by Joseph Suglia


The following is a partial transcript of a YouTube video in which I lecture on Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer [Götzendämmerung: Oder, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert] and muse over the aphorism “Lesson from the School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” which appears in this book.—Joseph Suglia


It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still sufficiently love yourself.

Hello, everyone. My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will be holding a lecture on Götzen-Daemmerung: oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, translated as Twilight of the Idols: Or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Let me begin by expatiating on the title.

The main title Twilight of the Idols, Götzen-Daemmerung recalls the fourth part of Richard Wagner’s Ring opera, which is entitled Twilight of the Gods, Götterdämmerung. Twilight of the Gods concerns Ragnarök, which is the spectacular destruction of the world and the gods by submersion in water. However, Twilight of the Idols means something quite different. Nietzsche is suggesting by his title that there are no gods, but there are certainly idols.

All idols are anti-life, and all idols should be demolished. An idol is the deification of nothingness, and Nietzsche proposes that we would be better off without any idols, that we would do well to dispense with all idols, idolatry, and idolization.

If you idolize an imaginary entity, you diminish yourself. Even to hold up rationality as an ideal and to call the human animal “the rational animal” is to disgrace the body and to disgrace the totality of the human beast. The vital impulses, such as selfishness, are diabolized, and the anti-life impulses—such as asceticism, such as chastity, such as meekness—are angelized by classical morality and classical religion. What Nietzsche does first is depose the angelized impulses, such as self-denial. Then, he valorizes the demonized impulses, such as selfishness. Finally, he displaces the difference between “virtue” and “vice” altogether. There are no virtues, and there are no vices. There are, however, values, and each human being should invent one’s own values. A common value is no value at all, since value is based of rarity, not on commonness. That, in a nutshell, is Nietzsche’s argument.

The secondary title How to Philosophize with a Hammer, Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert: What does this mean? It has at least two connotations. The first is that Nietzsche intends in this book, as well as in most of his others, to shatter ideals, to blow them up, to explode them into flinders, to de-idealize the idealization of ideals. All of Nietzsche’s late polemical writings have as their object the defamation of ideals.

What is an ideal? An ideal is any principle, any idea, any concept that is placed above humanity. Such as the soul, such as the gods, such as the Beyond. If you believe in ideals, this means that you believe in the ideal world, the πέκεινα. And if you believe in the ideal world, this implies that you are defaming the this-world, the actual world, the only world there is.

If you believe in the purity of ideality, then you are devaluing yourself.

As I said: It is impossible to believe in an ideal and still love yourself. And what Nietzsche wants to do is to raise humanity, elevate humanity to the status of gods. Be your own idol, be your own hero, be your own god. (Do not even have Zarathustra as your idol. To paraphrase Zarathustra: “Follow me with the piety of a traitor. If you betray me, then I will come back to you again”—this is the inversion of what Jesus said.) Every human being has the desire to become a god, and all idols deserve to be slaughtered (not in the literal sense!).

So, Nietzsche’s philosophizing is the hammering of ideals, the destruction of all ideals, for every ideal posits a transcendence, a beyond, a world that is higher than the world in which we are living.

Ideals are a slander to life. Every ideal humiliates humankind, lessens humankind, which means that ideals narrow human possibilities.

So, that is the first connotation of “philosophizing with a hammer.” The second connotation that is likely intended is that of the reflex hammer. This book was published in 1888, and guess what else was released in 1888! The tomahawk reflex hammer—also known as the Taylor reflex hammer—was developed by John Madison Taylor in 1888, in the United States of America. Now, perhaps Nietzsche was unaware of this development, but he did read newspapers, albeit with a thick admixture of contempt and disgust, and this was the first reflex hammer ever invented. The second connotation, then, is that Nietzschean thought tests the soundness and healthiness of ideals—and always reveals such ideals to be hallow. (“Healthiness” means “the degree to which an ideal intensifies or promotes life.”)

Nietzsche does not exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Or: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This statement is one of the most famous statements that have ever been attributed to Nietzsche, and one can find it in the music of Kayne West and all over MySpace.com. The original statement is Aphorism Number Eight, and it occurs in the first section of the book (after the Preface) entitled “Epigrams and Arrows,” Sprüche und Pfeile. However, again, Nietzsche does NOT exactly write, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is one of the most miscited passages in the history of philosophy.

What Nietzsche actually writes is this: “From Life’s School of War: What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Aus der Kriegsschule des Lebens.—Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.

What does Nietzsche mean by this, precisely?

When he writes, “What does not kill me,” Nietzsche is referring to the crisis of deep suffering. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of one’s property, the loss of a spouse, any gnawing, debilitating illness, forms of abuse, forms of violence: All of these things are examples of profound crisis and the crises of deep suffering.

What does Nietzsche mean by the first “Me”?: “What does not kill me.” Who am “I”? I am anyone, anyone who is not yet distinguished, anyone who is not yet distinctive, anyone who is not yet differentiated, anyone who is still immature and not yet vornehm. At this stage, I am mobbish; I am a member of the mob, of the crowd, of the canaille.

What does Nietzsche mean by “makes me stronger”? He means this:

What does not kill me makes me distinguished, distinctive, elegant, dignified, vornehm. Deep crisis confers upon me the right to separateness—the ability to experience long solitude. Deep suffering makes me capable of living separately from other human beings; it also makes me more profound. The crisis of deep suffering transforms me into a free spirit.

What does not kill me kills me.

Deep suffering makes one deeper. Deep suffering makes us profound—but who are we? We are the free spirits. And what transforms us into free spirits? The crisis of profound suffering or pain.

(I know that “pain” and “suffering” are not identical concepts. What distinguishes pain from suffering is time. Pain is short; suffering is long.)

To put it another way: Deep trauma gives birth to the sovereign individual. It is not just that trauma allows us to grow; it is that trauma is necessary for growth into the sovereign individual.

What does not kill me, the crisis of deep suffering, transforms me into the free spirit.

Now who is the free spirit? The free spirit is, negatively, one who does not think according to a program, an ideology, a dogma, a policy, or a party. The free spirit is capable of thinking for oneself and is capable of thinking two or more thoughts at once, both Pro and Contra, both “Yes” and “No” simultaneously.

Another word for a free spirit is “libertist” or “antinomian.” A free spirit is opposed to all idols, to all traditions, and the free spirit destroys ideals in order to clear a space for one’s own freedom.

The free spirit, the libertist, the antinomian, makes trauma the organ, the function, of one’s own power.

So, the free spirit converts trauma into strength. The free spirit transforms trauma into an appendage of the will-to-power.

Now, we should discuss the will-to-power.

The will-to-power means that the whole of life is a perpetual sequence of power struggles and that every living entity seeks to exert its superiority, its sovereignty, its preponderance over all other living entities. Life is violence, but not violence in the literal sense. Life is violence in the sense that every living organism seeks to overthrow obstacles that impede its growth and wants to escalate its degree of power. This is a peculiarly Nietzchean idea: Life is violence.

Ressentiment is inimical to life, it is an anti-life position. You might not know what I am talking about. If this sounds strange, please watch and listen to my videos on On the Genealogy of Morality, especially the second and the third video in the series, in which I discuss ressentiment.

Ressentiment is what Nietzsche calls, in On the Genealogy of Morality, “misarchism” because it denies that all organisms seek mastery, domination, lordliness over all other organisms. Misarchism holds that all government, all administration, is evil, but it is a necessary evil, whereas anarchism holds that all government should be annihilated.

Life, by its very essence, is dissymmetrical and hierarchical, according to Nietzsche.

Let us not be ungrateful toward those who have power, he is suggesting, for they impel us to take power away from them.

Nietzsche is no conservative or reactionary (I will return to this matter below.)

So, Nietzsche is affirming life as the power-will from an extramoral perspective, beyond Good and Evil, without the interference of moral prejudice, more judgment, or moral evaluation.

Nietzsche developed the theory of the will-to-power on the basis of Schopenhauer, who conceived the Will as a metaphysical force of Nature, the will-to-life. Nietzsche modulates Schopenhauer’s will-to-life and transforms it into the will-to-power. The point of life is not to promote life (that is Schopenhauer); the point of life is to promote power.

Some assume that Nietzsche must be a fascist because he developed the theory of the will-to-power. Those who believe this have no understanding of fascism and no understanding of Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a lifelong anti-nationalist and vituperates endlessly against anti-Judaism or what he calls “anti-Semitism.” Nietzsche was a friend of the Jews. He loved the Jewish people and even loved the Hebraic Bible, the central text of Judaism. Let no one therefore mistype Nietzsche as a “fascist” or a “proto-fascist.” Nietzsche was an enemy of, if not fascism, then at least of many of the lineaments of what would come to be known as “fascism.”

Neither was he a misarchist or an anarchist, for hierarchies do exist in nature, he thought.

He had a certain sympathy for the idea of an aristocracy, it is true. But he was no proto-fascist, not at all.

So, what affects me calamitously, what affects me catastrophically paradoxically intensifies my personal power. That is what Nietzsche means when he writes, in this book, “From life’s school of war: What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

* * * * *

The first idol that Nietzsche smashes is “the problem of Socrates.” What is the problem of Socrates? The problem of Socrates is the following problematical equation: Reason = Virtue = Happiness. Vernunft ist gleich Tugend ist gleich Glück.

We learn from Socrates—particularly, in the Charmides—that the wise person is the one who restrains one’s desires and the person who restrains one’s desires is the happiest person. This restriction of the impulses, of the desires, of the inclinations, of the appetites, of the proclivities, of the predilections is called sophrosyne, and it is linked to human flourishing or eudaemonia.

Nietzsche never actually uses the term sophrosyne in this text, but he is clearly thinking of it.

The Socratic problem, then, is that the restriction of the desires leads to virtuousness or the virtuous character and the virtuous character leads to human flourishing or eudaemonia.

Now, there are massive problems with this Socratic equation. The first—and the one on which Nietzsche fixes his attention—is that restraining one’s impulses will lead to happiness. No, it will not.

