Brother Anthony (An Sonjae)
Doubt, questioning, curiosity: there are surely grounds for claiming that those three closely related words indicate potentially revolutionary new attitudes that arose in the Renaissance and gave birth to the Modern Age. Doubt as to the validity and authority of answers to questions, or solutions to problems, supplied by the past; questioning of ideas and opinions long considered absolute; curiosity manifested in a desire to know about aspects of reality previously not studied. The result was a conviction that truth was not to be found by "plugging into" the past but by slamming the door on it and setting out to discover truth for the first time in the years yet to come. "The world was all before them, where to go" and they had great hopes of a Golden Age ahead.
The Renaissance "culture of doubt" was a strongly international phenomenon, in which doubt, questioning, and curiosity were applied to knowledge about the physical cosmos, the human person, and the things of God. It gave birth to the scientific, materialistic, and rationalistic interests of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, since Shakespeare has come down to the 20th century co-opted by the Romantics and considered as a precursor of Dickens, there has been a strong tendency to push him back into the Middle Ages and more generally to isolate him from his contexts. This is no longer acceptable. Shakespeare needs to be seen as belonging to the "Age of Discoveries."
Mention of "Discoveries" recalls the point where Milton introduces a very unexpected elaboration of a simile early in Paradise Lost, when he is describing Satan's shield:
... like the moon, whose orb
Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views
At evening, from the top of FesolŠ,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers, or mountains in her spotty globe.
(Milton, Paradise Lost, I 287-91)
"The Tuscan artist" is Galileo Galilei, and the Norton Anthology notes that this is the only mention of a modern person anywhere in Paradise Lost, but leaves the reader to guess why Milton chose to mention Galileo of all people. In Areopagitica, Milton describes how, during a visit to Florence in 1638-9, he "found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought" (Quoted without detailed reference in: John T. Shawcross "The life of Milton" in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, edited by Dennis Danielson, Cambridge, 1989. Page 7). Not only is Milton's Galileo gazing into a telescope, he is hoping to discover new lands in the moon.
I find it fascinating to imagine these two men together, the one over seventy, the other just thirty, perhaps taking turns to gaze at the moon through a telescope. What did they say to one another? What was it in Galileo that so impressed Milton?
It is good to begin to think about Shakespeare and the culture of doubt in company with Galileo and Milton, because of the importance of doubt to all three. Galileo so creatively doubted the truth of the official cosmology of the Catholic Church and the teachings of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the rest, that he was nearly burned at the stake, and is often seen as the founder of modern science. Milton doubted radically the truth of the officially sanctioned doctrines of the English state and its Church, considering that no person was born with rights over the freedoms of another, and that monarchy in the state, aristocracy in society, and episcopacy in the Church, were all of them dark relics of a dark age, and quite simply wrong. And Shakespeare? He is not usually thought of as a doubter; we will have to see what creative doubt his works reveal.
Behind Galileo and Milton rises a previous generation of doubters, whose
major names are Montaigne and Bacon, together with Descartes, who was only
ten years younger than Milton. Before them again come Copernicus and Giordano
Bruno, Erasmus, and Christopher Columbus, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola.
All of them, consciously or no, were looking back to Socrates, who after
interviewing a supposedly wise man, says (according to Plato's Apology)
that he walked away thinking,
"Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know." (Plato, Apology of Socrates, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Penguin Classics, 1969)
For Socrates, the great question was above all the matter of how we know what behaviour is right and good, and which words we use to describe it. For Galileo, it was a matter of knowing what was the nature and disposition of the physical universe, and how it could be described. For Milton, it was a matter of knowing what was the will of God for human society, and how to practice it. In every case, doubt was the first step away from error toward the discovery of new truth.
Montaigne's was the most essential question of all: Que scay-je? (What do I know?) And his Essays are an exploration of himself in search of an answer. At the end of a long process of applying systematic doubt to everything he knew, Descartes declared himself satisfied with the proof of his own coherent, reasoning identity, thaks to the infamous "Je pense, donc je suis" (the usually quoted Latin cogito fails to highlight the main stress, which is the reality of selfhood (je), not of thinking or being). What, though, did Shakespeare doubt and what did he hope to know?
