Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearean TragedyShakespearean Tragedy by A.C. Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley

Analyzing great works of art is always fraught with danger. Whether the critic sets her sights on a portrait, a sonata, or a play, the task is always that of turning poetry into prose. The critic, in other words, must extract content from form—and making content and form inseparable is one of the goals of art. Insofar as art is great, therefore, the critic’s task will prove difficult; and criticism thus reaches its most acute challenge in Shakespeare. His works have eluded minds as powerful as Coleridge and Freud, Goethe and Joyce. The man worthiest to the challenge was not anyone so famous; he was, rather, a retiring Oxford don who published a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies in 1904.

Bradley’s method has been attacked and dismissed as overly literal, treating Shakespeare’s characters as real people: “How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?” was the derisive title of one critical article, implying that the question (which Bradley never asked) was ludicrous. But I am convinced that Bradley’s method is, on the whole, the right one. For Shakespeare’s tragedies are incomprehensible unless we set our sights on character—the plays’ personalities. If you try the experiment suggested by Bradley himself, you will see this: attempt to narrate the plots of any of these stories without any mention of personality, merely recording the events, and the plot becomes weak and baffling.

The extreme example of this is, of course, Hamlet, whose endless ruminations and procrastinations have been a stumbling block for generations of critics. But the central importance of personality is apparent in all the tragedies. Indeed it must be, as Bradley explains, since a tragedy is tragic only insofar as the events result from a character’s personality. To fall off a building, to catch a deadly disease, to be conscripted into the army—all of these, while remarkably sad, are not tragic in the strict sense because they might happen to anyone. A tragedy may only happen to one person, because it is caused by that person. It does not result from circumstance, accident, or any overwhelming external force. To confirm this, try mentally switching the characters in these tragedies. Othello would have solved Hamlet’s problem in an hour, and Hamlet would have seen right through Iago’s trickery—the plot disappears.

The existence of tragedy, as Bradley also makes clear, seems to suggest a certain sort of universe. The characters must be capable of free action, since the consequences must flow from their personalities. Along with divine determination, the idea of a Christian afterlife is incompatible, too, since if every character ultimately receives their just desserts then the feeling of dreadful finality is lost. For tragedy, as Bradley tells us, always involves the idea of irrecoverable waste—wasted lives, wasted talents, wasted goodness. But the universe in Shakespeare’s plays is not indifferent. Indeed, although good and evil qualities are deeply mixed in all of his most memorable characters, we are never in doubt which is which. And though the hero is inevitably defeated, evil never triumph.

Most difficult to articulate is the odd mixture of inevitability and avoidability that permeates the atmosphere in these tragedies. One is never in doubt that the characters are, in every sense, free and responsible for their destiny; and yet their unhappy fate seems certain. This feeling is caused, I think, by the way that circumstance bleeds into personality. The behavior of Shakespeare’s characters is the reaction of their personality with their environment; and in tragedy this reaction is always fateful. The events correspond exactly with our heroes’ fatal weakness—a weakness which, in any other situation, would not have doomed them. In this sense their personality becomes their prison. They cannot but act otherwise because it is who they are. The final impression is one of cosmic misfortune—by some twist of fate they have been thrown into a predicament which dooms them, and they participate in creating this situation every fateful step of the way.

To fully illustrate this view of tragedy, as springing from a character’s personality, Bradley must analyze Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. And these investigations are absolutely masterful. His dissections of Hamlet and Iago in particular—my two favorite Shakespeare characters, and the two most resistant to analysis—were spectacular. Ever since I first read those plays, I have been beating my head against them in the attempt to make sense of these bottomless personages. The plots of their respective plays are determined by the actions of these two, and yet their motivations are famously difficult to ferret out. What motivates Iago, and what prevents Hamlet from acting? They are mysterious, and yet extremely coherent; one is always sure their actions are of a piece with their nature—and yet their natures are so subtle and complex that they evade understanding. Indeed for some time I was ready to say that the challenge was impossible; but Bradley’s exegesis has convinced me that I was wrong.

This book was, in sum, a revelation: a model of literary criticism that left me thoroughly convinced. And to complete the triumph, Bradley accomplishes his analysis with brevity and charm. There is nothing stifled or academic in his approach; all technical matters are reserved for footnotes and endnotes. He is, rather, a frank and plainspoken man. Nothing could feel more natural than his tone and approach, and no guide could be more friendly and tolerant. However the intellectual winds may blow in the halls of academe, ordinary lovers of Shakespeare will always cherish Bradley, for he performs the office of the critic: to enhance our enjoyment of a work while being true to its spirit.

