An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of TWELFTH NIGHT, OR, WHAT YOU WILL (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

Bedre godt haengt end slet gift.

Better well-hanged than ill-wed.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Crumbs

Better well-hanged than ill-read.

—Joseph Suglia

The wildness of this frantically antic and antically frantic play extends to its title: Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will.  The Twelfth Night is the Feast of the Epiphany, which, in various forms of Christianity, commemorates the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus.  It commonly takes place on the sixth of January, twelve nights after Christmas.  The Feast of the Epiphany has its roots in the Ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, the Feast of Saturn, which celebrated the Winter Solstice.  Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will is a yuletide play, but it is also a saturnalian play.  In Roman Antiquity, on Saturnalia, hierarchy was inverted.  The King was deposed, and the mob took over the city.  And yet this rising ochlocracy was purely theatrical; it was nothing more than a sham, nothing more than a show.  The inversion of ordinary relations was temporary and staged.

Disorder is likewise invoked in the subtitle of the comedy: What You Will.  The subtitle is evoked in the text, twice.  “[T]ake it how you will” is said by Andrew Aguecheek in the third scene of the second act.  “Take it how you will”: Interpret my words in any sense you please, for words very quickly become “rascals” and easily grow “wanton,” as the Clown puts it later in the text [III:i].  The intended meaning of a word speedily slips into its opposite or into a meaning other than what the speaker or writer intended.  Take my words how you will, Augecheek seems to be implying, for it won’t matter, one way or the other.  Language slides; it flows where it pleases.  In the first scene of the third act, the Clown compares a sentence to a chev’ril glove that may be turned inside out—the wrong side is easily turned outward, and the intended wittiness of a sentence easily devolves into witlessness.  Witticisms swiftly become witlessisms.  Though he is praised by Uncle Toby for his linguistic skills, Augecheek is hardly a wordsmith. He lacks facility in basic English (he doesn’t know the word accost), in basic French (he doesn’t know the word pourquoi), and in Latin (he is ignorant of the phrase diluculo surgere).

“What you will” is spoken by Olivia in the fifth scene of the first act.  “What you will” could be translated as: “Anything you say.”  Or: “Anything you want.”  Or even: “Who cares?”  Or (and this is not too much of a stretch): “Whatever.”  Quodlibet.  All hail disorder!  Let chaos reign!

And chaos does indeed reign.  The customary order of things is turned upside down—hence, the chaos of the play.  It might be worth pausing over a few of the characters and their lunacy, their fettered reason.  As Olivia says to Cesario-Viola, “[R]eason thus with reason fetter” [III:i].

Count Orsino is a proto-Romantic personage and anticipates the Knight-in-arms of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” as well as Goethe’s Werther.  A dandified dreamer, he is neither young nor old, both unyoung and unold.  As Malvolio phrases it, he is

[n]ot yet old enough for a man, nor young enough for
a boy; as a squash is before ’tis a peascod, or a
cooling when ’tis almost an apple: ’tis with him
in standing water, between boy and man [I:v].

Like all Romantic protagonists, Orsino is forever sighing over a love that he doesn’t even want reciprocated—the love of Olivia, which, if we take his advice to Cesario-Viola seriously, he appears to think will be short-lived:

[B]oy, however we do praise ourselves,
Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,
More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,
Than women’s are [II:iv].

Orsino’s mind displays various colors; it is “a very opal,” as the Clown poeticizes it [II:iv].  He changes his mind in the first lines of the play—first, he wants music to play; then, suddenly, he wants it to stop.  It is not merely Orsino’s mind that is Protean—the entire play is a play of shifting surfaces.

The crepuscular Uncle Toby seems to do most of his socializing after sundown.  He is a fanatical nyctophiliac: Instead of preferring to be active during the day, he prefers to be active at night—and justifies his noctambulations by saying that by staying up late, he goes to bed early:  “To be up after midnight and to go to bed then, is early: so that to go to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes” [II:iii].  The customary order of things is again reversed.

