Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Comic errors, dark forebodings

The Comedy of Errors is a very early Shakespeare play, possibly even his first, but one need make no allowances: it is a fast-moving comedy, and still very funny. But it’s one of those early plays that tend, perhaps, to get overlooked – a bit like that other very early play The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Neither is often revived, or, I suspect, often read. But whereas The Two Gentlemen of Verona is, to my mind at least, frankly tedious, The Comedy of Errors is never less than entertaining, and there are some elements to it that, on my recent re-reading, quite surprised me.

I had remembered little more than a light-hearted farce. And, for the most part, “light-hearted farce” sums it up well. It has formed the basis of a well-known musical (The Boys from Syracuse); the Royal Shakespeare Company have presented their own musical version of it; and even Laurel and Hardy made use of it, as the basis of their film Our Relations. As a light-hearted farce, it works well. There are two sets of twins who are, unwittingly, in the same town at the same time, and naturally, there are all sorts of comic misunderstandings. The plot, as I gather, is taken from the play Menaechmi by Plautus; but Shakespeare had increased the complexity of the plot by introducing two sets of twins rather than one; and he had also introduced to the characters a certain depth who, in Plautus’ play, existed only to serve the plot. (I make this latter observation somewhat gingerly since it is gleaned merely from various learned accounts I have read of Shakespeare’s play: I won’t pretend to have read Plautus’ play, tempting though it is to do so.) Shakespeare presents the complex plot with a clarity that bespeaks a technical skill quite astonishing for a novice playwright, and the pacing seems well nigh perfect. But what really surprised me on this reading was the sense of darkness and of violence lying just under the surface. This was not necessary for the plot to work: if the plot were Shakespeare’s sole interest, he need not even have hinted at anything at all under the surface, especially as the surface itself is more than sufficient to hold the audience’s attention. But that darkness, with its potential to break out and to take the play into more disturbing regions, is most certainly present.

This underlying sense of darkness looks forward to his later, tragic works in ways that Shakespeare himself was unlikely, so early in his career, to have foreseen. The chaos lying just below the surface is very apparent in Othello, say: as Othello himself knows, when he loves Desdemona not, “chaos is come again”. Of course, in The Comedy of Errors, we know that order will prevail in the end – not so much because the disorder we see is a consequence merely of misunderstanding (Othello’s tragedy, too, is a consequence merely of misunderstanding), but because we are assured, both by the title and by the general ambience, that what we are seeing (or reading) is a comedy, and we know comedies don’t end in disaster; but the intensity of the disorder that does break out, and almost prevails, goes well beyond what may have been expected from a farce.

Consider for instance these lines spoken by Antipholus of Ephesus to his wife:

Dissembling harlot, thou art false in all;
And art confederate with a damned pack
To make a loathsome abject scorn of me:
But with these nails I’ll pluck out these false eyes
That would behold in me this shameful sport.

He calls her a “harlot” for no reason (as Othello does Desdemona); and threatens even to pluck out her eyes – a horrific image that, famously, becomes all too real later in King Lear. Did Shakespeare really have to accentuate the potential violence, or, rather, Antipholus’ potential for violence, to such an extent in what is, after all, a light comedy? The other characters are sure he is mad, or perhaps possessed by some kind of evil spirit, and, if we make the concession of seeing this evil spirit possessing him as a metaphor, they aren’t wrong.

Or take the violence inherent in the master-servant relationships. It is not, indeed, clear whether the two Dromios are servants, as we would understand the term, or slaves. Dromio of Ephesus is specifically called “slave”, but we shouldn’t perhaps make too much of that, given “slave” was a common derogatory term, like “knave”, and not necessarily to be taken literally. However, Egeon, in his narrative in the first scene (which is surprisingly dark for a farce), clearly says that the twin brothers Dromio had been purchased at birth (“Those, for their parents were exceeding poor, I bought…”). We see both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus beating their respective Dromios, and Shakespeare, happy even at so early a stage in his career to give voices to his downtrodden characters, gives Dromio of Ephesus a rather affecting speech expressing the misery of an existence in which he has to take beatings merely at the whim of his master. He goes so far as to imagine being driven out of door to become a beggar once, thanks to the beatings he takes, he is no longer capable of service:

I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant, and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating; when I am warm, he cools me with beating; I am waked with it when I sleep; raised with it when I sit; driven out of doors with it when I go from home; welcomed home with it when I return; nay, I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat; and, I think when he hath lamed me, I shall beg with it from door to door.

This is all way beyond the realms of light comedy. If light comedy were indeed Shakespeare’s primary purpose, he would have had masters and servants on gentler footing; or, at the very least, he would have suppressed a passage such as this. But he doesn’t, and we are free, I think, to ponder why.

None of this is to say that The Comedy of Errors is a tragic play: it isn’t. It is a light comedy, a farce, and it works superbly well as such. But there are, I think, intimations of the darkness of vision, of a disorder that spreads fast, and of a chaos that lies under the surface of our everyday lives, and of a cruelty and a violence in our everyday relationship, that seem to indicate that the seeds of his later tragic vision had always been present, even in a light farce such as this.

POSTSCRIPT: It was remiss of me not to provide a link to a post on this play in Di Nguyen’s blog. She provides a more detailed account of the characterisations, especially of the sisters Adriana and Luciana. So here it is.

Back to Shakespeare: my latest readings of “As You Like It” and “Richard II”

It’s pointless even trying to speculate what went on in that very strange mind of Shakespeare’s: he writes As You Like It, the sunniest and most lyrical of pastoral romantic comedies – a play that, one might think, would thrive on flights of fancy – mainly in prose; while Richard II, a historical and political drama unremitting in its seriousness, he writes entirely in verse, liberally throwing in large numbers of rhyming couplets for good measure. I know that in these posts on Shakespeare I pretend to have a modicum ofunderstanding of his plays – an author, even of blog posts, should, after all, have a claim to some degree of authority – but there are times when it is best to admit that I don’t really get what he was up to.

Yes, I’ve been reading Shakespeare again. And it’s been a surprisingly long time since I had last read one of his plays. Oh, I have dipped into them often enough, and browsed passages, but, apart from his two narrative poems, his verse is dramatic verse, and demands to be seen in the context of the drama. (Even the sonnets seem to me best regarded as dramatic monologues, with the speaker and the dramatic context left to the reader’s imagination.) I know there are some who think otherwise: I have even encountered those who claim not to care at all about the drama (which, apparently, is “stolen” anyway); and who, further, tell me quite seriously that the language is all that matters. But that really won’t do: literature is the least abstract of all the arts: its basic building blocks are words, and each word has a meaning (and often more than just a single meaning) beyond itself – that is, it has a significance beyond how it sounds, and how it looks when written. Language without context is nothing. And in Shakespeare, the context is dramatic. Those who look merely for “the language” may find it hard to account for the effects produced in King Lear by such lines as “World, world, O world!”, or “Never, never, never, never, never” – effects that are well beyond my powers of articulation to describe.

So it’s back to the plays. It’s Project Back-to-Shakespeare. Why have I left it so long? Because I have taken them for granted, I think. I know they’re there. And many of these plays, I know, reside permanently in my mind anyway. But that’s really not good enough: if I am to live with these plays, I have to re-read them regularly, and re-read them with as fresh a mind as is possible. So I have decided to be a bit more disciplined: once a month, whatever else I may be reading at the time (and I am still reading Clive James’ translation of Dante), I have promised myself to re-read a play by Shakespeare at least once every month. For familiarity all too often breeds indifference, and it would be sad if I were ever to become indifferent to these works which, I think, have meant to me more than any other work of literature I know of.

