Romeo, Juliet, and Deleuze: Together at Last! by Joseph Suglia / Romeo and Juliet / Shakespeare’s THE MOST EXCELLENT AND LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET / The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare / ROMEO AND JULIET by Shakespeare / William Shakespeare, ROMEO AND JULIET: Analysis, Interpretation / twentieth-century French philosophy and Shakespeare / Romeo and Juliet

 

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, 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 the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, as Juliet would not be Juliet outside of the relationship between Juliet and 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 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 contact 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 the 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 Rosalinda 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—easily one the most romantic scenes in the history of Western literature—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, Anti-Oedipal, 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

 

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My novel TABLE 41 is now available in physical form

Dear friends,

Many of you have asked me to publish my novel TABLE 41 in physical form.  It is now available:

purchase TABLE 41 here

Excerpts from the book are readable here (Table One, Table Two, Table Three, and Table Four): table41thenovel.com

Wishing you the best,

Joseph Suglia

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia: Table of Contents

 

SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

My novel TABLE 41

My Guide to English Usage

My YouTube Channel

Table of Contents

SQUIBS

A Wonderful Video for Wonderful People

I Renounce All My Early Books and Writings

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

My Favorite Writers, My Favorite Music, My Favorite Films

The Most Important Video You Will Ever Watch

Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty

Three Aperçus: THE NEON DEMON (2016) and Envy

Bob Dylan Is Overrated: On Bob Dylan Being Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016

The Red Pig Asian Kitchen: BANNED by Yelp

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken: BANNED by Yelp

Analogy Blindness: I Invented a Linguistic Term

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld

Two Haiku

David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Two Aperçus

On the Distinction between the flaneur and the boulevardier

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park: BANNED by Yelp

Jimmy Carter

Emo Island [2005]

THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES

HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES

Was Nietzsche an Atheist?  Was Nietzsche a Misogynist?  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche

DAYBREAK / MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE

THE GAY SCIENCE / DIE FRÖHLICHES WISSENSCHAFT

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

What  Does This Mean?: “God is dead”

What Does This Mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger”

What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?

What Is the Will-to-Power?

Was Nietzsche a Sexist?

Was Nietzsche a Fascist?

Was Nietzsche a Proto-Nazi?

OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE

VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS

THE TEMPEST

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

AS YOU LIKE IT

Transgenderism in Shakespeare

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Was Shakespeare a Sexist?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL

THE WINTER’S TALE

VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES

THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE

Racism and Shakespeare: Was Shakespeare a Racist?

THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR

CAESAR ANTI-TRUMP

What, If Anything, Does Donald Trump Have in Common with Julius Caesar?

THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

THE MOST LAMENTABLE ROMAN TRAGEDY OF TITUS ANDRONICUS

PHILIPPICS

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part One: When Did Writing Stop Having to Do with Writing?: Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

California Über Alles: Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Against “Bizarro” Fiction

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On FIGHT CLUB by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On STRANGER THAN FICTION by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: On SNUFF by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: On TELL-ALL by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Six: On DAMNED by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Seven: Fifty Shades of Error: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Eight: Slap Something Together: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

On THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

On THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Mel Gibson

On THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: Writing with Scissors: Jonathan Safran Foer’s TREE OF CODES

On CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? by Dave Eggers

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: BOTH FLESH AND NOT

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: INFINITE JEST

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Mark Z. Danielewski

On FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

On WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawes

On THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

HOW NOT TO WRITE A SENTENCE: Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger

Girl Gone Rogue: Concerning Sarah Palin

MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM

Corregidora / Corrigenda

I Prefer Not to Misinterpret: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

So Long, Planet Earth!: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

Keats and the Power of the Negative: On “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

On “Eveline” by James Joyce

On “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

Why I Can’t Stand Georges Bataille

On WOMEN by Charles Bukowski

On FAT GIRL / A MA SOEUR by Catherine Breillat

On NOSFERATU by Werner Herzog

On CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones

On ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

Escape from Utopia: Bret Easton Ellis

On GILES GOAT-BOY by John Barth

On LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

On IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noe

On IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

On O, DEMOCRACY! by Kathleen Rooney

On STUCK by Steve Balderson

On THE CASSEROLE CLUB by Steve Balderson

On THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Trace of the Father

On VICTOR/VICTORIA by Blake Edwards

On STEPS by Jerzy Kosinski

On EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES by Tom Robbins

On V. by Thomas Pynchon

On A SPY IN THE HOUSE OF LOVE by Anaïs Nin

On MAO II by Don DeLillo

On ROBINSON ALONE by Kathleen Rooney

Dennis Cooper and the Demystification of Love

On THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson

On EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL by Werner Herzog

On CRASH by J.G. Ballard

On A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion

An Analysis of THE MOST LAMENTABLE ROMAN TRAGEDY OF TITUS ANDRONICUS (Shakespeare) / TITUS ANDRONICUS by William Shakespeare / TITUS / An Essay on TITUS ANDRONICUS (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

 

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 beginning of the play, 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 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.[1]

Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed.  Her 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, who 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, both father and mother at the same time.  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 takes 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.[2]

 

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 aphasia (the inability to communicate).

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.

Titus teaches his daughter 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.

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).

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?

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 legs, 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.[3]

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 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?  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.

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” than even he [IV:i].

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 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 graphomania.

 

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.[4]  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 Philomel.[5]  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].[6]  This recognition comes by way of reading.  Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomel, who he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods.  Philomel, 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’ prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius.  What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomel 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 boy’s reading teacher.  Marcus says of his aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i].  The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is a reader.

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].[7]  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 in her divine nudity, 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.[8]

 

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 the essence of the human.  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.  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:

 

[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 “Sorry,” from the 2015 album Purpose, Bieber intones these lines:

 

I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to / But you know that there is no innocent one in the game for two.