Sebastian and Viola, twin brother and sister, board a ship together, and both end up separately in Illyria.  For reasons that escape me, Sebastian disguises himself as a character named Roderigo; he befriends a fellow traveler named Antonio during the voyage.  The ship capsizes and wrecks.  Sebastian loses his twin sister in the storm.  The homoerotic passion that Antonio has for Sebastian is plangent: Antonio declares himself servant to Sebastian after Antonio saves Sebastian’s life.  In the fourth scene of the third act, Antonio mistakes Cesario-Viola for her twin brother and is baffled when s/he does not recognize him.  It is as if we were reading or watching an immeasurably more sophisticated version of The Comedy of Errors.

Viola’s gender is shifted: She becomes Cesario, the myrmidon of Orsino; Olivia falls in love with Viola while the latter is dressed as Cesario.  The play does not hint at lesbianism as much as it hints at andromimetophilia, and andromimetophilia—the fetishization of women who dress as men—is one of Shakespeare’s most insistent fetishes.  Viola becomes other-than-what-she-is, and Olivia wishes that Cesario were the same as what he appears to be:

OLIVIA:  Stay.  I prithee tell me what thou think’st of me.

VIOLA:  That you do think you are not what you are.

OLIVIA:  If I think so, I think the same of you.

VIOLA:  Then think you right.  I am not what I am.

OLIVIA:  I would you were as I would have you be [III:i].

Viola transmutes herself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  Sebastian transmutes himself into Cesario and is then beloved by Olivia.  The Clown transmutes himself into Sir Topas and torments Malvolio.  One character after the other metamorphoses into another.

Amid the maelstrom of all of these transformations and inversions, there is one Aspergeroid character who is boringly moralistic and selfsame, until he, too, is drawn into the maelstrom: Malvolio.

Malvolio is a natural-born killjoy.  Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to name him the one anti-saturnalian character of the play.  He refuses to let anyone have any fun.  He is enemy of drunkenness, and drunkenness, as everyone over the age of twelve knows, is transformative.  He looks down upon the poor, even though he is poor himself.  Rightly is he called a “Puritan” [II:iii] by Maria—to paraphrase something that Mencken once wrote, a Puritan is someone who suspects that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.  The imaginary betrothal of Olivia and Malvolio will result in an interdiction against Uncle Toby’s dipsomania.

Maria writes a counterfeit love letter in handwriting that resembles that of her mistress, Olivia.  Malvolio, who is such a narcissist that he believes that every word of praise must be directed at him and that every word of praise that is said about him must be genuine, is taken in by the forged letter.  Malvolio must be the scapegoat of the play, since he is the only character who is anti-fun and anti-revelry.  He is the sacrificial victim, for he refuses to dance to its swinging and swaying motions, all of its manic undulations.  He is catfished, and like any post-victim of catfishing, swears his revenge and does so in the unforgettable line “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” [V:i], thus opening the portal for a sequel to the play that might be entitled Thirteenth Night, Or, The Revenge of Malvolio.

Even more humiliatingly, he is gulled into wearing ridiculous yellow stockings—yellow is a color that Olivia detests, since it reminds her of melancholy, something from which she has been suffering since the death of her brother—and smiling inanely in Olivia’s presence.  His smiling will be seen as inappropriate by Olivia, who, again, is still undergoing the work of mourning.

Though this might be a superficial remark about a play that is only deceptively superficial, let me set down that Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will has the virtue of being the most theatrical of Shakespeare’s comedies and problematic plays.  Most of the utterances are short; one character speaks after the other in machine-gun succession.  There are few lengthy and lapidary soliloquies.  This kind of staginess is unusual for Shakespeare.  The fact that Shakespeare was ever a dramatist is one of life’s greatest mysteries.

The value of this insane play resides in its bouleversement of all relations.  Bouleversement: This was one of Georges Bataille’s favorite words and indicates the woozy overthrow of propriety, decency, and stability.  The world is turned on its head.  Never has topsy-turviness been presented with such elegance.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

An Analysis of THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

J’énonce que le discours analytique ne se soutient que de l’énoncé qu’il n’y a pas, qu’il est impossible de poser le rapport sexuel.

—Jacques Lacan

Shakespeare’s time believed in the Great Chain of Being: the idea that the cosmos is linked together by a natural order.  Human beings ascend above non-human animals; vegetation descends below both.  Inanimate matter has its place at the bottom of the hierarchy.  All entities are connected in relations of interdependence; every thing has its own place, and every thing is dependent upon every other thing.  There are hidden agreements between all things in the world.

