Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS by Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS: An Interpretation / Commentary on CORIOLANUS (Shakespeare) / Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS: An Analysis

An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia


“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”

—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971



If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play.  If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative.  If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.

The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy.  It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.

The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (excepting Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes.  One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious.  If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal.  If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.

The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on.



When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat.  He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy.  The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked.  The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession.  The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will.  Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain-shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels.  The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy.  There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome.  As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.

We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure.  He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i].  The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i].  These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry?  And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger!  Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs.  The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable.  Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it will be raised sixteen cents to a grudging $8.60 in the year in which I am composing this essay).

How dare the poor beg for bread!  How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled!  For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars.  The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has.  The less the poor have, the more the nobility has.  The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility.  The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i].  The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility.  Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.

Martius has a granular understanding of the poor.  He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality.  He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i].  They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England.  For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn.  Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i].  (Garners = granaries.)  Send them to the wars!  Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about him—they are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].

The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor.  Already, in the first scene, this is evident.  To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature.  If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner?  Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence.  The poor are not given a poetical voice.  Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice.  The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power.  Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high.  Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language.  It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication.  Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence.  This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.



Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son.  Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].

The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia.  It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.

Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play.  The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii].  The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife.  But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son.  Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone, as her succeeding remark makes clear.  Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii].  “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword.  She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii].  Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”).  This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing.  She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].

The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death.  Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place.  He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i].  She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven.  Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli.  He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].

Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra?  She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman.  War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.

Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play.  Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother.  She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being.  No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].

Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother.  No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother.  No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers.  His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnius.

Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?).  Martius was a fascist long before the word existed.  For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader.  Martius is bundled by the mother.

War is an industry.  Beyond the psychodynamics of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories?  When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome.  If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority.  We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships.  Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump.  What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia.  His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories.  Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that city will perish without her son?



To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement.  He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form.  He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else.  His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x].  Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.

Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli.  The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.”  Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius.  The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i].  The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.

The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.

The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman.  As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal.  He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician.  He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust.  Coriolanus’s language defeats him.

When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!”  A woman breaks up with her boyfriend.  The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me?  I am breaking up with you!”  Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.

The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change.  When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli.  The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus?  Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans?  The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy.  When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal?  Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born?  Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland?  Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers?  Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?



Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves.  (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.)  He only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone.  Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.

If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private.  Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles.  We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son.  Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs.  His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.

Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter.  A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people.  This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii].  Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius.  In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes.  In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.

The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii].  The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).

His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i].  Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure.  He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.



There are three words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are shall, traitor, and boy.  When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.

Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].

Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i].  The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.

What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power.  The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people.  The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i].  The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.

When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii].  One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.

The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant.  Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful.  Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?



Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians.  (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.)  He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him.  Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection.  It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.

I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual.  This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].

Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general.  In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus.  The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him.  He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance.  The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i].  He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth.  Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].



Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike.  Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland.  This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother?  Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother?  When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?

Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain.  Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people.  She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears.  Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.

Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him.  When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling.  I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human.  It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.

In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial.  The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v].  And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.

I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright.  While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that.  His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument.  Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex.  Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.



All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen.  He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status.  Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.

The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae.  Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi].  The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.

The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you.  The mob wants to eat Coriolanus.  And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob.  That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i].  Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.

At the climax of the play, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich.  Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise.  Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.

Joseph Suglia


Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / An Analysis of Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE / Die fröhliche Wissenschaft / THE GAY SCIENCE by Friedrich Nietzsche / What does Nietzsche mean by “God is dead”? / What does this mean?: “What does not kill me makes me stronger” / Nietzsche and Schopenhauer / Was Nietzsche a proto-Nazi? / Was Nietzsche a fascist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Was Nietzsche a feminist? / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / What is the “Eternal Recurrence of the Same”? / What is the “will-to-power”? / Nietzsche and “The Will to Power” / Nietzsche and “The Eternal Recurrence of the Same” / Nietzsche and Buddhism / Nietzsche and Hinduism

On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE

by Joseph Suglia


“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”

—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931




The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887).  Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science.  In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct.  In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.

The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: ananke (the Greek word for necessity).

We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do.  The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness.  All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior.  It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done.  We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us.  Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.

The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”).  The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world.  Everything is necessary yet purposeless.




The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer.  There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings.  The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.”  Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part.  The human conscience is a hive of error.

The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science.  I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, where he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness.  What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required.  Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will at one time and at one place); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.

