, the overpowering sexual lusts and jealousies, the deplorable cowardliness, the vanity and pettiness, the cruelty and the naiveté that are poured so generously into this bubbling cauldron, man—so copiously, in fact, that they typically drown out the gentle sweetness and the noble, bracing saltiness that are also ‘in the mix.’ This unearthing of human wantonness and frailty reaches a fever-pitch in Hamlet and in King Lear, which are far more comprehensive in scope than Macbeth and Othello, the other great tragedies that deal with blinding human passions.

With the aforementioned works—Coriolanus and Timon of Athens—the misanthropic reaction to what Shakespeare had ‘unearthed’ receives a powerful but problematic voice. If we look at those three plays specifically dubbed ‘the problem plays’ (All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida), which were written close to the period that produced the major tragedies, we see Shakespeare exploring deceit, hypocrisy, sexual obsession, pandering and pimping, and so forth, with unerring penetration. One notable critic has described the mood of these problem plays as ‘rancid.’ The bitter taste (of gall) that I referred to earlier—the nasty taste that the misanthrope has insurmountable difficulty ‘washing from his mouth,’ so to speak—will become a principal concern of Shakespeare’s in the final phase of his long career—a journey that offers telling signs for the attentive psychologist to note.

When we look at the late ‘romances’ (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest), we find that a principal character has suffered what most of us (humans!) would regard as unforgivable betrayal or abuse by someone close to that character (a brother, a spouse, a parent, etc.). Shakespeare may be said to paint these offenses in such somber and hideous colors so as to test the charity and compassion of even the most forgiving audience members out there. I believe the reason he does this is in order to place the heavy burden of forgiveness entirely upon the shoulders of the wounded forgiver. The message here is implicit: the act of forgiveness is unconditional, purged of any hope or expectation that the malefactor ‘change his spots.’ What Shakespeare seems to be showing us is that Hermione’s forgiveness of Leontes and Prospero’s forgiveness of his usurping brother Antonio ultimately have little to do with Leontes and Antonio—or with their future relations with Hermione and Prospero. In forgiving these ‘unforgivable’ wrongdoers Hermione and Prospero were jettisoning from their own souls the seeds of hatred and relinquishing the lex talionis—to which they were perfectly entitled ‘in the eyes of ordinary humanity,’ where justice (if that!) more frequently prevails over free (and freeing) mercy, or forgiveness.

With these vivid examples in mind, I think it is fair to say that after unearthing and unmasking all or most of the beastly menagerie housed uneasily within the veiled and guarded breast of man, Shakespeare embraced the essentially Christian formula as a remedy against the powerful specter of misanthropy—but in a way that subtly releases the forgiver from an entangling knot of reciprocity with the forgiven wrongdoer. In relinquishing his right to repayment from his wrongdoer, the forgiver removes himself from the harness of the old Law, gaining his freedom not through fulfillment of that Law, but from that Law’s collective grip. Moreover, if Prospero and Hermione exemplify the manner of forgiveness that their creator also embraced, we may tentatively assume that Shakespeare—after seeing through the ‘human, all too human’—became equipped, spiritually, to release humanity, as a whole, from all binding and constraining hopes and idealizations on his part. In releasing ‘humanity’ (from this great burden) he released himself from any further susceptibility to the debilitating taint of misanthropy. Has Shakespeare pointed the way ahead for me?

A Dream and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (9/8/14)

Dream: Someone with whom I was acquainted was illicitly accessing and using a company elevator to enter a workplace where (presumably) he was working without authorization. As he entered the elevator I parted company with him and walked up the street. (Was I on Centenary Blvd. at Rutherford, across from the campus main entrance?) I noticed a white vehicle parked on the street—it could have been a station wagon or a regular sedan with a very large trunk. I’m not sure if I actually saw the young female owner of the vehicle before I opened the trunk—but I knew, while I was exploring its contents, she was the owner and that she would be returning anytime. There was no moment of stressful wrestling with my conscience before my curiosity prompted me to open the trunk (or rear hatch) and begin exploring the contents of the vehicle. My initial intention was not to steal anything, but simply to look, and if I found something I wanted, I guess I thought that I would stick around and make an offer—if I thought that far ahead. So, what was I finding? Books (boxes full of them), some vinyl record albums, and large Hershey chocolate bars. The books were, on the whole, the sort I like, or have read in the past: multiple copies of works by Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse among them. The albums—some of which were very old and apparently in excellent shape—were mostly classical music, from what I could tell. And then there were the large chocolate bars. The thought did cross my mind that I could take off with the two or three books I had selected (to awkwardly purchase from her when she returned?) and no one would be the wiser—but at this point I spotted the woman—the owner of the car and its contents—walking on the other side of the street. More importantly, she had seen me! In fact, she was watching me, warily and alarmedly, and I suspected at once that she had seen me rummaging through her stuff in her white vehicle with its trunk open. Goofily (and obviously ashamed of having opened her trunk and unauthorizedly explored its contents to see if there was anything there to my liking), I made a poorly received, unsuccessful effort to communicate to her (from across the street) the idea that I was an honest bloke and that I wanted to purchase a few of the things I had unlawfully ‘happened upon’ in her vehicle. I wanted to allay her distress and somehow quell her suspicions about me being a menacing person or a thief—but I could clearly see that she was keeping her distance. Then it occurred to me that she may have called the police and that she would let them deal with me. At that moment, just before I woke up—anxious from the dream—it dawned on me that even if I stuck around and tried to explain my actions, I was still culpable (for having opened the trunk and explored its contents) and that I would be at the mercy of the woman and/or the police. Sizing up the situation, my impulse was to flee—but at that moment I woke up.

