April 06, 2012

Marjorie Garber's plenary at SAA 2012, an instance of repressive desublimation

Today at the Plenary Presentation of the 40th Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, Majorie Garber read a paper titled "Occupy Shakespeare". The word occupy is obviously lifted from the name of the anti-capitalist movement Occupy Wall Street and its comrade groupings around the globe. In those groups, to occupy means to critique capitalism and to become a presence, inspired by that critique, that opposes capitalism. However, Garber's paper was not a critique of capitalism. It was a discussion of the history of Shakespeare Studies in the humanities. Both Shakespeare Studies and the humanities could have easily led Garber to a critique of capitalism, but her talk was empty of any of that radical content. She did cheaply throw in a line from Love's Labour's Lost, "Let us devise some entertainment for them in their tents", but Garber's talk stayed far away from the message of the Occupy tents.

Garber used the word occupy merely to adorn her talk. Out of context, but in fashion, it performed not much more work in her paper than to be a cool graphic on her powerpoint presentation. In this talk, for which Garber was most certainly paid and which was, as plenary, intended to draw punters to the meeting, the word occupy became a commodity, empty of radical meaning but filled with contemporary catchiness. This talk is another instance of a growing list of opportunistic uses of the word occupy. Garber joins the culture industry in its project of making the word cliche.  It is an instance of repressive desublimation, whereby radical imagery is used as a commodity for non-radical purposes and, ultimately, rendered unuseable for social change. As such, Garber's talk works in favour of capitalism. This is most certainly not the sort of event that shoud be headlining a Shakespeare conference. Shakespeare, who according to Karl Marx knew the evils of the money economy better than the theorising petty bourgeois, deserves better.  

March 20, 2012

Museum Fleuri

I attended the Louise Bourgeois day conference last weekend at the Courtauld Institute of Art organized by the Freud Museum in London to accompany its current exhibition: Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed, curated by Phillip Larratt-Smith. http://www.freud.org.uk/exhibitions/74492/louise-bourgeois-the-return-of-the-repressed-/

Mignon Nixon, professor of Art History at Courtauld read a paper which explored, among other works, Bourgeois’ 1968 Bronze sculpture Janus Fleuri. Her talk entitled, “Freud Fleuri”, discussed the installation of Bourgeois’ sculpture over the Freud’s treatment couch in the Freud museum.

Janus Fleuri

Louise Bourgeois's bronze JANUS FLEURI (1968)
suspended over Freud's couch at The Freud Museum London.
Courtesy The Easton Foundation
Photo: Ollie Harrop, © Louise Bourgeois Trust

The bronze sculpture, Janus Fleuri, has been interpreted as having a midsection that symbolizes vaginal folds, and two protrusions growing off either side of it that can be read either as penis heads, clitorises or both. Indeed, the Greek god Janus, who presides over beginnings, crossroads, bridges and entrances, faces both ways. His inclusion in the appellation of this sculpture suggests a bi-gendered reading. Might it be hermaphroditic, including both genitals in one, or gender dialectical, holding the tension between the two separate genders?

One of the functions of the recent conference was to report on Bourgeois’ revelation that she underwent a full course of psychoanalysis and to discuss the contents of her memoirs from that time. It is now known that much of Bourgeois’ art was made while she was in analysis. This Janus-like glance back to her life history will allow for art historians to re-interpret new meaning in her art in light of her revelation.

Curator Philip Larratt-Smith’s decision to hang Janus Fleuri over Freud’s treatment couch was, according to Museum director Carol Seigel, relatively last minute. He had originally considered hanging it over the Egyptian mummy head that stands next to the couch in Freud’s office, but in what must have been a moment of great insight, decided to hang it over the couch. Mignon Nixon, in her paper, reads this installation’s significance from the point of view of the gaze of the analyst and analysand. The mise-en-scene of the couch in Freud’s Viennese treatment office kept the analyst and the analysand separate: their gaze directed towards different objects. Nixon suggests that Freud’s gaze probably rested on the many pieces of art that he had packed into his office. The analysand, however, had only her thoughts, afloat in free association over the couch, to gaze at. Nixon sees Janus Fleuri, hovering over the couch at the museum as standing for Bourgeois’ thoughts as they hovered over her on the couch of her own analyst, Henry Lowenfeld.

I want to suggest that this installation, Janus Fleuri over Freud’s Couch, is itself a work of art and the artist is curator Philip Larratt-Smith. It is different than the typical museum installation, in which a work of art might be installed in a frame, on a plinth, or in some other setting. In this case, the setting, especially Freud’s couch, interacts with Bourgeois’ sculpture. The components of Larratt-Smith’s art installation are historically significant materials from the history of art and psychoanalysis and they both lend significance to whole. Freud’s couch was given to him by a grateful patient, Madame Benvenisti, in 1890. Standing today in the Freud Museum in London, it carries in it the crystallized labour power of the Viennese worker who made it, the accumulated pressure of Freud’s patients who laid on it as they opened up their lives to the founder of psychoanalysis, the anxiety of flight and ransom from the Nazis, and its current status as a synecdoche for psychoanalysis. Janus Fleuri, flying over the couch, suspended by a wire, carries in it Louis Bourgeois’ artistic labour power, the meaning that it had for her as she made it and its place in art history. These two objects both unite and clash. They unite insofar as they both speak of psychoanalysis and self-discovery; they clash insofar as they may take up opposing places at the barricades of feminism. The couch is a space where female genitals are subsumed under the weight of a theory that views them as representing lack; the sculpture is a place where they have grown wings and now fly, insistently announcing their presence. Philip Larratt-Smith has given visitors to the Freud museum a significant installation—a powerful work of art—that can serve to interrogate the relationship of psychoanalysis, art and feminism.

