The Ladder Is Gone – Part 2

Wordle Ladder

[Editorial note: Part one was published in December 2013.]

III. Shakespeare, Nothingness, and the Audience

An actress who worked professionally in the 1920s said to me of Shakespeare: “To appreciate him, I think, you have to realize that Shakespeare was a man of the theatre, to his very marrow.” The observation is apt because very good critics tend to read Shakespeare and somewhat disregard the theatrical relations that are so important to what is really going on. Furthermore, literary scholars often shrink away from the asymmetries before their eyes and impose a bourgeois closure and neatness on the plays that they do not have.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream – to take just one example — we see a clear, descending  structure of multiple actors and audiences: the Gods (Titania and Oberon) watch the upper-class humans, those mortal “fools” that so amuse Puck; the courtly set observe Bottom &Co. perform the “ ‘tragical mirth’ “ of the doomed lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe; and the real audience watches all the others. The working-class Bottom is the heart and soul of the whole complex scheme of audiences that are also actors. Without his honest, innocent simplicity a love story cannot take place. And to experience the warmth of love, the icy Titania has to foolishly fall for a human, who has first been changed into a holy Ass. Our spectators’ eyes travel from the height to the bottom of the scala naturae, from Goddess to Beast, in a dream that is infinite “because it hath no bottom.” Puck at the very end, alone on a bare stage, tells us that the divine mystery is an illusion, using the word “shadows” to mean both “actors” and “semblances”:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended –

That you have but slumbered here

While these visions did appear.

For the actor, especially retrospectively after the performance, when the set is struck and the make-up removed, the truth of the profession is that illusion is reality. A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes enormous fun of everything, including the Word of God. But for actors, who must be able to play all parts, mirth is tragic, and tragedy mirthful, so the Word of God might be nonsense, or divine nonsense spoken through the mouth of a Holy Ass.

The merry destabilization of the text, seen most obviously in Bottom’s scrambling of the words of St. Paul, makes the play into a dynamic reality for the real audience. They must decide what they have seen and they must decide what to do with their lives.

In Shakespeare’s time, the demands of a full and changing repertory meant that the work of putting up and taking down scenery was an almost daily affair, and in his plays Shakespeare engineers a scaffolding and de-scaffolding of meaning that is radically unsettling and that does not in any sense provide resolution, as one sees most strongly in the tragedies.

Near the end of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth dies and her husband has truly lost all that has meaning for him. His mental world has been destroyed by his own thoughts and acts, and his epiphany leads to those fierce words:

Out, out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

The British critic Lionel Charles Knights some time ago commented that the poetry is so powerful here that “we are almost bullied into accepting an essential ambiguity in the final statement of the play, as though Shakespeare were expressing his own ‘philosophy’ in the lines. But the speech is ‘placed’ by the tendency of the last Act (order emerging from disorder, truth emerging from deceit).”

Knights’ wish for an almost happy ending is quite misplaced. The essential ambiguity is there in the play itself.  Macbeth begins with Macbeth and Macduff bathing heroically “in reeking wounds” as if they mean to create “another Golgotha” and then the rebel Macdonwald’s head is fixed upon “the battlements” for all to see. The play ends, many murders later, in exactly the same way, with a bloodied head, this time the head of Macbeth, brought on stage by Macduff. The “Signifying” of the play appears to have produced “nothing” – unless that be in the minds and conscience of the people who watch it. As the American critic Harold Bloom points out, Macbeth takes place against a background of “cosmological nothingness,” and numerous commentators have wanted to run away from the real impact of the play. Once again, the audience must give the play its meaning that it will have for them; the vacuum at the center of the action forces us to be agents of our own interpretation of what we see.

I recently asked a Shakespeare class to do exactly this, to summarize their views of Macbeth in a short sentence. What appeared in their responses was a rich plurality of views, about thirty or so different interpretations, all of them fitting the play extremely well, I thought. The students successfully brought their own moral schemes to the play.

That is Shakespeare’s game I believe, making us constitute our own world, and this constitution of the world is a central problem of our time – one to which Shakespeare gives us some insight.

IV. Shakespeare and Today

A student of mine a few years ago was also an actress who had participated in a number of Montreal performances of Shakespeare. She wrote a detailed and disturbingly convincing essay for me. Her argument: Shakespeare thought that nothing possessed lasting value and believed in nothing at all, least of all love. I was seriously affected by her paper. It was very well argued. She had acted in a number of plays. She knew what she was talking about in an important and personal way.

My response to her now would be somewhat along the lines of what I have been thinking at this time, in 2013 – that her reaction has great importance, since the challenge of Shakespeare’s plays to the audience is to actively participate in finding meaning for ourselves. She found desolation in the plays, and I remember thinking at the time that she probably had experienced a bitter disappointment that was reflected in her essay. But she had seen something that is very much there in the more sombre pieces of Shakespeare’s theatre – a vacuity that demands that the audience act and react autonomously, morally and intellectually.

Funnily enough, with plays such as King Lear this experience of sinking or drowning can mean that one develops a surprisingly traditional view of love and attachment in reaction to the play, an ethical response not unlike that of audiences watching the Morality Plays that Shakespeare undoubtedly participated in when he was young. But our view of virtue at the end of Lear is strengthened because we have seen and felt how it can be stripped away. The lineaments of the human appear in a different, deeper light and are heightened by extreme loss.

Do the difficulties that I am suggesting here about losing and finding meaning in Shakespeare and in culture generally extend beyond the West? I suspect so, because I think that contemporary mathematics and physics, which are universal languages of a sort, are coming up against the limitations of human thought, and showing us new ways of thinking about thinking. The conundrums in these two domains suggest larger puzzles.

At the same time, we live in a world that demands vigorous action of an ethical kind. We need to have strong reactions to the injustices surrounding us.

Because “the ladder is gone” does that mean that a “”total” or “holistic view” of reality becomes impossible or less important? I think just the opposite is true, but any radical, foundational thinking worth its name has to take into account the fragility of comprehensive explanations and the primordial need to make the audience part of the play, to truly involve the mass of people as active agents. The challenge is to achieve a total view that is not totalizing, a goal that is not easy to reach.

Part of what I think is needed is hinted at in a book published in 2007 by a professor of mathematics at Montreal’s Concordia University, William Byers. The book is titled: How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction, and Paradox To Create Mathematics. In the last section of that work, “Mathematics as Complexity” Byers argues for a creative, evolutionary model of thinking that goes beyond deductive systems and “trivial” algorithmic models. In his case for open, flexible and non-linear thinking, Byers remarks: “In particular, mathematics changes and evolves. However, it is often described as though it were timeless and absolute.”

The scala naturae is gone, but what Byers calls “the light of ambiguity” is very much with us, and the last sentence of his book is compelling: “The essence of mathematics is that is nontrivial, creative, and alive.” These last three words apply to modern thought itself, and they capture as well the essence of Shakespeare’s plays when he wrote them, and today.