I had a flurry of associated thoughts right after I woke up—while the dream was still fresh in my mind. The first thing I thought of was my recent ‘feud’ with J. S. (philosophy-spirituality versus modern empirical science personified). Next, I had the peculiar thought: No wonder William Shakespeare prudently kept a low profile (in his social milieu) and drew scant attention to his personality. I recalled the historically attested fact that those who did know and speak of him knew him as a pleasant and unassuming fellow. Then I thought of Demi P. pulling back from me with a look of shock and suspicion, thirty years ago, telling me, with more than a hint of horror in her voice that startled even me—‘You are a voyeur of people’s souls!’ Next, I recalled Nietzsche’s observation that Shakespeare must have had a wicked soul—and also remembering that when I read that remark for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Herr Nietzsche, it takes one to know one!’ Lastly, I thought about M. P.’s recent refusal (or conspicuous neglect) to call me back after she said she would, despite my repeated effort to re-connect with her after a long, but by no means hostile, silence—and that it’s always me who takes the initiative.

At that point, I began to reflect, generally, upon the pros and cons of ‘donning the polite and benign mask’ in my dealings with others. Those who manage, like D. P. (and perhaps M. P.) to see through that mask probably feel deeply violated and/or exploited—by my probing curiosity more than by my lust or by my cruelty—and tend, like the frightened car-owner whose trunk had been opened and its contents explored without her knowledge or consent, to ‘pull away’ in understandable dismay.

This dream seems, among other things, to suggest the deep question ‘Why do we wear masks and what are the dangers or the unpleasant liabilities (‘collateral damage’?) of unmasking? It seems fitting that my thoughts turned at once to Shakespeare after waking from this dream—since Shakespeare may have been the most sublimely accomplished master of masking and unmasking who ever put quill to parchment. The obvious employment of masks is seen, of course, in his use of fictional characters to convey profound truths about unmasked human nature—at all levels, under all typical and extreme circumstances, in all sorts of persons from all stations in life. Because these are fictions enacted upon the stage, we—the audience or readers of the plays—are provided with a conventional means of distancing ourselves to some extent from the dramatic events, so as not to be literally implicated in what is being enacted there. But at the same time, because the uncanny lifelikeness of the dramatic poet’s characters and situations is so compelling and so imaginatively absorbing, we can scarcely avoid being ‘taken in’ by these characters and deeply affected by their words and deeds. In the process, aspects of our own innermost, hidden human nature are shaken up and thereby unmasked for us. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,’ he is just as rightfully referring to us, generally. In watching or reading these works, our complex responses to what we see occurring therein constitute the telltale signs and symptoms of our actual consciousness (or ‘conscience,’ in Elizabethan usage). The plays hold the mirror up to (our human) nature, allowing us—if we dare—to glimpse what ‘shadows and substance’ we are made of. And typically, of course, this happens without our knowing it. In other words, although we know something has happened—and that we have been moved and shaken—we usually are not aware of what has been finessed out of hiding, out of the shadows, by Shakespeare’s staggering array of unmasking mirrors. In the end, the plays ‘read’ us—rather than the reverse.   These extraordinary plays, like the sea, are bigger, deeper, livelier, subtler, far more powerful and penetrating than we are.

It dawned on me, some time ago, that the psyche is not in me—rather ‘I’ am in the psyche. It comprehends and contains ‘me,’ not the other way around. I now recognize that despite his forgivable philosophical-spiritual shortcomings and his occasional overstatement of the case, Harold Bloom was fundamentally correct about Shakespeare in his controversial book, The Invention of the Human: Shakespeare’s consciousness is not just different from ours. It includes and greatly transcends our far more limited, biased, ‘specialized,’ parochial, gender-identified, historically-culturally blinkered—and comparatively barbaric—consciousness.

This is what makes an extended acquaintance with Shakespeare’s mysteriously unnerving (but ultimately benign and potentially redemptive) wisdom so fatefully ‘consciousness-altering’ for thousands and thousands of readers and playgoers around the world who have come under the spell of these works. A deep and ever-renewed acquaintance with the plays can safely be relied upon to show us many things about our souls and our natures that we never suspected were there to begin with. The effect of this unmasking is extremely exciting and harrowing—incredibly consoling as well as damning—liberating and reducing—at one and the same time. In a word, the prolonged exposure to the poetically masked workings of this most sublime of imaginations is transformative. Like the fabled alchemist, the imagination of Shakespeare transforms common and even despised objects, persons, and conditions into something precious, subtly luminous, and even sacred.