Nietzsche writes: “When people need reason to act as a tyrant, which was the case with Socrates, the danger cannot be small that something else might start acting as a tyrant,” Wenn man nöthig hat, aus der Vernunft einen Tyrannen zu machen, wie Sokrates es that, so muss die Gefahr nicht klein sein, dass etwas Andres den Tyrannen macht (“Das Problem des Sokrates,” Paragraph Ten).

What might that “something else” be? Nietzsche does not give us a direct answer to this question, but I think that I know. Restraining the desires by reason will lead to the recrudescence, the resurgence of the desires in their fullest force. The more you try to repress your desires, the more your desires will surge upward. This is what Freud calls “the return of the repressed,” Die Wiederkehr des Verdrängten.

(Freud based his psychoanalysis on Nietzsche; there would be no modern psychology without Nietzsche, who is unavoidable. All roads lead to Nietzsche, despite the attempts of contemporary psychologists to commit parricide against him and against Freud, his unofficial student and successor.)

Repression is one attempt to manage the unruliness, the untrammeledness, the fractiousness of the riot of emotions and the other feelings and moods. But there is another form of self-maintenance, and that is the justification of the feelings and the moods.

For instance: Rationalized love.

Rationalized love is not instinctual love. Think of a woman who tries to find a man attractive, even though she has no genuine passion for him. She rationalizes her desire for the man—that is to say, she gives reasons to desire him. This sort of thing seldom works. Rational desire is not authentic desire at all.

Happiness comes from the release of the instincts, the liberation of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts, not from the repression of the desires, the affects, the feelings, the instincts (according to Nietzsche). I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to say something in German: Die Moral ist eine Qual. Morality is a kind of torment. That is to say, the inhibition of the inclinations is a form of torment. Every child knows this, but let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a hedonist. Let no one suppose that Nietzsche is a eudaemonist, a sybarite, a hedonist. No, not at all.

In the section of the book entitled “Morality as Anti-Nature,” Moralität als Widernatur, Nietzsche makes it quite clear that he is not endorsing the running-wild of the desires, the running-amok of the desires, the running-riot of the desires.

No, not at all. The passions ought to be intellectualized, cosmeticized, sublimated, rather (Nietzsche is suggesting). And the name of the intellectualization, cosmeticization, and sublimation of the passions has a name. Its name is “love.”

Nietzsche writes: “The intellectualization of sensuality is called love: It represents a great triumph over Christianity,” Die Vergeisterung der Sinnlichkeit heisst Liebe: sie ist ein grosser Triumph über Christenthum.

Well, first of all, let me say that this is reminiscent of something that Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future: “What is done out of love always occurs beyond Good and Evil,” Was aus Liebe getan wird, geschieht immer jenseits von Gut und Böse.

The meaning of both of these statements is essentially the same. Classical religious morality separates two different kinds of romantic love. The first kind of romantic love is the pure kind, the sacred kind. And the second is what is called concupiscence—that is to say, carnal love or lust.

Now, classical morality condemns carnal love. It seeks to extirpate desires that are inextirpable. Morality is inimical to the impulses; it rebels against life, it revolts against the impulses of life.

Nietzsche is affirmative of the impulses of life, but he is not a carnalist, either. He doesn’t believe in a rigid distinction between “pure love” and carnal love. (He suggests this, as well, in the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morality.)

This is a false antinomy, according to Nietzsche, even though he does not explicitly write this in the passage that I am citing. The antithesis between “pure love” and fleshly passion is a false distinction. What Nietzsche names “the intellectualization of sensuality” is the supersession of the false dualism between the so-called “spiritual love” and the so-called “carnal love.” I believe that this is the main point which Nietzsche is making, even though he does not make this point explicit.

What is love in the Nietzschean sense?

Love—Nietzschean love—exists beyond conventional morality because it is the synthesis of the pure and the crude; it is the marriage between the dove and the pig.

Happiness comes from the feeling of the enhancement, the intensification of one’s vitality. But this is not some kind of do-whatever-you-want, let-chaos-reign, all-hail-disorder. It is not some kind of unconstrained scruffiness, some kind of laisser-aller.

Nietzsche teaches us this in a different book, but one that was written in the same year as this book was written, The Anti-Christian: “What is happiness?—The feeling that power is growing, that some resistance has been overcome,” Was ist Glück?—Das Gefühl davon, dass die Macht wächst, das ein Widerstand überwunden wird.

According to Nietzsche, Socrates had a pathological obsession with reason. Socratic philosophy is the pathology of rationality (according to Nietzsche).

Nietzschean thought is not a rationalism. It is an agonistics and an erotics.

* * * * *

The second ideal that Nietzsche explodes is the idea of absolute being, the permanency of absolute presence. The idea of a permanent being behind the whirlwind of the senses. Now, this permanent being might be the stability of the “I” (the unchanging center of the Self). It might be the eidos of Plato, which would exist in some spaceless space, in some timeless time.

It might be the idea of a signified meaning that would exist behind words, behind language.

Meaning does not exist behind words—it is generated by the relations among words and among letters and syllables, their interwebbing.

Permit me to quote Shakespeare, Henry IV: Part One, which is relevant to this context. The lines are spoken by Falstaff:

​“What is honour?  A word.  What is in that word honour?  What is that honour?  Air.  A trim reckoning!”

What Falstaff says about the word honour may be fairly said about all words, all signifiers. What is a “man”? “Man” is a word, first of all. What is within that word? Air.

The subject “I” is a grammatical superstition, and our concept of the Self (as an unchangeable and unageable center of consciousness) comes from a prejudice of Western grammar. Because so many of our sentences begin with the word “I” (or some other subject), we assume, unconsciously, that every action has an agent.

As Nietzsche writes in this book, famously, “I am afraid that we have not got rid of God because we still have faith in grammar,” Ich fürchte, wir werden Gott nicht los, weil wir noch an die Grammatik glauben…

It is quite rare for a philosopher to write about the body. Schopenhauer was one of the first philosophers to take the body seriously, in a positive manner. In fact, he was one of the philosophers to take animals and animality seriously.

Nietzsche, fascinatingly, writes about the nose, the nose which can detect motion (I have no idea whether this is scientifically accurate). Nietzsche thinks that the nose can distinguish subtleties that a spectroscope would miss. That is an intentional allusion to a Brian Eno song. Nietzsche inspired many musicians, including Marilyn Manson. It is clear that Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christian inspired many of Marilyn Manson’s lyrics (there are many correspondences between them).

I’m not sure if the nose can detect motion, but I do know that the olfactory sense plays a role in hearing and gustation (the sensation of taste).

Nietzsche writes about the nose in order to highlight his argument that the so-called world of the appearances, the world of phenomenality, IS the so-called “true world.” Our senses do not lie, as Plato believed. The sensorium gives us the only information about the world that we can have: sensory information.

All of this is to highlight the argument that the nose and the other sense organs bring us into closer contact with reality than do mathematics or logic. This might be another Nietzsche contradiction; it is an apparent contradiction or a quasi-contradiction. As I have written in other essays, Nietzsche contradicts himself often, but this is not a flaw in his thinking. Nietzsche bashes logic, yet elsewhere in this text (to be precise, in Paragraph Seven of “What the Germans Are Lacking,” “Was den Deutschen abgeht”), he bemoans the fact that fewer and fewer late nineteenth-century German students are mastering logic.

There is no logos behind the maelstrom of appearances. There is no Parousia, no permanence of absolute presence. Everything is motion without fixity, everything is change without stasis. (Nietzsche is here making a concession to Heraclitus.)

Neither is there the absolute origin or the absolute finality. The “absolute” is what is without conditions, qualifications, exceptions, or pre-origins. What seems to be a terminal point is a node in a web. There are no absolute beginnings or absolute endings. There is only becoming, not being—if by “being,” one means “the stasis of presence.” Another way of saying this is the distinction between being and nothingness is a false distinction; again, all is becoming.

So, appearances—what appears to our senses—are not errors. The dichotomy between the so-called “true world” and the so-called “world of appearances” is a false dichotomy. There is only one world, and that is the world of the senses. This is why Nietzsche writes, in italics: “[W]e got rid of the illusory world along with the true one!” [M]it der wahren Welt haben wir auch die scheinbare abgeschafft!

The true world is a fiction (I mean “fiction” in the sense of “something that has been fabricated”).

The importance of art, for Nietzsche, is that art reminds us that phenomena are all that we have. Art repeats “the world of appearances.” Art highlights, emphasizes, accentuates phenomenality—works of art illuminate the “fact” that there is only one world, the “fact” that the only demonstrable, probative, provable, livable world is the phenomenal world.

* * * * *

The third idol that is twilit in this book is imaginary causation.

We know now that devils do not cause illnesses. We know now that angels do not heal the sick; most do not believe that the COVID-19 patients are healed by the grace of an angel. We no longer believe that daemons imprecate humanity by diffusing plagues throughout the world. But there was a time when such things were believed.

There was a time when people believed that meat gave birth to maggots. Maggots emerge from meat left out in the sun. This, of course, is imaginary causation. There was a time when people believed that grain gave birth to mice. This is another form of imagination causation.

There was a time when people thought that certain babies were evil. I don’t believe this! Don’t blame me! They also believed that evil babies came from incubi—the mother mated, perhaps unknowingly, with an incubus who crawled into her bed at night. The products of such an unholy union were called cambions, half-human, half-daemonic hybrid offspring.

Imaginary causality works in this fashion: A phenomenon is experienced and then an imaginary cause is superadded after the fact. A chimerical cause is chimerized where a natural explanation would do much better. Instead of applying Occam’s razor, one introjects an imaginary cause to a natural process. Flies are attracted to meat and lay their eggs on meat to which they attracted; the larval stage of a fly is a maggot. Mice are attracted to the grain in the barn. The farmer sees a mischief of mice in the barn and assumes, erroneously, that the grain gave birth to the mice. A child is born, and that child is fractious, unruly, unmanageable. The father believes, falsely, that his wife coupled with an incubus. This superstitious nonsense is imaginary causation.