So, we’re now nearly two months into this year, and I have read two plays – which isn’t bad given how bad I am at keeping promises to myself: As You Like It, and Richard II – the comedy written mainly in prose and the tragic drama written entirely in verse.

As You Like It has always struck me as a strange play. Oh, it’s clearly a great masterpiece, no doubt about that – but it’s a play I don’t feel I’ve quite got to grips with – at least, not to my own satisfaction. Sometimes I think this is because it lacks drama, but that’s not the reason: Love’s Labour’s Lost similarly lacks drama, and I have always loved that. I think what puzzles me is that various dramas are set up in the first act, only to dissipate as we move into the second. Of course, this is clearly what Shakespeare had intended: the Forest of Arden is a magical forest – not like the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where real magic is involved, but a magical place all the same, where all who enter are cleansed of their evil intent, and are reconciled.

For there is much evil that needs cleansing. There’s a Duke who usurps his place, having unlawfully deposed his brother, the rightful Duke; there’s an elder brother who hates and mistreats his younger, and plots to have him killed; and so on. Indeed, the conflicts are laid out with such clear distinction between Good and Bad, we seem to be more in the realms of folktale rather than of anything claiming to be realistic drama. Even the rightful Duke, we are explicitly told, is living in the forest with a band of loyal followers “like the Old Robin Hood”.

I think I had previously underestimated just how important folklore is in Shakespeare’s dramatic output. It’s very apparent in those three late plays that it’s very tempting to describe as a trilogy (Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest): these, indeed, are fairy stories (albeit with Shakespeare’s own individual stamp on them). But I think Shakespeare’s fascination with folklore can be traced to many of his earlier plays too, where, even within an otherwise realistic context, he is happy to introduce plot devices that seem straight out of fairy tales. I don’t know, for instance, that one could make much sense of All’s Well That Ends Well (written during a period when Shakespeare was occupied mainly with tragic drama) without considering it as a sort of fairy tale. Both this play and Measure for Measure (also written during this period) feature the much-criticised “bed trick” – that is, a plot device whereby a man has sex with a woman thinking her to be someone else. Such a contrivance is, of course, more than a bit silly, but I think it becomes less so if we can consider it in the context of folklore, or of the fairy tale – that is, in the context of a semi-magical world where the unlikely becomes the everyday. In the late play Cymbeline, Shakespeare pushed this element of folklore to its utmost limit, thus ending up with a plot which, if considered in a strictly realistic mode, fully lives up (or down) to Johnson’s famous dismissal: “unresisting imbecility”. But the mistake isn’t Shakespeare’s, it is ours: it lies in considering the work in a strictly realistic mode, when really, it is Shakespeare’s variation on the story we now know as “Snow White”. Even the mainspring of King Lear, the most unbearably terror-stricken of all his tragedies, belongs to the world of fairy tales.

And so in As You Like It. The Robin Hood like existence of a merry band of outlaws living in the forest we have had before, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and it is pure folklore. The various conflicts laid out in the first act are all the stuff of fairy tales, the stuff of dreams, and, as Prospero is later to say, they vanish into thin air. As in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the forest here is a magical place where human wrongs are put right (albeit without the explicitly supernatural agents); but Shakespeare seems to insist here that it is the forest that is real, and the outside world with all its conflicts that is the dream. Reconciliation here is real: dissension isn’t.

The Forest of Arden is both Ovid’s Golden Age from Book 1 of the Metamorphoses, and also the Garden of Eden. But not quite. The forest harbours snakes and lions, there’s hardship, there are brambles and cold winds, there’s unrequited love, and the shepherd Corin speaks of masters of “churlish disposition”. And, further, there are question marks about the deposed Duke’s right – effectively – to set up in this forest his own surrogate dukedom.

Looking forward in Shakespeare’s career, there are clear parallels between this play and the much darker later play The Tempest. In both, a rightful duke, deposed by his brother, comes to an untamed land and effectively establishes his second dukedom there. And in both cases, people from his earlier dukedom come into his later one. Prospero’s right to his new dukedom is questioned in The Tempest, and the right of the deposed Duke in As You Like It doesn’t pass without question either, despite the benign and benevolent nature of this second dukedom. And this questioning comes from Jaques, who insists that it is the humans in the forest, including the deposed Duke, who are the usurpers of nature’s realm:

Thus most invectively he pierceth through
The body of the country, city, court,
Yea, and of this our life, swearing that we
Are mere usurpers, tyrants and what’s worse,
To fright the animals and to kill them up
In their assign’d and native dwelling-place.

Even the good-natured Duke loses patience with Jaques, and at one point, has a quite surprising outburst:

For thou thyself hast been a libertine,
As sensual as the brutish sting itself;
And all the embossed sores and headed evils,
That thou with licence of free foot hast caught,
Wouldst thou disgorge into the general world.

Despite these lines, I have never seen Jaques played as a sort of monster with “embossed sores and headed evils”: I’d like to, as that would align him to Caliban (and also, intriguingly, to Thersites in Troilus and Cressida). Tony Tanner, in his Prefaces to Shakespeare, tells us that A. D. Nuttall says “it is not a waste of the imagination to consider Jaques as a Caliban who has been civilised”, although, since this otherwise excellent book lacks a bibliography, he doesn’t tell us where Nuttall says this. (It certainly isn’t in that quite superb volume Shakespeare the Thinker, the only work of Nuttall’s I have read, and I’m not enough of a Shakespeare scholar to know Nuttall’s other books.) But relating Jaques to Caliban strikes me as astute and illuminating, as they are both constant reminders of the deep flaws in our civilised states, and of how ripeness may shade into rottenness without our even noticing.

But neither the brambles and cold winds, nor the masters of churlish disposition, nor even Jaques’ latent Calibanism, can detract from this being the happiest, the sunniest of Shakespeare plays. Despite Jaques’ refusal to be part of the harmony that reigns at the end, the harmony does indeed exist: it is real, as is the reconciliation upon which it is based. A good friend of mine, and a lifelong Shakespeare lover, tells me that he imagines Heaven to be a bit like the Forest of Arden. I think he has hit it. Given our fallen human state, the Forest of Arden is indeed about as close to Heaven as it is possible to imagine. Human differences cannot be wished away, but, who knows, maybe there can be a reconciliation. True, by the time Shakespeare came round to writing The Tempest, even this hope for meaningful reconciliation had been dashed, but here it is still very much alive. I have, I admit, failed in the past to come to terms with this play, but the longer I spend immersed in its world, the more I find myself falling in love with it. At one point, Marlowe’s famous line “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” is approvingly quoted. Well, Marlowe was wrong, and Shakespeare was wrong in approving of it: I did not love this play at first sight, but I think I can honestly say that I love it now.

