Mockt with Art
Readerial Transience and Authorial Immortality in Macbeth, Winters Tale, and Metamorphoses.
Whenever you read a good book, its like the author is right there, in the room, talking to you, which is why I dont
like to read good books.
-Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts, III.3.
April 5, 2004
Sold on Suicide
There are two sides to the Golden Gate Bridgenot the north and south ends, but the east and west sides. One, the west, faces the limitless expanse of the Pacific; the other, the east, the
bay and its surrounding communities, most notably San Francisco itself. Of all
the people whove leapt from the bridge over the fifty years since its erection, and there have been more than a thousand,
not one has jumped from the west. There are two explanations for this. The first, that in their last moments, every human being longs for connection, both to love and be loved,
and therefore leaps toward humanity, and not the void that they fear they are actually leaping into. The other, more pragmatic, explanation is that the west side is closed to pedestrians, and bicyclists rarely
attempt suicide. Of the two, I prefer the poetic and therefore will close the
pragmatic side of my bridge to interpretation, leaving only the avenue of the poetic.
As we step onto the bridge we see two kings, famed for their paranoid infamy: Leontes of Winters Tale and the
eponymous MacBeth. These two kings are as diametrically opposed as their
plays areWinters Tale a romance, and MacBeth a tragedy. But I agree
with Harold Bloom in thinking that Shakespeare transcends genre.
MacBeth, Shakespeares shortest
tragedy is a phantasmagoric tour through the inner depths of the depraved mind. An
obvious historical interpretation calls into mind the failed Gunpowder Plot of the same year (1606), but Bloom is wise in
leading us away from this interpretation of rebellion imitating rebellion. Macbeth
is the ultimate passive observer. For a protagonist, he lacks drive; some would
say any semblance of will. Yet at the same time, he is oddly compelling. We find ourselves as an audience not so much drawn to him, but drawn within him. We do not like him, but we nevertheless identify with him. Bloom links this to a perceived choice between Macbeth and the cosmological emptiness, the kenoma
of the Gnostics. Between this choice that is no choice, we must choose Macbeth. Yet there is more than a mere choice against nothingness, Macbeth has a draw unlike any other Shakespearean
Introduced as a noble war hero who,
when meeting the rebellious Macdonwald, unseamd him from the nave to thchops (I.ii.32).
Though Bloom sees homosexual imagery here we must defer this tangent until later. Instead, we see his bloody introduction
as an introduction to the hell within us. Macbeth sought to memorize another
Golgotha (I.ii.41), reminding us of the recent debate over who really killed Christ, and again placing the protagonist, and
the identifying audience squarely in the place of the sinner. The double meanings
proliferate as we are given the magnificent, What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won (I.ii.69). How are we to read this line? What exactly did Cawdor lose?
His title? His life? His rebellion? The multiple interpretations that open up begin to tie us to the paranoid Macbeth who
himself becomes lost in interpretation.
Leontes is a different sort. We do not identify with him early on, but rather view him as the villain.
Yet by the end of the play we are moved to joy at his gains, sadness at his losses.
The audience undergoes this metamorphoses owing in part to Leontes swift contrition, and in part to Paulinas ceaseless
rehashing of his sins. We wish to cry out along with the attending lords, enough
already, but Leontes furthers her on with,
Go on, go on:
Thou canst not speak too much; I have deserved
All tongues to talk their bitterest.
Yet it is this very nagging that victimizes Leontes enough
for us to identify with himboth of us must endure Paulinas nagging.
The paranoia of kings may be related
to what Freud called, self regard, which in turn, appears to us to be an expression of the size of the ego. What better microcosm for studying narcissistic paranoia than in the enormous
Ego of a kingtwo kings at that. Leontes paranoia is far more blatantly sexual
in nature than Macbeths. Bloom traces Macbeths to sexual impotence, a state Freud
connected with narcissistic paranoia. Yet Freud saw another direction Narcissism could take: that of homosexuality,
which many see in Leontes. If not homosexuality, whichthough many critics see
it impliedis not necessarily in the text, then at the very least we can say that there is a certain sexual ambiguity implied
in narcissism. From Ovid himself we see the origins of narcissism in book three
of the Metamorphoses.