This false logic might also take the form of the confusion of chronology and causality. I went to a Japanese restaurant and woke up sick this morning. I am now convinced that the food that I ate last night sickened me. This might be the case, but it is not necessarily the case. A creepy, irritating man leaves an insulting comment on someone’s YouTube channel. The next day, the person who runs the YouTube channel deletes it. I suppose that the manager of the YouTube channel deleted her channel because she was offended. But there is no immediate evidence that would support this assertion. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, “after this because of this,” is the confusion of chronology with causality. Simply because something happens first does not mean that it is the cause of something else.

* * * * *

Morality is based on imaginary qualities or causes, such as human responsibility or the free will, to which I shall presently return. There is a great deal of talk in this culture about whether or not it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. Then there is the theodical cliché: How can you reconcile the idea of a beneficent god with a world that is overflowing with misery?

But one doesn’t have to go that far. Atheists have the tendency to attack theists for believing in an intervening God, but that seems hypocritical to be. So many of the godless seem to believe in the imaginary. Consider the imaginary presuppositions of traditional morality. Traditional morality, even without religion, is based on the imaginary; it is fraught with imaginary causalities.

There are a number of famous atheists who seem very religious to me, for these atheistic public intellectuals believe in imaginary causes, such as moral responsibility. It has never been proven that any human being is morally responsible. Now, one might say that being morally responsible has its benefits, but isn’t that another question?

If someone believes in moral responsibility, that person believes in imaginary causation. And it is very likely that such a person believes that morality is universal, as well, which it is not.

I have expanded on this subject elsewhere, but let me say a few words to refute the fallacious claim that morality is universal.

Anyone who believes that morality is universal is ignoring the historical fact that marriage, for example, was at one time regarded as something transgressive—transgressive because private. Today, marriage is regarded as a virtue; at other times, it was regarded as a vice. For instance, throughout Europe, there was a practice known as the droit de seigneur. That is the putative right of a feudal lord to take possession of a bride on the day of her wedding or at any time he wanted to. This was a practice that we would regard as disgraceful today, but the point is that marriage was once regarded as something that was contrary to the right of the lord.

Hubris was regarded as a transgression in Ancient Greece. Consider the myth of Prometheus—Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished by being shackled to a rock. Every night, an eagle would devour his liver, which would then regrow only to be re-devoured. In Ancient Greece any violation of nature (the gods were emblematical of nature) was seen a transgression, but look at the violation of nature which is mountaintop blasting! This is something that is often practiced in our societies.

Revenge was considered a virtue in Ancient Greece (read the Orestia), but we disapprove of it today, etc., etc.

* * * * *

The fourth idol which is toppled from its pedestal is the argumentum ad consequentiam, “the argument from consequence,” though Nietzsche does not use this term. The argumentum ad consequentiam is a logical fallacy. It gives me pleasure to believe that I will be revived, after my death, as a hammerhead shark, or an Ashera cat, or an Egyptian wolverine; I believe this with every fiber of my being. But pleasure proves nothing. The pleasure produced by an idea proves absolutely nothing about the soundness of that idea. Nietzsche makes the point that hope ferments comfort—it could just as easily be argued that hope ferments discomfort, but fine. Irenicism might bring me comfort, I might desire with my entire being for there to be peace in the near future, but that doesn’t mean that one can look forward to the prospect of an irenic future. It is impossible to make absolute statements about the future with any degree of justification, and the future doesn’t care about me and my emotional state. Just because I desire a comforting cause, this doesn’t necessarily imply that the ostensible cause is the cause.

* * * * *

The fifth mythology is already one of the best-refuted mythologies in existence: voluntarism, the mythology of the freedom of the will. Nietzsche doesn’t actually demolish the concept of the freedom of the will in this book. He already annihilated the factitious concept of the free will in other of his books. Instead, Nietzsche is wondering: What is the benefit of having other people believe in the freedom of the will? Cui bono?

This is the argument, and it is an interesting one: Those who are invested in the propagation of free-will theory are practicing a form of sadism. “Whenever a particular state of affairs is traced back to a will, an intention, or a responsible action, becoming is stripped of its innocence. The notion of will was essentially designed with punishment in mind, which is to say the desire to assign guilt,” Man hat das Werden seiner Unschuld entkleidet, wenn irgend ein So-und-so Sein auf Wille, auf Absichten, auf Akte der Verantwortlichkeit zurückgeführt wird: die Lehre vom Willen ist wesentlich erfunden zum Zweck der Strafe, das heisst des Schuldig-finden-wollens [Paragraph Seven of “The Four Great Errors,” “Die vier grossen Irrthümer”].

Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I have the emotional need to believe in the free will” (this is another version of the argumentum ad consequentiam). But there is a specific emotional need at play here:

Epexegesis: “There must be a free will because I want to punish people. And I cannot punish them by inflicting them with guilt unless they believe that they are free to choose whatever they choose.”

The entire criminal-justice system is built on the concept of the freedom of the will (cf. United States v. Grayson, 1978).

Now, we were taught in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morality that all human beings are cruel, but some of us interiorize our impulse toward cruelty. When cruelty is reintrojected in the human self, that is called “guilt” and “the bad conscience.” And the inculcation of guilt actively negates my self-esteem, my feeling of self-worth.

But all human beings are cruel. Nothing is more natural to the human animal than a taste for cruelty (it might take the form of watching horror films, “fail videos,” or other malicious spectacles). Though Nietzsche never writes about sociopathy, this idea makes me rethink modern psychology’s take on sociopathy. Perhaps it is inaccurate to throw certain people into a bucket labelled “Sociopaths.” Perhaps there is an economy of sociopathy. Perhaps everyone has the capacity for sociopathy. If I am wrong about this, why do so many people enjoy violent sports, such as boxing or tauromachy (bullfighting)? Is there a certain moment at which any human being can read about the destruction of other human beings with coldness, with indifference?

* * * * *

The sixth idol which is blown into smithereens is the ideal that life has a transcendent purpose. Another of the most famous statements that Nietzsche ever made also appears in this book, and you will find it in form of memes all over social media. It is Aphorism Twelve: “If someone has a Why? in life, one can get along with almost any How?” Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?

However, this aphorism has been often misinterpreted. Nietzsche is suggesting that the idea of a purpose in life makes life tolerable, to be sure, but he is not suggesting that life actually has a real purpose. Life has no purpose at all, according to Nietzsche. As I wrote in my essay on Human, All-Too-Human: A Book for Free Spirits, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch für freie Geister:

All is purposeless yet necessary.

Life does not move in the direction of some transcendent goal, unless death and decomposition would be considered a “goal.”

But everyone is necessary in relation to the whole economy of life. There is an amazing profusion of human types in the economy of life. And one should never wish to wish away any human being, for each human being is necessary for the operation and self-maintenance of the whole economy of the human species. Every mediocrity is essential to the economy of life; without the mediocre, the remarkable would be unremarkable. To cite one example of this: Bad books are essential because they are consonant with the tastes of undiscerning people.

* * * * *

The seventh idol is that the idea that humanity is progressively improving, which it manifestly is not, and it is refreshing to read Nietzsche’s counter-argument to the Enlightenment, the Aufklärung. If you’d like an example of the Enlightenment hypothesis that humanity is gradually refining itself, read Lessing, “The Education of the Human Race,” Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts.

I already discussed Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity in my lecture series on Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. The malady of modernity, for Nietzsche, is the paralysis of the will. Nietzsche also writes about the stupidification, the idiotization, the mediocritization, the banalization of culture in the modern world. In Götzen-Dämmerung, Nietzsche has a slightly different critique of modernity. In modernity, according to the logic of this book, progression and regression are one and the same. The ostensible “refining” of humankind is really a taming, a domesticating, a making-docile of the human beast. Animals are trained—this doesn’t mean that they become sophisticated. Neither is it the case that the human beast becomes sophisticated, becomes refined simply because it is trained to be “civilized.” Making-civilized is retrogressive; it is the manipulation and curtailing of the life-instincts. An uncaged animal is more advanced than the modern human being.

Nietzsche is in good company. Kafka said something similar to Gustav Janouch: “In the light of Darwinism, human evolution looks like a monkey’s fall from grace.”

H.L. Mencken wrote something quite similar, but regrettably, I can’t find the citation. Mencken made the argument that the human being devolved from the ape. Of course, it is a falsification to think that human beings evolved from apes; they did not. Mencken, who journalistically covered the Scopes trial, was inverting the common misconception of Darwinian evolution.

As I have said above, Nietzsche is an antinomian. He reminds us, again and again, not to believe in any traditional concept that you haven’t evaluated yourself. It makes no sense to believe in a concept merely because it is old. To do so is to enter the logical fallacy known as the argumentum ad antiquatitam, the argument from tradition. Simply because an idea is hoarily old, this does not imply that such an idea is valid.

Permit me to enumerate all of the ideals that are detonated in this book, all of the idols that are twilit:

False Idol One: Reason leads to virtue, which leads to happiness.

False Idol Two: Absolutes exist. There is such a thing as absolute, motionless, changeless being, whether it is the Self, permanency, an unconditional origin, absolute finality, signified meaning that comes before language, etc.

False Idol Three: Imaginary causes are real causes.

False Idol Four: A belief that gives me pleasure is a true belief.

False Idol Five: There exists something like a free will.

False Idol Six: Life has a transcendent purpose.

False Idol Seven: Humanity is progressively improving.


Joseph Suglia



Joseph Suglia


Below is a partial transcript of a video that I published on YouTube. It concerns Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre.


I hate this play, in the same way that I hate all of Shakespeare’s order-restoring plays and treasure most of his order-deconstituting plays. Shakespeare is, at once, both the most overestimated writer of all time and the most underestimated of writer of all time.

My name is Joseph Suglia, and I will give a lecture on Pericles, Prince of Tyre by William Shakespeare.

Let me say this before carving up the play as if it were a cooked turkey. If one is a child, Pericles, Prince of Tyre by Shakespeare is an unanswerably beautiful, unfadably exquisite, magical fairy tale, fletched with lovely verse, and that is fine for children, but for adults, it is drivel that is insulting to the intelligence of any person of maturity.

