Monday, June 5, 2017

Embracing Life: Shakespeare and "Existentialism"



              Sartre claims that existence precedes “essence,” that “being-in-itself” is thrust upon us, that we have our subsequent brief existence to create our identities or “essences” (our “beings-for-itself”).[1]   The great American pragmatist William James also notes that we are thrust into a swirl of experience which we try to predict and organize with concepts and theories as our “tools.”[2] 

            Many years before James and Sartre, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, Jaques, and other diverse characters also opine on one’s brief moments thrust upon life’s “stage.”  Lear’s naked babe, for example, cries when tossed upon that “stage.”  Interestingly, the infant has feeling and tears for coming to a “great stage of fools”[3] even though it presumably lacks language and concepts such as “stage” or “fool.”  Shakespeare’s babe suggests a pre-conceptual link to the swirl of experience—a feeling link which James’s concepts and theories for predicting and navigating experience could then supplement and build upon. (For those interested in feeling and emotional connections to the world, I have explored the subject further in my Cognitive Emotion and the Law .)

            Lear’s babe also gives us moral as well as epistemic insight. The infant “comes to” rather than “brings” foolishness to a “great stage of fools.”  Not choosing to navigate this swirl of experience, the babe can’t be a fool for just being born--any foolishness it may display must come after mere birth itself.  As Emily Dickinson also notes, mortals born into the swirl aren’t given an initial “Skipper’s” or “Buccaneer’s” choice in the matter:

            Down Time's quaint stream
            Without an oar,
            We are enforced to sail,
            Our Port a secret
            Our Perchance a Gale.
            What Skipper would
            Incur the Risk
            What Buccaneer would ride
            Without a surety from the Wind
            Or schedule of the Tide-[4]

At birth, we thus have a pass (I’ll call it a Dickinson pass) for initially involuntarily “coming” to this “great stage of fools.”  Does the pass, though, end as life continues?

Wagering Life or Hastening Death?

            Though we have our initial pass, are we fools if we continue the course, especially as we learn more about life’s brevity and potential pitfalls? Shakespeare considers this question more than once.  For example, Constance in King John reflects upon death as possibly desirable even while recognizing its awful stench:   
         
            Death, death. O, amiable, lovely death!                            
            Thou odoriferous stench! Sound rottenness!                      
            Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,                    
            Thou hate and terror to prosperity,                             
            And I will kiss thy detestable bones,                           
            And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,                        
            And ring these fingers with thy household worms,                
            And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,                  
            And be a carrion monster like thyself.                          
            Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil'st                
            And buss thee as thy wife! Misery's love,                       
            O, come to me![5] 

But, in truth, can we unfoolishly wish hastened death as a better end in itself?  Shakespeare reminds us that there is an unproved assumption lurking in Constance’s lines: death is a state of painless sleep.  But how do we know this?  Maybe death is filled with endless nightmarish dreams?  Thus, Hamlet says instead:

. . . that sleep of death [and] what dreams may come                 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil                  
Must give us pause.[6]

He also recognizes:

. . . that the dread of something after death,                    
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn                      
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,                         
And makes us rather bear those ills we have                     
Than fly to others that we know not of[.][7]

Similarly, Claudio in Measure For Measure, fears that death is worse than life:

            Ay, but to die, and go we know not where,
            To lie in cold obstruction and to rot,                       
            This sensible warm motion to become                             
            A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit                        
            To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside                           
            In thrilling region of thick‑ribbèd ice,                        
            To be imprisoned in the viewless winds                         
            And blown with restless violence round about                    
            The pendent world; or to be worse than worst                    
            Of those that lawless and incertain thought                     
            Imagine howling, 'tis too horrible.                              
            The weariest and most loathèd worldly life                      
            That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment                       
            Can lay on nature is a paradise                                 
            To what we fear of death.[8]

No less frightening perhaps, this worseness of death need not be a worseness of continuous nightmares or writing pain. As Nabokov’s John Francis Shade reminds us, what if death is a state of awful disorientation and loneliness?