What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.

As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences.  The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve humanity.  The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species.  All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the enhancement and enlargement of life.

The fundamental trait of the Will is striving.  The exertions of the Will are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity.  While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not.  Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce.  Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity.  Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.

Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion.  Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live.  The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (in a sense, there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive.  You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life.  Individuality is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive.  The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).

Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species.  As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human.  In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve.  We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.

Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive.  They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see).  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their attitudes toward the Will.  For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering).  Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science.  Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life?  Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.”  We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text.  Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).

Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One].  Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.

Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so.  That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists.  “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions.  The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick.  Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself.  One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.

The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term).  There are no opposites, only continua / axes.  Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.”  Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human.  All values are derived from disvalues.  Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111].  Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness.  In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power.  In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak.  Opposites interpenetrate.

The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes.  In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity.  The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Ueberfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige.  Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Uebergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].

The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will.  For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.

What is the will-to-power?  The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power.  One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate.  One creature is the master; the other is the slave.  Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will.  Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic.  The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.

All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world.  Such is the will-to-power.  Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself.  The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.




Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.

Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains?  In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance.  A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain.  The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted.

In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women.  Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance.  Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance.  The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?).  However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.

At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky.  Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence.  In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men.  A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances.  A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.

Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on.  In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love.  At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339].  This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone.  What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)?  What is this if not crypto-feminism?




Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words.  Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869.  He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state.  He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”).  He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377].  Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible.  He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals).  He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak].  On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?”  Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.

This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi.  The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?).  Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.




The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:

  • At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art.  The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.”  The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.


  • The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner.  The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness).  “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds.  To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only world.  This is the world, and there is no other.  Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality).  Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world.  This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed: If there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us.  The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.


  • The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”?  If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all.  The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity.  It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.


  • The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.


Let me address this final theorem here.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality.  Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374].  All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces.  The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.

But if there is no depth, can there be a surface?  For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world.  There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils.  As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).

The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil.  No revealed mystery, no depth.  The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils.  What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth.  A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.

It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126].  My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.

The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences.  We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity.  Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens).  Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing.  “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, “is the acting and living itself” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber).  Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he appears to imply: Appearance is essence.

In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant.  It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us.  Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”).  Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances.  Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.

Further, Nietzsche is against all ethics of prudence.  Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.

Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves.  Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality.  On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement.  The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience.  Where is God?  Where is the free will?  Where is immortality?

However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant.  Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God.  He utterly denies the reality of the free will.  He utterly denies the reality of immortality.  We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant.  In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness.  Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.

Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world.  There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds.  Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough.  Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be.  Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion.  He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.

Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.

Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism.  To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos).  Nietzsche does not invert Platonism.  He displaces Platonism.

Does this imply that life is a lie?  Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.”  This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote.  For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth?  Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true?  Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement?  Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous?  This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies.  He says, “I am lying.”  Is he telling the truth?  Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie.  Is he telling the truth?

Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.”  To cite a popular-culture example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya.  In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.

Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”

World-Play, the masterful,

Blends being and semblance:—


Welt-Spiel, das herrische,

Mischt Sein und Schein:—


To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.”  Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology.  Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces.  Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.

This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity.  This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine].  Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion).  Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic.  This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes.  It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence.  We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances.  Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.

This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256].  For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.

This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself.  A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself.  The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight].  Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all.  Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].

Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks.  Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks.  This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha.  In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):

“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).

The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373].  It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science.  The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable convictions.  The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.

The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior).  Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring.  Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence.  The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.




How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Georges Bataille and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question.  The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.”  He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld.  One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings.  The point is not that God does not exist, but that the idea of God is unbelievable.

If God is dead, this is because God is depth.  Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.

God is dead because God is depth.




Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least.  One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].

The 1887 Preface helps one understand this, probably most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).

The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life.  The great pain makes me deeper.

But what or who is this “me”?  The “me” is the free spirit.  What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper.  Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person.  A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”

What does not kill me kills me.

The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence.  After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning.  Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.

What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.




The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285].  By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim.  The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.”  (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.)  The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.

Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation.  The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored.  One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Riga Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”

Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?  I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāraSamsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath.  The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame).  For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra.  The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.

The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.

Dr. Joseph Suglia



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


by Joseph Suglia

Race is nothing more than an abstraction; only individuals actually exist.

Cultural Studies explains philosophy through the speculum of trash culture.  This is very appealing to people who are bored by philosophy and who are attracted to trash culture.

