[Reflections] Shakespeare’s Great Heart

“Beethoven’s great heart”—no one could say “Shakespeare’s great heart.”

Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

Wittgenstein was perplexed by Shakespeare—or more precisely, he was perplexed by the reverence for Shakespeare that seems expected of any literate person. “If e.g. I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of several centuries, I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention, even though I have to tell myself that this is not the case.” He goes on: “I need the authority of a Milton to be really convinced. In his case I take it for granted that he was incorruptible.”

Milton’s incorruptibility is important here. It’s not Milton’s standing as a poet that makes Wittgenstein trust his judgment but the quality of the character behind the poetry. Milton, like Beethoven, and unlike Shakespeare, has a “great heart.” In his notebooks, Wittgenstein explores variations on the theme of genius. Genius, for Wittgenstein, isn’t primarily a matter of talent, but of character. One gets the feeling that Wittgenstein saw in Shakespeare an immense talent but one lacking in character. He was “a creator of language” or a “supple hand that created new natural forms of language,” but not someone Wittgenstein could admire.

I want to make a case for Shakespeare’s “great heart.” Then I’ll try to explain why Wittgenstein doesn’t see it.

Enter and Exit Barnardine

I’m going to focus on a small moment in Measure for Measure, a play that rises in my estimation every time I return to it. But first a quick sketch of the plot. Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, fears his permissive rule has made the people of Vienna too lax and licentious. So he contrives an excuse to take a leave of absence and puts his deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo, as the Duke well knows, is pious and strict and will enforce the letter of the law as the Duke himself has not. Among the laws on the books is a death sentence for sex out of wedlock. Angelo’s swift and unyielding application of the law sweeps up Claudio, who’s knocked up his betrothed, Juliet. Claudio’s sister Isabella is a novice nun whose puritanical zeal is more than a match for Angelo’s own—we first meet her complaining that the austerities at her nunnery aren’t strict enough. Isabella goes to Angelo to plead on her brother’s behalf. Isabella’s virtue and chaste purity make Angelo wild with desire and, in one of the most electric scenes in Shakespeare’s canon, he tells her that he’ll let Claudio off the hook if she’ll sleep with him (#MeToo avant la lettre). Horrified, she refuses.

The plot gets even more complicated from there. The Duke hasn’t left town but instead surveils the city under disguise as a friar. He hatches a “bed trick” plot in which Isabella is to consent to sleep with Angelo under the cover of darkness but then substitute in her place Mariana, a former spurned lover of Angelo’s (turns out Angelo isn’t so lily white after all). Everything goes according to plan, except that, after Angelo thinks he’s got what he wanted, he orders the execution of Claudio anyway, and demands to be presented with Claudio’s head as proof. Never fear! Our crafty duke has another plot on hand. In the same prison as Claudio is Barnardine, an unrepentant criminal under a death sentence who’s dead drunk most of the time and indifferent to his fate. Why not chop off Barnardine’s head and then make it look like Claudio’s?

(If at this point you’re wondering why the Duke doesn’t just reveal his identity and put a stop to Angelo’s wickedness—or why he put Angelo in charge in the first place if he knew all along what a stinker he was—you’ll sympathize with Wittgenstein when he writes, “It is not as though [Shakespeare] portrayed human types well & were in that respect true to life.”)

Shakespeare’s gone out of his way to make this “head trick” seem okay. Barnardine is scheduled to be executed that day anyway, he’s a violent criminal (and a foreigner!), and he himself doesn’t seem to care what happens to him. The plot of the play is a convoluted mess and this bit of sleight-of-head would at least start to unravel things.

So the executioner goes to call on Barnardine, who takes some rousing since he’s sleeping off a bender. Barnardine staggers on to the stage, is told that it’s time for him to die—and he refuses. “I will not consent to die this day, that’s certain.” The duke-as-friar tries to offer him prayers and confession but Barnardine will have none of it. Then he wanders off back to his cell and back to sleep.

Shakespeare’s artistic conscience

Barnardine’s appearance and refusal is totally irrelevant to the plot. Moments later, the prison provost recalls that another prisoner, a pirate who looks a lot like Claudio, died that morning of a fever. They cut off the recently deceased pirate’s head and send it to Angelo and everything moves forward according to plan.

