Essays On Macbeth By Jan Kott

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contempoary

Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1974

Kott is undoubtedly the only writer on Elizabethan matters who assumes without question that every one of his readers will at some point or other have been woken by the police in the middle of the night. (Preface, Peter Brook , vii)

It is not an accident that at rehearsals our actors find plottings, fights and violent ends ‘easy’—they have clichés ready to deal with these situations which they do not question—but are deeply vexed by problems of speech and style… (viii)

If it is true that the determining, traumatic experience of our time are modern war… (Introduction, Martin Esslin, xiii)

Poland has a population that, among all the peoples of Eastern Europe, is truly Western in its culture as well as deeply rooted in ancient Slavonic tradition; having been a great power in its day in both the political and the cultural sense, Poland has the breadth of feeling, the self-assurance that makes it possible to evaluate all this experience with out the resentments and inferiority complexes of nations still struggling for their own identity. Hence Poland could be relied on to produce outstanding individuals with the intelligence and power of perception to record the impact of these archetypal events with the highest degree of sophistication. (It is no coincidence, for example, that one of the subtlest analyses of the malaise of our time, a shot play by the Polish poet Tadeusz Rozewicz, is called The Witnesses.) (xiv)

Born in 1914, Kott, who at one time wrote surrealist poetry, like so many of his generation, became a Marxist because Marxism seemed to give a guarantee that the victories of nazism and fascism were bound to be short-lived: “I owed my personal salvation—my defence against the nightmare that kept me from succumbing to its horror—to the conviction that history is in the right, that it will always be [xv] proved right, that fascism must be crushed and that it would be the Red Army that crushed it. Marxism taught me the laws of history, permitted me to believe in history. When I entered the A.L. [the extreme left-wing resistance movement] I stopped being afraid…” (xv-xvi)

…the reality of everyday life under Stalinism. In the ten years between 1945 and 1955 the Marxist intellectuals of Poland (as well as those of Hungary) learned a great deal. …at a writers’ congress in Warsaw in 1950 he suddenly found himself at odds with the official line. “For the first time…I saw my opinion at variance with that of the party, and that in a matter which I had greatly at heart…the appreciation of the path along which literature was to develop. It was a very hard moment.” (xvi)

…culminated in the open breach with Stalinism in October 1956. As a literary and dramatic critic, as a university professor of literature, his reorientation towards the ruling ideology centred around the question of socialist realism. By 1956 he had come to define the [xvi] standards by which true realism should be judged: “The measure of realism is the objective truth contained in the work of art. The measure of realism in a literature is the understanding of the historical process in its contradictions and its development, the truth about man who creastes history and who is subject to its laws: moral truth and psychological truth…” [Jan Kott, “Mythologie et V[e]rit[e]” (French version of a speech made at a session of the Council for the Art and Culture in Warsaw, April 1956) in Les Temps Modernes, Paris, February-March 1957.] / This call for a return to truth became the watchword of the true intellectual throughout the communist world after the revelations of Stalin’s crimes by Khrushchev at the twentieth party congress had made it possible to speak more openly about the ideological position of Marxism itself. It was at this time—the late summer of 1956… (xvii)

…hand in hand with a rejection of absolutism on the poitical place, these post-Stalinist intellectuals have reached a position in which they reject all absolutes in the realm of thought. (xvii)

…goodness without universal toleration, courage without fanaticism, intelligence without apathy, and hope without blindness. [L. Kolakowski, “The Priest and the Jester,” in Tw[o]rczo[s][c], September 1958; English translation in The Modern Polish Mind, edited by M. Kuncewicz, Boston, 1962.] (xviii)

…Shakespeare. As against the vast and oversimplified generalizations of ideological thought, the finest creations of the human imagination appear as embodiments of the truth in its most particularized, most concrete form. (xviii)

Daily proximity to civil war, brutality, ideological intolerance, conspiracy and its bloody repression determined the life of Shakespeare’s time… to a critic like Kott, Richard III is anything but an exaggerated stage villain, … To Kott he is, as he surely must have been to reality; … (xix)

History, however, deprived of the goal towards which it is supposed to be moving—progress, the millennium, or the last judgment—can be apprehended only as a process whose sole meaning is its meaninglessness. (This is also the view of the French existentialists, and it is no coincidence that Kott has translated Sartre’s plays into Polish.) No wonder Kott sees the great Shakespearean historical cycle, the Roman plays, and the tragedies as akin in their ultimate sense to the contemporary Theatre of the Absurd. (xx)

Peter Brooke’s production of King Lear with Paul Scofield in the title role, which is by now generally acknowledged as one of the finest Shakespearean performances within living memory was, so the director himself assures us, inspired by Kott’s chapter “ ‘King Lear,’ or Endgame” … And this because it was presented not as a fairy tale of a particularly stubborn story-book king, but as an image of aging and death, the waning of powers, .. (xxi)

If one wishes to interpret Shakespeare’s world as the real world, one should start the reading of the plays with the Histories, and in particular, with Richard II and Richard III. (The Kings, 3)

A reader or spectator in the mid-twentieth century interprets Richard III through his own experiences. He cannot do otherwise. and that is why he is not terrified—or rather, not amazed—at Shakespeare’s cruelty. He views the struggle for power and mutual slaughter of the characters far more calmly than did many generations of spectators and critics in the nineteenth century. More calmly, or, at any rate, more rationally. Cruel death, suffered by most dramatis personae, is not regarded today as an aesthetic necessity, or as an essential rule in tragedy in order to produce catharsis, or even as a specific characteristic of Shakespeare’s genius. Violent deaths of the principal characters are now regarded rather as an historical necessity, or as something altogether natural. (5)

…Shakespeare’s Histories deal with the struggle for the English crown that went on from the close of the fourteenth to the end of the fifteenth century. They constitute an historical epic covering over a hundred years and divided into long chapters corresponding to reigns. ...Every chapter opens and closes at the same point. In every one of these plays history turns full circle, … (6)

Each of these great historical tragedies begins with a struggle for the throne, or for its consolidation. Each ends with the monarch’s death and a new coronation. In each [6] of the Histories the legitimate ruler drags behind him a long chain of crimes. He has rejected the feudal lords who helped him to reach for the crown; he murders, first, his enemies, then his former allies; he executes possible successors and pretenders to the crown. But he has not been able to execute them all. From banishment a young prince returns—… (6-7)

Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. (10)

Let us begin with the great abdication scene in Richard II, the scene omitted in all editions published in Queen Elizabeth’s lifetime. It revealed the working of the Grand Mechanism too brutality: the very moment when power was changing hands. Authority comes either from God, or from the people. A flash of the sword, the tramping of the guards; applause of intimidated noblemen; a shout from the forcibly gathered crowd; and behold: the new authority, too comes from God, or from the will of the people. (12)

When dramatizing history, Shakespeare first and foremost condenses it. For history is more dramatic than the particular dramas of John, the Henrys and the Richards. The greatest drama consists in the working of the Grand Mechanism. (14)

For this is one of those great scenes that history will repeat; scenes that have been written once and for all. There is everything in them: the mechanism of the human heart, [15] and the mechanism of power; there is fear, flattery, and “the system.” In this scene the King does not take part, and no name is mentioned. There are only the King’s words, and their double echo. This is one of the scenes in which Shakespeare is truer to life than life itself (15-16)

But the King lets slip a sentence that foreshadows the problems of Hamlet. And, indeed, Hamlet must only be interpreted in the light of the two Richard plays. This sentence expresses a sudden fear of the world and its [16] cruel mechanism, from which there is no escape, but which one cannot accept. … ‘They love not poison that do poison need,…’ (Richard II, V, 6) / In Shakespeare’s world there is a contradiction between the order of action and the moral order. This contradiction is human fate. One cannot get away from it. (16-17)

Historical names, or the literary accuracy of historic events is of no importance. The situations are true; I [17] would say: super-true. (17-18)

Townsmen hurry by in frightened groups of two or three. They have just heard something, they know something. But they are not a chorus form an ancient tragedy to comment on the events or proclaim the will of the gods. There are no gods in Shakespeare. There are only kings, … (19)

The greatness of Shakespeare’s realism consists in his awareness of the extent to which people are involved in history. Some make history and fall victims to it. Others only think they make it, but they, too, fall victims to it. The former are kings; the latter—the kings’ confidants who execute their orders and are cogs in the Grand Mechanism. There is also a third category of people: the common citizens of the kingdom. (20)

When shall see a dramatized version of a chapter from Machiavelli’s Prince, the great scene of the coup d’[e]tat. But this scene will be played by living people, and it is in this fact that Shakespeare’s superiority over Machiavelli’s treatise is revealed. (22)

It is four A.M. For the first time in tragedy, Shakespeare gives the exact time. It is significant that this should be four A.M. It is the hour between night and dawn; the hour when decisions in high places have been taken, when what had to be done has been done. But it is also the hour when one could still save oneself by leaving one’s home. The last hour in which freedom of choice is still possible. The sound of a knocker is heard: someone knocks hastily on the door. … [22] I greatly admire in Shakespeare those brief moments when tragedy is suddenly projected onto an everyday level; when the characters, before a decisive battle, or having women a plot on which the fate of a kingdom will depend, go to supper, or to bed. … They sleep, or cannot sleep, they drink their wine, they call their servants, do all sorts of things. … Who has not been awaked in this way at four A.M. at least once in his life? … Lord Hastings was awakened at four A.M. He has been warned by his friends. But he cannot bring himself to flee. (22-23)

Where an when did Shakespeare hear the tyrant’s cruel laugh? And if he did not hear it, how did he have a presentiment of it? (25)

Only two people in this tragedy reflect on the order of the world: King Richard III, and a hired assassin. The one who is at the top of the feudal ladder, and one placed at its very bottom. Richard III has no scruples or doubts; the hired assassin experiences a moment of doubt. But they both see the Grand Mechanism equally clearly, although from opposite angles. Neither of them has any illusions: they are the only ones who can afford not to have them. They accept the world as it really is. Moreover, the king and the hired assassin represent the world’s order in its “pure form”. Shakespeare wanted to say just this. There are sudden flashes of genius in this early, youthful play. (32)

Shakespeare excels in unexpected confrontations in which—as if illumined by lightning—the entire immense landscape of history suddenly comes into view. Thus Richard III already points the way to the interpretation of Hamlet as a political drama, and, conversely, Richard, interpreted through Hamlet, becomes a philosophical drama about discrepancy between the moral order and the order of practical behaviour. (33)

Shakespeare’s … History unfolds on the stage, but is never merely enacted. It is not a background or a setting. It is itself the protagonist of tragedy. But what tragedy? (36)

There are two fundamental types of historical tragedy. The first is based on the conviction that history has a meaning, fulfills its objective tasks and leads in a definite direction. It is rational, or at least can be made intelligible. Tragedy consists here in the price of history, the price of progress that has to be paid by humanity. A precursor, one who pushes forward the relentless roller of history, but must himself be crushed by it for the very reason of his coming ahead of his time, is also tragic. This is the concept of historical tragedy proclaimed by Hegel. It was nearest to the views of the young Marx, even though he substituted the objective development of ideas. He compared history to a mole who unceasingly digs in the earth. / ‘Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the’ earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!’ / (Hamlet, I, 5) … A mole will be tragic if it happens to be buried by the earth before it emerges to the surface. (36)