The well-known, and overly critiqued,
Echo-Narcissus myth gives us the outset of paranoid self-involvement and the gradual breaching of the prescriptive/descriptive
dichotomy. Narcissus love for his own image, se cupit inprudens et, (III.425), leads inevitably toward death, the rogum or funeral pyre of line 508 foreshadowed brilliantly in 465, by
roger anne rogem? For what can be more homosexual than to lust after ones self? It is these same narcissistic tendencies leading Narcissus toward his death that have
already led to his méconnaissance when greeted by his own words. It is
this paranoia that allows any interpretation, and its basis is generally self-involved: not What do these two things have to do with each other, but what does this have to do with me, and what then does this remote
cause have to do with me?
Leontes follows his Latin forbearer
both in self-involved sexual ambiguity and the much noted paranoia of the play. He
identifies himself with Polixenes and thereby assumes Hermione will do the same, committing adultery. I personally do not think the argument for Leontes actual homosexual urges toward Polixenes are as apparent
as Bloom, but I do see his self-involvement as pervasive. The Ego alone can be
the sole interpreter when alls true that is mistrusted and nothing is but what is not.
Both kings are next confronted with
fate personifiedMacbeth in the weird sisters, Leontes in the Oracle of Delphi. Heraclitus
reminds us that, the lord, whose oracle is at Delphi, neither speaks, nor dissimulates, but signifies. This signification then is left, like everything else around us, to individual interpretation. We are more than surprised then at the decidedly unsibylline letter from Delphi in the Winters Tale.
Hermione is chaste; Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten; and the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not
The most glaring paradox is the conditional at the end of
the proclamation. If, leads us to wonder exactly how stiff fate is, and whether
it instead sometimes bends depending on its none-too-sure participants. At least
one of the preceding terse denouncements is likewise not as simple as first observed.
Camillo is hardly a true subject as can be seen throughout the rest of the play.
He deceives and disobeys every master he has: Leontes in warning Polixenes, Polixenes in warning Florizel, and Florizel
in reporting to Polixenes. Yet each of these masters will later laud such subterfuge
revealing Camillo to be one of the truer portraits of subjectivity given in these plays.
We must wonder what truth is contained in the rest of the letter now that we see the ambiguity of its signification.
The weird sisters play more on the ambiguities of time and will. Macbeth
first hears their unfixity of timetheir present tense is as definite as their future tense. He is thane of Glamis, and thane
of Cawdor just as much as he will be king hereafter. When greeted with this news
his imagination runs away with him and though murder yet is but fantastical (I.iii.139).
We soon see that Macbeth has trouble discerning fantasy from reality.
Leontes too cannot distinguish words
from things, though Shakespeare employs Leontes paranoia to more favorable ends. Toward
the end of the play we see that the same constant reminding of guilt that Paulina engages in is what links us to Leontes,
for whom, he (Mamillius) dies to me again when talkt of (V.i.119). Somewhere
in the background Freud reminds us that,
When we think in abstractions there is a danger that we may neglect the relations of words to unconscious thing-representations,
and it must be confessed that the expression and content of our philosophizing then begins to acquire an unwelcome resemblance
to the mode of operation of schizophrenics.
Freud has just defined paranoia as, the predominance of
what has to do with words over what has to do with things, and now implicates us in the process. It is true that in this very process of
reading, and especially interpreting, we begin to lean toward schizophrenia. We must make connections in order to read at all, just as our mind is formed,
not on the locations of various concepts, but on the connections between them. And we are as much involved in the process as Macbeth and Leontes. Yet if we allow to much play, as all metaphor tends toward metonymy, meaning becomes unmoored, to borrow
a term from Eco.
Here this linguistic play takes on more
sinister tones when compared with Leontes multiple puns on the word. He tells his son to,
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgraced a part,
Play takes on the same concept as the Latin ludere,
both to play in the innocent sense, and in the sexual. Beyond merely implying
infidelity, he now links the word to himself (for what else can a narcissist do?) and uses it in the sense of to play a part. Now he identifies himself as an actor playing a partin the immediate context to deceive
Hermione and Polixenes, but theres more there. The audience, if perceptive, feels
a sudden chill as the actor playing Leontes calls attention to himself.