 

Though the words to and two are not identical, they are homophones.  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 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

 

[1] 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 writing this essay in August 2018, 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.

[2] 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].

[3] 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.

[4] 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?”

[5] 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].

[6] And later: “Far worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” [V:ii].

[7] 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].

[8] 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.

 

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia: Table of Contents

 

SELECTED ESSAYS AND SQUIBS by Joseph Suglia

My novel TABLE 41

My Guide to English Usage

My YouTube Channel

Table of Contents

SQUIBS

A Wonderful Video for Wonderful People

I Renounce All My Early Books and Writings

Aphorisms on Art

Aphorisms on Consumerism and Genius

Aphorisms on Racism, Cultural Studies, and Kim Jong-un

Aphorisms on Libertarianism, Criticism, and Psychoanalysis

My Favorite Writers, My Favorite Music, My Favorite Films

The Most Important Video You Will Ever Watch

Three Aperçus: On DEADPOOL (2016), David Foster Wallace, and Beauty

Three Aperçus: THE NEON DEMON (2016) and Envy

Bob Dylan Is Overrated: On Bob Dylan Being Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016

The Red Pig Asian Kitchen: BANNED by Yelp

Happy Father’s Day: Or, Chopo Chicken: BANNED by Yelp

Analogy Blindness: I Invented a Linguistic Term

Polyptoton: Greg Gutfeld

Two Haiku

David Foster Wallace and Macaulay Culkin: Two Aperçus

On the Distinction between the flaneur and the boulevardier

Ordering a Pizza at the Standard Market Grill in Lincoln Park: BANNED by Yelp

Jimmy Carter

Emo Island [2005]

THE NIETZSCHE COMMENTARIES

HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES

Was Nietzsche an Atheist?  Was Nietzsche a Misogynist?  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche

DAYBREAK / MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE

THE GAY SCIENCE / DIE FRÖHLICHES WISSENSCHAFT

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche

What  Does This Mean?: “God is dead”

What Does This Mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger”

What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?

What Is the Will-to-Power?

Was Nietzsche a Sexist?

Was Nietzsche a Fascist?

Was Nietzsche a Proto-Nazi?

OVERESTIMATING / UNDERESTIMATING SHAKESPEARE

VOLUME ONE: THE COMEDIES AND PROBLEM PLAYS

THE TEMPEST

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

AS YOU LIKE IT

Transgenderism in Shakespeare

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

Was Shakespeare a Sexist?

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL

THE WINTER’S TALE

VOLUME TWO: THE TRAGEDIES

THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE

Racism and Shakespeare: Was Shakespeare a Racist?

THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR

CAESAR ANTI-TRUMP

What, If Anything, Does Donald Trump Have in Common with Julius Caesar?

THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS

TROILUS AND CRESSIDA

THE MOST LAMENTABLE ROMAN TRAGEDY OF TITUS ANDRONICUS

PHILIPPICS

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part One: When Did Writing Stop Having to Do with Writing?: Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE HOUSE OF LEAVES

Quentin Tarantino Is an Anti-Black Racist

California Über Alles: Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Against “Bizarro” Fiction

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On FIGHT CLUB by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On STRANGER THAN FICTION by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On RANT by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: On SNUFF by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: On TELL-ALL by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Six: On DAMNED by “Chuck” Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Seven: Fifty Shades of Error: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU

Chuck Palahniuk Is a Bad Writer: Part Eight: Slap Something Together: “Chuck” Palahniuk’s MAKE SOMETHING UP: STORIES YOU CAN’T UNREAD

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

On THE HISTORY OF LOVE by Nicole Krauss

On THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST by Mel Gibson

On THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On EATING ANIMALS by Jonathan Safran Foer

Jonathan Safran Foer Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: Writing with Scissors: Jonathan Safran Foer’s TREE OF CODES

On CHRONIC CITY by Jonathan Lethem

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On YOUR FATHERS, WHERE ARE THEY? AND YOUR PROPHETS, DO THEY LIVE FOREVER? by Dave Eggers

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume One by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard Is a Bad Writer: On MIN KAMP / MY STRUGGLE, Volume Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part One: OBLIVION

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: BOTH FLESH AND NOT

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Four: CONSIDER THE LOBSTER

David Foster Wallace Is a Bad Writer: Part Five: INFINITE JEST

Mark Z. Danielewski Is a Bad Writer: Part Three: On THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Mark Z. Danielewski

On FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

On WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE by James Hawes

On THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part One: On DERMAPHORIA by Craig Clevenger

HOW NOT TO WRITE A SENTENCE: Craig Clevenger Is a Bad Writer: Part Two: On THE CONTORTIONIST’S HANDBOOK by Craig Clevenger

Girl Gone Rogue: Concerning Sarah Palin

MORE LITERARY AND CINEMATIC CRITICISM

Corregidora / Corrigenda

I Prefer Not to Misinterpret: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”

So Long, Planet Earth!: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”

Keats and the Power of the Negative: On “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

On “Eveline” by James Joyce

On “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence

Why I Can’t Stand Georges Bataille

On WOMEN by Charles Bukowski

On FAT GIRL / A MA SOEUR by Catherine Breillat

On NOSFERATU by Werner Herzog

On CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones

On ROBERTE CE SOIR and THE REVOCATION OF THE EDICT OF NANTES by Pierre Klossowski

Escape from Utopia: Bret Easton Ellis

On GILES GOAT-BOY by John Barth

On LIPSTICK JUNGLE by Candace Bushnell

On IRREVERSIBLE by Gaspar Noe

On IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

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An Analysis of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA (Shakespeare)

 

 

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’s lust for Helen, Menelaus’s 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’s 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’s 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.

 

SPARAGMOS

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’s 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’s 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