The main characteristic uniting all these extraordinary people so far named, and many other of their contemporaries, even Luther and Calvin, was an intense feeling of being on the verge of a new Age, an age of Discovery, of Light, of New Knowledge, of Truth. They felt that they were living in a culture emerging from centuries when no one had seemed to want to know all that they wanted to know, about Nature, about Humanity, about the Cosmos, and even about God.
The name Francis Bacon gave to this new quest for knowledge, the Great Instauration, inspired the idealism of the Commonwealth and then gave birth in 1660 to the Restoration, the name of which by an irony of history is often thought to refer to a restoring of the past when in fact it was understood to be a moment rich with promises of a new Golden Age of learning, of justice, of reason, and of truth in the future.
To return to our first picture, of Milton and Galileo together in Florence, it is tempting to imagine a third, ghostly, figure sitting beside them, that of Shakespeare. If only Milton could have sat with him in the same way, one reflects, on a visit to Stratford, what would have they have said and thought? It is strange how hard it is to realize that the idea is not a preposterous one. After all, when Milton met Galileo in 1638-9, Shakespeare had been dead for over twenty years. Milton was only ten in 1616. Yet Galileo was born in the same year as Shakespeare, in 1564. They were exact contemporaries. If only Shakespeare had not died so young....
The culture of creative doubt, that doubt which challenges old formulations and conventional assumptions, opening the way toward new formulations and hypotheses, which are then subjected to yet further doubt in the endless quest for a truth that lies ever ahead, is what gives rise to the idea of the Renaissance as an "Age of Discoveries". That Shakespeare lived at its very heart becomes clear if we recall a few dates.
Shakespeare was writing roughly from 1590 until 1610. Those twenty years saw the publication in France of the final edition of Montaigne's Essays (1595) as well as their translation into English by John Florio (1603), the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno for his cosmological theories (1600), the publication of the first edition of Bacon's Advancement of Learning (1605). Meanwhile the next generation was receiving its education: Robert Burton was born in 1577, William Harvey in 1578, Thomas Hobbes in 1588, Descartes in 1596, Sir Thomas Browne in 1605, and John Milton in 1606.
The doubt being evoked here is not that systematic, existential doubt about everything, including doubt itself, systematized and vulgarized by the pens of Marx and Freud. The Renaissance culture of doubt knew almost no doubt about the possibility of meaning. On the contrary, it had an immense optimism about meaning and about the knowledge and expression of truth. What so impressed Milton in Galileo was the way he had sacrificed much of his physical freedom, but nothing of his desire to know and speak the truth which, as the Bible promised and Milton knew, made him supremely free.
The century in which Shakespeare was born was pregnant with a sense that the future would be far better than the present, that the search for knowledge would lead humanity out of darkness into a new golden age, and it was convinced that all knowledge was interlinked, with no division between science, art, technology, magic, astrology, medicine, botany, industry, or farming. The century in which Shakespeare died was to be one of the most creative in English history, the century of Bacon, Milton, Cromwell, Hobbes, Locke, and Newton, as well as Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, William Harvey...
What can be said about Shakespeare's place in all of these things? We do not have Shakespeare's essays or personal letters, or his diaries. Only his plays and a few poems. Besides, not a word in any of his plays can be considered as the expression of ideas that can be attributed to him, for they are all words spoken by fictional dramatic characters, not by William Shakespeare Esquire. We have no direct record of Shakespeare's own opinions and thoughts about anything.
Yet there is one immediately obvious way in which Shakespeare's plays belong to the search for truth: by their dramatic form itself. False assurance of knowledge of the kind Socrates set out to undermine is by nature monologue; "I tell you this as truth and I know that it is so. Listen and learn." It is the eternal stance of the professorial lecture. No questions will be tolerated, no dialogue is needed, truth is possessed.
