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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THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare / THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST analysis Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST analysis / THE TEMPEST commentary / Shakespeare commentary THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST interpretation Shakespeare / An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST / THE TEMPEST Shakespeare interpretation

THE TEMPEST (William Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

George Bernard Shaw inked the following (in 1913, “The Quintessence of Ibsenism”):

“Reflective people are not more interested in the Chamber of Horrors than in their own homes, nor in murderers, victims, and villains than in themselves; and the moment a man has acquired sufficient reflective power to cease gaping at waxworks, he is on his way to losing interest in Othello, Desdemona, and Iago exactly to the extent to which they become interesting to the police.”

George Bernard Shaw is making the excellent point that Shakespeare’s plays keep the spectator in the jury box.  I endorse this thesis 100%.  Shakespeare never inflicts guilt on the spectator.  I feel guilty, at times, while reading Strindberg.  I sometimes feel guilty while reading Ibsen.  There are passages in Shaw that fill me with guilt.  There are guilt-inflicting and -afflicting scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman.  But Shakespeare?  Shakespeare is incapable of infusing anyone with guilt.  There are enchantments, entertainments, and enticements in Shakespeare, but there is never a guilt-inspiring moment.  Guilty characters (think of Alonso in The Tempest or of Lady Macbeth).  But no guilty spectators, ever.  At least, the probability of a guilty spectator seems an improbability to me.

* * * * *

The plot of The Tempest, such as it is, should already be familiar to most.  It is centered on Prospero, thaumaturge and erstwhile Duke of Milan, who is marooned on an island–more than likely, one of the Bermudas, which were explored by the English in the early seventeenth century, the time of the play’s composition.  A shipwreck brings phantoms from Prospero’s past, the promise of revenge and reinstatement to Prospero, the promise of freedom to Prospero’s slaves, Ariel and Caliban, and the promise of marriage to his daughter Miranda.  Revenge comes swiftly and easily, Prospero’s dukedom is restored, freedom is won, and marriage is inevitable.  Since all of the protagonist’s desires are fulfilled, The Tempest is a comedy in the Shakespearean sense.  There is very little struggle and thus very little worry over the outcomes.  I will return to this point below.

It might be useful to survey some of the dramatis personae.

Caliban is a cheetah-speckled fish-beast and the Earth-Spirit of the play.  His name is anagrammatical of “can(n)ibal.”  Shakespeare read of South Seas cannibals in Montaigne, and the English of the early seventeenth century did believe that the South Seas islanders were cannibals, devils, evil spirits, fantastic creatures.  Caliban is the whelp of the North African witch Sycorax; his god is Setebos.  “Setebos” is the name given to a Patagonian “devil” by one of Magellan’s companions.  One can see that this is indeed a text that reflects the age of the European seafaring expeditions, the Age of Exploration.

Caliban is not merely uneducated–he is not educable, not civilizable, not humanizable.  His naturalness, his earthiness, his childish stupidity are what make him dangerous.  It does seem that he is the one character who escapes, if only for a moment, Prospero’s power; thus, Prospero’s power is not absolute.  The ex-Duke is so unsettled by the breach in his power that he takes a walk to clear his head.  Then again, Prospero’s dazedness is nothing more than an interlude of impotence, an interruption of senescence or senility.  As Miranda says of her father: “Never till this day / Saw I him touch’d with anger so distemper’d” [IV:i].

No one has ever seemed to notice before that Caliban’s desires mirror Prospero’s own desires.  Caliban expresses his desire to burn Prospero’s books [III:ii]; Prospero drowns his own books (or “book”) toward the close of the play.  Caliban expresses the desire to violate Miranda.  Does Prospero have the same desire?  Am I alone in believing that Prospero has incestuous feelings for his own daughter?  Here is what the magus says about Miranda:

“…I visit / Young Ferdinand, whom [his fellows] suppose is drown’d, / And his and mine lov’d darling” [III:iii].

In the lines quoted above, Prospero does not separate his fatherly feelings from Ferdinand’s erotic feelings for Miranda.

Ariel is the air sprite who does nothing without Prospero’s directive, but it also might be said that Prospero does nothing without Ariel’s assistance.  Ariel’s name means “The Lion of God” in Hebrew.  Despite what Harold Bloom says, the etymology is neither accidental nor irrelevant to the pith of the play.  Ariel releases a leonine roar in the second act and is the serf of Prospero, who is indeed the deific figure of the island.  Ariel is endlessly promised a freedom that seems to be forever denied to him.