There is another kind of historical tragedy, originating in the conviction that history has no meaning and stands still, or constantly repeats its cruel cycle; that it is an elemental force, like hail, storm, or hurricane, birth and death. A mole digs in the earth but will never come to its surface. New generations of moles are being born all the time, scatter the earth in all directions, but are themselves constantly buried by the earth. A mole has its dreams. For a long time it fancied itself the lord of creation, thinking that earth, sky and stars had been created for moles, that there is a mole’s God, who had made moles and promised them a mole-like immortality. But suddenly the mole has realized that it is just a mole, that the earth, sky and stars had not been created for it. A mole suffers, feels and thinks, but its sufferings, feelings and thoughts cannot alter its mole’s fate. It will go on digging in the earth, and the earth will go on burying it. It is at this point that the mole has realized that it is a tragic mole. / It seems to me that the latter concept of historical tragedy was nearer to Shakespeare… (37)

Richard III compares himself to Machiavelli and is a real Prince. He is, at any rate, a prince who has read The Prince. Politics is to him a purely practical affair, an art, with the acquisition of power as its aim. … Richard III is the mastermind of the Grand Mechanism, its will and awareness. Here for the first time Shakespeare has shown the human face of the Grand Mechanism. A terrifying face, in its ugliness and the cruel grimace of its lips. But also a fascinating face. (41)

…he will persuade the woman, whose husband, father, and father-in-law he has murdered, to enter his bedchamber of her own accord. … These are Richard’s first words in this scene. Lady Anne, like the furies in ancient tragedies, is all suffering and hate. But Lady Anne knows well what times she is living in. From the outset Shakespeare places the scene in a country of terror and awe, where all are paralysed by fear, and no one is sure of his life. Halberdiers flee before Richard, servants throw down the coffin. Nothing surprises Lady Anne any more. She has seen everything: … (42)

The world ahs been stripped of appearances, the moral order has been annihilated, now history ceases to exist. There is only a woman, a man, and a sea of spilt blood. (44)

Shakespeare…reduces the world to elemental forces of hate and lust. Lady Anne still hates Richard, but is already alone with her hate, in a world in which only lust exists. This scene should be interpreted through our own experiences. One must find in it the night of Nazi occupation, concentration camps, mass-murders. One must see in it the cruel time when all moral standards are broken, … Lady Anne does not give herself to Richard out of fear. She will follow him to reach rock-bottom. To prove to herself that all the world’s laws have ceased to exist. [44] For when all has been lost, only memory remains, but it, too must be stifled. One must kill oneself, or kill in oneself the last vestiges of shame. Lady Anne goes into Richard’s bed to be destroyed. / If history is no more than a gigantic slaughter, what does remain, except a leap into the darkness, a choice between death and pleasure? Shakespeare was great in the way he made Lady Anne take exactly this choice, the final and only choice left to her. / Richard gives her his sword. (44-45)

In Shakespeare all human values are brittle, and the world is stronger than men. The implacable steam-roller of history crushes everybody and everything. Man is determined by his situation, by the step of the grand staircase on which he happens to find himself. It is that particular step that determines his freedom of choice. (47)

Shakespeare views the implacable mechanism without medieval awe, and without the illusions of the early [47] Renaissance. The sun does not circle round the earth, there is no order of the spheres, or of nature. (47-48)

Sir John Falstaff not only personifies the Renaissance lust for life and thunderous laughter at heaven and hell, at the crown and al other laws of the realm. The fat knight possesses a plebeian wisdom and experience. He will not let history take him in. He scoffs at it. (49)

As he walks up the grand stairs, Richard [III] becomes smaller and smaller. It is as if the Grand Mechanism was absorbing him. (51)

Woszczerowicz is the first to build up Richard’s [III] part with all the means available to a comic actor. … In legal terminology an actor is the plaintiff, not the defendant. Similarly, one talks about great actors of history. They both act and play their cards. They are not ashamed of tomfoolery. They are not ashamed of anything, just as the actor is not ashamed of any part he is to play, because he only enacts it. He is above the part. (53)

Richard is not even cruel. Psychology does not apply to him. He is just history, one of its ever-repeating chapters. He has no face. / But the actor who plays Richard must have a face. Woszczerowicz’s Richard has a broad face and laughs. It is a frightening laughter. The most terrifying kind of tyrant is he who has recognized himself as a clown, and the world as a gigantic buffoonery. Of all actors in the part, Woszczerowicz has been the first thus to interpret Shakespeare. … But buffoonery is not just a set of gestures. Buffoonery is a philosophy, and the highest form of contempt: absolute contempt. (54)

Richard ceases to be a clown only in the last act. Until then he affected outbursts of rage and fury, devotion, even fear. Now he is really afraid. Until now he has been the one to choose the part and stand above the others. (54)

…we have been separated from the text not only by Hamlet’s “independent life” in our culture, but simply by the size of the play. Hamlet cannot be performed in its entirety, because the performance would last nearly six hours. One has to select, curtail and cut. One can perform only one of several Hamlets potentially existing in this arch-play. It will always be a poorer Hamlet than Shakespeare’s Hamlet is; but it may also be a Hamlet enriched by being of our time. It may, but I would rather say—it must be so. (Hamlet of the Mid-Century, 58)

An ideal Hamlet would be one most true Shakespeare and most modern at the same time. (58)

The Hamlet produced in Cracow a few weeks after the XXth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party lasted exactly three hours. It was light and clear, tense and sharp, modern and consistent, limited to one issue only. It was a political drama par excellence. … “Denmark’s a prison”, three times repeated. (59)

“Watch” and “enquire” were the words most commonly heard from the stage. In this performance everybody, without exception, was being constantly watched. Polonius, minister to the royal murderer, sends a man to France even after his own son. (60)

Everything at Elsinore has been corroded by fear: marriage, love and friendship. Shakespeare, indeed, must have experienced terrible things at the time of Essex’s plot and execution, since he came to learn so well the working of the Grand Mechanism. Let us listen to the King talking to Hamlet’s young friends:… (II,2) (60)

Politics hangs here over every feeling, and there is no getting away from it. All the characters are poisoned by it. The only subject of their conversations is politics. It is a kind of madness. / Hamlet loves Ophelia. But he knows he is being watched; moreover—he has more important matters to attend to. Love is gradually fading away. There is no room for it in this world. Hamlet’s dramatic cry: “Get thee to a nunnery!” is addressed not to Ophelia alone, but also to those who are overhearing the two lovers. It is to confirm their impression of his alleged madness. But for Hamlet and for Ophelia it means that in the world where murder holds sway, there is no room for love. (61)

To the classic question, whether Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned, the Cracow production gave the following reply: Hamlet feigns madness, he puts on, in cold blood, a mask of madness in order to perform a coup d’[e]tat; Hamlet is mad, because politics is itself madness, when it destroys all feeling and affection. (62)

I have nothing against such an interpretation. And I do not regret all the other Hamlets: the moralist, unable to draw a clear-cut line between good and evil; the intellectual, unable to find a sufficient reason for action; the philosopher, to whom the world’s existence is a matter of doubt. / I prefer the youth, deeply involved in politics, rid of illusions, sarcastic, passionate and brutal. … Action, not reflection, is his forte. He is wild and drunk with indignation. The Polish Hamlet after the XXth Party Congress. One of many. He does not yet experience deep moral doubts, but he is not a simpleton. … He loathes the world, and that is why he sacrifices Ophelia. … “To be” means for him to revenge his father and to assassinate the King; while “not to be” means—to give up the fight. (62)

But the Hamlet I saw in Cracow…deprived of the great soliloquies and of narrative quality, was marked by a violence typical of modern conflicts. (63)

Hamlet is a great scenario, in which every character has a more or less tragic and cruel part to play, and has magnificent things to say. … This scenario is independent of the characters; it has been devised earlier. It defines the situations, as well as the mutual relations of the characters; it dictates their words and gestures. But it does not say who the characters are. It is something external in relation to them. And that is why the scenario of Hamlet can be played by different sorts of characters. … Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia also have to play parts imposed on them, parts against which they revolt. They are actors in a drama they do not always wholly understand, in which they have become involved. The scenario dictates actions of the dramatis personae, but does not dictate motives underlying the actions, i.e. the psychology. (64)

Bertold Brecht wrote in his Little Organum for the Theatre: … ‘It is a time of war. Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, had, in a victorious war of plunder, killed the king of Norway. While the latter’s son, Fortinbras, is preparing himself for a new war, the king of Denmark is also killed, by his brother. The brothers of the dead kings, having become kings themselves, conclude peace with each other. Norwegian troops, on their way to a war of plunder against Poland, have been permitted to cross Danish territory. Just at this time, the war-like father’s ghost asks young Hamlet to revenge the crime committed on himself. After some hesitation as to whether he should add one bloody deed to another, Hamlet—willing even to go into exile—meets at the sea shore young Fortinbras and his troops on their way to Poland. Following his example he turns back, and, in a scene of barbaric slaughter, kills his uncle, his mother, and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. Thus we observe how, in these circumstances, the young man, already somewhat stout, badly misuses his new knowledge acquired at Wittenberg university. This knowledge gets in the way when it comes to resolving conflicts of the feudal world. His reason is impractical when faced with irrational reality.’ … Hamlet’s personal drama, or Ophelia’s misfortunes were made insignificant by the events of history. Brecht was sensitive to the politics in Hamlet. (66)

Let us have a look at the scenario in order to find out what parts it contains, knowing that they will be played by modern characters. Hamlet, envisaged as a scenario, is the story of three young boys and one girl. The boys are of the same age. They are called Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras. The girl is younger, and her name is Ophelia. They are all involved in a bloody political and family drama. … Hamlet is a drama of imposed situations, and here lies the key to modern interpretations of the play. / The King, the Queen, Polonius, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern have been clearly defined by their situations. …character and situation are closely connected. Claudius does not play the part of a murderer and a king. He is the murderer and the King. (67)

It is with Montaigne’s book in his hand that he chases the medieval ghost on the terraces of Elsinore castle. The ghost has hardly disappeared when Hamlet writes on the book’s margin that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. Shakespeare has thrust the most attentive of Montaigne’s readers back into the feudal world. (68)

Every Hamlet has a book in his hand. What book does the modern Hamlet read? Hamlet in the Cracow production of late autumn, 1956, read only newspapers. (68)

[Ophelia] …she, too, knows that life is a hopeless business form the start. So she does not want to play her gave with life at too high a stake. It is the events that compel her to overplay. Her boyfriend has been involved in high politics. She has slept with him. But she is a daughter of a minister of the crown; an obedient daughter. … An ordinary girl, who loved her boy, has been given by the scenario of history a tragic part. (70)

In all modern analyses of Hamlet (H. Granville-Barker, F. Fergusson, J. Paris) the character of Fortinbras has been brought to the foreground. … In predominantly historical interpretations Hamlet is a drama of power and heredity. In the first instance, Fortinbras is one of Hamlet’s “doubles”, “alter egos”, “mediums”. In the other he is the heir to the throne of Denmark; the man who has broken the chain of crime and revenge, who has restored [71] order to the Danish kingdom. This order may be understood as restoration of moral law, or as neue Ordnung in Europa. The ending of the tragedy has been interpreted in both ways. For if one wishes to place Hamlet’s moral conflicts in an historical context, no matter whether Renaissance or modern, one cannot ignore the part played by Fortinbras. / The difficulty is that in the text of the play Fortinbras is only broadly sketched. On the stage he appears only twice: … (71-72)

Who is this young Norwegian prince? We do not know. Shakespeare does not tell us. what does he represent? Blind fate, absurdity of the word, or victory of justice? Shakespearean scholars have made a case for all these interpretations in turn. The producer has to decide. Shakespeare has only told us his name. But the name is significant: Fortinbras—forte braccio. Fortinbras, the man of the strong arm. A young and strong fellow. He comes and says: “Take away these corpses. Hamlet was a good boy, but he is dead. Now I shall be your king. I have just remembered that I happen to have certain rights to this crown.” Then he smiles and is very pleased with himself. (72)

The plot of Macbeth does not differ from those of the Histories. But plot summaries are deceptive. Unlike Shakespeare’s historical plays, Macbeth does not show history as the Grand Mechanism. It shows it as a night-[85]mare. Mechanism and nightmare are different metaphors to depict the same struggle for power and the crown. But the differing metaphors reflect a difference of approach, and, even more than that, different philosophies. History, shown as a mechanism, fascinates by its very terror and inevitability. Whereas nightmare paralyses and terrifies. In Macbeth history, as well as crime, is shown through personal experience. It is a matter of decision, choice and compulsion. Crime is committed on personal responsibility and has to be executed with one’s own hands. Macbeth murders Duncan himself. / History in Macbeth is confused the way nightmares are; (Macbeth or Death-Infected, 85-86)

Richard’s cruelties mean death sentences. Most of them are executed off stage. In Macbeth, death, crime, murder are concrete. So is history in this play; it is concrete, palpable, physical and suffocating; it means the death-rattle, raising of the sword, thrust of the dagger. Macbeth has been called a tragedy of ambition, and a tragedy of terror. This is not true. There is only one theme in Macbeth: murder. History has been reduced to its simplest form, to one image and one division: those who kill and those who are killed. / Ambition means in this play the intention and planning of murder. Terror means the memory of murders that have been committed and fear of new crimes that are inevitable. (87)

In Macbeth, however, this murder-cycle does not possess the logic of a [87] mechanism, but suggests rather a frighteningly growing nightmare. … Most scenes take place at night; at all hours of the night, in fact: … It is a night from which sleep has been banished. In no other Shakespearean tragedy is there so much talk about sleep. Macbeth has murdered sleep, and cannot sleep any more. In all Scotland no one can sleep. There is no sleep, only nightmares. (87-88)

There is no tragedy without awareness. Richard III is aware of the Grand Mechanism. Macbeth is aware of the nightmare. (90)

Macbeth has killed the king, because he could not accept a [92] Macbeth who would be afraid to kill a king. But Macbeth who has killed cannot accept the Macbeth who has killed. (92-93)

From the first scenes onwards Macbeth defines himself by negation. … after every act of choice he finds himself more terrifying, and more of a stranger. … The formulas by which Macbeth tries to define himself are amazingly similar to the language of the exist-[93]tentailists. (93-94)

Banquo’s ghost is visible to Macbeth alone. … Macbeth has dreamed of a final murder to end all murders. Now he knows: there is no such murder. … Macbeth, the multiple murderer, steeped in blood, could not accept the world in which murder existed. In this, perhaps, consists the gloomy greatness of this character and the true tragedy of Macbeth’s history. (95)

Cawdor’s death, which opens the play, is necessary. It will be compared to Macbeth’s death. There is something Senecan and stoic about Cawdor’s cold indifference to death. Faced with utter defeat Cawdor saves what can still be saved: a noble attitude and dignity. For Macbeth attitudes are of no importance; he does not believe in human dignity any more. Macbeth has reached the limits of human experience. All he has left is contempt. The very concept of man has crumbled to pieces, and there is nothing left. The end of Macbeth, like the end of Troilus and Cressida, or King Lear, produces no catharsis. Suicide is either a protest, or an admission of guilt. Macbeth does not feel guilty, and there is nothing for him to protest about. All he can do before he dies is to drag with him into nothingness as many living beings as possible. This is the last consequence of the world’s absurdity. Macbeth is still unable to blow the world up. But he can go on murdering till the end. (97)

Says Iago: The world consists of villains and fools; of those who devour and those who are devoured. People are like animals; they copulate and eat each other. The weak do not deserve pity, they are just as abominable, only more stupid than the strong. The world is vile. / Says Othello: The world is beautiful and people are noble. Love and loyalty exist in it. / If we strip Othello of romantic varnish, of everything that is opera and melodrama, the tragedy of jealousy and tragedy of betrayed confidence become a dispute between Othello and Iago: the dispute of the nature of the world. Is this world good or bad? (The Two Paradoxes of Othello, 109)

Richard’s defeat confirms the working of the Grand Mechanism; just as Iago’s failure does. The world is vile. He was right. And the very fact that he was right proved his undoing. (110)

In the last scene Iago is silent. Why should he talk? Everything has become clear. The world has fallen; but for Othello; nor for him. (110)

Caroline spurgeon in her catalogue of Shakespearean images compared the bestiaries of Othello and King Lear. In both tragedies animals appear in the semantic sphere of suffering and cruelty; (113)

The animal symbolism of Othello serves to degrade the human world. Man is an animal. But what sort of animal? … A bloodthirsty and cowardly, deceitful, and cruel animal. Man, considered an animal, inevitably rouses revulsion. (114)

The image of flies will return in King Lear, in a sentence that contains one of man’s ultimate experiences: / ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. / They kill us for their sport. / (Lear, IV, 1) / To whom can a fly appeal? What can justify the suf-[114]fering of a fly? Does a fly deserve pity? Can a fly ask men for compassion? Can men ask the gods for compassion? (114-115)

Othello talks the language of the mad Lear. All kinds of rhetoric have been smashed to pieces. And so have people. Othello, like King Lear, like Macbeth in his last scene, has found himself in the area of the absurd. (116)

Desdemona is two to four years older than Juliet; she could be Ophelia’s age. But she is much more of a woman than either of them. Heine was right. Desdemona is obedient and stubborn at the same time. She is obedient to the point where passion begins. Of all Shakespeare’s female characters she is the most sensuous. More silent than Juliet or Ophelia, she seems absorbed in herself, and wakes only to the night. / ‘…Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction.’ / (IV, 1) / She does not even know that she disturbs and—promises by her very presence. Othello will only later learn about it, but Iago knows this from the outset. Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her. Not in actua but in potentia. Otherwise the drama could not work, because Othello would be ridiculous. Othello must not be ridiculous. Desdemona is sexually obsessed with Othello, but all men—Iago, Cassio, Roderigo—are obsessed with Desdemona. They in her erotic climate. (118)

Othello behaves as if he found a different Desdemona from the one he expected. As Iago says, “She that, so young, could give out such a seeming…” (III, 3). It is as if the outburst of sensuality in a girl who not long ago listened to his tales wither eyes lowered, amazed and horrified Othello. (119)

The more violently Desdeoma becomes engrossed by love, the more of a slut she seems to Othello; a past, present, or future slut. The more she desires, the better she loves, the more readily Othello believes that she can, or had, betrayed him. / Iago sets all the world’s evil in motion and falls victim to it in her the end. Desdemona is the victim of her own passion. Her love testifies against her, not for her. (119)

Nature is depraved and cannot be trusted. Eros is nature and cannot be trusted either. There is no appeal to nature, or her laws. Nature is evil, not only to Othello, but also to Shakespeare. [121] It is just as insane and cruel as history. (121-122)

All the landscapes of Othello, the gestures, the rhetoric—the last also in its gradual destruction—belong to the [122] poetics of the Baroque. I visualize Othello, Desdemona, and Iago in black and gold, dipped in Rembrandtian darkness. Light falls on their faces. The first crowd scene, when Brabantio with his retinue sets out in search of Othello, always reminds me of the Night-watch. / ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. / (I, 2) / Othello is a tragedy of gestures. This, too, is part of Baroque. (122-123)

Othello does not have to kill Desdemona. The play would be more cruel, if, in that final and decisive moment, he just left her. Cressida does not die after her act of betrayal, nor does Troilus kill himself. Their play ends in a mocking tone. / Othello kills Desdemona in order to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her; so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium. Othello does not mumble any more. He desperately wants to save the meaning of life, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world. (123)

Iago keeps silent. Probably even on the rack he will not utter a word. He has won all the arguments; but only the intellectual ones. In all great Shakespearean dramas, from Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida onwards, the moral order and the intellectual order are in conflict with [124] one another. They will remain so up to The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The world is as Iago sees it. But Iago is a villain. Like our world, Shakespeare’s world did not regain its balance after the earthquake. Like our world, it remained incoherent. In Shakespeare’s Othello everybody loses in the end. (124-125)

King Lear was also in keeping with the romantic style of acting, since it offered scope for the sweeping gestures, terrifying scenes, and violent soliloquies, loudly delivered, so popular with Kean and his school. The actor’s task was to demonstrate the blackest depths of the human soul. … Then came the turn of historical, antiquarian and realistic Shakespeare. [128] … attempts were made to set King Lear also in a definite historical period. … Shakespeare was indeed out of place: he was untheatrical. / The turn of the century brought a revolution in Shakespearean studies. For the first time… A generation of scholars was busy patiently recreating the Elizabethan stage, style of acting and theatrical traditions. Granville-Barker in his famous Prefaces to Shakespeare showed, or at least tried to show, how Lear must have been played at the Globe. … From now on the storm was to rage in Lear’s and Gloucester’s breast rather than on the stage. The trouble was, however, that the demented old man, tearing his long white beard, suddenly became ridiculous. He should have been tragic, but he no longer was. (128-129)

The exposition of King Lear seems preposterous if one is to look for psychological verisimilitude in it. [129] … He does not see or understand anything: Reagan’s and Goneril’s hypocrisy is all too evident. Regarded as a person, a character, Lear is ridiculous, naïve and stupid. When he goes mad, he can arouse only compassion, never pity and terror. (129-130)

When realistically treated, Lear and Gloucester were too ridiculous to appear tragic heroes. If the exposition was treated as a fairy tale or legend, the cruelty of Shakespeare’s world, too, became unreal. Yet the cruelty of Lear was to the Elizabethans a contemporary reality, and has remained real since. But it is a philosophical cruelty. Neither the romantic, nor the naturalistic theatre was able to show that sort of cruelty; only the new theatre can. In this new theatre there are no characters, and the tragic element has been superseded by grotesque. Grotesque is more cruel than tragedy. (130)

But it is odd how often the word “Shakespearean” is uttered when one speaks about Brecht, D[u]rrenmatt, or Beckett. These three names stand, of course, for three different kinds of theatrical vision, and the word “Shakespearean” means something different in relation to each of them. It may be invoked to compare with D[u]rrenmatt’s full-bloodedness, sharpness, lack of cohesion, and stylistic confusion; with Brecht’s epic quality; or with Beckett’s new Theatrum mundi. (131)

In a tragic and grotesque world, situations are imposed, compulsory and inescapable. Freedom of choice and decision are part of this compulsory situation, in which both the tragic hero and the grotesque actor must always lost their struggle against the absolute. The downfall of the tragic hero is a confirmation and recognitions of the absolute; whereas the downfall of the grotesque actor means mockery of the absolute and its desecration. (132)

In the world of the grotesque, downfall cannot be justified by, or blamed on, the absolute. The absolute it not endowed with any ultimate reasons; it is stronger, and that is all. The absolute is absurd. (133)

…a classic situation of tragedy is the necessity of making a choice between opposing values. Antigone is making a choice between opposing values. Antigone is doomed to choose between human and divine order; between Creon’s demands, and those of the absolute. The tragedy lies in the very principle of choice by which one of the values must be annihilated. The cruelty of the absolute lies in demanding such a choice and in imposing a situation which excludes the possibility of a compromise, and where one of the alternatives is death. The absolute is greedy and demands everything; the hero’s death is its confirmation. / The tragic situation becomes grotesque when both alternatives of the choice imposed are absurd, irrelevant or compromising. The hero has to play, even if there is no game. Every move is bad, but he cannot throw down his cards. To throw down the cards would also be a bad move. (135)

The game is just, i.e. at the outset both partners must have the same chances of losing or winning, and both must play according to the same rules. In its game with Oedipus fate does not invoke the help of the gods, does not change the laws of nature. Fate wins its game without recourse to miracles. … A man must play chess with an electronic computed, cannot leave or break the game, and has to lose the game. His defeat is just, because it is effected according to the rules [136] of the game; he loses because he has made a mistake. But he could not have won.

A man losing the chess game with an electronic computer, whom he himself had fed with combinatorial analysis and rules, whom he himself has “taught” to play, is not a tragic hero any more. If he plays that chess game from the moment he was born until he dies, and if he has to lose, he will at most be the hero of a tragic-grotesque. All that is left of tragedy, is the concept of “unmerited guilt”, the inevitable defeat, and unavoidable mistake. But the absolute has ceased to exist. It has been replaced by the absurdity of the human situation. (137)

The comparison between fate’s game with Oedipus, and a game of chess with an electronic computer, is not precise enough. … There is a machine for a game similar to tossing coins… I put a coin on the table the way I like… [137] …After a time the machine begins to win by giving the right answers more and more often. It has memorized and learned my system; it has deciphered me as it were. It foresees that after three “heads” I will put two “tails”. I change the system, and play using a different method. The blind machine learns this one too, and begins to win again. I am endowed with free will and have the freedom of choice. … There is a move by which I do not lose. I do not put the coin on the table, I do not choose. I simply toss it. … The possibility of win and loss, of “heads” or “tales” is the same. … The machine wanted me to treat it seriously, to play rationally with it, using a system, a method. But I not want to. It is I who have now seen through the machine’s method. / The machine stands for fate, which acts on the principle of the law of averages. In order to have even chances with fate I must become fate myself; I must chance my luck; act with a fifty-fifty chance. A man who, when playing with the machine, gives up his free will and freedom of choice, … That kind of man most certainly is not a tragic hero. He has adopted a clownish attitude to fate. (137-138)

For Hegel the tragic heroes of history were those who came too late. Their reasons were noble but one-sided. They had been correct in the previous era, in the preceding act. If they continue to insist on them, they must be crushed by history. [139] … Those who came too early, striving in vain to speed up the course of history, are also history’s tragic heroes. (139-140)

The grotesque mocks the historical absolute, as it has mocked the absolute of gods, nature and destiny. It does so by means of the so-called “barrel of laughs”, a popular feature of any fun-fair: a score or more of people try to keep their balance while the upturned barrel revolves round its axis. One can only keep one’s balance by moving on the bottom of the barrel in the opposite direction to, and with the same speed as, its movement. … The barrel is put in motion by a motor, which is transcendental in relation to it. However, one may easily imagine a barrel that is set in motion by the people inside it: … Its movements would, of course, be variable: sometimes it would revolved in one direction, sometimes in the other. [140] But neither those who fall because they move too fast, nor those who fall because they move too slow, are tragic heroes. They are just grotesque. (140-141)

When established values have been overthrown, and there is no appeal, to God, Nature, or History, from the tortures inflicted by the cruel world, the clown becomes the central figure in the theatre. (141)

The non-existent cliff is not meant just to deceive the blind man. For a short while we, too, believed in this landscape and in the mime. The meaning of this parable is not easy to define. But one thing is clear: this type of parable is not to be thought outside the theatre, or rather outside a certain kind of theatre. (145)

…the Shakespearean preci-[145]pice at Dover exists and does not exist. It is the abyss, waiting all the time. The abyss, into which one can jump, is everywhere. (145-146)

In the naturalistic theatre one can perform a murder scene, or a scene of terror. The shot may be fired from a revolver or a toy pistol. Bu tin the mime there is no difference between a revolver and a toy pistol: in fact neither exists. Like death, the shot is only a performance, a parable, a symbol. (146)

In medieval mystery plays also the stage was empty, but in the background there were four mansions, four gates representing Earth, Purgatory, Heaven and Hell. In King Lear the stage is empty throughout: there is nothing, except the cruel earth, where man goes on his journey from [146] the cradle to the grave. The theme of King Lear is an enquiry into the meaning of this journey, into the existence or non-existence of Heaven and Hell. (146-147)

In Shakespeare’s play there is neither Christian Heaven, nor the heaven predicted and believed by humanists. King Lear makes a tragic mockery of all eschatologies: of the heaven promised on earth, and the Heaven promised after death; … (147)

The blind Gloucester falls over on the empty stage. His suicidal leap is tragic. Gloucester has reached the depths of human misery; so has Edgar, who pretends to be mad Tom in order to save his father. … The blind Gloucester who has climbed a non-existent height and fallen over on flat boards, is a clown. A philosophical buffoonery of the sort found in modern theatre has been performed. (148)

In Shakespeare clown often ape the gestures of kings and heroes, but only in King Lear are great tragic scenes shown through clowning. / It is not only the suicide mime that is grotesque. The accompanying dialogue is also cruel and mocking. The blind Gloucester kneels and prays: … Gloucester’s suicide has meaning only if the gods exist. It is a protest against undeserved suffering and the world’s injustice. This protest is made in a definite direction. It takes this suicide into consideration. It will count in the final reckoning between gods and man. Its sole value lies in its reference to the absolute. (149)

(Waiting for Godot, II) / Gloucester did fall, and he got up again. He made his suicidal attempt, but he failed to shake the world. Nothing has changed. (151)

The theme of King Lear is the decay and fall of the world. … It also ends like the Histories, with the proclamation of a new king. … But unlike the Histories and Tragedies, in King Lear the world is not healed again. In King Lear there is no young and resolute Fortinbras to ascend the throne of Denmark; no cool-headed Octavius to become Augustus Caesar; no noble Malcolm to “give to our tables meat, sleep to our nights.” (152)

Of the twelve major characters half are just and good, the other half, unjust and bad. … But this is a morality play in which every one will be destroyed: … The decay and fall of the [152] world will be shown on two levels, on two different kinds of stage, as it were. One of these may be called Macbeth’s stage, the other, Job’s stage. (152-153)

Macbeth’s stage is the scene of crime. … There are only huge Renaissance monsters, devouring one another like beasts of prey. Everything has been condensed, drawn in broad outlines, characters are hardly marked. The history of the world can do without psychology and without rhetoric. It is just action. These violent sequences are merely an illustration and an example, and perform the function of a black, realistic counterpart to “Job’s stage”. / For it is Job’s stage that constitutes the main scene. On it the ironic, clownish morality play on human fate will be performed. But before that happens, all the characters must be uprooted from their social positions and pulled down, to final degradation. [153] … ‘Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped. / And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall return thither. / (Book of Job, I, 20-21) [154] … For a man to become naked, or rather to become nothing but man, it is not enough to deprive him of his name, social position and character. One must also main and massacre him both morally and physically. … For it is the new Renaissance Job who is to judge the events on “Macbeth’stage”. (153-155)

A nobody, who suffers, tries to give his suffering a meaning or nobility, who revolts or accepts his suffering, and who must die. (155)

The Biblical Job, too, is the ruin of a man. But this ruin constantly talks to God. He curses, imprecates, blasphemes. Ultimately he admits that God is right. He has justified his sufferings and ennobled them. He included them in the metaphysical and absolute order. The Book of Job is a theatre of the priests. … At first gods have Greek names. Then they are only gods, great and terrifying judges high above, who are supposed to intervene sooner or later. But the gods do not intervene. They are silent. Gradually the tone becomes more and more ironical. The ruin of man invoking God is ever more ridiculous. The action becomes more and more cruel, but at the same time assumes a more and more clownish character: [158] … Defeat, suffering, cruelty have a meaning even when gods are cruel. Even then. It is the last theological chance to justify suffering. … But as long as gods exist, all can yet be saved: (158-159)

…the discrepancy between profession and philosophy. The profession of a jester, like that of an intellectual, consists in providing entertainment. His philosophy demands of him that he tell the truth and abolish myths. (163)

Social pressures want to limit the Clown to his part of a clown, to pin the label “clown” on him. But he does not accept this part. On the contrary: he constantly pins that label on others: … [yet, to express himself] the clown has to make fools of others; otherwise he would not be a clown. (164)

For buffoonery is not only a philosophy, it is also a kind of theatre. To us it is the most contemporary aspect of King Lear. Only it has to be seen and interpreted properly. For this reason one must reject all the romantic and naturalistic…opera and melodrama about the old man who, driven out by his daughters, wanders about bareheaded in a storm and goes mad as a result of his misfortunes. … Madness in King Lear is a philosophy, a conscious crossing over to the position of the fool. (165)

In historical dramas royal majesty is deprived of its sacred character by the stab of the dagger, or by the brutal tearing off of the crown from a living king’s head. In King Lear it is the Fool who deprives majesty of its sacredness. (166)

Only the Fool stands outside “Macbeth’s stage”, just as he has stood outside “Job’s stage”. He is looking from the outside and does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. (166)

Hamlet escaped into madness not only to confuse informers and deceive Claudius. Madness to him was also a philosophy, a criticism of pure reason, a great, ironic clearing of accounts with the world, which has left its orbit. The Fool adopts the language Hamlet used in the scenes in which he feigned madness. There is nothing left in it now of Greek and Roman rhetoric, so popular in the Renaissance; nothing left of the cold and noble Senecan indifference to the inevitable destiny. Lear, Gloucester, Kent, Albany, even Edmund still use rhetoric. The Fool’s language is different. It abounds in Biblical travesties and inverted medieval parables. One can find in it splendid baroque surrealist expressions, sudden leaps of imagination, condensations and epitomes, brutal vulgar and scatological comparisons. His rhymes are like limericks. The Fool uses dialectics, paradox and the absurd kind of humour. His language is that of our modern grotesque. [167] The same grotesque that exposes the absurdity of apparent reality and of the absolute be means of a great and universal reductio ad absurdum. / Lear: O me, my heart, my rising heart! But down! / Fool: Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put’ em i’ th’ paste alive. She knapp’d ’em o’ th coxcombs with a stick and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’ ’Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay. (II, 4). (167-168)

The Fool…disappears by the end of Act III. …A clown is not needed any more. King Lear has gone through the school of clown’s philosophy. When he meets Gloucester for the last time, he will speak the Fool’s language and look at “Macbeth’s stage” the way the Fool’s language and look at “Macbeth’s stage” the way the Fool has looked at it: “They told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie—I am not ague-proof.” (IV, 6) (168)

Cleopatra is twenty-nine years old at the opening of the tragedy and thirty-nine years old at its close. Antony is forty-three in the first scene and fifty-three in his last scene. … Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of first love. For these young lovers, in their abandon, the world does not exist. That is, perhaps, why they choose death so easily. Antony and Cleopatra is the story of love as experienced by mature adults. Even their embrace is bitter: they know it is a challenge and that they will have to pay for it. (Let Rome in Tiber Melt, 175)

In Coriolanus there is no enchanting poetry, no music of the spheres; there are no great lovers, or superb clowns; no raging elements, or monsters conceived in imagination but more real than actual experience itself. There is only an historical chronicle, dry as a bone, though violently dramatized. There is also a monumentalized hero, who can rouse all sorts of emotions, but never sympathy. (Coriolanus or Shakespearean Contradictions, 180)

But the austerity of dramatic matter does not sufficiently explain the dislike almost universally felt…[180] …resulted from the ambiguity of Coriolanus—political, moral, and, in the last resort, philosophical. It was the sort of ambiguity difficult to swallow. (180-181)

Coriolanus could not please either classicists or romanticists. To the former it seemed incoherent, vulgar and brutal; to the latter it was too bitter, flat and dry. (181)

…the play has two protagonists: polis, is a city state, and the hero both “high in the city” and “stateless.” The hero breaks law, the city is threatened with destruction. The hero must choose between his life and the city. He chooses death. The city has been saved… (181)

Fate is represented here by class struggle. Rome is a city state. But it is a Rome of plebeians and patricians. (182)

Wars have made the patricians rich. They have gained land and slaves. But they cannot carry on war without the plebeians. Plebeians have gained the right to elect their tribunes and to participate in government. (182)

The patricians nominate Coriolanus for the office of Consul. The nomination has to be approved by the people. Coriolanus is an aristocrat, hates the people and is hated by them. There is famine in Rome. Coriolanus objects to the distribution of grain, unless the plebeians renounce their right to elect tribunes. The angry people refuse to approve Coriolanus’s appointment to the consulate. The tribunes accuse him of plotting against the republic. Coriolanus has to stand trial. The people force the patricians to banish Coriolanus from Rome forever. Coriolanus now dreams of revenge. (183)

This is the first chapter of the Roman legend of Coriolanus. There is a republican moral in it. A leader who despises the people betrays the country and goes over to the enemy. An ambitious general aiming at dictatorial power is extremely dangerous for the republic. The people have been right to exile Coriolanus. But now the second chapter begins. Coriolanus, at the head of the Volscian army, approaches the gates of Rome. The city has no military leader, is defenceless and doomed to destruction. Plebeians and patricians accuse each other of having driven out Coriolanus. They try to appease him, beg for mercy. All in vain. The Romans then send Coriolanus’s wife and mother as envoys. (183)

…the author of Lives does not seem to be at all aware of the fact that Coriolanus’s history contains two morals, contradictory to each other. The moral drawn from the second chapter is very bitter, indeed. The city that exiles its leader becomes defenceless. … Among this multi-headed and nameless crowd, only Coriolanus was a great man. The country showed itself ungrateful to him. … The great ones fall, the little ones remain. (184)

Plutarch did not see either the tragedy of Coriolanus, or the tragedy inherent in history. … The moral drawn from Coriolanus’s biography, as narrated by him, was psychological… ‘insolent and stern manner he had, which because it was too lordly, was disliked. And to say truly, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth unto men, is this: that it teacheth men that be rude…to be civil and courteous,… (184)

…Shakespeare shows feudal history…being performed on the apex of social hierarchy. It is personal, uses names, though the names are few. Only occasionally frightened townsmen appear. … Feudal history could easily find its model and reflection in the story of Roman emperors. [185] … But the history that makes Coriolanus is not royal history any more. It is the history of a city divided into plebeians and patricians. It is the history of class struggle. History in the royal chronicles, and in Macbeth, was a Grand Mechanism, which has something demonic in it. History in Coriolanus has ceased to be demonic. It is only ironic and tragic. This is another reason why Coriolanus is a modern play. (185-186)

Agrippa speaks in verse; the plebeians in prose. (188)

Agrippa is the ideologue of the patricians, in the sense in which Marx contemptuously used the word “ideologue”. Agrippa is a tactician and philosopher of opportunism. Marcius is not an ideologist and rejects all tactics. Marcius accepts the class distinction that is superficially in accord with the plebeian view: the antagonistic, … (189)

In Plutarch, Marcius also hates the people, mainly because he is consumed by pride, a recluse, who does not know how to deal with men. Plutarch really feels himself in sympathy with Agrippa’s practical reasoning. Shakespeare mocks Agrippa, at best giving him a part similar to that played in Hamlet by Polonius. … Coriolanus, as Shakespeare sees him, is proud and uncontrollable, too. But his actions do not result (or at any rate now wholly) from flaws in his character, or from “lack of learning”, as Plutarch would have it. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus cannot be defined, or contained in psychological terms. Nor is it a tragedy or a great personality in conflict with the masses, as most commentators maintain. There are no masses in Coriolanus. There are just the patricians and the plebeians. (190)

…deeper causes of Brecht’s enthusiasm for Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a far more emphatic, direct and modern model of the theatre Brecht called epic, than Shakespeare’s Histories. Mother Courage feeds on war, unaware to the end that it is the war that feeds on her and will take from her everything she has got. Mother Courage is like those soldiers wresting from each other’s hands a leaden cup, mistaking it for silver. In his last period Brecht often called his epic theatre “dialectic”. He looked to Shakespeare for its model. (193)

Marcius is clearly and consciously made by Shakespeare to appear heroic. He has Achilles’s strength, and a voice more powerful than any man’s. The Volscian general calls him Hector among bragging Romans. Even the style, the similes used to describe Marcius’s warlike deeds, are Homeric. (194)

Marcius is brave. [194] … Marcius is selfless. He refuses to accept the tenth part of the booty he is entitled to, and demands that it should be equally distributed among everybody. He does not want to talk about his heroic deeds and does not want others to talk about them. / The war confirms the class hierarchy which Marcius already perceived in peace time. Patricians and plebeians behave differently in war. Compared to Marcius how miserable must seem the plebeians, who tremble before the battle, and when the victory is won, snatch from one another cups, spoons and soiled rags. (194-195)

In the captured town Titus Larcius has assumed military power: ‘Condemning some to death, and some to exile; / Ransoming him or pitying, threat’ning th’other; / Holding Corioles in the name of Rome / Even like a fawning greyhound in the leash, / To let him slip at will./ (I, 6) [195] … this scene … question the whole system of values defended by Marcius. It represents Brechtian “objective dialectic”. It refers to the audience’s judgment. Shakespeare’s sense of dramatic irony shows itself in the fact that these words are spoken by Marcius himself. (195-196)

Coriolanus contains another amazing speech by Marcius. He returns in triumph to Rome, is welcomed by his mother and wife. The wife does not speak one word; she just weeps. Says Coriolanus: / ‘…Ah, my dear, / Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear / And mothers that lack sons.’ / (II, 1) / These words hardly agree with Coriolanus’s character. They are too soft, too sensitive. They sound a jarring note at this joyous moment. They perform the function of songs in Brecht’s dramatic pieces. Again, they suddenly objectivize, recalling those who have been defeated. The other mirror is not really needed any more. But Shakespeare never renounces anything. He will show the other reflection: war in the eyes of a defeated general. / Aufidius: The town is ta’en! / First Soldier: ‘Twill be deliver’d back on good condition. / Aufidius: Condition? / I would I were a Roman; for I cannot, / Being a Volsce, be that I am. Condition? / What good condition can a treaty find / I’th’part that is at mercy? / (I, 10) (196)

Coriolanus’s mother the wife sit on low stools, sew, embroider and wait for news of the war. These low stools on which women used to chatter in the evening can be seen in Stratford even now. In Shakespeare’s Rome there is the Forum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, there are consul, tribunes, lictors, senate; all names are taken from Plutarch. Anachronisms—which already Ben Jonson used to note with satisfaction—are few in Coriolanus. (197)

He did not find scenes from everyday life in Plutarch, but took them from his own experience in London and Stratford. He made them contemporary. He deliberately mixed high and low style. [197] … Virgilia does not want to leave the house until her husband returns from the war. She weaves on a loom. Mistress Valeria cracks a joke: “You would be another Penelope. Yet, they say, all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithica full of moths.” (I, 3) As in Troilus and Cressida, the Greek myth has been ironically treated, shown in its everyday aspect. The jokes might almost be taken from La belle Hel[e]ne. No heroics here, no pathetic expectation of a brave general’s return. In this idyllic and ordinary atmosphere of a fine Stratford evening, Volumnia is suddenly and unexpectedly styled a Roman mother, or rather, a Spartan mother. She has an only son, but she would rather see him dead than prove a coward. (197-198)

“’Tis a noble child.” Shakespeare’s irony limits itself to just these words. There is no such scene in Plutarch. Shakespeare has given the Spartan mother a grandson who squashes a “gilded butterfly” just to amuse himself. This is all. In Titus Andronicus—regarded as Shakespeare’s most cruel play—young Marcus kills a fly on a plate. Titus, who in the last scene will treat queen Tamora to a pie baked of her own sons’ hearts, cannot look at an innocent fly death: … King Lear invoked gods to alleviate the world’s cruelty. The gods were silent. They turned out to be just as cruel as nature and history. In Coriolanus… Cruelty is part of the leader’s schooling. (199)

Coriolanus has returned. The patricians want to make him consul. All he must do, according to law and custom, is to appear at the Forum, expose his scars and ask the citizens for approval. Coriolanus refuses. … Eagles do not lower themselves to the level of rats and crows. Coriolanus wants the world to recognize his greatness. But the world is divided into plebeians and patricians. Corioloanus’s hierarchy of nature does not agree with the real world. Rats have no wish to consider themselves worse than eagles. / The Spartan mother demands that her son humble himself and go to the Forum to ask for votes. A stratagem is not inconsistent with honour; it is not shameful to use it [199] in war. The war is not yet over. The enemy is within the city walls. The plebs are the enemy: (199-200)

To Shakespeare the people are only an object of history, not its actors. They can evoke disgust, pity, or terror; but they are powerless, they are the sport of those who hold power in their hands. But the people in Plutarch have their tribunes. Who are these tribunes? Two London magistrates, elected by artisans, appear at the Forum: … It is these two indolent half-wits, proud, violent and petulant, who represent the people in Coriolanus. (202)

In battle scene soldiers rush across the stage,… Shakespeare appreciates the value of spectacle, but for him spectacle is never an end in itself. He condemns war by showing up the feudal butchery. … two tribunes … are not ridiculous any more. … Shakespeare was the first to throw the Roman toga of defenders of liberty and republic over the shoulders of two stinking [203] and noisy London artisans. (203-204)

The people in Coriolanus are stupid and ignorant; they stink and collect stinking rags in battlefields. The tribunes are little, deformed and deceitful. Coriolanus is brave, great and noble. But the people are Rome, and Coriolanus is a traitor to his country. (205)

It is only now that the second, forceful, part of the drama opens. The plebeians have exiled Coriolanus from Rome. The cowardly patricians have deserted him. Rome has not appreciated his bravery and nobility. Rome has proved itself base. (206)

In the first three acts of Coriolanus a bare drama of class attitudes has been played out. … Coriolanus could be nameless, just as the First, Second, and Third… [206] It is only from the moment of Coriolanus’s treason that the world ceases to be clear-cut and arranged according to one principle. … The world’s contradictions become the next theme of the tragedy. … Even the style has been changed: it is grotesque, pathetic and ironical in turn. Coriolanus mocks himself and the world, … (206-207)

History has proved stronger than Coriolanus; it has caught him and driven him into a blind alley; has made a double traitor of him. History has made fun of Coriolanus, but has not succeeded in breaking him. In Acts IV and V Coriolanus outgrows both Romans and Volscians, plebeians and patricians. In his defeat there is victory; at least victory in the sense that Conrad’s heroes experienced it. (208)

Coriolanus despises the world because the world is mean. He wants to destroy the world, including Rome, because the world and Rome do not deserve to exist: (208)

His defeat originated the moment he agreed, in spite of himself, to go to the Forum, show his scars and ask for votes. This was demanded of him not only by his mother, by Menenius Agrippa and the patricians, but also by the people and their tribunes. Shakespeare’s dramatic [208] irony shows itself in the fact that both parties—even though in conflict and hating each other—demanded from Coriolanus a gesture of compromise. In the sudden reversal of values, brought about in the ending of the tragedy, Coriolanus is the only one who rejects compromise and gestures, or at least tries to reject them: / ‘Like a dull actor now, / I have forgot my part… (V, 3) (208-209)

Coriolanus has realized that he has been cheated in the distribution of parts. He wanted to play the role of an avenging deity, while in the scenario of history it was only [209] the role of a traitor. All that is left him is self-destruction. He will spare Rome to confirm his own nobility, to get out of the part imposed on him. But in saving Rome he has to commit another treason. … Coriolanus’s death is at the same time tragic and ironic. It is tragic in the world created by Coriolanus; tragic according to his his mad and absolute system of values. It is ironic in the real world. Coriolanus’s bravery and nobility will be praised by the man who has killed him, the VOlscian leader, Aufidius. (209-210)

Contradictions have not been solved, and there is no common system of values for the polis and for the individual. “He loves your people; but tie him not to be their bedfellow,” says Meneius Agrippa to Brutus referring to Coriolanus. This is not true. Coriolanus did not love the people. But this does not mean that Coriolanus should be condemned. In that sentence there is in a nutshell the bitter drama of Renaissance humanism; of any humanism, in fact. (210)

George Lamming says: “Ariel is Prospero’s source of information; the archetypal spy, the embodiment—when and if made flesh—of the perfect and unspeakable secret police.” In my essay on The Tempest I have called Ariel an angel, executioner, and agent provocateur. (Titania and the Ass’s Head, 214)

If Ariel, the “airy spirit”, is a devil, Prospero becomes an embodiment of Faust: like Faust he masters the powers of nature, and [215] like Faust he loses in the end. This realization may enable one to enliven dramatically the character of Prospero, who almost invariably appears dull on the stage. Ariel, who is all thought, intelligence, and the devil, will never again appear as a ballet dancer in tights, with little gauze wings, who floats over the stage with the help of stage machinery. / But so too the conception of Puck must change, if he is to embody something of the future Ariel. He must not be just a playful dwarf from a German fairy tale, … show his twofold nature: that of Robin Goodfellow and that of the menacing devil Hobgoblin. (215)

Puck is not a clown. He is not even an actor. It is he who, like Harlequin, pulls all the characters on strings. He liberates instincts and puts the mechanism of this world in motion. He puts it in motion and mocks it at the same [216] time. … When at last will the theatre show us a Puck who is a faun, a devil, and Harlequin, all combined? (216-217)

A feature peculiar to Shakespeare is the suddenness of love. (218)

The Dream is the most erotic of Shakespeare’s plays. (218)

Commentators have long since noticed that the lovers in this love quartet are scarcely distinguishable from one another. … All four lack the distinctness and uniqueness of so many other, even earlier Shakespearean characters. … The entire action of this hot night, everything that has happened at this drunken party, is based on the complete exchangeability of lover partners. (219)

The reduction of characters to love partners seems to me to be the most peculiar characteristic of this cruel dream; and perhaps its most modern quality. (219)

As in some plays by Genet, there are no unambiguous characters, there are only situations. Everything has become ambivalent. / Hermia: …Wherefore, O me! what news, my love? / Am not I Hermia? Are not you Lysander? / I am as fair now as I was erewhile. (III, 2) / Hermia is wrong. For in truth there is no Hermia, just as there is no Lysander. Or rather there are two different Hermias and two different Lysanders. The Hermia who sleeps with Lysander and the Hermia with whom Lysander does not want to sleep. (220)

[Hermia] She is ashamed. She does not quite realize yet that day has come. She is still partly overwhelmed by night. She has drunk too much. / ‘Methinks I see these things with parted eye, / When everything seems double. (IV, 1) / The entire scene of the lovers’ awakening in the morning abounds in that brutal and bitter poetry that every stylized theatre production in bound to annihilate and destroy. (223)

…Helena’s soliloquy which forms a coda to Act I, scene 1. The soliloquy is above her out from the action of the play. It is really the author’s monologue, a kind of Brechtian “song” in which, for the time, the philosophical theme of the Dream is stated; the subject being Eros and Tanatos. (223)

Pico della Mirandola… Particularly famous was a paradox of Mirandola’s, contained in his Opera: “Ideo amor ab Orpheo sine oculis dicitur, quia est supra intellectum” ; Love is blind, because it is above intellect. The blindness gives fulfillment and ecstasy. Plato’s Symposium, understood either mystically, or concretely, was also among the favourite books of Elizabethan Neoplatonists. But, following the Florentine example, Neoplatonism as practiced in Southhampton’s circle, had a distinctly epicurean flavour. (224)

Starting with Helena’s soliloquy Shakespeare introduces more and more obtrusively animal erotic symbolism. He does it [224] consistently, stubbornly, almost obsessively. The changes in imagery are in this case only an outward expression of a violent departure from the Petrarchian idealization of love. / It is this passing through animality that seems to us the midsummer night’s dream, or at least it is this aspect of the Dream that is the most modern and revealing. This is the main theme joining together all three separate plots running parallel in the play. (224-225)

As a result of the romantic tradition, unfortunately preserved in the theatre through Mendelssohn’s music, the forest in the Dream still seems to be another version of Arcadia. But in the actual fact, it is rather a forest inhabited by devils and lamias, in [225] which witches and sorceresses can easily find everything required for their practices. (225-226)

The bestiary of the Dream is not a haphazard one. Dried skin of a viper, pulverized spiders, bats’ gristles appear in every medieval or Renaissance prescription book as drugs to cure impotence and women’s afflictions of one kind or another. Al these are slimy, hairy, sticky creatures, unpleasant to touch and often arousing violent aversion. It is the sort of aversion that is described by psychoanalytic textbooks as a sexual neurosis. Snakes, snails, bats, and spiders also form a favourite bestiary of Freud’s theory of dreams. (226)

Bottom is eventually transformed into an ass. But in this nightmarish summer night, the ass does not symbolize stupidity. From antiquity up to the Renaissance the ass was credited with the strongest sexual potency and among all quadrupeds was supposed to have the longest and hardest phallus. (227)

Puck and Oberon call the transformed Bottom a monster. The frail and sweet Titania drags the monster to bed, almost by force. This is the lover she wanted and dreamed of; only she never wanted to admit it, even to herself. The sleep frees her from inhibitions. The monstrous ass is being raped by the poetic Titania, while she still keeps on chattering about flowers: (228)

Of all the characters in the play Titania enters to the fullest extent the dark sphere of sex where there is no more beauty and ugliness; there is only infatuation and liberation. In the coda of the first scene of the Dream Helena had already forecast: / Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity. (I, 1) (228)

Chagall has depicted Titania caressing the ass. In his picture the ass is sad, white, and affectionate. To my mind, Shakespeare’s Titania, caressing the monster with the head of an ass, ought to be closer to the fearful visions of Bosch and to the grotesque of the surrealists. I think, too, that modern theatre, which has passed through the poetics of surrealism, of the absurd, and through Genet’s brutal poetry, can depict this scene truly for the first time. The choice of visual inspiration is particularly important in this context. Among all painters, Goya is, perhaps, the only one whose fantasies penetrated even further than Shakespeare’s the dark sphere of bestiality. I am thinking of Caprichos. (229)

In the violent contrast between the erotic madness liberated by the night and the censorship of day which orders everything to be forgotten, Shakespeare seems most ahead of his time. The notion that “life’s a dream” has, in this context, nothing of baroque mysticism. Night is the key to day! (234)

The madness lasted throughout the June night. The lovers are ashamed of that night and do not want to talk about it, just as one does not want to talk of bad dreams. But that night liberated them from themselves. They were their real selves in their dreams. … The forest in Shakespeare always represented Nature. (235)

The world is mad, and love is mad. In this universal madness of Nature and History, brief are the moments of happiness: / …Swift as a shadow, short as any dream, / Brief as the lightning in the collied night,… (I, 1) (236)

Of all Shakespeare’s works, the Sonnets and The Tempest have always been considered the most personal. … The Tempest is, indeed, a kind of settlement of accounts and a farewell, but in a far more complex sense. All Shakespearean themes reappear in it. …only [237] the character are wiser by experience. … Only in this sense is The Tempest a clue to Shakespeare’s biography, or rather, does it take its part, an epilogue. The Sonnets are autobiographical in the same sense. They are a prologue. (237-238)

The fourth character of the drama [of the Sonnets] is time. Time which destroys and devours everything. (238)

But for Leonardo, as for Shakespeare, the wrecking force of [238] time is not just a stylistic figure of speech, or even an obsession. Time is the foremost actor in any tragedy. (238-239)

Three Leonardian images contain three kinds of time: geological time, … archeoloical time, … and, finally, human time in which grave stands next to cradle and all faces are mortal. … The three kinds of time, inter-linked one with another, are continually invoked in the Sonnets. That is why the Sonnets are a great prologue. (240)

The Sonnets have two frames of reference. Like the poems of the English “metaphysical” poets, Donne and Herbert, they are a pure existentialist drama and, at the same time, filled with concrete historical material. (243)

The handful of rhymes are to secure immortality as well as the young gentlemen’s patronage. It is easier to secure immortality. The character of a rival poet, possibly Marlow, can be discerned between the lines of the Sonnets. Favours of the young noblemen have been sought by many. (243)

The real theme of the Sonnets is the choice, or rather the impossibility of choice between the youth and the woman, the fragile boundary between friendship and love, the fascination with all beauty, the universality of desire which cannot be contained in or limited to one sex. (244)

Compared with Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the sonnets of Petrarch seem transparent and pure as crystal, but cold, artificial, contrived. Beauty and goodness are permanent values in them, never to be questioned; the conflict is between the body and the mind. In Shakespeare’s Sonnets this rigid division into physical and spiritual is blurred. Good intermingles with evil, beauty with ugliness, … (244)

Leonardo’s propensity for boys was most certainly suppressed. Among his notes we find the following: “Whoso curbs not the lustful desires puts himself on a level with beasts.” [Leonardo da Vinci’s Note Books, McCurdy, p. 63.] And again, “Intellectual passion drives out sensuality.” [p. 63] (247)

Shakespeare’s aristocratic friends may not have read Ficino but certainly knew Plato’s Symposium. (249)

Girls in their turn became like boys. Botticelli’s … nymphs in Primavera’s train had narrow hips, high waists, small breasts. Flora looks like a tall, fair-haired boy who has been disguised for the purpose of the carnival procession, dressed in a transparent veil with flowers, his hair combed and curled. He has a sad triangular face, still almost Gothic. He seems to be ashamed of his participation in this masquerade. He turns his head back at the sights of girls, tempting and tempted, present and absent. He smiles with the corner of the mouth, but the smile is like a grimace. (251)

…Michelangelo’s David, leans backwards, bows his head, slightly raises his right foot. His left arm is bent at the elbow, hand on the nape of his neck. He smooths down his hair. It is at once a coquettish and a defensive gesture. It is not the gesture of a youth. His eyes are half closed, his mouth slightly open, as if he were just waking, as if the world were only just beginning to exist for him. When one looks at him from behind, or even sideways, he appears like a young girl, with legs somewhat too heavy, a girl not yet transformed into a woman. (252)

The Sonnets are a dramatic prologue for a third reason. The Dark Lady will be transformed in turn into Julia of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and into Rosaline of Love’s Labour’s Lose; later she will serve as a model of the harsh and sensuous Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We shall find her in Cressida: pure and faithless, affectionate and mocking. Perhaps it is to her that Rosalind in As You Like It is indebted for her audacity, and Viola in Twelfth Night for her determination in amorous exaltation. / Julia, Rosalind, and Viola have disguised themselves as boys. Viola has become Cesario, Rosalind has turned into Ganymede. The Dark Lady of the Sonnets has unexpectedly become the fair “master mistress.” Her charm is irresistible. She seduces all men and women alike: the former as a girl, the latter as a boy. She is an almost perfect androgyny. This is how Viola of Twelfth Night describes herself: / I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too… (II, 4) (255)

[Twelfth Night] The theme of the play is disguise. Viola, in order to serve the Duke, has to pretend she is a boy. Girls have dressed up as boys in fairy tales, stories, and legends, in the folklore of all peoples, in lyric and epic poetry from Homer to the present time. They hide their sex under armour in order to fight in war; or under a monk’s hood to enter a monastery; they put on students’ clothes to enter an Alma Mater. The Middle Ages knew heroic disguise and hagiographic disguise. The Renaissance took a liking to amorous disguise. We find it in Italian comedy, as well as in the volumes of tales from which Shakespeare derived the plots and ideas for his comedies. Disguise had its justification in prevailing customs. Girls could not travel alone; they were not even supposed to walk alone in the evenings in the streets of Italian cities. Disguise had its theatrical justification, too: it created at the outset a qui pro quo, facilitated the development of the plot, was a ready-made farcical situation. (257)

In the first version of the comedy, say the experts, Viola was to sing the songs later given to the Clown, and that is why the Captain [257] introduces her to the Duke as an Italian castrato. But even with this correction there is something shocking in the proposition. A young girl is to turn into a eunuch. It is as if a chill went down our spines. As with everything in Shakespeare, this is intended. The same words will be repeated, only more strongly: / Be you his eunuch, and your mute I’ll be. / When my tongue blabs, then let mine eyes not see. (I, 2) (257-258)

Female pasts in Shakespeare are decidedly shorter than male parts. Shakespeare was well aware of the limitations of boy actors. They could play girls; with some difficulty they could play old women. But how could a boy act a mature woman? In all Shakespeare’s plays, in the whole of Elizabethan drama even, there are very few such parts. Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra are sexually mature. Their parts, however, are curtailed to suit a boy actor’s scope. This is a fact known to all actresses who have played Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth. There is little substance in those parts; as if whole pages had been torn out of them, they are full of gaps. Shakespeare was afraid to show Cleopatra in love scenes, he preferred to relate them. … Between Macbeth and his wife matters of sex are never clearly explained. Either the conjugal bed was burnt-out land for them, or in this marriage the woman had the role of the man. (258)

But on at least two occa-[258]sions Shakespeare used this limitation as the theme and theatrical instrument of comedy. Twelfth Night and As You Like It were written for a stage on which boys played the parts of the girls. The disguise is a double one; played on two levels as it were: a boy dresses up as a girl who disguises herself as boy. (258-259)

For, in fact, Viola is neither a boy nor a girl. Viola-Cesario is the “master mistress” of the Sonnets. The music of Twelfth Night has been written for that particular instrument. Viola is an ephebe and an androgyny. (259)

Duke Orsino, Viola, Olivia are not fully drawn characters. They are blank, and the only element that fills them is love. They cannot be dissociated from one another. (260)

This cry might have been uttered by Orsino or by Viola. Every character here has something of the fair youth and the Dark Lady. Every character has been endowed with a bitter knowledge about love. Love in Illyria is violent and impatient; it cannot be gratified or reciprocated. (261)

The appearance of Sebastian does not really make any difference. Sebastian is a character in the plot of the play, but does not participate in the real love drama. He was taken over by Shakespeare lock, stock, and barrel from the Italian story to provide the solution proper for a comedy. (262)

There have been productions of Twelfth Night in which Sebastian and Viola were acted by one and the same person. This seems the only solution, even if its consistent treatment requires the epilogue to be dealt with in a thoroughly conventional manner. But it is not enough for Cesario-Viola-Sebastian to be acted by one person. That person must be a man. Only then will the real theme of Illyria, erotic delirium or the metamorphoses of sex, be shown in the theatre. (264)

In Aretino’s Dialogue of Courtesans, teachers of the profession on numerous occasions advised their adepts to disguise themselves and pretend to be boys, as the most effective means to rouse passion. Male attire was to protect a girl when on a journey, but the disguise made her even more attractive, and that in three ways: for men who are fond of women and who were able to discern female shape under the disguise; for men who are fond of youths and who saw in the disguised girl the girlish youth they desired; and for women, deceived by the garments and roused to violent affection by the smooth and charming youth: (264)

…John Donne, depicted the dangers of disguises in Elegy XVI, On His Mistress, where he tried to dissuade her from setting out on a journey in a man’s attire: / Dissemble nothing, not a boy, nor change/ Thy body’s habit, nor mind’s; be not strange / To thyself only; all will spy in thy face / A blushing womanly discovering grace. / … / Th’ indifferent Italian, as we pass / His warm land, well content to think thee Page, / Will hunt thee with such lust, and hideous rage, / As Lot’s fair guests were vexed. [Poems, London, Dent, 1947, pp. 81-82] (265)

The anatomical counterpart of disguise is hermaphrodite; its metaphorical counterpart is androgyne. Androgyne is an archetype; a concept and image of the union of male and female elements. In antiquity a child with signs of bisexuality used to be killed by its own parents. Anatomical hermaphrodism was regarded as a freak of nature or a sign of the anger of the gods. Only gods were androgynous; particularly those from whom everything originated. (267)

All androgynous myths, with their images of bisexual deities and symbols of Bacchus-Dionysus, Hermes, Diana-Aphrodite, had wide and active circulation in that period. They were useful for all kinds of speculations and entered into complex involvements with metaphysics and alchemy. Most frequently, however, they appeared in close proximity with Socratic eroticism [pederasty]. (268)

As You Like It… Rosalind, disguised as a boy, meets Orlando in the forest of Arden. Orlando is in love with her and she is in love with him. But Orlando does not recognize Rosalind in the shape of Ganymede. Rosalind woos him with intensity, but she does it as a boy, or rather as a boy who in this relationship wants to be a girl for his lover. Rosalind plays Ganymede who in turn plays Rosalind: (269)

The borderlines between illusion and reality, between an object and its reflection, are gradually lost. Once more one has to recall the theatrical aesthetics of Genet. The theatre represents in itself all human relationships, but not because it is their more or less successful imitation. The theatre is the image of all human relationships because it is based on falseness—original falseness, rather like original sin. The actor plays a character he is not. He is who he is not. He is not who he is. To be oneself means only to play one’s own reflection in the eyes of strangers. / There are no whites and blacks existing separately. Negroes are black only for white men, just as white men are white only for Negroes. (270)

The love scenes in the Forest of Arden have the logic of dreams. Planes, persons, tenses—past, present, future—are intermingled; so is parody with poetry. (271)

The most dangerous disguise of all is the one where sex is changed. Transvestism has two directions: sacral and sexual; liturgical and orgiastic. Orgy can also be part of a liturgical feast. In the Saturnalia boys and girls used to exchange their clothes. Laws and rules were suspended. Boys behaved like girls, girls behaved like boys. Values and judgments were mixed up. For one night everything was permitted. But in a liturgical disguise, laws and rules were only suspended, never revoked. Disguise was, as it [272] were, a return to Chaos from which Law had emerged and in which there has as yet been no division into the male and the female. (272-273)

…disguise is…the realization of man’s eternal dream about overcoming the boundaries of his own body and of his sex. It is a dream of an erotic experience in which one is one’s own partner, in which one sees and experiences sensual pleasure, as it were, from the other side. One is oneself and at the same time someone else, someone like oneself and yet different. (273)

Shakespearean forests are real and enchanted, tragic and grotesque; (275)

First, the Forest of Arden means escape; (275)

The opening of the play has nothing of the calm and light-heartedness that, following the nineteenth-century pattern, critics still try to detect in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It even seems singularly dark: / O, what a world is this, when what is comely/ Envenoms him that bears it! (II, 3) (276)

The opening of As You Like It has the atmosphere of the Histories; the air is stuffy and every one is afraid. The new prince is distrustful, suspicious, jealous of everything and everybody, unsure of his position, sensing the enemy in everyone. As in the Histories, the only hope of salvation is in escape; escape at any price and as fast as one can. / This is no place, this house is but a butchery. (II, 3) (276)

In Arcadia all are equal. Unknown is the power of money and the advantage of superior birth. Law does not yield to force, and the only people who are unhappy are those whose love is unrequited. (278)

Historians of literature make a careful distinction between writers who imitated Shakespeare and those who followed the Ariosto fashion. And rightly so. (280)

It is in this “green sphere” that Ariosto wages his peculiar combat with the feudal madness that must be ridiculed and mocked, but without which life would lose all its beauty and poetry. The same kind of combat against feudal madness, only more bitter, will be waged later by Cervantes. / Of all Shakespeare’s works, As You Like It and Twelfth Night are closest to the spirit of Ariosto. There is a similar combination of pathos and irony, mockery and lyricism. This mixture of techniques and literary genres is something very modern, and the theatre is wrong to draw back from it. Even more modern, closer to our own time, is the ambiguous attitude to madness; or rather, to the escape into madness, into mythology, and into disguise. (280)

He takes us into the Forest of Arden in order to show that one must try to escape, although there is no escape; that the Forest of Arden does not exist, but those who do not run away will be murdered. (281)

Twelfth Night and As You Like It are generally considered the most romantic of the comedies. But of all “contemporary reaction” to Shakespeare, from Elizabethan times to ours, the romantic was the most false and one that left behind it the most fatal theatrical tradition. Surely, [283] one must be absolutely deaf to hear in Viola’s endless rounds between Olivia and Orsino nothing but the romantic music of love. (283-284)

With all its appearances of gaiety, it is a very bitter comedy about the dolce vita at all levels and wings of the Southampton residence. (284)

It has been rightly observed that the clown in Twelfth Night is the link between both themes of the comedy. He is the only one to visit both wings of the palace, to wander up and down all its floors. (284)

The clowns in As You Like It and Twelfth Night are Shakespeare’s most original addition to his inherited plots. (284)

As You Like It and Twelfth Night are close in time to Hamlet. In the figure of Jaques Shakespearean scholars long ago perceived the first outline of the Prince of Denmark. Before Jaques turns into Hamlet he must first go through the school of clowning. Feste and Touchstone are philosophical clowns already. But there are only clowns. When they have taken off their fool’s caps, they cease to exist. (285)

At the end of the play everyone will leave the Forest of Arden, except Jaques. He is the only one who has no reason to leave the Forest, because he has never believed in the Forest, has never entered Arcadia. (286)

There are many different Arcadias. They can be pastoral or knightly; philosophical or abounding in supernatural events. But every one of them is populated by shepherds and shepherdesses looking like ephebes. They talk about love and friendship. Frequently girls dress themselves up as boys, particularly in works by Italian and Spanish writers. Spenser, in his commentaries to The Shepheardes Calender, which was published in 1579 and initiated the pastoral fashion in England, praised the mutual love of young shepherds; love philosophical and tender, pure and faithful; love exercised in the Greek manner. (288)

The Arcadian myth and the myth of androgyny are almost invariably connected with each other. What do they mean, what purpose do they serve? Arcadia is the image of the lost paradise. [288] … a girl-boy. The myth of androgyny is also an invocation of the image of lost paradise where primeval Harmony or Chaos prevailed; Harmony or Chaos are different terms for a situation in which all contradictions coexist, ultimately reconciled. (288-289)

Androgyny is not only the archetype of unity of male and female elements, but occurs in various metaphysical speculations as the sign of reconciliation of all contradictions. We find the cosmic myth of androgyny in Paracelsus and in Jacob Boehme, who was Shakespeare’s contemporary. / One of the names for the philosophical stone was Rebis. Rebis means “double” or “two bodies.” Rebis was the androgynic symbol of the hermetics. In the famous treatise Splendor Solis of 1532, which was the bible of the alchemists, we find a fascinating hermaphroditic Discordia Concors. It symbolized not only man and woman, but also sun [290] and moon, earth and water, sulphur and mercury, beginning and end. (290-291)


Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary was published in English translation in 1964, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. This was the same year that Burton’s Broadway Hamlet and Kosintsev’s film adaptation of the same play were provoking critics to ramp up discussion of a reconsidered, reimagined Shakespeare for their own time. It was the year during which Northrop Frye wrote, in A Natural Perspective: The Development of Shakespearean Comedy and Romance, that Shakespeare’s conscious anachronisms “help to universalize a historical period,” with the effect that “the past is blended with the present” (20). It was also—for better or worse—the year that the Beatles enacted the rude mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a BBC television skit.

Kott’s book arrived at an auspicious moment. It had a deep and immediate impact on Peter Brook and other practitioners of theatre. It also provided an antidote to a decade of doctrinaire formalism. Kott thought in terms of the immediacy of performance and the permanence of big, historical themes.  He presented the heady possibility that Shakespeare could actually mean something directly to cold-war, age-of-anxiety people like us. His book—or at least, the idea of his book—persists in our attempts to explain why Shakespeare ought to matter in the current moment of technologically-driven consumerism, defunct bookstores and shrinking English departments.

Fifty years later, the time is at hand for a reassessment of this audacious, relentlessly provocative book. Does Shakespeare Our Contemporary have endurance beyond its charismatic title? Or is it merely another milestone in the essentialist tradition that began with Ben Jonson’s 1618 panegyric, found a height of its expression in Samuel Johnson’s theory of “general nature,” survives unexpectedly in Marjorie Garber’s unapologetic assertion that “every age creates its own Shakespeare” (Shakespeare After All, 3) and lives out its dotage in our students’ insistence that Shakespeare’s plays need to be (cringe) “relateable”? After all, Kott did claim that “Shakespeare’s universality has never dated” (131).

But it’s worth remembering that Kott wrote explicitly that he did not “have in mind. . . a forced topicality” (59). His Shakespeare did not send us coded messages. Kott’s project was for us to discover ourselves in our own historical moment through our experience of Shakespeare’s plays, not necessarily to scour them for direct correspondences and analogues for our own condition (to use a mid-century word). I maintain that, for Kott, our experience of Shakespeare’s plays went beyond revealing exemplars; it became a way for us to come to recognition of ourselves—indeed, to become ourselves in the same midcentury currency that led Frye to make the rather thrilling declaration that Shakespeare’s “plays are existential facts, and no understanding of them can incorporate their existence” (51).

Kott’s existentialism is evident in his discussion of As You Like It, in which he discovers in the representation of character a world in which “everything is real and unreal, false and genuine at the same time.” Kott sees affinities with the “theatrical aesthetics of Genet” and concludes: “To be oneself means only to play one’s reflection in the eyes of strangers” (270).  Kott was a student of Sartre, and had translated his plays into Polish. Knowing this, we might expect that he would have thrown a grapnel in the direction of “derealization” as Sartre discussed it in his essay on Genet’s The Maids; he didn’t. Instead, he relied on the sheer force of the connections he made between Shakespeare and the theatres of Brecht, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco to shift the equation toward vital performance and away from the sentimentalized, commodified Shakespeare of the earlier twentieth century.

Kott’s writing on The Tempest may be his most incisive—and courageous. He scorned the readings of Chambers and Wilson, who were still influential in the early 1960s, as “ridiculous and childish” (297). Kott insisted on the “philosophic bitterness” of the play, as he struggled to find an authentic Tempest, deeply enmeshed in the concerns of Renaissance intellectuals: “A wonderful, cruel and dramatic world, which suddenly exposed both the power, and the misery of man” (299). The Tempest as either an operatic fairy tale or allegory of poetry and theatre-making was exploded, and with authority. In its place is a Tempest that Greenblatt and the other 1980s and 90s contextulizers of the early modern would recognize, “a drama of lost illusions, of bitter wisdom, and of fragile—though stubborn—hope” (299).  In this way, the existential humanist is also revealed to be an historicist.

Kott’s plodding discussion of Coriolanus weaves its way through a maze of endless quotation and plot summary to his conclusion that the play is a “drama of historical inevitability” (206). “Shakespeare does not need to be modernized or brought up to date. History. . . finds its reflection in [the tragedies], in every age” (204). But, as Sartre had pointed out in his 1959 discussion of the play, the nature of the reflection is ideologically determined: French fascists applauded the play as “anti-democratic” in 1934, while a postwar Milanese audience embraced “the play’s critical attitude and examination of dictatorship as a mystification of the masses.” At any rate, it is no surprise that for Kott, whose engagement with Marxism was profound, history—more than man—was finally the measure of all things. This is very apparent in a lecture Kott himself gave at Gresham College, London in 1986 under the title I have appropriated for this review: “Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary?”

Kott’s own answer to this question was initially playful: “Sometimes Shakespeare is more contemporary than in other times.”  But it is clear from his lecture that the determinants of Shakespeare’s contemporaneity are two: performance and history.  He began with Brecht’s consideration of Hamlet in the Little Organum: “The perspective of Brecht reading Hamlet is the perspective of Yalta and of the division of . . . East Europe under the occupation of Russia.” He discovers Stalinist echoes in Kosintsev’s Hamlet, particularly the big statue of Claudius in the palace. This may seem strange to Western audiences, he declares. For Kosintsev, “the contemporary character in Hamlet . . . was Claudius, Claudius as the image of Stalin.” A Hegelian historiography—history as conflict—is the catalyst that makes Shakespeare contemporary, and leads to the audience’s recognition of their own historical imperatives, even as they experience what Kott calls “contemporization.” It’s clear from his lecture that this experience of the realization of historical difference is what provokes the immediacy of Shakespeare. In this way, “anyone who has the experience of Poland . . . knows [the end of King Lear] is the end of everything.” “At this time in the great Bolshoi theatre in Moscow was a great performance of Macbeth. And in one scene, in which Lady Macbeth came down on stage facing the audience with her red hands soaked in blood, the audience was frightened. For the audience, this image of Lady Macbeth with her hands soaked in blood was the image of Stalin.” History. Difference provoking immediacy. Experience in performance.  

Twenty years after the publication of Shakespeare Our Contemporary, John Drakakis declared, in Alternative Shakespeares, an end to the essentialist doctrine: “Shakespeare can never be ‘our contemporary’ except by the strategy of appropriation” (24).  This is certainly arguable, but it misses the point of Kott’s engagement with what he called “universal madness of Nature and History” (236). We need only read Kott’s meditation on eroticism and bestiality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or his vision of Arden as a place from which “there is no escape” (281) to be convinced that this is not the work of someone tinkering with facile correspondences. Rather, Shakespeare’s contemporaneity is discovered in the historical conditions of time and place—Shakespeare’s own, and ours. It is not a static condition. The brilliance of Kurosawa’s Ran, Kott asserts, is “to find a new historical place, a new historical time for Shakespeare . . . It is to find a new universality . . . a new understanding that finally the meaning, the real meaning of King Lear is terror and to find a place for terror is to find a new, contemporary Shakespeare.”  That place might be Japan in the Edo period, the Stalinist Soviet Union or twenty-first-century Aleppo.

Viewed from the perspective of fifty years, Shakespeare Our Contemporary may be, after all, an inspired muddle of fragmentary thoughts and quirky paragraphs—attributes that, when I first encountered the book as a college sophomore, I mistook for some mysterious, European brilliance. But it is also a monument to the intellectual (and I would even say moral) courage of an existential humanist, engaging monumental questions and seeking in Shakespeare’s plays “knowledge without illusions” (285).

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