David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Wilson Knight’s Chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!


G. Wilson Knight was a mid-century critic probably most known for an infamous little essay on Hamlet he wrote in 1930 called “The Embassy of Death” (collected in The Wheel of Fire). The essay is sort of a troll. He argues that but for Hamlet himself, Denmark is a happy, lively place under the wise, gentle rule of Claudius. But for Hamlet’s mad injection of himself into the proceedings, which destroys most of the characters and the state itself, things would have been fine. Hamlet is the sick, deranged soul who drags down a healthy world.

Now, Wilson Knight has some very keen points to make that go against the standard interpretation, but the essay is written in a gallivanting style that makes it clear that Wilson Knight knows he is being provocative. And so he is going over the top to make Hamlet as bad as possible and make every excuse for Claudius (who did murder the old King, but come on, let’s not dwell on it). You can imagine Wilson Knight barely able to keep a straight face as he goes into hyperbolic rhapsodies over Claudius’s pax Denmark and Hamlet’s malevolent presence:

Claudius, as he appears in the play, is not a criminal.  He  is—strange  as  it  may  seem—a  good  and  gentle  king, enmeshed by the chain of causality linking him with his crime. And this chain he might, perhaps, have broken except for Hamlet, and all would have been well. Now, granted the presence of Hamlet—which Claudius  at  first  genuinely  desired,  persuading  him  not  to  return to Wittenberg as he wished—and granted the fact of his original crime which cannot now be altered, Claudius can hardly be blamed for his later actions. They are forced on him. As King, he could scarcely beexpected to do otherwise. Hamlet is a danger to the state, even apart from  his  knowledge  of  Claudius’  guilt.  He  is  an  inhuman—orsuperhuman—presence, whose consciousness—somewhat like Dostoievsky’s Stavrogin—is centred on death. Like Stavrogin, he is feared by those around him. They are always trying in vain to  find out what iswrong with him. They cannot understand him. He is a creature of another world. As King of Denmark he would have been a thousand times more dangerous than Claudius.

I have concentrated on Claudius’ virtues. They are manifest. So are his faults—his original crime, his skill in the less admirable kind of policy, treachery, and intrigue. But I would point clearly that, in the movement  of  the  play,  his  faults  are  forced  on  him,  and  he  is  distinguished  by  creative  and  wise  action,  a  sense  of  purpose,  benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen…In short he is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks.  Hamlet  is  inhuman.  He  has  seen  through  humanity….

He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of  flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strengthof health—but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in grave-yards, at home with death. Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself.

“The Embassy of Death” (1930)

I really like the essay as a performance, since it does (if you’re not completely alienated by it) make you realize how equally unlikely the contrary and common interpretation is, with Hamlet the good guy and Claudius the fount of evil. But Wilson Knight evidently saw that if he was going to make a critical impact, there was no point in being restrained. He might as well push his own account to the limit, even if it completely broke with plausibility. Outrage trumps reasonableness and moderation.

Yet it wasn’t especially a cynical gesture, seemingly more a temperamental one. Years later he published his chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe. Here it is again:

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!

And the first thing I think on seeing this is, “You would have to be insane to come up with something like this.” Maybe not to come up with it, but to publish it, along with a long explanation of which this quote is representative:

On the right we have personal qualities; on the left, social and political. In the centre is a creative ‘conflict’ (not exactly ‘disorder’) related to the clash of individual and society. This conflict is nevertheless mainly inward and spiritual, and most fully experienced within the protagonist. It next tends, like a cyclone or hurricane, to move down the chart, developing into ‘armed opposition’, with the area columns showing a strong divergence of personal and communal symbolism as the rift widens; and so on to a tragic resolution.

The Shakespearean Tempest

It reminds me a bit of the schemas that Joyce made for Ulysses, except that those were (a) explicitly partial and ex post facto, and (b) by the author for a single work. To come up with something like this for the entirety of Shakespeare’s works is a whole different level, and my next impulse is to start tweaking it and adding to it, shortly before I realize that it would be silly, because this chart is an attempt to turn Shakespeare into his near-antithesis, Dante. And clearly another bizarrely perverse impulse of Wilson Knight’s, as he pretty much says:

But our chart should at least serve to indicate the danger of saddling Shakespeare’s world with any static scheme whatsoever. Only when these various powers are recognized shall we understand the true process of harmonization at work.

And then I think that James Joyce really did achieve as close of a merging of the two as was possible, by taking a million schemas and attempting to superimpose them over one another simultaneously in his last two novels. And Wilson Knight’s choice of anchoring motifs–music and tempests–are pretty good ones.

Demolition Derby: Jonathan Barnes

It stinks.

"This movie gets my highest rating, 7 out of 10."

This is the funniest vicious review I’ve read in a while, from this week’s TLS. I’m excerpting the best bits, but it’s all of a piece. The nastiest parts are…the quotes.

Glen Duncan THE LAST WEREWOLF 346pp. Canongate. £14.99.

by Jonathan Barnes

Bitten by a werewolf when Queen Victoria was on the throne, Jacob Marlowe (just “Jake” to his friends) has grappled with his lycanthropic inheritance for more than a century-and-a-half… “I really can’t stand it any more”, he tells us, “the living and the killing and the wandering the world without love.” Only when he finally accepts the inevitability of his own extinction does he discover a reason to survive – and to take the fight to his pursuers.

