An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE – by Joseph Suglia

 

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia

PART ONE

A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?”  Well, why does anyone hate anyone?  Why does anyone love anyone?  The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious.  Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency.  They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind.  The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however.  We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.

There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:

  • Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.

Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.”  He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage.  Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i].  And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three.  Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?

  • Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.

This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii].  Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him.  Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.

  • Iago is sexually jealous of Othello.  He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.

This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation.  If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].

Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i].  This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over.  He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.

  • Iago despises Othello for his race.

It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.”  Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone.  George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”

There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.].  Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed.  Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father.  Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii].  He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness.  He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.

Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself.  While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.

Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation.  A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].

Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello?  Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?”  In other words: Who are you in relation to me?  Are you similar to me?  Are you different from me?  To what degree are you different from me?  How do I measure myself against you?  In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility.  This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.”  Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello.  If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed.  This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.

Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being.  There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.

PART TWO

Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences?  This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd.  However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.

Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?

My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona.  He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello.  Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him.  From the third scene of the third act:

OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.

Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions.  Iago is reactive, not active.  It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:

OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?

IAGO: Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO: What does thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown.  Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?

The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s.  Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time.  It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches.  It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago.  Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.

It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism.  One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady…  This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels.  ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].

The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s.  Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind.  Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end.  Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.

Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation.  When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon.  She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence.  Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals.  She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death.  As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii].  Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii].  Is Iago wrong?  As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday?  The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other.  Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.

In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be.  By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being.  Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is.  When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself.  Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is.  From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.

Joseph Suglia

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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 problematical 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 expected to have been 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 the socks of her lover 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 problematical 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.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

An analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)

An analysis of MEASURE FOR MEASURE (Shakespeare)

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

No play in the Shakespearean canon is as politically radical as Measure for Measure, suggesting, as it does, that all political authority is corrupt at its core.  It is the antithesis of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s most reactionary play.

The title, Measure for Measure, is richly ambiguous.  It refers directly to the Hebraic and Christian Bibles–in particular, to the Sermon on the Mount: “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” [Matthew 7:2].  This is Jesus’ endorsement of divine justice.  While Jesus repudiates the endless cycle of human eye-for-an-eye violence, he has no problem endorsing a divine lex talionis.

In Shakespeare’s play, the character Angelo, who is no angel, makes of himself a figure of divine justice.  He is invested with secular authority, as well.  Before Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, withdraws from the city, he deputizes Angelo, delegating to him all of the powers of the state:

 Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue, and heart [I:i].

Well, mortality does, at least.  But no mercy lives in Angelo’s reptilian heart.

The Duke only pretends to withdraw from Vienna and to migrate to Poland (others say to Russia or Rome); all the while, he remains in the city, disguised as a friar.

In the Duke’s (apparent) absence, Angelo sentences to death a young man named Claudio for lechery.  Claudio is betrothed to his beloved Juliet, but their marriage has not yet been consecrated:

[S]he is fast my wife, / Save that we do the denunciation lack / Of outward order [I:ii].

“Outward order” is indeed the problem of the play.  She has been impregnated out of wedlock.  For this, the sin of fornication, Claudio is to be beheaded.

Angelo is a theocrat who does not distinguish between secular and religious authority.  He recognizes no nuance, no degree between offenses.  Every crime is equal to him.  In accordance with his absolutist morality, all of the bordellos in Vienna are ordered to be plucked down [I:ii].  When the demi-god Authority [I:ii] hammers down on the city of Vienna, it knows no distinction between murder and fornication.  Prostitution is a secular and a spiritual offense in Angelo’s eyes.  Unlicensed sex is the same as murder and deserves the same penalty as murder:

To pardon him that hath from nature stolen / A man already made, as to remit / Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven’s image / In stamps that are forbid.  ’Tis all as easy / Falsely to take away a life true made, / As to put mettle in restrained means / To make a false one [II:iv].

Angelo’s moralism is anti-sexual, and what is anti-sexual is anti-life.  It is also, of course, an unreachable ideal.  As Lucio puts it, it is impossible to extirpate human sexuality.  You might as well condemn the sparrows for lechery.  Pompey’s question (to Escalus) is a propos: “Does your worship mean to geld and splay all the youth of the city?” [II:i].  Indeed, Angelo’s New Vienna is much like Giuliani’s Times Square in the 1990s.  Like Giuliani, Angelo would desexualize the city, eunuchizing its populace.