And then, last week, my second stop in my Back to Shakespeare project: Richard II, a play I have long admired, but have always found a bit difficult to love. And the problem, I think, is the central character. The flaw, I hasten to add, is not in the characterisation (which is brilliant), but in the character himself: Richard does not seem to have the stature to be at the centre of so immense a tragic drama. In As You Like It, Jaques had said that all the world is a stage, but he had meant that metaphorically: Richard appears to take it literally. All the world is a stage, and he, the king, is the star player, the actor constantly in the spotlight. Never does any protagonist in any Shakespeare play speak so much, and to so little purpose. Hamlet talks a lot, both to others and to himself, but that’s because he has much to say: his speech is often very concentrated, because so many ideas are packed into it; and often, his mind moves so quickly from one idea to another, it is difficult keeping up. That is never the case with Richard: his is never an active mind: all too often, especially in the latter part of the play, he seems content reflecting on what’s happening rather than directing it. Throughout, he has very little dialogue, but a great many speeches. If he is indeed an actor on a stage, he seems to be more of a Chorus than a protagonist.

There are effectively two Richards – one before going off to the wars against the Irish rebels (in what we would nowadays think of as a “colonial war”), and another when he returns. Historically, his Irish war was a success, but Shakespeare keeps quiet about that, presumably because he does not wish to show Richard in too active or too heroic a light. Before he goes, he is corrupt, venal, callous, in every way unfit to be king; and once he returns, and finds his kingdom invaded by the cousin Bolingbroke he had once banished, he is self-dramatising, self-pitying, and still in every way unfit to be king. It is hardly a surprise that he is deposed, but he speaks of deposition even before Bolingbroke has made clear his intention in that respect – even, indeed, as Bolingbroke is showing him the respect due to a reigning monarch. Of course, we may say Bolingbroke is dissembling, and that his intentions are very obvious; we may agree that the deposition is inevitable. But the truth is, I think, that Bolingbroke isn’t yet sure of his own intentions, or even of his own motivations. And there is, one might have thought, scope for resistance on Richard’s part. But Richard doesn’t show any. To begin with, his mood swings wildly from one speech to the next, but with a strange inevitability, he keeps returning to, and after a while settles upon, a melancholy contemplation of his own wretchedness. He moves from playing a reigning king to playing a deposed one. But is there any reality behind all this play-acting?

This, it seems to me, is what’s at the centre of this play. Of course, there are a great many other themes too: it’s a historical play about politics, about the divine right of kings, about loyalty and rebellion, about the conflict between keeping one’s oath (upon which one’s very souls depends) and doing what is right for one’s country. But the focal point of the drama is on the king’s identity. In the earlier acts, he had been King: a bad king, it is true, but King. That was his identity. He was God’s own anointed, God’s own minister, and whatever he did must, by definition, be God’s own wish. But once he is no longer king; even before that – once his status as King is questioned; then what is he? If his very identity is predicated entirely upon the fact of his kingship, then what is his identity once that kingship is no longer there?

Lear, in a later play, found himself facing the same question, but there, even as his own mind was falling apart, he started thinking, or trying to think at least, these question anew. Richard does not have the capacity to do this: all he can do is to pity himself. During the deposition scene in Act 4, Richard, solipsistic as ever, asks for a mirror; and, after examining his face – the face of one who is no longer a king – he dashes the mirror to the ground, shattering it in an overtly theatrical gesture. Bolingbroke, a man of fewer words, has a pointed rejoinder:

The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
The shadow or your face.

The shadow of the face is obviously the reflection of the face, but what is the shadow of the sorrow? Bolingbroke had meant, I think, the dramatisation of the sorrow. As a man of few words but to the purpose, he has little time for his cousin Richard’s endless play-acting. But Richard seizes on this expression, and comes up with a quite different expression. Shadow of his sorrow? Yes, of course, it is! How can it be otherwise? What is inside us cannot find adequate expression in anything we can say or do, and so, whatever we say or do must be a shadow of the substance that is in us.

‘Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul

Bolingbroke, a pragmatic man living in a pragmatic world, has no time for that which cannot be expressed or perceived. And he may be right. However, it raises for us an important question: if something can neither be expressed nor perceived, how can we know what it is? How can we know if it exists at all? Is there a substance behind the shadow?

I imagine that Shakespeare, as a dramatist, must have pondered this point. In the earlier play Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare had pondered the question of language – the question of whether mastery of language (of which, he must have known, he was extravagantly possessed) depicts reality, or, whether it loses itself in its own virtuosity and becomes merely a game that hides reality from us. Here, Shakespeare ponders the question of shadow and substance: if there exists inside us a substance that cannot be adequately expressed by anything we may say or do, then how can he, a dramatist, depict that substance when what we say or do is all that can be depicted? If all the world’s a stage, it must follow that there can be nothing in that world beyond what can be shown on stage. Richard insists there is more, but is it not possible that his extended self-pity really is all there is? And that beyond it, there is nothing? Right to the end, Richard is haunted by the possibility of his own nothingness:

… and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. 

It is a wonderful play, but I doubt it will be too many people’s favourite, as As You Like It certainly is. Despite the various recurrent themes that one may find across the entire range of plays (A. B. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker is particularly good at teasing these out) these two plays are as different in themes and in treatment as is possible to imagine. It is hard to imagine them proceeding from the same mind. But then again, it was a very strange mind, and there is probably not much point trying to guess what went on inside. Maybe the plays and the poems that overwhelm us so are but the shadow of his genius, and the substance of that genius (should it exist of course) will always remain for us inaccessible.

Marks out of 10

No matter how you look at it, no matter what criteria of literary excellence you apply, it has to be conceded that King Lear is a play with severe shortcomings.

Let us consider a few of these criteria. The construction, say. Shakespeare welds together a plot and a subplot that are so similar in nature, that the climactic point of the subplot (Edgar revealing himself to his father) has to take place offstage to avoid repetition. Or what about the characterisation? Once again, it seems lacking. Edgar’s motivation in keeping his identity from his blind father for so long is never explained. (Edgar is given a somewhat clumsy aside at one point to say “Why I do trifle thus with his despair is done to cure it”, but it isn’t at all clear how his trifling with his father’s despair will help cure it.) Cordelia’s sullen behaviour in the first scene is also unexplained: clearly, she finds Lear’s game distasteful, but since she has been in court long enough to know of the dire consequences of crossing the king in front of others, and since, further, she has been with her father long enough to know his volatile character, her lack of the most basic tact seems frankly weird. The character development isn’t always too coherent either: in Act 1, we see Goneril expressing entirely legitimate concerns about her father and his retinue; next thing we know, she is a raving monster, with no intermediate step. None of the characters here may be analysed to the depths to which we may analyse Hamlet and Claudius, Othello and Iago, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra: in comparison to such characters, those in King Lear are rather straight-forward.

And there’s little sense of time or of place. There is a lot of travelling in the play, and yet, we have no idea how far Goneril’s castle is from Gloucester’s (or how long it takes or Lear to make the journey between the two); how far Gloucester’s castle is from the cliffs of Dover (and how long it takes Edgar to lead his father there); and so on. We do not know exactly at which point in the temporal scheme of the drama the French armies invade England, or how much time passes between the invasion and the battle.

Or let us consider the influence the play has had, and how powerfully it has entered our collective consciousness. Even here, I think, King Lear may be lacking. Hamlet is notoriously a play made almost entirely of well-known quotations; everyone has heard of the “green-eyed monster” of Othello; we all know that age cannot wither Cleopatra, nor custom stale her infinite variety. Is there anything in King Lear that has entered the public consciousness to such an extent? Even if there is, we may safely say, I think, that it does not surpass all those elements of those other plays that have also entered the public consciousness. And given that King Lear is sorely lacking in all those other respects discussed above, once we tot up the scores, the conclusion seems inescapable that King Lear is a lesser work of art.

