Posts tagged ‘Shakespeare’
A few days ago, I quoted Shakespeare’s famous “Band of Brothers” speech put in the mouth of Henry V. I also mentioned that I had started reading Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. I’m finished with the book now, and there was actually a passage where Hedges refers to Shakespeare’s Henry V and compares it to another Shakespearean character, Sir John Falstaff, a comic knight who loves wine, women, and his own safety.
This is what Hedges has to say about the two characters in relation to war and the soldiers of today:
“Just remember,” a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel told me as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm before we crossed into Kuwait, “that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”
It may be that Falstaff, rather than Henry V, is a much more accurate picture of the common soldier, who finds little in the rhetoric of officers who urge him into danger. The average soldier probably sympathizes more than we might suspect with Falstaff’s stratagems to save his own hide. Falstaff embodies the carnal yearnings we all have for food, drink, companionship, a few sexual adventures, and safety.
He may lack the essential comradeship of soldiering, but he clings to life in a way a soldier under fire can sympathize with. It is the pubs and taverns, not to the grand palaces, that these soldiers return to when the war is done. And Falstaff’s selfish lust for pleasure hurts few. Henry’s lust for power leaves corpses strewn across muddy battlefields.
In the last few days, my mind has turned (as it sometimes does) to some of the great passages and speeches in Shakespeare, and one that came to mind was the “Band of Brothers” speech delivered by Henry V to his troops in the play of the same name.
I must say that I have mixed feelings about such battle-cry speeches. On the one hand, the bravery and emotion expressed in them can be quite moving. On the other hand, I find it chilling how easily men (mostly men) are moved to slaughter others and let themselves be slaughtered.
The possible reasons for this human propensity to war and violence have been treated by many authors from many different angles. A recent one is Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning, which I just started reading today.
But whatever your own feelings on war, the “Band of Brothers” speech is still a great piece of literature. Here it is:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Romeo wants Juliet as the filings want the magnet, and if no obstacles intervene he moves toward her by as straight a line as they, but Romeo and Juliet, if a wall be built between them, do not remain idiotically pressing their faces against its opposite sides.
A number of years ago, I read a few works by the influential English thinker John Stuart Mill (1806-73), such as On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and The Subjection of Women. At the time, I also heard about the ambitious educational goals of John Stuart Mill’s father, starting little John on Greek at the age of three and emphasizing familiarity with the Great Books. At the age of twenty, then, Mill had a nervous breakdown, and I got the impression from what I read that this was due to the over-zealous education he “suffered.”
More recently, I actually bothered to read Mill’s autobiography, and I now find my previous view of Mill’s depression inadequate, as it was based merely on hearsay. Well, by the hearing of the ear I had heard of it, but now mine eye has seen the Mill.
Mill’s own account of what got him into and out of his depression is much more interesting than simply to say: He read too many books, didn’t go out play enough, and so all his learning eventually became too much and caused a nervous breakdown. There was an inner journey involved that such a summary fails to capture.
He says that from the moment he first read Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the pioneer of utilitarian ethics, he had an object in life, namely to be a reformer of the world. His conception of his own happiness was entirely identified with this object. “I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed,” he writes, “through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment.”
This worked quite well for him for several years, until he “awakened from this as from a dream.” He asked himself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: “No!”
At this, Mill felt that the whole foundation on which his life was constructed fell apart. He seemed to have nothing left to live for. At first he hoped that this cloud of depression would pass, but it did not. He read without feeling, he did his work mechanically, and he had no one to confide in. He says that his father, to whom it would have been natural for him to turn to in any practical difficulties, was the last person he looked for help in such a case as this. “My education,” he explains, “which was wholly his work, had been conducted without any regard to the possibility of its ending in this result; and I saw no use in giving him the pain of thinking that his plans had failed, when the failure was probably irremediable, and, at all events, beyond the power of his remedies.”
Now what did get Mill finally out of his depression? What helped this rational mind raised on a steady diet of utilitarianism to again find meaning in life? What made him regain his spirit? The surprising answer: a subjective appreciation of the Romantics—the Romantics, who were such strong critics of what they saw as the tyranny of that overly scientific thinking which, they maintained, failed to see the beauty of a forest because it kept counting its leaves.
Not that Mill condoned the Romantics in every respect. He says that Goethe’s writings, for example, are penetrated throughout by views of morals and of conduct that are not defensible. And yet, he derived much from Goethe and other Romantic authors that helped him cultivate his feelings.
Particularly Wordsworth helped him out of his depression, because his poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of his pleasurable susceptibilities, “the love of rural objects and natural scenery.” But, he says, “Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. … What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not of mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.”