A more measured justice, against the moralistic extremism of Angelo, is represented by Vincentio.  And this is the second connotation of the title: As opposed to the absolutism of measure-for-measure religious violence, a more moderate, more measured secular justice is desirable.

There is a third connotation in the play’s title that I would like to illuminate.  The entire play is a web of substitutions.  Measure for Measure means, in this context, taking one thing for another.  Angelo replaces Vincentio—when the surrogate takes the place of the original, disaster results.  Ragozine’s head replaces Claudio’s head.  The violation of Isabella’s virginity would substitute for Claudio’s death.  There are linguistic transpositions, as well:  Pompey says, “benefactor” instead of “malefactor,” “varlets” instead of “honourable men,” “Hannibal” instead of “cannibal,” etc. [II:i].

* * * * *

Claudio asks his sister Isabella (by way of Lucio, friend to Claudio) to prostrate herself before the deputy and plead for his life.  He knows the erotic power that she radiates:

For in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect / Such as move men [I:ii]

In the city of pimps and whores, brother prostitutes sister.  Claudio would be his sister’s procurer.  One should recall that “prone” connotes “lying down.”  It is unclear what the denotative meaning is supposed to be.  “Move” suggests the contagion of sexual desire.  Her words would not be a logical appeal, an appeal by reason to reason, but an erotic appeal, an appeal by reason to the libido.

Isabella isn’t a very strong advocate for her brother’s life.  “I’ll see what I can do” [I:iv], she tells Lucio.  And she gives up far too easily when her petition is rejected.  During the first interview with Angelo, she says, weakly, “O just but severe law!  I had a brother, then: heaven keep your honour” [II:ii].  After her appeal seems to be rejected during the second interview, she says, unimpressively, “Even so.  Heaven keep your honour” [II:iv].

Isabella’s argument for her brother’s life is a biblical one: Hate the sin, but not the sinner.  Angelo sees himself as a vehicle for divine law.  It is the law, not he, who is responsible for condemning her brother to death.  Both Isabella and Angelo depersonalize in their arguments for and against the death penalty as punishment for “illegitimate” sexual intercourse.  Here is what Isabella says at the beginning of her argument:

There is a vice that most I do abhor, / And most desire should meet the blow of justice; / For which I would not plead, but that I must; / For which I must not plead, but that I am / At war ’twixt will and will not [I:ii].

Who would consider this a strong appeal for someone’s life?  If your brother were sentenced to death, I would hope that you would plead more forcefully.  She speaks of her brother’s death with such flippancy that one must question whether or not she even cares if he will die:

Dar’st thou die? / The sense of death is most in apprehension; / And the poor beetle that we tread upon / In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great / As when a giant dies [III:i].

The Duke, disguised as Friar Lodowick, says nearly the same thing to Claudio: Be absolute for death, since it is better to die than to live fearing death.  The argument is specious.

Like all moralists, Angelo is a sanctimonious hypocrite.  When Isabella pleads with the corrupt deputy for mercy, he makes a bargain: Only if Isabella surrenders her body to Angelo’s sexual desires will her brother be released from the death sentence.  As commentators have suggested before me, Isabella is more concerned with her own vanity, her narcissistic self-regard, than with her brother’s mortality:

Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame? [III:i].

Harold Bloom might have been correct when he asserted that Isabella is unable to distinguish sexuality from incest.  Notice that Isabella not only accuses her brother of incest for attempting to recruit his sister as an advocate, but claims that he cohabitated with her cousin [I:iv].

Though her basic position might be an anti-sexual one, others have noticed before me that Isabella uses an erotic language to persuade the corrupt magistrate Angelo:

Go to your bosom, / Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know / That’s like my brother’s fault.  If it confess / A natural guiltiness, such as is his, / Let it sound a thought upon your tongue / Against my brother’s life [II:ii].

Angelo’s aside:

She speaks, and ’tis such sense / That my sense breeds with it [II:ii].

William Empson pointed out, cogently, that the first “sense” connotes reason, while the second “sense” connotes sensuality.  Angelo is clearly turned on by Isabella’s coldness (and rationality).  The colder (and more rational) she appears, the more he desires her (of course).  Isabella wishes “a more strict restraint” than her nun colleagues enjoy [I:iv].  She plays on Angelo’s masochism AND sadism:

[W]ere I under the terms of death, / Th’impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame [II:iv].