Social classes, too, are organized by the Great Chain of Being.  Monarchies have their proper place and were preordained by the cosmos.  Shakespeare’s early and middle comedies shore up the idea that social order is a manifestation of the natural order.  As I have stated repeatedly, the comedies are works of conjugal propaganda in which the principals are coerced into marriage.  Marriage was seen as the threshold to total socialization, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  No matter what disturbances destabilize the relations between the characters in the first four acts, all of these relations will be restored in the fifth act with the compulsion of marriage.

This is not quite always the case in the problematic plays.  Love’s Labour’s Lost ends without ever really ending; it fizzles out with the vague promise of erotic fulfillment.  All’s Well That Ends Well only ends well from a purely formal and external point of view.  I have written that Shakespeare is both the most underestimated and the most overestimated of writers in the English canon, and this is absolutely evident when one considers that the order-restoring comedies (such as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are overrated and the order-destabilizing comedies (if this is the right word) are underrated (though there has been a surge of interest in the latter in recent years).

The problematic plays show the unlinking of the Great Chain of Being.  The Winter’s Tale, which is one of Shakespeare’s late plays (composed circa 1610), does not allow the young boy Mamillius to be revived, even though both Perdita and Hermione are resurrected.  Though there is a reconciliation of what has been ruptured at the close of the play, it is a queasy and uneasy reconciliation.  These are discordances in the harmonizations of the Great Chain of Being.

Not only that: The Winter’s Tale is paradoxically heterogeneous and heterogeneously paradoxical.  One cannot, without simplification, say that the play is a comedy, nor can one say, with justification, that it is simply a tragedy or even a romance.  It is a gallimaufry of tragedy, comedy, and romance.  Boundaries are crossed within the play itself.  In Act Three: Scene Three, the Clown points out that the rain along the shore of Bohemia is so intense that he cannot tell what is sea and what is sky (though Bohemia does not have a shore, and this was generally recognized in the early sixteenth century!); the boundary between sea and sky has been traversed and has become indistinguishable: “I have seen two such sights, by sea and by land! but I am not to say it is a sea, for it is now the sky: betwixt the firmament and it you cannot thrust a bodkin’s point.”  While this might seem a throwaway line, there are no throwaway lines in Shakespeare.

Even the matter of the Bear is non-arbitrary, no matter how much its appearance elicits laughter in audiences.  Without the becoming-comedic of the action, the seriousness of the play would have become laughable.  The comedy of the third and fourth acts enhances the seriousness that precedes it.  With the intrusion of the Bear, which devours Antigonus, the play transforms from a tragedy to a comedy.  We get a prescient sense of this transformation when, at one of the darkest moments of the play, Antigonus says that the wrongful accusation of the queen will bring everyone to “laughter” [I:ii].  It is as if, when he says this, he is predestinating his own ursinely induced death, which will bring about a change in genre.

The Bear is at the center of the play.  By this, I do not merely mean that the intrusion of the Bear changes the play from a tragedy to a comedy (for what could be more laughter-provoking than an old man being eaten by a bear?).  I mean that the word bear, and variants thereof, proliferates throughout the text.

The overbearing King of Sicilia, Leontes, is convinced that his wife, Queen Hermione, has cheated upon him.  I shall return to his conviction that she is a barefaced adulteress below; it is most likely a bugbear of his imagination (please bear this in mind).  Leontes makes the bearish suggestion to Camillo, his lord, that the latter poison the man who allegedly cuckolded him: Polixenes, King of Bohemia.  Camillo is embarrassed by the idea and forbears from poisoning Polixenes.  He cannot bear the thought of killing the Bohemian king.  Leontes accuses all of his lords of treason and declares the bearing of his children, Mamillius and Perdita, to have issued from Polixenes.  The beardless boy that Hermione has borne, Mamillius, who is likely barely five years old, dies when he hears the unbearable news that his mother has been sentenced for adultery and treason.  Hermione cannot bear the strain and collapses.  The pallbearers take their bodies away to be buried in the same grave.  Antigonus leaves the barne Perdita in the barren wilderness of Bohemia, where Antigonus is devoured by the Bear.