And so on. Take all of these criteria of excellence into consideration, add a few more that I haven’t thought about, and it must be admitted that, compared to the other major tragedies of Shakespeare – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Antony and CleopatraKing Lear is an inferior work: whatever criterion one applies, it is found wanting. We may even wonder why it is classed among his major plays in the first place.

But here’s the twist: not only is King Lear almost universally acclaimed as a towering masterpiece – one of the greatest manifestations of human genius and worthy to take its place alongside the best – if one were to take a poll of Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers, it is likely to be the Shakespeare play that is most highly regarded. Somehow, all those criteria of excellence, which we may like to think of as objective, go for nothing. So the play has grave shortcomings: who cares?

This seems to me to cast doubt on the validity of what we may consider to be objective criteria, or, indeed, on the very concept of objectivity itself. And yet, if we are to reject objectivity in these matters, what are we left with? I used, many years ago now, to contribute to a public board on books – any book, of any height of brow – and there were many on that board, I remember, who used to insist that, in the words of Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad but thinking that makes it so; that there isn’t, nor could there ever be, any objective standards in these matters, and all that matters is one’s subjective opinion, and that’s it. I used to try to reduce this to absurdity and ask whether my causal doodles could be deemed better art than Rembrandt’s drawings if I thought them so, and the answer I received was “yes, if they seem better to you, then they’re better, and there’s no more to be said”. It was a difficult proposition to argue against, but I found myself dissatisfied with it; for if it were indeed so, then the very concept, not merely of artistic greatness but even of artistic merit, becomes irrelevant. For how is one to judge that merit when there is no objective measure?

So one could, perhaps, analyse a novel or a play, say, in all sorts of ways – in terms of structure, of characterisation, of the use made of language, of the thematic development, and all the rest of it. And maybe, one could give each of these constituent elements marks out of ten. To make it more objective, we could ask several knowledgeable and perceptive readers to give their marks out of ten, and take the mean of these scores for each identified category. And then we could sum these marks up to give us an objective a score as it’s possible to devise.

But these additive utility functions can be very awkward. Even if we try to apply such a model to something so simple as rating a meal, we run into difficulties. For instance, I may enjoy a pizza, and award it 8 out of 10. And when the waiter offers to sprinkle parmesan cheese on it, I agree, for a pizza is even better with parmesan cheese. So I give the parmesan cheese 1 point, and hence, judge pizza with the parmesan (8+1 = 9 points) to be even better than pizza without the parmesan (8 points). But then, for afters, I ask for an ice cream, which too I love (I’ll give that 7 points, since I don’t love it quite as much as the pizza). According to the model of the additive utility function, ice cream with parmesan cheese (7+1=8) should be even better than the ice cream on its own. Which is nonsense, obviously: the whole thing is a crap idea. And if such a model doesn’t work with something so relatively simple as a meal, how can we hope to introduce something like this into literary criticism?

Of course, utility functions do not need to be additive. One could devise all sorts of complications – if X, theN A*log(B); if not X, then exp(A) +B, etc. – but I think we may agree that the sheer level of silliness is quite overpowering by this stage. No, we might as well face it: if we break up a work into its various different aspects (including that of the influence it has exerted on subsequent writing), and either try to combine them into a utility function or place them into a checklist, we’re unlikely to reach any kind of meaningful measure. We’ll certainly not find anything that will rank King Lear alongside the likes of better constructed works such as Hamlet or Othello, even though the overwhelming consensus of critical opinion seems rather to insist on this point.

So I find myself in a bind. I cannot accept that there is no objective criterion whereby Rembrandt’s drawing may be rated higher than my doodles; and yet, at the same time, there seems no means of objectively rating a work of art.

But it’s not, perhaps, one extreme or another. There is a middle ground, I think, between pure objectivity and pure subjectivity, but a middle ground so very messy and so full of ifs and buts that it is hard to describe. The purely subjective approach fails because of its inability to distinguish my doodles and Rembrandt’s drawings; and the purely objective approach fails because no objective measure can be devised to measure artistic merit as we feel it. For art has to be felt: it must produce what Nabokov described as a “tingle in the spine”. But every major work of art has at its core a great mystery, which resists measurement; and sometimes, as in the case of King Lear, this mystery can be so profound that all other considerations, all perceived shortcomings, seem irrelevant.

It seems to me that the only realistic measure of artistic merit is what I call the consensus of the cognoscenti. For such a consensus does exist. If all were purely subjective, and if our individual subjective responses were unrelated to each other, then such a consensus would simply not be possible. The very fact that a consensus exists – that King Lear is considered a great play, Middlemarch a great novel, The Waste Land a great poem – indicates that our various individual subjective responses have a curious tendency to converge.

(I add “of the cognoscenti” to my formulation, because, quite clearly, the opinions of someone unused to reading classic literature, but who fancies trying some out for a change, and who reads – and gets bored by – Anna Karenina, and gives it a dismissive two-star “review” on Amazon or on Goodreads, is neither here nor there. I personally know nothing about Ming vases, say, and I appreciate that my opinions on the quality of Ming vases is fairly irrelevant to everyone except me – and even, perhaps, to me.)

Of course, the consensus will never be unanimous: even among the cognoscenti, there will be those who may dislike Anna Karenina, say, and have good reasons to do so. But a consensus is rarely unanimous: it exists all the same.

And neither will the consensus be stable over time. Some things, however, are: Homer and Sophocles, Virgil and Horace, Dante and Shakespeare, have all been admired by a very large consensus for quite a few centuries now, and it’s hard to envisage a time when they won’t. But one may easily point to other writers and works that have drifted in and out of the consensus across the ages. But, at any given time, a consensus – of the cognoscenti: let’s not forget the good old cognoscenti – most certainly does exist, and the very fact of its existence argues strongly against the view that everything is purely subjective.

And such a consensus can apply with comparisons as well, I think. For those who take an interest in the novel as literary form, there is a strong consensus concerning the greatness of Anna Karenina. There is a further consensus that Oblomov, say, by Ivan Goncharov, is also a very fine novel, perhaps even a great one; and a third consensus also exists, I think, that no matter how great Oblomov may be as a novel, Anna Karenina is even greater (although, accompanying that view, there will be entirely reasonable objections that such a comparison is ludicrous, since novel-writing is not a competitive sport). Of course, one may legitimately prefer Oblomov to Anna Karenina – even if one is part of that cognoscenti I spoke of – but that preference will generally be seen as a bit eccentric.

Like it or not, it is in our nature to compare. And most of the time, it is a pretty harmless parlour game. Who is the greater writer – Homer or Shakespeare? Shakespeare or Tolstoy? Tolstoy or Proust? One may protest that such comparisons are meaningless, and that they devalue literature itself: I wouldn’t argue with that. But at the same time, unless one subscribes to pure subjectivism in these matters – that the quality of any work is determined purely by one’s subjective reactions and by nothing else – then comparison becomes important: if we cannot state with some confidence that Henry James was a greater novelist than E. L. James, we might as well forget about the very concept of literary excellence.

So, as I say, it’s all very messy. Just about everything one may say on this matter is beset by ifs and buts, with reservations and objections. We are still torn between, on the one hand, our desire to measure, and, on the other, our awareness that certain things resist measurement; and further, our conviction that the unmeasurable can still be of the greatest importance. I could – and indeed, have done, right here on this blog – write page after tedious page explaining why King Lear means the world to me, and why I would rank it among the very greatest works of literary art, despite all its flaws and shortcomings. But could I demonstrate it beyond doubt to a sceptic? No. There is no way to quantify the great mystery at the heart of it.