But like Dante, the pilgrim—who also had to undergo a thorough purgation and trial by fire before he could rightfully enter the gates of Paradiso—the ‘initiate’ into the Shakespearean process of imaginative transfiguration must first serve an unspecified (but unavoidable) stretch of time in the infernal and purging regions of murky, molten, magma-passion, where his very corporeality is toasted and roasted until it slithers from the liberated spirit like the meat from barbecued spare-ribs.

We know that Shakespeare was possessed of a seemingly infinite—but uncannily disciplined, orderly, and accurate—imagination. Over the years, I have become convinced that the imagination that generates my dreams—or at least the ‘special’ ones—is often comparable in scope, depth, suggestiveness, and precision to Shakespeare’s. Of course, I claim no conscious responsibility or personal credit for this enormous and enormously intelligent imagination—no more than I can, in good conscience, take credit for the muse or daimon ‘who’ inspires the better instances of my philosophical speculation and essay-writing. As I am but an obedient ‘scribe’ when it comes to my ‘serious’ contemplative-speculative writing, so I am merely an (often clueless, but thoroughly appreciative) audience member in the theater of dreams delivered nightly during my ‘off hours.’

I usually have a ‘sense’ when a dream is particularly pregnant with significance, and the dream from which I awakened this morning was accompanied by such a presentiment of fullness and ominousness. Moreover, those personal associations I mentioned earlier—the links suggested (by the dream) to several ‘disturbed’ relations with friends, past and present—offer a kind of gateway into the dream, or so it would appear.

The idea of unmasking as a kind of violation of the sacred bond of friendship—a transgression of the unwritten laws of mutual protection, care, and affection—is certainly at work here. The illicit invasion of privacy and the selfish perusal and appropriation of what is uncovered (or dis-covered) is also evident in the dream. And when I was found out—in the dream—I hovered uneasily between an honest and courageous acknowledgement of what I had done and what my intentions were, on the one hand, and a self-protective, guilty retreat from the scene, on the other.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that if and when we go poking and prodding around in another person’s private zone, we are under a strict moral obligation to behave in a respectful, compassionate manner—like Shakespeare seems to have done, even with a number of his less prepossessing characters. The episode with the car full of books, records, and chocolate bars was framed, or introduced, by the unauthorized entry into a workplace by an acquaintance of mine. This sort of doubling technique (like parallel plots in a Shakespeare play) reinforces the main theme while creatively ‘complicating’ it.

Lately I have been writing essays that exhort the reader to moral-psychological courage—and in doing so I have rather baldly displayed my contemptuous disapproval of all forms of moral cowardice and dishonesty. My psyche, always smarter and more comprehensive in its vision than I am, has—like a good Shakespeare play—held an unforgiving but faithful mirror up to some deeply-rooted pillar of my ‘Faustian’ personality. I am not in the habit of regarding myself as Faustian, but the figure sprang to mind here because of his greedy, reckless quest for elusive and generally forbidden knowledge. It is precisely this daimonic drive to deepen and expand his knowledge—no matter how dangerous that knowledge might turn out to be—that makes Faust an interesting subject for Goethe’s genius to play with. Faust exchanges (or believes he exchanges) his very soul for access to this knowledge that is barred from ordinary mortals. The fact that he is willing to bargain away his soul for this knowledge makes it fairly clear that Faust is a man possessed by his curiosity—rather than one who has it under some kind of moral or ethical control. As I stood there, across the street from the woman whose privacy I had contemptuously ignored and whose goods I ransacked, I suddenly felt unequal to my deed, like Nietzsche’s ‘pale criminal.’ Instead of feeling royally ‘above it all’ and exempt from the laws and standards of respectful, civil behavior, I was suddenly acutely aware of the violation I had committed. And I felt scared and ashamed. Moreover, as I contemplated trying to explain myself to her—and to the police—in order to show that I had intended no harm and no theft—and that I was perfectly willing to pay a fair price for the two or three books I had taken from her car—I realized just how whacky and outrageous such an ‘explanation’ would sound to any ‘sane’ person. That’s when I felt the strong impulse to ‘split the scene,’ as they say.

Another prominent theme in my recent writing (to my scientist friend, J.), interestingly enough, has been science’s pernicious amorality—its congenital blindness when it comes to ethical, political, religious, and other ‘non-material’ and ‘non-quantifiable’ matters—which, as it turns out, comprise the lion’s share of what impacts human life where it counts. But was my amoral, transgressive investigation and appropriation of the car’s private contents any more defensible than J.’s ‘complicity’ in the technocratic, systematic investigation and appropriation of material resources for the power and profit of the few who fund and chiefly exploit those projects? Once again the mirror rises before me—thanks to the dream.