Friday, May 22, 2009

Shakespeare & Modernity

Shakespeare was an original thinker who did his thinking in the plays he wrote for the Elizabethan and Jacobean Theater (roughly between 1590-1610), the most dynamic and original theatrical culture the Western world has known since the Theater of Dionysos in Athens in the fifth century BC. The terrible beauty of some these plays is consistent with the presence of a tough, reasonable mind asking tough, reasonable questions about the kind of world that western Europe was swiftly becoming. The answers are so strikingly original, so strange and compelling in themselves, that the questions may have largely gone unnoticed.

Hamlet, as J. W. Goethe and William Empson noticed, gives the illusion of not being a play so much as a representation on the stage of the haphazard way things happen in life. Since the play is not conventionally theatrical, Hamlet himself must seem not to be acted butpresented. This absence of acting, on his part, is a sort of pun: Hamlet does not act politically any more than he does theatrically. SinceHamlet does not or cannot act, someone else must do so if there is to be a play at all. So the shallow, hypocritical Polonius becomes the comicallyunwitting dramaturge who sets up one key scene after another, including the one that gets him killed, thereby moving the play along to its final catastrophe.

We can think of Hamlet as an answer to a question: what happens to a man who insists on authenticity, in himself and others,when he is being forced to act politically i.e., as a normally power-hun-gry conspirator, in a normally corrupt and hypocritical society? In other words, is authenticity compatible with effective political action? If you know the play, you know Shakespeare’s answer: not on your life.

All’s Well That Ends Well examines the character of a young nobleman, Bertram, who cares only for his own pleasures. How is such a man to be persuaded to settle down as a useful and productive member of his community? Only with great difficulty. Character, once set, can’t be changed. In Bertram’s case it takes something like a miracle. Shakespeare, I imagine, was wondering how a future king would approach a problem that Queen Elizabeth had not solved but only contained: How to transform a warrior aristocracy into the useful citizens—squires, magistrates, civil-servants, members of Parliament,etc.—that a modern society requires.
All’s Well That Ends Well, so far as we know, was not acted during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It had a deeper and more disturbing sequel: Coriolanus. The hero of that play, the overgrown boy and soldier, Coriolanus, resembles Bertram in the prejudices that unfit him for life in a modern civil society but there the resemblance ends. Bertram has many vices and no virtues; Coriolanus, like Hamlet, is the victim of his virtues.

Coriolanus, takes us back to the early years of the Roman Republic. Under threat of imminent class warfare, Rome’s most original political institution, the Tribunate, has just been invented. The anonymous, laboring masses are to be given a voice, through their representatives, the Tribunes, in the political affairs of Rome. The aristocracy, which has been running Rome to suit itself, bitterly resents this limitation on its power. Into this explosive atmosphere steps Coriolanus, as the aristocratic candidate for Consul. A politically innocent war hero, and an authentically noble but short-tempered and very snobbish man who basically understands nothing but the art of war, Coriolanus’s wonderfully inept electoral campaign almost puts an end, then and there, to the power and the glory of Rome. This surprisingly funny story has a moral, of sorts: Keep your real thoughts and feelings out of sight if you wish to have any sort of success in the political arena. Coriolanus can’t or won’t learn this basic lesson: he insists on being honest about his true thoughts and feelings and thereby falls—twice— into traps that his political enemies have laid for him. So, once more the question is being raised: Is there no place in our politics for a man who insists, at whatever cost to himself or the state, on being (like Hamlet) true to himself? Probably not, concludes Shakespeare once more, with deep regret.

In Measure for Measure (Shakespeare’s most cryptic title) an unwise political experiment has unexpected consequences, demonstrating the truth of Kant’s aphorism “From the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” (That, it would seem, is one of the bitter lessons that modern history and modern utiopian politics has finally(?) taught us.) We can also think of the play as an oblique response to the moral perfectionism that Christianity demands, especially in Matthew 7: “Judge not that ye be not judged”.