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Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #18: Shakespeare

The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst return to laughter.

—William Shakespeare, King Lear

This quote has been coming to my mind often, for the simple reason that, nowadays, it is a common joke to call something “the worst.” Saying this is inevitably ironic, if only because, as Shakespeare also pointed out in King Lear, “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

As long as we have the presence of mind to call something “the worst,” chances are that things could get worse still. In the worst conceivable situation, I don’t think we would have the time, ability, or inclination to be wondering if things could go still more downhill.

All this sounds like a joke; but consider how often we give negative labels to things in our lives. As soon as you say, “I’ve had the worst day,” you begin, intentionally or not, to go through all the things that went wrong: the disappointments, the frustrations, the bad luck, and all the unpleasant moments.

To label something is to reduce a complex object to a supposedly essential quality. In the case of a negative label, whether it is an insult, a vulgarity, or “the worst,” we reduce a varied and textured experience to its most disagreeable elements, and use those elements to define the whole.

Even on the worst days, there are inevitably things that went well—things unnoticed, taken for granted, overlooked. Even in the worst situation you can find things to be thankful for. Nothing in the world is so simple as to be wholly bad or good; and even if there were such things, the badness or goodness would only be a result of our perspective, not inherent in the thing itself. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What is terrible to one may be beautiful to another; and reminding ourselves of this subjectivity is an excellent way to transcend the egotism of judgmental labeling.

But even if all this were untrue, if we found ourselves in a wholly bad situation, bad essentially and objectively, Shakespeare gives us another reason to be optimistic: there is no direction from the bottom but up. All change from the worst is good change.

Right now I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Erich Fromm. In that book the author relates how, once, while living in a concentration camp, he saw one of his fellow prisoners suffering from a terrible nightmare, writhing and moaning in his sleep. Fromm’s natural impulse was to wake the man; but then he reflected that any nightmare would be better than camp life. Thus there are even situations when a nightmare is a desirable change.

It is a story told and told again: about how someone “lost everything,” and after “they had nothing left to lose” they began to rebuild their lives. It is cliché nowadays, but clichés become clichéd for a reason. Most of the things we fear are associated with external things; we fear heartbreak, loneliness, failure, rejection, mediocrity, poverty, humiliation. All these, in one way or another, involve failing in the social world, economically, professionally, romantically, or otherwise.

But after all these external forms of validation are stripped away, you will find that you are no less a living, breathing person, a person of flesh and bone. And all those validations only have meaning in a certain social context, a context that is ultimately superficial and transitory. Thus you are reconnected with the basics of life; and in this state, because everything that could be done has been done to you, and you are nevertheless alive, there is nothing left to fear. Indeed, you may find yourself laughing. The values of society are rather amusing from the outside.

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

Quotes & Commentary #8: Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—Shakespeare, Hamlet

This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular quotes, especially among philosophers. And no wonder: it is moral relativism in a nutshell.

“Goodness,” as a concept, is famously difficult to analyze. Plato conceived of the Good as something external to the human mind, more real than the material world. Aristotle, always more prosaic, said that the ultimate good was happiness, since we desire other things for the sake of happiness but never desire happiness for the sake of other things. Recently I read Epicurus, more naturalistic even than Aristotle, who thought goodness was pleasure, pure and simple.

The concept of goodness obviously plays an important role in religions as well as philosophy. Zoroastrians conceived of life as a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. In Judaism, goodness is similarly seen as something objective. Hamlet is prophetically damned in the Book of Isaiah (5.20): “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” In Christianity, good is often conceived of as God’s will (leading to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma: does God will things because they’re good, or are they good because God willed them?)

The Christian concept of an objective, ideal good—influenced by Plato—held sway in Europe for a long while. Morality was conceived of as absolute and objective. What is good for me is good for you; what was good in ancient days is still good today.

In Shakespeare’s day, however, the idea of moral relativism began to take hold in the European mind. About sixty years after Hamlet’s aphorism, Spinoza had this to say:

As for the terms good and bad, they indicate no positive quality in things regarded in themselves, but are merely modes of thinking, or notions which we form from the comparison of things one with another, thus one and the same thing can be at the same time good, bad, and indifferent. For instance, music is good for him that is melancholy, bad for him that mourns; for him that is deaf, it is neither good nor bad.

If you physically or chemically analyze an object, you will never find goodness or badness in it. Those are judgments, and thus exist in our perception of objects, not in the objects themselves. We have learned this lesson very well in the modern world, which is why we frequently dismiss things as “subjective.”