                            What if you are tossed
Into a boundless void, your bearings lost,
Your spirit stripped and utterly alone,
Your task unfinished, your despair unknown . . . [?][9]

If hastened death isn’t clearly a better end in itself, shouldn’t we therefore clearly choose life? 

Possible Right Choice or Hopeless Dilemma?

But is the choice really that clear?   Since life holds its surprises, too, aren’t we caught between the horns of a dilemma forcing choice of possible hell either way?  Though hastened death isn’t clearly a better end in itself, how can we say that unpredictable life fares any better?  How can we know choosing life won’t prove hellish?  History is replete with horror.

I think Hamlet’s and Claudio’s lines give guidance here.  Knowledge is power.  We are familiar with life’s experiences.  We can also learn from those who have gone before us in life.  We lack such power in Hamlet’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourn/ No traveler returns.”  Having at least some known power in life, wouldn’t reason choose known power over death’s uncertainties where one may be tossed helpless into Shade’s “boundless void,” Hamlet’s endless nightmare, or worse?

It’s hard to see how the mere logical possibility of luxuriant death changes such a calculus. Wouldn’t we, for example, consider it foolish to slit one’s throat solely because it’s logically possible that death is luxurious?  When spouting mere logical possibilities, don’t we have to include negative possibilities as well?  Again, it’s logically possible we’ll end up Shade’s “boundless void,” Hamlet’s endless nightmare, or somewhere worse after life.  Even meager imaginations can cancel every good logical possibility with at least one negative one.  Shouldn’t this cancel choosing death in such cases? Put another way, as long as death is reasonably at bay, why should we ever leap toward its uncertainties in lieu of experience we at least partially know and might thus improve on both private and public levels?[10]

More on Shakespeare’s World as a “Stage”
 
            Lear’s metaphor of birth as an involuntarily “coming” to a pre-existing “stage” also nicely captures other points relevant to forging roles and selves after having existence thrust upon us.  As we develop, we can passively accept or actively seek the roles we play.  If our best roles are not currently in the repertory, shouldn’t we ask for inclusion?  If those roles do not yet exist, shouldn’t we try to write them ourselves? Why merely play empty stock roles on the way to oblivion?  Again, if we win our wagers on better roles, we elevate ourselves and hopefully the world as well.  If we lose, we are merely back in that swirl we never chose.  Despite such logic, those still inclined to play rote, unoriginal roles can consider Jaques’ sequential seven:
           
            . . . [O]ne man in his time plays many parts,                       
            His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,                 
            Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.                         
            Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel                   
            And shining morning face, creeping like snail                   
            Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,                      
            Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad                      
            Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,                  
            Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,               
            Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,                 
            Seeking the bubble reputation                                   
            Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,               
            In fair round belly with good capon lined,                       
            With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,                       
            Full of wise saws and modern instances;                         
            And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts                  
            Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,                           
            With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;                      
            His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide                 
            For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,                  
            Turning again toward childish treble, pipes                     
            And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,                   
            That ends this strange eventful history,                        
            Is second childishness and mere oblivion,                       
            Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.[11]     

Who but fools would settle for that skeleton cast of seven bones? 

            If one wants to continue with such rote performances, one could also wallow in these lines from Macbeth that so many of us memorized in high school if not before.  One could simply be that

                                                    . . . poor player                      
            That struts and frets his hour upon the stage                   
            And then is heard no more [having played a life’s] tale                         
            Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,                       
            Signifying nothing.[12]         

But why should we wallow?  We have the Dickinson defense.  Why not use it and forge the best private and public roles for our best selves while we have our brief time upon life’s “stage”?

But Doesn’t Life’s Brevity Undercut the Logic of Striving for Excellence?