There is no question that Isabella is trying to turn Angelo on by talking about “stripping herself.”  Nor is there any question that she is succeeding.  There is no question, either, that Isabella is exciting Angelo’s masochism by her refusal to submit to his sexual will.  She is quite revealing when she says to Angelo: “I had rather give my body than my soul” [II:iv].  And yet she never gives her body to the reprobate deputy.  When Angelo, in one of Shakespeare’s wondrous soliloquies, listens to himself speak, we get a glimpse into the character’s inner experience:

Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good? [II:ii].

The question is rhetorical.  Angelo is thrilled by the idea of violating her celibacy.  Polluting what is holy and dragging it down into the mud–that is what excites him.  He is corrupt.  Why shouldn’t everyone else in the world be?  I hear in Angelo’s “We are all frail” [II:iv] a failed attempt at identification with Isabella: He can never be as pure as she, so she must become as impure as he.

*****

As I stated at the beginning of this analysis, Measure for Measure suggests that corruption is inherent to the structure of all political authority.  The Duke has the same designs as his substitute.  After all, both Angelo and Vincentio desire and pursue the same person: the celibate Isabella.

When the Duke visits Friar Thomas, the former quickly waves away the idea that he could ever have a sexual thought:

No.  Holy father, throw away that thought; / Believe not that the dribbling dart of love / Can pierce a complete bosom [I:iii].

This is trickery.  The Duke might not seem as aggressively amorous as Angelo or as libertine as Lucio, but he does desire women or, at least, a particular woman: Isabella.

Is Duke Vincentio indeed a “gentleman of all temperance” [III:ii]?  According to Lucio, “He’s a better woodman than thou tak’st him for” [IV:iii].  A “woodman” is a hunter of women.  What if Lucio is telling the truth?  And why does the thin-skinned Duke castigate and punish Lucio for having insinuated that the latter has a pulse?

Is the Duke’s self-withdrawal and self-disguising a cunning stratagem to seduce Isabella?  This cannot be exactly the case, for the Duke never, in fact, seduces Isabella.  He commands her to marry him.  And then the Duke compels others to be married, whether they want to be married or not: Lucio is forced to marry the punk Kate Keep-down and Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, whom he abandoned once the dowry was lost.  As they enter into compulsory matrimony, the Duke must say goodbye to the “life remov’d” [I:iii] as the novice nun Isabella must say goodbye to her celibacy and dedication to things atemporal.

Isabella never says a word after the Duke compels her to marry him.  Her silence is ear-splitting.  How are we to understand Isabella’s silence?  Is it the silence of shock?  The silence of assent?  And who is Varrius, and why does he have nothing to say?

Reading the play is like looking into an abyss.  Every depth leads to a deeper profundity.  It would be impossible to exhaust the meanings that this magnificent play generates.

Joseph Suglia

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

 

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 of each comedy, 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 problematical 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 problematical 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 bear 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 that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship, “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 relation, 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, between lifefulness and deathfulness.  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.

Joseph Suglia

 

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

An Analysis of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so?  He kills because others kill.  He tortures because others torture…  I kill because you kill.  You and he and all of you torture; therefore, I torture.  I killed him because you would have killed me if I had not.  Such is the grammar of our time.”

—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume One, 1953

 

In his 1927 essay “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” T.S. Eliot called The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.”  Whether Shakespeare had any hand in the play is unknown, though I suspect that the insert Act Three: Scene Two, which concerns muscicide, was not inked by the Bard.  However, we do know something about the hands of the play’s characters.  One of the characters of the play, Lavinia, ends up with no hands at all, and her father, Titus, ends up with only one hand.  Moreover, Lavinia is reduced to tongueless inarticulacy, and the flesh of two teenage boys is baked into a pie that is fed to their mother.  All of this is to suggest that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s goriest, grisliest, ghastliest play, a work that telegraphs and anticipates Jacobean Tragedy, Grand Guignol, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and splatter cinema.

 

REVENGE IS EXCHANGE

Fresh from a ten-year battle against the Goths, Titus Andronicus is implored by his son Lucius to sacrifice “the proudest prisoner” of the enemy [I:i].  At the opening of the text, the Goths, the immigrants of the play, are the enemy; at the end of the play, the immigrants will become the friends of the Andronici and will overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Saturninus.  We are reminded that the incursion, the influx, of the Goths will lead to the breakdown of imperial Rome on 24 August 410 C.E.[1]

Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed.  The son is brutally sacrificed—his limbs abscised, his intestines fed to the flames: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky” [I:i].  The ritualistic disembowelment and dismemberment at the beginning of the play initiate a revenge series.  The Queen of the Goths, Tamora, will exact her revenge against Titus.  Her reckoning is a form of exchange.  In exchange for the death and mutilation of Alarbus, the tongue of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is excised and her hands are severed off; Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated.  The maimed bodies of Lavinia, Quintus, and Martius correspond to the maimed body of Alarbus—anatomical parts of three children are torn off in exchange for the lopping off of the limbs of the child of the rival family.