To this Socrates responded by provoking dialogue with his doubts, politely phrased as questions: "Please, could you tell me just what you mean by that?" This leads to exchanges where there may (or may not) be a discovery that what has been taken for knowledge is not true or sufficient, needs further examination, that the ultimate truth is not yet known and cannot be expressed. Plato, presumably following the Socratic model, made the dialogue the basic form of his written work, and most of his writings are not merely dialogues but "polylogues" (a word the OED reports was first used in 1941), a chorus of voices with no one voice able to claim to have found the answer or speaking the full truth about anything.
It could be suggested that Shakespeare's plays are the most authentic Platonic diaogues that exist. The other masters of creative doubt that I have named wrote in various less lively ways: mostly they were academics and composed essays or treatises, in Latin or French or English; none of them embodies the polylogue of doubt and question and unlimited exploration as forcefully as Shakespeare did in his plays.
Socratic doubt provokes thought and is the method of the search for truth when one has the conviction that there is a truth to be found, but that it has not yet been found or expressed in the best possible way. That there are limits of knowledge marked by parameters of doubt is a truth of which Shakespeare was clearly aware. One need only recall all the ways in which he brings alive the tension between illusion and reality, seeming and being, the difference between what is seen and what is known to be true.
The ironic stance of Othello, convinced beyond all doubt that Desdemona is a whore, coincides with the happier doubts of Viola facing her dead brother alive and Orsino finding he is no longer obliged to marry a boy. Dead Hero lifts her veil to greet a doubting Claudio, and late in his career Shakespeare engulfed us all in the ultimate doubt as we struggle to make sense of dead Hermione's living statue.
These moments of doubt and discovery of truth are rarely if ever marked by the use of the word "doubt" yet that does not make them any less essentially "doubt-full" as the characters, and the audience, struggle to leap from what they thought they knew to what they think they know now.
The action of almost all Shakespeare's plays might be felt to illustrate
the following words, which are a translation made just after 1600 of words
written in French by Michel de Montaigne before Shakespeare wrote his plays:
...there is no constant existence, neither of our being, nor of the objects. And we, and our judgement, and all mortal things else do uncessantly rowle, turne, and passe away. Thus can nothing be certainely established, nor of the one, nor of the other; both the judgeing and the judged being in continual alteration and motion. We have no communication with being; for every humane nature is ever in the middle between being borne and dying; giving nothing of itselfe but an obscure apparence and shadow, and an uncertaine and weake opinion. And if perhaps you fix your thought to take its being, it would be even as if one should go about to grasp the water: for how much the more he shall close and presse that, which by its owne nature is ever gliding, so much the more he shall loose what he would hold and fasten. Thus, seeing all things are subject to passe from one real change to another, reason, which therein seeketh a reall subsistence, findes herselfe deceived as unable to apprehend any thing subsistent and permanent... (Montaigne 323) Montaigne: Essays, in three volumes, translated by John Florio. London: Dent, Everyman's Library, 1910)When Montaigne (1533-92) wrote the Essay "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond" (from which these lines come) in the 1570s, he was striving to confront two radically different responses to doubt. Sebond was a theologian who believed that human reason could solve all the difficulties of Christian faith. Montaigne had translated Sebond's book in 1569, but then he read the recent Latin translation of the writings of Sextus Empiricus, whose Pyrrhonism derived ultimately from the anti-dogmatic challenges of the Socratic method. Montaigne's conclusion in the Essay is that human reason is unreliable, that we can be sure of the correctness of no statement or opinion. Or, again, "Que scay-je?" -- what (if anything) can I really know?
Montaigne's Essays were published in various versions, the last and fullest being dated 1595, one year before Ren‚ Descartes was born, the man whose failure to find a solution to Montaigne's Scepticism served to launch the whole modern philosophical debate about epistemology. In 1603, John Florio published his English translation of Montaigne and although critics debate whether Shakespeare might have seen draft versions before writing Hamlet, they are quite sure that he had not only seen it but read it in depth and penetrated himself with its language before he wrote King Lear (See: Appendix 6 in King Lear edited by Kenneth Muir, Arden edition, 1972. Pages 235 - 9).