There does seem to be a limit to moral relativism, however, and a danger in pushing it too far. I discussed this in regards to Milton’s quote about making a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell. Some situations are quite simply unfair, dehumanizing, exploitative, or painful. Those judgments, too, only exist in the mind; but every mind is attached to a body, and every body has certain limits and needs. The mind, too, is not infinitely flexible; some things we simply cannot accommodate. This is why long-term solitary confinement, for example, is unambiguously bad: it deprives the mind of something it needs.

For this reason, I cannot fully agree with Hamlet. Because of the constitution of our brains and bodies, some things are almost always bad, and others good. Nevertheless, for most of us in daily life, I suspect that our judgments of reality cause us more pain than the reality itself. Of course this is not always so; the world has many genuine problems.

The wise course, it seems to me, is to strike a balance between striving to improve the world around us, and striving to make peace with what we cannot change.

Review: The Power of Myth

Review: The Power of Myth

The Power of MythThe Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have bought this wonderful machine—a computer. Now I am rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine—it seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and no mercy.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a book that, for better or worse, will forever change how you see the world. Once you read his analysis of the monomyth, the basic outline of mythological stories, you find it everywhere. It’s maddening sometimes. Now I can’t watch certain movies without analyzing them in terms of Campbell’s outline.

But that book had another lasting effect on me. Campbell showed that these old myths and stories, even if you don’t believe them literally—indeed, he encourages you not to—still hold value for us. In our sophisticated, secular society, we can still learn from these ancient tales of love, adventure, magic, monsters, heroes, death, rebirth, and transcendence.

This book is a transcription of conversations between Campbell and Bill Moyers, made for a popular TV series. It isn’t exactly identical with the series, but there’s a lot of overlap. Moyers is interested in Campbell for seemingly the same reason I am: to find a value for myths and religion without the need for dogmatism or provinciality.

The book is mainly focused on Campbell’s philosophy of life, but many subjects are touched upon in these conversations. Campbell was, in his own words, a generalist, so you will find passages in here that will annoy nearly anybody. (A good definition of a generalist is somebody who can irritate specialists in many different fields.) Personally, I find Campbell most irritating when he talks about how bad the world is nowadays since people don’t have enough myths to live by. It seems obvious to me that the contemporary world, more secular than ever before, is also better off than ever before (Trump notwithstanding).

Campbell sometimes shows himself to be a sloppy scholar, such as his quoting of a letter by Chief Seattle, now widely believed to be fake. And I certainly don’t agree with his adoption of Jung’s psychology, which is hardly scientific. Indeed, to reduce old myths to Jung’s psychological system is merely to translate one myth into another. Perhaps Jung’s myth is easier to identify with nowadays, but I reject any claim of scientific accuracy. In sum, there is much to criticize in Campbell’s scholarly and academic approach.

Yet his general message—that myths and religions can be made valuable even for contemporary nonbelievers—has a special relevance for me. I grew up in an entirely nonreligious household, and I’m thankful for that. Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder whether I have missed out on something precious. Religious is as near to a human universal as you are likely to find, and I have no experience with it. Often I find myself reading religious books, exploring spiritual practices, and hanging around cathedrals. Although many beliefs and practices repel me, some I find beautiful, and I am fitfully filled with envy at the tranquility and fortitude that some practitioners seem to derive from their faith.

Campbell has been most valuable to me in his ability interpret religions metaphorically, and his insistence that they still have value. Reading Campbell helped me to clarify many of the things I have been thinking and wondering about lately, so I can’t help mixing up my own reflections with Campbell’s. Indeed, there might be more of my opinions in this review than Campbell, but here it goes.

One of the main lessons that art, philosophy, and religion teach us is that society imposes upon us superficial values. Wealth, attractiveness, sex, coolness, success, respectability—these are the values of society. And it’s no wonder. The economy doesn’t function well unless we strive to accumulate wealth; competition for mates creates a need for standards of beauty; cultural, political, and economic power is distributed hierarchically, and there are rules of behavior to differentiate the haves from the have-nots. In short, in a complex society these values are necessary—or at any rate inevitable.

But of course, these are the values of the game: the competition for mates, success, power, and wealth. In other words, they are values that differentiate how well you’re doing from your neighbor. In this way they are superficial—measuring you extrinsically rather than intrinsically. One of the functions of art, philosophy, and religion, as I see it, is to remind us of this, and to direct our attention to intrinsic values. Love, friendship, compassion, beauty, goodness, wisdom—these are valuable in themselves, and give meaning and happiness to an individual life.

