Category Archives: 05. Shakespeare and Great Literature

Shakespeare and Plato: The Poet-Dramatist

There is a natural tension between the poet and the dramatist. The dramatist plays with appearances, illusions, masks. The poet aims at essential truths.

The dramatist is about seeming. The poet is about being.

This is true for both Shakespeare and Plato. First, Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s plays are a study in the exploration of appearances, in seeming in all of its manifestations. Characters often pretend to be people they are not, such as in As You Like It (where Rosalind and Celia pretend to be Ganymede and Aliena) and Twelfth Night (where Viola pretends to be Cesario).

In later plays, Shakespeare explores more serious levels of seeming. Hamlet seems mad. King Lear’s older daughters seem loving. Iago seems to be a good friend to Othello.

And out of seeming comes some of Shakespeare’s best Shakespearian Irony, where Shakespeare demonstrates how something appears to be one thing but is actually another, to the alert playgoer or reader. In Macbeth we know that Macbeth will betray and murder the good King Duncan. Shakespeare dramatically provides the audience with an ironic preview of coming attractions. Duncan speaks of a traitor he just had executed:

DUNCAN: There’s no art
To find the mind’s construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

Enter MACBETH

The irony lies in the fact that Duncan will put absolute trust in Macbeth. He relies on Macbeth’s seeming, and fails to see his being. Shakespeare signals the irony in a simple stage direction.

There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. Enter Macbeth.

Knowing the difference between seeming and being can determine one’s survival, as people devoted to the political arts well know.

As a playwright, Shakespeare tells overt stage lies. As a poet he tells hidden truths. As a dramatist, Shakespeare can show the audience the popular lie. As a poet, Shakespeare can tell the alert reader the unpopular, hidden truth.

The Merchant of Venice continues to be the finest example of how, even today, playgoers and critics buy in to Shakespeare’s seeming (the play is about Shylock and is anti-Semitic). It is interesting how rare people recognize what Shakespeare is doing as a poet, and what the hidden truth of this play is.

First the title. Who is The Merchant of Venice? It’s certainly not Shylock, who is a moneylender. The merchant is Antonio. So this play is actually about Antonio, and by extension, his friends.

Next, notice the melancholy in what Antonio and his friends say when they are first introduced:

ANTONIO: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

***

BASSANIO: Good signiors both, when shall we laugh? say, when?
You grow exceeding strange: must it be so?

***

PORTIA: By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of
this great world.

There appears to be a dark stain in their souls. What could be the source of that darkness?

When Bassanio approaches Shylock for a loan to help out Antonio, here is part of the beginning of the exchange:

SHYLOCK: Antonio is a good man.

BASSANIO: Have you heard any imputation to the contrary?

SHYLOCK: Oh, no, no, no, no: my meaning in saying he is a
good man is to have you understand me that he is
sufficient.

Shakespeare plays on the double-meaning of the word “good” to signal that we should wonder if Antonio is in fact the good man that he appears to be. In fact, we learn later that Antonio insults Shylock in public, spits on him, and kicks him like an animal.

Furthermore, the Christians–Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia–all condemn Shylock the Jew without any reason other than that he is a Jew who lends money with interest. Yet Antonio freely enters into a contract with Shylock, when it suits him.

And notice that it is not Shylock, but Antonio who sets the terms of the agreement, as Harold C. Goddard points out in The Meaning of Shakespeare:

“You spat upon me, kicked me, called be a dog,” is the gist of what [Shylock] says, “and for these courtesies you now expect me to lend you money?”

“No!” cries Antonio, stung by the justice of Shylock’s irony, “I want no courtesy or kindness. Friends take no interest from friends. Let this transaction be one between enemies, so that, if I forfeit, you can exact the penalty with a better conscience, and so that I … may retain my right to spit on you.”

But you might say, “Shylock knew that he would be able to get his pound of flesh!” Yet read closely and you will see that Shylock has no reason to believe Antonio’s ships won’t come in. Shylock’s view is that this is a contract that reveals Antonio for what he is, not that Antonio and his Christian friends take notice.

As the play advances, the hypocrisy of the Christians becomes more and more evident, and this hypocrisy becomes the dark stain on their souls. Events drive Shylock to distraction.

