Tragedy delivers bad news. It tells us that we are not in control of our own lives. Peter Holbrook, Professor of Shakespeare and English Renaissance Literature from the University of Queensland addresses this in the context of tragic drama in the time of Shakespeare.
Presented in association with the Australian National University.
LECTURE: Why Read Tragedy Today?
Location: National Library of Australia
Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres, Professor Peter Holbrook
Welcome to the National Library of Australia this evening. My name’s Marie-Louise Ayres, and I’m assistant director general for resource sharing here at the library. And that’s not about cutting the budget, by the way. And I’m delighted to see so many of you here for this evening’s event.
Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank the elders, past and present for carrying this land we’re now privileged to call home and on which our beautiful building sits.
I’m also very pleased to introduce to you our speaker this evening, Peter Holbrook is a professor of Shakespeare and English renaissance literature at the University of Queensland. Peter’s research has focussed on political, social and philosophical aspects of English renaissance literature, and in particular, tragic drama and the influence of Shakespeare on diverse writers and thinkers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. He’s the author of Shakespeare’s Individualism and Literature and Degree in Renaissance England: Nashe, Bourgeios Tragedy, Shakespeare, and is currently completing a book on ideas of freedom in the tragic drama of the English Renaissance.
At the uni of Queensland, Peter’s taught a wide range of English literature courses, undergraduate courses on Shakespeare, 16th and 17th Century literature, tragedy, English and American poetry.
He’s been an active voice in debate surrounding the teaching of English in Australia, serving as a member of the English learning area reference committee, Queensland Studies Authority from 2010 to 2011, and as a member of the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts from 2006 to 2009, and in fact Peter was just telling me that his group then had a meeting here at the library.
His work on literature and education has appeared in Australia print media and on ABC radio national, and on that score, I’d say to you, there’s a couple of great podcasts with Peter that you can find either on the ABC website, or because of the work that the National Library does with the ABC, you can also find them in Trove. He’s also reviewed numerous academic publications for The Times literary supplement and other journals. Peter’s also a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, a chief investigator with the ARC Centre for History of Emotions, Europe 1100 to 1800 and that’s what one of the podcasts is on, so if you’re intrigued about history of emotions, you can listen to more, and he currently serves as chair of the International Shakespeare Association.
Now, Peter’s going to speak to us for about 40 minutes tonight, and then Peter and his colleague Kate, are going to be happy to take some questions for a little while before we close at 7:00. So please join me in welcoming Professor Peter Holbrook, to find out why read tragedy today.
Professor Peter Holbrook:
Thank you very much, Marie-Louise, for that introduction and also Sarah, who was instrumental in putting this together. And I should also, just before I begin, I’m going to launch straight into this, but before I do begin, I just want to thank Kate Flaherty from ANU’s English department and theatre studies department. I’ve spent the last two days working with students of Kate’s, in her first year course, working on some scenes from Shakespeare’s Winters Tale, and even though my talk actually says, why read tragedy, I’m, sort of, slightly embarrassed about that after the two days of working with these students because we didn’t really read so much as we acted, we moved with the text as performance pieces. However, if you listen very carefully, I do have something about reading in here, so, but just suffice to say that I’m not unaware of the value of actually working with these plays as physical embodied beings.
Well, why should we read tragic drama? Even if we allow that plays like Hamlet or Oedipus Rex deserve our attention because of the ways they’ve influenced culture over the centuries or because they contain powerful and memorable language and ideas, surely they have nothing relevant to tell us today about the things that exercise us as citizens, matters of government, power, society and so on, after all, they were written in times and places very different from our own.
Tonight I want to suggest, on the contrary, that tragic drama raises and debates a range of questions to do with human freedom. I take freedom to include the civil liberties we in the 21st Century western world understand as fundamental to our status as citizens, freedom of speech, association, and so on, although at this time, many of those liberties appear increasingly under threat. But, and a bit less straight forwardly, I take freedom to include social and economic equality.
Poverty and depravation impinge on freedom because they prevent people from fulfilling their human capacities. The English socialist historian, RH Tawney expressed this idea in his book, Equality, published in 1931. In arguing the case for a welfare state, Tawney had to counter the arguments of those who insisted that any attempt to make society more equal would imperil liberty, a view, of course, the free market right espouses today. Tawney’s response was to show that real liberty required a substantial degree of material equality, rather than restricting freedom to a minimum of civil and political rights, he folded into the concept, social and economic security. Tawney wanted a society in which choice of action would not be limited to the well off, a society as free insofar, he wrote, as enables all its members to grow to their full stature.
For Tawney, people could not be counted free if they led lives of such poverty, that they were unable to have any practical possibility of choosing between different kinds of lives. In short, equality is not the enemy of freedom, but a condition of it, and for the majority of people, inequality brings about not freedom, but slavery.
