The Shakespeare Enigma
April 27, 2014
One of the reasons I believe Shakespeare is still so popular four hundred years after his death is because it’s so difficult to pin down the man’s beliefs. This makes the enjoyment of his work partly about teasing out the tantalizing puzzle at the core of it. Shakespeare was great at presenting the motivations and thought-processes of his characters. Edmund, in King Lear, gives a very convincing speech about why he shouldn’t be held back through the accident of birth (‘Fut, I should have been that I am’), the sort of speech in this time of individualism and dream-chasing we find very appealing. That he then goes on to commit obscene acts, using that agenda as a springboard, makes his eloquence doubly confusing. Was Shakespeare mocking that philosophy, showing how dangerous it was? It’s hard not to believe, though, that he himself believed in it, at least in part, for how could he so convincingly argue such thoughts otherwise?
Other ‘villains’, too, have surprising moments, sides to them which make you question Shakespeare’s sympathies. Iago seems such an unredeemable character till that one remark of his that hints at a whole other aspect to him, a world of suffering that almost everyone can immediately relate to: of Othello, Iago notes: ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.’ What a brilliantly concise glimpse into character. Jealousy, a key theme of the play, is perhaps most justified in Iago. Today, one of the key things facebook is reported to instill in people is a keen jealousy as we watch other lives for how they compare to ours.
Shylock, from the Merchant of Venice, is another fascinating creation – mean, venial, quite psychopathic in his desire for his literal pound of flesh – and yet he gives a wonderfully heartfelt and reasoned speech about why he’s justified in demanding his high price. “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 … as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Such eloquence, such acuity, conferred on a character with a torturer’s penchant for revenge!
There are parts in Shakespeare that seem to confirm the eternal verities, of good and evil, the divine order, the great chain of being. (In Coriolanus Sakespeare compares the state to a body, where each organ has a predestined part to play and should know its place. But even in the exchange there, between the citizens of Rome, and Menelaus, Shakespeare presents both arguments with the same conviction). There are other passages in Shakespeare, that tend to relativism: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet). And some that border on nihilism. Mabeth’s famous speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Schopenhauer could not have written existential despair better.
Isolated, you could take any of these examples and attribute a set belief system to Shakespeare. Staunch Catholic, prevaricating Relativist, despairing Nihilist. But in context, each quote makes sense. With Macbeth’s nihilistic speech mentioned above, it comes after he has destroyed sleep through killing those around him to whom he owed nothing but love and loyalty; therefore, when looked at in context, it is very difficult to make it the essence of Shakespeare’s whole outlook on life.
Of course, that is what a writer is meant to do, step into other people’s shoes. Readers quickly tire of writers whose characters all speak with the one voice and express the one set of opinions. When they do, we are justified in believing that collective voice belongs to the author. But even with those writers who can create different characters with different or opposing views and motivations, with most we can still usually tell which belief system the author most strongly sides with. In Shakespeare, it is much more difficult. Perhaps nigh impossible, with any certainty.
Partly, I think this delicious opaqueness was to do with the age, one in which a wrong word could get you thrown in jail, tortured on the rack, or executed horribly. (Generally, all three.) Writers had to necessarily code their opinions in a way many don’t today to the same extent, particularly in the West. It is little wonder that masks are a frequent metaphor in Shakespeare; they were necessary to hiding the thoughts that could be read in the face, by keeping the head that face was attached to. He knew he could never be too partisan in his writing or too blunt.
This need of caution, while frustrating in trying to get to Shakespeare’s core, probably accounted for a greater cleverness in his writing. Indeed, that caution might be a good factor in art at any age. It could be argued that some restrictions are good for writing to prevent story-telling from becoming a personal rant. In a more recent time of heavy state censorship, two great works emerged about McCarthyism. The interesting point being, that neither work dealt with McCarthyism directly. The first was about the Salem witch trials, the second about alien invaders to Earth. The Crucible and the The Invasion of the Body Snatchers respectively. Perhaps the best writing, then, conceals and sometimes protects the writer, but also spares the reader/viewer from any unsubtle agenda the writer may have. In these two McCarthy-era examples, they are the more universal and lasting for the writers involved being forced to think cleverly and in a round-about fashion about how to make their points. More memorable, perhaps, than stories dealing directly with McCarthyism.