How many great stories pit one of these personal values against one of the social values? Love against respectability, friendship against coolness, wisdom against wealth, compassion against success. In comedy—stories with happy endings—the intrinsic value is harmonized with the social value. Consider Jane Austen’s novels. In the end, genuine love is shown to be compatible with social respectability. But this is often not true, as tragedy points out. In tragedy, the social value wins against the personal value. The petty feud between the Capulets and the Montagues prevents Romeo and Juliet from being together. Respectability wins over love. But the victory is hollow, since this respectability brings its adherents nothing but pain and conflict.

Art thus dramatizes this conflict to show us what is really valuable from what is only apparently so. Philosophy does this not through drama, but reason. (I’m not claiming this is all either art or philosophy does.) Religion does it through ritual. This, I think, is the advantage of religion: it is periodical, it is tied to your routine, and it involves the body and not just the mind. Every week and every day you go through a procedure to remind yourself of what is really worthwhile.

But these things can fail, and often do. Art and philosophy can become academic, stereotyped, or commercial. And religion can become just another social value, used to cloak earthly power in superficial sanctity. As Campbell points out during these interviews, religion must change as society changes, or it will lose its efficacy. To use Campbell’s terminology, the social function of myth can entirely replace its pedagogical function. In such cases, the myths and rituals only serve to strengthen the group identity, to better integrate individuals into the society. When this is taken too far—as Campbell believes it has nowadays—then the social virtues are taught at the expensive of the individual virtues, and the religion just becomes another worldly power.

Myths can become ineffective, not only due to society co-opting their power, but also because myths have a cosmological role that can quickly become outdated. This is where religion comes into conflict with science. As Campbell explains, one of the purposes of myths is to help us find our place in the universe and understand our relationship to the world around us. If the religion is based on an outdated picture of the world, it can’t do that effectively, since then it forces people to choose between connecting with contemporary thought or adhering to the faith.

For my part, I think the conflict between science and religion is ultimately sterile, since it is a conflict about beliefs, and beliefs are not fundamental to either.

When I enter a cathedral, for example, I don’t see an educational facility designed to teach people facts. Rather, I see a place carefully constructed to create a certain psychological experience: the shadowy interior, the shining golden altars, the benevolent faces of the saints, the colored light from the stained glass windows, the smell of incense, the howl of the organ, the echo of the priest’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sense of smallness engendered by the towering roof. There are beliefs about reality involved in the experience, but the experience is not reducible to those beliefs; rather, the beliefs form a kind of scaffolding or context to experience the divine presence.

Science, too, is not a system of beliefs, but a procedure for investigating the world. Theories are overturned all the time in science. The most respected scientists have been proven wrong. Scientific orthodoxy today might be outmoded tomorrow. Consequently, when scientists argue with religious people about their beliefs, I think they’re both missing the point.

So far we have covered Campbell’s social, pedagogical, and cosmological functions of myths. This leaves only his spiritual function: connecting us to the mystery of the world. This is strongly connected with mysticism. By mysticism, I mean the belief that there is a higher reality behind the visual world; that there is an invisible, timeless, eternal plain that supports the field of time and action; that all apparent differences are only superficial, and that fundamentally everything is one. Plotinus is one of the most famous mystics in Western history, and his system exemplifies this: the principal of existence, for him, is “The One,” which is only his name for the unknowable mystery that transcends all categories.

Now, from a rational perspective all this is hard to swallow. And yet, I think there is a very simple thought buried underneath all this verbiage. Mysticism is just the experience of the mystery of existence, the mystery there is something instead of nothing. Science can explain how things work, but does not explain why these things are here in the first place. Stephen Hawking expressed this most memorably when he said: “Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes universe for them to describe?”

It is arguably not a rational question—maybe not even a real question at all—to ask “Why is there something rather than nothing?” In any case, it is unanswerable. But I still often find myself filled with wonder that I exist, that I can see and hear things, that I have an identity, and that I am a part of this whole universe, so exquisite and vast. Certain things reliably connect me with this feeling: reading Hamlet, looking up at the starry sky, and standing in the Toledo Cathedral. Because it is not rational, I cannot adequately put it into words or analyze it; and yet I think the experience of mystery and awe is one of the most important things in life.

Since it is just a feeling, there is nothing inherently rational or anti-rational in it. I’ve heard scientists, mystics, and philosophers describe it. Yes, they describe it in different terms, using different concepts, and give it different meaning, but all that is incidental. The feeling of wonder is the thing, the perpetual surprise that we exist at all. Campbell helps me to connect with and understand that, and for that reason I am grateful to him.

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