Is Hermione an adulteress?  There is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is; there is no scriptorial evidence to support the assertion that she is not.  One of the many ambiguities of the play, Hermione’s putative adultery can neither be definitively affirmed nor definitively rejected.  Leontes is persuaded of her faithlessness when he sees her clasping hands with Polixenes.  On the surface, this appears to be a faulty inference from inductive logic.  In fact, it is a faulty inference from deductive logic.

Students of logic will recognize the distinction between inductive and deductive logic.  “Induction” comes from the Latin inducere, means “to lead into.”  It is logic that journeys into an assertion from evidence.  “Deduction” comes from the Latin deducere, which means “to move away from.”  It is logic that moves away from an assertion to evidence.

Leontes has decided in advance that Hermione is an adulteress, and this implies that he is practicing deductive logic, though fallaciously.  He begins with his fixed idea and then seeks evidence to support his idea.  He is engaging in confirmation bias: that is, he seeks out evidence to corroborate the hypothesis to which he is emotionally pre-attached.  All of the “evidence” that he uncovers is faulty; it does not prove what he wants it to prove.  However, the opposite is also the case: Anyone who says that Hermione is innocent is being suppositious; such an idea is purely notional in the absence of proof.  She might be innocent; she might be guilty.  The question of her innocence remains unanswerable.

Unlike Othello, who, at least, does not believe in his wife’s infidelity until he uncovers articles of ocular proof (which hardly prove anything at all), Leontes automatically (for once, the adjective is justified) believes in his wife’s infidelity.  Polixenes stays at his wife’s behest, not at his own.  Polixenes and Hermione clasp hands.  This is all of the “evidence” of his wife’s infidelity that Leontes requires.  The flimsiness of such “evidence”—or of such non-evidence—should nourish our suspicion that Leontes is finding what he is seeking.

Leontes is desperate to find a reason to condemn Hermione of faithlessness.  Hermione herself comments on Leontes’ insistent passionate desperateness to find evidence of treachery where there is none, to find a spider in the wine that he drinks when there is no such spider: “I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying, / Howe’er you lean to the nayward” [II:i].  Like all of the jealous, Leontes leans to the nayward: He is inclined to believe in infidelity of his wife, not to disbelieve in it.  When he is challenged by his retinue to give reasons for his suspicion, Leontes asks, rhetorically, “Why, what need we / Commune with you of this, but rather follow / Our forceful instigation?” [II:i].  Instigation: The word suggests impulsiveness without reason.

Jealousy makes projective interpreters of us all.  When we are jealous, we find what we project.  As La Rochefoucauld puts it, jealousy has much more to do with self-love than it has to do with love.

Leontes is married to his own opinion that his wife, Polixenes, and Camillo are treacherous, and this marriage-to-his-own-opinion throws him into transports: “How I blest am I / In my just censure, in my true opinion!” [II:i].  He delights when his fantasies of jealousy are imaginarily confirmed.  Why is this?

I would posit the following: It does not matter whether Hermione has cheated upon Leontes.  Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him.

The question now is not: Is Hermione unfaithful?  The question is rather: Why does Leontes need to believe that Hermione is unfaithful?  Why does he have the emotional and psychological need to believe that his wife is cheating upon him?

Leontes wants Hermione to cheat upon him because he wants her to be an impossibility.  He wants her to be inaccessible.  He wants her to be desirable yet without desire for him.  She can only remain desirable by having no desire for him.

Leontes is a masochistic narcissist.  Even if the husband were correct and Hermione were unfaithful, Leontes’ jealousy would still be pathological (to again channel Lacan).  He must sustain the fantasy of infidelity in order to maintain his status as the desirer of the impossible.  To be loved by a faithful wife would collapse the distance between the masochistic Leontes and the woman he desires.

When Lacan wrote, “Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant,” one of the things that he might have meant was that the desirer does not have a relationship with the one whom he desires.  The man who desires a woman is self-related; even if there is physical contact with the woman he desires, this is only the culmination of his self-relatedness.  If he experiences any pleasure, it is his own pleasure that he is experiencing.  He is only interested in the woman as a medium for his own pleasure (the masculine pronoun seems justified, since I am alluding to Leontes).  Sexuality forecloses a relationship, a rapport, with the other human being.  All eroticism is autoeroticism.  At this point, Professor Alain Badiou, former Chair of Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure, would interject that only through love could one gain access to the totality of the other human being, but this implication is not contained in Lacan’s statement.  And how could one ever gain access to the totality of another human being?

“Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant”: This means (among other things) that it is impossible to find love through eroticism, since eroticism is without relation to any human beings other than to the self.

At the conclusion of the play, a magnificent statue is unveiled before Leontes and his entourage.  It is the statue of Hermione.  This has led four centuries of readers and spectators to wonder: “Did she die and then come back to life?  Or was she alive all along, ensconced by Paulina?”  Even more strangely: “Is this really a statue that we are seeing, and, if it is, how could the statue have been reanimated?”

To turn to the first question: Did Hermione die, and was she then revived from the dead?  At the end of Act Two, we are told that both mother and son will be inhumed in the same grave—but were they?  This remains a supposition.  If Hermione does not die, why does she appear to Antigonus as a floaty revenant “in pure white robes” [III:iii]?  Or is this a dream?  Antigonus tells us that he does “believe / Hermione hath suffer’d death” [III:iii], but why should we believe what he believes?  In a play that is fraught with disguises and self-disguisings (Polixenes, Camillo, and Autolycus all dissimulate themselves), is it not thinkable that Hermione has been concealed for fifteen years until the mourning of the King has transmuted into full-blown melancholia?  What does Paulina mean when she says that she will “choose [for Leontes] a queen: she shall not be so young / As was [his] former; but she shall be such / As, walk’d [his] first queen’s ghost” [V:i]?  Such lines might fertilize our supposition that Hermione has never died and has been kidnapped by Paulina or that, still more incredibly, that Paulina has intentionally fashioned, Pygmalion-like, a statue that will come to life.  Is Paulina a thaumaturge who has fashioned a replica of Leontes’ dead wife and animated that replica?  Has Paulina orchestrated a tableau vivant?  Perhaps Paulina is practicing an art that does not perfect or supplement nature, but rather, is practicing “an art / [t]hat nature makes” [IV:iv], to cite Polixenes.  Is the new “Hermione” a verisimilar impostor—a work of art that is wholly natural?  Are we looking at the real living-and-speaking Hermione, or are we looking at her duplicate?  Is the Hermione at which we are looking a zombie?

None of these questions is answerable.  She might or might not be an Alcestis coming back to the overworld.  Whether Hermione is a zombie or not matters as little as whether she was unfaithful or not: This is one of the many ambiguities and paradoxes of late Shakespeare.  She crosses the distinction between livingness and unlivingness.  She is dead yet alive.  Is this not implied in Leontes’ seemingly necrophiliac remark that he would “again possess her corpse” on “stage” [V:i]?  In the previous act, Perdita denies that her beloved Florizel is “like a corpse” [IV:iii] (wonderful foreshadowing!), for she apprehends his living-and-speaking reality.  This is not the case for Leontes’ non-relation to Hermione, however.  The manifestation of the statue at the end of the play only proves that she is like a mechanical object: She speaks, but only in a mechanical way.  She appears to be artificial and without vitality.

What does matter, I propose, is that Hermione was always a stony image to Leontes.  She always was a lifeless-yet-living effigy to him; she was always a reanimated corpse-image, or perhaps an android or automaton, to him.  Leontes has long since, from the moment that he first saw her, sacrificed her living existence for an unloving-unalive replica.  Leontes’ narcissistic masochism demands that there be an infinite separation, an irrelative void, between him and the woman through whom he loves himself.  Let us not forget Lacan’s remarks on courtly love: The courtly-lover establishes obstacles / impedimenta between him and the object of his desire in order to perpetuate his desire.  He sets up artificial barriers to keep her at a distance.  She must remain remote, deathlike—an apparition of the courtly-lover’s desire for her impassivity.  This is precisely what Leontes does in The Winter’s Tale.  He idealizes and idolizes Hermione in order to compensate for the absence of a relation between them.  She is an idol and has always been an idol to Leontes, an idealized imago.  From the beginning of the play unto its deus-ex-machina ending, she has been a lithic Lilith.

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

My Favorite Authors, My Favorite Films, My Favorite Music

MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia

My favorite music is German, English, and African Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1980.

I have never seen a film that satisfied me.

My favorite authors include Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, David Herbert Lawrence, William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Arthur Schopenhauer, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Jacques Lacan.

