Shakespeare's Tragic Skepticism

By Millicent Bell

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Millicent Bell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09255-5


introduction Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.....................1
one Hamlet, Revenge!.....................................................29
two Othello's Jealousy...................................................80
three "Unaccommodated" Lear..............................................138
four Macbeth's Deeds.....................................................191
epilogue The Roman Frame.................................................241
Selected Bibliography....................................................279


Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth

Shakespeare is no more ready than Iago to wear his heart upon his sleeve for daws to peck at, and maybe, like Iago, he really has no heart. What he is "trying to say" in his plays is hardly distinguishable in the chorus of ideas that his poetry and dramatic structures make us hear. The Romantics thought he was "myriad-minded" - Coleridge's term. His entertainment of contraries, his apparent self-contradiction, showed the "negative capability" Keats said was the mark of literary genius. In modern times, T. S. Eliot felt that Shakespeare had no general ideas worth talking about. Nevertheless, Eliot offered his own egregious simplification, a "Senecan Shakespeare," while warning against accepting it too seriously: "About anyone as great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong."

In offering a skeptical Shakespeare, a doubter of many received views about humanity and the universe, I feel the diffidence Eliot urged one to have. I believe that the plays I am examining in this book exhibit the effects of a potent philosophic skepticism verging upon nihilism. Yet criticism always simplifies. It is always an expression of the critic's own bias. Any correspondence I feel between my own doubting mood at the start of a new century and Shakespeare's own fin-de-siècle condition may be an illusion, just as the biases of earlier readers made them discover in Shakespeare their own confidence in a universe in which everything had its place and all meanings were secure and accessible. I know that my extract leaves something behind. Like others today, I may be too sure that an earlier school of critics was too sure that Shakespeare believed in the rule of divine intention and stable order in the cosmos and in human society. "Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows" was, for a while - but no longer is - a favorite quotation from Troilus and Cressida. We are more likely, now, to think that it may not express the writer's personal view about the knowable design of the world and man's proper place in it. Do Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth give us confidence even about who one is? One's very soul, that immortal essence once thought to be God-implanted and unalterable, might, these plays sometimes suggest, be so elusive and variable as to bring its very existence into question. Though Shakespeare makes character so vivid that it survives all inconsistency and seems almost to require no proof of itself, I shall argue that the plays flout traditional ideas about human selfhood as a known and consistent quality by which a man or woman is identified. As for the plot of time by which events are linked together - a sequence and relation that makes rational sense of human experience - this, too, may not have seemed self-evident to Shakespeare either. His greatest plays seem to rely upon the commonsense logic that connects what happens with causes in circumstances and character; after all, it is only by believing in that logic that we are able to carry on in life. Yet significant gaps and paradoxes disrupt the sequences of action in these plays and bring such coherence and meaning into doubt. They even, finally, provoke us to wonder what one might really know about these matters or anything else. One might doubt that human perception was a reliable instrument. Shakespearean confidence in that instrument seems hardly secure. Troilus's question in Troilus and Cressida, "What's aught but as 'tis valued?" persists in his major tragedies despite Hector's answer to relativism,

Value dwells not in particular will, It holds his estimate and dignity As well, wherein 'tis precious of itself.

Shakespeare allows us to put some trust in the prospect of getting at the final truth and worth of things, but he also invites us to question the absoluteness of our ideas and the validity of our impressions in the most radical way.