The other great writer of this culture of doubt contemporary with Shakespeare lies nearer home; Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was only three years older than Shakespeare. In 1605 he published the first part of his Great Instauration, The Advancement of Learning, and furnished the impetus for another response to the questions raised by doubt in his insistence on experimental method. Shakespeare was not a university man, not a philosopher or a scientist. Yet it must surely be argued that Shakespeare had his own program for the Advancement of Learning, his own experimental method, and was as convinced as Bacon that the best could only lie ahead, with no nostalgic looking back to ages past and no self-satisfied basking in an enlightened present. His experimental method was dramatic, his crucible was time.
It is perhaps necessary to evoke briefly the ways in which Shakespeare's doubts coincide with those of his age. There is his concern with nature, both in the contrast between nature and nurture, and in the contrast between "kind" and "unkind" (or "monstrous") in actions. His interests are not mechanical, he does not roll balls down planks or gaze at the moon, but he is fascinated by the inner mechanics governing the rise and fall, the joys and sorrows, of people in their pursuits of power and love, good and evil. He is fascinated by the "hows" of human behaviour, which he explores in microscopic detail and on a macrocosmic scale.
His interest in the processes of history was particularly remarkable; the way in which he re-read and transformed the chronicle-style records he found in Holinshed and others into the history plays and tragedies is without parallel. If we compare it with Camden's Britannia (first published in Latin in 1586, the sixth and last version appearing in 1607, the English version published in 1610) we may realize better how very "modern" Shakespeare's approach to history was, compared to the antiquarian, documentary style of the scholars, thanks to his undogmatic reading of the patterns occurring in human history.
Interestingly enough, Shakespeare is close to Bacon in one important respect; the Book of God that fascinates them both is the Book of Nature, not the Bible. Shakespeare never once uses the word "Bible" and the "Scriptures" are only mentioned three times, in jest. Most of the main Biblical tales are never mentioned. Almost the only uses of "Christ", "Jesus", "Mary", "Cross" are found in the mouths of medieval characters in the history plays. The only explicitly religious references that are widespread in the plays are Hell and the Devil, Heaven and God or the gods, "God" often being replaced by "heavens". At the beginning of Antony and Cleopatra, a soothsayer is brought in. To the question, "Is it you, sir, that know things?" he replies: "In nature's infinite book of secrecy / A little I can read." (I ii 8-10). Instead of the Bible, the coming Age of Reason much preferred to read the infinite Book of Nature, for since St Augustine, at least, there had always been a conviction that there were two books in which God was revealed. The first, often easier to interpret and more positive, was the Book of Nature, the wonders of the cosmos, the patterns and ultimate harmony of the natural order. The other, the Old and New Testaments, had been given to humanity because they had proved so unable to learn correctly the gentler teachings of the first.
The Bible was hard to read, full of threats and commands. It is hardly surprising that Shakespeare much preferred images from the visible world, from history, or from the classical myths, which often expressed truths about human existence far more clearly than any Bible story. In that he was very much part of his time, for the modern obsession with Bible-reading dates mainly from the revivalistic free church movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (See also the discussion of this point in: Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background, 1934).
It is well known that Shakespeare's study of human destinies stops at death, he never tries to anticipate what is hidden beyond it. In that he is equally modern and scientific, the nature of the human soul was to remain a great riddle for the coming scientific age, with its emphasis on what could be observed and measured. Shakespeare was surely convinced that the truth about human existence in this present world had not yet been revealed and that there were infinite mysteries left for him to ponder as he wrote, more than enough for a whole lifetime.
The most convincing illustration of Shakespeare's capacity to doubt and doubt again I would find in the way his plays differ so strongly, not only from those of his predecessors and contemporaries, but from one another. Marlowe's plays, although they have different plots, are in some senses all the same play, it is hard to imagine how Marlowe could have developed as a dramatist. Ben Jonson, too, is on the whole a fairly static writer, although with a wider variety of stances and voices than Marlowe. As we move from one Shakespearean play to the next, it becomes clear that he is never simply following a tested recipe. There are points where we can almost feel him tearing up his previous plays in disgust as he strives to demolish any claim they might make to ultimate truth.
