By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

13. Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate, pp. 375-424

Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William ShakespeareSeventh Age: Oblivion; Chapter 23, The Readiness Is All; Chapter 24, Shakespeare the Epicurean; Chapter 25, Exit and Re-entrance
Tragedy was a new word to the Elizabethans; it entered the language with Jasper Heywood's translation of Seneca in 1559. The Senecan tragedy "is structured in five acts, divided by a Chorus. The action is a reaction to a terrible event that has taken place in the past, of which we may be reminded by a ghost. The central character cannot easily be labeled either a hero or a villain. Usually he or she is called to revenge. But the drama takes place in his head, not on the stage. We hear a lot about blood and cruelty and sensational violence, but always at second hand. This is a drama to be heard or read more than to be seen."

The first English verse tragedy was Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's Gorboduc, in 1562. It "is for the most part a static work of Senecan debate. All the action takes place offstage and is reported in a series of messenger speeches.... Classical and neoclassical tragedy were more concerned with how people react to terrible events than with the events themselves." The descendants of Gorboduc were the "closet dramas" of the 1590s, several of them written by women, Mary Sidney and Joanna Lumley, working from classical sources.

The influence of these Senecan tragedies, with their emphasis on debate, and on "the paradox of humankind's bodily and spiritual duality," is evident in Hamlet, whose protagonist speaks of this duality in the "What a piece of work is a man!" speech. Troubled by the murder of his father and the remarriage of his mother, Hamlet "is unable to sustain his belief in humankind's beauty and admirability. It is only when he faces up to the graveyard and the skull that he is able to accept the mortification of the body, the implication of the words of the funeral service that will be evoked by the entrance of Ophelia's cortege.... Hamlet is obsessed by the division between words -- the medium of noble reasoning, the faculty of admirable expression -- and matter, the substance of the body and of action."
In his "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet has worried about the hereafter; in his dying speeches, he is more concerned with the manner in which his history is recorded on earth.... Hamlet's closing emphasis on the telling of his story -- his history, his posthumous fame -- is a sign of the secularization of the drama during the reign of Elizabeth.
He has been changed after his English voyage to a kind of Stoic acceptance: "If it be now, 'tis not to come: if it be not to come, it will be now: if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." "Or, more strictly, since he combines a classically achieved 'readiness' or 'constancy' with a Christian sense of 'providence' ... we should say neo-Stoic acceptance."
If there is a single book that parallels his journey and brings us close to the workings of the mind of Hamlet, it is Montaigne's Essays. Scholars debate as to whether or not Shakespeare saw Florio's translation before it was published in 1603. The balance of evidence suggests that he probably did not, but rather that his mind and Montaigne's worked in such similar ways that Hamlet seems like a reader of Montaigne even though he could have been.... Montaigne and Hamlet ... seek to cultivate contempt not for the world, but for death. They teach themselves to be ready but not to be afraid. A fool, says Montaigne, deals with the fear of death by not thinking about it. A wise man simultaneously thinks about it all the time and gets on with his life.
Montaigne and Shakespeare both recognized the limitations of Stoicism because of their acceptance of the fact that "bodily sensation is an essential part of experience: this is the missing element in both the Stoic faith in the pure power of the mind to control the self and the Pauline duality that tries to split the immortal soul from the mortal or self-mortified body." For Montaigne, "The goodliest minds are those that have most variety and pliableness in them." Bate observes, "If Shakespeare's copy of Florio's Montaigne were ever to be found, this is the kind of sentence that would be heavily underlined or annotated with a marginal tick or a remark such as 'true wisdom.'"

The classical philosophy that this attitude most resembles is that of Epicurus, known to us mostly through Lucretius's espousal of them in De rerum natura. What Shakespeare knew of Lucretius was probably gained from quotations and reflections on him in Montaigne. But Epicureanism was largely scorned in Shakespeare's time "because it was atheistic and because it seemed to license sensual indulgence." Bate summarizes Lucretius:
The universe consists of nothing but atoms swerving unpredictably in a void. A human being is but a conglomeration of atoms which at death are dispersed back into the universe. There is no immaterial soul, no immortality, no active god intervening in our affairs. Since death is nothingness, there is no need for superstition. The good life is accordingly to be achieved through friendship, through kindness to those around you, and through the pursuit of pleasure -- with the proviso that overindulgence of the appetites will not bring enduring happiness.
Ben Jonson caricatured Epicureanism in The Alchemist in the figure of Sir Epicure Mammon. And Shakespeare also seems to treat the philosophy harshly, having the Epicurean Cassius partly renounce his beliefs when things turn wrong in Julius Caesar. Goneril condemns the "epicurism" of Lear's knights, Ford calls Falstaff "a damned Epicurean rascal" and Pompey scorns Antony for indulging in the delights provided by Cleopatra's "epicurean cooks." But Bate argues that all of these references show "Shakespeare's sympathy for the Epicureans":
Are we supposed to agree with Goneril? To damn Falstaff? To despise Siward and the other "English epicures" who help Macduff and Malcolm to rescue bleeding Scotland from the clutches of the murderous Macbeth? To prefer Roman austerity to Antony and Cleopatra's gaudy nights? For gluttony, Falstaff is Sir Epicure's match, but with a key difference: he does not really care about mammon (money), and he embodies those true Epicurean virtues of kindness and friendship every bit as much as he is an eater, drinker, and seeker after pleasure.... There are some characgters with whom [Shakespeare] fell in love. Falstaff and Cleopatra are preeminent among them, and they are true Epicureans. Like Montaigne, they refuse to pretned that there is no such thing as the body.
Shakespeare constantly examines how a foolish consistency leads to a character's undoing, "how philosophical positions collapse under the pressure of action and circumstance." Coriolanus's stiff-necked adherence to a code of valor is his undoing. "Coriolanus is a study in the consequences of the lack of that 'pliableness' that Montaigne, following Epicurus, recommended as the basis of a well-lived life." Antony and Cleopatra are undone by their Epicureanism, and young Octavius, who becomes Augustus, takes over the empire. He "was regarded as the embodiment of enlightened imperialism -- a model for the ambitions of Shakespeare's patron, King James. But all the poetry of the play has been on the Egyptian, the Epicurean side."