At trial Portia seems to be a lawyer. She asks Shylock, who has lost his daughter and is miserable and now revels in Antonio’s misery, to extend Christian mercy. And he rightfully asks, Why?

Portia then plays a judicial trick on Shylock, and then finds herself in a position to extend that same Christian mercy to Shylock.

And what does she do?

She mercilessly destroys Shylock to the very core, robbing him of his ethnic and religious identity by forcing him to become a Christian.

Finally, it’s worth paying attention to the story of the three caskets: Gold, Silver, and Lead. All I’ll say here is, following Goddard, Portia is the Gold casket “All that glisters is not gold…Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”), Antonio is the Silver casket (“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”), and Shylock is the Lead casket (“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”).

Now on to Plato.

Plato is a dramatist (the Dialogues are plays), but he is also a poet (despite that fact that he faults the poets, especially Homer and those who write plays for the Athenian public).

Plato, like Shakespeare, concerns himself with seeming and being. His dialogues are dramatic examples of the process, dialectic, by which people can engage in a one-on-one conversation to discover the truth, or at least to disclose their own ignorance and be free of false opinions.

Dialectic aims for what is, for being.

Why one-on-one? Because the alternative is rhetoric, one-to-many, where false opinions are made to appear true.

Rhetoric aims for what appears to be, for seeming.

Plato lived in a world that was changing, and not for the better. The Athenian democracy collapsed under the sway of Sophists who charged money to teach exploitive rhetoric to politicians, like Alcibiades, who persuaded the public to adopt destructive courses of action.

Socrates aimed at demonstrating the nature of rhetoric, its focus on seeming, and how dialectic brought about a higher understanding of knowledge, of truth. He charged nothing. And in the process, people became more humble because they became aware that the domain of their ignorance was larger than than they realized.

Socratic irony is different from Shakespearean irony.

Socrates will pretend to be doing one thing when in fact he is ironically doing something else. A fine example of this is in the Gorgias where Socrates faces the best and brightest example of Sophists, Gorgias.

Gorgias is much like Socrates in his brilliance and full awareness of what he is doing, but he has taken the exact opposite route. He is a full and conscious Nihilist. He cares as much as Socrates about Truth, but his conclusion is that at the end of the day, nothing matters. Here is an example of what Gorgias would argue:

I. Nothing exists
II. Even if existence exists, it cannot be known
III. Even if it could be known, it cannot be communicated.

Socrates and Gorgias are both noble souls, Socrates on the side of Good, and Gorgias on the side of Bad, going for full skeptical relativism. He is the one Sophist willing to go all the way to the dark side and be the anti-Socrates. And he completely believes in what he does. (I believe that both Socrates and Gorgias recognize each other, that they both carry a kind of melancholy that signals their kindred spirits.)

To Gorgias, there is no such thing as the one Truth. (Gorgias was the teacher of Meno, who became even dumber after being trained, and Agathon, the tragedian who in the Symposium wins the prize as a poet, but reveals that he cannot talk or think).

Gorgias deforms men’s minds by teaching them how to use rhetoric for power. Gorgias believes that he is improving his students, helping them acquire political and material power. Socrates is out to demonstrate otherwise, to show Gorgias how wrong he is.

Both Socrates and Gorgias bring their students to this dialogue. Socrates brings Chaerephon, and Gorgias brings Polus and Callicles.

The dialogue begins with Gorgias agreeing to participate in Socrates’ style of questioning. (The art of Socrates is the art of asking the right questions.) But before the main event, we get a preliminary bout.

Chaerephon, at Socrates’ urging, asks Gorgias, “Who are you?” (Compare the beginning of Hamlet.) Instead of Gorgias answering, his student Polus steps in and rather than answering the question, he makes a speech in praise of Gorgias.

As a student of Gorgias he has been well-taught. Chaerephon attempts to engage Polus in dialectic, but Polus insists on rhetoric.

Then the main bout: Socrates asks what Gorgias teaches and what is it good for. During the conversation (which on Gorgias’s side often diverts into rhetoric, because Gorgias cannot help but attempt to persuade rather than engage), Gorgias makes clear that he teaches rhetoric (not virtue–a man who believes nothing exists will not pretend to teach virtue). Gorgias admits that he is a teacher of men to win arguments, whether political or legal. His students may use it for good or bad, but he as the teacher is not responsible for what his students do with it.

