We cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter.
FALSTAFF AND THE TEMPEST
Shakespeare often marks the “position” or “status” of a character by carefully regulating the degree of control he may be said to exercise over the implications of his own words, by regulating the degree of awareness he has of what all those implications are. If Shakespeare wishes to delimit a character’s wit or agency—if he wishes to set bounds to his self-possession—he often does this by having the language “speak” the character, rather than the character speak the language (to put the matter fancifully). The “position” I just spoke of might be a “social” position or “rank.” The speech of low-life sorts in Shakespeare is often peppered with solecisms and inadvertent puns, in which only the better-situated characters (and audience) take pleasure. Of course, not a few servants in 18th century British fiction have their social rank marked out in precisely the same way; and white writers of “dialect” stories in late 19th century America “de-class” black characters (and duly flatter themselves) by laying all manner of misused words and accidental puns into their speech.
But Shakespeare is as likely to use this device, in its more complex form, in characterizing persons of very “high” rank (in this he is profoundly democratic). Macbeth, as I have tried to show in another post, affords the best example. We are forever made aware of implications in Macbeth’s words that he himself only imperfectly understands. This “delimitation” of his awareness corresponds to a “delimitation” of his agency (he does not possess himself), and only reinforces our sense that he is inevitably doomed by the Fates—that he has been written into a script, that he really is, as he himself believes, a kind of marionette strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage. Well, so may we all be, as literary critics who take what we call the “post-structuralist” view maintain (post-structuralism often, though not inevitably, takes a dim view of the reality of self-determination).
Falstaff, above all the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, seems most in control of the implications of the words he uses. He seems least likely to be “spoken” by his own lines, least likely to speak lines the implications of which are not entirely clear to him. In this he might seem a marked contrast to Banquo in the scene discussed here, and more generally to Macbeth. But as Prince Hal’s first soliloquy suggests, Falstaff, too, is nonetheless doomed, nonetheless fated—and by forces he hasn’t wit altogether to comprehend—to be made a tool. “I know you all,” the Prince says of Falstaff (in 1.ii.288-320) Poins, and the whole gang, “and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humour of your idleness”:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at . . .
Falstaff comprehends himself better than most. But at the end of the day, even he is a character in a play staged, and for purposes contrary to his own, by someone else: Prince Hal. The unyoked humor of his idleness is always already “yoked,” and Hal is, in some sense, pulling the reins, the better to make firm his own reign, at least in prospect.
In precisely this same sense Macbeth becomes a character in a play staged by the “weird sisters,” or by, as I suggest here, whatever power it is that they represent. Everyone in Shakespeare is “yoked,” and this early soliloquy of the Prince’s continues to exert its leverage of dramatic irony in each scene in which Hal and Falstaff appear together. Falstaff himself seems to recognize this in the famous play-acting scene (2.ii.1449-1463), as when he says, in such a way as to imply that he expects it might well happen: “Banish Jack Falstaff and banish all the world.” There are a number of earlier indications of his foresight in this regard. And when he says, after the party is interrupted, “Play out the play: I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff,” he is simply trying, so to speak, to maintain what Hollywood actors call “creative control” over the script into which, he begins to suspect, he is being written only to be written out. He is witnessing the “death” of his own “authorship.”
Falstaff is the “hero” of the Henry IV plays in a special sense. This has to do with how effects of dramatic irony operate upon him, and also upon us as his witnesses. In the first place, we can consider Falstaff’s inexhaustible punning about his fatness as a particularly touching sort of heroism. His body, with all its inertia, its unanswerable motives, its appetites, its inexorable aging and decay, is what arbitrates his destiny. Others, when they see him, immediately cast him in a role (“fat Jack”), and he makes much of, and much out of, the role he is fated to play. Still, despite his facilities within it—despite the liberties he takes (or rather seizes) within it—that role dominates him, however charming may be his efforts to master it. (In this respect, he resembles no one so much as light-footed fat Jackie Gleason.
Who can watch him dance and not be overcome by equal parts of wonder and of mirth?) Appetites beyond Falstaff’s control and management—what he might call his “instincts,” as in the scene at Eastcheap after the robbery—bring him down in the end. But all the while he jokes and puns with thoroughgoing sophistication about these appetites and the “weight” they’ve saddled him with. (His speech is forever like the reverse “English” we may put on a ball inevitably hurling forward out of bounds, and beyond recovery.) By these means he hopes (ultimately vainly, it is true) to master his fortunes. He achieves astonishing levity for such a fat man.