A bloody pattern unfolds—one revenge leads to another revenge.  The decapitation of Titus’s sons will, in turn, lead to the decapitation of Demetrius and Chiron.  One plate of heads replaces another plate of heads.  Such is the logic of revenge: Revenge is exchange.  And yet the acts of reckoning do not equalize one another.

The attacks on Titus’s children take place in the forest.  “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull,” says Aaron to the future rapists and mutilators Chiron and Demetrius [I:i].  The forest is a place of uncivilized desires, of desires far from the ritualized boundedness of civilization.  The forest is not a locus amoenus.  (A locus amoenus is an innocently pleasant site in a work of literature.)  As we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest in Shakespeare is a place of deception, of dissimulation, of lying, of self-masking, of delusion, of chimera.

Titus dramatizes insanity, which allows Tamora and her sons to underestimate him.  Disguised as Revenge, Rape, and Murder, respectively, Tamora and her sons are incompetent dramatists, whereas Titus is an inspired dramatist.  In the 1999 cinematic interpretation of the play, directed by Julie Taymor, Titus hatchets off his hand with a meat cleaver in the kitchen—presaging his final self-staging as a cook in the hyper-stylized, meta-theatrical vengeance against Tamora and Saturninus.  He dramatizes revenge at the end of the play, in a space that is a theatre, a banquet hall, and a kangaroo court all at once.  The play-within-the-play is an ambush dinner, a prandial revenge.  Choreographed revenge leads to imperial succession—at the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus declines the emperorship.  At the end of the play, his son Lucius assumes the emperorship.

Why should Titus be more sympathetic than Tamora?  Why does Titus have the right to vengeance—and not Tamora?  Does she not have equal cause?

Titus doesn’t seem to care about his son Mutius, whom he summarily slays out of duty to the emperor, who, in turn, has no problem betraying his own people by marrying the queen of the enemy, but Titus does care about his only daughter, Lavinia, after he learns that she has been mutilated and (later) learns that she has been violated.  Only after Lavinia is raped and mutilated does Titus becomes a full, empathic human being.  Paternal filicide is supposed to be accepted by the audience with relative equanimity; the violation and mutilation of one’s daughter by strangers is supposed to outrage that same audience.

Consider that the slaying of Mutius takes place onstage, whereas the violation and mutilation of Lavinia take place offstage: The visibility of Mutius has the effect of making Titus appear more sympathetic to us than Tamora, I would argue, since what is seen is more manageable, more tolerable, than what is unseen.  What is unseen is always more horrifying than what is seen—our imagination exaggerates the unseen to obscenely grotesque proportions.  The one truly horrific mutilation—that of Lavinia—takes place offstage and is nothing to laugh at.  The fact that Lavinia’s violation and mutilation take place offstage make these acts unspeakable—as she is rendered an unspeakable presence.

It is not Aaron the Moor who initiates the sequence of retaliations.  One of the Romans says that Aaron incited the series of vengeances, the blood-saturated revenge series, but this is not so: “Give sentence on this execrable wretch / That hath been breeder of these dire events” [V:iii].  It is not Aaron who breeds the dire events of the play—it is Titus Andronicus himself!  It is Titus, again, who orders the killing of Alarbus, the dismembering of his arms and legs, the engulfing of his viscera in flame.  Why, then, should we spectators and readers care more about Titus than we do about Tamora?  Both Titus and Tamora say to their children, to paraphrase: If you love me, you will kill my enemies.[2]

 

SHE CANNOT SPEAK, BUT SHE CAN WRITE

Lavinia endures a terrible glossectomy and a terrible dismemberment: Again, her tongue is cut out, and her hands are cut off.  What remains of her power of speech?  Only tormented and inarticulate groanings.  She cannot phonate, but she can communicate in other ways.  That is to suggest: She is afflicted with aphonia (the inability to vocalize), not with agraphia (the inability to write) or with aphasia (the inability to communicate).

Marcus teaches his niece how to write.  He takes his staff and writes his name in the dirt.  He then encourages his daughter to imitate his scrawl: “Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain” [IV:i].  She then takes the staff in her mouth and guides it with her stumps and writes out the name of the heinous crime that was committed against her and the names of the heinous criminals.