So what’s Barnardine doing in this play at all? Here’s one speculative guess. Shakespeare, who “never blotted out a line” (according to his contemporary Ben Jonson, who added: “would he had blotted a thousand”), started writing out this head plot and got to the point of bringing the soon-to-be-executed Barnardine onstage and thought, “I can’t do this.” I can’t, for the sake of plot convenience, kill a character in cold blood.

How can it be wrong to kill a character? No real people are harmed in a fictional execution. It’s not morally wrong. It’s also not aesthetically wrong. Sometimes killing a character is the right aesthetic choice, and goodness knows Shakespeare doesn’t shy from littering his tragedies with corpses. I’m not sure this is the right expression but I want to say that it would be artistically wrong. As an artist, Shakespeare gives life to his characters and in doing so grants them a certain measure of autonomy. To create one just in order to kill him to satisfy a plot wrinkle that Shakespeare created for himself would be to callously treat this character as nothing more than a means to an end. (I get the feeling that all of Ibsen’s characters are means to his ends and none of Chekhov’s are, and that’s why I prefer Chekhov to Ibsen, but that’s a different essay.)

My conjecture about Shakespeare planning to kill off Barnardine and then being unable to carry it through could be wrong. But whatever the reason, you can understand why Shakespeare keeps this moment in. Barnardine’s presence in the play is magnificently gratuitous. It’s a moment of unruly reality breaking into the world of fiction. It’s as if Barnardine comes on stage simply to say, hey, reality is too big and unwieldy to submit itself to the demands of a plot. And then he lumbers off to sleep off his hangover.

One often gets the feeling that Shakespeare has only a tenuous hold on his creation. His plots tend to be loose and a bit frayed, his characters refuse to be shackled by the demands of the story, and his language often prizes musicality over sense. Dramaturgically, Shakespeare’s a bit of a mess. Even if we’ve laid bowdlerism aside, it’s rare to see an uncut performance of a Shakespeare play. But it’s also hard to imagine anything like Shakespeare’s plays coming from the pen of a more disciplined writer. The plays overflow with abundant, exuberant generosity, and that’s what makes them great. Barnardine’s refusal to die like a well-behaved bit character is one expression of Shakespeare’s great heart.

Courage and higher values

A large part of what I think bothers Wittgenstein about Shakespeare is that his plays don’t seem to take a stand on anything. Shakespeare is in no way “a prophet or teacher of humanity,” Wittgenstein writes. But this is precisely where I think Shakespeare’s great heart shows itself. Shakespeare doesn’t try to impose a vision or judgment on the worlds he creates, or on the characters within them. He doesn’t want to lecture us on how the world ought to be because that would place limits on it. Shakespeare has a love for life that wants to encompass the world entire. That means populating his plays with more variety than are dreamt of in any philosophy.

That isn’t to say that Shakespeare’s plays don’t body forth any values. These values are easier to see in the negative than the positive. It’s not hard to see from Measure for Measure (and other plays from around the same period, notably Twelfth Night) that Shakespeare has it in for puritanical censoriousness. But when Shakespeare lampoons the killjoys who want to reduce the scope of life’s possibilities, he’s just showing the flip side of his passionate love for life.

Wittgenstein’s issue isn’t that he fails to see this love for life in Shakespeare’s plays but that he wouldn’t recognize it as a value even if he did. Wittgenstein places considerable weight on the virtue of courage. Courage is important both in doing philosophy and in the conduct of one’s life—and these two are connected. The same Wittgenstein who saw courage as the currency in which valuable ideas were to be bought also volunteered to take on exceptionally dangerous assignments on the eastern front of the First World War. In both cases, you have to be ready to give up a lot—your intellectual vanity or complacency, your life—in order to achieve something of value. What’s more, properly understood, you’re not giving up anything of value at all. The person Wittgenstein would have been had he not volunteered in the War isn’t a person Wittgenstein could have respected, so why flinch in order to preserve something unrespectable? Likewise, what’s the point in doing philosophy if you don’t do it rigorously and with integrity? (I owe a lot of my understanding of Wittgenstein’s views on courage to Gabriel Citron, who’s written about them much better than I just did.)

Imagine this Wittgenstein reading Act III, scene i, of Measure for Measure. In this scene, the Duke and then Isabella visit Claudio in prison. The scene begins with the Duke-as-friar preparing Claudio for death by giving him some half-baked Stoic advice about how life isn’t worth clinging on to. Claudio seems totally unconsoled. Then Isabella tells Claudio that she didn’t manage to change Angelo’s mind and he must prepare himself for death. When Claudio asks if there’s any way out of this predicament, Isabella prevaricates a bit and then reveals the nefarious bargain by which Angelo offered to save Claudio’s life. Surely no loving brother would purchase his life at the cost of his sister’s virtue. Claudio remarks bitterly on Angelo’s hypocrisy and then disrupts that train of thought, blurting out: “O Isabel!”

