Presentation 14th October 2011 to Joint Shakespeare Authorship Conference in Washington which I dedicate to the memory of Tom Hunter
Oxfordian Friends. Thank you for this opportunity for creative dialogue with you all! As with the recent Libyan revolution, for us too there is a danger that, amidst the immense, indispensable, and tenacious activity, of historically focused evidential guerrilla warfare, we forget what the positive issues of a successful Oxfordian, or primarily Oxfordian, dispensation, need to be, when the war is won.
What should our central, our core, our guiding activity be as Oxfordian Shakespeareans, whose time will have come? The default position is that it is literary criticism, or else new literary creation, in which there is always implicit a literary-critical activity. Historical enquiry intrinsically invested with this recognition, is valid as criticism (of course it is already valid as history), but such historical activity is then indeed literary critical historical activity. The author for whose identity we are seeking to gain recognition is a writer. G Wilson Knight The Wheel of Fire (1930); Rene Girard A Theatre of Envy (1991), the two greatest pieces of Twentieth Century Shakespeare Criticism; where is the Oxfordian equivalent of these?
Because of the black hole, the yawning absence of any realisable literary identity, at the heart of Stratfordian literary criticism, which arguably spawned the doctrines of Art for Art’s Sake (Pater), Significant Form (Fry), the Intentional Fallacy (Wimsatt and Beardsley), the Impersonality of the Great Writer (TS Eliot), and even of the Chameleon Poet (Keats), and similar doctrines, Oxfordians may subliminally feel, that literary criticism per se is contaminated, and that, in a kind of default positivism, only historical enquiry is real or actual.
As if in the wake of this subliminal intuition, as far as I can see, Oxfordian literary criticism veers towards variations on the theme, of finding analogues to events within the plays and poems in Oxford’s life, and treating the plays and poems as ‘commentaries’ – yes, Keats did use this word! – upon it. My own profession of psychotherapy somewhat tends towards aiding and abetting this, whether it is Freud or Feldman [http://shakespeareoxfordsociety.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/feldmans-hamlet-himself-reissued/]! But what Keats actually implied, was that the life is already allegory: ‘Shakespeare led a life of Allegory; his works are the commentary upon it.’ (Not, then, upon the life, but upon the Allegory already implicit in the life…)
To treat the plays primarily merely as commentaries upon the life as such exposes us to the mockery of Stratfordians, who intimate, or tell us, that we are not interested in the plays as literature, but are mere relic hunters, hunters of relics of the lives of Oxford, or Bacon, or Marlowe, or Mary Sidney, or whoever. Whilst the converse temptation, illustrated most recently by James Shapiro [http://hewardwilkinson.co.uk/2010/04/], to treat the works purely as literature, whatever that would be, is quite untenable and vacuous, there is some validity in the criticism of our own one-sidedness. Perhaps this whole antithesis, or way of construing the antithesis is itself the problem!
So, while, then, we certainly cannot surrender the first hallmark of an Oxfordian criticism, that is, the recognition of deep complex cross-connections between life and work, (hence the first part of my title from Sonnet 30), we must equally be faithful to the second hallmark, which is what I want to concentrate upon here, and so preempt our Stratfordian deriders, - the dimension of creation. For even Sonnet 30 does not evoke ‘pure remembering’, pure replication or repetition of life in art. It is ‘remembrance’, creative.
WHEN to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past, I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste: Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow, For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night, And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe, And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight: [etc.]
He summons up ‘remembrance of things past’. This is the mantic creative hypnotic process of creative remembrance, which Proust evokes so powerfully, central in psychoanalysis, and which is part of all literary creativity and transmutation. Relevantly, ‘summon’ is a very powerful word in Shakespeare, with magical-invocative or sacred implications. Thus, Lear imagines the storm elements, more compelling than any human tribunal, finding out human crimes and sins:
….close pent-up guilts, Rive your concealing continents, and cry These dreadful summoners grace.
Macbeth refers to the ultimate summons: Hear it not Duncan for it is a knell That summons thee to heaven or to hell..
Likewise, Horatio speaks of the Ghost at dawn: And then it started like a guilty thing Upon a fearful summons.
The sonneteer, recreatively, ‘weeps afresh loves long since cancelled woe’.