I find Mill’s experience with depression highly illuminating. While I want to be cautious in drawing unmerited comparisons or making too quick generalizations, Mill’s story reminded me of Darwin’s famous comment in his later life that, though he had appreciated poetry and literature as a young man, he now found Shakespeare nauseating. Perhaps Darwin’s loss of appreciation for the poetic, more subjective productions of human creativity was not directly caused by his life-long scientific, objective study of nature—I cannot really say—but it might have been.
In my personal experience, I have found that when I spend extended periods of time studying science, after a while philosophy begins to look too speculative and poetic viewpoints too subjective. On the other hand, when I spend extended periods of time with philosophy and poetic viewpoints, after a while science begins to feel too cold and meaningless. I therefore can easily imagine someone who spends his whole life in scientific pursuits completely losing their taste for the subjective.
Maybe a more pertinent example than Darwin is James Joyce, who purportedly said that he lost his subjective appreciation of music when he meticulously researched musical themes because he wanted to mimic their structure in his chapter on the Sirens in Ulysses.
This might not apply to every person, but people like Joyce seemed to notice that it was no easy task to be scientifically minded and at the same time stay in touch with a subjective appreciation of music, art, and poetry. You can count the leaves of a forest one hour and appreciate its beauty the next, but it is hard to do both at the same time. And if you spend most of your days counting leaves, you might eventually find yourself unable to still look at the whole forest and be overwhelmed by its beauty.
In Mill’s case, this dichotomy between the objective and the subjective was maybe not the whole story; I’ll look at some other interpretations of the cause of Mill’s depression in my next post. But like Mill, I, too, am a person who consciously needs to nourish his subjective side in order not to cool off in respect to that aspect of human existence. If others experience this differently, I have to take their word for it.
In my last post, I mentioned Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and raised the question whether an acquaintance with great books of the past can liberate us from the cave of popular culture.
While I think there is definitely something to that thought, it is also possible to have a wrong idea of those great books from the past. Shakespeare’s plays were originally staged in the disreputable southern side of London, essentially the red-light district. As a common laborer in Elizabethan London, you might work, watch a bear fight, and then buy a cheap ticket to go see a play by that Shakespeare dude, munching away on snacks during the performance and loudly voicing the emotional effect it has on you.
In a similar vein, the great Russian American novelist Nabokov did not at first manage to get his novel Lolita published with anything but a trashy pornographic publisher. Can you imagine a professor of literature being caught with it at the time? It would have been embarrassing. Today, any professor of literature can proudly hold up his Vintage edition of Lolita, showing what fine works he is reading. And if you look at the lives of the great composers, many of them lived as much like a rock star as their often limited finances would allow.
Frequently, the classics of today were yesterday’s pop culture, and what is taken up into (or drops out of) the canon of great literature changes over time. Literary sainthood is a fickle club.
Personally, I am not fond of an overly sharp distinction between highbrow and lowbrow, between real literature and mere entertainment. Not only were many highbrow works in the current canon originally anything but highbrow, but I think the implied supposition that “literary” works are somehow always more profound than popular works is false. Sure, Joyce’s Ulysses is a unique work and a great experiment of what you can do with language, and its many references and puzzles furnish literary classes with much to talk about, but in terms of the content, is it really more profound than popular works? For my money, I find The Lord of the Rings more profound than Ulysses, even though Tolkien is clearly part of popular culture.
Now Allan Bloom contests that the Great Books have a richness that is missing in popular culture. While I do not completely disagree, I find some of his examples rather badly chosen. He says that “students today have nothing like Dickens who gave so many of us the unforgettable Pecksniffs, Micawbers, Pips, with which we sharpened our vision, allowing us some subtlety in our distinction of human types. It is a complex set of experiences that enables one to say so simply, ‘He is a Scrooge.’ Without literature, no such observations are possible and the fine art of comparison lost. The psychological obtuseness of our students is appalling, because they have only pop psychology to tell them what people are like …”
Really? We have no equivalents of Dickens’ characters in current pop culture? Dickens was an extremely popular writer in his time, not someone whose readership was limited to those with a highly developed literary taste. So, for some reason, Bloom seems to suggest, popular writers have become much less perceptive in their portrayal of human characters since the golden age of Charles Dickens. Pardon me, Professor Bloom, but I don’t think so. I have read many popular novels where I was impressed by the perceptive portrayals of human character, even in novels that are clearly meant to thrill rather than educate us, such as those of Stephen King.
To take the issue beyond the written word, is the statement “He is a Scrooge” really such a more profound statement than, say, “He is a Mr. Burns” (from the Simpsons)? Many people today might not be familiar with Pecksniff, Micawber and Pip anymore, but they have the unforgettable Snape, Dumbledore and Harry Potter. Even though it is a children’s book series, Harry Potter deals with many important issues. As does Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, to name but two of the most popular book series of current popular culture.