March 13, 2012

Is there a critical theory of dramatic comedy in psychoanalytical literary criticism?

In the Spring of 1912, Sigmund Freud was correcting some proofs for one of his books when he was suddenly struck by the idea that there was a connection between the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice, the three daughters in King Lear, and the three goddesses in The Judgement of Paris. He immediately wrote to Karl Abraham and Salvador Ferenczi, pressed Otto Rank and Hanns Sachs into service researching the mythological material and, in a couple of days, had a complete account of his conclusions. The resulting essay, “Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl”, was published in Imago in 1913. It was then translated into English by C.J.M. Hubback as “The Theme of the Three Caskets”, and published in Freud’s Collected Papers in 1925 and in the Standard Edition in 1958.

In this essay, Freud holds that the three caskets in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice stand for three women. A casket as a box can represent a woman in psychoanalytic symbology. Freud noticed that wherever he saw a line-up of three women in literature, the third one was the most beautiful or the best choice. King Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia, turns out to be the best of the three sisters. Psyche in Apuleius’s Golden Ass is the most beautiful and Cinderella was the prince’s choice. Both of them had two sisters. Aphrodite wins the contest of the fairest against her two divine competitors in the Judgement of Paris. Freud also noticed that the third woman in the line-up is also somehow muted. Cordelia can’t find the words to flatter her father and is exiled. Cinderella is treated unjustly and has come to stand for one whose attributes are unrecognized. Psyche is persecuted by Aphrodite and is not allowed to know who her lover is. Freud’s reason for placing Aphrodite in the category of the woman who is muted is less understandable until one considers the source in which Freud read the story of the Judgement of Paris. It is in Offenbach’s libretto La Belle Hélène, which includes the lines, “La troisième, ah! la troisième…La troisième ne dit rien. Elle eut le prix tout de même.” (The third one said nothing, and yet won the prize). From the symbol of silence Freud makes another interpretive step. The beautiful, good, silent third woman ultimately represents death.

Death is the work of the third fate, the ineluctable Atropos and it is her, not Portia, that Bassanio chooses when he selects the third casket. About the lead casket he says, “thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (3.2.106). Yet Freud’s reading does not make sense with the plot of the play. Bassanio clearly states that he is choosing Portia because she is fair and rich and because winning her will help the prodigal Bassanio to become financially solvent. None of those reasons have anything to do with death. At its core, the play has a typical comedic structure to it. The hero, Bassanio, has a goal, marriage to a beautiful rich lady. He has to overcome obstacles, raising the money and handling the deadly fallout from that act, before he can achieve his goal. He does so with some help from his male admirer, Antonio, and his disguised, cross-dressed heroine, Portia. There is a final complication with the ring trick, but he successfully navigates that and walks off the stage into Portia’s bedroom and her arms. However, according to Freud, this is merely what happens on the surface of the play. Underneath that surface, Bassanio is seeking his fate with Atropos.

Freud reads characters in Shakespeare’s plays the way he reads his analysands. For him, Bassanio’s conscious dialogue is a defense against his unconscious wishes. Since he is scared of his unconscious wish for death, he uses reaction formation, thoughts and actions diametrically opposed to a repressed wish, to cover it up. Instead of acknowledging that he desires the third woman, death, Bassanio claims that he desires the fair Portia. The origin of this psychological tension lies within the author himself. Freud holds that creative writers construct stories that depict their own psychological struggles and that literary popularity results from having penned a story that depicts the psychological struggles of its audience. The play works because it depicts neurotic characters written by a neurotic author for a neurotic audience. Freud’s Shakespeare must have also had an unconscious desire for death when he wrote The Merchant of Venice.

Whether one agrees with Freud’s interpretation of Merchant or not (for the record, I do not) the Kästchenwahl essay is important in an exploration of psychoanalytic literary theory for at least two reasons. First it shows that Freud was actively working out his theory of the death instinct long before it was named in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The roots of his thinking on the issue can be found in his, then unpublished, 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology, and the Kästchenwahl essay can serve as a bridge between the 1895 and the 1920 texts. Secondly, it hints at a possible psychoanalytic theory of dramatic comedy in which all comedy can be read with a depth analysis that sees unconscious motives underlying its surface plot.

I have written about Karl Marx reading the tragic underside of Shakespeare’s comedies and how this deepens one’s understanding of those plays. Could Freud’s reading be similarly useful as a critical theory that peers into the depth under the surface? I will be writing a paper about this for a psychoanalytic conference in June. I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on this subject.

March 06, 2012

Shakespeare and the Hero

 photo by xion

One day in 1862 in the city of Vienna, a young mother was attempting to convince her six year old son that humans are made of dust and therefore must return to dust. To prove her point, she rubbed her palms together until black scales of epidermis—the dust—appeared. Her son was astonished and confused, but he acquiesced. A couple of years later, the boy, who was quite precocious, began reading Shakespeare’s plays. In Henry IV, part one, he came across Hal’s lines to Falstaff, who had just faked his death to survive the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death” (5.1.126). The boy misread the lines (or misremembered them in his recounting of this episode) as, “Thou owest Nature a death”. Suddenly, by his account, his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson made sense to him.