Troilus and Cressida offers us an answer to the question: How would you have to write about Helen of Troy (“the face that launcheda thousand ships”), Agammemnon and the wrath of Achilles, thedeath of Hector, etc., if you were writing now, in 1604, under conditonsof modernity? The answer is plain: only as a study in decadence.Troilus and Cressida, devoid of coherent moral ideals, is about the irrelevance of the Homeric moral and literary tradition to present-day political morality and practice, except as an implicit indicator of how low the politics and morality of Europe had fallen. Europe,Shakespeare seems to have concluded, could no longer see itself in the Homeric mirror—nor in Chaucer’s, for that matter. Neither the cold lucidity, objectivity and “bitterness” (Simone Weil’s word) of Homer’stragic poem, nor Chaucer’s tragi-comic mix of irony and innocence, idealism and realism, were possible in 1600. Europe was becoming decadent, or modern—take your pick: complicated, sophisticated, aggressively innovative, inquisitive, individualistic, secular. This play has a modern analogue: that quintessentially modernist poem, TheWasteland, which uses literary touchstones from the past to measure the sorry state of European culture just after the first World War.

Othello is an answer to a couple of questions that may haveoccurred to Shakespeare as he was reading Chapman’s Homer (or writingTroilus and Cressida; these plays seem to have been written at about the same time). Suppose a man might still exist whose identity is defined by the ancient Homeric code of honor and courage; a naturally noble man (not that social artifact, a nobleman) in whom the Homeric world lives on, uncorrupted by rationalism or the skeptical impulses of the meddling intellect. Where might you find such a man in 1600? Not in London, Paris, Vienna, Rome, Venice. Wouldn’t he have to be a sort of noble savage? Suppose you found him, on Europe’s North African frontier, civilized him to a degree, and set him down in a modern European city? What then?

Othello and Desdemona live by and for the ancient aristocratic ideals. They are rare, exquisitely vulnerable birds. A rarity even in the ancient (classical and medieval) world that was coming to an end in 1600, they embody that world’s aristocratic ideal of magnanimous (i.e.great-souled) life. With a purity and nobility of soul that is no longer recognizable, they cannot survive under conditions of modernity. Were they, by some stroke of supernatural bad luck, to become incarnate in some modern city, we would manage to destroy them, out of misunderstanding or cynical disbelief, perhaps; or mischievously, because it would be so easy; and so much fun; or for all of these reasons and one more: to prove a point—Iago’s point—that there’s nothing special about these two; at bottom they’re no different from you and me.

Only the man we know of as Shakespeare could have imagined a man who believes in nothing but himself and torments others for the fun of it; a mean man, a spiteful man, who knows his betters better than they know themselves, having studied them from the shadows all his life; a profoundly intelligent, cynical man, a modern man: Iago. ‘Modern’ because the word‘cynic’ would not take on the meaning that I am drawing upon here—one who disbelieves in the very possibility of virtue—for about two hundred years. A few words of explanation may be necessary here. The word ‘cynic’ in Shakespeare's day—or at any time until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries—could only have referred to an ancient post-Socratic philosopher who believed that virtue is the only good and dismissed all the other goods, so-called, that people pursue—money, power, honor, beauty—as illusions. No one knows why, or exactly when, the great reversal in the meaning of‘cynic’ occurred. The Oxford English Dictionary is not at all clear about this; its early 19th century citations under the heading of ‘cynic’ or‘cynical’ are roughly compatible with the ancient, or conventional,meaning. It is almost certain, however, that the modern meaning of the word had become well established by 1830. Stendhal, for instance, uses it confidently in its modern sense in his novel, The Red and TheBlack (1830).

When King Lear in a fit of mindless outrage sets off the little bomb that has been ticking away at the heart of his dysfunctional family, that explosion sets off another and then another until, with terrible speed, the entire moral and political order of England is in ruins. As the state returns to the state of nature, life becomes —as Hobbes will say about forty years later— “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” All of which raises a question, which may well have been Shakespeare’s question too: is civilization merely a house of cards, built on and grounded in—nothing?

