“Interpretation should proceed from the clear into the obscure.” —Martin Heidegger
Today’s show speculates in various ways about William Shakespeare.
At the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, in Germany, there lived a philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel had something to say about William Shakespeare, who lived about two hundred years earlier, from 1564 to 1616, and whose birthday is celebrated as April 26. Hegel said that, in the portrayal of individual characters, Shakespeare stands “at an almost unapproachable height”; he made his creations “free artists of their own selves.” As such, Shakespeare’s characters are “real, directly living, extremely varied.”
Hegel believed that Shakespeare was creating people—“real, directly living, extremely varied”—and that these people possessed the self-consciousness that is the hallmark of Hegel’s understanding: they were “free artists of their own selves.” Hegel’s influence was immense, and it is probably due to him that we think that a successful playwright or novelist creates, like Shakespeare, characters that seem to be alive, with all the prerogatives of the living. Thanks to Hegel, we think of successful characters as “three-dimensional” as opposed to “two-dimensional”; thanks to Hegel, many people think that characterization is at the very center of drama.
Is this true of Shakespeare? Was Hegel correct in his analysis of Shakespeare’s characters? I don’t think so. Shakespeare’s characters are often two dimensional, conventional figures—but with something added. Polonius in Hamlet is a conventional figure throughout the play—an old fool. And yet, for a moment, he suddenly changes and delivers a magnificent and eloquent speech to his son, Laertes:
Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
Kipling imitated that speech in his famous poem, “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master….
The Polonius who exists in the rest of the play could not have uttered the speech this Polonius delivers to Laertes. This is an example of Polonius’s usual rhetorical mode: “And in part him; but you may say not well: / But, if ’t be he I mean, he’s very wild”—but that is hardly the rhetorical mode of his great speech. For a moment “Polonius” stands before us as something impossible for the character Polonius to be. Shakespeare gives us a familiar figure, an old fool—hardly “a free artist of his own self”—and then presents him in a way that briefly, momentarily, makes us doubt our senses: he could not be doing what he obviously is doing. Polonius is not a free artist of his own self but an astonishment—just as astonishing as Ariel or Caliban in The Tempest or the witches in Macbeth, creatures who are asked, “Live you?” (“They look not like the inhabitants o’ earth / And yet are on’t.”) It seems to me that at the center of Shakespeare’s understanding of character is the notion that character is or can be enormously fluid—so much so that “characterization” can be suddenly dropped, though it may be resumed a moment later. I think Shakespeare is less interested in presenting “real people” than he is interested in presenting astonishments—things we can see only in plays or in dreams or in hallucinations, “the light that never was on land or sea,” in Wordsworth’s phrase. He is interested in amazement, imagination, the sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying unreal. I wrote a poem on this theme:
FOR SHAKESPEARE’S BIRTHDAY
Sweet Swan of Avon,
The dark lady who haunts your sonnets is long gone
(The dark lady)
So is the friend to whom you showed your love
Your plays have been interpreted and shown
The whole world over; called a treasure trove
(The whole world)
By thousands; comedies and tragedies
And others which defy the naming mind;
You made a wordworld for our ears and eyes
Gave life to dying, vision to the blind.
Astonishment’s the root word for your plays
Iago is a villain AND Saint James
(Villain AND James)
Desdemona—of the demons; Hamlet sings and sways
Among the many selves that have no names:
(So many selves)
Shylock’s a Jew; could that be human—he?
(If you prick us, do we not bleed; hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?)
You make us contemplate what couldn’t be.
(—You make us SEE what couldn’t be—could NEVER be)
In sonnet after sonnet, play and play,
We recognize a spirit, deep and rare
That leads us on a fabulous roundelay
We breathe the air of those who breathe the air
Who could not breathe who have no proper name
Who tell us time and time again:
I am not what I am.