Eight years later, the boy complained, in a letter to a friend, of his first amorous crush. He had fallen in love with a girl named Gisela, but couldn’t muster the courage to speak to her due to his “unsinniges Hamlettum” (ridiculous Hamletdom). When he grew to be a man and finally found his romantic courage, he wooed his fiancé with Shakespearean quotes. He wrote to his beloved Martha that her voice “was ever so soft, gentle and low – an excellent thing in a woman. Mein Cordelia-Marthchen.” Complaining that he couldn’t see his fiancé during a Jewish holy day he wrote:

Just because years ago at this season (owing to a miscalculation) Jerusalem had been destroyed I was to be prevented from speaking to my girl on the last day of my stay. “But what’s Hecuba to me?” Jerusalem is destroyed and Marty and I are alive and happy.

This astonished boy, this infatuated adolescent, this loving man was Sigmund Freud.

Freud’s relationship with Shakespeare’s plays began early in his life and continued until his death in 1939. He read the plays in German, French and English. He occasionally saw them in theatre, although, like Goethe, he preferred to read them so that he could experience them with an inner sense instead of an external vision. He quoted from or alluded to the plays in ninety-nine different places in his writings. Sometimes he simply alluded to a character or a line in order to make a point. Sometimes, he used a Shakespearean character or situation as a sustained conceit that stood for one of his theories. This he did with Lady Macbeth as an example of one who is ruined by success, and Bassanio as an example of one whose conscious choices are a reaction formation against his unconscious wishes. Freud’s two central theoretical constructions, the death instinct and the Oedipus Complex are partially built upon Shakespearean situations. Freud uses Bassanio’s casket choice to develop his theory of the death instinct seven years before he gave that theory a name. Shakespeare’s plays, in these cases, can be seen as having a formative influence on Freud. His use of Hamlet has a place in history as being one of the most significant uses of literature by a developing theory.

Freud’s monumental book The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, includes, among many theories, the first presentation of the Oedipus Complex. While Freud borrows the name for the theory from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, he pairs the Classical play with Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the explanation. The Interpretation of Dreams is the result not only of Freud’s theoretical development but also of the first analysis that he ever performed—the analysis of himself. He wrote details of this analysis in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, which were not revealed to the public until after he died. In the letters, Freud can be seen using Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice to make sense of his discoveries about his childhood. (I will blog more specifically about these influences in weeks to come.)

Freud quotes or alludes to Hamlet forty-six times in his writings, making up forty-five percent of his total instances of Shakespearean quotations. Freud’s first allusions to the play were offered as support for his newly developing Oedipus theory. Freud rejected the Romantic reading that Hamlet was too sensitive for the job of revenge. He held, instead, that the prince’s hesitation arose from his guilt about the fact that Claudius did what Hamlet wanted to do—kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Conceits from Hamlet pervade Freud’s writings. He wrote in 1914:

After exercising so much self-restraint in not coming to blows with opponents outside analysis, I now see myself compelled to take up arms against its former followers or people who still like to call themselves its followers. I have no choice in the matter, however; only indolence or cowardice could lead one to keep silence, and silence would cause more harm than a frank revelation of the harms that already exist.

When the Oedipus theory found its place at the centre of the new science, psychoanalysis, Freud used Hamlet as proof of its validity. He held that if Shakespeare wrote it in Hamlet, then it must be true. He also used Hamlet to support his discovery of the unconscious in a 1922 essay as “one of the things between heaven and earth which philosophy refuses to dream of”, and he exclaimed in many essays that there was “method in the madness” of psychoanalysis. As the attacks on psychoanalysis grew, Freud turned to Shakespeare more and more. Shakespeare went from being an influence on Freud’s writings to being an assurance that they were correct. Freud saw himself as a hero, fighting the enemies of psychoanalysis, and, like all Classical heroes, Freud needed a god to help on his quest. Odysseus had Athena, Heracles had Helios, and Freud had Shakespeare.

But…the story does not end there, for Freud soon defected from William Shakespeare of Stratford, and that’s grist for another blog.

 Young Freud

February 28, 2012

Shakespeare, Marx and Theatre: An Interview with Dominic Dromgoole

Dominic Dromgoole is Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Part 2: The relationship of theory and theatre and the role of theatre in social change

This is part 2 of an interview with Dominic Dromgoole. See part 1 here: http://bloggingshakespeare.com/shakespeare-marx-and-theatre-an-interview-with-dominic-dromgoole

Before travelling to interview Dominic Dromgoole, I read his two books, The Full Room and Will and Me.(1) I learned from them that he was not a fan of academics, critics and theory. Even though I work in academia and theory I decided to use this interview as a means to critique what Dromgoole calls “ivory towers-ville”. What I found out was that some of Dromgoole’s critique of theory is actually similar to Marx’s criticism of idealism, and that another part of Dromgoole’s critique of theory keeps him from knowing just how much radical theory agrees with him.

When I asked Dromgoole what were some of the Marxist (dialectical materialist) approaches to theatrical directing and acting that he had come across in his academic and professional career and had these theories been of any guidance to him, he responded:

“This is going to be a short one. It’s sort of none and no. I can’t think of a single professional director who uses a dialectical materialist approach. There’s always a disjunction between quite often what academics think the rehearsal process is and what the rehearsal process is. It is a much more intuitive, contingent, messy human business than it is a constructive academic approach. When I was young, there was a rage sweeping through university institutions, when I was at Cambridge, for a very New Historicist or deconstructivist or dialectical materialist approach to Shakespeare. There was a book called Political Shakespeare, edited by Dollimore. And it’s in black and red and it’s got a splash of red on the front and it was sort of aggressively dull. Some of the prose within it is so agonizingly painfully impossible to read and get your head around it, that it sort of lives in a funny nether world and has very little contact with theatre or Shakespeare or the world. There was a huge battle going on at Cambridge when I had left, because Colin MacCabe was publicly defenestrated because he was too politically radical in his approach to Shakespeare and the old school Shakespeareans were waging war against the new young Turks, and to be honest we all just sort of opted out, we all just thought that this is ivory towers-ville and this doesn’t have much relationship to what goes on between a play and its audience. Since then, I suppose I’ve grown a political sense, vague and personal as it is, and that’s guided me in all of my artistic choices and it becomes something sort of innate within you. But it’s very rare that you sit down and say, ‘how am I going to approach this play in a dialectical materialist manner’.”