Kim Jong-un might be able to read minds.  But can he read books?

Joseph Suglia

On Nietzsche’s MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE / On Nietzsche’s THE DAWN OF DAY / DAYBREAK by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN OF DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN OF DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAYBREAK by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAYBREAK: THOUGHTS ON THE PREJUDICES OF MORALITY by Friedrich Nietzsche / DAWN OF THE DAY by Friedrich Nietzsche / THE DAWN / Friedrich Nietzsche DAYBREAK / Nietzsche, THE DAWN OF DAY / Friedrich Nietzsche’s


by Joseph Suglia

“I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity.”

—Joseph Conrad, Victory


M = Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; second edition: 1887).  The numbers refer to the numbers of the paragraphs that are cited.


D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Cambridge University Press, 1997.  The numbers refer to the pages of the text.


Those who read Nietzsche in English translation have been lied to, deceived, seduced, hoodwinked by dishonest translators and commentators.  My intention here will be twofold.  First, to correct some of the horrifying misinterpretations in the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; 1887), entitled Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (first published in 1997).  I will hose off the slime with which Nietzsche’s great book has been lathered and amplify what Nietzsche actually writes.  This will not have been, then, an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Daybreak, but an attempt to illuminate and magnify his writing so that it becomes more legible.

* * * * *

Daybreak is Nietzsche’s inaugural attack on morality.  The point is not to argue that human beings should be immoral, but that they should be moral for different reasons than have been traditionally presented.  His attack on morality is based on the critique of voluntarism (the theory of the free will) and the critique of altruism that was launched in Human, All-too-human (1878; 1880).  The goal of Daybreak, as Nietzsche writes in the Preface to the 1887 edition, is to “undermine trust in morality” (Vetrauen zur Moral zu untergraben).  Nietzsche does take pains to acknowledge that his own stance is self-contradictory, inasmuch as his critique of morality is itself “moral,” in a sense, coming, as it does, from an uncritical trust in rationality.  The fact that Nietzsche cites Hegel approvingly in this regard shows us that Nietzsche exists in closer proximity to Hegel than is customarily acknowledged.  Nietzsche uses the figure of the scorpion to describe this movement of turning-morality-against-itself ([der kritische Wille] gleich dem Skorpione, den Stachel in den eigenen Leib sticht [M Preface]), though I think a more felicitous figure would be that of the amphisbaena, a serpentine creature in Greek mythology that has two heads, one of which dangles at the tip of its tail and which can sometimes be seen biting the other head.  Why?  Free-spirits are forever shedding their opinions, much in the way that the snake sloughs off its skin.  All of Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally self-contradictory.

Morality is based on two false presuppositions: that human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them, and that human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.

The first false presupposition of morality: Human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them.

We are not in control of what we think or what we feel.  We are not in control of our minds because we are part of our minds.  Our minds are more powerful than we are.  Every conscious thought issues from the unconscious mind: “All of our so-called consciousness,” Nietzsche writes, is “a more or less fantastical commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, yet felt text” (all unser sogenanntes Bewusstsein [ist] ein mehr oder weniger phantastischer Commentar über einen ungewussten, vielleicht unwissbaren, aber gefühlten Text) [M 119].  And all unconscious data is formed by our history, by our environment, by tradition, by mood, by our physiology, by our heredity (though Nietzsche did not live to see the discovery of genetics), not by some nonexistent “free will.”  There can be no moral thinking or immoral thinking insofar as we are unconsciously compelled to think whatever we consciously think and are therefore not responsible for our thoughts.  Morality implies responsibility—and if we are not responsible for what we think, consciously or unconsciously, how could we be held responsible for the alleged “morality” or the alleged “immorality” of our thoughts?

Consider the hypnagogic state—that twilight between alertness and slumber.  You are neither awake nor asleep.  Your thoughts rush and gush.  How could one be responsible for the rushing and gushing of thoughts when the mind is in this semi-conscious state?  And if one is not responsible for such thoughts, for which thoughts is one responsible, and why?

If there is no freedom of thought (and there is none), there are no free actions, either.  No actions are good or evil—for surely, goodness is voluntary goodness and evilness is voluntary evilness.  People are neither voluntarily good nor voluntarily evil, which means that they are neither good nor evil.  As a result, we should perhaps stop pouring people into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL and develop richer and more complex ways of evaluating human behavior.

