David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hamlet (page 1 of 2)

German Phrase of the Day: eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

eines Echtheitskusses Unangekränkeltheitsdruck

the non-sicklied-o’er pressure of an authenticity-laden kiss (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

Robert Walser uses this phrase in his wonderful short story “A Kind of Cleopatra,” available in his collection of Microscripts.

According to Bernofsky, Walser’s use of “angekränkelt” stems from Schlegel’s translation of Hamlet, where it is used at the end of the famous soliloquy.

And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

Der angebornen Farbe der Entschließung
Wird des Gedankens Blässe angekränkelt;

Here used in the negative and applied to “pressure [druck]” for a seemingly positive descriptor. How very odd.

Shakespeare’s Sick, Twisted Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is a sick and disturbing play. Every change Shakespeare made to the source material, including the shift from tragedy to comedy, made it even more twisted. It’s never a good idea to speculate on Shakespeare’s motives, but this sickly comedy leaves religion, politics, and theater all looking terrible.

The quick summary of the relevant plot points: the Duke thinks he has been too lenient in governing Vienna (nice choice of setting!), so he turns his power over to the hypocritical puritan Angelo, who promptly sentences Claudio to death for getting his fiancee pregnant. Claudio’s chaste sister Isabella, a nun, pleads for clemency, and Angelo says he’ll spare Claudio, but only if she sleeps with him. So she does, but Angelo executes Claudio anyway, because he’s worried that Claudio will kill him if he ever finds out.

But no! The Duke has been in disguise as a friar the whole time and arranged it so that Angelo’s ex-fiancee, whom he dumped when her dowry sank at sea, pretended to be Isabella in bed. The Duke also manages to prevent Claudio’s execution by conveniently substituting a prisoner who just died of illness the same day. The Duke reveals himself and lets everyone off, including pardoning an amoral murderer who’s been sitting on the fringes of the action (and whom the Duke was initially going to substitute for Claudio before the other prisoner happened to drop dead). Then the Duke proposes to Isabella and the play ends before she can answer.

To the basic tale, Shakespeare added the bits after “But no!”, borrowing from a few other plots, in order to turn the grim morality play into a comedy. You can go on for ages looking at the various mirrored situations and the oozing moral and physical viscera all over the place, but I want to focus on the biggest problem of all, the Duke, and particularly his rhetoric.

Any interpretation of Measure for Measure that does not turn on an indictment of the Duke renders the play morally indefensible. He carelessly then carefully manipulates and tortures the characters as much as a Coen Brothers villain, and were the tone different, it would play as A Serious Man or a Kleist tale.

This has been a longstanding view. Coleridge was nauseated by the whole play, and I’m genuinely scared by those who see the Duke as some sort of moral paragon. E.K. Chambers (1906) gives a standard indictment:

The duke can be nothing but a travesty of a Haroun-al-raschid. Why does he conceal from Isabella, in her grief, the knowledge that her brother yet lives? To what purpose is the further prolongation of her agony, after his return, by the pretended disbelief of her story and the suspicion cast upon the friar, in whose person he has counselled her?

These are the antics of a cat with a mouse, rather than the dispositions of a wise and beneficent ruler; and it is difficult to see anything in the grave elaboration of them, except a satirical intention of Shakespeare towards theories about the moral government of the universe which, for the time being at least, he does not share. As yet, indeed, his nascent pessimism has only advanced to the point of finding ineffectiveness and not deliberate ill-will in the ordering of things. The thorough-going denunciations of King Lear are still to come.

E.K. Chambers

Now, there is room for some complication here. The Duke himself has some bizarre quirks, as well as the evident split personality.First he abdicates power, then he abdicates knowledge, as though the combination of the two is too great a burden for him to bear. And obviously it is.

But I want to pay attention to his rhetoric. No one else in the play speaks like him. Every time he opens his mouth, the play goes into another register, whether he’s in verse or prose. His speech is just as labyrinthine as his theatrical machinations. He speaks in some of the twistiest rhetoric of anyone this side of Love’s Labours Lost. Even his moralizing is knotted up:

That we were all, as some would seem to be,
From our faults, as faults from seeming, free!


