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

A commentary on HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN by Nietzsche / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES: Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Nietzsche on Women / Was Nietzsche a sexist? / Was Nietzsche a misogynist? / Nietzsche and Sexism / Sam Harris and Nietzsche / Sexism and Nietzsche / Misogyny and Nietzsche / Nietzsche and Misogyny / Nietzsche and Sexism / Nietzsche and Feminism / Feminism and Nietzsche / Friedrich Nietzsche on Women / Friedrich Nietzsche and Sam Harris / Is Sam Harris Influenced by Nietzsche?



A commentary by Joseph Suglia

MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886

VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)

WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)

The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-too-human.  It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say.  “How to silence?”  In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?

An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another.  A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.

Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism

Human, All-too-human is almost unremittingly destructive.  For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought.  However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (which I will return to below), and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.

In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten).  The highest values are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings.  This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed.  The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral.  The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral.  The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].

The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, which Nietzsche warns us against for purely tactical reasons).  As well as lying.  Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true.  This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.  Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world.  Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says.  The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52].  The thing in itself is a phenomenon.  Everything is appearance.  There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world.

As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed.  I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful.  Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self.  Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self.  To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre? [MAM: 133].  Only a god would be purely other-directed.  Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard.  Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:

“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”


“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”

Whatever is considered “good” is relativized.  We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum.  Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations.  Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition.  When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition].  The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy solitude and a solitary unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.

What is a “free spirit”?  A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument.  A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides.  As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No.  They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them.  They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.

All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives.  Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error.  And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided.  In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided.  Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292].  The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34].  It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective.  Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition].  A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.

There Is No Free Will.  Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.

Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.

The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center.  A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.

The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.

There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology.  I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche).  Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.

I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878.  It was a silent revolution.  Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.

It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality.  Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.

The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions.  It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware of why we do / say / write / think the things that we do / say / write / think in advance.  This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text).  It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts.  Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one).  The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.

We do not think our thoughts.  Our thoughts appear to us.  They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind.  Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.

This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism.  If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will.  Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis.  Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence?  Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform?  If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less.  After all, what is free will if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought / done / said / written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?

Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance.  After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated.  Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less.  No more desire for revenge, no more enmity.  No more guilt, no more regret.  No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did.  In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains.  There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice.  No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself.  No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself.  Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness.  It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will.  There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such.  There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.

If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either.  The second presupposes the first.  Do you call a monster “evil”?  A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does.  Do we call earthquakes “evil”?  Do we call global warming “evil”?  Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals.  We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will.  We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39].  No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder.  Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”?  No one chooses one’s genetic constitution.  You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.

Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-too-human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801).  Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.

Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung).  A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly.  As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution.  It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does.  All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil.  Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to pre-calculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].

If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107].  All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary.  Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals.  I must cite this passage, which is not irrelevant to this context, and which belongs to the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen).  The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].

The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity.  Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility.  If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List.  We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character.  We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University.  He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will.  Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?

Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.

In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree.  Since the first edition of Human, All-too-human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.

Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist.  But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.

At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist.  To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann).  Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411].  The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men.  Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.

Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Uebergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].

To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous, and not in any pejorative sense.  He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women.  Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated.  This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness.  And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits?  Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time.  Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific.  Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].

Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative?  Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity?  And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the Overhuman takes the stage?  Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”

This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings.  Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible.  My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity.  For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.

To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche.  (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.)  Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator.  In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-too-human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us.  Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36].  In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’  For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.”  Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal.  If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words?  The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.

Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”

Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”

My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond?  Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy?  Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with?  Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?

Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically.  We do not require their answers in order to live.  All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions.  Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?

Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being?  I am looking at you, Heidegger.

The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.”  Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy.  Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous.

Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, all-too-human is not merely not an atheist.  He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder.  Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-same and the Will to Power.

Nietzsche Contradicts Himself.  Often.  But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.

Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking.  He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book.  After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291].  In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions.  If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking.

Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche

On Religion and Politics

What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.

On Morality

Morality depends on opportunity.

On Communication

A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication.  (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.)  Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.

On Interpretation

The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable.  Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].

On the Voice

We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.  We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.

On Salvation

In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.”  This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.

On Censorial America

In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.

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