If people are constrained to perform good deeds, then praise is never earned.  The Australian taxi driver who returns $500,000 to the Japanese businessman who left the money in his cab does not deserve to be heroized.  If people are constrained to perform bad deeds, then neither is punishment ever deserved.  Criminals should be pathologized, for criminality is a pathology [M 202], not the result of sinfulness [M 208].  And why should anyone feel guilt or regret for something that one did?  It makes as little sense to feel guilt or regret for something that you did not choose to do as it does for someone else to blame you or to praise you for what you did not choose to do.

The second false presupposition: Human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.

Why does anyone behave morally to begin with?  People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition.  Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.

(Parenthetical remarks: All morality is arbitrary: Every age has a different sense of what is “good” or “evil,” what is blameworthy or praiseworthy [M 2].  The ancient Jews believed that wrath was a virtue (as evidenced by the Hebraic Bible); the ancient Greeks believed in the virtuousness of envy (as evidenced by Hellenic mythology) and of revenge (as evidenced by the Oresteia).  Dissembling once counted as a virtue (as evidenced by Homer).  The ancient Greeks despised pity (as evidenced by Aristotle) and hope (as evidenced by Hesiod) and praised shame (as evidenced by Plato).  Our culture, by contrast, despises shame (consider the all-pervasive campaigns against shaming in our culture of timidity) and extols pity and hope (as evidenced by the 2008 presidential campaign) as virtues.)

Every human being is self-directed (though, as I have stated elsewhere, Nietzsche did not believe in a hypostatized or substantialized human self).  Everything that you do, you do for your own benefit or pleasure, even if that pleasure is a dark pleasure or a negative pleasure or the pleasure that comes from denying oneself a pleasure.  Compassion is selfish because life is selfish.

Despite what the editors of the Cambridge University Press translation write about him, Nietzsche never claims that there is such a thing as a “moral motive” or a “morally motivated action” (xxv).

The introduction to the Cambridge Daybreak is nameless.  Who typed this text?  It is impossible to say with conviction, though it was likely put together by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, the editors of the volume.  If I had written such an atrocity, I would not have put my name on it, either.

The agenda of Clark and Leiter (I will assume that they are the writers of the introduction) is to turn Nietzsche into someone who believes that the human animal is a self-sacrificing animal that can be dedicated absolutely to “the Other.”  As I will argue, Nietzsche is not suggesting that there are other-centered impulses, and he is hardly repudiating the necessary existence of egoistic instincts.

The passage that the editors make hash browns out of is Paragraph 103 (“Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit”; “There Are Two Kinds of People who Deny Morality”).  The passage is worth citing in its entirety:

Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit.—“Die Sittlichkeit leugnen”—das kann einmal heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Motive, welche die Menschen angeben, wirklich sie zu ihren Handlungen getrieben haben,—es ist also die Behauptung, dass die Sittlichkeit in Worten bestehe und zur groben und feinen Betrügerei (namentlich Selbstbetrügerei) der Menschen gehöre, und vielleicht gerade bei den durch Tugend Berühmtesten am meisten. Sodann kann es heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Urtheile auf Wahrheiten beruhen. Hier wird zugegeben, dass sie Motive des Handelns wirklich sind, dass aber auf diese Weise Irrthümer, als Grund alles sittlichen Urtheilens, die Menschen zu ihren moralischen Handlungen treiben. Diess ist mein Gesichtspunct: doch möchte ich am wenigsten verkennen, dass in sehr vielen Fällen ein feines Misstrauen nach Art des ersten Gesichtspunctes, also im Geiste des La Rochefoucauld, auch im Rechte und jedenfalls vom höchsten allgemeinen Nutzen ist.—Ich leugne also die Sittlichkeit wie ich die Alchymie leugne, das heisst, ich leugne ihre Voraussetzungen: nicht aber, dass es Alchymisten gegeben hat, welche an diese Voraussetzungen glaubten und auf sie hin handelten.—Ich leugne auch die Unsittlichkeit: nicht, dass zahllose Menschen sich unsittlich fühlen, sondern dass es einen Grund in der Wahrheit giebt, sich so zu fühlen. Ich leugne nicht, wie sich von selber versteht—vorausgesetzt, dass ich kein Narr bin—, dass viele Handlungen, welche unsittlich heissen, zu vermeiden und zu bekämpfen sind; ebenfalls, dass viele, die sittlich heissen, zu thun und zu fördern sind, — aber ich meine: das Eine wie das Andere aus anderen Gründen, als bisher. Wir haben umzulernen, —um endlich, vielleicht sehr spät, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.