            All that said, however, Hamlet chillingly reminds us that:
  
            Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to      
            dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why      
            of that loam whereto he was converted might they not
            stop a beer barrel?
            Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,       
            Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.                        
            O, that that earth which kept the world in awe                  
            Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw![13]
  
Were these reminders not bad enough, Hamlet reminds us again of our inevitable decay:

            King: Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?                                     
            Hamlet: At supper.                                                          
            King: At supper? Where?                                                   
            Hamlet: Not where he eats, but where a is eaten. A cer-
            tain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your
            worm is your only emperor for diet. We fat all creatures
            else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat
            king and your lean beggar is but variable service ‑ two
            dishes, but to one table. That's the end.                                                                   
            King: Alas, alas!                                                         
            Hamlet: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of
            a king,             and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.                                
            King: What dost thou mean by this?                                       
            Hamlet: Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
            progress through the guts of a beggar.[14] 

Doesn’t life’s brevity so startlingly portrayed by Hamlet undercut the logic of any brief pursuit of excellence?  How respond to Hamlet’s clay and worms? 

            Well, all such talk of clay and worms notwithstanding, if Alexander, Caesar, and Polonius have not played their best roles for themselves (and hopefully for the world as well),[15] are they therefore not fools despite their brief spans of life?  For, again, isn’t it foolish to be mediocre, inauthentic, or worse instead of brilliant while one has the chance?  How can the clay one will become reverse the fact that one did well when given the chance.  And how can such good followed by clay and worms not be better than mediocrity (or worse) followed by clay and worms? 

            Again, why shouldn’t we seize our Dickinson defense?  Though used-up flesh may end up as clay or food for worms, why can’t we forge our own grand place in time’s unreversing course regardless of ephemeral fame or memories of future folk.[16]  And secure ever after in that unreversing sequence, why not kindly feed the worms or clay another’s field with no longer needed flesh?

Our Conceptual Schemes Must Reflect the Transitory Nature Of Human Life.

            Of course, though our best efforts can be forever enshrined in time’s sequence, we can’t ignore the facts of our finitude. To bring the best order and most fulfillment to experience, to play our best roles, we must know our limits and cultivate values which maximize what we have or can do within those limits.  Where appropriate, we must recognize with Shakespeare’s Laertes that many desired ends, such as youth, are ephemeral and set our goals accordingly:

            A violet in the youth of primy nature,                          
            Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,                     
            The perfume and suppliance of a minute,                         
            No more.[17]

As Laertes understands here, ends we desire must be put in perspective, and we cannot without disappointment believe we can hold a violet or other youth forever.  What we must do to live a fulfilling life is order our desires and concepts in realistic ways in light of our finitude.

            This point not only applies where we pursue fleeting things such as a beautiful youth, but it also applies where we lose sight of our finitude through every-day pursuits.  Hamlet hauntingly makes this point when musing that he holds the skull of a lawyer whose piles of pleadings and documents are now forgotten and whose courtroom tricks no longer defend his now defenseless skull.  Hamlet asks:

            Where be his quiddities now, his quillities,
            his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer
            this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce
            with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of
            battery? Hum! This fellow might be in's time a great
            buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his
            fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries. [Is this the
            fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries,] to
            have his fine pate full of fine dirt? Will his vouchers
            vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones
            too, than the length and breadth of a pair of inden-
            tures? The very conveyances of his lands will scarcely lie
            in this box, and must th' inheritor himself have no
            more, ha?[18]

We must make sure that we do not play the fool caught up in a maze of professional life and “fame” which blinds us to our brief possibilities that short existence delimits. 

            Dante also warns us about confusing fame with excellence:

            A breath of wind is all there is to fame
            here upon earth: it blows this way and that,
            and when it changes quarter it changes name.

            Though loosed from flesh in old age, will you have
            in, say, a thousand years, more reputation
            than if you went from child's play to the grave?[19]

Fame is uncertain.  We cannot control it.  However, we can seize our Dickinson defense and perform our best.  If people forget, we still performed our best.  If we make lasting improvements to the world, then all the better.  And, again, any excellence we achieve is enshrined in unreversing time though our discarded flesh may kindly feed the worms or add more clay to fields.
                 