Miranda means “She Who is Admired.”  Before she meets Ferdinand, her soon-to-be-husband, the only man she knows is Prospero, unless we consider Caliban to be a “man” (he is, again, a hybrid of man and fish, a fish-man or a man-fish.  As Trinculo says, Caliban is “[l]egg’d like a man, and his fins [are] like arms” [II:ii]).  Prospero is more than mother and father to Miranda–he is the very model of manhood.  And of womanhood.

Miranda is a gift–perhaps a potlatch–from the former Milanese duke to the presumptive King of Naples, Ferdinand.  It is the gift of his daughter that will lead to the restoration of Prospero’s lost dukedom.  Marriage is always a political transaction, in Shakespeare:

[T]hou shalt find she will outstrip all praise,
And make it halt behind her…
[A]s my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter [IV:i].

Note the nastiness that Prospero showers on his daughter in absentia, discussing her as if she were a horse.

Ferdinand is a big beefy beefhead.  He is a Joe Rogan type.  In fact, Joe Rogan was most likely born to play the role of Ferdinand.  This is how he describes himself (to his fiancee):

“[F]or your sake / Am I this patient log-man” [III:i].

He Log Man lift logs good.

* * * * *

The play was first performed for the amusement and bemusement of James I in November 1611.  This explains why usurpation is one of the play’s leitmotifs and why it contains a wedding masque in the style of Ben Jonson.  The presence of the wedding masque is not accidental: The Tempest is itself a masque and has nothing in its pretty little head other than the desire to beguile, to enchant, to entertain, and to reassure the King, his minions, and the groundlings of the Globe that the King shall always prevail.  The usurping of Prospero’s power by Antonio is the antimasque; the fifth act represents the restoration of the Duke’s (and the King’s) power.  In Ulysses, usurpation takes on a world-historical AND a personal significance–here, it is nothing more than a regal anxiety to be pacified.

There is beautiful poetry to be found in the play, but also some very lenient and lazy writing.  Take, for instance, the following.  Gonzalo, the court lawyer, intones at the close of the first scene of the first act:

“Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground–long heath, brown furze, any thing. The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.”

Well, that is a wasted bit of dialogue, isn’t it?  Who wouldn’t want to die on dry ground rather than in a shipwreck, as the ship one is in is wrecking?

And here is one of Ariel’s excruciatingly stupid songs:

Before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go,’
And breathe twice, and cry ‘so, so,’
Each one, tripping on his toe
Will be here with mop and mow.
Do you love me, master? No? [IV:i].

I could quote more senile singsong, but my tolerance is limited.  There are those who could read such lines and still consider all of Shakespeare, the paper Shakespeare, to be perfect.  I am not one of them.

There is too much tawdry bawdry in the play, too much of what we would call today “comic relief.”  With the exception of a botched assassination attempt, the entire second act is wasted on laughless comedy.  The comedy is the poetic nadir of the play.  It is not that the raillery is dated, nor that it has long since been drained of any humor it might have had.  The problem is that it is fluff, filler–empty pages and too much empty time, time wasted idly and emptily on the stage.

* * * * *

Why, exactly, should we believe that Prospero ought to be reinstated as the Milanese duke?  Prospero was disgracefully inept as a duke.  He explains to Miranda how his brother, Antonio, usurped control of the Milanese dukedom:

The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies…

I thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retir’d,
O’er-priz’d all popular rate, in my false brother
Awak’d an evil nature… [I:ii].

The neglectful and inadvertent duke, absorbed in the dark arts, loses his material power. We won’t have to wait very long before he wins it back again. Despite all of his flaws, and of these there are many, Prospero emerges as “The Favored One,” as his name implies.  He does this so effortlessly and smoothly that there is no space to wonder about the outcome.  Prospero wins, without even trying to win, a game that is rigged in advance, and this (as I stated earlier) is what makes The Tempest a Shakespearean “comedy.”

A Shakespearean comedy is not a play that makes us laugh, but a play in which the (sometimes unlikable) main character is easily victorious and the principals are married off, even if they don’t want to be married off.

All Shakespearean comedies project utopias.  They are not frictionless utopias, to be fair.  There are discordances in every one of Shakespeare’s utopias.  Antonio, the usurping brother, and Caliban, the rebel slave, provide the discordances in The Tempest.  And yet these disharmonies, these frictions, only exist in order to make the triumph of favored Prospero all the sweeter.  The Duke is deposed, then reinstated.  The Duke is dethroned, long live the Duke!