There are those, Nietzsche tells us, who deny that anyone is capable of a moral motive.  This first kind of philosopher (Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) is opposed to those Pharisees whose morality lies in their words, not in their hands: the sanctimonious, the sophists, the takers, the verbalizers, the hypocrites.  The second denier of morality denies that morality is based on objectively true presuppositions.  This second category of philosopher understands that all morality is misbegotten.  Nietzsche belongs to the second camp.

The editors are fond of the following sentence (rendered into English): “Here it will be conceded that the motives of action are real, but that it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, drive them to their moral actions.”  The editors assume that this sentence implies that Nietzsche believed that people can have good, moral intentions: In this passage, they write, Nietzsche “admits the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi).  They think that Nietzsche is the precursor of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, that he is someone who has the greatest piety for the Thou or for the Other.  When he wrote Human, All-too-human, then, Nietzsche was a sinner who thought that people were self-interested.  Now, he undergoes an epiphany as he travels on the road to Damascus: “In Daybreak, by contrast, we can begin to see the shift in Nietzsche’s strategy: he explicitly raises the question about the value of unegoistic actions, at the same time that he begins to move away from the psychological egoism of Human All Too Human” [xxiv-xxv].

According to this (mis)interpretation, the Nietzsche of Daybreak has rejected Human, All-too-human, with its reduction of all idealism to human selfishness, in favor of an interpretation of morality that allows for moral impulsion.  The editors call attention to “Daybreak’s [alleged] repudiation of the thoroughgoing psychological egoism of Human, All Too Human” [xxv].  In Daybreak, Nietzsche has seen the Light of Day: “The passage [cited above] thus functions to separate Nietzsche’s new position from his earlier one: he no longer denies the existence of morally motivated actions, but claims instead that these actions, when they occur, are based on erroneous presuppositions” (xxv).

This is nonsense.  Even worse, it goes against the thrust and tenor of Nietzschean thought.  It violates the grain of the text.  Nietzsche wants us to undeceive ourselves of the false assumption of “moral motives.”  He wants us to think in luculent manner.  He wants a world that is unalloyed by the false presupposition that moral intentions are possible.

The correct interpretation of the passage cited above is as follows: Human beings might believe that they have moral impulses that entrain them to perform moral actions, but nowhere in Daybreak does Nietzsche write that their moral motives are anything other than modes of self-deception.

Nietzsche writes (to translate): “I also deny morality: [I do not deny] that innumerable human beings feel themselves to be immoral, but [I do deny] that there is any ground in truth for them to feel this way.”

The most important word in this regard is fühlen (“to feel”).  Human beings feel themselves to be immoral or moral, but this does not mean that they are immoral or moral.  To turn to the alchemy metaphor: There are those who identify themselves as alchemists, but this does not mean that alchemy is anything other than a quack pseudo-science.  Human beings feel that they are performing moral actions, but do I really need to write that the feeling that one is performing a moral action is not the same thing as a genuinely moral intention?  Human beings might feel that they are self-responsible moral agents who are morally impelled to perform moral actions, but they are being self-deceptive.  They might explain to themselves that they are moral beings, but this does not mean that they are moral!  The unconscious impulse behind their “moral intentions” is always, for Nietzsche, selfishness.

The writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do not separate consciousness from the unconscious mind, even though Nietzsche consistently does precisely this, especially in the passage in which he affirms the “non-knowledge of the self” (Das, was den Menchen so schwer zu begreifen fällt, ist ihre Unwissenheit über sich selbst) [M 116].  The idea of “moral intentions” becomes questionable when we consider the unreadability of the self to itself.  Sadly, the editors seem to have forgotten the sentence of Nietzsche in which he declares that moral actions are never what they appear to be to the subject who performs them: Die Handlungen sind niemals Das, als was sie uns erscheinen! [Ibid.].  We are not what we appear to be to ourselves, never mind how we appear to other human beings.  “We are strangers to ourselves”: This is the thesis of Toward the Genealogy of Morals.  The core of the human animal is unknown and unknowable to that same animal.  What distinguishes us from all of the other animals is that our essence is unknown and unknowable to us—this insight made Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis possible.  If one does not understand these points, one does not understand Nietzsche.

