An excerpt from
Shakespeare as a writer is the embodiment of human freedom. He seems to have been able to fashion language to say anything he imagined, to conjure up any character, to express any emotion, to explore any idea. Though he lived his life as the bound subject of a monarch in a strictly hierarchical society that policed expression in speech and in print, he possessed what Hamlet calls a free soul. Free, a word that with its variants Shakespeare uses hundreds of times, means in his work the opposite of confined, imprisoned, subjected, constrained, and afraid to speak out. Those who are called free are unimpeded and untramelled, generous and magnanimous, frank and open-minded. It is not only in hindsight that we recognize such qualities in Shakespeare. He was, said his friend and rival Ben Jonson, of a remarkably “open and free nature.”
Yet if Shakespeare is the epitome of freedom, he is also a figure of limits. These limits are not constraints on Shakespeare’s imagination or literary genius. Doubtless there were such constraints—notwithstanding his aura of divinity, he was, after all, a mortal—but I am among those who are struck rather by the apparently unbounded power and visionary scope of his achievement. No, the limits that he embodied are ones he himself disclosed and explored throughout his career, whenever he directed his formidable intelligence to absolutes of any kind. These limits served as the enabling condition of his particular freedom,
Shakespeare lived in an absolutist world. More accurately, he lived in a world pervaded by absolutist claims. These claims were not the relics of an earlier, cruder time; though they dressed themselves in the robes of antiquity, they represented something new. Religious radicals of Shakespeare’s father’s generation had successfully challenged the absolute authority of the Pope, only to erect comparably extreme claims for the authority of scripture and of faith. In the vision of English theologians inspired by Calvin, God was no longer a monarch with whom lowly mortals could negotiate by means of supplication, ascetic self-discipline, and other propitiatory offerings. Divine decisions were incomprehensible and irrevocable, unconstrained by any form of mediation, contract, or law. So too, crown lawyers for the two monarchs during whose reigns Shakespeare lived fashioned an elaborate conception of kingship above the law. Royal absolutism was a fiction—in reality, the will of the monarch was constrained by Parliament and by many other well-entrenched forces—and the absolute authority of scripture was comparably hedged about by innumerable limits. But the claims were made again and again, and, despite their obvious experiential failures, they did not seem simply absurd, echoing as they did the dominant vision of a universe governed by an absolute, omniscient, and omnipotent lord. Indeed, by Shakespeare’s time the very idea of gods who possessed great but limited powers—the gods of the Greeks and the Romans—had come to seem incoherent, the consequence, it was thought, of putting demons in the place of the one true God.
With belief in an all-powerful God came an entwined set of linked absolutes: love, faith, grace, damnation, redemption. These conceptions had long since been stripped of any halfway or compromise postures in much Catholic theology and art: scenes of the Last Judgment on the portals of churches do not admit of unresolved cases or make room for a middle ground. The absolute nature of the core vision was, if anything, intensified by a Protestantism that rigorously eliminated Purgatory—the temporary middle-state of souls—swept away the mediating power of the saints and the Virgin Mary, and denied the efficacy of “works.”
Shakespeare was not a theologian, and his work does not meddle in doctrinal claims, but he was raised in a culture whose official voices insisted on absolute divine freedom, unbounded divine love, faith alone, prevenient grace, eternal damnation, once-for-all salvation. And he heard, in the social and political theories that mirrored religious concepts, comparably extravagant claims for the authority of kings over their subjects, fathers over wives and children, the old over the young, the gentle over the baseborn. What is striking is that his work, alert to every human fantasy and longing, is allergic to the absolutist strain so prevalent in his world, from the metaphysical to the mundane. His kings repeatedly discover the constraints within which they must function if they hope to survive. His generals draw lines on maps and issue peremptory commands, only to find that the reality on the ground defies their designs. So too his proud churchmen are mocked for pretensions, while religious visionaries, who claim to be in direct communication with the divine, are exposed as frauds.