Some commentators have mused: Why are Prospero’s adversaries so threatened by the thaumaturge after he abjures his art?  Why don’t they rise up and slit his throat (which Caliban intended to do earlier)?  That they do not do this is nonplussing.  On the contrary, they stand in fear of the demystified mage.  Even after the abjurement of his magic, Sebastian says that the “devil speaks” in Prospero and Caliban worries that his master will “chastise” him [V:i].

It is difficult to say why Prospero’s enemies are meekened and weakened at the close of the play.  Perhaps, as Harold Bloom proposed, the magus does not need any of the external signs of magic.  Perhaps he has interiorized all of his powers.  He can break his staff, drown his book, and shed his mantle, for his power now comes from within.  Or is it merely the case that Prospero’s enemies–Sebastian, Antonio, Caliban, Stefano, Trinculo–are unaware that the magus has abjured his art?

While reading the play, there will be pleasantly unpleasant thought that more mischievous readers will not be able to suppress: They will wish that Caliban would rise up and devour all of the inhabitants of the isle.  This is more or less what happens in Peter Brook’s dramatization.  But no, instead, Prospero wins and forgives every one of his adversaries in the proto-Nietzschean affirmation of his power.

Indeed, forgiveness is the final phase of Prospero’s revenge plot.  Prospero calls his perfidious brother “wicked” and “unnatural” in the very sentences through which he forgives him:

“I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art” [V:i].

The “rarer action” [Ibid.] is to forgive rather than to avenge.  But my question is thus: Can forgiveness not be a form of vengeance?

* * * * *

In the Epilogue, the actor who plays Prospero steps onto the stage one last time to beg for applause: “[R]elease me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.”  He asks for the spectator’s “indulgence.”  He says that his project was to “please.”  Only applause can free the actor from the isle of mirages over which the mage presides.

Here we have a pitiful plea for approbation from an attention-hungry actor-dramatist.  It is a Pathetic Appeal in two senses of the term: On the one hand, it is the attempt to stimulate the pity of the spectators and to provoke within them the pity-driven need to clap.  On the other hand, it is an appeal that is, well, pathetic, in the colloquial-American sense of the word.  But then, the Actor himself is yet another mask.  One mask conceals another mask conceals another mask conceals another mask, and so forth ad infinitum.

Here we have the Shakespearean conceit that life is theatre and theatre, life.  The island is an island of illusions where no man is his own [V:i].  The characters on the stage, of course, are nothing more than dramatic illusions–and are themselves illusioned.  We–the audience, the spectators, we human beings–we ourselves are illusions, according to Shakespeare: “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” [IV:i].  Each character is seduced by simulations or seduces by simulation: The shipwreck is described as a “spectacle”; Ariel assumes the shape of a water-nymph and then a harpy; Prospero camouflages himself throughout the play in various disguises; Caliban, Trinculo, and Stefano are seduced by garments hanging from the bough of a tree, etc., etc.

To please the audience, to appease the audience, to entertain the audience is also Shakespeare’s only goal in The Tempest, one of Shakespeare’s most overestimated plays.  I should here make the point that Shakespeare was, in the non-problematic comedies, a panderer, a jongleur of the court.  His non-problematic comedies always pander.  They seek to assuage their audiences’ fears.  They never provoke their audiences.  To return to my opening point: No one has ever been made to feel guilty by a Shakespeare play.

At the end of the day, The Tempest does bear one redeeming facet: The play sparked some of the most exciting works of literature of the twentieth century.  The hallucinatory wonderlands of J.G. Ballard, for instance (by way of Joseph Conrad) would have been unthinkable without the tempestuous bluster of The Tempest, a play that never shakes the pear tree of the audience’s expectations.

Dr. 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

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

THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

 

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

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

 

THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM

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

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

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

The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on.  It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.

 

STARVING THE POOR

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

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

We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure.  He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i].  The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i].  These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry?  And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger!  Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs.  The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable.  Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).

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

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

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

 

THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC

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

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

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

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

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

 

HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

HE LEAVES ROME

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

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

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

 

THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME

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

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

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

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

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

 

DISMEMBERMENT

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

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

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

Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor.  The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob.  At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich.  Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food.  Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly.  Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise.  Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.

Joseph Suglia