So with the role of actual replicative memory, there is creative remembrance. (As psychotherapists know, all memory is creative, but here explicitly so!) Beyond that, there is creative imagination (vacuously treated as the only dimension, by Shapiro, and other Stratfordians, but still quintessential). We shall look at what becomes of ‘imagination’ in A Midsummer Nights Dream. But immediately, we can say that Shakespeare is perhaps the most mercurial of all writers, one who can, in Borgesian or Joycean fashion, play indefinitely with frames within frames. His characters’ compulsive epistemic search for certainty is matched by the author’s containment of an abyss of indeterminacy, ‘Negative Capability’, as Keats called it. He is surely one who would surely have been unphased by, and indeed would have embraced, the virtual worlds of the internet and modern physics and post-modernist creativity, as he embraced the infinite cosmic awareness of Giordano Bruno in his own time - a truly creatively crazy super-mind, a mind comparable to the swift minds of people like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
Perhaps, then, the upsurge of interest in him which has coincided with the advent of the web is not coincidence. One of the great things about the Oxfordian hypothesis for literary criticism, especially for a psychotherapist, is that it enables us to integrate the reality that the author of these plays must have lived on the edge of madness for much of his later life, as he conveys in Hamlet. How, indeed, could this profoundly flawed human being, on the cusp of the supreme conflicts of the epoch, flawed and blessed with excessive measure of the most powerful instinctual and ego drives known to man, yet imbued with a vision and mentality which could envision consequences and possibilities centuries ahead, and ahead of their time, not be on the edge of madness? ‘Not doubt, certainty is what drives one mad’, writes Nietzsche of Hamlet [Ecce Homo].
Of this mercurial dimension of his work, perhaps A Midsummer Nights Dream is the apotheosis, - which also fringes into madness. Samuel Pepys saw it in 1662, and that indefatigably commonsensical and proto-Enlightenment man, ‘Pepys the Saviour of the Navy’, fittingly for the Enlightenment mind, wrote: ‘which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.’
It is completely impossible to understand A Midsummer Nights Dream in Enlightenment terms, even though, in Theseus’ dicta, in Act V, in Shakespeare’s characteristic manner, missed by Shapiro, it embodies and pre-emptively anticipates them. FR Leavis epitomises for us the problem in microcosm, by reference to a metaphoric image, one of the most exquisite Shakespearean paradigms in Antony and Cleopatra: -
'The inherited habit [of mind] is exemplified by the editor’s footnote, in my old
Arden Antony and Cleopatra, to the following passage (Act III, sc. ii)…..
Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can
Her heart inform her tongue – the swan’s down-feather
That stands upon the swell at full of tide,
And neither way inclines.
The Arden footnote, ….., runs:
It is not clear whether Octavia’s heart is the swan’s down-feather,
swayed neither way on the full tide of emotion at parting with her
brother to accompany her husband, or whether it is the inaction of
heart and tongue, on the same occasion, which is elliptically compared
to that of the feather.
‘It is not clear’ – it ought to be clear; that is the implication. The implied
criterion, ‘clarity’, entails an ‘either/or’; does the image mean this or that?
The reductive absurdity of the conception of language behind the criterion
thus brought up is surely plain. It wouldn’t be enough to say the image has
both meanings: no one really reading Shakespeare would ask to which it is, or to what, that ‘the swan’s down-feather’ is meant to apply metaphorically,
because it would be so plain that the relevant meaning – the communication in
which the the image plays its part – is created by the utterance as a totality,
and is not a matter of separate local meaings put together more or less
felicitiously. The force and precision with which Shakespeare’s English
imparts its meaning here depend on the impossibility of choosing one of the
scholar’s alternatives as right and the clear inapplicability of the question he
puts………. If I were intent on developing the theme of ‘imagery’ I might say that ‘the swan’s down-feather’ gives us an image of weight – or lightness (lack of weight) – but I have already made the offer of such a comment absurd. For it is plain that the effective ‘as if’ value depends on our simultaneous sense of the massive swell of the tidal water, and that the effect of both depends on our being made by that word ‘swell’ to feel the ‘full of tide’ as a swell of emotion in ourselves. (Leavis, The Living Principle, 1975, pp. 102-3)
Pertinently to the Enlightenment, Leavis concludes:
Born into Dryden’s age, when ‘logic’ and ‘clarity’ had triumphed, Shakespeare couldn’t have been Shakespeare, and the modern world would have been without the proof that thought of his kind was possible. (Leavis, The Living Principle, 1975, p. 97)
Pepys’s comments graphically illustrate this. The unfathomably rich intricacy of cross-connection is writ large in the apparent gossamer of A Midsummer Nights Dream. It simultaneously reaches back into mediaeval and ancient world experience and forwards into modernity and beyond, into post-modernity.