A working title for this book was Honest Shakespeare - meant to give our author a characterization ambiguously awarded to Iago. Although honest is also applied to someone like Desdemona - to mean female chastity as well as truthfulness - William Empson, who counted fifty-two occurrences of the word or its cognates in Othello, also pointed out years ago that it had an emergent sense as description of a type of person coming into view in the new century, one who was uninhibited by abstract principles. Iago is mistakenly called honest by those, like Othello, who trust him to tell the truth, and the term grows more and more ironic as it is applied to a man who lies continually and whose true feelings, if he has any, are disguised rather than evident. But a further irony may be suggested by the word's meaning as descriptive of a no-nonsense speaker who dispenses with exalted beliefs and declines to differentiate between seeming and being. In a word, a skeptic. Shakespeare, of course, the creator of Hamlet, who seems to see either man or woman not only as a quintessence of dust but also as the paragon of animals - "noble in reason, infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god" - is hardly himself to be identified with the most cynical and hateful of all his characters. But the Iago who is so cruelly contemptuous of those, like Othello, who think life is more than a shadow-play of illusions, expresses a part of Shakespeare's mind as much as Othello does. And this can be seen in the four great tragedies in which the will to belief in universal coherence and meaning struggles, often unsuccessfully, against skepticism. The title I finally settled on, Shakespeare's Tragic Skepticism, stresses more accurately the way tragedy results from skeptic disillusion; Hamlet feels at one and the same time the wonder of the human creature and the beauty of the world which has become a "sterile promontory" to him. His mood is one of tragic loss from which he sees no recovery. This is a mood very different from that of Iago, who, unlike Othello, has never believed or loved, and whose character belongs to the genre of comedy.

That ideas contend with one another in Shakespeare's writing is a quality he shares with the skeptic near-contemporary with whom I find him comparable, Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne's curiously moving, often evasive, often self-revelatory confessions of alternating belief and unbelief are not merely a feature of his response to the dogmas of his religion. They are duplicated in his attitudes toward numerous other generally accepted assumptions about mankind and the world. Taken as a whole, Montaigne's essays dramatize the unreadiness of his belief to come down on any conclusion without allowing for the possibility of its opposite. It is that representative skeptic method of balancing opposing views which was to be inherited from Montaigne by Pierre Bayle, who, at the end of the seventeenth century, made his famous encyclopedic dictionary a dramatization of the "method of doubt," in which one opinion was posed against another. I am suggesting that Shakespeare's thought, if we can assert anything about it, is, like Montaigne's or Bayle's, dialectic or dialogic. It pits an idea against its opposite. It looks to me as though Shakespeare - writing as he did at a time of cultural crisis when old convictions and new doubts were contending in men's minds - put contrary views into combat to test their strength. His plays are never allegorical - they never dramatize directly the contest of ideas - yet in them ideas contend from line to line in the richest language the stage has ever known. Through the action and language of the plays he invites his audiences to question, from moment to moment, the inherited, standard truths of his time. He also allows his audiences to view fearfully the results of abandoning the prop of such beliefs. This is the hidden structure of argument in Shakespeare's plays. Within these plays there are particular poetic occasions, like the soliloquies, which miniature such a structure. The most famous soliloquy of them all, Hamlet's "To be or not to be ..." is just such a balancing of alternatives - about the "nobler" course, about the right expectation concerning death's aftermath, about the process of choice itself. The presence of contraries in the one man is, of course, notable in the case of Hamlet - a matter not merely of ideas but of a personality in which so many irreconcilabilities co-habit that he seems, if we watch too closely, to be not one but a dozen separate persons - and only Shakespeare's incomparable way of giving all his hero's speech a certain tone keeps us from noticing. One of the secrets of his high poetry is the way its complex verbal effects both enrich and contradict one another.

Where did Shakespeare's skepticism come from? I believe that the relation of contemporary economic and social turmoil to skepticism about personal definition is salient in King Lear. Othello may be said to take place in a Venice contemporary with the real London in which social identities might collapse and the self lose its moorings. Hamlet, for all its derivation from ancient legends of tribal revenge, exhibits the personal self as something sought rather than securely endowed, a condition that bears a relation to the circumstances of a new age of social mobility. The anxiety produced by the tensions of Elizabethan-Jacobean power struggles has something to do with Macbeth's lost confidence in the progress of events as a comprehensible sequence. Over the whole complex scene in which thought and life interacted and reflected one another, there hung a doubt of the human capacity to perceive life truly. This doubt is expressed with a curious precision in Othello but could also have been heard in contemporary witchcraft trials, a parallel I shall have occasion to enlarge upon in my chapter dealing with that play.