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

“Upon such sacrifices…”

The final scene of King Lear starts with Lear and Cordelia, defeated in battle, brought in as prisoners. Cordelia asks whether she can see her sisters, whose wickedness has brought her and her father so low. Lear’s response to this is extraordinary:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Magnificent though this is, I am not quite sure how I should take it. It is certainly all too easy simply to revel in the beauty of Shakespeare’s blank verse, in that verbal music he produces that is simultaneously both exquisite and sublime. And certainly, if Shakespeare has chosen – as he obviously has here – to burst into such splendour at this point, then clearly he intended dramatic significance of this splendour to register with the audience. And yet, this dramatic significance is troubling. Does Lear really imagine that he and his daughter could live out the rest of their lives happily in prison? Even if that were possible, would it be desirable? For Lear, possibly: he is an old man, has suffered unimaginable agonies, and would like nothing better than to withdraw from life; but it is hardly desirable for someone like Cordelia, who is still young. And indeed, Shakespeare soon confirms that the heaven Lear imagines for himself and his daughter is illusory: far from living happily in prison with Cordelia for the rest of his life, Lear enters towards the end of this same scene in the utmost despair, with Cordelia dead in his arms.

But if Lear’s glorious lyrical outburst here is simply the deluded imaginings of a man who has lost whatever grasp he had once had of reality, why does Shakespeare make the passage so ethereally beautiful? Is it merely to accentuate the horror when these illusions cruelly shattered? That is certainly one way of looking at it, but that has never seemed very satisfactory to me. The presentation of something so beautiful merely to highlight its pointlessness seems to me a sort of gloating cynicism, a scoffing nastiness, that are quite at odds with the very rich and complex emotions I experience when I see or read this play.

Certainly, immediately after Lear delivers this speech, Edmund brings us down to earth with a very curt “take them away” (these three words completing the line that, in terms of metre, Lear had left unfinished). But then, Lear comes out with the most extraordinary lines of all:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

It is a remarkable idea. In a play that has shown us the extremes of human brutality, Lear now suggests that the gods themselves praise and worship certain aspects of humanity. The implication of this is that humans can rise to a level even higher than that of the gods; and further, that the gods themselves acknowledge this.

Now, if we consider these lines in their specific dramatic context, they are meaningless. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to detach oneself from life in the manner Lear envisages, to wear out one’s years in a wall’d prison while packs and sects of great ones ebb and flow by the moon. But the very striking nature of these lines seems to me to demand that we also consider them beyond their immediate dramatic context. If regarded solely in the immediate context, the “sacrifices” Lear refers to relates to withdrawing from life; but if we try to see it in a wider context, if we try to see what these sacrifices may be that even the gods themselves acknowledge and worship, we may glimpse, at least, something that may, in some way, mitigate the horror – the horror both of what had happened before, and the horror of what is yet to come. This is not to say that it is wrong to see King Lear as, essentially, a nihilist work; but it is to say, I think, that, despite appearances, there may just be a possibility of redemption.

And if there is such a possibility, it comes not from the gods, but from humanity itself. Lear, earlier in his speech, speaks of being like “God’s spies”. (The play is set in pagan times, but, unless the existing texts are corrupt at this point, it is certainly God rather than the gods Lear refers to here.) There seem to me at least two ways of interpreting this. One is that we must set ourselves the task of spying on God – the implication here being that God is not trustworthy. The other one is that we should spy on God’s behalf, and the implication here is that God himself does not know all that is happening in his creation. Either way, the picture is presented of a God whose capabilities are limited – who is either not wholly good, or not wholly powerful. But when humanity itself can offer up such sacrifices, then the gods themselves (Shakespeare has, rather curiously, switched back to the pagan “gods” now) feel it worthy of worship.

But what are “such sacrifices”? It is clearly not a withdrawal from life that Lear speaks of. But one needn’t look too far. This play depicts, certainly, the most bestial atrocities of which humans are capable; but, in Edgar, in Kent, in Cordelia, and even in Gloucester, it depicts also a human goodness that is equally extraordinary. Are these the sacrifices upon which the gods themselves throw incense? Perhaps. If the gods exist at all, that is. But sadly, we have no assurance of that. This is a play that suggests everything, even redemption; but ultimately, it confirms nothing.

A sense of longing

The internet is so full of banalities attributed to various luminaries – some of these banalities so simple-minded and so poorly articulated as to be thoroughly embarrassing – that I try never to introduce a quote into this blog without mentioning its source. However, try as I might, I cannot find a source for the following quote that is widely attributed to Vladimir Nabokov:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.

Maybe Nabokov never said this – who knows? But I’m quoting it nonetheless because, at the very least, it isn’t banal; and, further, it is so well articulated that one could easily believe that Nabokov had actually said it; and, most importantly, the state of mind it describes – “a longing with nothing to long for” – is one I find fascinating.

There is, it seems, a similar word in Portuguse – saudade. And its import is rather well described by singer-songwriter Nick Cave (and in this instance, I can pinpoint the source, as a friend of mine, who is a fan of Nick Cave, pointed this quote out to me):

‘The love song is the sound of our endeavours to become God-like, to rise up and above the earth-bound and the mediocre. I believe the love song to be a sad song. It is the noise of sorrow itself.

We all experience within us what the Portuguese call saudade, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world. ‘

  • Nick Cave, “The Secret Life of the Love Song”

Once again, the longing is “inexplicable” – inexplicable because, as with toska, it is a longing with nothing to long for.

In doing a Google search on saudade, I find that it is believed by some to be characteristic of the Portuguese and Brazilian people. I am not sure about that. For while it is certainly curious that some languages have a word for this and others don’t, this vague sense of an intense longing for that which cannot even be named seems to me common to all people, of all times. At least, I know of no culture that hasn’t, somewhere along the line, expressed what I understand to be toska, or saudade. This inexplicable yearning seems almost the hallmark of Romanticism, but the Romantics did not invent it. How can one not find it in, say, the songs of John Dowland? Or, say, in Twelfth Night (which, sadly, is too often presented on stage as little more than a knockabout comedy), in a passage such as this?


Why, what would you?


Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

For whom is Viola longing? Not Olivia: neither in her real person, nor in her assumed role, does Viola love Olivia. Perhaps it’s an expression of her love for Orsino, whom she secretly loves, but this seems unlikely: although Viola has indeed fallen in love with Orsino (“Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”), he is too self-absorbed and too insignificant a figure to be a worthy object of such ardent lyrical pining. No – this yearning has no object that is nameable: it is indeed the “unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul”.

In ages more religious than ours, this longing was often (though not always) identified as longing for union with God, and, indeed, presented as such. But we found, much to our surprise, that even when belief in God declined, this longing didn’t. Generally, this longing had to be tied to some identifiable object for it to make some semblance of narrative sense, and that object, usually, is one’s beloved; or, more usually, one’s lost beloved. That seemed to make sense. But the whole point of this longing is that it doesn’t make sense. Thus, all too often, we come across longing the intensity of which far transcends its ostensible object. Is the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise, or of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, longing merely for the girl who rejected him? Would the longing of Tristan and Isolde be stilled if they were to get together, marry, and settle down as Mr Tristan and Mrs Isolde? The very idea seems absurd. But if their longing seems to be for more than merely union with their beloved, what precisely are they longing for?