Being an Oxfordian does allow us, as in any criticism, to illuminate the plays and poems by what we know of the author. But this is not just about events, but more essentially about qualities of mind. A Midsummer Nights Dream is one of the prime illustrations of his quality which I am calling mercuriality, and this precisely precludes merely reductive comment as one-to-one cross-reference to life events as such. Excessive preoccupation with events paradoxically even means we can miss the essential Oxford characterological dimension, by over-concreteness . Hamlet evokes this difference unobtrusively in his famous lines, with the crucial addition of the ‘as ‘twere’:
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
Hamlet here states it, whereas A Midsummer Nights Dream enacts it in every possible way. It is not an accident that Rene Girard makes it the centrepiece of his analysis of mimesis and the scapegoat theory in Shakespearean drama, in his A Theatre of Envy [http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theatre-Envy-Od%C3%A9on-Rene-Girard/dp/0852445105/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1314647423&sr=1-1].
But there is more in A Midsummer Nights Dream, also, than simply the mimetic dimension. Girard’s account of this may be briefly summarised: Firstly, the recognition of the immense power for human beings, and for the development of humanity as humanity (the emergence of ‘hominisation’), of imitative desire, mimesis, simplistically illustrated by mass feeling of any kind, a bar room brawl, or a panic in a building, or a stadium. It encompasses aggression, fear, sexual desire, the power drive, religious feeling, art, and much else. Secondly, human beings learning, as they developed culture, to deal with this danger of mimetic violence by developing the mechanism of the sacrificial murder, the scapegoat murder, which for a time freed the group of the danger of mimetic escalation of aggression to everyone in the group, therefore interpreted as a redemption, leading to the sacralisation of the victim and the foundation of religions. Thirdly, as the diagnosis of the ‘human disorder’ of mimesis, and the undoing of the scapegoat mechanism, by the religions of non-retaliation, above all Christianity (in its original form). This conception was developed as an anthropological thesis in Violence and the Sacred, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
Girard, in the end, in Enlightenment fashion, portrays Shakespeare as having discovered this timeless truth about human nature; yet it is also essential to A Midsummer Nights Dream that it lies on the very cusp, the temporal cusp, of the transformation from the Ancient World, mediated via mediaevalism, to Enlightenment modernity, the cusp DH Lawrence brilliantly evokes in the Theatre chapter in Twilight in Italy [http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lawrence/dh/l41tw/chapter2.3.html].
‘The King, the Emperor is killed in the soul of man, the old order of life is over, the old tree is dead at the root. So said Shakespeare. It was finally enacted in Cromwell. Charles I took up the old position of kingship by divine right. Like Hamlet’s father, he was blameless otherwise. But as representative of the old form of life, which mankind now hated with frenzy, he must be cut down, removed. It was a symbolic act.’
Girard, in good enlightenment fashion, thinks the fairy dimension trappings are merely that, mere masks. (But, especially for the Greeks, and Shakespeare, a mask is never merely a mask!) Mere masks of the bipolar intersubjectivity of the interpersonal mimetic drama and crisis at the core of the play. For, whereas in Act V Theseus links lunatic, lover, and poet, reductively, in his Enlightenment appeal to reason: Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact: (etc)
[http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=8HZo0ZH1S7gC&dq=Mania:+a+short+history+of+bipolar+disorder&sitesec=reviews], the Phaedrus of Plato, which is in the Greek background here, treats these all as creative divine madnesses, daemonia.
MND is indeed also ‘masks of bipolar mimetic intersubjectivity’. Shakespeare, at the inception of the emerging naturalism of the 17th/18th Centuries, of Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Hume, is able very easily to pass it off as that, as he is also equally and effortlessly able to allude to Alencon’s courtship (1579-1581) of Elizabeth 1st, on Oxfordian views of the earliest versions of it [http://www.parapress.co.uk/books/dating_shakespeares_plays.html]. But it is not merely that, for, as so often with Shakespeare, it also taps into the pre-objective Jaynesian bicameral (Julian Jaynes: http://www.julianjaynes.org/), the ‘psychotic’ animistic pre-object constancy (in Piagetian terms), or the archetypal (Jung), layer of human experience.