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a late-period play, probably composed circa 1607; in some places, the manuscript is mutilated, and Harold Bloom surmises that the opening two acts of the play were not even fashioned by Shakespeare.

We learn (from the chorus) that Pericles comes to Syria in order to win the hand of King Antiochus’ daughter, who is named merely “Daughter.”

Our chorus is John Gower, the medieval poet, who serves as one of Shakespeare’s primary sources. He addresses the audience directly.

Like The Tempest, the play contains direct appeals to the audience and seeks to appease the spectator in an ingratiatory manner. Pericles, Prince of Tyre contains a superabundance of direct appeals to the audience, far more than The Tempest does.

We learn from the chorus that “the father” took a “liking” to the Daughter and “her to incest did provoke” [Chorus: Act One].

“Incest” and “crave” are the two most significant and signifying words in the play. “Incest” appears five times in the text, and some form of the verb “to crave” appears seven times.

The Daughter is described as a “[b]ad child” and as a “sinful dame” [I:i] by Gower.

This is strange, for surely the Daughter is not responsible for her own violation by the Father. We will return to this matter presently.

Much as Hercules was charged to pluck the golden apples in the dragon-guarded orchard of the Hesperides, Pericles is challenged with an impossible task. Why this task is impossible I will explain in a moment.

The challenge with which he is presented is the same challenge with which all of the Daughter’s prospective suitors are presented: Solve a riddle, much in the way that Oedipus was challenged to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.

Antiochus the Father says: “Before thee stands this fair Hesperides, / With golden fruit, but dangerous to be touched, / For death-like dragons here affright thee hard” [I:i].

What are the death-like dragons in the golden-apple orchard?

Antiochus explains: “[W]hoso asked [the Daughter] for his wife, / His riddle told not, lost his life. / So for her many a wight did die, / As yon grim looks do testify” [I:i].

The stage direction indicates that Antiochus points to a series of decapitated heads displayed above him, heads that bedeck the walls—presumably, the severed heads that are nailed to the wall are those of the failed suitors.

The corpse-heads are glowering at Pericles from above.

The heads that are fastened to the wall are described as those of “martyrs slain in Cupid’s wars” [I:i], which would be an excellent title for a hard-rock album.

Decapitation signifies, of course, emasculation—the destruction of the Son’s masculinity by the Father who assumes the role of the lover of his own daughter. The Son is pitifully inadequate in relation to the Father.

In these lines, Pericles expresses how “little” he feels in relation to the “greatness” of the artificial Father, Antiochus: “The great Antiochus / ’Gainst whom I am too little to contend, / Since he’s so great can make his will his act, / Will think me speaking, though I swear to silence…” [I:ii]. He is here listening to himself speak. Pericles experiences himself as “little”; the Father is experienced as “great.”

Though Pericles does not expound the solution, it is evident through his silence and his elusive remarks that he has decrypted the riddle. He refuses to disclose the meaning of the riddle, but he does show that he understands its meaning. He does not name the sin of incest, but he points at it. His language, though indirect, condemns him.

This is what Pericles says to the King when the former is commanded to expound the riddle (from Act One: Scene One):

Great king,
Few love to hear the sins they love to act;
’Twould braid yourself too near for me to tell it.
Who has a book of all that monarchs do,
He’s more secure to keep it shut than shown:
For vice repeated is like the wandering wind.
Blows dust in other’s eyes, to spread itself;
And yet the end of all is bought thus dear,
The breath is gone, and the sore eyes see clear:
To stop the air would hurt them. The blind mole casts
Copp’d hills towards heaven, to tell the earth is throng’d
By man’s oppression; and the poor worm doth die for’t.
Kings are earth’s gods; in vice their law’s
their will;
And if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?
It is enough you know; and it is fit,
What being more known grows worse, to smother it.
All love the womb that their first being bred,
Then give my tongue like leave to love my head.

Antiochus says, in an aside: “Heaven that I had his head!” [I:i].

So: If Pericles correctly explicates the riddle, he will be killed; if he does not correctly explicates the riddle, he will also be killed.

The Father is a mendacious, unfair, unjust, dangerous, “sinful” father, since any man who solves the riddle incorrectly is decapitated AND any man who solves the riddle correctly is decapitated.

If a suitor guesses the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.

If a suitor does not guess the meaning of the riddle, the effect will be decapitation.

There will be decapitation—that is to say, emasculation—either way.

Pericles imperils himself by showing without showing that he comprehends the perverse character of King Antiochus’ relationship with his daughter.

Incest is unmentionable, unspeakable, unutterable and must remain unspoken before the King. Some things are too dreadful to be brought into utterance, some things are too dreadful to be vocalized in the presence of majesty. And yet the word does appear elsewhere in the text.

Pericles solves the riddle, much as Oedipus does, further fortifying the incestuous love triangle.

In Act One: Scene One, Pericles describes the Daughter in the following way (talking to himself silently, while apostrophizing her in his head): “You are a fair viol…” Now, a viol is a stringed musical instrument, and one can hear the resonances of the word “vial” within—for the Daughter is like a receptacle, a vial that allegedly contains vileness. But V-I-O-L are contained in the word “violation,” as well.

The Daughter is violated. She is forced into an incestuous relationship with her father, a relationship for which Pericles and the Chorus nonetheless blame her.

The relationship between Antiochus and the Daughter is obviously an aberrant, perverse relationship. This is the incestuous triangle: Antiochus has turned his daughter into his wife, in effect, since they are in an incestuous yet monogamous relationship. This makes the daughter the mother of Pericles, since Pericles looks upon Antiochus as if Antiochus were the Prohibiting Father, the Father who says, “No.”

This might seem far-fetched, but hear me out. Traditionally, the young man will ask the father of the daughter for the daughter’s hand in marriage. If the daughter becomes the young man’s wife, the father of the daughter will become the son’s father. So, the father of the wife is the surrogate, substitute, artificial, proxy father of the husband. It is true that Pericles does not become married to Antiochus’ daughter, but that changes nothing.

Pericles’ passion for the Daughter appears to be stimulated, of course, by the fact that he is essentially prohibited from having her. This is almost epigrammatic: What is forbidden, interdicted, prohibited is appealing.

Now, Pericles is not Antiochus’ literal son, but neither is the “Daughter” reducible to the role of Antiochus’ daughter. Incest warps and invalidates anything like a defensible father-daughter relation.

The Son, Pericles, desires the Mother, who is both the daughter to the Father, Antiochus, and the wife to the Father.

Antiochus is the Bad Father—the son-destroying, emasculating, perverse, mendacious, totalitarian father who sees the son as a competitor. In totalitarian dictatorships, the totalitarian dictator prosecutes the feelings, the thoughts, the dreams, the desires, the fantasies of his/her subjects, if those feelings, etc., are not sanctioned by the dictator. The dictator claims the soul, in the inner life, of his/her subjects. Antiochus is not prosecuting Pericles for the latter’s actions, but for Pericles’ intentions, thoughts, dreams, desires, etc.

The Father wants the Daughter-Dash-Wife all for himself, and the son is interdicted from having access to the Mother-Daughter.

And Pericles wants the Mother-Daughter precisely because of the totalitarian prohibition of the Sinful Father. Pericles uses the phrase “sinful father” in Act One: Scene Two in conversation with his understudy Helicanus. Antiochus is the Father who stimulates his son’s desires by prohibiting those desires and who punishes the Son for having such desires. For desiring the Mother, who is sacred. “Sacred” means “that which may not be touched or desired.”

Pericles, the Artificial Son, desires Antiochus’ Daughter because she belongs to the Father, not despite the fact that she belongs to the Father. To the extent that the Daughter is the Wife to the Father, this disrupts Pericles’ desired identification with the Father. Pericles will not become the Father until he reconciles with his own daughter, Marina, in the fifth act of the play.

At the close of the play, the artificial Son, Pericles, will become The Naturalized Father, and the circle will be complete.

* * * * *

Thaliard is the assassin who is suborned to kill Pericles. Thaliard intends to kill Pericles until he assumes that Pericles will perish by sea.

The crane descends. So, the assassin suddenly gives up his mission to assassinate Pericles as soon as the assassin learns that Pericles is at sea. This is the first deus ex machina of the play.

What is a deus ex machina? A deus ex machina, a “god out of the machine,” is a plot convenience in which a character in a literary work is suddenly rescued from some brutal fate. This happens, for instance, at the end of Euripides’ Medea when the Georgian infanticidal murderess is rescued by Helios, the Sun God. A deus ex machina is more than a contrivance of plot; it is contrived-appearing. In Ancient Greek tragedy, a literal crane descends on to the stage and seizes the misfortunate and pulls him or her up to safety. And the audience smiles and feels warm inside.

My central criticism of the play is that it is a chockablock with instances of deus ex machina.

The crane descends, and the god saves the misfortunate.

There is one deus ex machina after the other in the text.

God is not in the machine, but out of it, rescuing Medea, putting her in the passenger seat of Helios’ chariot.

The crane comes down and snatches up Pericles, rescuing him from possible assassination.

We learn from Helicanus, in Act Two: Scene Four, that Antiochus and his daughter will be struck by divine lightning and incinerated for the transgression of incest: “A fire from heaven came and shrivelled up / Their bodies even to loathing…” The gods come out of the machine and destroy Pericles’ enemies or otherwise impede their projects.

Pericles flees Syria and sails to Turkey—particularly, to the city of Tarsus—where he is heralded as a messiah for saving the starving, impoverished Tarsians from immiseration, starvation, emaciation, maceration.

Here is another deus ex machina. Down comes the crane! There is a rapid shift from immiseration to grateful celebration. The Tarsians cease their lamentations; they will be fed.

In the chorus of Act Two, Gower gives us sing-songy perfect rhymes which sound less than perfect.

But they do serve as a transition from the first act to the second act, in which we learn that Pericles, upon discovering that Thaliard came full-bent with sin to murder him, decides that Tarsus is not the best for him to make his rest and puts forth to seas where men have seldom ease, ’til Fortune, tired of doing bad, throws him ashore to make him glad. I’m just lightly paraphrasing, lightly paraphrasing.