I have mentioned the dramatic irony that Hal’s first speech introduces into the play. We might say, here, that punning is really an instrument of the same type. In both “punning” situations and “dramatically ironic” situations the force of context awakens important meanings in a character’s actions or utterances. The audience of course is made to feel these added meanings. But this “audience” often includes some component of the other characters on stage (call this the “staged audience” for dramatically ironic and punning utterances) as well as the audience proper (call this the “unstaged audience”). In other words, puns and effects of dramatic irony constantly reorganize (in a rhetorical sense) the audience for (and actually inside) the play.
The genius of having a character like Falstaff on stage is that he is in many respects the ideal audience for the play in which he takes a part, the one best suited to understand its verbal complexities. It is often remarked that Hal is the only character to move freely between the court, the tavern, and the battlefield, and this is both correct and thematically important. But for his part, Falstaff essentially moves freely between the staged and unstaged audiences, and this is “rhetorically” important—an importance, for a playwright, of the highest order, insofar as his business is to engage a theatrical audience. In short, Falstaff ushers us all into the theater (and the world) of Shakespeare. In locating a representative of his ideal audience on stage, Shakespeare at once “socializes” the drama—by identifying unstaged and staged audiences with one another—and dramatizes his audience. Falstaff speaks with and for us. He identifies us.
But Falstaff’s punning against Fate has further implications and suggests the nature of Shakespeare’s “vocational” interest—that is, his interest as a literary and dramatic artist—in the fat knight. In a character and characterization like this, we have a glimpse of the pleasure Shakespeare takes in his own facility with language. But we also see his acknowledgement of the limits that facility is bound to have. Falstaff shows that the best we can do with fate is to follow it down with brilliant comedy, putting a “spin” on our destinies by troping. But though we may run circles around what draws us forward, it draws us forward nevertheless, and with a gravity that is irresistable. This is the lesson of Macbeth, and it is also the lesson of The Tempest, as I hope to make clear. We are bespoken by our language, and by our circumstances, no matter how well we speak it, or manage them. That is the final dramatic irony. (In pointing out how this Irony of Ironies works—in pointing out that none of us is altogether master of the language we speak—many a Derridean made a career in the English Department in the 1980s, when I was coming along in graduate school.)
In any event, Falstaff, among all the characters in all the plays, is the one with whom both author and audience are most seriously identified, the one in which they have the most intimate investment. All of the rhetorical energies of Henry IV Part 1 are organized around him. In his first scene with Hal, Falstaff may claim allegiance to the Moon, but we very soon feel his own gravity; and like the Sun with whom he claims no acquaintance whatsoever, Falstaff becomes the massive body around which everything truly important in this play revolves. He is the cosmos, as he himself says (again): banish Jack Falstaff and banish all the world.
I find profound skepticism in Shakespeare, though perhaps not skepticism of the sort we usually think of. The skepticism I have in mind has to do with the acknowledgement of limitation. It is Montaigne’s skepticism: “What do I know?” A few words are necessary here by way of prelude to what follows.
Shakespeare’s skepticism (in my account) is conservative. That is to say, by vouchsafing us the indulgence, in our experience of Falstaff, of pretending to master the Fates, his actually provides us equipment for resigning ourselves to the Fates when at last we ourselves are mastered. In other words, Shakespeare will always say, by the time the curtain falls: We have to accept an end to Falstaff’s punning; we have to banish him, without protest, to a region beyond the power of wit, even though this means death for him, as it means death for anyone. (He ends up “cold as any stone,” as Mistress Quickly puts it in 2.iii.840-58, moving from the foot to the very head of the matter.) In still other words: We have to accept the limitations of art; we have to accept (to turn it Plato’s way) that even Falstaff’s art is all a beautiful lie.