Did you get that? “If only both (a) we were as little subject to our faults, and (b) faults were as free of being in disguise–as much as some people seem to be free from faults.” It’s a bizarre and unbalanced construction that uses the two similes in unorthodox fashion, especially since at its heart is an incoherence: Faults should be as free of disguise as much as faults are in disguise.

This is par for the course for the Duke. His opening discourse on governing is little better, to the extent that scholars from Samuel Johnson on have wondered if miscopying had marred the meaning.

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.


I could believe in the textual corruption if the obfuscatory rhetoric didn’t fit so nicely with the Duke’s personality. Throughout the whole play, the Duke’s rhetoric tends to fall on empty ears anyway. He can be as cryptic as he wants, because (a) he is pulling the strings, and (b) no one really cares what he says. People want things from him; they have no relationship with him.

When the Duke visits the condemned Claudio in prison, his “comfort” to Claudio is like Hamlet’s soliloquy as delivered by Polonius, encouraging Claudio to accept death as a release from the pain of life, even as he plots to free Claudio from the freedom from life of death.

Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep….
If thou art rich, thou’rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear’s thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner.


The Duke’s “comfort” works on Claudio…for about a minute. As soon as Isabella shows up to tell her of Angelo’s bargain, Claudio jumps at the chance for life and tosses the Duke’s stoicism into the rubbish bin:

CLAUDIO: To die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible and warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; . . . ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death. . . .


The Duke’s high-falutin’ rhetoric is not only pointlessly obfuscatory, but no one is listening. Whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is a question for later.

For right now I’ll just maintain that the Duke’s bloviation is intimately tied up with his peculiar sense of morality. Indeed, he frequently sounds like a cross between Polonius and King Lear‘s Edgar. The Edgar connection, which must have been made before but which I haven’t seen, is most blatant in his deception of Isabella. He tells the audience:

But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair,
When it is least expected.


These lines could come straight from Edgar at Dover Cliff in King Learjust as he tricks Gloucester into thinking he’s been saved by God from his attempted suicide. But there Edgar attributes the miracle to God’s presence. Here the heavenly comforts are those of the Duke himself.

And so it’s at least understandable that some would try to allegorize the troublesome plot. One of the more popular ways to justify the Duke has been to turn the whole thing into a Christian allegory. This was G. Wilson Knight‘s approach, and it’s ironic that after pointing out Hamlet’s moral perfidiousness, Knight would then go on to construct an elaborate mechanism to excuse equally bad actions performed by a character in with much greater power and far less excuse. G. Wilson Knight: right on Hamlet, wrong on the Duke.

But these arguments are great precisely because they mirror Christian theodicy. The play is not an allegory, but it is a nasty analogue of the sort of behavior you see in God in the Old Testament.

William Empson does condemn the Duke, as you’d expect, but even though he loathed Christianity with uncommon passion, Empson doesn’t press the point that the game-playing Duke does rather resemble the Judeo-Christian God at his wackiest, with Job, with Isaac and Abraham, with Jephthah and his daughter, etc.

While the seemingly endless cycle of Judges mirrors the “No one has learned anything” ending of Measure for Measure, the Book of Job seems most present. The cruel deceptions, the implicit, staged “bet” with the devil Angelo, blithely pardoning an amoral murderer (who uncannily anticipates Moosbrugger in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities) while berating someone who had the audacity to insult you, the staged, last-minute interventions: the Duke’s mood swings and arbitrariness are quite Yahwehish. It’s not exact and it’s not an allegory, but the similarity is unmistakable.

The opaque rhetoric, then, is there to underscore the Duke’s sheer unaddressability and his disconnection from the rest of us mortals. His rhetorical skills have turned cancerous, weaving his words into thick knots that no one can fully decipher, certainly not the other characters. His rhetoric can hypnotize, but only momentarily; excluded from human discourse, it’s only his exercise of power that affects the other characters. Turning this sort of divine relationship into a secular comedy makes it into a cruel joke.