Gorgias believes he is not a bad man. Socrates proceeds to show him that he is not what he believes himself to be. Socrates moves past Gorgias’s seeming and shows him his being.

Socrates finally gets Gorgias to answer questions, and in the process Gorgias finally goes silent, because the dialectic gets him to admit that the Sophist, the rhetorician, is an ignorant man who persuades other ignorant men to do what the truly wise man knows they should do. In other words, the rhetorician is at best merely an ignorant assistant to wise men. In this case, the wise man is a physician, a body doctor, but the same could also apply to the soul doctor, the philosopher, or the political doctor, the true statesman.

The dialectic also gets him to say that he is only interested in teaching his students to do good with their rhetorical training. He normally would not admit something like this, but it appears that Socrates shames him, and so he does say he teaches virtue, justice, and something good, but can’t be held responsible if his students misuse it. Socrates demonstrates how Gorgias is contradicting himself.

And Gorgias goes silent because he’s smart and knows he is losing the argument. Polus speaks up to rescue his teacher, and Socrates turns to Polus.

But the Socratic irony is this: Although Socrates appears to be talking to Polus, he is actually talking to Gorgias, and this is very funny. Polus is arrogant, crude, and not very bright.

During this conversation, Socrates demonstrates that Gorgias’s good student is in fact a bad one, and that Gorgias has been a bad teacher. You can imagine Socrates looking over Polus’s shoulder at Gorgias, and Gorgias picks up on Socrates’ thoughts: “We talked about you as a teacher, Gorgias, so let’s look at this, your student Polus. Is this really an example of what you want people to know that you do?”

Later, Callicles tries to take up the mantle. I won’t explore that in detail other than to say, look at Callicles as representing the people of Athens, the people who later declare Socrates a Sophist and then have him executed. (Since the dialectic breaks down, Socrates ends with a speech, one that speaks of death and what the true philosopher prepares for.) Here, Socrates continues his conversation with Gorgias through a second proxy, and Plato glances at the Apology and Phaedo.

Plato’s art continually exposes the being behind the seeming to alert readers, readers who do not take everything at face value, who realize that Plato is a true artist, a true poet, who like Shakespeare artistically arranges his plays to reveal larger truths that may not always be apparent.

When one looks as Shakespeare’s works as an artistic whole, the mind and character of the poet-dramatist emerges. Plato’s dialogues are also an artistic whole, worthy of your time to see that artistic whole, and the mind and character of the poet-dramatist who crafted them.

Cover-Plato-3-100

*****

 

Why Is Shakespeare Great?

Imagine that you have entered, a little late, the classroom of a crotchety, old, dinosaur professor at a major university. You find a seat in the back and look around.

The professor is lecturing from behind a podium using lecture notes and does not look up when you enter. Only half the seats are taken. He wears a worn gray tweed jacket, faded blue shirt, and a darker blue, thin tie. His mottled gray-white hair is splayed out in a classic Einstein.

The students look like first-year university students. Bored, fidgety, a couple actually sleeping. One handsome young woman with short black hair, milk chocolate skin, wearing a black dress and black lipstick, has her hand raised, arm waving slightly, supporting it with her other hand. She looks like she has been waiting awhile.

“…presents the reader with many challenges, not the least of which is Elizabethan diction and Shakespeare’s poetic compression. But every reader willing to take the time will discover a bounty of humanistic treasures.” The professor stops and looks at her over his silver reading glasses. “Yes?” One word conveys his lack of good cheer. Questions are not encouraged.

“I’m sorry, professor, but I just don’t get it,” she says, exuding the sweet arrogance and mimicry of intellectual youth. “Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me?”

As she speaks, the professor’s eyes glaze and his head lowers slowly until he is staring down at his podium. He gives every appearance of being an old man in constant mental and physical pain. Several students murmur at least partial agreement. The professor stands silent for almost a full minute before turning to the blackboard. He picks up the chalk with a trembling hand and writes two words on the board—chair and stool. He turns and stares at her. He speaks softly.

“Would you say, Miss…..”

“Ms. Powers.”

“Would you say, Ms. Powers, that the words chair and stool distinguish two similar things?”

“Uh, I think…yes, of course.”

“And do you think, Ms. Powers, that these represent a distinction worth preserving? For example, if I were to ask you to bring me a chair and you brought me a stool, would we have reason to believe there existed between us some failure of communication?”

“Yes,” she said confidently.

“What would be the nature of the failure?”

“Uhh…a chair normally has a back for support while a stool does not.”

“Good. So you concede, Ms. Powers, that vocabulary helps us more clearly distinguish the specific differences between like things?”

“Yes.”

“Is it a good thing to distinguish more clearly the specific differences between like things?”

“I suppose.”

“And that it would be better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary than a mind with a smaller one?” Although he still speaks softly, the air begins to thicken.

“But just because someone has a better vocabulary doesn’t mean that they are a better person.” She speaks less confidently now.

“Ms. Powers,” he said a little bit louder. “If we are going to understand each other, it is best that you respond to what I actually say rather than what you think I am saying. I did not say anything about a better vocabulary or anything to do with being a better person. I asked if you thought it better to possess a mind with a larger vocabulary rather than a mind with a smaller vocabulary. Especially since you have already conceded that it is a good thing to more clearly distinguish the specific differences between like things. Or do you see another way of distinguishing specific differences in ways other than a versatile and specific vocabulary?”

“No.”

“Ms. Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

“Uh….” She is beginning to sense the trap being set for her. She tries to avoid it. “Yes, a little. We would both see the same thing, but I would probably be more knowledgeable about it if you asked me questions.”

“No, Ms. Powers,” he says preparing to close the trap. His face is reddening. His voice gets louder. “I’m afraid you are entirely mistaken. We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Ms. Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers—the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies—you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden. You could predict its course and suggest actions to alter that course. No, Ms. Powers, you and I would not see the same garden at all. Because a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

He pauses and surveys the room. Here is the theater and the time is now for his signature solo performance that builds in power. Ms. Powers has lost the desire to respond.

“Do you know the number of distinct words in the average person’s vocabulary, Ms. Powers? About three thousand words, assuming that all forms of a word—like run, ran, running—counted as one. Three thousand words, enough to get an average person through the day, and through their lifetime. Do you know how many distinct words are in the King James Version of the Bible? Around four thousand three hundred, not counting names. That means that all of the history and philosophy and meaning, all of the variety of ideas expressed in the Bible, can be transmitted in a vocabulary of forty-three hundred words. Enough to challenge the average reader. Soon we will get to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. John Milton commanded an incredible vocabulary. He mastered several languages, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, and French. He wrote not only epic poetry but many rigorous political tracts. Some of his sentences are so powerful and complex in their vocabulary, grammar, and meaning that they contain several dozen clauses. John Milton was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”

He pauses, and looks out through slitted eyes.

“But Shakespeare,” he says and chuckles. “Shakespeare exists in his own genus. When a rhetorician reads Shakespeare, she,” he glares the sarcastic concession at Ms. Powers, “points out that Shakespeare was a master rhetorician, who knew not only all the technical terms, ancient and modern, but was a master practitioner who applied that knowledge throughout his poems and plays, in ways that have stood as examples for generations to follow. When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

He pauses, taking a breath, and when he begins again, the tempo and volume increases.

“But that’s not all. In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states of which you have yet to take conscious stock. His capacious mind wandered everywhere, and in almost every way he has arrived there before you have, articulating it with a mastery that leaves later writers sick with wondering what territory of the human heart, human intellect, and human action is left to explore. He seems to have experienced the full range and depth of common human experience and encapsulated that experience more beautifully than any other. Shakespeare, Ms. Powers, displays a vocabulary of over twenty-two thousand words, almost three times Milton’s vocabulary, and you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

She sits frozen, unable to respond to the blast that has everyone stunned. In the spacious silence, the professor begins speaking softly again, with a sardonic smile.