A similar moment happens in Macbeth,
in the famous She should have died hereafter, speech, wherein Macbeth calls life a walking shadow; a poor player / that struts
and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more (V.v.23-25). Why
in such a climactic speech would Shakespeare remove the fantasy by reminding us that we are indeed watching a play? In the first place, that is rarely the audiences response to this speech.
Most audiences respond with awe, showing us just how carefully Shakespeare toes the line. Today too many filmmakers
take the Ferris Bueler approach to self-referencetalking to the camera, forgetting the other actors, and instead reminding
the audience that it is in the end, only a movie. Shakespeare knew this danger
all too well, and instead gave us awe. Successful self-reference must walk a
fine linenever winking, but rather giving chills as we are displaced from audience to participant. The success depends upon the connection the audience has with the player, the character, and the play.
We have been taken in by Macbeths character
throughout the play, and now, though we still may not like him, we nonetheless identify wholly with him. The actor playing Macbeth is reminding us of our mutual plight: life.
He is the ultimate signifier, a microcosm of ourselves, as he struts and frets, we are reminded of our own strutting,
our own fretting. The speech stresses both the eternality and temporality of
the human experience. Tomorrow / creeps in the petty pace from day to day (V.v.18-19),
but afterward this same player, is heard no more. This urgency is described by
Lacan as a component of all speech, Nothing is created without a sense of urgency, urgency always produces its supersession
in speech. Lacan then points out the hypocrisy in calling life a lie, calling speech a
lie; for we must use speech to do so, whilst we live life.
Even if it communicates nothing, the discourse represents the existence
of communication; even if it denies the evidence, it affirms that speech constitutes truth; even if it is intended to deceive,
the discourse speculates on faith in testimony.
For Macbeths speech is truly what Lacan describes as The
ambiguity of the hysterical revelation, which,
presents us with the birth of truth in speech, and thereby brings us up against
the reality of what is neither true nor false. At any rate that is the most disquieting
aspect of the problem.
It is this ambiguity, or rather jarring dissonance between
truth and falsity, reality and fantasy, that we identify with. It is also this
dissonance that opens up one more level of self-reference: that of the text.
Macbeths famous speech must be quoted
at length before we can continue:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To that last syllable of recorded time;
All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out,
out, brief candle!
Lifes but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it
is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The apocalyptic overtones which Freud terms, the paranoiacs
phantasy (or self-perception) of the end of the world, are evident in Macbeths paranoid hysterical revelationthe last syllable of recorded time, in which the sun itself is snuffed
out as a brief candle. Moving from the apocalyptic, our next image is of life
as a walking shadow, possibly alluding to Platos cave allegory, possibly to the very words used in the Echo and Narcissus
myth, though probably just a universal metaphor, on which level it works all the better.
Regardless of whether Shakespeare intended to reference Narcissus, Macbeths narcissism allows us to look to his original
for answers. One of my favorite lines from Ovids Metamorphoses is the
moment just after Narcissus has jilted Echo, and approaches a stream to drink.
Dumque bibit, visae correptus imagine formae
Spem sine corpore amat, corpus putat esse, quod umbra est.
Here there is an excellent irony in that Echo loved his
body (corpus) without hope (spes), whereas he loves a hope without body, e.g. a thought without substance. If the words were inflected in the reverse, corporem sine spe amat, it would
apply instead to his jilted lover. We begin to see the breaching of actor, action,
and the one acted upon.
Narcissus life is but a shadow, one
which he loves deeply, yetjust as Macbeth realizes that his own life is but shadowhe feels torn. He finally sees himself reflected, refracted, and this reminder of his mortality, much like Leontes seeing
the spider and drinking, brings him face to face with his own paranoiawherein the difference between thought and deed, word
and thing, is breached. Here his metaphor shifts from shadow to play. If the first metaphor gripped us by showing how we are in the same plight as the characterlifethen
this second metaphor links us to the very actor speaking the lines. This is why
the fantasy is not broken, but rather made realtemporal, acting upon us at the very moment we view the performance.