Above all, perhaps, it is Shakespeare’s lovers who encounter again and again the boundaries that society or nature sets to the most exalted and seemingly unconfined passions. “This is the monstruosity in love, lady,” Troilus tells Cressida, “that the will is infinite and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (Troilus and Cressida 3.2.75–77). In a somewhat jauntier spirit, Rosalind assures the lovesick Orlando that “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (As You Like It 4.1.91–92). The peculiar magic of Shakespeare’s comedies is that love’s preciousness and intensity are not diminished by such exposure to limits but rather enhanced. And when lovers in the tragedies—Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Antony—refuse to acknowledge any limits, their refusal inevitably leads to death and destruction.
My interest in this book is in the ways that Shakespeare establishes and explores the boundaries that hedge about the claims of the absolute. My focus in the chapters that follow is on four underlying concerns to which Shakespeare’s imagination was drawn consistently and across the multiple genres in which he worked. These concerns are beauty—Shakespeare’s growing doubts about the cult of featureless perfection and his interest in indelible marks; negation—his exploration of murderous hatred; authority—his simultaneous questioning and acceptance of the exercise of power, including his own; and autonomy—the status of artistic freedom in his work.
Though I intend the chapters to stand by themselves—each a distinct exploration of a critical node of interest in Shakespeare’s work—they are linked to one another in an unfolding argument, bound up with the fact that my four principal concerns have all served as the objects of sustained theoretical reflection in the writing of Theodor Adorno. The philosopher was not in fact particularly interested in the English playwright and wrote very little about him, but many of the knotty aesthetic problems with which Adorno grappled throughout his career arose in the wake of what he called Shakespeare’s “breakthrough into mortal and infinitely rich individuality.”
This breakthrough, I will argue, arose from an unexpected artistic swerve in his work, a startling departure from the norms of beauty that governed Renaissance taste. Shakespeare never formally repudiated these norms, but the figures who arouse the most fervent desire in his work—the Dark Lady of the sonnets, Venus, Cleopatra, and the succession of romantic heroines from Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost to Innogen in Cymbeline—achieve individuation through their distance from conventional expectations. They are memorable, distinctive, and alluring not despite but precisely because of their failure to conform to the code of ideal featurelessness to which Shakespeare and his contemporaries subscribed. Departures from that code were understood to entail the risk of defect or stain, and indeed the forms of beauty in which Shakespeare seems most interested veer perilously close to what his culture characterized as ugliness. But that proximity is the price of individuation.
Radical individuation—the singularity of the person who fails or refuses to match the dominant cultural expectation and is thus marked as irremediably different—is suggestively present throughout the plays and poems but is perhaps most vividly exemplified not in Shakespeare’s heroines but in two disturbing figures of otherness, Shylock and Othello. The Jew and the Moor do not merely run the risk of stain: they are what almost everyone in the dominant cultures in which they live defines as ugly. If Desdemona’s love for Othello confirms the surprising proximity of supposed ugliness and beauty, the terms in which she articulates his allure reflect the continued power of the normative: “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind” (1.3.251).
Otherness in The Merchant of Venice and Othello is far less a sign of allure than it is a magnet for hatred, a hatred that in the case of Shylock is not only directed at him but fully reciprocated by him and that virtually consumes the vicious Iago. To keep this hatred in check or to mold it to a socially viable end is one of the burdens of those in power. Such at least is the task of the duke and the law court in Merchant and of the senate in Othello. But the difficulty of the task—the ironies, constraints, mixed motives, and inadequacies that beset those in authority in both the comedy and the tragedy—is, as I try to show, part of a larger exploration in Shakespeare of the limits of power.