By the end of final scene, the other characters seem more tired than anything else, as the Duke rolls out his mercy. He’s God, and we’re just grateful we’re still alive by his arbitrary grace. The sophistry piles up as he justifies his actions, and certainly no one will call him on anything. (They promptly fall all over him with praise and gratitude.) The Duke claims Claudio no longer fears death and can enjoy life even more now:

And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Labouring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brain’d my purpose. But, peace be with him!
That life is better life, past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear: make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.


Angelo, who expresses great remorse and says he just wants to die, also gets off free and marries his ex-fiancee. (Assuming that his death wish is sincere, sparing Angelo does make for a bit of an “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” situation, cf. the Harlan Ellison story where all-powerful God/computer AM keeps five humans around to torture and play with after killing everyone else.)

The Duke doesn’t propose marriage to super-chaste Isabella at the end so much as dictate it (she doesn’t get to respond). Why not? He’s the Duke! He knows the value of everything and the price of nothing, which is just as bad as the reverse. Sure a murderer went free and everyone is scarred for life, but didn’t we have a good time? The Duke did!

By making the comedic resolution utterly unacceptable, Shakespeare does penance for the laughter thrown at the oh-so-funny manipulations of previous comedies. Yes, this is what happens when misunderstandings and manipulations pile up: queasy horror.

There’s a lot more that could be said and countless further complications. But the Duke is the heart of it all.

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.

Borges on Shakespeare

On the subject of Shakespeare, his strange impersonalness, and mythology, I think Borges still has it most right.

Everything and Nothing

There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.

For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.

History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

The Waste of Spirit in an Expense of Shame

I see Steve Mitchelmore of This Space has called this blog a pile of shit. (I let his Twitter trackback through.) A few years back it probably would have stung me rather sharply, but now it’s more of a scratch than a wound, though of course I feel it, since Steve’s a litblogger colleague with whom I share some tastes. But in this whole world of social lit-blogging and especially in this odd corner of the web that’s mostly reserved for disconsolate freelance intellectual types, I thought I ought to respond. I was going to write to Steve and do sort of an “I demand satisfaction” act, but I figured that no matter what he said, my response would be more or less the same, which is the response I’m writing right now.

I’m off his blogroll too, so evidently my infraction was a serious one. I don’t know its exact nature, but I can imagine what forms his objection might take: I’m focusing too much unimportant matters; I’m casually dismissing something profound; I’ve become shallow, pompous, or supercilious; etc. The thing about writing here is that no one who is blogging in this way is going to do so without a severe personal investment in what they’re writing about, and that’s true of me as much as anyone else. It’s why I do this. And it’s a double-edged sword. Deviations from carefully-monitored aesthetic standards can easily seem like moral failings. To some extent, we all define ourselves by our opposition to (or at least alienation from) traditional institutional modes of intellectual thought, because if we didn’t, we’d probably be trying to work within those institutions. Lord knows, I am relieved that I don’t have to watch what I say in the way that too many of my friends do. I’m grateful that I can jump from topic to topic. I’m happy that I can write without always having to explain myself.

What happened to me? Literature has come to seem like something that I can’t write about off the cuff as much. Doing pieces like the Krasznahorkai essay over at the Quarterly Conversation has been both exhausting but also rewarding, and there are just too many books that I don’t think merit much comment. That is, writing entries about them would be more about just writing entries rather than contributing anything that I think is worth sharing with the world. Well, the fast horizon and disposability of blog entries makes that hardly a crime, but people like Ray at Pseudopodium (who more or less inspired me to start this blog in the first place) taught me that even if you’re throwing a piece of writing into an enormous swirling vortex of content, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be carefully considered and well-wrought.

