Archive for June, 2011

On seeing W.L. again

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Time passes. She is a grandmother, with two married children. My son is getting his PhD. We linger over lunch, catching up. Family, friends. “Who’s in, who’s out.”

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
…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…
- King Lear (V.iii.)

Well, it is a bit of a cliché: all the world’s a stage. But I think we lose sight of the meaning of that quote within the costuming and historical language of Shakespeare’s plays. What is happening on stage seems remote, removed, foreign. We understand, perhaps, on an intellectual level, that the plays are metaphors for us, for our own lives, but what part of us? What part of our lives?

Well, it is easy to see with Lear. As you age and you gain some perspective on the mistakes you have made, it is easy to see the parallel: who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out. Othello, too, is not mysterious. Notwithstanding the eponym, the play is about Desdemona and her perspective, the fatal attraction to power and violence. Othello describes the girl’s fascination:

Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,–such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse…
- I.iii. 129-151

And Desdemona herself begs to accompany her husband to war, but in doing so, she uses an interesting turn of phrase:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.
- I.iii. 249-260

“My downright violence” is interpreted by E.A.J. Hongmann, in the Arden Shakespeare, as an absolute break with convention. As well, I have always been struck, in this play, by time image of young Desdemona hurrying to hear Othello’s tales of wars, disasters and misfortunes, listening raptly, falling in love, hardly understanding that the capabilities that made him a great soldier could be turned against her, if he should ever perceive her as the enemy.

The paradoxes run deep: how could someone who breaks with convention, flees and flouts her father’s authority in order to satisfy her own romantic and carnal longing, be trusted not to flee and flout her duty to her husband? Othello is a play about people getting what they want and then having to face its negative aspect. So, Desdemona consecrated her soul to Othello’s “honour and his valiant parts,” did she? What about his other parts? What about the parts he had to have to win that honour and prove that valour? Hmmm. She falls in love with a warrior, a man who kills and suffers. It does not occur to her that he will kill her and suffer for it. Should it have?

Violence has a strange sort of fascination for people, a horror you can’t look away from. I always think that people have put too much emphasis on Freud’s ideas about eros and not enough on his ideas about thanatos. Well, we are attracted to that as well. Love and death.

But Hamlet. What is Hamlet about? Well, ordinary people may have their patrimony stolen by unscrupulous relatives. I think that is as common as bowls of pottage. Also, ordinary people indeed see ghosts and may be told to do something. “Kill your uncle – he killed me.” Well, well, well, is this not the common story of the psychotic murderer? Redrum. Redrum. Is Hamlet an Elizabethan schizophrenic? Shakespeare might have written the Stephen King thriller-drama of his time except for two factors. First of all, other people see the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Secondly, Hamlet tests the story that the ghost tells him. He does not act until it is proven that the ghost’s accusation of Claudius is valid.

So, Hamlet is a hero – as Jimmy “Spider” McKuen puts it, in The Haunted House Hamlet, “the guy who tried so hard to figure out justice.” But on a mundane level, he is also a misogynist and a murderer. Ophelia could tell you something about that – except that it has driven her mad. Just as the idea that the perfectly wonderful boy next door, the athlete about to leave on a scholarship, could turn into a looter, the idea that the prince, the apex of perfection, could be a monster as well makes no sense to poor Ophelia. It makes the whole world make no sense and she becomes unable to make sense. Her bearings, based on naivety, really, are removed from her and she has nothing to replace them with.

And so we tell the tales – or the actors do, on the various stages of the world that is in itself a stage. I think it is a mistake, though, to think that these plays are chronicles of mistakes not to be repeated or that in repeating these mistakes we are somehow not “learning our lesson.” The “mistakes” are not mistakes but are patterns of being. The lessons are not lessons in behaviour, but rather lessons in expression. It is inevitable that we repeat these patterns, as it is inevitable that high school students become adults, gain partners, children, grandchildren, have lives, make mistakes, and in the end reflect,

like birds i’ the cage…
…And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies