Ismail Serageldin

Speeches


One, Two, Three, Four…The Hidden Geometries in Shakespearean Constructs

 30/04/2007 | Alexandria, Egypt

 

I. Introduction
 
On a bright sunny day, half a century after the death of Shakespeare, a young man darkened his room in Cambridge, and made a hole in his window shutters, allowing only a single beam of sunlight to enter the darkened room. He placed a glass prism in the path of the light, and lo! The bright white light, suddenly became a spectacular explosion of colors! A multicolored rainbow! The year was 1665, and the young man was another famous Englishman: Isaac Newton, and he had revolutionized optics, by showing that “white light” really held within it, all the colors of the rainbow. We would never look at white light again and see it just as white light.
 
To me, that is what a good critic does, when confronted by a great work of art. Many readers or viewers are simply dazzled by the power of the “white light” of the work.   The critic takes a prism to it, and shows all the hidden colors that are in that dazzling white light. He takes the
reader or viewer on an analytic journey that, far from reducing the appreciation of the work, should enhance the experience of interacting with it.   The critic does not invent the violet, the blue, the green, the yellow or the red…or the endless variations of subtle differences that lie in between the colors… they really are there… It is just a matter of showing them by focusing on one particular wavelength rather than another… 
 
So today, allow me to emulate the young Newton, and to take my prism to Shakespeare’s powerful, blinding light, and try to show you some of the colors that are hidden in the overwhelming power of his plays.   And different Shakespearean critics, prefer one or another part of the rainbow… Some veer to the infra-red others to the ultra-violet ends, others find the red or the blue or the green more appealing to their particular sensibilities, and it is all to the credit of the Bard that his work can accommodate them all.
 
The particular facet that I will address today, one of many that I could have chosen, is the multi-layered, multi-faceted patterns that one finds in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his tragedies.    The genius of Shakespeare is very much with us. Successive generations find in his works a reflection that mirrors the self and the other in myriad ways. Each one of us sees it slightly differently, slightly askew, and yet .. there we are! A facet of our character is suddenly revealed to us, in stark recognition as if he had spied on us and suddenly made one of his characters say something that we could have said, or perhaps did actually say in a similar circumstance some time ago… One of the many talents of the Bard is the capacity to suddenly let out of his literary voice, a sentence, a passage, that sheds light into some hidden nook or cranny of our character, with the glare of self-recognition that it brings…   Or, more generously, let us simply say that we recognize someone we know in his characterizations. For his characters are seldom cardboard two-dimensional images, they are almost invariably fully rounded, with their mix of strengths and weaknesses, and their foibles and their quirks, in short, they are truly human.
 
They are recognizable. His heroes are not distant supermen, who somehow embody every virtue. They almost invariably have feet of clay. More importantly, his villains are sometimes beguilingly human and normal… Some of his plays have had villains as protagonists: Macbeth and Richard III… Other protagonists have been flawed characters at best, such as Othello, Lear, Richard II, Prospero, and on and on… Are they heroes or are they villains? He does give them that quaint touch of humanity that we can recognize and empathize with, even for such heroes as Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and  Timon of Athens.
 
 
II. Kaleidoscopes, mirrors, fractal images and hidden geometries
 
 
But the images and overlays I speak of here are like part of a kaleidoscope where for an instant you glimpse something and then the action moves on, or you get engrossed with the more dominant of these images and the prismatic reality of the Shakespearean construction serves to provide multiple reflections, more or less vivid, to the central theme being treated in the play. However, I believe that this is very much part of the uniqueness of the Shakespearean legacy, that contributes so much to its richness and to its timelessness, as much as the beauty of the language or the power of the themes. 
 
After some reflection, I have chosen to refer to these Shakespearean constructions and the fleeting images they bring about, as “hidden geometries” in Shakespeare’s plays, partly, I suppose, because I have been studying another field where hidden geometries and fairly complex mathematics play a central role: the problems of “tiling”, or of covering a space with tiles. The geometry of the tiles makes it easy or difficult. Square tiles pose no problem, neither do equilateral triangles and hexagons. But if you go to different patterns, such as pentagons, or more complex patterns, you need to create additional forms to match up with them if you want to create a complete and ongoing tiling pattern. These patterns are governed by rules that medieval Muslim architects excelled at, both in tilings and in arabesque designs. More recently, these patterns have been the subject of complex mathematics by such distinguished luminaries as Roger Penrose of Oxford. 
 
Another and even more complex field of application of such hidden geometries is the unique art of the Muqarnas. The Muqarnas is the complex interplay of small geometric shapes for rows of squinches that help transition a square space with four walls to a circle on which a dome is mounted. The transition is architecturally arrived at by more or less complex patterns that follow specific rules.    However, the average person can just enjoy the overall effect of these tilings, or arabesques or Muqarnas designs, without having to see, know or recognize the hidden geometries that give the work its structure, its elegance, and its pleasing appearance. We can just enjoy with satisfaction the final result.
 
Coming back to Shakespeare, we can immediately say, that the blank verse in which he wrote, was governed by the iambic pentameter, and that gives his language a feel that is exquisitely different than plain prose, or dogged adherence to a simple rhyme. It is the difference of one of those exquisite tilings and no tiling or simple square tiles. But I want to go further. I would like to argue that beyond the obvious point of language, the construction of the plays themselves, show a masterful hand that deploys hidden geometries to weave together an especially pleasing and unsettling effect that sets Shakespeare aside from all his contemporaries, and that it is only in the more recent and more modern literary figures of the last two centuries, that we come into contact with the same multi-layered, multi-faceted complexity of the Shakespearean canon. 
 
Allow me to give a few examples.
 
 
III. One, two…Divided self and counter thread…
 
One into two… The counter voice..
 
Shakespeare’s “counter voice”: The Merchant Of Venice
 
The orthodox view of this play is that it is a delightful romantic comedy, somewhat heavy handed in its depiction of Shylock as the villain[i]. Totally "politically incorrect" in today's climate, this view of Shylock has led many to condemn the play as anti-semitic. This view is simplistic at best, and misses the "counter voice" which runs throughout the play, and consistently sets us up for an uneasy, divided loyalty, which most readers or viewers feel but do not pin down or come to grips with.
 
The real reading of the play can be seen as the ideal of humanism set against a racist, sexist society. The racist line is more easily discernable, but the gender issue pervades the play. Let us run with the racist thread first.
 
The racist thread in the plot reaches its first dramatic and emotional peak in the powerful speech by Shylock, rebuking the christians for their attitude against jews. This most famous of pleas is the universal claim of any oppressed minority being persecuted for being something other than a member of the dominant persecuting group. It is as true of the palestinians in the occupied territories or the muslims in Bosnia or the indians in Latin America, as it is for the jews and non-german minorities who suffered under Nazism. It is based on the timeless and universal claim of a common humanity... In a time where the world seems to have lost its bearings and is redefining everything in terms of nationality or ethnicity, listen to Shakespeare's eloquent plea ringing in our ears with remarkable prescience :
 
 
                                                Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.... The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
                                     
                                             (III.i.59-73)
 
 
 
Look around you in the world today, and replace "jew" and "christian" with any oppressed and oppressor names and the timelessness of this plea comes through unimpaired.
 
But let us turn back to "The Merchant of Venice". As Ryan observes :
 
                        With this speech there erupts into the play the full, protesting force of an irresistible egalitarian vision, whose basis in the shared faculties and needs of our common physical nature implicitly indicts all forms of inhuman discrimination. The speech provokes a radical shift of emotional allegiance, from which our perception of the comedy's Christian protagonists never recovers. Through Shylock, "The Merchant" proceeds to broach within itself a counter-perspective which cracks the received readings wide open and transfigures our understanding of the play.[ii]
 
Here I also agree with Ryan that the key line is "The villainy you teach me, I will execute". This is the definition of the rationale for Shylock's revenge. Indeed,
 
            Shylock's bloodthirsty cruelty is not simply the result of the Venetians' treatment of him, but the deliberate mirror-image of their concealed real nature. The revenge declares itself as a bitterly ironic parody of the Christians' own actual values, a calculated piercing of their unconsciously hypocritical facade.[iii]
 
Seen in this light the full dramatic power of the play comes vividly into focus. Shakespeare has engineered a dramatic situation where "... an apparently civilized form of society is unmasked as in fact premised on barbarity, on the ruthless priority of money-values over human values, of the rights of property over the most fundamental rights of men and women."[iv] Stephen and Franks, as others in the mainstream of current criticism, also point out that "...the play examines the morality of money and it is critical of the Christians in the play, as well as of the Jew."[v] but nowhere do they come close to the powerful condemnation that Ryan makes.
 
I will return to the gender thread later on, for it is part of an important Shakespearean construct… a hidden geometry of interlinked triangles, if I may so call it.
 
 
One into two…The divided self: Othello and Richard II
 
 
Othello is conventionally sees as a play about jealousy. That figures in it as the device by which the hero is destroyed, but to me, as I have explained elsewhere, it is about racism… For none pof thse problems would have been needd oif Othello was not black.   It is to Shakespeare’s credit that he brings out the issues of racism and of cultural alienation not by a mocked and marginalized individual, but one who had succeeded to the highest honors in the land, and who is on the surface, accepted by the society he has chosen to emigrate to.   This is not a fanciful reading of contemporary problems into a centuries old text. Not at all. In a supreme dramatic achievement, grossly underrepresented in the critical literature, Shakespeare brings out the deeper cultural alienation at issue in the final suicide scene of Othello.
 
Here is the main character of the play about to commit suicide, turning to those around him, beseeching them to note his words carefully, and asking those responsible to report truthfully what has happened and why. Surely, no speech could have been given a greater build-up by an author. And what does Othello say ? He concludes with these six lines :
 
            Set you down this;
            And say besides, that in Aleppo once;
            Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
            Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
            I took by th'throat the circumcised dog,
            And smote him - thus.
 
                        (V.ii.351-6)
 
And at that point he stabs himself!
 
This passage, after the build-up given it by Shakespeare must be given special attention, and it repays that attention by giving what Ryan calls "an elliptically compressed definition and explanation of the whole tragedy of Othello". In the insightful words of Prof. Ryan :
 
            "Othello presents himself both as the servant and instrument of the venetian state and as the Turk, 'the circumsised dog' whom Venice feels threatened by and whom it despises. He correctly perceives himself, in other words, to have been both the alien victim of Venetian society and the active though unwitting accomplice of its destruction of him." (emphasis in original)[vi]
 
This duality in the roles of Othello, one the social role of the "Moor of Venice", and the other being the innate person who has had to destroy itself to play the role of Othello, comes out also in the peculiar reply that Othello, a few moments before killing himself, gives to Lodovico's question "where is this rash and most unfortunate man?". Othello answers : "thats he that was Othello; here I am." (V.ii.283-4). The rash and most unfortunate man is "Othello, the Moor of Venice", while the wretched man inside, about to end his life, having lost all he cared for, has been liberated from the duality and the falsehood and finally acknowledges the terrible truth of the lie he has lived, and he will tell it to those around him that they may record it and report it truthfully to those who were not present to hear his words.
 
Can anyone deny the relevance of that theme to our own day, as we look at the migrant societies of Arabs and Muslims in Europe, and their struggle for assimilation and the agony of self-denial… as we look at the explosive anger that it engenders, anger that can lead their youths in the French suburbs to burn down their surroundings in the days of rage that startled France just a few months ago? 
 
Richard II:
 
Richard II is the first dramatic hero where Shakespeare actively promoted the duality of his inner and public selves. A weak King, but one with the soul of an artist.   Listen to the voice of Richard II, reflecting on the frailty of worldly power and the mortality of kings:
 
 
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;        159
All murder'd - for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his court and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,                         165
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!                               170
-- Richard II – Act 3, Scene 2
 
 
Farewell … king !
 
The pause and emphasis on the word king changes the sense of “farewell” and turn what could have been a pathos verging on bathos into a hard edged sarcasm that underlines the thrust of mockery that runs through the whole passage…
 
Now hear him in this eloquent conclusion to this remarkable passage:
 
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,                                               175
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
   -- Richard II – Act 3, Scene 2
 
 
 
Here is Richard again, dethroned by Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV, father of Henry V), foregoing the trappings and symbols of power that he hands over to the new king Henry:
 
Mark me how I will undo myself,
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;                  [205]
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty's rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;                               [210]
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,         [215]
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard's seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking'd Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!                   [220]
What more remains?
 
 
If Shakespeare could see the feet of clay in his mighty heroes, and never lost sight of the human dimension of historical dramas, he saw the humanity in the frailty of his weaker heroes. He gives them some of the most important and beautiful lines of the English language.
 
Heroes with feet of clay: Brecht’s Galileo”:
 
This is different from the perception of the flawed hero that we find in Brecht’s Galileo. Brecht wants his hero to stand for principle even at the highest cost to himself. Brecht denounces the recanting of Galileo as a denial of all he stood for, and more importantly as a denial of the very essence of the science that Galileo has come to stand for in this terrible confrontation between the forces of darkness and rigid dogmatism and the forces of enlightenment and the search for truth as verified by empirical evidence. But for some of us, the benchmark of Brecht is too high for many. It would require that Galileo be ready to give up his life, not to mention submit to the most terrible torture before being put to death, in the name of defending his thesis. Galileo remains a hero to many of us, not a villain.
 
Shakespeare’s heroes have feet of clay as well, but he does not show their villainy as the result of protecting their life, but rather as due to their very human frailties, rather than a lack of heroism.   Frailties that we can recognize all around us.
 
 
  
One into two into one: The hidden person and the device of recognition:
 
(Kermode: Age of Shakespeare 184-et seq)
 
Recognition of a lost or disguised character is common in drama, and is even discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics. But in Shakespeare he revels in it: cross-dressing, common because young boys played the roles of women, is used as a device in many of the plays, especially the comedies, from twelfth night to as you like it. But Shakespeare uses it for much more than this straight application in almost farcical devices. Especially in his later period, Shakespeare is much taken with this dramaturgical device (“obsessed” to use Kermode’s term (Age, p.184)). 
 
Cymbeline, a great mixture of genres, has many brief and rapid encounters, and Pericles, has such an extended recognition moment that it tests the audience’s limits of endurance…
But the device is just one more part of the hidden mirrors and fractal images that Shakespeare creates… a way of engaging the audience to recognize that so much of what we see may not be what we think it is, that different angles lead to different views, and so much more…
 
 
 
IV.   Two, Three… the geometry of drama
 
Two Triangles: The Merchant of Venice :
 
 
Let’s now return to The Merchant Of Venice and address the gender issue. The real "hero” of the play is Portia. She is intelligent, witty, profound, eloquent and has a commanding presence. She saves Bassanio, but to do so she must disguise herself as a man. Society would not accept her playing such a role as a woman, because it does not recognize her as the equal of the men , even though she is clearly their superior.
 
Indeed, Portia is the one who gives the most eloquent counterpoint to Shylock's plea, the "mercy" speech. It remains one of Shakespeare's most eloquent passages :
 
 
                        The quality of mercy is not strained.
                        It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
                        Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
                        it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.
                        'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
                        The throned monarch better than his crown.
                        His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
                        The attribute to awe and majesty,
                        Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
                        But mercy is above this sceptred sway.
                        It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
                        It is an attribute to God himself,
                        And earthly power doth then show likest God's
                        When mercy seasons justice.
                                                  ( IV.i.181-94)
 
 
Note in passing that the basic thrust of the speech is itself a further indictment of the "civilised law" that Shylock appealed to, by requesting that   "..Mercy seasons justice", implying that      the civilsed society's law lacked the necessary compassion.
 
Yet, this same Portia, with all these innate abilities is socially oppressed. She is deprived of any meaningful choice in running her own life :
 
            O me, the word choose! I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of the living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.
                           ( I.ii.22-5)
 
 
These devices are multiplied, both in the sequence eo fthe caskets and again in the final twist of the sequence of the rings. The sequence of the rings, however, lays down the foundations for the final twist in the play.  In the sequence of the rings, the finale is achieved with what amounts to a flashback to the beginning of the play when Antonio, the merchant, offers himself again as guarantor to heal the apparent rift. In fact, Shakespeare underlines the parallel triangular relationship being set up as Antonio says :
 
            "I once did lend my body for his wealth,
            .... I dare be bound again,
            My soul upon the forfeit, that our lord
            Will never more break faith advisedly."
                                             (V.i.249-53)
 
It is a flashback to the situation that set up the entire dramatic structure of the play, with Portia, the oppressed woman, replacing Shylock, the oppressed Jew, in an identical triangular relationship with the same two people. This is no accident coming from the pen of so skilful a playwright as Shakespeare.
 
Such a construction is not a coincidence. Such lines are not written unintentionally. I invite you to see the work as more than a comedy.
 
V.   Three, Four… Too many layers?
 
Layering… Reading the plays at multiple levels
 
Henry the Fifth:
 
Henry V is often seen as a jingoistic, “Rah Rah” play, especially because of its widely known 1944 Olivier film.  Indeed, the opening of the play is so powerful a passage that we are mesmerized into thinking that this is going to be a patriotic celebration of the great warrior king, for Shakespeare opens with the chorus saying:
 
O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels
(leashed in, like hounds) should famine, sword, and fire
crouch for employment.
 
[Prologue, 1-8]
 
And Shakespeare gives Henry some of the greatest speeches in the English Language, including his famous speech to the soldiers before Harfleur:
 
Once more unto the breach…
 
But Shakespeare, if he recognizes the seductive power of charismatic military conquerors, and if he gives eloquence to this powerful King, he does not lose sight of the more complex issues at hand. For in a devastating way, Shakespeare also chooses to underscore how fleeting were the results of the campaigns of Henry V. He died early, and though he left his infant son Henry VI as king of both France and England, it was to be short-lived.   The gains he made in France were lost, and England was again riven by civil war. Shakespeare gives the play this telling epilogue:
 
This star of England. Fortune made his sword;
By which, the world’s best garden he achieved;
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in fant bands crowned King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made his England bleed:
 
Furthermore, Shakespeare specifically focuses on the brutal murder of the French prisoners in a way that shows Henry in a most unfavorable light, almost a war criminal one would say today. 
 
So here it is. A play operating at least on three levels:
 
First, the action at the level of the big battles and historic decisions, which is the standard level at which most audiences see the play, or read of the history of the glorious campaigns of Henry V culminating in the battle of Agincourt where a small English army inflicted a massive defeat on a French army six times larger losing only 400 English dead against over 7000 French dead (including the murdered prisoners) and another 2000 captured, (after the slaying of the other captives)[vii].
 
Second, at the level of the average soldiers, Pistol, Williams and the rest, giving the human level of the drama that is unfolding. Distant from the grand historic events, worried more about survival, these all too human voices are not the ones recorded by historians. Yet it is here that Shakespeare brings out the full impact of war and its horrors, all the more forcefully for being so understated. It is at that level that the prisoners is brought to life with Pistol and Le Fer, and the horror of the killing of civilians is given a human face by the boy, who implicitly was among those murdered by the French in their own attack on the boys and the civilians.
 
Third, at the level of the underlying designs of the decision makers, where doubt is cast on the entire enterprise by showing (from 2 Henry IV) the possibility of the whole adventure being to busy “giddy minds with foreign quarrels”, on to the Mercenary motives for the Church’s support for Henry’s claim to France, on to the dismissive final epilogue that shows how short lived these gains were, despite their enormous price in blood.
 
What makes this reading of the play so potent is the realization that Shakespeare had to greatly simplify the story line. He summarized the complicated campaign to just three main events: The siege of Harfleur, the battle of Agincourt, and the treaty of Troyes. In the play, the successful negotiations immediately follow the victory at Agincourt, without the abortive negotiations, endless discussions and additional years of fighting reported in Holinshed’s Chronicles, who most believe was Shakespeare’s major historical source[viii]. Given this necessary simplification of the major plot, it becomes even more important to recognize what he chose to put in. The scenes we discussed are obviously part of the design of Shakespeare to temper his portrait of the King referred to as “ a pattern in prince hood, a lodestar in honor, and mirror of magnificence”[ix] in Holinshed.
 
It is this multi-layered reality of Shakespeare’s work that intrigues us to this day. It is the ambiguity, so human, that the supreme craftsman injects into his plays and his characters that have helped his work transcend space and time.
 
 
If we talk complexity and subtlety, we must talk about Hamlet.
 
 
Fathers and sons in Hamlet
 
S&W p.26:
 
Hamlet, as we all know, is out to avenge his murdered father.   The ethics of revenge are not treated in a direct speech by Hamlet in any part of the play, but by the device of the reflections and hidden geometries that I have chosen to highlight, it receives full treatment in many ways. In Hamlet, there are no less than four sons seeking to avenge their fathers.  First is Hamlet, the main theme of the whole play. The second is Laertes, when Hamlet murders Polonius.   The third is Fortinbras, who is seeking to redress injustice: lands taken by Hamlet’s father from his father. Hamlet all but acknowledges that by granting him tardy recognition at the end of the play, when he argues for his succession to the Danish throne with his dying breath: “he has my dying voice”.   Ah… but where is the fourth avenging son? Hidden in the contextualization of the “play within a play” !    When Hamlet meets the players who will play The Murder of Gonzago at the Danish court, he asks them for a particular passage hat he likes: the one of Pyrrhus’s murder of Priam the old king. A gory and unpleasant passage to say the least, hat really raises questions on the ethics of revenge…
 
 
 
Plays within plays
 
In at least three plays –A Midsummer Night's Dream, Love's Labour’s Lost, and Hamlet – Shakespeare uses the device of the play within a play, first articulated by Kyd in the Spanish Mystery of 1687, and possibly used by him also in the lost Ur-Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark asks some strolling players to perform the Murder of Gonzago. The prince writes additional material to ensure that the action and characters in the play mirror some of the events from the play Hamlet itself. Thus the play within a play becomes the mousetrap to catch the guilty king:
 
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."
 
Shakespeare also hints at the same device in other plays, such as Julius Caesar, where the conspirator Cassius, exclaims "How many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown!"… And speaking of Julius Caesar, we are often told that it is weakened by having too many characters… but is that true, or is it part of a clever tiling effect?
 
In addition, in As You Like It, the character Jacques pronounces these immortal words:
 
 "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players...".
 
Almost the whole of The Taming of the Shrew is a play-within-a-play, presented to convince a drunken beggar that he is a nobleman watching a private performance, but the device has no relevance to the plot
 
The Taming Of The Shrew begins with an Introduction in two scenes, the only time Shakespeare used this particular framing device. The scenes depict the Hostess of an Alehouse who drives out a disruptive guest, Christopher Sly, who collapses in a drunken heap. A great Lord, returning from a day’s hunting with his hounds, decides to play a trick on Sly: he will have his servants move the drunkard into his mansion, ply him with fine wines, and in every way convince him that he is, in fact, a wealthy gentleman. When Sly awakes he comes to accept that he’s been delusional for years, and settles down with his “wife,” actually the Lord’s Page, to watch a play.
 
Why is that device used in The Taming Of The Shrew if not to subvert the surface reading of the play? Indeed, by emphasizing that angle, that framing device, Katharina's subservience to her "lord" in the last scene appears intended to strengthen the deception against the beggar! Regretfully, the introductory framing device is often dropped in modern productions.
 
 
VI. The seduction of language
 
Shawqi, Racine and Shakespeare can lay claim to being the greatest poets of the Arabic, French and English languages.   Granted that Shawqi is much more recent, but he was the first to try to write plays in a metered poetic language in Arabic. 
 
The seduction of the language is indeed overwhelming. In each case, jewels of the heritage in Arabic, French or English have been produced. These jewels are well known passages that can be enjoyed as pure poetry. One then tends to forget that these are passages taken out of context, for they were part of the narrative structure of a play.   We can be so seduced by the power of the poetry that we lessen the importance of the play, and hence of the author’s contributions as dramatists and playwrights. In the case of Shawqi, his poetry is a pure form of classical Arabic poetry that rivals the best of the classics, especially in the poetry of love.   Listen to this passage from his Majnoun Laila:
 
xxxxxxxxxxx    go to new page for Arabic section   xxxxxxxxxx
 
 

 
xxxxxxxxxxxx return to English text    xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
 
It is far superior to anything that the real Qais wrote for the real Laila.   Deservedly, Shawki has been called – by his own peers – the prince of poets.
 
But in the case of Racine he is known first as a dramatist, and then as a poet.   But in Racine, it is the beauty of the language as much as the content of the plays that grips us.    Racine is like waves crashing against the seashore, with force, full bodied, and overwhelming, coming at us with a rhythmic splendor all his own… his meticulous craftsmanship and his enormous talent make these lines some of the most beautiful lines ever written in the French language. The long well structured lines have an internal rhythm as well as an inter-lineal balance that makes the lines flow with an elegance and a magnificence that is quite overwhelming.  Listen to this stunning passage:
 
 
La mort est le seule Dieu que j’osais implorer.
J’attendais le moment où j’allais expirer
Me nourissant de fiel, de larmes abreuvée,
Encor dans mon malheur de trop près observée,
Je n’osais dans mes pleurs me noyer à loisir,
Je goûttais en tremblant ce funeste plaisir,
Et sous un front serein déguisant mes alarmes,
Il fallait bien souvent me priver de mes larmes.
 
-- Phedre (Acte IV, Scene 6)
 
 
Or the words of the wronged Hippolyte:
 
 
D'un mensonge si noir justement irrité,
Je devrais faire ici parler la vérité,
Seigneur ; mais je supprime un secret qui vous touche.
Approuvez le respect qui me ferme la bouche,
Et sans vouloir vous−même augmenter vos ennuis,
Examinez ma vie, et songez qui je suis.
Quelques crimes toujours précèdent les grands crimes.
Quiconque a pu franchir les bornes légitimes
Peut violer enfin les droits les plus sacrés ;
Ainsi que la vertu, le crime a ses degrés,
Et jamais on n'a vu la timide innocence
Passer subitement à l'extrême licence.
Un jour seul ne fait point d'un mortel vertueux
Un perfide assassin, un lâche incestueux.
 
-- Hippolyte (Acte IV, Scene 6)
 
 
Shakespeare too could make his characters speak in perfectly rhymed verse when he chose. For example, in the first encounter between Romeo and Juliet, they speak in a perfectly metered and rhymed sonnet of fourteen lines. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with an intricate rhyme scheme. Listen to their elegant exchange:
 
ROMEO         [To JULIET] If I profane with my unworthiest hand                        91
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
 
JULIET           Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,             
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,                                     95
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
 
ROMEO         Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
 
JULIET           Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.                                    100
 
ROMEO         O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
 
JULIET           Saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake.
 
ROMEO         Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take.                                104
 
xxxxxxxxxxxx end of sonnet xxxxxxxxxxxxxx 
                    
Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.
 
JULIET           Then have my lips the sin that they have took.
 
ROMEO         Sin from thy lips? O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
 
JULIET           You kiss by the book.
Nurse  Madam, your mother craves a word with you.                       109
 
ROMEO         What is her mother?
Nurse  Marry, bachelor,
Her mother is the lady of the house,
And a good lady, and a wise and virtuous
I nursed her daughter, that you talk'd withal;
I tell you, he that can lay hold of her                                                  114
Shall have the chinks.
 
 
xxxxxxxx
 
The next fourteen lines would have been a perfect second sonnet were it not for the nurse’s interruption, a portend of the rapid termination of their love affair according to Sutherland and Watts (S&W, p. 62).
 
But Shakespeare chooses to release his characters from the perfect verse that Racine maintains throughout his long and passionate plays.
 
But for the plots and characters of his plays, Racine went back to the Greek classics and subjected himself to the rigors of the Aristotelian unities. A harsh critic would say that he did not add much to the originals, in terms of drama. Whereas in the case of Shakespeare, it is the liberties he took with his original source material that makes his work so unique and so interesting. In fact, one comparison that I mentioned elsewhere is the difference in treating horrible acts by the central figure in the play: Racine’s Phaedra and Shakespeare’s Henry V.
 
 
Passage on the two problems
 
Shakespeare’s language is itself the topic of so many studies. Helped define the English language as we know it. His xxxxx
 
 
Listen to the subtlety of his formulations.. 
 
 
 
VII.   Brecht and the modern Drama:
 
Elsewhere I have argued that Shakespeare was the dramatist who first gives us a foretaste of the modern hero or anti-hero. In Hamlet, his hero questions the very set of values that he is supposed to act on: Whether it is nobler…
 
That is very different from the previous classical heroes where the dramatic device is a conflict between two competing behaviors that are part of the same societal matrix: family versus country, father vs. king, love vs. honor, etc. From there, it is a direct line to the modern alienated anti-hero who cannot relate to society and its expectations, and struggles to find his or her own humanity in a different way.
 
Brecht categorized the modern action theater in opposition to the classical (Aristotelian) theater, across a whole range of variables, which have been well summarized by Peter Szondi (Theory of the Modern Drama, written in German in 1954, published in 1965, translated and edited by Michael Hayes, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,  1987, p.70) as follows:
 

 

Dramatic Theater
 
Epic Theater
 
the stage “embodies” an event
 
narrates the event
 
involves the spectator in an action
    and
 
turns the spectator into an observer
but
exhausts his capacity for action
 
arouses his capacity for action
 
engenders feelings in him
 
forces him to make decisions
 
allows him experiences
 
grants him knowledge
 
the spectator is transplanted into an
    action
 
confronts an action
 
it operates through suggestion
 
it operates through argument
 
sentiments are preserved
brought to the point of recognition
 
the human being is presumed known
 
the human being is the object of investigation
 
he is unalterable
 
he is alterable and able to change
 
tension focuses on the conclusion
 
the tension of process
 
each scene generates the next
 
each scene exists for itself
 
linear development
 
curves
 
natura non facit saltus
 
facit saltus
 
the world as it is
 
the world as it becomes
 
what man ought to do
 
what he must do
 
his instincts
 
his reasons for action
 
thought determines being
 
social being determines thought
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
How much of the modern theater characterized by such variables is already apparent in some nascent form in Shakespeare? And how much of what some of us think we see in Shakespeare is just the fractured reflections of our projected expectations onto the clever multiple realities that Shakespeare created with his hidden geometries, his multiple layers, his dramatic devices, his clever exchanges, his subtle counter voices, and his divided and prismatic creations?
 
 
 
VIII. Conclusions:
 
Ladies and gentlemen,
 
Through the work of the pioneers of semiotics, we have learned that text is a construct of both author and reader. We bring to it our aspirations and our fears, our hopes and our dreams, our concerns and our memories. The skilful writer is one who opens up possibilities.   Shakespeare is more than skilful. His language is seductive by the run of his verse; it is distinctive by its posture in the mouth and in the ear, remarkable in its constant drama of tone and tune. (Paraphrasing from Seamus Heaney, “Above the brim”, in.., pp. 70-71).    But more importantly, the temporal and the didactic passes away with time, the work that engages us intellectually and emotionally is the one that remains. Shakespeare with his clever hidden geometries opens up unending vistas of multiple mirrors, kaleidoscopic images, broken shards of fractal images that unfold and unfurl as our imagination sweeps in and out of them, as we find and loose ourselves in his creations, as each successive generation interacts and reinvents his text…
 
Shakespeare is indeed not of an age, but for all time.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 


    [i] For a brief overview of the major contemporary views, see Martin Stephen and Philip Franks, Studying Shakespeare , York handbooks, Longman,Essex UK,, 1984 (7th edition,1993) pp. 121-122
    [ii] Ryan op cit, p.17
    [iii] Ibid. , p. 18
    [iv] Ibid , p. 19
    [v] see Stephen and Franks, op cit , p.121
    [vi] Ryan, op cit , p.57
[vii] The exact numbers have been the subject of scholarly debate, but not the lop-sidedness of the outcome. Indeed, …”One of the most amazing facts about the battle was the extraordinary lopsidedness of the casualties. Shakespeare tells of ten thousand French dead versus 29 English dead (Act 4, Scene 8). More modern estimates put the number of French dead at between 4000 and 11000, with best estimates about 7000 (including the murdered prisoners), plus another 2000 prisoners. Estimates of English dead range from Shakespeare's 29 to a high of 1600. (The high number probably represents all deaths for the entire chevauchée, including deaths from dysentary.) The best estimate is about 400. “ (see http://www.aginc.net/battle/play-comments.htm).
[viii] John Russell Brown (ed.) William Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry V, second revised edition, Signet Classics, 1998, p. 133.
[ix] Ibid.

 


Copyright © 2018 Serageldin.com