Lavinia’s body becomes a book that is readable by her father.  The word is made mutilated flesh.  Titus is able to read her tears.  Titus the Father knows that his daughter is a “[s]peechless complainer” [Ibid.].  Her body becomes a “map of woe, that thus doth talk in signs” [Ibid.]—her body has a language, even though that language is silent.  “I understand her signs,” Titus says of Lavinia’s soundless weeping [III:i]—Marcus’s napkin can never dry her tears. When she kisses the decapitated heads of her brothers Quintus and Martius in Act Three: Scene One, this is a sign—if this is not a sign, then what is a sign?

By becoming her interpreter, Titus has become a strong parent for the first time in his life, both father and mother at the same time.  He vocalizes what his only daughter cannot.  He is the interpreter of her spastic mutism, of her mute language.  “I can interpret all her martyred signs,” he says [III:ii].  The father will “wrest” from his daughter an “alphabet” and “learn to know [her] meaning” [Ibid.]—and Lavinia’s body is a sign of martyrdom.  For to be a martyr means to give testimony, to write.  Self-sacrifice is absolute loss; martyrdom is self-loss that enhances a cause or a program.  In the case of Lavinia, her rape, mutilation, and eventual killing lead to a revolution—much in the way that the rape and suicide of Lucretia did (I will return to this point below).

With her father’s hand in her mouth, Lavinia still has the power of language—the power of silent language, of writing, which is always silent.  The hand in the mouth—is this not the perfect symbol for writing?  The vocalization of her written language is under the guidance of her father, her interpreter, who still has the power of speech.

Wittgenstein writes, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”  Though I am not a Derridean, this line of Derrida against Wittgenstein seems a propos to the context: “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.”  Lavinia writes when she does not speak—this might mean that writing is something other than a substitute for speech.  When she inscribes words on the dirty ground with a stick that is guided by her tongueless mouth and her handless arms, Lavinia makes the names of the crime and the criminals readable, even though her mouth is silenced and even though she is deprived of the ability to write with her hands: “Stuprum.  Chiron.  Demetrius” [IV:i].  Her tongue and her hands are erased, and yet she still produces language—again, with the guidance of the father.[3]

There is one moment in the play, however, in which the father’s temporary inability to speak mirrors the daughter’s inability to speak.  What does Titus do when he learns that his daughter has been hideously mutilated, to the point at which she can no longer speak, when he learns that his son Lucius has been exiled from the city of his birth to the otherlands, the shadowlands of the Goths, when he learns that his sons Quintus and Martius have been falsely accused of a crime and then executed, when he learns that he has been tricked into chopping off his own hand to save their lives, in vain?  He laughs.  Indeed, he erupts in maniacal laughter: “Ha, ha, ha!” [III:i].  Titus gives up all pretensions of comfort and enters wordless despair, an abyss of non-verbality.  From that abyss comes vengeance; his laughter issues in the spawning of the plot of revenge.  Non-verbal expression—wordless laughter—corresponds to Lavinia’s wordlessness.  Her silence corresponds to her father’s non-verbal-yet-signifying language: “Ha, ha, ha!”

It is not the case that laughter is an inappropriate response to the irremediable.  Laughter might be the only appropriate response to the irremediable.

This raises the question of the status of humor in the play.  Some audiences find it funny to watch Titus, Lucius, and Marcus squabble over whose hand should be severed (in Act Three: Scene One).  What makes this scene so morbidly hilarious and hilariously morbid to them is the contrast, the incongruity, between the hyper-seriousness of the context and the silliness of the conversation.  Some audiences find it funny to watch Lavinia clutch her father’s severed hand in her teeth (Titus: “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth” [III:i]).  The humorousness of such scenes highlights and intensifies the play’s seriousness; the humor does not erode the seriousness.  Shakespeare knows well that his jocoserious play would become ludicrous if it were humorless, if it were uninterruptedly serious.  Without humor, there can be no seriousness.  Why is this?  Because humorlessness is laughable.

Is it inappropriate when Marcus rhapsodizes and poeticizes upon discovering his niece hideously disfigured in the wood?  Strangely, there are literary critics who think that it is.  I don’t think that his soliloquy, the longest in the play (it is forty-six lines, longer than Titus’s soliloquy as he slices the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, which is thirty-nine lines long), is inappropriate (as some other critics do); I do think of it as a coping mechanism, as a means of coming to terms with trauma, as a means of coping with the violation and mutilation of his niece.  Still, it must be written: Marcus speaks on his niece’s behalf, whereas Titus speaks in her behalf.