It’s too bad that Dromgoole found Political Shakespeare “so agonizingly painfully impossible to read and get [his] head around it”, because he might have found an echo of his thinking in it. In Part 1 of this interview, I report that Dromgoole holds that a Marxist play is one that doesn’t allow positions of power to be taken for granted onstage and that the struggle of opposing forces in history that underlies all Shakespearean plays is necessary for theatre to be successful. In one of Political Shakespeare’s most important essays, Kathleen McLuskie’s ‘The Patriarchal Bard’, the following can be found:

A production of the text which would restore the element of the dialectic, removing the privilege from Lear and from the ideological positions which he dramatises, is crucial to a feminist critique…it can be equally well served by making a text reveal the conditions in which a particular ideology of femininity functions and by both revealing and subverting the hold which such an ideology has for readers both female and male.”(2)

It seems to me that McLuskie and Dromgoole are saying the same thing – crack open the fetishism of privilege, depict the underlying struggle for domination - but one is speaking from theory and the other from theatre.

In The Full Room (3), Dromgoole writes that, “Criticism is a farce.” He rejects “the idea that there is some independent zone of pure judgment where a critic can float above” real world contingencies in the critics’ lives such as “what [they] had for lunch, when they last shagged, where they went to school, when they last bereaved, the school play they failed in [and] their athlete’s foot”. It seems to me that he is here employing a punk Marxist materialist approach against the idealist notion of a form of pure judgement that stands outside our real, lived lives. I might add to his list questions such as: who the critic works for, who the critic votes for and in whose interest is this piece of criticism being written? I asked Dromgoole, what would be an alternative way to view theatre that is more in line with Marx’s method? He replied:

“In an ideal world you don’t have criticism. Shakespeare wrote in that world and the only critics were the public and whether the public continued to want to see the plays and whether they wanted to grow with the plays. And by some sort of miracle he found the ideal audience for what he wanted to do and that audience extended him and emboldened him and took him further than he might have otherwise have done without that audience. There were no critics. There was nobody there to judge. There was nobody there to print some load of cock in a newspaper. And there was no one there to dampen effort and to dampen ambition. Or to do the worst that critics do which is really ask people to write the same thing over and over again. And they’re terrified of novelty and imagination. And that’s Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, is that he wiped the slate so clean after each play and was able to re-imagine formally what theatre could be. That would be best, no critics.

“In the absence of that, you want avowedly personal critics. You want critics who smell of themselves and of their own opinions. And who get sort of down and dirty and passionate. But are always in the act of revealing, as they write, who they are,and their own prejudices…Who are always admitting where they are coming from, which might be that they had a bad curry for lunch or that they might find it hard to write about a play because their wife’s just thrown them out because they smell.

“And what I find entirely bogus about some critics and some academics is that they pretend to live on some sort of plateau above us where they breathe the purer air. And then the pronouncements and the judgments come from that plateau rather than from them. They pretend that they are specially selected priests and they have been given hieratic secrets that the rest of us haven’t been given access to and they come down with commandments and tablets and it’s just rubbish.

“We deal a lot with academics here and they’re fantastic, they’re useful, a wonderful team of researchers who increase our knowledge of that world, massively. Farah [Karim-Cooper] at the forefront. And we deal a lot with an architectural research group who are helping us understand what our indoor theatre should look like and did a lot to do with the old Globe. A lot of whom are fantastic. Some of whom are bewildering in their loftiness. And they can change positions 180 degrees from one meeting to another and be equally adamant holding totally different positions.

What you’ve actually got is not a judgement. You’ve just got a persona that you have been trained into or that universities train into people of effortless superiority, which has nothing to do with what is coming out of their mouths.

Much of Dromgoole’s critique here sounds similar to a materialist critique against idealism (“the purer air”). His accusation that critics ask playwrights to write the same thing over and over again and that they are terrified of novelty and imagination is somewhat echoed by Theodor Adorno in his essay on surrealism:

“What is deadly about the interpretation of art, moreover, even philosophically responsible interpretation, is that in the process of conceptualization it is forced to express what is strange and surprising in terms of what is already familiar and thereby to explain away the only thing that would need explanation. To the extent to which works of art insist on explanation, every one of them, even if against its own intentions, perpetrates a piece of betrayal to conformity.(4)

It seems to me that Adorno and Dromgoole share the same reservations about criticism of art even though they speak from different fields: critical theory and theatre, respectively. It also seems to me that there may an unnecessary gulf of misunderstanding between theory and theatre. Constructing bridges across this chasm would allow both theory and theatre to educate each other.

Finally I asked Dromgoole the following question:

Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach states that, “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” Do you think that theatre changes the world? Does it have an activist role? What sort of playwriting, acting and directing would make theatre more activist?

Here is his answer:

“There is not a shadow of a doubt that theatre changes the world and there is absolutely no point in working in the theatre if you don’t think that it changes the world. There are quite a few people who don’t think that it changes the world and they work in theatre for the most horrendously pusillanimous and cynical of reasons. And often to display their own talent and often to make cash. Both of which are offensive in different ways.