The only power that does not seem limited in Shakespeare’s work is the artist’s own. In the sphere of his sovereign genius the authority of the playwright and poet seems absolutely free and unconstrained. Nonetheless, Shakespeare, over the course of his career, repeatedly grappled with the question of whether he or anyone else could or should possess what we would call aesthetic autonomy. His most resonant response to the question, I suggest, is figured in Prospero’s decision in The Tempest to break his staff and to plead for pardon:
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Prospero’s words come at the very end of his play and near the end of Shakespeare’s own long, complex, twisting path though a remarkably diverse body of poems and plays. At various points in the course of this journey, driven by a compelling vision of individuality, Shakespeare finds beauty in the singular, confronts the hatred aroused by otherness, explores the ethical perplexities of power, and acknowledges limits to his own freedom. Though they derive from the same vision, we should not expect these recurrent strains in his work to occur all at once—they tend to pull in different directions and to attach themselves to one or another of the genres in which Shakespeare worked. But they may be glimpsed all together for an instant, as if illuminated by a sudden flash of lightning, within a single strange character. There is a moment in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s comedy of substitutes and substitutions, in which the disguised ruler of Vienna, Duke Vincentio, needs a severed head, any head, to trick his hypocritical deputy Angelo, who has ordered the execution of the good Claudio and has demanded that the victim’s head be brought to him personally. The death sentence is deeply unfair but not illegal: Claudio is in technical violation of a statute that makes fornication a capital crime. The fact that the statute had never before been enforced, that Claudio and the pregnant Juliet were married in all but the final, formal ceremony, and that Angelo himself is conniving to commit fornication with Claudio’s beautiful sister Isabella do not invalidate the conviction.
Pleading with Angelo for her brother’s life, Isabella calls attention to the grotesque presumptuousness of those who exercise power over their fellow mortals. “Dressed in a little brief authority,” the petty officer storms about as if he were a god and
like an angry ape
When Angelo asks why she has directed these observations to him, Isabella returns to the question of authority:
Because authority, though it err like others,
But the ability of those in charge to conceal their own corruption—to produce a cover that hides the vice that lies beneath—is beside the point. “The jury passing on the prisoner’s life,” Angelo has earlier remarked coolly, “May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two / Guiltier than him they try” (2.1.19–21), but their presence does not invalidate the law against thievery. So too the law against fornication does not depend upon the uprightness of the deputy who enforces it. “For my better satisfaction,” orders Angelo, conscious both of his own duplicity and of the legal validity of the sentence he is enforcing, “let me have Claudio’s head sent me by five” (4.2.113–14).
Though he is fully aware of the deputy’s perfidy, the duke—who has temporarily absented himself from rule and disguised himself as a friar—cannot and will not simply declare the law to be unjust. He connives instead to deceive Angelo with a piece of legerdemain. It happens that another prisoner, a hardened murder named Barnardine, is scheduled to be executed later that same day, and the duke proposes that the prison provost simply carry out the sentence a few hours early, so as to present Barnardine’s head, instead of Claudio’s, to the cruel Angelo.
The provost, whom Shakespeare represents as an unusually sympathetic human being, does not wince at the prospect of shortening the convicted murderer’s life. On the contrary, this particular prisoner, as the provost describes him, seems to evoke no sympathy at all from anyone in the play. In an odd, seemingly gratuitous exchange—irrelevant to the complex plot of a play that is rapidly approaching its climax—Shakespeare provides a compressed sketch of a life worth losing. Each of the details is cunningly chosen to diminish sympathy:
DUKE: What is that Barnardine, who is to be executed in th’afternoon?
Barnardine is not a citizen of the city in which he lives and in which he has committed murder, but he does not have even the excuse of strangeness or unfamiliarity to mitigate his crime. Though conviction on a capital charge ordinarily brought immediate execution—punishments in Shakespeare’s England were generally carried out directly after sentencing, as Claudio’s was scheduled to be—Barnardine has been a prisoner for nine years, in part because of the contrivance of his friends and in part because of some uncertainty about his guilt. But now that guilt, “his fact,” has been proven, and the criminal himself does not deny it.
