Category Archives: Shakespeare

Shakespeare on Narcissism, Commitment,and Marriage

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

Shakespeare’s first seventeen sonnets were addressed to an unknown friend who he felt was slow in pledging his troth.  This friend appeared to have problems making commitments, aka in modern terms a “commitment-phobe,” and I suspect Shakespeare knew something personally about this malady of the soul.

“But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes/Feed’st thy light’st flame with self-substantial fuel.”  Here Shakespeare vividly noted the problem of self-absorption, the narcissistic inability to contemplate that one is focused only on his own needs and wishes, devoid of the capacity to consider the reality of the other person.  This brings to my mind the wisdom of Conrad Aiken who observed that often, “we see only the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which likes the darkness.”  And when this happens we deny ourselves the “fuel” that comes from engagement with difference, with “otherness”, opting for the comfort of sameness which will always legitimate our pre-conceptions the result of which is that we are then, “Making a famine where abundance lies, Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.”

Shakespeare knew something about modern object-relations theory, that we have something only when we lose it.  Or, to borrow from the lyrics of a Donovan 1960’s tune, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”  In this sonnet Shakespeare put it this way, “Within thine own bud buriest thy content/And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.  Shakespeare knew that our heart, “that tender bud from which life arose, that sweet force born of inner throes” (T. S. Eliot)  was the source of the Infinite.  But he also knew that this infinite treasure was found only with a willingness to “lose” it, to spend it, and that holding on to it in a miserly fashion, i.e. “niggarding” it, would be to waste it.  Jesus had this in mind when he told us that we must lose our life in order to find it.  And I close with a relevant and poignant observation from Anais Nin had a poignant observation on this matter, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

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Emily Dickinson and Consciousness

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

This little ditty by Emily Dickinson was one of my first imbibations of this delightful New England poet of 19th century America.  The poem reveals the vulnerability of Dickinson which in turn gave her the perspective which allowed her to offer such a wry glimpse into the human enterprise, a glimpse that is so relevant to any generation.

Dickinson was herself a “little boat” on the “gallant sea” of life and her poetry reveals that she frequently feared she was going to be swept away by the current.  And the second stanza vividly conveyed the fear that any of us have of getting “swept away,” the fear of being “lost” and having no awareness of it.

Consciousness is a perilous adventure and as Hamlet told us it does make “cowards of us all.”  To be conscious is to realize, cognitively and emotionally, that we live our life strung out on a narrow precipice above an unabiding void.  It is fear of this void, i.e. “Void,” that makes us “cling to these ills that we have, (rather) than fly to others that we know not of,” borrowing from Hamlet again.  Dickinson spent her adult life on one of these narrow precipices, ensconced in the attic of her father’s house, where she explored the vast riches of her tender heart and shared her findings with posterity.

Are We Just “Dust Bunnies” Here on Earth?

I like to tie together different pieces of literature together at times when the connection is very subtle at best.  Here is a collection of wisdom about the existential predicament of humankind, starting with the very creation of itself from the Psalmist David in the Old Testament:

Note here the relevance of the Shakespearean wisdom that I quote so often, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  The Psalmist recognized the sentiment of many men and women that life is as if some architect is spinning the web of life in which we are all caught up and, indeed, is spinning the web of our own individual life.

14 I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.

15 My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

16 Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. (Psalm 139:14-16 King James Version (KJV)

Compare with this excerpt from the W. H. Auden poem, “In Sickness and In Health”:

What talent for the makeshift thought/a living corpus out of odds and ends ?/What pedagogic patience taught/Pre-occupied and savage elements/To dance into a segregated charm?/Who showed the whirlwind how to be an arm,/And gardened from the wilderness of space/The sensual properties of one dear face?