The other person is unknowable to us, moreover, except insofar as he or she leaves an impression on us: Wir begreifen Nichts von [dem Nächsten], als die Veränderungen an uns, deren Ursache er ist [M 118].  Other people will attempt to leave imprints upon you, as if you were a ball of wax—and yet you will know nothing of them other than the psychic impressions that they leave upon you.  We can neither say that the other human being is “good” or “evil” in himself or in herself.  “Good” or “evil” are names, labels, deictic markers that we attach to the other human being.  A person is nominated as “good” inasmuch as s/he pleases us; a person is nominated as “evil” inasmuch as s/he displeases us.  And yet this person is neither good nor evil in him- or herself.  In this fashion, Nietzsche moves away from Stirner, who some think of as Nietzsche’s predecessor.  The Stirnerian moral-ego system is one in which what pleases me is right and what displeases me is wrong.  We know from Iva Overbeck that Nietzsche read Stirner (cf. Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114): Here he is moving beyond the naivety of Stirner and not defining “good” as that which is good to me, nor is he defining “evil” as that which is evil to me.  Both “good” and “evil” are mystifications, abstractions, and misinterpretations of the human mind.

Clark and Leiter do not seem to be conscious of Paragraph 148, wherein Nietzsche asserts that there are no moral actions, if morality means “other-centeredness.”  The moral intentions behind such actions would be other-centered, as well.  We never do anything purely for the other person or without self-interest, and our will is constrained by mood, by the unconscious, by degrees of sickness, by degrees of health and the feeling of well-being, by our memory of the past, by hunger, and/or by the need to urinate.

In an unpublished fragment from the summer of 1880—which, as far as I know, has never before been rendered into English—Nietzsche writes:

“Will to urinate,” that means: There is, first of all, a pressure and a compulsion; secondly, a medium through which to release oneself; thirdly, a habit to be exercised, after it has been given from the intellect to the hand.  In itself, the pressure or compulsion has nothing to do with the alleviation of the bladder: It does not say, “I want.”  It says, rather, “I suffer” [translation mine].

Let me make a simple remark that every child could understand: Although one might choose when to urinate, no one chooses whether to urinate.  And the discomfiting and discomforting need to urinate can shape one’s decision-making process, perturb one’s attention, and determine one’s words and actions.  The insistent and persistent existence of the need to urinate in itself invalidates the hypothesis of the free will, for who has absolute power over urination?  One has no more control over one’s thoughts as one has control over whether or not one has the need to urinate.  If the need to urinate were subject to some “free will,” wouldn’t most people have willed away or scheduled their micturition sessions?

Furthermore: If he admits “the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi) in Daybreak, why are all of Nietzsche’s examples of moral actions examples of egoistical, self-interested behavior, of extreme vaingloriousness, of vanity?  There is the nun who flaunts her chastity in order to punish fleshlier women with the image of her stern and proud virginity, her freedom from the desire for a man’s touch, her austere holiness: Die Keuschheit der Nonne: mit welchen strafenden Augen sieht sie in das Gesicht anderslebender Frauen! wie viel Lust der Rache ist in diesen Augen! [M 30].  There is the artist who declares his greatness and champions his excellence in order to excite envy in his contemporaries: Dort steht ein grosser Künstler: die vorumpfundene Wollust am Neide bezwungener Nebenbuhler hat seine Kraft nicht schlafen lassen, bis dass er gross geworden ist, —wie viele bittere Augenblicke anderer Seelen hat er sich für das Grosswerden zahlen lassen! [Ibid.].  If I may submit an example that Nietzsche does not give: The man who gives money to a beggar does so not out the desire to help the beggar, but out of the desire to feel superior to the beggar and out of the desire to advertise his superiority over the beggar—though, as Nietzsche points out in this very book, he will become irritated afterward for having done so, as he would have been irritated for not having done so.  In each case, the striving for distinction (Streben nach Auszeichnung) [M 113] is at the same time the striving to dominate another person—it is not an isolating experience, though it ends in a self-relation.  The moralist attempts to annihilate the other human being by the assertion one’s superiority and then attempts to recuperate oneself through this annihilation.  One injures the other in order to injure oneself—and then triumphs over both pity for the person one injured and over self-pity in order to exuberate and luxuriate in the feeling of one’s own power.  Such is the magnetic glory of the martyr.

Not only is absolute other-directed agape love for the other human being impossible; it would not even desirable if it were to be universalized [M 143]: It would create a nightmare world in which everyone fervently loved everyone else, a frenzy of mass-love that would inexorably lead the beloved to languish for lovelessness [M 147].