This is a mystery at the heart of things that the Romantics, far from smoothing over, actively embraced. The popular conception is that they embraced this mystery in reaction to the rationalists of the 18th century who had rejected the very concept of mystery, but nothing ever is so simple as such broad-brush summaries may suggest: each age is so multi-faceted that any such sweeping statement can very easily be demonstrated as absurd.

However, there is good reason for the 18th century to be thought of as the “Age of Reason”: more than ever before, and, perhaps, more than ever since, the universe was seen as perfectly ordered, and all effects traceable to causes. What could be more ordered than, say, a Bach fugue? Or a Haydn string quartet – even those of his Sturm und Drang period? But it will never do to constrict great artists by such pat formulae: even in the Age of Reason, there were artists subverting it. In Gulliver’s Travels, say, Swift presents us with a society ruled entirely by reason – the land of the Houyhnhnms – but which is, for that very reason, a monstrosity: as Orwell commented, it is a state of totalitarianism so advanced that the Thought Police isn’t even required; and this perfection of reason, paradoxically, drives Gulliver mad, and fills him with a genocidal rage.

And then, there’s Mozart. It escapes me how anyone could fail to find that quality of saudade in his music, but they have done, and, in many cases, still do.  In Cosi fan Tutte, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte took on what was essentially a trivial and rather misogynist little anecdote: two young men, to prove that their beloved young ladies were faithful to them, woo each other’s girls in disguise; and the girls, being but women, and hence, fickle, fall for it. Cue crude, knockabout comedy, cynical guffaws, and all the rest. But, as Shakespeare had done in Twelfth Night, Mozart takes this unpromising framework of a story, and, alongside the comedy (which he does not ignore), imbues it with such profound melancholy, such ineffable longing – such pain at the absence of something that these four young people desire beyond anything else in the world, but which they cannot name – that the base metal of this rather objectionable little anecdote is miraculously transformed into the pure gold of a great work of art that seems to express the inexpressible.

The Romantics, somehow, didn’t get it: they thought it trivialised feelings which should be sacred. Beethoven thought the opera was a slander of Eternal Womanhood, and was immoral. Wagner went further: even the music, he thought, wasn’t up to standard, and Mozart had failed to provide good music for this precisely because he knew the dramatic content was poor. Only in the twentieth century did the opera come back into the standard repertoire, but, just as it was dismissed in the previous century because it was deemed too slight and artificial, it was those very decorative qualities that seemed to appeal to even perceptive commentators: Sir Thomas Beecham, an eminent Mozartian, praised it as “a long summer day spent in a cloudless land by a southern sea”.

In our own time, perceptions about this work have changed yet again. We seem to sense that, bursting out of the seemingly ordered framework, there is a tangle of human emotions that no purely rational view of humankind could ever accommodate. And at the centre of this tangle is that anguished longing for something that is not. Mozart, that archetypal Classicist, knew about this agonised longing at least as well as any of the Romantics did. Why should he not? It has, after all, always been with us. Like Viola, we are still calling upon our “soul within the house”.

Journey’s end

Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written, it is believed, very close to each other, and, although one is a tragedy and the other a comedy, they often have very similar themes. One issue that seems central to both dramas is the question of how we should mourn our dead. How should we mourn so that we can honour those who have died, and honour also the lives the we, the survivors, must continue to live?

Twelfth Night is a play I love deeply, but one I find very elusive. More so even than the other plays, it never seems to be the same on any two readings: it seems to be made of that changeable taffeta that Feste recommends Orsino to wear. In one of my earlier posts on it, I made it out to be a very dark play – closer in spirit to Hamlet than to, say As You Like It. Perhaps I was going over the top there, but even in my less lugubrious moods, its darker notes seem to me undeniably present. In the few years after writing this play and Hamlet, Shakespeare went on to write a sequence of intensely tragic dramas the likes of which have not been seen since the ancient Athenians. And there seem to me strong connections between Twelfth Night and these dark, tragic dramas: as well as the thematic overlaps with Hamlet, a new verse of the song Feste sings at the end of Twelfth Night appears in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear. And the final verse of Feste’s song (“A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”) is, as a Shakespearean friend of mine recently pointed out, about as desolate as anything in English literature. Has ever a comic drama ended like this?

Now, I wonder if there is also a correspondence between Twelfth Night and Othello – another of those great tragedies written in this period. In one of his other songs, Feste sings:

O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

“Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.”

Now, Othello, at the most intense point of his tragedy, when he realises what it truly is that he has lost, says “here is my journey’s end”. Was Shakespeare, I wonder, thinking back here on Feste’s song, that he had written only about two years earlier? Of course, the “s” at the end of “journey” in Othello indicates possession, while in Twelfth Night it indicates plurality, but an ear as finely tuned as Shakespeare’s to the music of words would certainly have been aware of the echo. And if this echo was indeed intentional, it seems to me almost unbearably poignant. In Twelfth Night, however dark and melancholy we may take the play to be (and I know opinions vary on this matter), there was still the hope – the expectation, even – that lovers would be united at journey’s end. But Othello, at his journey’s end, has no such expectation: “When we shall meet at compt, this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it.” He has lost not only Desdemona: he has lost his own soul, for ever. For what he has done, there can be no forgiveness, no atonement: nor does he even hope for it.

Whichever way I look at it, Twelfth Night foreshadows Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Which is not to say Twelfth Night is itself a tragic play: it clearly isn’t. But it does seem to me to point towards a traumatic tragic journey, a journey that finds its end only with those mysterious and deeply ambiguous dramas Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – plays which, even after some forty and more years of acquaintance, I still feel I do not adequately understand.

“Perchance I will ne’er” go home”: the role of Emilia in “Othello”

When we speak of past productions we have seen of Othello, we remember who played Othello, Desdemona, Iago. We rarely remember who played Emilia. Emilia is seen merely as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant, whose sole purpose in the play is to nudge the plot along, and help unravel it in the last scene. Even Verdi and Boito, in their opera, reduced Emilia’s part to only the odd line here and there. She is not, in short, regarded as one of the major players in the drama. This increasingly strikes me as unfair. She seems me nowadays one of the drama’s principal actors, and not merely in terms of the plot.

It is, of course, in the final scene that she comes into her own, expressing a distress at the tragic events of the drama that makes the reaction of everyone else on stage seem merely lukewarm. And she sacrifices her life for what she understands to be the truth. She is utterly unafraid. Even when, on her own, she faces the fierce Othello, who has just murdered his wife and is openly threatening to murder her also, she is unafraid: “Do thy worst!” she dares him. And then she speaks a line that has resonated in my mind for many years now:

Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. 

Where did this come from? It’s an extraordinary line, indicating that the willingness to suffer hurt is in itself a “power”, and, in this instance at least, a power greater even than the power to inflict hurt. It is a line that only a saint could speak and actually mean. And what we have seen of Emilia, she is no saint. She is not above a bit of petty thieving (even from Desdemona), and a bit of lying too. On a number of occasions, her earthiness is contrasted with Desdemona’s other-worldly virtue:


I will be hang’d, if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander; I’ll be hang’d else. 


Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible. 


If any such there be, heaven pardon him!


A halter pardon him! and hell gnaw his bones!