Upon what shore is Pericles thrown? Upon the shore of Pentapolis, which means “a group of five cities.” He is greeted on the shore by fishermen, who mock him mercilessly. He begs for help, but the fishermen laugh at him, until he talks about how he is a “man throng’d up with cold,” by which he means that he is assaulted by the cold as if the cold were a mob [II:i], which activates the altruistic social instinct of the First Fisherman, who proclaims:

I have a gown here;
come, put it on; keep thee warm. Now, afore me, a
handsome fellow! Come, thou shalt go home, and
we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for
fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks,
and thou shalt be welcome

So, notice that the First Fisherman has a suddenly inhuman and inhumanly sudden change of mind and change of heart, a burst of metanoia. The First Fisherman moves from callousness toward outsiders and malicious mockery to the warm embracement of the Tyrian Pericles. Now, Pericles will, apparently, become an artificial appendage of the First Fisherman’s family and can look forward to repasts of puddings and flap-jacks. This is one of the many squirmy, wince-inducing, improbable metanoias that pock the entire text of the play.

It strikes me now that Pericles, who moves from one synthetic family to another, is desperately trying to find the Father. He tried to find the Father in Antiochus and fails. He tries to find the Father in the First Fisherman. He will finally find the Father in Simonides.

The crane descends again and snatches up Pericles. Pericles will soon, beyond comprehension, plausibility, and probability, be welcome by the King Simonides and will marry his only daughter, Thaisa.

Simonides is the benevolent authoritarian father; Antiochus is the “sinful” totalitarian father.

However, Simonides pretends to be the Absolute No-Father that Antiochus is. Let us remember that Antiochus is the father who always says, “No,” much like the No-God of Karl Barth, the God Who Forever Says, “No.”

Just as Simonides is the replacement of Antiochus, Thaisa is the replacement of Antiochus’ daughter.

The drama that will unfold among Pericles, Simonides, and Thaisa is an ironic repetition of the drama among Pericles, Antiochus, and Antiochus’ daughter at the beginning of the play. Things turn out much better the second time around for all parties involved.

Notice that, in his asides, Simonides confesses to the audience that he wants Pericles to marry his daughter “with all [his] heart” [II:v]. However, he gives a show of resistance and demands “subjection” [Ibid.]. It is a display of refusal, it is pure theatre. In Shakespearean philosophy, all of human existence is the dramatization of roles, even in the intimate sphere of the family. The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides should be distinguished from the actual totalitarian father Antiochus.

The totalitarian-seeming father Simonides demands that both his daughter and his prospective son-in-law “frame [their] will” to his. In other words, the totalitarian-appearing father outwardly demands submission in order to enhance Pericles’ desire for his daughter, knowing, as wise Simonides doubtless does, the essence of human desire. We chase after that which is not easily available.

Simonides pretends to be as imperious and as preemptory as Antiochus, but he is not so. The effect is, whether “conscious” or “unconscious,” the stimulation of Pericles’ desire for Thaisa. Desires desires only what is not easily accessible, what is remote, what is receding. It is likely that Simonides knows this, and so he stages a barrier between Pericles’ desiring and the object of his desiring, Thaisa.

If desire does not seem to be transgressing a law—in this case, the Father’s edict—desire cannot exist.

What does Antiochus orchestrate such a cruel form of gamesmanship? I suspect that he does so in order to feel his own power. He is so insecure, as all tyrants are, that he rigs the game in advance so that each suitor will lose. He is like the casino owner who will always win at his slot machines and roulette wheels.

Think of the gamesmanship of Simonides, who actually wants Pericles to win. Simonides also rigs the game in advance such that the player, Pericles, will win; Antiochus rigs the game in advance such that every player will lose.

In Act Three, Pericles is on a ship with his new bride, underway to Tyre, where he must land soon or else forsake his kingship. His wife Thaisa appears to die while giving birth to Marina, so-called because she is born at sea. As Marina later describes herself: “Ay me, poor maid / Born in a tempest when my mother died, / This world to me is as a lasting storm, / Whirring me from my friends” [Act Four: Scene One]. The physical world is the world of Neptune; Marina, like her mother, is dedicated to the world beyond the physical world, which is the world of Diana. The play stages a conflict between Neptune and Diana.

What is strange about this scene—the first scene of Act Three—is that Pericles immediately assents to the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of the mariners. The mariners tell Pericles that the (phenomenal) cadaver of his wife must be pitched over the side of the ship, for it is bad luck (they think) to have a dead body aboard. Incredibly, Pericles submits to the will of mariners, invertebrate that he is: “As you think meet. Most wretched queen!” Pericles is still weak—he is excessively deferential, even to his own subjects.

The sailors throw Thaisa overboard in a coffin, seasoned with eleven herbs and spices, as if she were a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is not a joke; it actually appears in the text (the corpse is seasoned with spices). There is even a passport within the coffin. This is also not a joke; it actually appears in the text.

The coffin sails to Ephesus, where it is discovered by its inhabitants. Either the Ephesians revive Thaisa’s corpse, or they reinvigorate and awaken the still-living-yet-comatose Thaisa.

There is a certain ambiguity here (though far less interesting than the concluding ambiguity of The Winter’s Tale). Does Thaisa actually die and is then revivified? Or did she merely fall into a coma while undergoing the agony of parturition?

Another question that floats in my mind as I read the play: Why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs?

Now, one might object to me that medical science in the Age of the Elizabeth did not reach any degree of sophistication, but Elizabethan England did, in fact, have a knowledge of vital signs. Indeed, Shakespeare and Pericles both have a knowledge of vital signs. We know this from the very play that we are discussing.

In Act Five: Scene One, in their scene of reconciliation, Pericles asks Marina if she is imaginary or real. He asks her if she has vital signs: “Have you a working pulse and are no fairy?”

So, why does Pericles not check Thaisa’s vital signs before pitching her over the side of the ship and into the briny sea? Presumably because he is an idiot.

At this stage, Pericles is still weak; at the conclusion of the play, he will become The Father.

In any event, Thaisa retires to the Temple of Diana—“A vestal livery will I take me to,” she says in Act Three: Scene Four—and Marina ends up in a bordello.

So, to summarize, Pericles brings his sea-born daughter Marina to the Tarsians, for the sake of her safety, and solicits them to raise her. When she turns fourteen, Marina is admired by all of the Tarsians, and Lady Dionyza’s less prepossessing daughter Philoten is ignored. (Dionyza is the wife to the Lord of the Tarsians, Cleon.) So, Dionyza does what any mother would do and suborns the murder of Marina. Dionyza is another version of Lady Macbeth. The Tragedy of Macbeth was composed circa 1606, and this play was composed, again, circa 1607. It is very likely that Shakespeare was thinking of Lady Macbeth as he was fashioning the character of Lady Dionyza. In Act Four: Scene Three, Dionyza asks her husband, rhetorically, “Can it be undone?” She is alluding to the phenomenal murder of Marina, and her words are consonant with Lady Macbeth’s famous line “What’s done cannot be undone.” Interestingly, Dionyza’s name might be traceable to Dionysus, I’m not sure. I might be mistaken about this, but the thought did occur to me. In any event, Dionyza commissions Leonine, whose name means “The Lionlike One,” to assassinate Marina.

As you might expect, there is yet another deus ex machina.

Out of nowhere, pirates appear and prevent Leonine from slaughtering sweet Marina! Leonine says of Marina (in a soliloquy): “I’ll swear she’s dead / And thrown into the sea” [Act Four: Scene One].

The pirates will now sell poor Marina into prostitution at a brothel in Mytilene, which is a city in Greece that was founded in the eleventh century before the Christian era.

But wait, there is another deus ex machina! Even though Marina is prostituted against her will, she shames all of her clients with her purity, with her eloquence, with her elegance, with her grace, with her high-mindedness.

Those licentious men who steal into the bordello at night come out physically unfulfilled but with pure thoughts (and presumably as votaries of the Goddess Diana). Marina emerges from the entire ordeal vestally unviolated. As the Bawd phrases it, in Act Four: Scene Five, “[Marina] is able to freeze the god Priapus and undo a whole generation.” Shades of Measure for Measure.

So, Marina gets through her ordeal unviolated. Her name means, again, “She Who Was Born at Sea” and who navigates through the world unshipwrecked, without a fatal naval disaster. She is a votaress of the Goddess Diana, much like her mother. They are devoted in soul and in mind and in heart to the world beyond the senses. The physical world is likened to the dominion of Neptune. This world—this tempestuous, turbulent, mutable world—belongs to Neptune, for it is as unstable as the sea; the suprasensible world belongs to the Goddess Diana.

One of Marina’s clients is Lysimachus—yes, the same, the very Lysimachus who was the successor to Alexander the Great and is currently the Lord of Mytilene. Yet again, Marina shames her client.

Marina calls herself “the meanest bird” that flies in the “purer air” [IV:vi], but the exact opposite is more accurate. Is she not the purest bird in the meanest air?

Students of rhetoric will be familiar the Pathetic Appeal, which is when the speaker or the writer attempts to stimulate pity—it is an argument-enhancer, an argument-intensifier, an argument-decorator, not the core of the argument itself, which should be logos. If logos is ever superseded by pathos, then the argument becomes an argumentum ad misericordiam, which is a non-argument, but I can’t discuss that here.

There is also an unnamed rhetorical device, which I would call the “Shame Appeal.”

So ashamed is Lysimachus by Marina’s rhetoric that he bates himself, he bates his libidinal cravings. He demands nothing of Marina and gives her more than what was required of him. This client—originally, a hardened libertine who frequents houses of prostitution—will eventually become Marina’s husband.

So, the woman who is forced into prostitution and who yet refuses to prostitute herself marries one of her own clients. That is exactly what happens in this text.

The panderer has enough of this and intends to have his way with Marina. He threatens to abscond with her virginity (“Come, mistress…” [IV:v]).