The only major character in Antony and Cleopatra that Shakespeare didn't find in his source is Enobarbus.
Enobarbus embodies the pliable self recommended by Epicurus and Montaigne, only to recognize, tragically, that pliability eventually leaves him with nothing but death. He berates himself for his abnegation of that cardinal Epicurean virtue, friendship. Intelligent, funny, at once companionable and guardedly isolated, full of understanding and admiration for women but most comfortable among men (there is a homoerotic frisson to his bond with Menas and his rivalry with Agrippa), clinically analytical in his assessment of others but full of sorrow and shame when his reason overrides his loyalty and leads him to desert his friend and master, Enobarbus might just be the closest Shakespeare came to a portrait of his own mind. [Yes! This is exactly right, I think.]
Bate wants us to discard "the old myth that Shakespeare's theatrical signing off came with the epilogue to The Tempest." He points us instead to what may in fact be his final words for the stage in The Two Noble Kinsmen:
                      O, you heavenly charmers,
What things you make of us! For what we lack
We laugh, for what we have are sorry, still
Are children in some kind. Let us be thankful
For that which is, and with you leave dispute
That are above our question. Let's go off,
And bear us like the time. 
If these are the last words Shakespeare wrote for the theater, they place "him somewhere between the Epicurean notion that what we know is experience, not divinity, and the self-denying ordinance of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein centuries later: 'whereof we cannot speak there must be silence.'"

The legend has it that Shakespeare died of a fever he caught after an evening of drinking with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, but it's only a legend -- Bate calls it "Stratford gossip," and he notes that "Shakespeare had made his will a couple of months before, which a man usually did only when he believed that he was close to death." The monument in Holy Trinity tells us only that he died on April 23, 1616, in his fifty-third year.

Twenty of Shakespeare's works, including the poems, were published in his lifetime. The First Folio of 1623 brought together thirty-six plays, but not the poems and sonnets. Seventeen of the eighteen plays that had been published before were included in the Folio -- Pericles was omitted, and Troilus and Cressida was added late in the printing, so it doesn't appear in the contents.
Were it not for the Folio, these eighteen plays would have been lost to posterity: The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Measure for Measure, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well, Twelfth Night, The Winter's Tale, King John, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline
Twelve of the posthumously published plays were written after 1600, eleven of them after the accession of King James in 1603.

"Renaissance readers both drew wisdom from their books and brought opinions to them: they read to learn, but also to debate. The process is seen at work in marginalia in some of the surviving copies of the Shakespeare First Folio.... The most extensively annotated First Folio is now in the Kodama Memorial Library of Meisei University in Japan. It was owned in the early to mid-seventeenth century by a man named William Johnstoune."
Occasionally an annotation reveals a closer attention to the text than that of many more modern and apparently more sophisticated critical readers. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" is read as an "encouragement to the cruell actions of mercilesse warre," in which King Harry voices "Persuasions seuerall to gentlemen and yeamen." Here the annotator perceives that different parts of the speech are addressed to different parts of the army. It is usually assumed that Harry begins by addressing his whole army as "friends" in true comradely fashion. The annotation's careful differentiation between gentlemen and yeomen makes one see that actually the speech has a tripartite division, characteristic of classical rhetoric. First the king addresses his intimate "friends" -- the word frequently meant "kinsmen" -- which is to say the fellow royals (Exeter, Bedford, Gloucester) who lead the army. Then he turns to the officer class and only at the end to the common soldiers. A strong sense of hierarchy pervades the speech, for all the talk of equal brotherhood....

Modern critics agonize over King Lear's reasons for rejecting Cordelia and Kent at the beginning of his play. Johnstoune simply notes next to Goneril and Regan's speeches that "flatterie blinds the king." Be wary of flatterers: again, this is classic humanist advice. And the resonance of the word blinds needs no spelling out: the image structure of the play has worked upon this reader before he has had a chance to notice it.

Bate concludes by acknowledging how insignificant what we know about the man Shakespeare is in comparison to what we know about his works. Even the most reliably authentic portrait of the man, the one in the First Folio, "is clumsily executed and fails to realize a sense of Shakespeare's inner life." We can't even be certain about his handwriting. "His signature survives on various legal documents, but it was not uncommon for a lawyer to sign on a client's behalf.... The words 'by me, William Shakespeare' at the end of his will are probably in his hand, but not even this is absolutely certain. The elusiveness of both his face and his hand is in keeping with the process by which he made himself invisible through absorption in his works."

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