The Mercurial Shakespeare

Sat, 30/01/2010 - 00:38 -- Heward Wilkinson

I realised, when I had finished the last post, that I had unwittingly but unerringly been drawn to that mercurial character which Keats recognised in the 'chamelion' poet concept, which is also the heart of the hermetic art of psychotherapy, and, for the most part, is precisely the elusive, quicksilver quality of Shakespeare which people do not want to recognise. It is partly caught by FR Leavis in the following passages: "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) – for obvious reasons I quote more than the footnote immediately points to: Antony The April’s in her eyes: it is love’s spring, And these the showers to bring it on. Be cheerful. Octavia Sir, look well to my husband’s house: and – Caesar Octavia? Octavia I’ll tell you in your ear. Antony 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, which regards Antony’s last utterance, 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. There is in fact a complex play of diverse and shifting analogy such as one might – for there is no dividing line – find oneself discussing under the head of ‘imagery’, ‘imagery’  conceived of as that which makes the difference between mere discursive thought and what we require of art. But we find ourselves, without any sense of a break, observing that movement plays an essential part in the analogical potency of the passage, and we could hardly be happy in bringing that under ‘imagery’. The part played by movement insists on our noticing it in the opening of the speech, and in the closing clause: Her tongue will not obey her heart, nor can Her heart inform her tongue and, after the self-contained ‘standing’ poise of the penultimate line, the lapse into And neither way inclines. ‘Movement’ here, we note, is determined by the meaning which it serves and completes." This is the Shakespearean element which is determined by his fundamental relation to OVID, not to Virgil. It is the non-monumental element. The monumental element always stands in relation to it. The Herakleitian/Parmenidean dialectic of process versus permanence is always at work.