(Parenthetical remarks: What good is a virtue if it cannot be displayed?  Why be virtuous at all if one cannot delight in dramatizing virtues in front of an audience for the sake of their approbation?  Today, people call this “virtue signaling”: Was nützte eine Tugend, die man night zeigen konnte oder die sich nicht zeigen verstand! [M 29].  And yet there is a darker side to the performance of one’s moral uprightness.  Morality is cruelty.  It is an attempt to inflict misery and the perception of one’s own superiority on another: Man will machen, dass unser Anblick dem Anderen wehe thun und seinen Neid, das Gefühl der Ohnmacht und seines Herabsinkens wecke [M 30]. Moralistic language is the perfect license for a mean-spirited person to release his or her pent-up aggressions upon another—consider the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Antifa protesters for a contemporary example of this.)

The reflection on pity (Mitleid) is inarguably the center of Daybreak.  If this is true (and it is), then how could one claim, as the writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do, that Nietzsche believes in selfless motives?

Pity is the affect of morality, not respect (Achtung), as it is for Kant.  This allows Nietzsche to show the sadism and the lust for power that lies at the foundation of all morality.  Pity implies a relation to transcendence—not the transcendence of God or of a supersensible morality, but the surpassing power and dominance of the one who pities.  It is always possible to withhold pity.  If it is always possible to withhold pity, then we are exercising power over the piteous.  If we want to feel our power, we can either withhold our pity or threaten to withhold our pity.  One pities dogs, one pities cats, one pities university professors—creatures to which one feels oneself superior.  If we see someone drowning and have the power to save his life, we might save him out of pity—but this is selfishness and a counterstrike against one’s own feeling of fragility and powerlessness [M 133].  Pity potentiates the one who feels pity.

There can be no rivalry where there is pity—Nietzsche almost writes this.  An enemy is an equal—one does not pity one’s enemies.  If you want a rivalry to end, pity your enemy.  This does not imply that pity equalizes or levels the distinction between the one who is piteous and the one who is pitiable, but rather that it introduces an unsurpassable distance between the one who pities and the one who is pitied, between the one who has the power to dispense pity and the pitiable.

Nietzsche enjoins us to “Wake up!” (Wachen wir auf!) [M 464].  We should awaken from our intellectual benightedness into intellectual enlightenment—Daybreak is a text that belongs to the European Aufklärung.  We should move from the dreamfulness of morality, religion, and metaphysics to the wakefulness, to the awakeness, of rationality.

The title, Daybreak, alludes to the dawning of a world in which humanity will be undarkened by morality, religion, and metaphysics.  Nietzsche enjoins us to disencumber ourselves of all of these things, to pierce the encrustation of moral, religious, and metaphysical prejudices.  It will be a world in which no one believes in any beyond, in any otherworldly transcendence.  Human life will become at long last meaningful when our successors recognize that there is no reason for them to judge one another or themselves, that they are fundamentally innocent.  (There is no reason to judge what is involuntary.  The free spirit believes in the innocence of all opinions, as s/he believes in the innocence of all actions [M 56].)  It will be a world in which polyamory will replace monogamy, a world in which suicide will not be criminalized or moralistically condemned, a world in which criminals will be permitted to choose their own forms of containment [M 187], a world in which the criminal-justice system will be founded on the idea of deterrence and rehabilitation, not punishment, a world in which no one will be considered guilty of anything, a world in which no one will be considered responsible for anything that one does, a world in which it will be generally recognized that all human thought and action is necessary and beyond one’s conscious control.  It will also be a place of regular gymnastic exercise, if we believe the Nietzsche of Human, All-too-human.  Much like the future that is evoked within the pages of the greatest of all Nietzschean novels, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, the future in which all of this would take place is heralded yet never directly shown.  Its promise is described purely negatively.  What will this world look like?  Nietzsche never tells us.  Nietzsche (and Lawrence) criticize the conditions of the modern world and open the doors to an extra-moral, extra-religious, and extra-metaphysical future without ever being explicit in their vaticinations.