“It doesn’t have to be an activist role, no. It can be and it can be successfully and theatre can speak to them very directly about their own social problems and about the social problems of the world around them and it can also help to empower people and it can help people to understand their own feelings and their own stresses and what’s wrong in their life in a better way. I think that the most profound thing that theatre can do is re-energize an individual’s sense of their own life and a sense of joy at the lives of others and a sense of the reality of the lives of others. A large proportion of the social problems that we face are due to people not understanding the reality of other people or not respecting the reality of other people. [It’s] a profound lack of empathy. A profound lack of joy. Whether its’ slamming a plane into the Twin Towers. Or merrily reeling off a collection of austerity measures which are going to hideously punish the lives of people you don’t know and never see. All of those problems stem from a lack of empathy/joy/insight into the reality of other people.

“A good theatre experience can intoxicate as to the life you lead but it can also thrill you about being in a world where you are together and where you share the ability through language and through other signifiers to enjoy life. And also this thing about variety is central. You can call it dialectical. I think it’s sort of broader and more confused than dialectical. If you are made aware of the infinite complexity and variety of impulses that go into any single moment, and you can respect the comedy in the sad moment and the light poignancy in a comic moment, and you can respect that your understanding of people is only ever superficial and should always be enhanced, then you can respect the variety in other people. The more that you can respect the variety of people, the healthier the world is.

1. Dominic Dromgoole, The Full House. An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting. London: Methuen. 2002. Dromgoole, Dominic, Will and Me. London: Penguin. 2006.

2. McLuskie. Kathleen. The patriarchal bard. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1985. 106.

3. Dominic Dromgoole, The Full House. An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting. London: Methuen. 2002. x.

4. Adorno, Theodor. Looking back on surrealism. Notes to Literature. Vol. 1. Trans by Sherry Weber Nicholson. New York: Columbia University Press. 1991. 87.

Updating blog entries

I have been blogging on the Shakespeare Birthplace trust blog site. Here are links to my entries at SBT:

This one is about Max's use of Shakespeare in his writings:


This one is a set of two clips from my interviews with Jonathan Bate and David McLellan about Marx's use of Shakespeare in his economic writings.


And this one is part one of an interview with Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London.


May 02, 2011

Expected to forgive in Julie Taymor’s film The Tempest

It did not take me very long at all to get used to Prospera in Julie Taymor’s new film The Tempest. I wondered, before going to the cinema, if a female lead would feel too dissonant for my Shakespearean sensitivities. There were other aspects of the movie that felt dissonant: some of the musical changes into the rock music felt like a train wreck, and so did some of Ariel’s CG effects when painted over the natural Hawaiian landscape. But from the moment Helen Mirren spoke Prospera’s first lines for her distressed daughter, “Be collected;/ No more amazement. Tell your piteous heart / There’s no harm done”, I felt comfortable with her. And herein lies the problem with making Prospero a woman.

Switching Prospero’s sex automatically genders the play. Whether we like it or not, whether it is played by so fine an actor as Helen Mirren whose skill defies gender categories, the switch changes everything from Miranda’s first line, “If by your art, my dearest father/mother, you have/ Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.”, to Caliban’s last look at Prospero/Prospera before his island is returned to him. The first change that I felt was the new meaning threaded into Prospera’s story of the usurpation in Milan. Antonio’s overthrow of Prospero is a common play amongst men of power, but his toppling of Prospera is a sexist denial of a woman’s power in a man’s world. The second change that struck me was that the mother-daughter relationship between Prospera and Miranda felt very different – (sweeter? more insular?) than the father-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda. Also, Prospera’s scolding of her servants, Ariel and Caliban, felt different to me than when Prospero does it.

I have no problem owning that my upbringing as man in a sexist society is a most likely cause for this different reading. As a father, I stand outside my daughters’ relationship to their mother, and as a son I felt different when I was scolded by my mother than when I was scolded by my father. As a feminist I bristle at the usurpation of women’s power and rights. In at least some of these positions I am a representative of Taymor’s audience for this film: an audience that will read this story differently due to the gender switch.

The Tempest belongs to Shakespeare’s late plays where he was working with themes of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. His protagonist, Prospero, is greatly wronged. His intended revenge makes sense; it settles scores. However, Shakespeare’s theme in this play is not revenge, but humanization. Prospero had become hardened by his misfortune. He turns his exile into imperialism; conquering the island from its natives and pressing them into servitude. He rules his island with an iron fist and an artful magic. He catches his enemies slipping in his territory and reels them into his plans for payback. Then something unexpected occurs: Ariel humanizes his hardened master. A Marxist would say that Ariel de-reifies Prospero.

Miranda tries to humanize her father from her first lines in Act One. She tearfully exclaims that she suffered from seeing the tempest sink the ship. The drowning men’s cries “did knock/ Against [her] very heart!” Miranda is modelling empathy to her father. Prospero responds by telling her the story of his usurpation and exile as justification for what he has done to the men on the ship. A second lesson in empathy is offered to Prospero in Act Five by his spirit servant Ariel. This time Prospero listens and learns.


Your charm so strongly works ‘em

That, if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.


Dost thou think so spirit?


Mine would, sir, were I human.


And mine shall.

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their affections, and shall not myself

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passions as they be kindlier moved than thou art?

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury

Do I take part. The rarer action is

In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,

The sole drift of my purpose doth extend

Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel. (5.1.17-30)

Ariel speaks his opinion in the conditional, “were I human”, delivering, with that line, a definition of humanity that extends from Montaigne to Shakespeare and then, later in history, from Hegel to Marx. To be human is to have empathy for other humans; to feel their affection and to base one’s actions on that feeling. Prospero accepts the lesson and allows himself to be transformed from vengeful fury to nobler reason, prefiguring Hegel’s vernunft (reason as expressed through mutual recognition). Shakespeare offers his audiences an alternative to patriarchy’s power plays whose expected outcome is that Prospero fries his enemies to death with flames from his staff. It is the unexpected mercy from a man that makes the play so touching and (dare I say) didactically effective.