The tell-tale of this in Shakespeare is often a cross-reference to folklore and popular rhymes and stories, often also with allusions to the moon, hints of nostalgia for the old religion, and no doubt stored deep within from childhood, like Childe Roland in King Lear, the hobby-horse and Ophelia in Hamlet, with Puck and Ariel and Queen Mab, the Fools, Yorick, Autolycus, Cernunnos (implicitly, in King Lear), and here, in A Midsummer Nights Dream, it is Bottom. The fools and pucks are cryptic unconcealers, aletheiac truth-unveilers, in the Greek sense. The awakening Bottom, translated by Puck in Ovidean fashion back into the human ‘rude mechanical’, has the profoundest and most uncanny speech [http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/midsummer.4.1.html] of the play, with its resonances of Paul’s First Corinthians letter (ch, 2, vv 9-10; intersecting mythic and Christian resonances, the latter as release from psychosis, as Shakespeare, in parallel to King Lear [http://www.briefchronicles.com/ojs/index.php/bc/article/view/71/132], offers here) [note the amazing sensory cross-modalities]:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was: man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was,--and methought I had,--but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom's Dream, because it hath no bottom…
Also Titania’s speech [http://shakespeare.mit.edu/midsummer/midsummer.2.1.html] to Oberon (for Titania’s affinity with Bottom is not merely erotic, but at this deep childhood and mythic level): The fold stands empty in the drowned field, And crows are fatted with the murrion flock; The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud, And the quaint mazes in the wanton green For lack of tread are undistinguishable: The human mortals want their winter here; No night is now with hymn or carol blest: Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, Pale in her anger, washes all the air, That rheumatic diseases do abound:
This is the parallel in A Midsummer Nights Dream to the catastrophic and Herakleitian ending of Ulysses’s speech on Degree, in another ‘Greek’ play, Troilus and Cressida [http://shakespeare.mit.edu/troilus_cressida/troilus_cressida.1.3.html], which Girard rightly sees as the tragic complement of A Midsummer Nights Dream. The more profoundly Shakespeare writes about chaos, the more Greek he becomes. Whilst Richard Roe has convincingly suggested the play is actually set in the ‘Little Athens’ of Sabbioneta [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hilary-roe-metternich/shakespeare-italy-_b_922893.html#s326129&title=THE_DUKES_OAK], the index of the primordial Greek chthonic and mythic-sacrificial dimension is given allusions to the forcible courtship of Hyppolita by Theseus, to the sacrifice, at the hands of the primal woman band, of Orpheus ‘the Thracian singer’, and the battle of the Centaurs, in the offerings of Philostrate [Boccaccio’s Filostrato ‘annihilated by love’], rejected in favour of the mimetic drama of Pyramus and Thisbe (the third ‘snuck in’, as we Oxfordians know, being Spenser’s Tears of the Muses, of 1591, with Thalia’s allusion to ‘our pleasant Willy’ who ‘doth choose to sit in idle Cell’ [http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/textrecord.php?action=GET&textsid=113] ).
However, following Bottom’s typically Shakespearean kenotic ‘Christification’, in his vision, a symbolic sacrifice does occur, but, by the inspired self-confidence, yet simple humility, of Bottom, it is also transcended. The ‘rude mechanicals’ are duly chosen, as if deliberately to be mocked and humiliated. What is their crime? We see it time and again in Shakespeare (possibly also in the treatment of the poet Cinna in Julius Caesar), and we have seen it developing at every phase of their rehearsals; it is failure to carry through true dramatic mimesis (arguably even Hamlet, seduced by revenge, takes too literally his ‘play within a play’, forgetting the ‘as ‘twere’), and surrender to concrete mimesis. And with that we return to the Greeks, in the dramatic sense of mimesis, in Aristotle’s sense [http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/poetics/ section IV]. The country actors fail to truly ‘suit the action to the word, the word to the action’ (per Hamlet’s speech) but now because they fail to see that dramatic mimetic action speaks for itself, it requires no apology, and no mitigation. In their turn, the courtiers, in their bipolar mimetic fashion, are by turns perceptive and blind; Hyppolita, most discerning about the lovers, in her response to Theseus’ reductionism, as Girard notes: But all the story of the night told over, And all their minds transfigured so together, More witnesseth than fancy's images And grows to something of great constancy; But, howsoever, strange and admirable. is also the cruellest in her mockery of the mechanicals’s performances. They fail to recognise the transcendent genius of Bottom, breaking out of the play within the play and, post-modernly, into the [Shakespeare’s] play itself – surely something of the author’s situation is hinted in that.
He too is playing with us all, in these interfused layers of dramatic presentation (Theseus, as Shapiro notes, calling attention to the crashingly obvious, is indeed himself ‘an antique fable’), yet it is a profoundly serious playing, in which we are expected, in the Greek manner, to look aletheiacally beyond the obvious: to see what is revealed in what is concealed, and what is concealed in what is revealed. Nothing could be more Shakespearean, nothing could be more congruent with the mystery of a concealed authorship, and nothing could be more Greek. It is alien to the concrete commonsense literality embodied in the Stratford theory. We should not, in our turn, ‘hunt the slipper’ in Oxfordian fashion for concealed allusions in this play; the work of Shakespearean criticism, here, is to discover the author, not primarily in the accidents of his biography, this time, but in yet another of his portrayals of his essence, the enigmatic mystery of himself, as the concealed transfiguring whole of all these intersections, but perhaps most revealed, precisely as he is most concealed, in the Venus and Adonis drama of Bottom.
©Heward Wilkinson 2011