Joseph Suglia

Corregidora / Corrigenda – by Joseph Suglia

 

Corregidora / Corrigenda

by Joseph Suglia

A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember.  All of us have heard the words “Never forget!” in reference to the Shoah.  Most are familiar with Kristallnacht, with the Names Project, also known as “the AIDS Quilt.”  The March for Humanity memorializes the mass-murder of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.  Every year, at this time in April, the Rwandan government urges its citizens to kwibuka—the Rwandan word for “to remember.” To kwibuka, to remember the countless Tutsis who were slaughtered in the massacre of 1994.

But how should one respond when genocide is misremembered?  Is the misremembrance of genocide superior to the forgetting of genocide?

Which is worse, distortion or oblivion?

Is it worse to minimize, for example, the number of Armenians who were killed at the beginning of the twentieth century, or to forget that the genocide of Armenians ever occurred?

The most dominant medium of the twentieth century was the cinema, and the cinema still has the power to shape, and to misshape, collective memory.

Over the past seven years, a talentless hack filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino has manufactured films that I would not hesitate to describe as “genocide pornography.”  That is to say, these are films that would turn genocide into an object of consumption, an object of enjoyment.  These are also films that disfigure historical consciousness.

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, the succeeding generation might believe that the Jews defeated the Nazis.  Thanks to Quentin Tarantino, they might believe that Hitler was assassinated.  They might believe that, in general, African slaves rose up and overcame their enslavers.  They might believe that every African slave in antebellum America was a free agent.  Not an insurrectionist like Nat Turner, but an action figure like Django.

But what if misremembrance were not a disfiguration or a distortion of memory?  What if misremembrance plays a constitutive and formative role in memory itself?

Freudian psychoanalysis has something to say about the interpenetration of remembrance and misremembrance.

At the earliest stage of his career, between the years 1895 and 1897, Freud formulated what is called “seduction theory.”  Seduction theory is based on the idea that sexual trauma is pathogenic—that is, that sexual abuse produces neuroses.

Freud rejected seduction theory in 1897, but this does not mean that he silenced the voices of abused children.  From the beginning of his career until its end, Freud never ceased to emphasize that sexual trauma has pathological effects.

Why did Freud reject seduction theory?  Because it was too linear, too simple, because it did not take into consideration the supremacy of the unconscious.

The memory of sexual trauma, Freud recognized, might be repressed, sublimated, externalized, transferred, reintrojected, reimagined, or fictionalized.

This does not mean that when children claim that they have been sexually abused, they are lying.  It means, rather, that experiences of abuse pass through the imagination and the imagination passes through the unconscious.  Seduction theory did not take the imagination—die Phantasie—into account and therefore had to be abandoned.

The unconscious, as Freud wrote to Wilhelm Fleiss, does not distinguish between fact and fantasy.

It is difficult for a victim of abuse to acknowledge his or her trauma directly, and Freud knew this.  Sexual trauma, after it occurs, does not manifest itself directly or immediately, but epiphenomenally—that is to say, symptomatically.  It shows itself in disguise.  It dramatizes itself.  It retraumatizes.  It might be phantasmatically reconstituted.

From the Freudian standpoint, remembrance and misremembrance are not mutually exclusive.

There is a third form of misremembrance that I would like to pause over.  It is the kind of anamnesis or déjà vu when an individual recollects not her own individual history, but the history of past generations, the history of her ancestors.  Cultural memory, seen from this perspective, would be a form of misremembrance.

Such misremembrance could only be figured in art.

The literature of Gayl Jones reminds us that the remembrance of personal trauma always contains a cultural dimension, that all memory is misremembrance.

The past that you have experienced is not the past that you remember.

When I first heard the title of Jones’s first novel — Corregidora  (published in 1975) — I thought it was “corrigenda.”

Corrigenda: a list of errors in a published manuscript.

* * * * *

At the novel’s opening, lounge singer Ursa Corregidora is shoved down a staircase by her husband, Mutt — a catastrophic blow that results in her infertility. After she renounces her husband, Ursa enters into a relationship with Tadpole, the owner of the Happy Café, the bar at which she performs. Like all of her significant relationships with men, this second relationship proves disastrous and is doomed to failure.