Mirren’s Prospera succeeded in faithfully depicting this same story. She also was pled to by her daughter in Act One and transformed by Ariel in Act Five. However, her gender changes the effect of the story. Women, in sexist society, are expected to forgive. They rarely get to violently redress the wrongs done to them. By turning Prospero into Prospera, Julie Taymor reverted the unexpected back into the gendered expected. I would much rather have seen Helen Mirren fry her enemies with Circe’s magic staff.

March 06, 2011

Poets and philosophers have known this for ages

In the section on money in Capital Vol. I, Karl Marx quotes Timon from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens:

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold? ...

Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,

Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.

… What this, you gods? Why, this

Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,

Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:

This yellow slave

Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves

And give them title, knee and approbation

With senators on the bench: This is it

That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;

... Come, damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind.

Shakespeare’s lines, which were written around 1607, are useful for Marx’s critique of money, which was written around 1867 – two hundred and sixty years later. Timon, a bitter misanthrope, self-exiled in the woods, delivers one of the harshest critiques of gold in all of world literature. Interestingly, his words prefigure Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism: that it causes a greed for wealth; that money is an alienated abstraction that comes to gain power over those who wield it; and that the use of money causes surreal inversions in society. What is interesting to me is that, if we assume that both Shakespeare’s and Marx’s writings are products of their times, then Timon’s critique of money must have been relevant in both 1607 and 1867. Indeed, a look at early modern plays (Jonson’s Volpone, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and many of Thomas Middleton’s plays) and early-to-mid-nineteenth century writings (some of Heine’s poetry, early communist tracts such as Moses Hess’ On the Essence of Money, and, in British fiction, many of Dicken’s portrayals of nineteenth century life) reveals that this sort of critique of money was popular in both time periods.

Immediately below the Timon quote, Marx inserts a quote from Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone:

Money! Nothing worse

In our lives, so current, rampant, so corrupting.

Money – you demolish cities, root men from their homes,

You train and twist good minds and set them on

To the most atrocious schemes. No limit,

You make them adept at every kind of outrage,

Every godless crime – money!

These lines were written by Sophocles around 442 B.C.E., about two thousand and nine years before Marx’s Capital! Through exploring the intertextuality of Marx’s economic critique, a series of dots can be connected, linking nineteenth century Europe to early modern England and to Classical Greece. The thread that connects the three societies is a fervent hatred of the effects of money on humanity.

In his economic writings, which include not only Capital Vol. I, but also a series of drafts for it, only a few of which were published, Marx quotes Shakespeare’s plays nineteen times. He also uses quotes critical of money from Aristotle, Virgil, and a number of minor Greek and Roman poets. In Goethe’s early nineteenth century play Faust, Marx found lines to use as a metaphor for the power that money affords its owner:

“What, man! Confound it, hands and feet

And head and backside, all are yours!

And what we take while life is sweet,

Is that to be declared not ours?

Six stallions, say, I can afford,

Is not their strength my property?

I tear along, a sporting lord,

As if their legs belonged to me.

These lines are from Mephistopheles’ argument persuading Faust to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for vast amounts of power. Marx writes about money’s power:

That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I according to my individual characteristics am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.…Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

The devilish nature of money and its seductive power haunts Marx’s metaphor. Then to firmly root his imagery about money in a conceit of evil, Marx quotes Revelation 17:13 and 13:17:

These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

The mark of the beast is, for Marx, the commodification – the expression of monied value -- of all that people need and desire. He writes this quote five times in his economic writings, usually placing it close to his quotes from Timon of Athens. Marx uses powerful imagery from world literature, including (even though he was an atheist) from the Bible, to persuade his readers that capitalism is inhumane.

My research has uncovered an intertextual web of conceits, metaphors, allusions and quotes that stretches widely across human time and space. At a purely academic level, one can securely say that world literature had an influence on Marx’s writings. If one were to step back and glimpse how widely this intertextual web of the critique of money spreads – across eras and continents – one might realize that a central human problem has been discovered. This realization might support the activist claim that a society based on money is not healthy for humans; both poets and philosophers have known this for ages.

February 19, 2011

Analyzing the Great Man

Biography is a central tool in my research. In order to show that William Shakespeare had an influence on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s work, I must first understand Marx and Freud’s engagement with the plays. The bulk of my work consists of close readings and intertextual analysis, but those techniques need a biographical context for clarification. How were Marx and Freud introduced to Shakespeare’s plays? Where did they read them or see them? In what language did they access them? What did they think of them? These are crucial questions whose answers form a foundation for my intertextual work. Inevitably, biographical research leads to a doorway which, if the researcher chooses to pass through, enrols him in the project of analyzing the Great Man.

Theoretical distinctions and skirmishes are constructed by the researcher’s decision at the threshold. New Criticism refused to enter into the biographical project. According to these critics, the literature spoke for itself. New Historicists, on the other hand, chided anyone who chose not to cross that threshold. Without biography, they hold, one could not grasp the situational intentions of the writer in his socio-historical context. For them, the literature held only half the story in its lines. The other half could be discovered from biography and history. Today, a synthesis of these two positions guides most literary critics. Close readings sit comfortably with contextual analysis in most contemporary criticism.