Case closed. Even for a playwright with an effortless ability to conjure up vivid glimpses of lived lives, this amount of incidental detail might have seemed sufficient, but Shakespeare wanted more. If a nine-year imprisonment suggested that the murderer already had more time in the world than he deserved, it also raised the possibility of moral reformation, a subject to which the play repeatedly turns. Repentance would not ordinarily lead to a pardon—virtually all criminals were expected to repent before their sentences were carried out and to quail at the prospect of meeting their Maker—but it would slightly soften the picture and make the hastening of Barnardine’s execution in order to provide a convenient severed head seem somewhat discordant.
The dialogue therefore goes on to close off that possibility:
DUKE: Hath he borne himself penitently in prison? How seems he to be touched?
“Desperately mortal”: the picture is of a man who is in effect morally dead, a man who neither seeks freedom nor fears extinction.
The fear of extinction had been given its most powerful articulation not in this play alone but in all of Shakespeare by the condemned Claudio, desperately pleading with his sister to help him escape his imminent execution:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
It is in the context of this stupendous passage and of the fear of death that pervades the entire play that we encounter the strange Dostoevskian note sounded for a second or two before it vanishes: the kindly provost and his assistant have repeatedly awakened Barnardine, showed him a false warrant, and told him that he is about to be executed, only to find each time that the prisoner is completely unmoved.
Small wonder then that no one is concerned about shortening by a few hours the wretched Barnardine’s wretched life. But to the idea of substituting one head for another, the provost does have an immediate practical objection: Angelo has seen both Claudio and Barnardine and will detect the trick. “O, death’s a great disguiser,” replies the disguised duke,
and you may add to it. Shave the head and tie the beard, and say it was the desire of the penitent to be so bared before his death; you know the course is common. (4.2.161–64)
One head will easily stand in for the other.
The provost has a second objection: he is an official, sworn to carry out the commands of his superior, and his superior has in this case explicitly ordered the execution of Claudio, with Barnardine’s execution to follow only later that day. To this objection, the duke has a reply that also depends on the logic of interchangeability:
PROVOST: Pardon me, good father, it is against my oath.
The scrupulous provost is then shown a letter that substitutes for the substitute, a letter that stands for the duke’s own will and countermands Angelo’s order. Of course, not just any letter will do: the document must bear the signs that validate the substitution, here the handwriting and seal of the duke. The provost is called upon to witness these signs: “You know the character, I doubt not, and the signet is not strange to you” (4.2.177–78).
The sealed letter, substituting for the missing duke, displaces the authority of the duke’s substitute, his deputy Angelo, and licenses the plan to substitute one prisoner for another: “Call your executioner, and off with Barnardine’s head” (4.2.188–89). With the help of a little human artifice—the head shaved, the beard tied up—death will level or at least disguise all differences. Indeed, with the help of artifice, even among the living the differences are not very great. How else could the theater, which depends on a low-born actor convincingly miming a prince, thrive? Echoing this root condition of the theater, the plot of Measure for Measure turns on the venerable bed-trick, the familiar revelation that in the dark one lover’s body is impossible to distinguish from another. Substitution reigns.
In the immediate wake of the duke’s command to behead Barnardine, Shakespeare brings on the clown Pompey, promoted from pimp to assistant executioner, to deliver a comical inventory of the other prisoners, many of whom he had come to know as customers in the whorehouse:
First, here’s young Master Rash. . . .Then is there here one Master Caper. . . .Then have we here young Dizzy, and young Master Deepvow, and Master Copperspur and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drophair that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthright the tilter, and brave Master Shoe-tie the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots. (4.3.3–15)
The litany of fantastical names takes the audience back to characters in the morality plays of the mid-sixteenth century, characters with names like New Guise, Now-A-Days, Tipple, Desire, Mischief, and Lusty Juventus. The names denote qualities or conditions—indeed one of these plays is entitled Common Conditions—and they signal anonymity or, rather, an almost universal fungibility. Anyone can become a Tipple or a Desire. Hence the title of the greatest of the morality plays: Everyman.