And then Shakespeare’s Hamlet, overwhelmed with existential angst, bemoaned his fate with the following:

… that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Here three literary greats, indeed one of them “Divinely” great, artfully put into words the mystery of how we came into being and asked the question, “What are we doing here?”  And take note of the “quintessence of dust” notion which brings to my mind the biblical admonition that we are but “dust of the earth,” an humble state to which we will return.  There is a sense in which we are but dust bunnies, bouncing about this lonely planet for a while.  However, therein lies our glory if we but have the courage to look beneath the surface of things, things which can appear grim on occasion.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Julian Jaynes, Consciousness, and Meaning

Julian Jaynes published a very controversial book in 1976 entitled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind.” I bought the book back then, delved into a mite, and then let it catch dust until I eventually discarded it.  But for some time the book title has been coming around in discussions with friends and I finally found me a cheap cast-off version of the book in a locale resale shop.

Forty-one years later, I find the book very arresting.  He argued that “consciousness” as we know it began to evolve  during the time of The Iliad and involved a newfound capacity of “self” awareness, a subtle grasp of the phenomenon modern psychology describes as the “I” vs the “not I.” Jaynes noted that this “internal difference” made possible an internal dialogue which, I think he would agree was probably related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”  For with an internal dialogue as part of consciousness, mankind could begin to develop a moral and ethical compass in his heart and not be driven merely by unmediated impulses.  It was the event in the evolution of our consciousness that “meaning” also appeared on the scene which is relevant to the “internal difference” mentioned above.

And the subject of meaning and difference brings to my mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Thinking vs. Feeling Our Way Out of Life’s Wounds

Shakespeare knew that unacknowledged fear could stymie a person and keep him from meaningful action.  This was best illustrated in Hamlet whose internal conflict led to a tragic end.  In his famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy he said, “Thus conscience (i.e. consciousness) doeth make cowards of us all, and the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.” Hamlet was tormented by Oedipal issues which he could not acknowledge and thus was driven to unconscious “acting out,” leading to a tragic course of action.

In King Lear, we find another example of this truth.   Goneril said to Edward, “It is the cowish (cowardly) terror of his spirit/that dares not undertake; he’ll not feel wrongs which tie him to an answer.  Our wishes on the way may prove effects.” Lear, like most people, did not have the courage to face the terror in the depths of his heart that left him powerless to “undertake” or to commit to action.  This was because he had experienced “wrongs” in his youth which were so profound that his adaptation had locked him into a pattern of avoidance, a pattern which could be broken only by “feeling” these wrongs.  Because of this imprisonment, the whims and fancies (i.e. “wishes”) were only the “effects” of unconscious wounds and the not the result of conscious, purposive intent. Instead of being the driver in his life, he was driven.

Shakespeare grasped a powerful insight of modern psychotherapy.  Gut-level issues that wound us deeply cannot be resolved with band-aid interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy in which “thinking” and “thinking about our thinking” are utilized, albeit often with a degree of effectiveness.  But he knew that the real core issues of human experience, those that tie us up in knots, must be addressed with “feeling” and not with thinking.  These issues we must “feel” our way out of as we can never “think” our way out of them. I think the emphasis of cognitive based clinical intervention, though certainly of some value, ultimately reflects our culture”s wishes to keep maladaptive behavior and mood disturbances on a surface level and not address the gut-level dimensions as depth-psychology seeks to do.  Until we are willing to acknowledge the subterranean dimension of life, and go there when the circumstances of life nudge us in that direction, our life will be, as Ranier Rilke noted, merely, “The toy of some great pain.”

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The following are three blogs that I offer.  Please check the other two out sometime!

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

“Like Kittens Given Their Own Tails to Tease”

Vaclav Havel was a playwright, poet, and artist who became the first president of the Czech Republic in 1992 after helping lead a successful revolution against the Communists.  His involvement in politics was not the route that most men of his artistic persuasion would follow but his voracious reading in religion and the arts led him to action, not idle thought, or as pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement, “working for social and political improvement, not for glory, but to put his soul in order.”  Havel had a hunger in the heart that led him into the ethereal, even the occult, but he also was grounded in reality and recognized that the lure of intellectual and spiritual escapism must not be allowed to capture him.  He recognized that passion, that as Hamlet put it, “the native hue of resolution, sicklie’d o’er with the pale cast of thought…(would)…lose the name of action.”  Or, to put it in New Testament words, “Faith without action is dead.” (This was from a book review of “Vaclav Havel” by Kieran Williams.)