To return to the second paragraph of this commentary: Nietzsche does not advise us to be immoral; rather, he advises us to be moral out of different reasons than out of deference to a convention or belief in the supernatural.  We should become the self-legislators of morality—and if this means endorsing polyamory, suicide, and revenge, so be it.  Let us no longer be sheep (moral agents), to forecast the language of Also Sprach Zarathustra.  Let us become lions (critics of morality), and thereafter we shall transform into children (inventors of a morality of irresponsibility and a morality of innocence).  It is time, and high time indeed, to rethink, to accept, to refuse to condemn impulses that are unavoidably human (envy, covetousness, disobedience).  Then, perhaps we would do what comes naturally without a bad conscience, as Nietzsche writes: Wenn der Mensch hört auf, sich für böse zu halten, hört er auf, böse zu sein [M 148].  He exhorts us to praise egoistic actions and to devalue the so-called “selfless actions” until things balance out.

Nietzsche replaces good and evil with gradations of power.  All is power.  (This is a flaw in Nietzschean thought: If everything is power, then nothing is power.  Nietzsche’s power-absolutism leads him to tautologous formulations.)  Everything can be understood in terms of relativities of power (this is a point that Nietzsche will enlarge upon in the Nachlass): Every human being has the desire for dominance over all other human beings.  And what better way of dominating another human being than by flaunting one’s moral superiority?  Every human being has the desire to become God.

“Love always occurs beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche will write in Beyond Good and Evil: He means self-love, which eradicates Christian guilt.  Remember that pride is the deadliest sin.  Self-love exists outside of the categories of sin and redemption.  Another way of saying this: The one who loves himself or herself has no need of Christianity.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


One of Nietzsche’s Mistakes

Nietzsche appears to believe that credo quia absurdum est (“I believe it because it is absurd”) is the motto of the Catholic Church.  And yet this statement was never made by Tertullian or by any of the Church Fathers.  Tertullian writes, rather, credibile est, quia ineptum est (“It is credible because it is inept”).  As always, when Nietzsche makes an error, it is a productive error.


Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile

Prospective suicides will not commit the act, if they think that no one will care.

Words are not solutions; they are problems.

If you want your rivalry with someone else to end, pity your rival.

There can be no rivalry where there is pity for the rival.

Steve Harvey and Dennis Prager believe in the existence of objective morality because they have the emotional need to believe this—as if their self-preservation were something essential.

Saving a drowning man presents one with an advantageable situation: It allows the rescuer to be worshipped as a hero.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost (which, strangely, is never called a “problem play”), are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematic plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects her lover’s socks, which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv]  that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematic comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature.  I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text.  If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written.  The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text.  After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract.  It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.

Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all?  From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect).  Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot.  This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots.  They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic.  There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation.  But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment.  Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.

Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600).  By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot.  I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play.  Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.

The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage.  He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves.  She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man who she definitely does not love.  The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law.  It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest.  The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest.  Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law.  The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play.  He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen.  Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World.  Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.

There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings.  Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer.  He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon).  The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further.  The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius.  Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower.  The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.

We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia.  Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.

As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander.  When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man.  Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.

The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic.  Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest.  While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice.  Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated.  Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.

The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then she is obsessed with Ass Head.  After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy.  Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.

Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius.  Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander).  Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.

The forest is a place of disunification.  Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers.  The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies.  Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest.  This concealment allows the fairies — in particular, Puck — to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius.  (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.)  And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine.  This is what I would call “comedic irony” — the counterpart of dramatic irony.  Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better.  Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness.  Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”

The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen.  The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.

The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth.  The play is adorned with two female characters — one earthly, one ethereal — who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.

Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire.  Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer.  Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles.  Helena to Demetrius:

“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].

Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena.  She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:

“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].

I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent.  This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would be considered absurd and unnatural.  Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage.  I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however.  Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them.  Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac.  When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.

All of this was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.


The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored.  The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap.  Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies.  The play-within-the-play is interrupted.  Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters.  The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other.  There is animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (Lysander is confused with Demetrius).  The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.

In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married.  I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:

  • No more drugs.
  • No more separateness.
  • No more interruption.
  • No more perverse sexuality.
  • No more conflict.
  • No more bestialization.
  • No more confusion of identity.
  • No more bachelorhood.

Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love.  At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander.  The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages.  It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.

Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law.  As Theseus says to Hermia:

“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].

Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State.  As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:

“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].

Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off?  His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower.  Is his desire for Helena now authentic?  On what basis could we say that it is?  In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not.  Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot.  This same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same.  Demetrius:

“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].

He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena.  Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body.  The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self.  Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?


There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.”  Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed.  The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):

Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].

Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].

The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream.  As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding.  This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play.  The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality.  The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) is tamed by marriage.  As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding.  The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.


From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized.  But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.

Dr. Joseph Suglia