Is it too simple to suppose that during the years 1564 to 1616, when Shakespeare was alive, the uncertainty of common life unsettled settled convictions? Shakespeare's plays, as I shall show, reflect anxieties somehow become more intense and universal than previously. To begin with, traditional ideas about an inexplicable correspondence between disturbances in the human and natural worlds seemed confirmed by contemporary phenomena to an extraordinary degree. Such natural disasters as the unusually frequent crop failures that caused universal distress in the 1590s anticipated the development of a world ruled by market forces remote and incomprehensible to the average person. Even a good harvest was perverse misfortune for the hoarder referred to by Macbeth's Porter - an apt illustration of life's non-sequiturs. That Lady Macbeth never explains the fate of those absent children to whom she once gave suck may not have seemed a puzzle to early audiences; only half of London's children survived into adulthood. The sudden death of old as well as young was a constant reminder of the inexplicable. In 1603, around the time when Shakespeare was writing Measure for Measure and Hamlet, plays full of verbal reference to death and disease, one-sixth of the inhabitants of London - thirty-six thousand persons - died of the plague. The theaters were closed from mid-April of that year to the following April. James I was crowned in the midst of this siege of pestilence during a week in which more than eleven hundred Londoners died of it, and he had had to cancel his inaugural ride of pomp through the city. Like so much of life, the plague was a demonstration that disaster could strike without apparent origin - for so unknown was the source of infection that orders were sometimes given for the slaughter of the city's dogs and cats, though these animals were the population's safeguards against the London rat, the real vector. The secret causes of things were hidden from sight.

The Elizabethan-Jacobean person tended to believe that drought and pestilence were evidences of a universal disturbance. It would be readily felt that the storms that rage in Julius Caesar or King Lear are not merely poetic metaphor of social and political turmoil but literal symptoms of discord and disorder in all things. Not only had there been an earthquake in London in 1580, but the heavens seemed to manifest the arrest of normal rhythms in the universe by the nova in Cassiopeia in 1572, the comet of 1577, planetary conjunctions in 1583. Eclipses of the sun and moon aroused a peculiar terror. The obliteration of the heavenly regulators of the passage of day and night and of the months of the year was probably profoundly alarming to the average person, who did not understand the causes. Shakespeare seems to refer to contemporary astronomical perturbations and their effect on the public mood in all of his major tragedies. Taking note of the unnatural terrors of various sorts that accompanied the death of the old King Hamlet, Horatio mentions the phenomena supposed to have preceded the assassination of Caesar, recently depicted in Shakespeare's own play. To these portents Horatio adds "disasters in the sun" and the moon's eclipse, reminders to the theater audience of the solar and lunar eclipses of 1589-1601. Maybe G. R. Hibbard, the excellent Oxford editor, goes too far in saying that Horatio's remark occurs only to advertise Julius Caesar and "does not advance the action in any way." Catastrophe will come to Denmark in due course, though it will take the whole length of the play for its full measure to arrive. Nature's disorders will be shown to correspond to human disorders.

So the night passed on the battlements of Elsinore, where men barely recognize one another and the ghost appears, is a night like that in Macbeth when Duncan will be murdered. There is relief when Horatio, in such exquisite fashion, welcomes the "morn in russet mantle clad [who] / Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill" at the end of the scene. But this mood is temporary. Ahead lie all the deaths, none of which is the consequence of any deliberated human plan - the deaths not only of Gertrude and Claudius, but of Polonius and Laertes and Ophelia, and of Hamlet himself - before the ghost's expectation of revenge is realized. On the night of Duncan's murder, the moon is down, as Fleance observes to Banquo, and he has not heard the clock. All heaven's "candles" are out, though Banquo dismisses this condition with a domestic witticism: "There's husbandry in heaven."


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