But the crane descends again! The panderer is so impressed by Marina’s resume that he offers to find her a job elsewhere. The very traits that make Marina an object of envy—her singing skills, her weaving skills, her sewing skills, her dancing skills (“I can sing, weave, sew, and dance,” she says in Act Four: Scene Five)—are the same traits that make her marketable elsewhere and allow her to escape prostitution.

So: Marina’s skillfulness at sewing—a quality that nearly got her killed by the hand of Leonine, under the direction of Dionyza—will prove to be her redemption. She will become a sewing instructress at an all-girls’ school.

Are we supposed to believe that a dissolute panderer, a hard-hearted procurer, a snakelike pimp, is proficient at job placement and is able to find Marina a teaching position at a school for the daughters of wealthy families? Apparently, Shakespeare thinks that we are credulous enough to believe this, if he indeed is the author of this play.

Marina again escapes unviolated. As is stated in Chorus Six, “Marina thus the brothel scapes…”

Let us pause over this moment. This is astonishing: Lysimachus is a hardened libertine who uses prostitutes and might actually be syphilitic. And we are supposed to allow that it is perfectly wholesome for him to marry the pure-hearted and virginal Marina, who staves off lecherous men by shaming them and who is a votaress to the Goddess Diana, much like her mother.

This is but one of the many improbabilities, one of the many implausibilities with which the play is fraught. And yes, it is yet another deus ex machina.

In Act Five: Scene One, there is a beautiful reconciliation and recognition between father Pericles and daughter Marina. The recognition gives way, as it always does traditionally, to a turnaround in the plot. Pericles says to his rediscovered daughter: “O, come hither, / Thou that beget’st him that did thee beget” [V:i].

Translation: “You created the one who created you.” If one were to take this passage literally, the Father creates the Daughter, who then becomes the Mother to the Father—but the Daughter never becomes the King’s wife, the Queen (as happens between Antiochus and his Daughter).

This temporal paradox is reminiscent of one of the chief paradoxes of Christianity: God creates the Virgin Mary and then becomes the Son of his own Mother, His own creation. So, the Father creates His own Mother.

By contrast, one of the heresiarchs of the Christianity, Arius, held that the Son has a separate existence and a separate divinity from God the Father. Allegedly, Arius was slapped across the face and exiled because of this heretical belief that the Son does not encarnalize the Father.

To return more immediately to the text of the play: Marina is the involuntary prostitute who is too pure for the role that has been imposed upon her. She, the daughter to Pericles, rejects a life of perversity, unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, who exists in an unholy, incestuous alliance with her father. Unlike Antiochus’ Daughter, Marina has a name—an identity apart from the Father.

Thus, the play turns full circle. It is a cosmically ironic circularity. Marina at first presents herself to her initially unrecognizing father Pericles not as his daughter, but as a comely young woman. She says, in Act Five: Scene One, that she is often “gazed on like a comet,” an astral body streaming through the heavens.

Marina does not present herself to Pericles initially as her daughter but as a woman who would inflame his senses and who, to quote Lysimachus, “would allure” him [V:i]. Now, “allure” is not a word that I would choose to describe the effect that a daughter normally has upon her father, at least not in healthy relationships between daughters and fathers.

The plot swiftly moves in a more wholesome direction. So, the recognition scene between Pericles and Marina begins as if it were incestuous, much as the relationship between Antiochus and his daughter was certainly incestuous. And yet the relationship between Pericles and Marina moves beyond the perverse into a realm of legitimacy.

Pericles expresses his intention to shear his hair and beard, which he grew long while mourning his daughter and wife: “And now this ornament [which] / Makes me look dismal will I clip to form” [V:iii]. The word form, like the word frame, suggests restraint, rather than the boundless depravity of Antiochus.

There are, within the text, altogether too many ingratiatory appeals, too many appeasements of the audience. Art should never attempt to ingratiate itself with the spectatorship.

In this play, the Evil perish—Cleon, Dionyza, Antiochus, Leonine all are enemies who are rapidly vanquished—and the Good win.

* * * * *

What is life? Life is the swathe of all possible experiences, and many of these possible experiences are conflictual experiences. All of us living must participate in the struggle for existence, and existence is largely conflict. There is the conflict between Self and Self (we see the gradual self-overcoming of Pericles), the conflict between Self and Other Human Beings, and the conflict between Self and World or Self and Nature (represented by the naval disasters set in motion by Neptune, the Sea). But this play, which dramatizes the second conflict (between Self and Other Human Beings) in a tepid manner, makes such conflicts seem easily won. Again and again, the crane descends, saving one protagonist or another.

I admit that this might be a personal disinclination, but I cannot tolerate art (or entertainment) that gives easy answers to life’s insoluble and indecipherable riddles. That is the task of entertainment; art should never do so. Art should highlight and dramatize the conflicts of life, not soft-soap them. Pericles, Prince of Tyre mollifies interhuman conflicts; it narcotizes the reader (or spectator).

As I was re-reading this play, I thought of another dramatist: Berthold Brecht.

You might be familiar with the East German dramatist Brecht. At the end of his play The Three-Penny Opera, Die Dreigroschenoper, the life of the gangster Macheath is saved when the King inexplicably pardons him.

A character named Herr Peachum reminds us that “in reality,” the lives of “the poorest of the poor” end in a terrible manner, denn in Wirklichkeit ist gerade ihr Ende schimm.

In reality, the poorest of the poor are not saved from a dismal end by the King!

At the very end of the play, the Morality Singer, Moritatensänger, intones the following lines. First, I will cite the German, then my rendering of the stanza into English:

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln,
Und die andern sind im Licht.
Und man sieht die im Lichte,
Die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

For some are in darkness,
And others are in light.
You see those in the light,
Those in the darkness no one sees.

Why do I cite these lines? To suggest the following: Art is a lie, but it doesn’t have to be an insultingly patronizing lie. This play is a pretty fairy tale, if you are a child, but one doesn’t have all of life to grow up. Complex art deals with the glories of life, to be sure, but also its misfortunes. Pericles, Prince of Tyre gives nothing other than false consolations.

Joseph Suglia



Shakespeare the Punk | Lecture-Analysis-Commentary-Essay on Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE

by Joseph Suglia


Shakespeare is playing a prank on us. He is playing a joke on us.

There is only one way to defend this play, and that is to see it as a deliberate affront to the audience, in a manner that is comparable to the manner in which Lou Reed intentionally affronted his audience by releasing sixty-four minutes of painfully dissonant guitar feedback under the title Metal Machine Music in 1975.

Cymbeline is not quite as sadistic as Metal Machine Music is, and it contains a profusion of fascinating incongruities. King Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen has a deep and rich inner life, and she seems out of place in a play that seems to be otherwise a slaphappy farce. There are other profundities, as well. Upon discovering what they believe to be the corpse of Innogen, now disguised as the waifish boy Fidele, the King’s lost sons Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal sing a dirge to their unrecognized sister, one of the most beautiful hymns to death written before Novalis’s Hymnen an die Nacht (1800). The death song, interestingly, recalls another play by Shakespeare. It alludes to a moment in Act One of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus in which the Roman general Titus laments the killing of his sons in the battle against the Goths.

Cymbeline is an auto-reflexive play, a play that refers often to itself. That the play evinces an awareness of the audience is undeniable. Posthumus addresses us directly in the beginning of the fifth act—or, at least, those of us who are married: “You married ones…” But it is also a meta-theatrical play that refers to other Shakespeare plays. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is only one of them.

To say that Cymbeline alludes to other Shakespearean works would be to say too little. Shakespeare’s other works swirl endlessly in the funhouse mirrors of Cymbeline. The Arden edition describes this play as “recapitulatory,” recapitulating, as it does, a gallimaufry of Shakespeare’s earlier plays (this is a late romance, composed in 1610). Cymbeline recapitulates quite a bit, but to what purpose?

What is the point of all of this auto-reflexivity and meta-theatricality? Harold Bloom thinks that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is fatigued with himself, exhausted, ennuyé: “Shakespeare is his own worst enemy in Cymbeline: he is weary of making plays.” The implication here is that the Shakespeare of Cymbeline is sterile, out of new ideas. Bloom also believes that Cymbeline is a clutch or constellation (my words) of self-parodies. Shakespeare, Bloom thinks, is play-weary and is making fun of himself.

But I see the play differently. Shakespeare is not making fun of himself; his play is making fun of its audience. All of the recapitulation seems wonderfully affrontive.

Cymbeline sets up and reaffirms the audience’s horizon of expectations and then undermines these same predeveloped expectations. It would be unpresumptuous to say that the play is contemptuous of its spectatorship.

As far as whether or not Shakespeare was weary as he composed the play (if indeed he was the only one who did compose the play): Not only is it impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a dead author, it is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of a living author. All we have is the text.

Posthumus, too lowborn for his father-in-law Cymbeline’s taste, is exiled from Roman Britain and migrates to Italy. (Some commentators have noted that the Italy to which Posthumus retreats seems strangely like the Italy of the Renaissance, which would mean that Posthumus time-travels for about four hundred years.) His wife Innogen is a prisoner in the kingdom and is forbidden by the King, her father, from consorting with her husband.

While exiled in Italy, Posthumus encounters the oleaginous dandy Iachimo, who wagers that he can seduce Innogen. The husband agrees to wager his wife’s chastity and his diamond ring against ten thousand of Iachimo’s gold ducats.[i] Posthumus is, in effect, flogging his wife’s chastity (and the diamond which symbolizes that chastity) as if it were a saleable commodity.

The story about a bet between two men—one of whom is a rogue who wagers that he can seduce the wife of the other—is a trope in Western literature. You can find this story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, one of the greatest works of Western literature, nearly equal to Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy and the best of Shakespeare (among which this underestimated play can, arguably, be said to be numbered). You can also find this subject fictionalized in a magnificent short story by Roald Dahl called “The Great Switcheroo,” which should never be read by children.

Iachimo bluntly proposes to Innogen a copulatory revenge strategy: “Be revenged, / Or she that bore you was no queen, and you / Recoil from your great stock… I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure… Let me my service tender on your lips” [I:vi].