However, there is another character who speaks on this issue – the target of the biographical analysis, the writer himself. Since I am a humanistic therapist as well as a literary critic, I must respect that person’s position. In my therapy practice, I can only analyze someone if he allows me to. I can only work with what he tells me, or displays to me in some fashion – verbally, emotionally, or physically. Similarly, literary criticisms’ analytic targets, the great men of literature and philosophy differ in their openness to being analyzed. By regarding the men I research as I do my therapy clients, I discover an effective measure for knowing if I should cross the threshold into biographical analysis. If the writer has left no autobiography, no letters, no discussion of why he wrote, how he wrote or who he wrote for, then he doesn’t want to be analyzed. And I must respect that or end up in conjecture that is unanchored to any reality. If the writer does write transparently and publicly about himself, then he has invited me into his biography and I will take the opportunity to analyze him.

William Shakespeare wrote nothing about himself. He left no autobiographical writings, no letters, and very few hints about his life. The hints he did inadvertently leave are mostly about his business dealings, not about his writing life. Shakespeare did not, unlike his contemporary Ben Johnson, even leave a collection of his writings. The collection had to be painstakingly pieced together from many sources by people working after Shakespeare died. I do not, therefore, have Shakespeare as a client. He eschews my therapy chair. I can analyze his characters and the tantalizing narrator of his sonnets, but, alas, not the writer himself.

Karl Marx also did not write anything autobiographical. He rarely spoke about himself in his writings. When he did write about something in which he was involved, it was about his organizations – newspapers, journals, and worker’s groups. Through writings such as Herr Vogt and The Communist Manifesto, we can learn what he thought about the work of the organizations in which he participated, but not about himself as a writer or man. Marx did write copious amounts of letters. He wrote to his family, friends, colleagues and enemies. While Marx did not intend for us to read his letters, we are justified in taking some biographical facts from them by his historical importance. We will never know all the facts that we would like to know about Marx because some of his letters were destroyed by his daughter in an effort to keep a potentially distasteful picture of his character hidden from the public.

Marx’s letters about his attempts to write his economics provide me with a useful tool for analysis of his process. Read side-by-side with the drafts of his economics, I can see how he struggled to understand the history of the systems of production and distribution and how he worked through the writings of political economists to formulate a critique of their work. David McLellan’s highly useful biography, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, gives the reader an account of Marx’s intellectual odyssey through a synthesis of information from Marx’s writings, letters, and the letters of others who wrote to or about Marx.

In my research, I used McLellan’s biography alongside a close reading and timeline of all of Marx’s quotes from and allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. A picture emerged about which plays Marx was reading, when he read them and how he used them. For example, it is clear that Marx had The Merchant of Venice and King Lear on his mind in the early 1840s. During these years, he used them more than any other Shakespearean play, quoting from or referring to them nine times. Questions of moral justice weighed heavily on Marx’s mind in those days when he wrote against the injustices he saw in Europe. It is significant to see that The Merchant of Venice shows up prominently again in Marx’s most mature work, Capital Vol. 1. He uses quotes from the play to emphasize the suffering of humans under the yoke of capitalism. Marx, in his late writings, clearly had not abandoned his commitment to the oppressed subject as some writers claim that he had. Next, the play that faithfully accompanied Marx through his years of wrangling with the economics was Timon of Athens. Marx quoted from it first in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. He used lines from that play in all of the subsequent drafts of his economic theory and they hold a prominent spot in Marx’s chapter about money in Capital Vol. 1. Throughout his economics, we can see Marx flinging handfuls of curses lifted from world literature at the de-humanizing system – capitalism. Marx quotes from the Bible, Sophocles, Virgil, Goethe, Shakespeare and a handful of minor poets who wrote against the effects of money on their world.

My most cooperative client is Sigmund Freud. We not only have access to his collected works and his letters (although he did try to suppress the letters to Wilhelm Fliess), but Freud is, in his theoretical writings, transparent about many aspects of his self. In the Interpretation of Dreams Freud opens the door to his unconscious by publishing and analyzing his own dreams. He writes autobiographically about himself and is, on many occasions, his first analysand. I take this as an agreement between him and me to place him in my client chair.

The third chapter of my research tests the influence of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on Freud’s writings about the death instinct. I use Freud’s essay, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, along with his autobiographical revelations in The Interpretation of Dreams to demonstrate Shakespeare’s influence. It is widely believed that Freud’s theory of the death instinct had been first developed and named in his 1920 book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Writers are tempted to place this book in its post-WWI historical context and posit that a certain amount of disillusionment with humanity drove Freud to construct an explanatory death instinct. However, the discovery of Freud’s letters to Fliess and his Project for a Scientific Psychology, both written in the 1890s, has become evidence for some writers to posit that Freud constructed the theoretical foundations for the death instinct early in his career. When his 1913 essay about Bassanio’s casket choice in The Merchant of Venice, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, is brought into the discussion, it forms a bridge between the foundational death instinct theory in the 1895 Project and the 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud holds that Bassanio’s choice of the lead casket is his reaction formation against his unconscious death instinct wishes. When Freud’s writings are set into a biographical context, it becomes clear that the death instinct has its roots deep in the history of Freud’s unconscious.

Through his self-analysis, both in letters and his theoretical writings, Freud has made it possible, and, I argue, given us permission, to analyze the origins of his theories in his biography. He first came into contact with death when his brother was born. In a letter to Fliess, Freud reports that he wished for his brother’s death, and that his brother died soon after. Freud was aware that he felt guilty about this all of his life. Then, when he was two and a half years old, his mother went to the hospital to have her next child and, at the same time, his nurse, with whom he was very close, was arrested for theft. He lost both of his mothers in one fell swoop and asked his brother where they were. The older brother told him that the nursemaid was eigenkastelt, boxed in, imprisoned. Little Sigismund then ran around the house opening all of the Kästen, cupboards, looking for his mothers. I suggest -- with all the gentleness of a therapist -- that the word Kästen figures into Freud’s thoughts about Bassanio’s casket choice. This word was firmly tied to the imagery of death in Freud’s unconscious.