Nevertheless, I think Bloom has a point that often, what we find in popular culture are dumbed-down and falsified concepts from earlier thinkers. “The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.”
As he says in another passage, “somehow the goods got damaged in transit.” Again talking about Marcuse, Bloom says that he “began in Germany in the twenties by being something of a serious Hegel scholar. He ended up here [in America] writing trashy culture criticism with a heavy sex interest in One Dimensional Man and other well-known books. In the Soviet Union, instead of the philosopher-king they got the ideological tyrant; in the United Sates the culture critic became the voice of Woodstock.”
When it comes to fiction, I am not convinced that books of the limited highbrow canon are always better than those excluded from the canon. But when it comes to non-fiction, particularly philosophy, I would agree with Bloom that there have been a certain amount of thinkers who continue to influence us, and knowing them helps us evaluate the popularized and often falsified versions of their thoughts.
For instance, Obama said during his recent address to the United Nations that “freedom and self-determination are not unique to one culture. These are not simply American values or Western values – they are universal values.” That’s quite a big claim, and I think knowing the Great Books helps evaluate such a claim. It helps us know where such a sentiment comes from.
Bloom is right to point out what has been pointed out by others before: that one can indeed be chained to the shadow puppetry of contemporary popularism, especially in our age of mass production, and that a knowledge of the Great Books can help turn our heads away from the shadows at least long enough to gain a better understanding of what is really going on. Or, to change the picture, they can pull us up from among the throng of mass culture at least long enough to get a picture of some its direction, separating us from the throng long enough to gain a bit of individuality—to gain a mind not completely controlled by the dictates of mass consumption.
Recently, someone pointed out that we in the 21st century have the advantage of looking back at cultural productions from previous centuries and evaluate them in terms of later developments. True. But I usually tend to view myself having a huge disadvantage against the original audience, whether it be of music, literature or art in its various forms.
Time blunts all edges, don’t you think? It’s hard for us to still be jolted by the shocking rawness of Beethoven’s Fifth. Today, respectable people walk past Manet’s "Luncheon on the Grass" without batting an eye, unaware of the outrage it caused in 19th-century France. (And I can safely put it up on my blog without having to warn the reader of adult content. See picture above.)
We don’t consider Ovid’s books to be a threat to public order, as Augustus likely did, who banished him to the island of Tomis (though we aren’t entirely sure that Ovid’s writings were the real reason for the banishment). Even highly educated people miss many of Shakespeare’s jokes that a peasant in 16th-century London would have gotten right away.
For us, it often takes enormous effort and learning to recapture what the original audience took for granted. Sure, we have the wider context of later history, but we have lost the immediate context of when the work was produced. Even the most erudite Greek scholar of today doesn’t have the same feel for Greek language and culture that an uneducated boy would have had who actually lived in ancient Athens.
We gain a wider context; we lose the impact of the immediate context.
Prospero, who for many years desired to be freed from his constrained existence on the island, is quite realistic to know that even his dukedom would not give him a complete sense of freedom. Milan might bestow on him more breathing space than his small island, but there are more existential restrictions that every human shares.
“And thence retired me to my Milan,” he pronounces after he has won back his dukedom, but then he does not say, “where every third thought shall be my regained freedom.” No, he says, “where every third thought shall be my grave.” The brevity of life is only one of many restrictions that humans have to accept. Complete freedom is an illusion, at least on this earth. Indeed, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Since this is probably the most famous line from the play, it is worth quoting in context. Fernando has just witnessed joyous songs of gods and carefree dances of nymphs, “a most majestic vision, and harmonious charmingly.” But then, “to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they hearily vanish.” The vision has passed. The sense of complete freedom is gone. And Prospero draws the parallel to our earthly existence:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
I do not know about you, but I sometimes have an overwhelming sense of being trapped in my mortal body, trapped on this small globe hurling through space, trapped under the gnawing tooth of time. I wish to break free, to be eternal, to be something more solid than such stuff as dreams are made on. But no earthly freedom can satisfy this longing.
In my series of posts on the theme of freedom in Shakespeare’s Tempest, I fear that with my speculations about the future love life of Ferdinand and Miranda, I have digressed well beyond the lines of the actors on Shakespeare’s stage. Let me therefore return to the actual text and see in what way the main character, Prospero, desires freedom.
In a certain respect, Prospero’s life is not too bad. He is master of an island—with few subjects, that is true, but fewer subjects also means fewer who give you trouble. Through his magical powers, spirits are serving him. All his basic needs are covered, and he even has some of his favorite books with him. Not to mention a daughter who loves him. Some people might actually like such a simple life of solitude. But Prospero is not content. He wishes to be freed from the island. Why? Because he is “more better than Prospero, master of a full poor cell.” He is not content because he remembers what he used to be, namely the Duke of Milan. And rather than give up that former identity and embrace his new life, he still sees himself as the Duke.