Given Our Brief Span, Shakespeare Also Helps Us See That Our Conceptual Schemes Must Motivate Us To Act Even When Melancholy Counsels Otherwise.

            While misplaced pursuit of fame may wrongly motivate us, depression may demotivate us entirely, may mire us in inaction.  Lewis, for example, laments in King John:

            There's nothing in this world can make me joy.
            Life is as tedious as a twice‑told tale,                         
            Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man . . .  [20]

If Lewis feels such lack of joy and such vexing tedium, he of course has little if any motivation to seize his Dickinson defense and do his best.   However, given his brevity of time, miring depression needs prompt correction.  Every moment in such state risks irreparable loss.  Furthermore, we all know it’s not true that “nothing in this world” can bring joy. And even where we have genuine moments of sadness, we also know, with Macbeth, that "Come what come may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day."[21]

Shakespeare’s Tides.

            Shakespeare’s metaphor of our “tides” also inspires action in brief lives.  We see our tides come and go, and brevity of live counsels against merely watching the ebb and flow. Wagering life means testing the waters, means wagering “our ventures” while we can.  As Shakespeare writes in Julius Caesar:

            There is a tide in the affairs of men
            Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;                   
            Omitted, all the voyage of their life                           
            Is bound in shallows and in miseries.                           
            On such a full sea are we now afloat,                           
            And we must take the current when it serves,                    
            Or lose our ventures.[22]

            If we successfully seize our tides, do we not refute the Duke in Measure For Measure if we imagine him speaking to us?  The Duke would tell us:

            Thou hast nor youth nor age,           
            But as it were an after‑dinner's sleep,                       
            Dreaming on both, for all thy blessèd youth                     
            Becomes as agèd, and doth beg the alms                          
            Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,                 
            Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,            
            To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this                 
            That bears the name of life? Yet in this life                   
            Lie hid more thousand deaths . . . .[23]

Even if we try and fail, don’t we still refute him?  Isn’t there good in trying?  Haven’t we therefore created goodness that unreversing time preserves in its annals even though our bodies fail and even though others forget us over time?

             Of course, if we do not seize the tides briefly available to us, life can result in nothing more than the marking of time to death.  As Richard II  laments:
    
            I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;                        
            For now hath time made me his numb'ring clock:                  
            My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar                
            Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,             
            Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,                         
            Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.                
            Now, sir, the sound that tells what hour it is                   
            Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,                
            Which is the bell. So sighs and tears and groans             
            Show minutes, times, and hours.[24]

If we truly missed all our tides, we are left to lament, with Emily Dickinson, about things we might have done:

            Within my reach!
            I could have touched!
            I might have chanced that way!
            Soft sauntered thro’ the village -       
            Sauntered as soft away!
            So unsuspected Violets
            Within the meadows go -
            Too late for striving fingers
            That passed, an hour ago![25]

            Of course, we can miss our "tides" not only by failing to act but by in acting in ways that amount to the same thing.  One classic example of this inaction through action would be a Silas Marner who fills his every moment with menial work which becomes an end in itself crowding out nobler things of which he was capable.  We should not go the route of Silas and reduce "life to the unquestioning activity of a spinning insect."[26] Our time is too brief for any such waste or confusion.  As Nabokov’s Shade wisely advises:

Outstare the stars.  Infinite foretime and
Infinite aftertime: above your head
They close like giant wings and you are dead.[27]

Conclusion: Avoiding Affirmative Self-Denial, Pointless Guilt, and Other Waste.