ISABELLA: What says my brother?

CLAUDIO: Death is a fearful thing.

He elaborates: “To lie in cold obstruction and to rot, / This sensible warm motion to become / A kneaded clod.” The bridegroom-to-be, the father-to-be, sees what’s about to be snatched from him.

I imagine Wittgenstein would see Claudio’s response as straightforward cowardice. He lacks the courage to give himself up to something more important than himself. And what is he saving? How could he live with himself, knowing his continued life comes at the cost of having ruined that of his sister? What kind of brother could ask his sister to dishonour herself for his sake?

I read Shakespeare as prompting us to ask the opposite question: What kind of sister would prize her virtue over her brother’s life? Measure for Measure is the most famous of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” which are notable for their dark and ambiguous tone. No one in the play comes out looking good but among the principal characters, the least compromised to my mind is Claudio. In this scene he shows weakness of character but he looks a lot less monstrous than Isabella, who flies into outrage in response to Claudio’s reluctance to die to preserve her virtue, leaving him with the words, “‘Tis best that thou diest quickly.” Isabella is no coward. She’s something worse.

What’s at stake here is the question of what, if anything, is worth more than life itself. Isabella makes it clear that dying to save Claudio would be no problem: “Oh, were it but my life, / I’d throw it down for your deliverance / As frankly as a pin.” To her mind, life itself is of little worth if it isn’t conducted according to the most stringent standards. The Wittgenstein who volunteered for the war felt likewise. There are fates worse than death, and among them is to barter for life at the cost of higher principles.

But for Claudio—and, I think, for Shakespeare—“sensible warm motion” is itself unspeakably precious. Life doesn’t need steadfast commitment to higher principles to justify it. It’s justified all on its own. There’s greatness of heart, I think, in the generous love that prizes an ordinary life like Claudio’s, and even a dissolute life like Barnardine’s. Claudio shouldn’t be made to die for an ideal that isn’t his own, and Barnardine shouldn’t be made to die for the convenience of a story that isn’t his own.

Will and Wilfulness

I can see why Wittgenstein wouldn’t see things this way. He saw his own efforts as resisting a pernicious tendency in the modern world toward busyness, automatism, proliferation, a fixation on progress—all of which distract us from focusing on what’s essential. In the Foreword to his Philosophical Remarks, Wittgenstein writes of the spirit “which informs the vast stream of European and American civilization in which all of us stand,” and which “expresses itself in an onwards movement, in building ever larger and more complicated structures.” This civilization “tries to grasp the world by way of its periphery—in its variety.” If this is what you’ve set yourself against, Shakespeare’s bedazzlement with the variety of human experience likely seems a distraction.

If you’re familiar with George Orwell’s essay, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” you’ll recognize similarities between Tolstoy’s crabby dislike of Shakespeare and Wittgenstein’s more restrained skepticism. No coincidence that Wittgenstein greatly admired Tolstoy—the late Tolstoy who advocated a Christian asceticism. Wittgenstein and Tolstoy were both extremely wilful men who placed high value on the renunciation of the will. This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. You need a resolute will and single-minded determination to renounce all the pleasures and distractions of the world for the sake of some higher ideal.

But that wilfulness is always partial. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein are also both men of strong judgments. If you see the world in the light of a spiritual struggle, things will tend to show up as noble or contemptible, sublime or sordid. One of the hardest things to renounce in this struggle for renunciation is judgment itself. Conceit or pride (māna) is one of the five “higher fetters” in early Buddhism, among the last things the seeker renounces before attaining Enlightenment. Conceit is defined in terms of judging oneself in comparison with others.

Shakespeare, despite the puns on his name, is not a man of will in Tolstoy’s and Wittgenstein’s sense. But as a result, he achieves something these wilful men were unable to achieve. He’s able to look on the world without strong judgment. Rather than praise or condemn, he seems mostly just to delight in the wild variety of human lives and the passions and aspirations that animate them. Precisely because he doesn’t aspire to be a sage, he achieves what sages aspire to: the serene capacity just to let things be.

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