And if we really do believe that lie—the lie that we are master of anything, really—then we (like Justice Shallow) are merely “bait for the old pike,” as Falstaff says. (Another dramatic irony: as Falstaff delivers the speech from which I just quoted, we are, of course, aware that he has himself all along been used by the Prince. He is bait for the young pike.) But Shakespeare prepares us well for this ultimate resignation, which is finally nothing other than acquiescence to something like Providence—the divinity shaping our ends (as Prince Hal shapes Falstaff’s end, and as, doubtless, something else shapes Prince Hal’s end). Shakespearean skepticism about human agency, about our self-control, is ultimately transformed, in a late play like The Tempest, into something like real humility—the word for “limitation” in the moral, rather than in the merely scientific, lexicon. (Whether or not this humility is specifically “Christian” is another matter, and one I am disinclined, to address.) In that late play Prospero is educated by his ordeal into a final resignation that dramatizes Shakespeare’s own resignation from the theatre, or from the “great globe” itself, “leaving not a rack behind.” But The Tempest helps us retrospectively see how even Henry IV Part 1 is essentially about the limitations of this art.
Consider Prospero‘s famous speech:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.
Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.
Be not disturbed with my infirmity.
What is the immediate occasion for these reflections? Prospero’s recollection of Caliban‘s plot to murder him, which has just come over him again like bad weather, spoiling the pageant he had staged for Miranda and her betrothed. “I had forgot that foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban,” he says. It is not, I believe, often remarked that this recollection seems to affect Prospero unduly. After all, the whole affair with Caliban is already well in hand. It poses him absolutely no threat, and he knows this (no threat in the physical sense, that is). So why the melancholy speech? Why all the vexation and infirmity? Why an end to the revels?
I would answer as follows: Caliban’s foul conspiracy is not to be taken seriously, not on its own terms anyway. But it does seriously call to Prospero’s mind the earlier plot against him, hatched by his brother, from which only by the good grace of fortune (and Gonzalo) he escaped. And his escape was not merely an “escape”; it was also a kind of pardon, a gift of irresistible grace as the Calvinists say, for in some sense (as Prospero acknowledges) he deserved to die, as do we all. He had, largely, brought about his own downfall through abdication of duty, and through a kind of incontinent absorption in his “arts.”
In fact, he had, in former days, and all differences allowed for, been rather like Falstaff: drunk with wit and imagination, he’d shown no regard for real and sober responsibility. Both men inhabit, while they can, a world elsewhere, a refuge from obligation—whether in the tavern or in the library is of little consequence here.
The difference is that, unlike Falstaff, Prospero has been given a second chance. His “banishment” did not issue in death, cold as any stone. His escape, as I have said, was not merely an escape; it was “allowed,” in an act of mercy. He is aware of this fact, and here lies the source of his humility. He is Falstaff reformed, Falstaff chastened, Falstaff humiliated, Falstaff redeemed, Falstaff starved of all his fat indulgence. When some token of hardship intrudes into the sanctuary he has created for the staged audience of Miranda and Ferdinand, he does not say (with Falstaff), “Play out the play: I have much to say in the behalf of that Prospero.” He says instead what Falstaff can never say, with reference to both the drama he has staged and the drama of which is a part: “Our revels now are ended.” Whereupon he lays out such a criticism of theatrical fictions, in their indulgent worldliness, as might have issued from Falstaff in one of his caustic impersonations of a Puritan.
But Prospero is not, here, impersonating anyone. He does not speak “in character,” as Falstaff so often does. With this speech, in fact, he steps out of character—out of his character as a man absorbed too much in his own mind, in his own arts. And there is a complication: As he does this, he also acknowledges that he—as are we all (so goes the implication)—is but a “character” acting out a “play” much larger than any he could have authored himself. He may be waking up out of one dream, a dream of his own power. But he realizes that this is only a waking into a more comprehensive dream—a dream from which we will wake only when we die into that deeper sleep which isn’t merely a “care-charmer,” or “son of the sable night.” He is acknowledging his limitation; and it is a profoundly skeptical, a profoundly humiliating, moment. Prospero’s speech essentially rephrases the cry of the Boatswain in Act 1, Scene 1—which cry itself may be said, to take a hint from H.C. Goddard, merely to rephrase the entire tragedy of King Lear: “What care these roarers for the name of king?” Everything falls, everything fails—including Iraqi and American palaces. “These roarers” are both the tempest to which the Boatswain refers and The Tempest itself, of course. No one can survive a close reading of the latter with his pride in tact.
