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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Review: King Lear

Review: King Lear

King LearKing Lear by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

King Lear, along with Hamlet, forms the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s art. As such, the play seems beyond criticism, or even analysis. The greatest artists set their own standards; they can only be measured against themselves; and as Shakespeare is a giant among giants, his masterpieces are doubly beyond reckoning. Even Harold Bloom, who has something to say about everything, insists that these two plays “baffle commentary”—although it doesn’t stop him from trying. I have difficulty even doing that. Hamlet is among my favorite works of literature, one I have read and seen many times, and yet I cannot think of a single thing to say about it.

Silence is probably the wisest and best course in these situations. But I will stick my neck out a little and try to digest the indigestible, and write a little something about Lear.

This play opens with Lear dividing his kingdom among his daughters. From the first, we are both attracted and repelled by Lear. He is foolish, vain, egotistical, irritable, rash, and imperious. He is clearly not fit to govern a house, much less a kingdom. The transparent flattery of Regan and Goneril, and the equally transparent sincerity of Cordelia, produce the exact opposite response that they should in Lear. Such a poor judge of character, coupled with such a quick temper and a dogmatic devotion to his own impulses—evidenced by his disinheritance of Cordelia and his banishment of Kent—can be neither loved nor respected.

But Lear demands the viewer’s love. He cannot be simply dismissed as a bumbling old man. He is a bumbling old man, yes, but he is also charismatic beyond measure. Every utterance of his is supercharged with passion. He is histrionic, even hysterical; and yet his wounded pride, his kingly dignity, is utterly persuasive. He is every inch a king. Nothing but lifelong power and command could produce a man so totally unable to control his impulses, and so regally disdainful of everything that opposes his will. What is perhaps most lovable about Lear is his directness. Those whom he loves, he loves unstintingly; and unstinting is his pain and disenchantment when his love is not returned. There is nothing dispassionate about Lear; he lacks completely the ability to be calculating and shrewd. And this is both a weakness and a mark of nobility; it makes him vulnerable, but it also makes him loveable.

His foil in this is Edmund. Edmund is pure calculation. He feels nothing for nobody—not for his brother, nor his father, nor his two lovers. It is his total lack of sentiment that allows him to shrewdly manipulate others, much like Iago does. Gloucester, Edgar, Goneril, and Regan all assume that Edmund would not betray them, since he is seemingly tied to them by emotional bonds, and they are all deceived. This description makes Edmund sound psychotic; and yet, for many, he is the most likable character in the play. It is such a relief when he comes on stage. His cool cynicism and dry wit are a necessary reprieve from the ceaseless torrents and whiplashing anger of Lear. Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking that Edmund, so stealthy, so cunning, so self-controlled, would make a far better king than Lear ever did.

Aside from passion and placidity, another theme in this play is sanity and madness, wisdom and folly. The Fool, despite his name, is perhaps the wisest characters in the play, constantly upbraiding Lear for his mistakes. Although dressed like a jester, he lives like a sage, abiding simply and apart from the machinations of power. He bestows his love on the worthiest characters, Lear and Cordelia, and is the loyalest of friends and servants. Edgar, disguised as a madman, is hailed by Lear as a philosopher; and Edgar himself, upon witnessing Lear’s descent into madness, notes that Lear’s ravings have some strange sense: “O matter and impertinency mixed! Reason in madness!” Meanwhile, all the sober plans of Edmund eventually come to naught. Is Shakespeare implying that true wisdom and reason cannot be expressed in ordinary language, but must take the form of poetic ravings or lewd jokes?

Few scenes in literature, if any, are as tragic as when Lear walks out with Cordelia’s corpse in his arms. There is no silver lining in the tragedy. He loses everything—and then dies. Audiences in previous ages thought that this was too harsh, and the play was often performed with a happy ending. We moderns have re-acquired a taste for the bleak. Yet the play is still heartrending. Gloucester in particular attracts my sympathy. Fooled into betraying his loyal son, and betrayed in turn by his disloyal son, blinded for showing kindness to Lear, cast out a broken man intent on ending his own life—it’s a torture to watch. Lear’s story is even darker, for at least Gloucester dies of a happy shock. With Lear we witness a noble and kingly soul, who loves and is loved by many, who is reduced to a babbling fool, who is stripped of everything he owned, even his senses, and who finally dies of heartbreak.

Well, there’s my meager attempt at a review. At least now I can say that I’ve tried.

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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.