But it is precisely at this point in Measure for Measure that something strange happens: in a surreal scene of utopian resistance, Barnardine disrupts the logic of substitution by flatly refusing to be executed. The chief executioner Abhorson and his assistant Pompey call for the condemned man to “rise and be hanged”:
ABHORSON: What ho, Barnardine!
“I hear his straw rustle.” The words, so perfect in their simplicity, mark raw life, life in its most basic animal sense. And, when he finally comes forth, this miserable drunken murderer who has been penned up awaiting execution insists inexplicably on his rights: “I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain” (4.3.48–49). The insistence is absurd—the duke orders that he be dragged to the block. But the duke is a man of unusual moral sensitivity, and a moment later he has second thoughts:
A creature unprepared, unmeet for death;
The moral dilemma is quickly resolved: another prisoner, the duke is informed, has just died of a fever, and his head will do quite nicely. Barnardine is spared, and in the flurry of irrational pardons that closes the play, he too is released. There are no signs of penitence, no speeches of reformation. Only acquittal.
Whatever is going on here has little or nothing to do with realistic representation. We are in the realm of stage comedy, not of real life. London of the early seventeenth century was ringed with gibbets on which the bodies of criminals like Barnardine swung, and we can be sure that they were not were not given the opportunity to decline their execution. So what is going on? Barnardine is not necessary for the plot; the severed head comes, eventually, from someone else, the prisoner who conveniently succumbs to fever at just the right moment. He could just as well have succumbed earlier and spared us the peculiar spectacle of the unrepentant, intransigent, and inexplicably pardoned murderer. Barnardine, so unnecessary and so theatrically compelling, serves as an emblem of the freedom of the artist to remake the world.
But this strange character is—by Shakespeare’s careful design—a most unlikely emblem of artistic freedom; penned up, drunken, filthy, and rustling in the straw, the convicted criminal Barnardine is the embodiment of everything that is mortal, bodily, and earth-bound. “Thou art said to have a stubborn soul,” the duke says to him at the play’s end,
That apprehends no further than this world,
What follows immediately upon these words is the utterly implausible pardon, a pardon that serves as an emblem of the power of the sovereign over the life and death of his subjects and, still more, as an emblem of the playwright’s power to suspend or alter all ordinary social rules. But, unlike the sovereign’s, the playwright’s power does not extend beyond the wooden walls of the playhouse. Many of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights—Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Dekker, among others—spent time in prison as a direct or indirect consequence of their writing. If Shakespeare managed to avoid this fate throughout his life, he understood very well that he too could easily find himself locked in a cell, rustling in the straw like the abject Barnadine.
Measure for Measure allows us to glimpse the seeds of what would in a later period be termed aesthetic autonomy, but the play is famously a “problem comedy,” haunted by moral ambiguity, claustrophobia, and an overwhelming sense of something intractable in human nature. That it can be experienced as a comedy at all is bound up with yet another quality embodied in Barnardine: his intense, unexpected, and irreducible individuality.
Though he makes only a cameo appearance in the play, Barnardine is precisely not one of the faceless, interchangeable prisoners inventoried by the clown. His refusal to be used as a substitute is of a piece with his insistent peculiarity and particularity. It is as an individual that he makes his mark on the play—or better perhaps, given his moral and physical nature, his smudge. The diametrical opposite of an idealized or abstract character, Barnardine’s identity is inseparable from what the duke calls the stubbornness of his soul, its refusal or inability to fit into a proper social norm.
The peculiar figure of Barnardine serves as a convenient introduction to two of the principal concerns of this book: first, the extent to which Shakespeare was able to conceive of his art as free to live by its own laws and, second, the extent to which Shakespeare fashioned individuality by departing from his culture’s cherished norms. Shakespeare was fascinated by the dream of autonomy, a dream glimpsed both in Barnardine’s peremptory refusal to consent to his hanging and in the duke’s peremptory granting of Barnadine’s pardon. There are, as we will see, much fuller and more elaborate explorations of these ideas in such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Coriolanus. But both the conditions of the theater in which he worked and his own moral understanding led Shakespeare to hold back from extending the dream of autonomy to the artist himself.