Havel lived through social and political turmoil in his youth during the Communist Revolution when his comfortably ensconced family suffered loss of wealth and status making the young Havel “self-conscious about his social origin.”  This “self-consciousness” produced what the book reviewer, Lesley Chamberlain, described as “productive friction” in his soul which simultaneously created or affirmed a belief in a soul and the insight that engagement in the human endeavor was an important part of “putting his soul in order.”  This “productive friction” will not take place in anyone’s life without some unsettling experience at some point in life as otherwise one will just bumble along life’s way comfortably ensconced in one’s view of the world, like “kittens given their tail to tease,” as Goethe put it.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Shakespearean Wisdom for Trump

Shakespeare’s sonnets were probably the key to the birth of “literary lew” in the mid-eighties.  A friend gave me a copy of the Bard’s sonnets and my confinement in a linear world began to crack immediately, a “cracking” which continues! I remember Leonard Cohen telling us in song,  “There’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 16 begins with, “As an unperfect actor on the stage of life, who with his fear is put beside his part…”  Shakespeare saw through us all.  He did this because he saw through himself and realized that in so doing he had insight to the human predicament, that we are merely actors on a stage playing some role that we were given early in life.  His grasp of the human heart is a gift that some poets have, a gift eloquently put into words by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) who wrote, “The poet, in whose mighty heart, heaven hath a quicker pulse imparted, subdues that energy to scan, not his own heart but that of man.”

Shakespeare’s literary gift to the ages is a scanning of the heart.  With modern technological wizardry, we can “scan” the physical heart in ways that Shakespeare could have never imagined but our modern mental wizardry cannot “scan” the heart like Shakespeare did.  For Shakespeare knew that the heart was something intricately subtle and complex, so much so that most people live their lives without any awareness of having one, or at least without any awareness of its infinite depths.  And, it is the experience of “infinite depths” that introduces one to the spiritual realm which people usually prefer to avoid, opting for words instead of the essential realm that words point to.  Infinity is scary which is why T. S. Eliot declared, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” for in the depths of our heart we are intrinsically aware of this infinity…and, therefore, our mortality.

The social contract is the stage that Shakespeare put on the table for us. This contract is best illustrated for us in today’s world by Donald Trump who flagrantly disregards this contract, refusing simple rules of civility and decorum on the “playground” that we all play on.  Most of us very early opted to “make nice” with each other in return for the knowledge that others would reciprocate.  This “making nice” is upon closer scrutiny, insincere in some fashion as beneath the surface we chafe under the daily grind and would prefer the disinhibition of a tragic figure like our President.  On some level I think that is why so many of the “low-information voters” pledged their troth to him for they sorely resent on some level the lack of freedom that the “social contract” they have signed imposes upon them.

Some hypothesized that perhaps the office that Trump was assuming would modify his whimsical and capricious nature, that he would begin to “act” Presidential as ordinarily one must.  But this ability to “act” to fulfill any role on the playground requires a deep-seated, heart-level restraint that some people lack. Shakespeare described Macbeth penchant for acting out as being wont to “crown his thoughts with acts,” noting later that, “He cannot buckle his distempered (or swollen) cause within the belt of rule.”  Shakespeare knew that some men could not “subdue” or harness the energy referred to in the Arnold poem quoted above.  Shakespeare knew that dark energy of that sort, unleashed, was dangerous to all.

If we could only get Trump see the wisdom of Shakespeare’s advice, through the mouth of Hamlet:

Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.