Another reason for this ambiguity in Shakespeare accounting for his ongoing popularity is that much writing today seems so baldly confessional. Check out anyone’s facebook page, the pages they have liked, the posts they’ve posted, the friends they’re friends with, and you could very quickly work out their interests, predilictions, spending habits, beliefs, in short their ‘likes’. Indeed, facebook and Google trade this information, which is why the ads that come up in your feed are invasively personal. Shakespeare is an antidote to transparency.
The last writer I can think of who tried to attain the sort of mystery Shakespeare holds was J D Salinger. And he had to work very hard at it! It is doubtful whether Shakespeare intentionally aimed for ambiguity (except where it prevented him from getting in trouble with authorities), and yet he is the most ambiguous writer we know.
But even looking at what seems like Shakespeare at his most exposed, his sonnets, it is still very hard to pin down the man behind them. Are they baldly confessional or literary conceits? More charcters of his devising, in this case the triangle, or sketches of real people, including himself? One of the recurring techniques is double-meaning – for instance, where the word ‘lie’, say, can be interpreted to mean both telling a fib or reclining prostrate (Sonnet 138 especially). But there is a whole wealth of ambiguity to be found in them.
The most passionate of them are directed at a man, and yet much of this poetry directed at the man concerns the “dark lady”. There is almost as much of love as hate in them. And quite a bit of that hate manifests in self-loathing. What there isn’t, though, is much genuine doubt of the poet’s own talent. I do get the sense he saw himself as a magician, a Prospero who knew his own worth, and when to quit.
So, was Shakespeare deeply religious or profoundly skeptical, even belonging perhaps to the atheist School of Night? Was he gay, straight, bi? Was Shakespeare even Shakespeare? There have been many other contenders put forward, including Elizabeth I. In which case, was he even a he? Shakespeare may not even have existed at all, according to the recent, thoroughly enjoyable, film Anonymous, which sets forth the hypothesis that Shakespeare was merely a made-up pen name, conferred on a hack.
Was Shakespeare even Shakespeare’s exact name? Original documents of the time have his name spelt Shakspere, or variations thereof. So we possibly don’t even have the name right. Most of the portraits of him seem to be painted after he was dead, a considerable time in some cases. So we don’t even know for sure what he looked like. The few biographical details piant confusing pictures. Bequeathing his wife his second best bed – a slight on her character or a humdrum testatory detail we’ve read too much into? His desire for a coat of arms – ‘Not without right’ – which fellow playwright and rival Ben Johnson satirized with ‘Not without mustard’ – do we interpret this as him fawning for recognition or making an understandable claim on his title? Even though Ben Johnson made fun of Shakespeare with his ‘Not without mustard’ quip, he also lionized Shakespeare in his poem to him after his death (“Sweet Swan of Avon!”). Not even his comtemporaies could be unambiguous about the man.
Shakespeare also sued people, betraying a petty and libelous nature? Or was he more sinned against that sinning? There are hints of biographical alignment within the writing, his young son Hamnet dying and then his play Hamlet. But Hamnet was ten and Hamlet in his late teens. Much different frames of mind, surely? Though there are hints like this of autobiography, nothing can quite be pinned to him. Shakespeare remains prolific and allusive at once, articulate yet ambiguous.
It is difficult to imagine many authors of today attaining quite the same mystery. For one, it’s almost impossible not to exist in so many ways. Few are willing to hold back an opinion. Those opinions don’t get you in quite the same trouble as they did in Shakespeare’s time. In a way, I hope nothing more comes to light about Shakespeare. One of the great pleasures of his work for me is trying to get to the man’s (or woman’s) heart and mind, which I know I’ll never do. Looking into his work to find the man is like looking into a mirror that only throws you back on yourself. He remains elusive, and that will become all the more alluring in a time where we know too much about writers, but not enough about ourselves.