It is always more difficult to cut back than to expand, is it not? I used to be perfectly content not having my own home office but instead working at the kitchen table, in the living room or wherever I managed to carve out a little space for me and my laptop. But now that we no longer live in a tiny apartment and I have a room of my own, it is hard for me to imagine going back to a little corner in the kitchen. Should we ever have to move back into a smaller house, I might still see myself as entitled to the benefits of my own office, and consequently I might be discontent with my lack of freedom. “I am more better than Jacob, master of a poor kitchen corner,” I might say. “I am Duke of my own office.”
Or let us take another example. Surely everyone has heard of an older teenager who got along quite well with his parents, but then he went away to College or another country for a while, and there he got used to being free from parental supervision. Then, when he returns and has to stay with his parents once more, the former harmony is suddenly broken. The mere presence of his parents now makes him feel restricted, and the parents might be at a loss how to handle the son or daughter who they are used to have under their tutelage but who is no longer compliant.
Similarly, Prospero is haunted by his former self.
In my current series of blog posts on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, I left off last time talking about the rational aspect of true love.
Now, of course very few men and women would be satisfied with their partner loving them for purely rational reasons. Let us suppose that for some reason Ferdinand has to choose between his marriage with Miranda and his rich kingship of Naples. He chooses Miranda and poverty, and quite literally has to be a “patient log-man” for the rest of his life. As the initial amour wanes, he also finds his patience waning, and regret over the fulfilling life he has given up comes knocking at his mental door.
Say this feeling of regret grows increasingly stronger, and his feeling of love diminishes into nothingness. He still carries those logs for Miranda and their mutual children. Steered by Reason, he still does his best to serve and help them. But all his service his tainted by regret. If such a state lasts for years, and his negative feelings are consistently much stronger than any feelings of love, he probably should have a talk with Miranda whether there might not be other alternatives for them and their children’s futures.
Reason is vital for love; otherwise it would have hardly made sense for the author of John’s Gospel to tell us that Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. Clearly, then, love has to be more than just a feeling, and sometimes it has to act against one’s feelings.
But it is equally clear that one cannot erase feelings from love on a permanent basis. Reason might be the helm of love, but feelings are the wind in the sail. Taken together, they are what we call “character.” The more developed someone’s character, the less schizophrenia there will between his Reason and his feelings.
When one has a strong, single-minded feeling of love, it is easy to bear all kinds of trouble for the sake of love. In fact, the strength of the feeling is proved by how much trouble one is willing to undergo for the beloved. We find a good example of this in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
“This swift business,” says Prospero about Ferdinand and Miranda having fallen in love, “I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.” But no matter how great the burden that Prospero heaves on Ferdinand, it all stays light for him: “My father’s loss, the weakness which I feel, the wreck of all my friends, nor this man’s threats, to whom I am subdued, are but light to me, might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid: all corners else o’ the earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.”
Ferdinand is willing to give up all other freedom and to bear all manner of trouble, if only he is allowed to behold his object of love. “There be some sports are painful,” he pronounces while bearing a log, “and their labour delight in them sets off: some kinds of baseness are nobly undergone and most poor matters point to rich ends. This my mean task would be as heavy to me as odious, but the mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead and makes my labours pleasures.”
Indeed, “these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labours, most busy lest, when I do it.” Without the overpowering feeling of love, he “would no more endure this wooden slavery than to suffer the flesh-fly blow [his] mouth.” Only for Miranda’s sake is he “this patient log-man.” Miranda, in turn, being equally overpowered by feelings of love, would heartily throw herself into being a log-woman: “It would become me as well as it does you: and I should do it with much more ease; for my good will is to it.”
Shakespeare does not tell us what Miranda and Ferdinand feel for each other a few weeks or years into their marriage, but we can surmise that even wonderful Ferdinand will sometimes tire of being a patient log-man, and even flawless Miranda will find her good will falter on occasion. In other words, the overpowering feeling of love will not always be as strong as it is now. In fact, it will probably never be as strong again as in the first hours of infatuation.
Now what will Ferdinand do when he wakes up one morning and notices to his own astonishment that he finds Miranda’s morning breath unpleasant? What will Miranda do when she feels mad at him because he neglects her in favor of his political life as Prince and later, we may suppose, King of Naples? What will they do when they are no longer being carried along by amorous feelings?
The answer is that they will need to learn to walk on their own two feet. They will need to learn that feelings can only get you so far, and that at some point Reason has to take over once more. Reason would tell Ferdinand, “I don’t have an overpowering sense of love for Miranda today, but I still want her best and will do my best today to make her best happen.”