            While we should not pass into mindlessness like Silas, we should also not take positive action to deny who we are.  The person who ignores her experience of who and what she is and tries to live life as something else will also miss her "tide."  An obvious literary example of this would be Racine's Phèdre who was driven by a love for her stepson that society would condemn.  Rather than confess her love for her step-son and then try to manifest it in permissible ways, she tragically hid her true feelings and lived a lie.  Rather than face such feelings and try to deal with them in the open and legitimately, she was consumed by their denial.  Thus bitter at misery and the love which society freely permitted the stepson and his lover, she reflects back upon a tragic, missed life:

They [her step-son and his beloved] freely gazed in one another's eyes
While Heaven blessed their innocence and sighs.
Remorseless they could have the love they see
And bask in every day's serenity
While I was outcast from cruel nature's sight
And forced to hide by day and flee the light.
My hopes could only be in death. So I
Just waited for the moment I would die.
My food was gall, my drink the sobs I held.
I was too closely watched.  Though sorrow welled,
I dared not find a remedy in tears.
They'd find me out. All chained up in my fears
I was an inmate who was forced to keep
A stoic face.  I could not even weep![28]  

            Unlike poor Phèdre, we must not deny who we are.  Nor should we waste our brief span mired in melancholy, sloth, over-cautiousness, or the thoughtless life of a "spinning insect."  Shakespeare helps us see how even one brief chance to create our best selves is superior to no chance at all. If we seize that chance, when our forward time ends we can kindly feed the worms and clay the fields knowing that the prior goodness we did (including the goodness inherent in trying even when we failed) remains forever in unreversing time.  Failures along the way needn’t diminish our pride in such goodness. Made imperfect through no choice of our own, aren’t we better measured by how we’ve braved our imperfection?  Doesn’t such imperfection also provide grace in timing tides?  Prince Hal became Henry V after all.  

Note: This is a one of planned series of blogs on Shakespeare and Philosophy.  It joins blogs on Shakespeare and Natural Law and Shakespeare and Legal Positivism.


[1] See generally Jean-Paul Sartre, Being And Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (Hazel E. Barnes trans., Philosophical Library 1956).
[2]  See generally William James, Pragmatism, The Sentiment of Rationality, and The Will to Believe.
[3] King Lear, act 4, sc. 6, lines 182-183.                          
[4] Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson 617-618 (R. W. Franklin ed., The Belknap Press of Harvard U. 1999).
[5] King John, act 3, sc. 4, lines 25-36.  
[6] Hamlet, at act 3, sc. 1, lines 65-68.
[7] Id. at act 3, sc. 1, lines 68-82.
[8] Measure for Measure, act 3, sc. 1, lines 117-131.
[9] Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire 472 (Library of America Novels 1955-1962).  Pale Fire, a “hyper-textual” cornucopia of “what is meaning?” seems a required mention here.
[10] Despite the tension between our private and public interests, we should seek excellence in both spheres.  Double excellence betters single excellence which betters none at all. See generally Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge 1989) (exploring “how things look if we . . . are content to treat the demands of self-creation and of human solidarity as equally valid, yet forever incommensurable.”)
[11] As You Like It, act 2, sc. 7, lines 138-165.  
[12] Macbeth, act 5, sc. 5, lines 19-28.
[13] Hamlet, act 5, sc. 1, lines 197-205.
[14] Id., act 4, sc. 3, lines 16-30.
[15] See Rorty, supra n. 10.
[16] Consistent with Shakespeare’s stage metaphor, Nabokov’s John Frances Shade reminds us that in our plays “portrayed events forever stay.”  Nabokov, supra n. 9. at 467.
[17] Hamlet, act 1, sc. 3, lines 7-10.  
[18] Id. at act 5, sc. 1, lines 92-105.
[19] Dante Alighieri , The Divine Comedy 245 (John Ciardi trans., W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. 1970).
[20] King John, supra, act 3, sc. 4, lines 107-109.
[21] Macbeth, act 1, sc. 3, lines 146-147.
[22] Julius Caesar, act 4, sc. 2, lines 270-276.
[23] Measure for Measure, act 3, sc. 1, lines 32-41.
[24] Richard II, act 5, sc. 5, lines 49-58.  
[25] Dickinson, supra n. 4, at 43-44.
[26] George Eliot, Silas Marner 18 (Barnes & Noble 1996).
[27] Nabokov, supra n. 9,at 460.  I suspect Shade meant “out-stair” as well as “outstare.”
[28] Racine, Phèdre (my translation).

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