To return to the main argument: Lavinia is hyper-literate, even after her disfigurement.  One should contrast Lavinia’s superior reading skills with the illiteracy of the children of Tamora.  The dull-witted Chiron and Demetrius cannot interpret the meaning of Titus’s citation of Horace, though Aaron can.  When the voices of Chiron and Demetrius are silenced (they are gagged by Publius; this is their metamorphosis, their becoming-bestial), this answers to the silencing of Lavinia.  Lavinia, says her father, is “deeper read and better skilled” [IV:i] than those who waste their time on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  These days, only graduate students read the Metamorphoses of Ovid.

Shakespeare is reminding us of the ineluctableness of language.  Language is not reducible to the organ that we normally associate with language: the tongue (speech, phonē).  Shakespeare is suggesting that language is not phonocentric; he might even be suggesting that language is graphocentric, which is to suggest that written language is more fundamental than speech.

Even though she is tongueless and handless, Lavinia still has the power of language—in the form of writing, of graphē, of hypergraphia, of graphomania.

Lavinia inscribes words upon the Earth.  She is metaphorized as a storm cloud—a cloud that gives forth rain.  She writes with her tears upon the Earth.  Her tears are the ink, and the Earth is the paper upon which she is writing.  Lavinia writes upon the Earth with her tears and thus revivifies, rejuvenates, refreshes, renews, revitalizes the Earth.  Her tears—her sufferings and the accusations against her attackers, her assailants, her assaulters—will bring about a transformation of the City of Rome.  She will transform the Holy Roman Empire—it will be reconfigured into a Gothic-Roman state, a republic that welcomes and integrates outsiders.

Lavinia is a figure of democracy and of democratization.

 

THE ORIGIN OF THE LAVINIA STORY

There are at least three literary and historical references that frame the rape of Lavinia:

a.) We are reminded of the rape of Lucretia.[4]  Shakespeare, after all, would write his poem “The Rape of Lucrece” in 1594, almost exactly the same time as he wrote this play.  The rape of Lucretia led to the driving-away from Rome of the last of the kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose slobbering, sinister, psychopathic son Sextus raped the poor girl.  She killed herself out of shame.  The plebeian Lavinia is here placed in the position of a figure of republicanism and anti-tyrannousness.  Just as the tyranny of the Tarquins is expelled from Rome, so will the tyranny of Saturninus be.

b.) To accuse her attackers of the crime of rape, Lavinia opens a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turns over the pages with her stumps until she arrives at the Rape of Philomela.[5]  Now, there is no mystery of what happened to her.  Every tragedy contains anagnorisis, and this is the moment of recognition: “Lavinia,” her father asks her, “[W]ert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravished and wronged as Philomela was…?” [IV:i].[6]  This recognition comes by way of reading.  Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomela, whom he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods.  Philomela, however, survived and wove a tapestry that both identified the crime that was committed against her and revealed the identity of her rapist.  Both sisters exacted a dreadful revenge against Tereus by killing his son Itys and feeding the offspring to the father in the form of a pie.  Swallowing one’s own offspring, of course, will inspire Titus’s prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius.  Tamora is conned into consuming her issue, conned into ingesting her offspring, conned into digesting her discharge, much as Tereus was.  What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomela myth is that his Lavinia points to a passage in Ovid—making her a reader and a teacher of reading.  She, after all, is the Young Lucius’s reading teacher.  Marcus says of the boy’s aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i].  Tully’s Orator is a book of rhetoric.  The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is one who teaches how to write well.

c.) The myth of Diana and Actaeon appears and reappears throughout the play.  Bassianus mock-wonders of Tamora, whom he accosts with Lavinia in the forest, if he is looking at the Goddess Diana herself: “Or is it Dian, habited like her, / Who hath abandoned her holy groves / To see the general hunting in this forest?” [II:ii].[7]  Tamora will become Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, quick-transforming the interloper Bassianus into a metaphorical stag that is torn to pieces by her metaphorical bloodhounds.  Bassianus is the cuckold.  He spies on the naked bathing goddess, exposing her in her divine nudity.  Of course, in the myth, the goddess does not assume any particular female shape—she is mutable, transformative—which means that Actaeon is spying upon not the goddess herself, but rather upon a hollow image, before being rent to pieces by her bloodhounds.  The bloodhounds, in Shakespeare’s play, are Tamora’s sons, who murder Bassianus and make of him a cuckold (they be-horn him, fastening metaphorical antlers upon his head).  After she catches Actaeon spying on her divine nudity, Diana screeches: “Tell that you saw me here bathing naked—if you can tell at all!”  Lavinia, voyeuse, will be robbed of the power of speech.  Female voyeurism is a rare subject—but it is presented in Shakespeare.  Actaeon thus figures both Bassianus and Lavinia.[8]

 

DID HEIDEGGER HAVE SMALL HANDS?