‘Nature’ is being redefined in King Lear. By the end of this play, itis clear that no one, most especially Lear, has supernatural powers forthe simple reason that supernatural powers, forces and influencesdon’t exist. Macbeth brings them back.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare’s poetry shows us in unprecedented psychological and spiritual detail what happens to a man and his wife who wilfully override the moral and religious restraints that have been bredinto them by centuries of civilization. Like Edmund in King Lear, Lord and Lady Macbeth take it for granted that they are moral and social individuals, free to do as they please. If there is a deep question stirring in this play, it is about the inchoate notions of individuality that were beginning to shake Europe to pieces during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Like Troilus and Cressida, Macbeth has a modern analogue: Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. When Conrad’s Kurtz sees himself as the hollow echo-chamber he has become, he recoils in horror; contempt is the only feeling that Macbeth has left when he understands that he is merely the last of a long line of fools.

Antony and Cleopatra have qualities that poets and artists love—wit, passion, imagination—and politicians like Caesar not only lackbut despise. In the great game of power and politics, however, Caesar has the qualities that count: no scruples whatsover, and a clear understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses and his own advantages, interests and purposes. So Caesar wins the great struggle for power that, as Shakespeare saw it, settled the fate of Europe well before the birth of Jesus. Henceforth the Roman empire and therefore Europe—and therefore the modern world—would belong to Caesar and Caesar’s rational, i.e. Machiavellian, politics. Cleopatra, nevertheless, has the last word, or words, and they are by no means trivial: “’Tis paltry to be Caesar.” Indeed. And would a world strictly according to Caesar, therefore a world without poetry, be worth living in? Shakespeare invented Cleopatra—she is his invention—because he didn’t think so.

Shakespeare had a sense of history that was unique in 1600, or at anytime: he knew which way the winds of an increasingly daring and sophisticated scientific, political and economic culture were blowing; that all traditional ideas and assumptions were being thrown into doubt or blown away; that the winds of money and trade were winds of “creative destruction,” which is what the the economist Arnold Schumpeter calls them. (The phrase ‘destructive creativity’ would alsohave been apt.)

A realist, like Machiavelli, Shakespeare had no illusions about the future. It would be, he knew, a world that hardly bothered any longer to pretend that the state has morals as well as interests; a world in which one necessarily renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s—who leaves one in no doubt about what that is—while the question of what in this life belongs to God becomes harder and harder to answer; and ideas of a transcendent Good, or of Reason, disappear entirely. He could not have foreseen, though he might have guessed, that modernity would be characterized by a cacophony of different and sometimes incompatible gods, goods and rights; free markets, free elections, a free press; secular governments and societies; utilitarian politics, Machiavellian politicians, parliamentary democracies—and ‘authenticity’, a term which no longer refers, merely, to the provenance of certain documents or works of art but to a quality that the irresistible power of the corporate state and its innumerable institutions has forced us to demand and invent: what Marianne Moore calls “aplace for the genuine.” Shakespeare anticipated the concept of authenticity in Hamlet and Coriolanus, as he anticipated the concept of (modern) cynicism and embodied it in Iago, some hundreds of years before Europe caught up with him. Finally, we must include the deep premise of King Lear, which is also the premise of all scientific inquiry: nature is all.

The world I have been referring to as ‘modern’ is the relatively safe and prosperous world that a fortunate few inhabit (temporarily perhaps) now: the modern, western or westernized world that the scientific revolution, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment managed somehow or other to produce.


  1. Sue Gambill-ReadMay 30, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    Piers, the "world" may not need another book on Shakespeare but I hope you will consider self publishing for your family. I don't know my Shakespeare very well but these are "plain English" essays that I would recommend to my kids when they are old enough and go to after viewing a Shakespeare play.

    One of the things that turned me off during my decade of being a theological grad student was that we were learning to speak in ways that were unfathomable to the average person. You have not gone there. We need more academics like you!

  2. Hear, hear! I concur with Sue!

    And Piers, it is wonderful to see you on the Web.