Every man in the novel, without exception, sees Ursa as a “hole” — that is, as a beguiling and visually appealing receptacle to be penetrated. The narrative suggests this on the figural level. A talented novelist, Jones weaves images of orifices throughout her text — tunnels that swallow and tighten around trains, lamellae such as nostrils, mouths, wounds, etc. Although one of Ursa’s “holes” is barren, another “hole” is bountifully “prosperous”  — her mouth, from which the “blues” issue. A movement of sonic exteriorization corresponds to a counter-movement of physiological interiorization.

It is easy to be trapped by these more immediate, socio-sexual dimensions of the narrative. Corregidora might seem, prima facie, to be nothing more than another novel about a woman imprisoned in abusive and sadistic relationships with appropriative men. But the meanings of Corregidora are far more profound than this.  A “transcendental” framework envelops the immediate narrative and casts it in relief, thereby enhancing its significance.  We learn that Ursa is the great-granddaughter of Portuguese slave-trader and procurer Corregidora, who sired both Ursa’s mother and grandmother.  Throughout the course of the novel, the men in Ursa’s life take on a resemblance to Corregidora — and this resemblance sheds light on both the sexual basis of racism and the tendency of some oppressed cultures to take on the traits of imperialist hegemonies.  According to the logic of the novel, the children of slaves resemble either slaves or slave drivers.  Even within communities born of slavery, the novel suggests, there persist relationships of enslavement.  “How many generations had to bow to his genital fantasies?” Ursa asks at one point, referring to Corregidora the Enslaver.  As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, Jones’s novel suggests, there will never be an end to this period of acquiescence; Corregidora will continue to achieve posthumous victories.

As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the enslavers will continue to achieve posthumous victorious.

As long as hierarchical relationships form between men and women in the African-American community, the novel suggests, the segregationists and the white supremacists will continue to achieve posthumous victories.

To return to the opening statement of this essay: A typical response to genocide is the injunction to remember. Although her infertility robs Ursa of the ability to “make generations” — something that, she is taught, is the essence of being-woman — she can still “leave evidence,” can still attest to the historical memory of slavery.  All documents that detailed Corregidora’s treatment of his slaves were seemingly destroyed, as if the abolition of slavery abolished memory itself.  According to the injunction of the Corregidora women (Ursa’s ancestors), one must testify, one must re-member, one must “leave evidence.”  And yet memory is precisely Ursa’s problem.  Memory cripples her.  Throughout the novel, Ursa struggles to overcome the trauma of her personal past.  And this past — in particular, the survival in memory of her relationship with Mutt — belongs to the larger, communal past that is her filial legacy.  Her consciousness is rigidified, frozen in the immemorial past of the Corregidora women.  This “communal” past is doomed to repeat itself infinitely, thus suspending the presence of the present — and, in particular, Ursa’s individual experience of the present.  Her individual experience of the present is indissociably married to her personal past, and her most intimate past is, at the same time, also the past of her community.  The words that Ursa uses to describe her mother could also apply to Ursa herself: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong within her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.”

At the shocking and unforgettable close of the novel, the past and present coincide almost absolutely.  When, after twenty-two years of estrangement, Ursa is reunited with her first husband, the historical memory of slavery is superimposed and mapped onto their relationship. Both Ursa and Mutt become allegorical figures, each representing slave and slaveholder, respectively.  The present-past and the past-present reflect each other in an infinite mirror-play until they both become almost indistinguishable from each other.

At the juncture of both temporalities is an inversion of power relations that comes by way of a sex act.  Ursa performs fellatio on her first husband.  Oral sex replaces oral transmission.  Here we have the perpetuation of a traumatic past, and yet it is a repetition with a difference.  Fellatio is disempowering for the man upon whom it is performed; dangerously close to emasculation, it is experienced as “a moment of broken skin but not sexlessness, a moment just before sexlessness, a moment that stops just before sexlessness.”  For the woman, by contrast, it might be an act vacant of all sensuality, one that is abstracted of all emotional cargo.  Fellatio might infuse the performer with a feeling of power’s intensification; its objective might not be the enhancement of erotic pleasure, but of the pleasure that comes with the enhancement of one’s feeling of power.

By playing the role of the guardian of memory, Ursa dramatizes the intersection of her individual past with a communal past.  The paralysis of historical consciousness sets in: “My veins are centuries meeting.”

End of quotation, and the end of the essay.

Dr. Joseph Suglia