Why the removal of hands?  Heidegger gives us a possible answer in What Is Called Thinking? / Was Heißt Denken?:

The hand is a peculiar thing.  In the common view, the hand is part of our bodily organism.  But the hand’s essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp.  Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands.  The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs—paws, claws, or fangs—different by an abyss of essence.  Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.

We now know that some of Heidegger’s comparative anatomy is false.  Chimpanzees do have hands—they even have opposable thumbs—and some animal biologists tell us that chimpanzee hands are more complex than human hands.  The next passage is more interesting.  Heidegger goes on:

But the craft of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine.  The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull.  The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes—and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others.  The hand holds.  The hand carries.  The hand signs, presumably because the human being is a sign.

The English translation is wrong at this point, and I have corrected it.  In the German, the text reads: “Die Hand zeichnet, vermutlich weil der Mensch ein Zeichen ist.”  Heidegger continues:

Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry the human being into the great oneness.  The hand is all this, and this is the true handicraft.  Everything is rooted here that is commonly known as handicraft, and commonly we go no further.  But the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language, in their most perfect purity precisely when human beings speak by being silent.  And only when human beings speak, do they think—not the other way around, as metaphysics believes.

So: Humankind is practiced through the hand.  The hand is not an implement of the human; the hand holds within itself the essence of the human.  The hand is the distinguishing trait of human essence.  The hand is not a form of property, something that belongs to us; the hand has us.  Only that being which has language is handed.  Language is not language without the hand.  Only with the hand does the human come about; the hand is the essential ground of humankind.

Is there a relation to the word without the hand?  It seems not.  There is, for Heidegger, a co-belongingness between word and hand.  There must be a hand in order for human language to be.  This means that writing is more fundamental than speech, than phonē.

When hands are removed, the intention is dehumanization.

 

HOLORHYMING WITH THE BIEBMASTER

So many have declaimed that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a bad play that people believe that it is a bad play.  It is, I would argue, one of Shakespeare’s ten greatest plays, but it does contain some weaknesses.

There are some rather weak puns: “Deer” is rhymed with its homophone “dear” in Act Three: Scene One.  And yet even this pun is defensible.  Marcus calls Lavinia a “deer,” whereas Titus calls his daughter a “dear.”  For Marcus, Lavinia is a wounded sylvan beast; for Titus, she is a darling.  For Marcus, Lavinia is a premature corpse (“This was thy daughter”), whereas for Titus, she is a living human presence (“so she is“) [emphases mine].  The parechesis of “throats” and “threat” in the same scene is not very strong.  (Parechesis is the repetition of the same sound in quick succession.)

Titus offers to chop off his hands before he is prompted to do so, even before Aaron comes by: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too” [III:i] and “[S]hall we cut away our hands like thine [Lavinia’s]?” [Ibid.].  Titus offers to hack off his hand before he is given the fake opportunity to redeem his sons by hacking off his hands.  But his sons are unrehabilitatable in the eyes of the emperor.  The overplay of “I-will-cut-off-my hand” derogates from the power of the moment in which Titus is actually tricked into hacking off his own hand.

Worst of all are the final two lines of the play (in the Arden edition, not in the MIT online edition):

[Tamora’s] life was beastly and devoid of pity, / And being dead, let birds on her take pity [V:iii].

This is bad writing.  One thing that I tell my students is never end two successive sentences with the same word.  When writing verse, never rhyme the endings of the lines of a couplet with the same word.

Rhyming a sound with itself (holorhyming) is never a good idea.  Consider the closest thing that our time has to Shakespeare, the great poet Justin Bieber.  In his otherwise masterly ballad “Yellow Raincoat,” from the 2012 album Believe, Bieber intones these lines:

Well never do I ever do I ever want this to phase me
Well never do I ever do I want this thing to make me

Rhyming homophones is an infelicity; rhyming a word with itself is an even more infelicitous writerly fault.  Shakespeare is a slightly greater poet than Justin Bieber, and there might be justification for his rhyming of the word pity with itself.  What if Shakespeare wants to evoke Lucius’s lack of pity for Tamora by repeating the word pity?  The repetition of the word might drain the concept of its significance.  Lucius’s coldness, his glaciality, might mean that he is no more compassionate than Tamora.