Shakespeare understood his art to be dependent upon a social agreement, but he did not simply submit to the norms of his age. Rather, as I will argue, he at once embraced those norms and subverted them, finding an unexpected, paradoxical beauty in the smudges, marks, stains, scars, and wrinkles that had figured only as signs of ugliness and difference. Here too the irreducible individuality of Barnardine—at once ugly and oddly beautiful—serves as a convenient point of departure.
Barnardine, the unrepentant murderer whose first words are a curse, may serve as well as an introduction to another of this book’s concerns: namely, Shakespeare’s fascination with the way in which the dream of absolute freedom and the dream of absolute individuation fuse in intractable, murderous hatred. We know next to nothing about Barnardine’s crime: only that he has killed someone and expressed no remorse for the act. But elsewhere in his work, Shakespeare explores in rich detail the relationship between negation and individuation. Thus—to take one of his greatest characters—it is through the desire to destroy that the haunting figure of Shylock marks emergence into individuality.
There are limits to Shylock’s hatred: after all, he wishes to kill his enemy yet remain within the law. And there are limits to his individuation, or rather, the play’s community contrives to compel him to convert and to vanish. Some years after The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare returned to the problem of hatred and imagined a figure for whom there were no limits and no vanishing. He gave his character the qualities of a demonic artist—a cunning playwright willing to stop at nothing in order to construct the perfect plot—and called him Iago. Iago’s perverse refusal to speak at the close of Othello is the excruciating tragic equivalent of the comic silence with which Shakespeare ends Barnardine’s story in Measure for Measure.
The strange pardon that Barnardine receives, in the midst of a scene of gratuitous, unmotivated pardons, directs us to yet another of this book’s concerns: Shakespeare’s deep sense of the ethical ambiguity of power, including his own theatrical power. The whole premise of Measure for Measure is the duke’s uneasiness about ruling, an uneasiness that leads him to slip away from public view. He describes his secret withdrawal in strikingly antitheatrical terms:
I love the people,
The duke subsequently reveals that he has a strategic motive for transferring authority to his deputy Angelo: for fourteen years he has failed to enforce the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (1.3.19) of his city, and in consequence respect for authority has virtually collapsed:
Liberty plucks Justice by the nose,
Such, in any case, is the duke’s design, but it is a design that conspicuously fails. The deputy’s enforcement of the laws is a disaster, and the duke can only resolve the tangle of hypocrisy, false accusations, slander, and arbitrary misuse of authority by staging the public, theatrical performance of himself, complete with loud applause and aves vehement, that he despised. His attempt to withdraw from power turns out to be impossible, and though his climactic display of manipulation, masking, unmasking, and pardoning spares the innocent—the play has a comic ending—he manages to leave the city in precisely the state of moral disorder with which it began.
The exercise of theatrical authority—authority in the state, authority on the stage—cannot easily be evaded. The duke’s attempt at withdrawal, like comparable attempts elsewhere in Shakespeare’s plays, has unexpected, potentially disastrous consequences. But Shakespeare does not unequivocally endorse what Claudio in Measure for Measure calls “the demigod Authority” (1.2.100). If to the guilty, publicly disgraced Angelo, the ruler, in his ability to perceive what is hidden, appears to be “like power divine” (5.1.361), to the irrepressible libertine Lucio he is “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3.146–47). The play does not allow one to choose one or the other image or even to settle somewhere in between. Instead, as generations of audiences have attested, Shakespeare’s “problem comedy” elicits a strange, uncomfortable response, a response conveyed in part by Adorno and Horkheimer’s sour characterization of the culture industry: “There is laughter because there is nothing to laugh about.” Or rather, as Isabella (herself a failed believer in absolutes) puts it, at the spectacle of human authority, in its glory and its thunderous absurdity, angels weep, but were they human, they would all die laughing.