Even this is not enough for Macbeths
hysterical revelation and he moves to the text itself, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is this that Lacan alludes to in his Mirror Stage when he speaks of madness as
the captation of the subject by the situationmadness that deafens the world with its sound and fury. Here the play becomes rich with textual self-reference, displaying the irony
inherent in language. Bloom saw Macbeth as the masterpiece of Shakespearian ironyMacbeth constantly
says more than he knows, but he also imagines more than he says, so that gap between his overt consciousness and his imaginative
powers, wide to begin with, becomes extraordinary. But it is more than Macbeth himself, it is Macbeth itself that is replete
with irony, whether or not it was told by an idiot. Through the audiences moral
link to Macbeth we are infected with his paranoia, so this extraordinarily wide gap, becomes easily surmountable, owing not
to our intellectual spurs, but to vaulting ambition, which oerleaps itself, / And falls on thother. (I.vii.27-28). This vaulting ambition is the only way to surmount Blooms anxiety of influence, and my feeling is that
this is the reason most students find Bloom to be pompous: without such arrogance he fears he will be over-run by the voice
of the inventor the human.
Act five, scene fives textual self-reference
begins with my personal favorite Shakespearean stage directioneven more than Winters Tales [exit pursued by a bear
[a cry within of women
What is that noise?
It is the cry of women, my good lord.
If we are here
reading, instead of watching, the play we get the joke. It also prepares us to
be watchful for Macbeths beginning To doubt thequivocation of the fiend, / That lies like truth (V.v.43-44). The fiend may be the weird sisters, fate, or possibly the text itself.
When discussing lies, truth, and equivocation, a play cannot help but reference itself, a fictional work. Stories are often more telling than historiesas Frederic Raphael once said, Truth may be stranger than
fiction, but fiction is truer.
Winters Tale is even more replete with these textual self-references, the most famous of which is the acting
out of the title in Act II scene I, where Mamillius tells his own winters tale: A sad tales best for winter: I have one /
Of sprites and goblins. Even this winters tale is prefigured within Macbeth with
Lady Macbeths pronouncement that her husbands faults and starts, / Imposters to true fear, would well become / A womans story
at a winters fire (III.iv.63-65). Mamillius sad wintry tale gives way to a spring
rebirth, a happy ending for all but himself. While Mamillius life may serve as
a warning, or the strife necessary for a truly happy ending, the rest of the self-reference in Winters Tale serves
to further stress the limitations of literature. When the climactic dénouement
occurs, it is all off stage, as secondary, or even tertiary characters recount it haltingly, saying, that ballad-makers cannot
be able to express it (V.ii.25-26), and likewise, I never heard of such another encounter, which lames report to follow it,
and undoes description to do it (57-60). The numerous pronouncements that it
is all so much like an old tale do not come close to Leontes revelation that we are mockt with art (V.iii.67).
Our artistic mockery gets at the heart of what distinguishes theater from literature.
Theatre can exist as literature, as we now critique only the text of these plays, but when it exists as live drama,
it is temporal, and not only affecting but affected. The audience has a role
in the play, for the players must respond to them, play for them, and at the same time not allow them to break the spell of
fantasy which holds the fiction togetherthe willing suspension of disbelief. Temporally,
the play occurs during certain hours, and does not allow us to review previous sections, or catch an early glimpse of the
ending like a book does. It is the delicacy of this tenuous fantasy that makes
Shakespeares careful self-reference all the more poignant.
This self-reference awakens us first to the character (whose life is but a walking shadow), then to the actor (strutting
and fretting his hour), and finally to the text (tale full of sound and fury) and author (the idiot). Once connected with the author, as well as the very means with which this present moment (the actor speaking
lines before us) has reached us, we may reflect upon the ultimate means, and wonder at the ends. By the means I mean language. Language and/or artoften synonymousI
would define loosely as a device for generating méconnaissance between the author and audiencedesigned to facilitate play
(through interpretation) within the viewer, yet created through play in the author.