Desdemona’s forgiveness is not of this world, but Emilia’s rage is.  That is precisely the way that those of us who aren’t saints would react. Similarly in a later scene, when Desdemona says, with a childlike naivety that that does not quite belong to this world, that she cannot imagine why any woman would commit adultery, and that she herself would not do it “for all the world”; Emila’s response, once again, is very much down-to-earth, of this world:


The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price.
For a small vice.


In troth, I think thou wouldst not.


In troth, I think I should … I should venture purgatory for’t.

So how could this very worldly, this-earthly woman suddenly turn into a saint, into a heroic and self-sacrificing woman, unafraid of death? Perhaps there is no definitive answer to this – human good is as mysterious as is human evil – but addressing this question takes us, I think, into the very heart of the play itself.

For what Emilia does in this scene is purely out of love.  It’s not that she is suddenly transformed: and neither has she undergone a change over time. This is still the same Emilia who does not see the point in the Christian concept of forgiving one’s enemies, or in refraining from adultery if the prize is great. But Desdemona, whom she loved, has been murdered, and she suddenly realises what power her love has given her: she has the power to be hurt.  When she realises soon afterwards the part her husband has played in all this, she determines to tell the truth, knowing, once again, what she is risking. Iago angrily tells her to go home, but she replies with another line that stops me in my tracks:

Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.

What does she mean by this? This is usually interpreted as a premonition of her own death, a mystical understanding that for her, too, this is her journey’s end. This is certainly possible, but if this really is what she means, she is taking “home” to mean no more than what Iago had meant by that word – that is, the physical place where one lives. But “home” has other meanings too. “Home” is a place where one is at ease, where one is comfortable. Emilia, till now, had been at ease with the way things were: she had been at ease with her imperfect self in an imperfect world. But that is a “home” she cannot now return to. The world is more wicked than she, with her limited imagination, had ever thought (“I’ll kill myself for grief!”). There is now no going back: the world in which she had been at ease is no longer a world in which she can find a “home”. And so she sacrifices herself, one of the most heroic and most tragic of all Shakespearean figures.

In a later play, Shakespeare found sublimity in the irresponsible and drunken Antony, and in the frivolous and selfish Cleopatra. Here, too, he finds sublimity in ordinary humanity, in someone who is comfortable with the world as it is, who is not above a bit of thieving and lying, and who would quite happily commit adultery if the price is right. No other writer I know of has found such sublimity in ordinary humanity. No other writer I know has even looked.

[Edit: since this post went up about an hour ago, someone challenged me on that last sentence, and asked “What about Leopold Bloom in Ulysses?” I can only hold up my hand. I do get a bit carried away at times, I must admit.]

“An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik, published by Penguin Classics

Konstantin Stanislavsky’s production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, with Stanislavky himself playing the protagonist Stockmann, was a sensation. The year was 1905, a rather significant year in Russian history: there was great social and political unrest, mutinies, attempted revolution, and a disastrous military defeat at the hands of Japan. Near the very start of the year, in Petersburg, soldiers fired on unarmed protestors, killing 96 people according to Tsarist official records: the actual toll is likely to have been much higher. Feelings were running high, and Ibsen’s play, written some 23 years earlier, and depicting a heroic individual speaking truth to power, struck a powerful chord. Even in its inevitably censored version, with censors actually attending performances to ensure unauthorised passages were excised as ordered, the effect, to judge from Stanislavsky’s autobiography, was electrifying. Stockmann’s speeches were enthusiastically applauded, and, at times, members of the audience actually came on to the stage to shake Stanislavsky’s hand, or to embrace and kiss him.

It is easy to see why this play, at this particular time, should make such an impact. At a time when truth was suppressed by tyrannical authorities, here was an individual standing up for this very truth in the face of everything that may be thrown at him – a man who insists that truth matters above all else. And it is tremendously theatrical. It is, perhaps, a bit difficult to stage, given that the big scene in the fourth act requires a crowd – and the bigger the crowd, the more effective the drama – but even on reading it at home, the theatricality of the various dramatic confrontations seems virtually to leap out from the page. Not surprisingly, the play has proved one of Ibsen’s greatest hits, and, despite the difficulty of staging the big crowd scene in the fourth act, has been frequently revived. It has also been filmed several times, and adapted in all sorts of ways. The opening half of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is effectively a re-tread of this play; and Satyajit Ray’s Ganashatru placed the action in Bengal, with the Bengali version of Dr Stockmann finding dangerous pollution in holy temple water. (Sadly,  Ray made this film soon after a major heart attack, and in defiance of doctor’s orders not to return to work: for understandable reasons, this film isn’t among his best.) Dr Stockmann, in his various manifestations, has become the very epitome of the courageous individual who stands up alone for what he knows to be right, for what he knows to be true.

But while this heroic and inspiring stand for truth defines the principal tonality of the work, there are some very troubling dissonances throughout that frequently threaten to overwhelm this tonality. I can’t help wondering, for instance, how well the Petersburg audiences appreciated the profoundly anti-democratic nature of Stockmann’s stand, and, perhaps, of the play itself. Quite early in the play, for instance, we get this exchange between the newspaper-man Billing and the sea captain Horster:

BILLING: Still, we all have to vote, at least.

HORSTER: Even those who understand nothing?

BILLING: Understand? What do you mean? Society is like a ship; everyone must come together at the helm.

HORSTER: That might be all right on land; but it would come to no good on a ship.

Dr Tomas Stockmann himself is presented as a loquacious man, a dynamic personality, never still, forever brimming with energy and optimism. He is clearly highly intelligent, but in terms of judging the political temperature, or of judging the people around him, hopelessly naïve. He has made the discovery that the water in the spa, the very spa on which the entire economy of the town depends, is dangerously polluted. And he knows also the solution: the pipes carrying the water need to be re-laid. But he never gives a thought to the financial implications of this. He is certain that, in making this discovery, he is saving the town itself, and that he will be lionised for doing so; he is certain that he has the “solid majority” behind him.  Certainly, the liberal press is on his side, but he cannot see what the rest of us can – that they are supporting him not out of any love for truth, but merely to score political points. The points they want to score are against the town’s conservative mayor, Peter Stockmann, Dr Stockmann’s own brother, and chairman of the spa’s board. And it never even occurs to Dr Stockmann that a person in such a position is not likely to welcome his scientific findings: his belief that the truth is something that everyone would welcome is simultaneously touching in its naïvety, and also somewhat alarming. For how can someone with so inadequate an understanding of human behaviour cope with humanity as it really is?

It doesn’t take long for the expected to happen – especially as Ibsen moves the drama forward with virtually every line, barely pausing for breath. Dr Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, consummate politician that he is, goes to work behind the scenes. He puts forward a proposal for some minor changes that will, he personally assures everyone, solve all the problems; and he lets people know how much Dr Stockmann’s solution will cost: it will require not merely a huge rise in taxes, but also the spa closing down for two years while the work is carried out. In short, the town will effectively be deprived of an income for two years. Dr Stockmann, still as naively optimistic as ever, continues to believe that the “solid majority” will continue to support him: how, after all, can any rational person, when faced with the truth, fail to acknowledge it? It is impossible! But others know better. Those who had previously expressed support for him now change their minds: after all, isn’t the mayor proposing a solution that would cost far less? Only a fanatic, after all, would propose depriving the town of its income for two whole years while hiking up taxes. Even the liberal press backs out: it’s not that they’re against the truth, as such – of course they aren’t – but they cannot, obviously, back Dr Stockmann’s dangerous fanaticism.