The innocent Innogen remains inseducible. She is understandably aghast at Iachimo’s overboldness and threatens to report him to her father, the King: “The King my father shall be made acquainted / Of thy assault” [I:vi]. Iachimo quickly turns things around and claims to have been merely testing her fealty to her husband: “I have spoke this to know if your affiance / Were deeply rooted” [Ibid.].

Innogen pardons Iachimo, the failed seducer, exactly thirteen lines after she condemns him: “You make amends” [I:vi]. Even more incredibly, she promises to share her kingdom with the rogue only twenty-four lines after she summons her servant to drag the scoundrel away: “All’s well, sir. Take my power i’th’ court for yours” [Ibid.].

Things swiftly become even more preposterous. Iachimo requests to leave his traveling case in Innogen’s bedroom, and Innogen agrees: “Send your trunk to me: it shall safe be kept / And truly yielded you. You’re very welcome” [I:vi]. You’re very welcome, indeed, my dear sir! Innogen not only pardons the lacertilian failed seducer; she welcomes him into her home, the man who lied about the infidelity of her husband and who proposed a night of coital vengeance on the basis of this lie.

I am citing these lines and summarizing the scene at length in order to highlight how absurd all of this is. We are supposed to be ingenuous enough to believe that Innogen will forgive the loutish failed seducer Iachimo after he confesses that he lied to her about her husband’s faithlessness. We are also supposed to believe that Innogen, daughter to the King, will forgive Iachimo after the libertine admits that he lied to her in order to provoke her into copulatory revenge. We are supposed to be naïve enough to accept that Innogen will not only pardon Iachimo, but allow him to put his traveling trunk in her bedchamber. Or are we? This conduces me to my main point: It might be the case that the improbabilities are calculated and the inhumanly sudden and suddenly inhuman metanoias are designed to thwart the received ideas of the audience.

The slithery Iachimo insinuates himself into Innogen’s bedchamber by hiding in the traveling case and then springs up out of the trunk like a Jack-in-the-Box while she is sleeping. Iachimo filches the bracelet given to her by Posthumus, slipping it from her sleeping arm, a bracelet which is as “slippery as the Gordian knot was hard” [II:ii].

Literate spectators will expect Iachimo—who likens himself to Sextus Tarquinius, the slobbering Roman patrician who ravished the plebeian girl Lucretia—to do the odious thing that Sextus Tarquinius did. He is also likened to Tereus, the violator of the tongueless Philomel, who transforms into a nightingale (as her name suggests). Iachimo finds a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Innogen’s bedside table: “She hath been reading late / The tale of Tereus: here the leaf’s turned down / Where Philomel gave up” [II:ii].

The same allusions appear in The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, which make the allusions in Cymbeline the allusions of allusions. Specifically, Iachimo reminds us of the lupine sons of the Goth Queen Tamora, who ravish and mutilate Titus’ daughter Lavinia in the wood. They are likened to Tereus and to Sextus Tarquinius, and Lavinia points with a stick to a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. And which story does she indicate, precisely? She indicates the story of Tereus.

The point that I want to highlight is that Iachimo never actually ravishes Innogen, even though he is likened to Tereus and Tarquin, two violators in Greek and Roman Antiquity, respectively.[ii] Rather, Iachimo crawls into her bed and ogles her and her bedroom as she is sleeping. Iachimo advances upon Innogen’s sleeping body and surveys both the décor of the bedchamber and the “cinque-spotted” mole upon her chest [II:ii].

Thank goodness Iachimo does not violently appropriate Innogen! But the fact that the audience is expecting the ravishment to happen and the fact that the ravishment does not happen fortifies my conviction that Shakespeare is pranking us better than even the most skilled prankster could do. What we are reading may only be described as a farce, as a spoof, as a lampoon. In the slightly underprized 2014 cinematic interpretation, Iachimo is played by Ethan Hawke. (Iachimo could be played by no one other than Ethan Hawke.) Hawke’s character leers at Innogen as she is slumbering and takes a picture of the “cinque-spotted” mole on her chest with his cellular telephone. In a staged production of the play (which I have not yet witnessed), I could imagine the “cinque-spotted” mole being screened on the cyclorama.

So, we, as an audience, move from the dreadful to the ludicrous. Humor comes from incongruity—when two disparate things clash in a way that is unexpected. An elephant that trundles into proctological conference would probably elicit laughter. When Iachimo, instead of violating Innogen, takes out a notebook and inventories the furniture in her bedroom and itemizes its architecture and decorations, this probably will stimulate laughter in the audience, though it perhaps will also provoke bafflement: “But my design—To note the chamber. I will write all down… Such and such pictures, there the window, such / Th’adornment of her bed, the arras, figures…” [II:ii]. One can imagine the questions that will surface in the mind of the spectator or reader: “What absurdity am I watching? What absurdity am I reading? This is Shakespeare?”

Iachimo manipulates Posthumus into believing that his wife is faithless and thus provokes his jealousy, recalling The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice. But Iachimo is far too ridiculous to be equated to Iago. Iachimo is likely so nominated because he is an incompetent imitator of Iago, which is why the former shares the first two letters of his name with his nihilistic model. Iachimo is an inadequate who, at least, has the scintilla of a moral conscience and is, at least, not immalleable, as we see in Iachimo’s self-accusation and assumption of guilt in the second scene of the fifth act: “The heaviness of guilt within my bosom / Takes off my manhood. I have belied a lady, / The princess of this country, and the air on’t / Revengingly enfeebles me…” Iachimo is the Wal*Mart edition of Iago. Iago, by contrast, is a snarling void, a propulsion of pure negativity. Iago is anti-ontological. Iachimo is like a professional circus employee who twists balloons and wears face paint. He is a zany, not the enemy of existence that Iago is.

Iachimo’s false supposition is that no woman is monogamous; Posthumus’s false supposition is one of out-and-out gynophobia. “I’ll write against them” [II:v]: Posthumus tells himself, in his misogynous rant, that he will write misogynous novels and poems, condemning every woman on the planet because of his misapprehension of one woman, his wife Innogen. “We are all bastards…” [Ibid.]: All men, he means, are bastards, for all husbands, he thinks, are cuckolds. This is the source of male misogyny: A man has a negative experience with one woman and thus generalizes his experiences with that one woman to the whole of womankind. Posthumus appears to become a parody, a more extreme version of Iachimo in Act Two: Scene Five.[iii] We are also reminded here of the misogyny of Troilus in Troilus and Cressida, who repudiates the whole of womankind for the apparent treachery of the woman he loves. Posthumus suborns the assassination of his wife, who goes into exile after Pisanio’s attentat—for in the “great pool” of the world, Britain is but a “swan’s nest,” and there are “livers” elsewhere [III:iv]. And here is another meta-theatrical reference—to Coriolanus, who says, “There is a world elsewhere” in the play that is named after him.

To escape assassination, Innogen-Fidele escapes the British kingdom, where her life is at risk and where she is daily besieged by marriage proposals (I will return to this matter below). The self-exiled Innogen wanders through a forest and comes upon a cave that is inhabited by a CHAZ-like commune. The Chazians are the two boys who will later be recognized as the King’s lost sons—Guiderius-Polydore and Arviragus-Cadwal—and their pseudo-father Belarius, who was “unjustly banish[ed]” from Cymbeline’s court [III:iii]. In the slightly underestimated 2014 cinematic interpretation, one of the boys is wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The Chazians dispense with money. They dispense with the norms of capitalist society in the same way that the twenty-first-century Seattle anarchists claimed to dispense with the norms of capitalist society (though, as it later turned out, the Seattle Chazians did require money). Arviragus-Cadwal expresses his disgust for pelf in the following terms: “All gold and silver rather turn to dirt, / As ’tis no better reckoned but of those / Who worship dirty gods” [III:vi]. The transformation from prince into anarchist is complete; the transformation of prince into anarchist reflects Innogen’s transformation from woman into man.

The forest is much like the Forest of Arden in As You Like It: It is a realm that is free from the rigid roles and gestures of courtier life. As I mentioned above, Innogen moves from the feminine to the masculine and becomes Fidele. Here we have another allusion to As You Like It, with the self-masculinization of its female character Rosalind-Ganymede. This happens in the forest, since the forest is always a space of freedom and transmutation in Shakespeare, a transmogrifying space in which one can become whatever one likes to be, much like the internet, though more of a locus amoenus than the internet ever is.

Innogen also exiles herself in order to elude the entreaties of Cloten, who is her stepbrother, son to the poisonous witch queen. The punkish Cloten is so named because he is a clot, a dolt, a yokel, a buffoon, a dimwit, an imbecile, a cretin, a lump, a lug, a dullard, an oaf, a “harsh, noble, simple nothing” [III:iv]. She refuses to marry Cloten, and her rejection fills him with white-hot rage. Cloten’s violent rage toward Innogen is reminiscent of Posthumus’ violent rage toward Innogen, which makes Cloten a sinister-yet-unfrightening parody of Posthumus, who, in turn, is a diabolical parody of Iachimo, which makes Cloten the parody of a parody. All three of the male characters—Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cloten—are doubles of one another, but each successive double in the series is more grotesque than he who comes before him. They are all vile degenerates and incompetents, and it presses the limits of credulity to believe that Innogen would ever forgive Posthumus and Iachimo. But forgive both of them she does, beyond all plausibility, beyond all probability, beyond all comprehension. She forgives Posthumus and (temporarily) Iachimo with inhuman swiftness. (I will return to this matter below.)

Cloten’s interest in assuming the persona of a man of lesser station than he likely means that he is more interested in becoming Posthumus than he is interested in appropriating Innogen. Such is the triangular mimesis of rivalry: The double rivals for the model’s love-object because the double identifies with the model and wishes to become the model. Gratefully, the reader will discover that no such violation will take place in the space of the play, which confirms its prankish, farcical character.