It is the means by which an abstract concept within the author becomes a concrete object as text, and is in turn interpreted
back into abstract objects within the viewerconcepts understood to be different from the original.
This fine line that Shakespeare walks is language itself, and great art always walks this line through self-reference. It is the ultimate pragmatic aestheticachieving purposes, yet through beauty. It creates the stuckness of a Zen koan, which forces our minds to let go as we see the situation we are in reflected within the situation we are in. It is here that, for us, words become thingsemotions, reactions, chemical in our brains
and electrical current in our synapses. After all, it is the world of words which
creates the world of thingsthe things originally being confused in the hic et nunc of the all in the process of coming-into-beingby
giving its concrete being to their essence, and its ubiquity to what has always been: ctma z e.. In Lacans mind there is real is impossible, being revealed, or possibly mitigated, through language. Language resides in the world of the symbolic and is made real as, a function of time. This is why theatre will always be able to impact its participants
on a level beyond text, it occurs in time. Shakespeare understood that the, function
of language is not to inform, but to evoke.
The most fundamental reaction evoked is one of confusionnot absolute confusion (though that could be argued), but the
confusion of prescription and description. The fatal witches of Macbeth illustrate this distinction better than
I ever could. Farnham makes a rather large assumption when he states that,
nothing is clearer than that Shakespeare writes of Macbeth as a man who has free will so far, at least, as the choice of good
or evil is concerned. I disagree, and believe that the central question of Macbeth concerns his free
will. Do the witches prescribe actions for him to take or describe the destiny
he must follow? This leads us to the question of whether or not there is a difference.
Macbeth believes that the only difference is perspective. When first confronted
with the witches, he sees murder as yet but fantastical (I.iii.139), but the words turn gradually to deeds, but the cycle
has not been completed yet. As guilt begins to set in, he feels oddly controlled,
and as his freedom slips he calls fate to champion [him] to thutterance (III.i.70).
Champion here refers to calling fate to a duel. He now wants to fight against these bonds of destiny. Likewise, by the time he is confronted with the various apparitions he still retains some semblance of
free will. Though the damning apparition advises him to, Be bloody, bold, and
resolute (IV.i.78), he determines to, make assurance double sure (IV.i.82). He
no uses deeds to react to the words of the apparitions, as opposed to completing the set description of fate. Now he determines to crown [his] thoughts with acts (IV.i.49). But
soon reality interposes itself and when met with Macduffs proclamation that he was, from his mothers womb / Untimely ript
(V.viii.15-16) Macbeth is cowd (line 18). Here a mortals words begin to evoke
reactions within him and he loses owing to that very pre/(de)scriptive ambiguity. Macduffs
words are merely describing a reality. Macbeth feels the prescriptive implications
and feels in turn forced into a decision.
Ovid once again gives us an example of what I term the ambiguity of voice. By
changing only the inflection of the verb, he captures the ambiguity of passivity and activity.
Just after the lines which weve already studied, he writes,
se cupit inprudens et, qui probat, ipse probatur,
dumque petit, petitur, pariterque accendit et ardet
Narcissus is what he does; this is the reflection of the
poolthis is the self-involvement of paranoia. Verbs cease to need conjugation
as subject and object become one. But Ovid is careful to show that this self-involvement
leads only to death. Narcissuss ardent cry of regem? turns to the regum
on which he burns.
Shakespeare also allows his self-involved, paranoid characters to undergo punishment.
Macbeth dies fruitless, his dead wife testifying to the fact that he will have no heir.
Leontes must wait sixteen lonely, grief oppressed years before an heir is found for him. This idea of an heir is crucial to the paranoid mind. It is
what allows the connection with the futureimmortality through what is left after your death.
Immortality through art is one of the most fundamental concepts of western culture.
From Thales to Big Fish all writers have wished for their works to live on after them, to leave something that,
men will not willing let die. Horace perhaps voiced it best,
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
Regalique situ pyramidum altius,
Quod non imber edax non aquilo impotens
Possit diruere aut innumerabilis
Annorum series et fuga temporum
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
Horaces works testify to his greatness, and whereas his
grave (Libitinam) has been destroyed by winds, rain, and time; his words speak to us almost two thousand years later. Narcissus may have died, but his love lives on in his flowers, just as Echo forever
pines in the valleys.