Ibsen spares no-one, not even the “centrists”, the men of sensible moderation: the printer Aslaksen (who had appeared in Ibsen’s earlier play The League of Youth), always preaching temperance and moderation, always warning of the dangers of fanaticism, also deserts the man  he now comes to see as a dangerous fanatic: when it comes to it, his “centrism” is no more than pusillanimity, a craven failure to back radicalism when radicalism is what is needed. This frankly makes for uncomfortable reading for political moderates such as myself, and that is, undoubtedly, as Ibsen had intended. While this play is still seen (as A Doll’s House often is) as a comfortable work that flatters our sense of our own honesty and integrity, it is, in truth, a deeply uncomfortable work that turns the spotlight very disconcertingly on to our own selves, and reveals things that we would perhaps prefer not to see. I must confess that if I saw myself at all in this play, it was as the cowardly and self-justifying Aslaksen rather than the heroic Dr Stockmann. And that is far from comfortable.

If things are beginning to become uncomfortable by the end of the third act (where Dr Stockmann is threatened by his own brother with losing his job should he refuse to see reason), the remarkable fourth act goes even further. Stockmann, denied a public platform, has decided to hold a public meeting where he could speak to the “solid majority” he still reckons will back him. No public hall would accept his booking, so the meeting is held in the large front room of the sympathetic sea captain Horster.

The public, even at the start of the meeting, is hostile to Stockmann: the powers ranged against Stockmann, while denying him a platform, have already let the public know how much Stockmann’s solution would cost, and have further let them know that the patches proposed by the Mayor will solve whatever problem there is. It is easy for us to take sides against the public here (as Stockmann himself does), but a simply dichotomy of Good vs Bad serves but to weaken the drama: the public’s position is surely understandable, and I, for one, find it easy to sympathise: it is, after all, their livelihoods that are at stake. Even at this meeting, against Stockmann’s wishes, a chairman and moderator are appointed, and they quickly rule that Stockmann is not entitled to speak about the water pollution. And then the dam breaks: the anti-democratic seeds that had been planted early in the play now blossom, and take on frankly grotesque forms.

Of course, since this is, after all, an Ibsen play, we know that the pollution of the public water is a symbol for something else. And now, Dr Stockmann clearly and explicitly sees it as a symbol, and explains what it is:

DR STOCKMANN: I have some great revelations to make  to you, my fellow citizens! I  want to report the discovery of a very different scope than the trifling matter of the water supply being poisoned and our Health Spa built on  plague-infested ground! … I’ve said I wanted to talk about an important discovery I’ve made over the last few days – the discovery that our spiritual wells are being poisoned, and that our entire civic community rests on a plague-infested ground of lies!

Readers of Ibsen’s earlier work should have no difficulty identifying Dr Stockmann here: he is Brand, the unyielding idealist and stern moralist, insisting that his fellow humans must accept the truth at all times without compromise – insisting on moral imperatives that human beings are, on the whole, incapable of following. The heroic Stockmann then goes on, in his rage, to articulate a number of things that are, frankly, hard to stomach. The broadside against democracy continues:

The majority never have the right on their side, never I tell you! That’s one of those lies in society against which any independent, thinking man must wage war.  Who is it that constitutes the greater part of the population in a country? The intelligent people or the stupid ones? … The might is with the many – unfortunately – but not the right. The right is with myself, and a few other solitary individuals.  The minority is always in the right.

Then, he draws a parallel between humans and dogs, coming in the process close to advocating what we would nowadays describe as eugenics:

First, imagine a simple, common dog – I mean the kind of vile, ragged, badly behaved mongrel that runs around in the streets fouling the house walls. And put one of these mongrels next to a poodle whose pedigree goes back several generations, and who comes from a noble house where it’s been fed with good food and had the chance to hear harmonious voices and music. Don’t you think that the poodle’s cranium has developed quite differently from that of the mongrel?

Michael Meyer, arguing that the poodle has associations in English that aren’t present in Norwegian, changed the breed to greyhound in the above passage in his own translation, but its meaning is unmistakable either way. Not that Stockmann is favouring the aristocracy: the “mongrels” he is referring to are, as far as he is concerned, from all social classes. But even so, those of us who had been cheering on Stockmann so far, and who remain convinced that he is in the right (as he surely is), can but grit our teeth. But Stockmann is now unstoppable:

It’s of no consequence if a lie-ridden community is destroyed. It should be razed to the ground, I say! All those who live a lie should be eradicated like vermin! You’ll bring a plague upon the entire country in the end; you’ll make it so the entire country deserves to be laid to waste.  And if it comes to that, then I say from the depths of my heart: let the entire country be laid to waste, let the entire people be eradicated!

The mayor, the press, Aslaksen, weren’t wrong: Stockmann really is a dangerous fanatic. He is declared by the meeting to be “an enemy of the people”. And if Stockmann is Brand in his unbending integrity and his fanaticism, he is also, it seems to me, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who, also in a public meeting, is declared an enemy of the people and exiled; and who, again like Stockmann, remains unbowed, and vents his fury upon the populace that repudiates him, banishing them even as they banish him:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As the reek of the rotten fens, whose love I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you.

The  play ends not with victory, but on a note of defiance. Stockmann has been attacked by the mob, and the windows of his house smashed; he has, predictably, lost his job, and so has his daughter:  not that her employer wanted to dismiss her, but, like everyone  else,  they dare not keep her. No-one in the town dares: the weight of public opinion is too strong. The Stockmanns are evicted by their landlord: once again, he dares not do otherwise.  But Stockmann, like his predecessor Brand, is determined  to fight on, to stand up for the Truth, no matter what the cost to himself or to his family. And we are left not entirely sure whether to admire or to deplore him.


In the context of the twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Society, which may loosely be termed a “cycle”, this play, the fourth in the series, is, in some ways, a step back. After having used the very public medium of theatre to explore inner lives of his characters in A Doll’s House and, even more, perhaps, in Ghosts, we are, in this play, back in the very public world of The Pillars of Society: the inner lives of the characters here are not addressed; the characters are only really important here in terms of their public function. Of course, Ibsen was soon to delve more deeply into the inner lives of his characters in his subsequent plays:  in some of these works, he delved as deeply into the recesses of the human mind as is perhaps possible. But this play stands apart somewhat from the others: it is, in a sense, simpler, in that its content can be fairly adequately summarised, in a way that the contents of plays such as Rosmersholm or The Master Builder, say, cannot. But it is still very much a part of the cycle: its themes – the nature of truth, our human capacity for accepting and acknowledging the truth – are every much themes that Ibsen explored from different perspectives in this and in other plays.

The truth here, despite Wilde’s famous epigram, is both pure and simple: in literal terms, the spa water is indeed dangerously polluted, and, in symbolic terms, our human society, as in The Pillars of Society, is indeed built upon lies and corruption. What is at issue here is not the nature of Truth (Ibsen was to explore that later), but, rather, our human capacity to accept and acknowledge the Truth, and also the inhuman fanaticism to which an entirely admirable devotion to Truth all too often gives rise. For the title is not ironic: Dr Tomas Stockman is, quite literally, an enemy of the people. That he is a man of the utmost integrity, and heroic and admirable, does not alter this fact. It is a play that should make us all feel uncomfortable.

The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.