It was, by Freud’s own admission, Shakespeare who helped him resolve his feelings about death. In 1872, when Freud was 6 years old, his mother told him that people come from dust and return to dust when they die. He did not believe her, so she rubbed her hands together vigorously and showed him the dirt and skin that had accumulated in her palm. In his 1899 Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes this story and reveals that he finally understood what his mother meant when, at eight years old, he read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. In the play, Prince Hal tells Falstaff, after the cowardly knight feigned death on the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death”. Freud curiously misread the line as, “Thou owest nature a death”, and used it to make sense of his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson. While Freud consciously used Shakespeare’s plays to develop his theories, the plays also worked on his unconscious. As a researcher, I can make a link between the plays and Freud’s conscious and unconscious, because Freud himself has made that link transparent in his writings.

February 02, 2011

Killing the Great Man

After reading Karl Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 in the early 1980s, the veil was ripped from in front of my eyes and I saw many things clearly. The more times I read the book, the deeper my vision penetrated into the roots of modern society. Marxism, with its foundational philosophical methods, historical materialism and dialectical materialism, became the method that I used to analyse all the academic fields in which I studied – physiology, psychology, pedagogy and literary criticism. Marx’s theories of alienation and reification became the foundational theories for my practice in each of these fields – as a somatic therapist, a psychotherapist, a teacher and a literary critic. They are the through line that unites all of my work.

Throughout my academic life, I steadily worked my way through Marx’s collected writings and deepened my respect and admiration for the man. I clearly remember my feelings during my first visit to his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery. I stood in awe before the massive sculpture of his head on the tomb. I delighted in reading his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach on his tombstone – ‘The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’ Without noticing it, and against Marx’s tenets of historical materialism (which I understood well), I contributed to the Great Man Theory of History by placing Karl Marx, the man, at the centre of his theories.

This methodological mistake reached its (ridiculous) apex when I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was Marxist. During my readings of Shakespeare’s plays, I found many examples of Marx’s notions of the problems with money and the commodification of life, of oppressive hegemonic relations, of the inversion of the object and the subject, of alienation and reification, and of the failure of mutual recognition. Obviously, I knew that the nineteenth century Marx could not have influenced the sixteenth century Shakespeare, but I still clung to the idea that I had found Marx in Shakespeare.

When I proposed an exploration of Shakespeare’s Marxism to my doctoral supervisor, Jonathan Bate, he went silent for a moment and then re-emerged suggesting that I look at how Marx is Shakespearean. I thought, to myself; ‘What?! How can Marx, the greatest thinker of all time, be Shakespearean?’ I quickly realized that I had seriously erred in my thinking about Marx. His work was not written in isolation. The greatness of his critique of our world was not thought up only by him. Marxism is not Marx; it is, at the time of his writings, one end product of thousands of years of thinking about the human condition. Marx is a man who had the vision and capacity to formulate strands from all those years of human thought into a radical theory and method. The reason why I saw so much Marx in Shakespeare is because I saw the same issues explored in similar ways both in Marx and in Shakespeare. When I stepped out of the Great Man method of thinking, I could clearly see that the issues should be central, not the men. I needed to kill the last vestiges of the Great Man in my mind in order to see deeper into Marx’s work in its social context.

Shakespeare the Great Man has also received many fatal blows recently. Theatrical studies have revealed that Shakespeare’s plays were written within the context of the complex environment of early modern culture production that was influenced by historical precedent and paradigms, contemporary economic and political conditions, and the ideological framework of their audience. Apocrypha studies have torn down the fortifications surrounding Shakespeare’s canon. We now accept that Shakespeare wrote more than he is said to have written and less than he is given credit for. Shakespeare’s hand can be found in parts of plays attributed to other playwrights and other playwright’s writings can be found in many of the plays for which Shakespeare is given sole credit. Shakespeare was certainly one of the best writers of his time, if not of all time, but he wrote in the flow of the river of human consciousness. His mind and its sensitivities are a product of history. Similarly, Marx was also a powerful and effective writer, but he too was a product of history. One significant historical influence that Marx found in world literature was Shakespeare’s plays. He allowed his consciousness to be infused by the ideas, imagery, and plots of the plays. Indeed, there is much that is Shakespearean in Marx.

Yet who influenced Shakespeare? When he waded in the river of human thought and consciousness he fished out ideas from his contemporary playwrights, from Montaigne and Machiavelli, from the Classical poets and prose writers including Ovid and Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle. By shifting my focus from the works of great men to the history of human thinking and culture, I have been able to clearly see the influence of Shakespeare on Marx, or better put, the influence of the ideas with which Shakespeare worked on the ideas with which Marx worked.

This has revealed to me an interesting new view about hope for social change. It is easy to despair about the fact that few people today seem to be taking Marx seriously, and that we will continue to suffer under the injustice and inefficiency of a clearly outdated system – capitalism. However, my research has shown me that the very issues about which Marx writes were dramatized in Shakespeare’s plays, in Montaigne’s essays, in Virgil’s poetry and in Sophocles’ plays. Concerns about the role of money in our life have been voiced for more than two thousand years. Concerns about the fate of humans in a world ruled by domination are just as old. The question of what it means to be human and how humans lose that status is possibly the most explored question in world literature. These concerns, which lay at the root of Marx’s writings, are universal and long-standing, and, therefore, lay at the roots of the human condition. A solution can be found if we follow our great writers into those roots.

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