There is finally no difference between the fiction of the pageant to which Prospero’s speech puts an end, the fiction of the play of which he is a part, and the fiction (or “dream”) our “lives” are “made on.” Everything is circumscribed, everything is rounded with a sleep. Here, as later in Prospero’s epilogue to the play, the real and the unreal, the world and the theatre, are merged—a point emphasized by the fact that, again, “The Tempest” names both the play and the storm within it. This play is itself a tempest, and when it blows over, what have we left? Prospero alone on the stage, begging our forgiveness, and doing so in a speech that likens our applause to the gentle winds of a favoring storm—a well-tempered tempest—that shall weather him, chastened, back to Milan:
Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
Like Odysseus, so to speak, Prospero tries to contain the unfavorable winds in a sack (as Falstaff tries to contain winds unfavorable to him in another sort of “sack”). Or rather, we, the audience, are invited to play Aeolus to his Odysseus—to fill his sails with favorable winds. But, again, we have already heard the sentence: “What care these roarers for the name of king?” We know how delicate a passage is this journey that Prospero both contemplates and asks us to help him make. In this speech, Prospero crosses over from “staged” to “unstaged” space, while at the same time inviting us to cross from unstaged to staged space—to become a part of pageant of this play, which, we might say, employing yet again the idiom of the English Department, “always already” contained us anyway. Every mother’s son and daughter of us struts and frets an hour upon the stage, playing out, with Macbeth and Banquo and the hapless first murderer, a script whose outlines we haven’t wit to comprehend. This, anyway, is the idea of The Tempest. Take the play in earnest, and take into account as well the 16th and 17th century obsession with “mutability”—which was an obsession with the fragility of human lives—and you are forced to make a concession: The world once seemed much less manageable, much more an affair of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, than it seems to us now. Macbeth and The Tempest come to us as from a culture in which the world simply felt more mysterious; it is impossible to imagine them being written now. They reach us as from a culture well to the other side of the Enlightenment from where we stand.
And yet if, after Foucault and Derrida, the Enlightenment really should fall into the dustbin of history, together with the air of confidence and general intelligibility it involves (and together with the upgoing sense of progress it inspires), we will be much better situated to experience the true range and terror of Shakespearean uncertainty, and also of Shakespearean wonder. For how many now say—at least in the West, and in such a way as to feel it deeply—that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and that our little lives are rounded with a sleep? To be sure, we say it in English Department classrooms when we read The Tempest. But to what purpose?
Having said this, I offer one qualification. It may be that post-structuralism, in its general hostility to Enlightenment convictions and Enlightenment aspirations, has already created the climate in which we can, again, “know” the wonder that Macbeth and Hamlet and Prospero alike feel. I have in mind, of course, post-structuralist skepticism about the validity of true “self-possession”—about the reality of agency of a strictly “personal” sort. To be sure, post-structuralists do not redistribute this discredited “personal” agency, as Hamlet does, to some “divinity shaping our ends.” We are likely now to redistribute that agency to more or less malign operations, and to institutional (and very worldly) authorities like Althusserian Ideological State Apparatuses. We do not acknowledge our subjection with equanimity (we are more like Macbeth than Hamlet; we are full of complaints and second guesses). And we sometimes adopt a
scandalized air when we discover that we or someone else—Shakespeare, say—is being “spoken” by a discourse of which he is not himself the master. (Derrida is an exception to this rule, if a rule it is; he yields quite happily to the play of impersonal forces. He is like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That the world, and the language we use to describe it, finally makes an ass of all of us hardly troubles Derrida.)
It often seems as though we really do aspire to abstract an undetermined self out of the matrix of psychosexual, familial, linguistic, and economic forces that conspire to shape our ends—that conspire to “sculpt” and “engrave” and “tame” us (to use the metaphors that the feminist post-structuralist Gayle Rubin favors). I suspect that even the most arrant “interrogator” of “texts” in the English Department is at least a little nostalgic. I once heard, in a classroom at Rutgers University, a fellow graduate student say, “I do in fact believe that I am entirely a ‘social construct.'” And yet he never seemed to me to act from that belief; or if he did, then “persons” and “social constructs” are but two names for one thing—a distinction without a difference.
Be that as may be, Gonzalo and Hamlet—Macbeth, too, in the last act—show no disposition to abstract themselves from the divinity shaping their ends. The resignation that Hamlet achieves in speaking of this divinity, or that Gonzalo and Prospero achieve in their different ways, or that Macbeth ultimately achieves in his self-absolving way (“I am a poor player, strutting and fretting my hour upon the stage”);—this resignation manifests itself as a kind of relief, as a happy relaxation of the will, as a relinquishment to the condition of self-dispossession in which (again) we “always already” find ourselves.