Ovid too is still read and enjoyed the
world-over, but I feel he was more aware of the transience afforded him by this life.
In line 433 he writes, quod petis, est numquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes! Here the narrator remarks to Narcissus on the transience of his love. The moment he turns away, it disappears. In an almost sardonic
reader response criticism, Ovid points us toward ourselves and the text before us. He
shows us that our love is nothing and nowhere. The moment we turn away, it is
lost. This is the duel nature of literature: it affects and prescribes, thereby
granting its author a kind of immortality; but it also describes, only giving life when read.
The great error Narcissus falls into
is equally deludingthat of knowing himself ignorantly. The seer told Narcissus
mother that he would live a charmed life, si se non noverit. Later we see that when he finally comes face to face with himself, quod videat,
nescit. It is this incorrect knowledge of self amid a complete self-focus that is the
definition of Narcissism, and the cusp of paranoia. Pynchon was wrong; paranoia
the onset, the leading edge of the discovery that everything
is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illuminationnot yet blindingly One, but at least connected, and
perhaps a route in for thosewho are held at the edge,
but rather the discovery that everything is connected to
oneself. This is why paranoiacs blur the line between words and things. Words are their outlet to things, the way they connect with everything else around
themcall it reality, the impossible Real, objet petit a, or what have youwhat is by definition, not them. When they focus solely on themselves, there is no difference between words and things.
All description leads inevitably toward
prescription as the boundary between words and things is breached. This is why
Jo Suzuki says that there is no difference between interpretation and application. Words
do. They dont merely exist on paper, but rather, as Lacan said, evoke. When we accept a description it does not lead toward prescription, but actually is prescription.
This is why Lacans hysterical revelation
is so important. It is the moment that we gain a semblance of objectivity. It is the moment that we see the moment we are in.
Leontes experiences it not in his famous, alls true that is mistrusted, but at Hermiones supposed death; responding,
I have too much believed mine own suspicion (III.ii.50). Here he finally gets
outside of himself, realizing that his suspicions have led him astraythat he has led himself astray. Macbeth expresses it through his she should have died hereafter, speech.
Removing himself, gaining perspective, as it were, he sees his wife. He
sees her plight, he sees death, he sees the endless succession of years devouring his hopes for immortality and power and
eventually all life. Then he sees one avenue left: the plays the thing. Just as Hamlet uses the play to bring a hysterical revelation upon Claudius, here
Macbeth uses it to bring a hysterical moment upon us. In his delusional paranoia,
the only level he can remove himself to is off-stageinto the audience. Here he
begins the removal at a first step of reflection: lifes but a walking shadow; following with imitation, a poor player; and
ends with the hopelessness that accompanies the immortality he seeks, a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying
Shakespeare knows only too well that
there is no real immortality in literature, for the moment the audience leaves, avertere, he is lost, perdet. This is the reason for the sibylline conditional of The king will have no heir, if
what is lost be not found. Shakespeare will die heirless, mortal, finite and
transient, if what is lost with the turning away is not found.
Here the paranoia infects us. The illusions and allusions, playing on ludereto playbring us into Shakespeare. Analogy, and therefore allusion, that draws me toward the second meaning [that which is represented] assimilates
me to what is said, makes me participate in what is announced to me. We are transported, through time and perception, to Shakespeare, the mythical
author and impossible real. It is all a function of time: the relation existing
between the dimension of space and a subjective tension, which in the discontents (malaise) of civilization intersects
with that of anxietyand which is developed in the temporal dimension. We as subjectsor non-subjects if you likeare reflected and therefore, confusing
our reflection for ourselves, fall through the mirror and into Shakespeare. Within
the world of literature the two seemingly become one, and the only question left is, where does I stop?
So we jump toward humanity. We leap off the east side, living no longer than our memories. In
an attempt to dissuade people from jumping, the newspapers no longer records the deaths of those who jump. So as we plummet, in that moment we look at the humanity above, the void beneath, and see that there in
the void, staring back at us, is our own reflection.