Blazing with wild devilment, Cloten swathes himself in Posthumus’s clothing, a mark of his obsessive, envious identification with the low-born man whom Innogen chose as her husband and whose “meanest garment” [II:iii] would be dearer to her than the hair on Cloten’s head, even if each hair were to turn into a man! Cloten literalizes Innogen’s fetishization of her husband’s clothes in Act Two: Scene Three. The vile villain Cloten intends to violate her upon her husband’s dead body while he is clothed as her husband, recalling again The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus: “With that suit upon my back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes. There shall she see my valor, which will then be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and when my lust hath dined—which, as I say, to vex her, I will execute in the clothes that she so praised—to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I’ll be merry in my revenge” [III:v]. In a hilarious inversion, Innogen will sleep on the “bloody pillow” of Cloten’s headless corpse [IV:ii].

It is difficult to take Cloten seriously, since, despite his disgustingly sinister intention to ravish Innogen, he is swiftly decapitated by Guiderius-Polydore. His hacked-off head will cast into the creek, presumably, where it will be devoured by fish: “I’ll throw [the head] into the creek / Behind our rock, and let it to the sea / And tell the fishes he’s the Queen’s son, Cloten” (Guiderius-Polydore) [IV:ii]. The creek represents bucolic life; the sea represents the life of the court.[iv] This is yet another allusion—to The Tragedy of Macbeth, with its multiple decapitations. The scene here, though, is high comedy. The first time someone is decapitated, it is a tragedy; the second time, it is a farce. The decapitation of Cloten is farcical, ridiculous—it provokes to laughter much in the same way that Shakespeare’s other late romance The Winter’s Tale provokes us to laughter when the old man Antigonus is mauled and devoured by a bear. Yes, the scene is one of carnage—it is a sanguinary scene—but no one has sympathy for Cloten, who is a psychopathic varlet, and his death is hilarious because it seems so incongruous in relation to its textual environment. Why “incongruous”? The incongruity comes from a happy moment of cosmic irony (for once, the term is earned): Cloten tells himself that he will decapitate Posthumus and then is decapitated while wearing Posthumus’s clothes: “[T]hy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be cut off” [IV:i].

Posthumus is death-obsessed, and with good reason. He is so called because he survived his childbirth, whereas his mother did not; she was “deceased / As he was born” [I:i]. He is also so called, perhaps, because he ardently wants to die, and yet his death is denied to him.[v] He says to the Jailer: “I am merrier to die than thou art to live” [V:iv].[vi] Posthumus, then, is posthumous. As his name implies, he is a survivor; he survives both his birth and his death sentence, despite his will to die. Spasming with guilt, he begs for a judiciary suicide: “O give me cord, or knife, or poison, / Some upright justicer” [V:v]. Posthumus’s wish for an assisted suicide recalls Marcus Antonius’ wish to be decapitated in The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Antonius implores his servant Eros to chop off his own head. Not to psychologize, for all we have is the text, but there is a heavy yearning for the sweetness of death that pervades the work.[vii] Every member of Posthumus’s family is dead—his father, Sicilius Leonatus, his mother, and his brothers, the Leonati. Their apparitions hover over him as he sleeps in his prison cell, and he wishes to join them in the infinite nothingness.

The reconciliation between the father Cymbeline and the daughter Innogen is devoid of all pathos and is more risible than anything else. It does recall the restoration of Pericles’ thought-dead daughter Thaisa in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, yet another allusion which makes Cymbeline seem even more self-plagiaristic and almost (God help us all) postmodern. This is not intended as a commendation, since there is nothing sicklier, more anemic than postmodern art.

The resipiscence of Posthumus and Iachimo is far stranger; indeed, it is incredible. As I suggested above: Are we so credulous as to believe that Innogen will take Posthumus back after he gambled her virginity and suborned her assassination? Posthumus is ethically unrestorable and unpardonable. What he has done is unforgivable, and he has surpassed the possibility of redemption. And yet Innogen apparently forgives him, only to be struck to the ground by Posthumus, who does not recognize her. “Peace my Lord,” she implores him before she is struck. “Hear, hear—” [V:v]. This moment resurrects the final act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, wherein Pericles forcibly drives back his daughter Marina, whom he does not at first recognize. We are also supposed to believe that King Cymbeline will forgive Belarius for having kidnapped the princes, thus robbing the King of the opportunity to experience twenty years of their lives. Cymbeline even calls the abductor Belarius “brother” in the fifth scene of the fifth act!

There are other improbabilities. Bloom raises the reasonable question: How likely is it that Innogen will fail to recognize her husband’s anatomy?: “It seems odd that Imogen could mistake the anatomy of Cloten for her husband’s, but then she is in a state of shock.” Bloom is being too charitable, I think, in the final clause of his sentence (“but then she is in a state of shock”). And I would raise another improbability: Why does Innogen assume that the clothing of Cloten’s headless cadaver is that of Posthumus? “Where is thy head?” she asks, addressing the corpse as if it belonged to her husband. “Where’s that? Ay me, where’s that?” [IV:ii]. Does Posthumus wear the same clothing every day? Is Posthumus the only one who would wear the outfit that his ostensible corpse is wearing? Cymbeline is improbable as The Comedy of Errors, in which you have characters who are mistaken for one another and who wear the same outfits as their counterparts.

Not merely is the play fraught with improbability; there are leaps of false logic, as well. Paralogisms abound. Why, for instance, does Cymbeline muse aloud that it would have been “vicious” to have “mistrusted” the evil Stepqueen, even after he discovers that “she never loved [him]” and murdered his bio-daughter [V:v]? (This is not a rhetorical question, it is an instance of hypophora.) The King gives us an answer: Because the evil Stepqueen was “beautiful” and her “flattery” seemed to be sincere! The King’s “ears” and “heart” “thought her like her seeming” [Ibid.]—in other words, she was pleasing in a coenaesthetic manner and therefore, she was trustworthy! Do I need to point out that this does not follow logically?

We are mistreated by another paralogism at the opening of the text: The First Gentleman overpraises Posthumus because Innogen chose him over her stepbrother Cloten: “[Posthumus’s] virtue / By her election may be truly read / What kind of man he is” [I:i]. As if beautiful and virtuous women only choose handsome and virtuous men as their husbands!

Certain moments in this text are so fantastically bizarre that they surpass the limits of dramaturgical respectability. My favorite example of this is Innogen’s ejaculatory optation in Act One: Scene One. Innogen frothingly fantasizes that she would like to see her stepbrother and her husband sword-fighting each other in Africa! And she would “prick” with a needle the “goer-back”—i.e. whichever of the two backs away from the fight! Everyone’s fantasies are odd, I suppose, but you rarely read or hear fantasies such as this verbalized in Shakespeare.

Since we are reading a play that is never entirely its own, we might reasonably question, what precisely are we reading? Is this a play about the character named in its title? Why is this play entitled Cymbeline? I can understand why The Tragedy of King Lear is so called, for it is the tragedy of King Lear. But why is this work called Cymbeline? King Cymbeline hardly dominates the play; he is given relatively little stage time. We see him screaming at his daughter and his son-in-law in the first scene of the play; he does not remerge before the beginning of the third act, wherein he discusses Roman-British diplomacy and conflict with the poisonous Queen and her slimily reprobate son Cloten. Cymbeline then vanishes again and resurfaces in Act Three: Scene Five, only to withdraw once more. Indeed, we only see him again at the very close of the play—to be precise, in the second scene of the fifth act, in which he is silently taken by the Romans and then rescued by his unrecognized sons and his substitute, Belarius.

The auto-reflexivity, the meta-theatricality, the improbability, the fallacious logic, and the overall absurdity of the play fortify my conviction that it is a prank, a farce, a comedy, a lampoon. A lunatic play, an antic play, a woozy play, Cymbeline unsettles the reader’s (or spectator’s) expectations, expectations that would be incubated and marinated by other Shakespeare plays. Taking all of these matters into consideration, Cymbeline comes across as an elaborate practical joke. Perhaps Shakespeare learned that to become a great author, one must have a seething contempt for the reader or for the spectator.

Joseph Suglia


[i] Iachimo: “If I bring you no sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress, my ten thousand ducats are yours; so is your diamond, too. If I come off and leave her in such honour as you have trust in, she your jewel, this your jewel and my gold are yours, provided I have your commendation for my more free entertainment” [I:iv]. Posthumus: “I embrace these conditions. Let us have articles betwitxt us. Only thus far you shall answer: if you make your voyage upon her and give me directly to understand you have prevailed, I am no further your enemy; she is not worth our debate. If she remain unseduced, you not making it appear otherwise, for your ill opinion and th’assault you have made to her chastity, you shall answer me with your sword” [Ibid.].


[ii] Iachimo: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” [II:ii].


[iii] Notice that Iachimo has already expressed misogynous opinions: “If you buy ladies’ flesh at a million a dram, you cannot preserve it from tainting” [I:iv]. And in the next act: “The vows of women / Of no more bondage be to where they are made / Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing” [II:iv].


[iv] We know this from Innogen’s aside in Act Four: Scene Two: “Th’imperious seas breeds monsters; for the dish, / Poor tributary rivers as sweet fish.”


[v] Mournful Posthumus thinks that he killed his wife and longs to die: “[T]o the face of peril / Myself I’ll dedicate” [V:i].


[vi] And earlier: “For Innogen’s dear life,” Posthumus implores God, “take mine, and though / ’Tis not so dear, yet ’tis a life; you coined it…” [V:iv].


[vii] A superabundance of verbal cues informs us that Posthumus is a death-obsessed survivor. He tells Innogen that he will “cere up his embracements” of his wife from other women with “bonds of death” [I:i]. He apostrophizes his diamond ring, newly given to him by Innogen: “Remain, remain thou here / While sense can keep it on” [Ibid.]. “Sense” here refers to consciousness—hence, the duration of his lifespan. The dirge that the boys sing in Act Four: Scene Two is, again, an encomium to mortality which suggests that the sweetness of death should be welcomed, for it means the cessation of all fear and anxiety. The ghost of Euriphile (“The Lover of Europe”) hovers over the play. She was the nurse of the lost sons of Cymbeline the King and was taken as their mother [III:iii]. The dirge was originally written for Euriphile and then is sung for Innogen, who is only phenomenally deceased.