“Our little life is rounded with a sleep,” then. We see only “mediately,” as Emerson puts it in “Experience,” an essay suffused with echoes of The Tempest, and hardly in keeping with the rationalist temper of the Enlightenment.
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none. We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which, according to the old belief, stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday.
Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or to invest. Ah that our Genius were a little more of a genius! We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water. We too fancy that the upper people must have raised their dams. If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us. All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ’tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won with dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born. So much of our time is preparation, so much is routine, and so much retrospect, that the pith of each man’s genius contracts itself to a very few hours.
Never do we get a perspective on our lives that might show them in their true relations; never do we understand the significance of our actions, or of what befalls us—when it befalls us. We don’t even know the difference between action and passion, losing and finding, between evil and good. But no matter. Everything is in the hands of Providence, or so Gonzalo says at the end of The Tempest. “Look down, you god, / And on this couple drop a blessed crown! For it is you that have chalk’d forth the way / Which brought us hither.” The reference is immediately to the providential coupling of Miranda and Ferdinand, but the application is wider: something chalks forth the way which brings us all hither—such is the claim Gonzalo would make anyway. And the speech continues:
Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue
Should become kings of Naples? O, rejoice
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
The wonder Gonzalo expresses might (if we can imagine this) be like that of a character in a play on his discovery that he is a character in a play—on his discovery that the chaotic events in which he has taken a part have been only apparently chaotic; that these events have, in fact, all been arranged for, spoken for, plotted out. And not only that: plotted out in such a way as to allow for a resolution of almost every conflict, and every grief. Doubtless the wonder I speak of here, at least for the reader, has much to do with the remarkable resources of the dramatist himself. We, the “unstaged” audience for the play, find a kind of representative of ourselves on stage in this character of Gonzalo, whose astonishment we share in our own way: “How remarkable this Shakespeare is! How well ordered his imagination! How uncannily he chalks forth the way!”
But this moment in The Tempest, like the many moments in Macbeth when we feel, through the medium of the characters, that our “way” has been “chalk’d forth”;—this moment cannot have a merely meta-literary sort of reference. It cannot be merely about the processes of great literary art. If we take the play seriously, if we step outside the vocational confines of the English Department, we see that such a moment as this in The Tempest implies a kind of worldview—a way of thinking not about poetry alone but about living. And it is a “religious” way of thinking, for lack of a better word to describe it, and one that we in the English Department are perhaps loath to share (I don’t believe I am merely speaking for myself here). The text known as The Tempest is a prayer of the sort Gonzalo offers in the speech before us here. It says: No man is his own, after all, not even sweet Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff (cf. Henry IV, I: 2.iv.1449-1463). It says: No one, no matter what his scope and art, stands as though a man were author of himself and knew no other kin (as Coriolanus tries to do and fails). Hamlet’s word on this we already have, of course: a divinity shapes our ends, rough hew them how we whittlers will. That divinity is everywhere felt in Shakespeare, and, as we encounter it in his work, it seems to me entirely fitting to use the word “divinity.” And if, as Macbeth implies, its operations are often dark (the weird sisters have their role to play), the outcome is nonetheless wonderful: Was Banquo murdered that his issue should become kings not merely of Scotland, but of England also? Well, so he was. Was it necessary that evil be done so that good could come of it? Perhaps. And so I end, I hope not enigmatically, with lines from what Robert Frost calls, in his essay “On Emerson” (1959) “the best Western poem” ever written—“Uriel”:
IT fell in the ancient periods
Which the brooding soul surveys,
Or ever the wild Time coined itself
Into calendar months and days.
This was the lapse of Uriel,
Which in Paradise befell.
Once, among the Pleiads walking,
Seyd overheard the young gods talking;
And the treason, too long pent,
To his ears was evident.
The young deities discussed
Laws of form, and metre just,
Orb, quintessence, and sunbeams,
What subsisteth, and what seems.
One, with low tones that decide,
And doubt and reverend use defied,
With a look that solved the sphere,
And stirred the devils everywhere,
Gave his sentiment divine
Against the being of a line.
“Line in nature is not found;
Unit’ and universe are round;
In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless, and ice will burn.”
As Uriel spoke with piercing eye,
A shudder ran around the sky;
The stern old war-gods shook their heads,
The seraphs frowned from myrtle-beds;
Seemed to the holy festival
The rash word boded ill to all;
The balance-beam of Fate was bent;
The bounds of good and ill were rent;
Strong Hades could not keep his own,
But all slid to confusion.