So stark a synopsis does little to suggest the considerable pleasures and occasional disappointments of Glen Duncan’s eighth novel, The Last Werewolf. While much of the cheerfully pulpy subject matter is familiar from numerous comic books, roleplaying games, television series and movies, the voice that the novelist assumes is arrestingly original. Told (at least until a late and slightly unconvincing switch) in the firstperson by Jacob Marlowe himself, Duncan’s monstrous narrator makes for memorably rambunctious company.

Nonchalant about his place in the food chain (on people: “when you get right down to it they’re first and foremost food”) and full of macho swagger (“I’d fucked her six times with preposterous staying power”), he is also philosophical (“snow makes cities innocent again, reveals the frailty of the human gesture against the void”), aphoristic (“total self-disgust is a kind of peace”) and topically droll (“two nights ago I’d eaten a forty-three-year-old hedge fund specialist”).

…Curiously, he also indulges in some literary criticism (“Graham Greene had a semi-parodic relationship with the genres his novels exploited”)….

…Invention flags in the book’s second half as a series of very similar situations are described in almost identical ways: “it happened very fast”; “then several things happened very fast”; “what happened next happened … very fast”; “what happened happened very fast”. While the conclusion appears to gesture towards the possibility of a sequel, one cannot but hope that Duncan can triumph over the temptation to make The Last Werewolf the first instalment in a series.

I can’t imagine how the sops to the book’s virtues made it into the second paragraph.

Many Meanings Can Have One Word: Sigurd Burckhardt

Under the headings pun, rhyme, metaphor, and meter I have in fact already been discussing an aspect of poetic language which, since Empson, no treatment of poetics can afford to ignore: ambiguity. For Empson, ambiguity became all but synonymous with the essential quality of poetry; it meant complexity, associative and connotative richness, texture, and the possibility of irony. The ambiguous word proliferated like a vine, wove or revealed hidden strands between the most various and distinct spheres of our prosaically ordered world. By exploiting the ambiguity of words the poet could ironically undercut the surface meanings of his statements, could avail himself fully of the entire field of meanings which a word has and is. I want to shift the stress of Empson’s analysis a little. He made us aware that one word can–and in great poetry commonly does–have many meanings; I would rather insist on the converse, that many meanings can have one word. For the poet, the ambiguous word is the crux of the problem of creating a medium for him to work in. If meanings are primary and words only their signs, then ambiguous words are false; each meaning should have its word, as each sound should have its letter. But if the reverse is true and words are primary–if, that is, they are the corporeal entities the poet requires–then ambiguity is something quite different: it is the fracturing of a pristine unity by the analytic conceptualizations of prose. The poet must assume that where there is one word there must, in some sense, be unity of meaning, no matter what prose usage may have done to break it. The pun is the extreme form of this assumption, positing unity of meaning even for purely accidental homophones, such as the sound shifts of a language will happen to produce.

Ambiguity, then, becomes a test case for the poet; insofar as he can vanquish it–not by splitting the word, but by fusing its meanings–he has succeeded in making language into a true medium; insofar as it vanquishes him, he must abdicate his position as a “maker.” I would say, therefore, that he does not primarily exploit the plurisignations of words, as though they were a fortunate accident; rather he accepts, even seeks out, their challenge, because he knows that in his encounter with them the issue of his claim is finally joined and decided. A pun may be a mere play, a rhyme a mere jingle, even a metaphor only an invitation to conceptual comparisons; true ambiguities are another matter. With them it is not a question of taking two words or meanings and showing how, in some sense, they are one, but rather of taking one word and showing that it is more than a potpourri of the meanings we have a mind to attach to it. Since the poet’s credo must be the opening of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word,” he meets the temptation of meaning ultimately in ambiguity.

Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest” (1956)

Some of this, in its talk about meaning and intention, may read as a bit naive, but I think that’s mistaken. Rather than positing some Platonic meaning that a work aims at, one locked inside the poet’s head, I think Burckhardt means to talk about how there is inescapably the notion of some intent on the creator’s part that a reader has to deal with. There is some particular instantiation of meaning that a poet was working with. The “pristine unity” is private, maybe even an illusion. Meanings may be primary, but they are still private in their particular essence, even if it is by them that we are able to live and function. The writer’s intent is not decipherable or recoverable, but at the same time we do have the fact that such an intent existed at the time of creation. If “intent” and “meaning” are too specific, just take it that there was some unified surplus in the poet’s mind at the time. Some critics try to externalize that surplus onto historical surroundings, about which we know far more; other critics try to minimize the role of that surplus by exploding the amount of sheer ambiguity in the words themselves. Yet the collateral effect is also to dampen a sense of unity. Despite the clear attempts made by critics to reconstruct a more complex unity from the proliferations of meaning, there is a point where such unities are no longer comprehensible or plausible to a lay reader, and so multiplicity rules over unity.

Another irony is how some of those obsessive close reader critics complained about the advent of theory and other cultural readings, as though there were limits to what ambiguity could suggest, when in fact the Ambiguists had opened the door to such diversity in the first place. By positing that any “pristine unity” lay precisely in the multiplicity of meaning, they abdicated their hegemonic throne, a la Richard II. Theorists then made a rear-guard action by reclassifying where the “pristine unity” could be, outside the realm of the text-in-isolation. I love much of the work of the Ambiguists, but they should have seen it coming. They were climbing Jacob’s ladder.

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