It could be argued that his doubt about Romeo and Juliet gave birth to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is in part a parody of it, and that the killing of the king in Richard II begot Julius Caesar. Out of which emerged Hamlet, and although there were a host of different reactions provoked by that, one of them gave us King Lear, which oddly enough looks back to A Midsummer Night's Dream and forward to The Tempest in a quite remarkable way, as apparent madness in a natural setting leads to a reconciliation and a future lying beyond the play. It is not simply that plays parody and reverse patterns found in immediately preceding works; there is an evolution away from the theme of transfers of power toward the theme of transfers of love, identity, and knowledge, and these transfers become more and more strongly generational.
Erasmus, Copernicus, Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Hobbes, to mention only a few, all discovered in their own ways that the knowledge inherited from the past, that they had worked so hard to master in youth, was not valid, proposed false answers, or proved incapable of giving an answer to the questions they wanted to ask. Part of the problem was the way in which Aristotelian methods, which might have their validity as logic or as intellectual process, came associated with a whole set of "scientific" assertions about the natural universe that quite clearly did not correspond to experienced reality.
The Ptolemaic model of the solar system is only the most obvious example; it said, for example, that all heavenly bodies necessarily moved in perfectly circular orbits because they were perfect and the circle was the perfect form. The theory was metaphysically appealing, only direct observation in fact showed that they moved in ellipses. The Aristotelian "explanation" that objects fell to the ground because they had the "property of heaviness" was also a major cause of discontent, since the only way one knew that certain objects had the "property of heaviness" was by observing that they fell to the ground.
This teaching was the matter of the syllabus taught in the northern European universities and schools, it has come to be known as Scholasticism. It was vested with an immense double authority, that of Aristotle, first, and that of the Church. For since the time of Thomas Aquinas, the Church in western Europe had adopted Aristotelian methods despite obvious difficulties when it came to discourse about God or about the soul, since Aristotle was a pragmatist who refused to speculate about what could not be observed and categorized within the natural order.
It might be possible to argue that the rejection of the old system of the Schools by each of these thinkers was accompanied with a more or less sharp sense of betrayal and disappointment. The way many of them attack the Schoolsmen, expressed most dramatically by Bacon and culminating in the fierce mockery of Hobbes, has given birth to the familiar images of the middle ages as a period of obscurantism and of the scientific period that followed it as one of liberated enlightenment. Certainly, the tone of Bacon's sense of joy at his discovery that the truth lies ahead, still to be discovered, instead of behind, was of incalculable importance in the self-construction of the modern period.
The myth underlying this process has much in common with the image of the passage from the old generation to the new that Shakespeare portrayed in so many plays. The future full of promise is embodied in the comedies in the image of the young couple united in mutual love, turning their backs on their parents amd the past to cleave to one another and found the future generation. No wonder that the sentimental pessimism of Romeo and Juliet, where the old generation alone survives, and love kills all its devotees, provoked the contrary extreme in A Midsummer Night's Dream, where the only old person is the troubling Egeus demanding his daughter's blood, and where the passage of time brings a great deal of happiness for everyone and ends in blessings for the future.
In Richard II, the transfer forward to a new generation is political, potentially more complex. Tillyard, with his static pseudo-Confucianism and his failure to see this dynamic of transfer, seems to have blinded many of our students to the fact that although Richard insists on his Divine Right to be king, the play proves that he is wrong. While Richard talks in terms that owe much more to the insecurities of Henry VIII and Elizabeth than to medieval concepts of monarchy, the rising star Bolingbroke has already learned the art of electioneering and getting public opinion on his side (he sounds like a Clinton): "How he did seem to dive into their hearts / With humble and familiar courtesy; / What reverence he did throw away on slaves, / Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles ... Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench...." (I iv 25-31). The dramatic movement of Richard II strongly suggests (for Socratic polylogues never do more) that kings have no more power than they can gain by popular assent, that the people is sovereign.
Of course, Richard is replaced by his cousin, a high aristocrat who is made to seem younger by Shakespeare although in history they were of the same age; democracy is still remote. The rebellions and coups of the political plays are always the work of high barons, and we all know how much scorn there is in Shakespeare's characters' use of the word "the mob". The English constitution of the middle ages granted the king supreme respect, but not absolute power; barons ruled their lands like local kings and claimed the right to be consulted by the king in council. The medieval king could make no absolutist claims.
The revolt of Essex against Elizabeth in 1599 is often compared to Bolingbroke's revolt against Richard II, (Richard II was acted on the night before) although McAlindon (in his very important study: T. McAlindon, Shakespeare's Tragic Cosmos, Cambridge University Press, 1991. Page 76) has suggested that Julius Caesar offers an even more interesting parallel, since the new generation (Octavianus) rising once Caesar has been eliminated by the rebels, is going to become Augustus, the peace- bringing arch-tyrant. If Elizabeth is Caesar, who might Octavianus be?
Why should Shakespeare have been so interested in the revolts of high barons? To suggest that he supported Essex is surely to miss the point. For the citizens of London in Shakespeare's time, the old right of the barons to participate in government and even uncrown kings, was of vital interest because that was the power the rich merchant classes were beginning to claim for themselves; they were the new barons. Shakespeare was looking to the future, not the past, and by his stance of doubt showed signs of foretelling the coming Civil War, the execution of the king, and the Commonwealth.
The upstart king in Hamlet fears Hamlet's popularity with the people as a possible threat to his power. But that is nothing to the threat the past represents to Hamlet. His father's ghost is heavily vested with medieval trappings, armour and Purgatory among them; he fights battles of territorial conquest, and clearly belongs to another age, by the very fact of being a ghost from the past. Above all, this antic ghost tries to impose on his son a notion of revenge drawn from all that is old-fashioned and out of date: Senecan tragedy and the heroic ethos. Betrayed by his medieval father, the renaissance Hamlet is equally betrayed by his mother, in that astonishingly modern matter of her sexuality.
It is Hamlet that reveals something only latent in Richard II and Julius Caesar: the killing of the king is a mythical enacting of the killing of the archetypal father. Freud's theories of the Oedipus Complex, like so much of his dogmatic and unimaginative simplifications, have not stood the test of time. Jung too is hardly fashionable but at least he allows us more space to play our games in. And there is clearly some kind of truth there, for the notion of a universal Oedipus myth has escaped from Freud and become part of popular psychology.
The father involved in our mythical murder-games is the domineering and alienating figure who stands between us and ourselves as we would wish to be. Before that figure, who in reality has littel or nothing to do with our biological and historical father, we each experience the ultimate "anxiety of influence", for this father is nothing other than an image of the entire order of external reality pre-existing us and into which we were pushed screaming, that we are not naturally willing to adjust to, make sense of, and become part of; the past threatens to restrict our unlimited future prospects.
It may or may not be overimaginative to see a parallel between this mythical pattern and the response of our pioneers of doubt to the schemata of knowledge inherited from the past. The iconoclasm of the Reformation extremists, smashing old stained-glass windows and statues of saints, lighting fires with manuscripts and selling off the monasteries, was intensely marked by the euphoric glee of the would-be patricide, before the ghosts come back to haunt. Bacon and Hobbes both seem eager to abolish a demonised past and declare a total liberation.
Only the myth in question conceals a Catch. If the liberation is sought by overt violence, the Furies will soon loom. Wisdom counsels patience. The fatherly image is old and will one day of itself wither and die. So the wise hold out, and in the course of time the mythical paternal duly declines, looses strength, and expires. What ensues, though, is the painful discovery that instead of becoming unconditioned son, or son at last united with the long desired maternal image, one has become in turn paternal, and a new generation is arising eager for the abolition of a past which had been our recent present.
Shakespeare artfully limits the enacting of this drama. His fathers have had no fathers, no past that we can discern within the texts of their plays; we cannot conceive of Hamlet's father, of Lear or Prospero as little children, in the condition of sonship. They have been as they are at the start of their plays from all eternity. Hamlet is the play that elaborates most deeply and fully the perplexities of dominated sonship, and it is in King Lear and The Tempest that they are worked through to outcomes that are perhaps not so different, although the processes are.
McAlindon stresses usefully the Shakespearean vision of rashness as folly and patience as wisdom. Time makes all the difference. "The whirligig of time brings in his revenges" (TN V i 385) and also makes everything right, for "Ripeness is all" (KL V ii 11) and if not the ripeness, then the "readiness" (Hamlet V ii 218). Those who know this may hope to survive, or go with dignity; the enacting of the rites of passage makes up the structure of each play, encapsulating in a brief two hours of play fundamental myths of optimism about the human condition.
We seem to have come a long way from Renaissance cultures of doubt. Not so; we have said that doubt was the process by which the inherited past was challenged and obliged to give way to the promised future. Knowledge is the key; inherited from the past, it is useless, it needs to be abolished in favour of a knowledge lying in store, potentially attained as the play ends. Not by the characters, though. It is not interesting to discuss what Lear learns, although it may seem so. Much more interesting is to ask what knowledge we may hope to gain by watching King Lear or any other of the plays.
Not, you will note, by reading them. Although an imaginative reading can very well take the place of watching a performance at times. Yet those who have never seen a theatrical performance will hardly be well prepared to imagine one. The actual attendance at a performance is important because of the nature of the Shakespearean polylogue and its enactments.
If it is correct to situate Shakespeare among the great Renaissance masters of creative doubt, and even to see him as the greatest of them, we need to reflect on our own relationship to that culture of doubt and of search for truth yet to come. The experience of watching one of the Shakespearean plays acted may of course simply lead to drawing-room conversations about stage- sets and elocution. But it may confront us with our inner self and invite us to recognize, at least for a moment, ghosts of the past that haunt our own inner battlements. It may serve to awaken creative doubt and lead us out along ways of new discovery.
We are all Lears at times, out there alone and pretty well naked. The doubt written in the text of King Lear is surely the most austere of the Shakespearean challenges, a doubt about humanity, family relationships, and the gods. At the end there are very few survivors and we may wonder if there is any meaning left, until we remember that Albany and Edgar are both Lear's sons, the one by marriage and the other, by anachronism, as Lear's godson (KL II i 90). The passage has taken place and old sonless father Lear has left two sons who stand turned toward the unknown future.
As teachers and students of Shakespeare, we sometimes need to recall the archetypal Dream that he invites us to. Drama is dream, and dream is the condition of true human living. Without dreams, we go crazy and die. Dreams are the process by which our minds make sense of the chaos of life's daily circus. That was the concern of Renaissance doubt: how to make sense of senseless chaos? The thinkers did it by thinking, but Shakespeare was an artist and had access to the greater depths and powers of feeling (Robertson Davies, "Jung and the Theatre" in: One Half of Robertson Davies, Penguin Books, 1978. Page 148).
The many voices of the Shakespearean polylogue fade into silence, but the words that were spoken and the events that were enacted on the stage remain alive in the audience, challenging our assumptions and conventional hypotheses about what it means to be alive, about what is true and right and good, about what hope there is for us to live by. Shakespeare rises above all the rest by the enduring truth of the dream that his works propose. Whereas Columbus set out, but could only discover America; Galileo and the scientists turned everything into mathematical formulae; and Hobbes affirmed that the life of man was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".
Almost all of that Hamlet rejects in his most eloquent speech: "Word, words, words..." (II ii 192). Yet Shakespeare also gave Hamlet words that enshrine the essential dilemma: "What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!--and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delighteth not me..." (II ii 303-8). The solution of the doubt poised at the junction of the opposing visions is left to the individual members of the audience. Hamlet dies, it is Horatio who suggests what question Shakespeare has been reflecting on in this most complex of polylogues: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (V ii 364-5).
The noble heart can find no rest except the grave, driven tirelessly onward from doubt to question to doubt, full of curiosity, eager to find answers but never satisfied with anything so far found. Like Hamlet, Shakespeare died unaware of the significance of his life, perhaps convinced that he had never discovered anything of the truth he was seeking. Yet for us he remains the greatest of all explorers in that Age of Discoveries, the explorer of the depths of the human heart, the purveyor of Dreams that lead toward the Truth.