So I pissed Steve off, evidently. Sorry Steve. I didn’t intend to irritate you. I try to stick to deserving targets. Steve is overreacting, but hey, this little niche of the blogosphere is made for overreaction, since we take refuge in the realms of deep feelings provided by books as an antidote to what seems to be a careless, callous, superficial world. I still don’t understand the mass of people who go into literature as a career who don’t seem to want to pursue that depth of emotion. Perhaps they find it in different forms; perhaps they find it in less subjective matters; but no, it does seem like they treat it more as a workaday job which they enjoy, but which doesn’t hold out much hope for any transcendental meaning. Just a job, an occupation, a practice. I have respect for that, but it’s alien to me. I can’t imagine spending the exhausting effort of working in the humanities if it didn’t hold out that hope to me. The field has done exactly that, of course, since I was barely a teenager, and I haven’t exhausted the hope yet. But there are those people out there who do great work in the humanities who still aren’t interested in hearing about some new strange author or idea, and I never have much to say to them.

It’s easy to get stuck. You latch on to one person or another, be it Robert Musil or Laura Riding or Maurice Blanchot, and soon enough you get very protective about them and very defensive about any appropriation of them by the academy–or by anyone else, really. How my heart sank every time I ran across that neocon blogger who called himself Robert Musil; I know John Galt wasn’t available, but really?  I wrote about Bolano a few years before he hit it big with The Savage Detectives and afterwards I couldn’t quite hold him in my mind the same way I had when I’d first read By Night in Chile. He lost a bit of that quiet mystique when all the profiles came out about him and there was a mad dash to translate and publish as much of his work as possible, as well as other superficially similar South American writers. (I still don’t think much of Cesar Aira.) I’d love for Laszlo Krasznahorkai to get that sort of fame, but I admit I’d feel ambivalent about seeing my own private connection to his works get buried underneath publicity and hype. It happens.

When I wrote the entry on Hamlet a month ago, it was so striking how Shakespeare’s coyness about meaning and interpretation has given so much space for people to continually conjure new relations to him and his work. Sure, this happens to an extent with all big-name writers, but Shakespeare does seem to have been an intuitive master at leaving readers and audiences the space to invent their own profound, personal, and particular meanings of his work. I don’t know. I like the sense of relating to an author, and if the author is so indistinct that I feel there’s more of me in my projection of the author than there is of the actual author, I get restless. It becomes more of myth than literature.

James Joyce certainly tried, I think, to create the same open space for meaning, but he utterly failed. He conjured life with a pluralistic richness that allowed for vastly more variegation than most authors, but Joyce, his temperament, and his personality is always there. You read his letters and accounts of his conversation and it fits with what he wrote. With Euripides, Lucretius, Kleist, Woolf, and so on down the line, the writer is there as a tangible human presence as I read. Reading Shakespeare can be lonely; you have to find your connection with other readers, rather than with the writer.

Bach was more successful than Joyce, though of course it’s far easier in music to cover your tracks. But Gesualdo, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert…all of them left their emotional traces on what they did, while Bach only left a set of extremely prosaic letters and a reputation for being difficult. Whatever was in the music evidently did not manifest itself in his life. Richard Strauss was a money man and it shows in his music (and he knew it, hence him saying that he was a first-rate second-rate composer; dead on), but with Bach…you just don’t know what was in his head as he wrote. Thoughts of God, I suppose, but what the hell are those? I get something of the same impression when listening to Munir Bashir, though there I have a lack of cultural context that makes it harder to judge.


But when you’re doing a blog and you’re writing about this stuff informally, you don’t get to have that gap between what you’re writing and who you are, or at least you don’t get the pretense of it, even though it is in fact there. And so it’s that much easier to piss someone off or read like you’ve suddenly turned into some sell-out who’s full of it. Waggish is a pile of shit: I am a pile of shit. It’s an easy jump to make.

I’ve actually tried to maintain a bit of that gap through various means. I distrust the categorical statement. I distrust high rhetoric as well, though you’d be hard-pressed to believe that from reading this blog. But the only measure of the stakes is the extent to which people can be seriously affected by what you write, and so I accept that these things have to happen from time to time.

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