“May I suggest to you, Ms. Powers, that you have a choice. You can continue to dwell on the surface of life, holding up external appearances as if they were everything, parroting the rhymes and rhythms of a fast-food consciousness, flaccid and without true self-animation, smug in the knowledge that you have comfortably given yourself over to a group numbness, submitting to mere external authority—or maybe, just maybe, with personal effort, a healthy skepticism, and a sense of individual exploration, you may become your own authority, by expanding your mind in a constant effort to comprehend Shakespeare’s. May I suggest that until you are well along into that journey, your mind and emotions will remain susceptible to every sophistic thought that knocks on your door, seeking to enslave you with its mere appearance of originality. It’s time, Ms. Powers, that you begin feeding on Shakespeare rather than on that damned fast food.”

He pauses.

“That’s all for today.”

************

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Goddard on Poetry

One of the great reads on Shakespeare is Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1. My God, what a teacher this man must have been! (Head of the English Dept. at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s.)

Here are a few passages on poetry from Chapter 1:

Poetry is not something that exists in printed words on the page. It is not even something that exists in nature, in sunshine or in moonlight. Nor on the other hand is it something that exists just in the human heart or mind. It is rather the spark that leaps across when something within is brought close to something without, or something without to something within. The poetry is the spark. Or, if you will, it is what the spark gives birth to, something as different from either its inner or its outer constituent as water is from the oxygen or the hydrogen that electricity combines…

Imagination is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two–as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend–the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets…

Poetry, the elemental speech, is the like the elements. Its primary function is not to convey thought, but to reflect life. It shows man his soul, as a looking glass does his face. There hangs the mirror on the wall, a definite object, the same for all. Yet whoever looks into it sees not the mirror but himself. We all live in the same world, but what different worlds we see in it and make out of it: Caesar’s, Jesus’, Machiavelli’s, Mozart’s–yours and mine…

To our age anything Delphic is anathema. We want the definite. As certainly as ours is a time of the expert and the technician, we are living under a dynasty of the intellect, and the aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it…

Art is given us to redeem us. All we are in the habit of asking or expecting of it today is that it should please or teach–whereas it ought to captivate us, carry us out of ourselves, make us over into something more nearly in its own image…

“King Lear is a miracle,” wrote a young woman who had just come under its incomparable spell. “There is nothing in the whole world that is not in this play. It says everything, and if this is the last and final judgment on the world we live in, then it is a miraculous world. This is a miracle play.”

************

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Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law

Here’s a peer-reviewed article I wrote in 2000 on Shakespeare’s Knowledge of Law: A Journey through the History of the Argument.

I make a strong case that Shakespeare had the kind of legal knowledge that comes with extraordinary and long-term exposure to the history, philosophy and Elizabethan practice of law.

Shakespeare’s mind displays a remarkable objectivity, the kind of objectivity and equipoise that offers his readers a wide variety of philosophies and positions. As stated by Russ McDonald in Shakespeare and the Arts of Language: “. . . the dramatist encourages in his audience a receptiveness to multiple points of view, a refusal of absolutes, an awareness of the competing claims of incompatible interpretations” (49). The consciousness of a lawyer is that of an advocate, one who takes sides, one who argues for or against something. The consciousness of an experienced judge is quite different. The judge examines all sides, tries to understand and argue for and against all sides. A judge who responds to the complexity of human action and experience often distrusts the easy fix, the quick solution, the thoughtless procedure, or rule, or custom. Judges experience over time how both sides of a case can be valid, how a case can uncover deeper related issues. The profession of a judge can mold a thoughtful mind into one of profound objectivity, depth, and range—exactly what we find in Shakespeare.

Chief Justice John C. Wu in Fountain of Justice, in an essay discussing “Natural Law in Shakespeare,” presents a series of examples punctuated by summary statements that support the notion that Shakespeare has the mind of a judge: “Shakespeare… know[s] his common law and natural law pretty well. He knows the psychological reason for case law. . . . He knows the importance of tempering the rigours of the law with equity. . . . He knows the importance of observing degree, proportion, form and order, which to him are objective standards of right and wrong because they have an ontological basis. . . . No one has painted more vividly ‘the majesty and power of law and justice.’” (86–87)

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The Entire Series of Books

Here are the 12 covers of the books I am writing. I will be publishing some of the material to come on this blog so you can get a preview of the content. If you want to buy one of the available books from Amazon, click on the cover.

And by the way, all you need is an Amazon account and a computer. You don’t need a Kindle or iPad or other tablet. To download a free Kindle Reading App, just click on THIS LINK.

Mark Alexander collection3

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