 

EVERY ACT OF REVENGE PRODUCES A REMAINDER

The desire for revenge is the desire for superiority over another human being.  By inflicting pain on the revengee, the revenger demonstrates his or her superiority over the revengee.  This explains why the most selfish, the vainest, the most egoic human beings also tend to be the most vengeful.  However, as Schopenhauer reminds us in Parerga and Paralipomena, “[J]ust as every fulfilled wish is more or less unveiled as a delusion, so too the desire for revenge.”  The word delusion is in English in the original text, which is mostly written in German.

Why is the desire for revenge a delusion?  I would submit the following: The avenger is dependent on the avengee.  Doesn’t revenge make the avenger dependent on the consciousness of the avengee?  If you seek revenge on someone, are you not dependent on the person on whom you wish to avenge yourself?

Try not to place yourself in a position in which vengeance is necessary.  What if my “revenge” were one day ineffective?  What if my acts of “vengeance” were in vain?  What if the objects of my “vengeance” were indifferent to my actions and inactions?

If the object of “revenge” is indifferent to the avenger, the avengee has won and the avenger has lost.  This means that the avenger is emotionally enchained to the emotional state of the avengee.  Revenge means that one is dependent on the object of vengeance, “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” as the Buddha says.  Or holding on to hot coal and expecting the other person to be burned, as Confucius says.

The desire for revenge is an obsession with the other human being who, imaginarily or not, has wounded us.  But revenge only enlarges that wound.

In the third scene of the fourth act, there is a great deal of talk of justice, which, like revenge, is often conceived as a form of exchange.  As his kinsmen are drawing their bows, Titus says that there is as little justice in the sea as there is on Earth.  And he also says, in Latin, “Terras Astraea reliquit,” which means: “Justice has left the Earth.”  A just world would be one in which the Romans join forces with the Goths and create a democratic republic in Rome, a republic that would welcome and integrate immigrants.  But currently, in Act Four, there is no justice under the moon, there is no fairness, there is no one-to-one exchange.

Consider this: For the death of Alarbus, Quintus, Martius, and Bassianus are killed (three for the price of one), Lucius is banished, Titus is conned into hacking off one of his hands, and Lavinia is ravished and mangled.  There is no equitableness, and justice would mean fair exchange of one thing for a thing of equal value.  The counter-revenge of Titus and his tribe does not posit equivalence between the losses that they have suffered and the violence that they have inflicted on Saturninus and Tamora. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the desire for revenge results in the almost total self-destruction of the revengers and their families.

In revenge, there is always a remainder.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

[1] Lucius is banished to the otherlands of the Goths, but unlike Coriolanus (who is explicitly referred to in the play, in Act Four: Scene Four), he is not scuppered by one of his parents.  Lucius, unlike Coriolanus, wages a war against Rome, the city of his birth, and crashes its gates—with the approval of one of his parents, his father Titus.  I am revising this essay in 2019, at a time of seismic immigration crises throughout Europe.  Since the Goths assist Lucius in overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship, we can safely infer that Shakespeare’s great play is friendlier to immigration than his own later Tragedy of Coriolanus will be.

[2] Tamora: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth called my children” [II:ii].  Titus: “And if ye love me, as I think you do, / Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do” [III:i].

[3] Chiron: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe” [II:iii]. / Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.”  But she can write, even though her hands are now stumps.

[4] In Act Two: Scene One, Aaron says: “Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love.”  In Act Four: Scene One, Titus asks: “What Roman lord it was durst do the deed: / Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst, / That left the camp to sin in Lucrece’s bed?”

[5] Marcus, upon finding his niece in the wood, already identified her with Philomel: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, / And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, / That could have better sewed than Philomel” [II:iii].

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

[7] Tamora’s response: “Had I the power that some say Dian had, / Thy temples should be planted presently / With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds / Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs. / Unmannerly intruder as thou art” [II:ii].

[8] In the shelter of the wood, Aaron says to his forbidden lover Tamora: “[Bassianus’s] Philomel must lose her tongue today” [II:ii].  Bassianus’s Philomel is Lavinia, of course.

 

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 whom 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 have been considered absurd, uncanny, 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, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder.  Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner?  Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing.  They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity.  A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase.  This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term.  It is more of a switching than it is a splitting.  Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.

*****

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 the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom).  Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, 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.  Again, 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