Phrased in a very different language, this is an insight not far from that of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Aristotle enquired into the conditions necessary for living a fully human life, a full, significant, admirable one.
Quite sensibly, he concluded that such a life required a minimum of wealth because only that minimum could ensure one had the leisure to participate as a citizen of the polis, or city. Absent such wealth, one would not be able to achieve one’s true human nature as a social animal and not to live as a social animal, a citizen was to fall short of one’s human potential since, Aristotle thought, only gods and animals, non-human animals, I should say, could flourish outside society. But once again, it’s impossible to live as a full member of society if one lives a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, thinking of nothing other than survival.
The view elaborated here, that freedom includes equality and that a life of depravation is one of slavery, is encountered in English renaissance tragedy. In Shakespeare’s, King Lear, the Earl of Gloucester tells of his first meeting with the crazed beggar, Poor Tom, actually his disguised son, Edgar. Recalling this miserable spectacle, Gloucester muses that, in the last night’s storm, I such a fellow saw, which made me think a man a worm. Gloucester’s statement underscores the de humanising effects of depravation, of how poverty constitutes a cruel contraction of human potential. Once as poor as Poor Tom, a man is indistinguishable from a worm.
In what follows, I give an overview of tragedy, but focus on Shakespeare as the greatest tragic dramatist of his age. I’ll be preoccupied with this question of freedom, suggesting that tragedy has traditionally done two, not quite compatible, things. Insisted on a natural limit to freedom, as well as affirmed humanities potential for political and social freedom.
I want to suggest that both emphases, a conservative one on limitation, a progressive, or radical one on freedom, are valuable. It is good to be reminded, as conservatism does remind us, that we human beings are mortal, vulnerable, in some sense, inevitably unfree creatures, forever going wrong in one way or another and subject to powers beyond our control. And also good to be reminded, as radicalism reminds us, of the ways in which we are in charge of our destiny, and should in fact, be free. What I like then, what I think is valuable today, is this mix of pessimism and hope about humanity that we find in tragedy.
My focus is renaissance tragedy, but tragedy of course is an old form of drama, first associated with the names of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, although it’s arguable that a tragic way of thinking about life is evident even in Homer’s Iliad, a war story that tells among other things, of the death of the Trojan prince Hector. Conventionally, the genre deals with the falls of great men, and women, though less commonly, because it’s been rarer for women to hold positions of power.
The tradition is summed up in a Latin phrase that translates as, the falls of famous men. Chaucer’s, The Canterbury Tales defines tragedy, in modern translation, as the kind of story as old books tell us, about the man that enjoyed great prosperity and is fallen out of high rank into misery, and ends wretchedly. The focus on the great does not recommend the genre to a democratic age like ours, so it’s worth noting straight away that while tragedy does indeed generally deal with those of high rank, it’s not always the case that its heroes are kinds and aristocrats.
Romeo and Juliet deals with people from a well off, but not aristocratic background, in Shakespeare’s day, there existed a demis … a sub-genre of tragedy, domestical bourgeois tragedy, that focussed on middle class folk. So high social rank is not an indispensable feature of tragedy and as I want to make clear, the condition of the common people has been a concern of tragedy since the Greeks. One of the most simple ways to define tragedy, of course, is its preoccupation with death.
One of the reasons for the universality of the genre is that preoccupation with mortality, even if the hero of a tragedy does not himself die, death shadows the genre. Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, ends with the hero’s blinding, his death must wait for another play, but his wife and mother Jocasta, does die. Corpses cover the stage at the end of Hamlet. This fact, that tragedies deal with violent and extreme events might seem to contradict the claim, which I would make, that tragedies can also deal with relatively low level misfortunes, such as, for example, an unhappy marriage. Think of the fate of Isabel Archer, whose marriage to the monstrous Gilbert Osmond is the subject of Henry James’s tragic novel, The Portrait of a Lady.
Tragedy is an imitation of human life, but this means it is also about death, since every life, is in one precise, appalling sense, headed for disaster. All human life is material for tragedy then, because, as Sophocles tells us, men are born to death. The chorus in Antigone praises man as the wonder of the world, he has mastered navigation, agriculture, hunting, language, thought and faces no future helpless. Only death he cannot escape from.
When Lear shakes the hand of Gloucester, he wipes it first because it smells of mortality. Shakespeare, indeed, seems to have had an especially sensitive grasp of the way in which his existence is bounded by death. Macbeth says that all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Not a day has gone by that has not been the last day for someone, and the sonnets are tragic in this sense because the depict life as death haunted, every summer in those poems is prologue to autumn and winter, every person, no matter how good or beautiful, will one day die, like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.
The sonnets show death devouring life, even the speakers beautiful young man, among the wastes of time must go, since sweets and beauties did themselves forsake and die as fast as they see others grow. Life is always defeated and failure, in this sense, has always been tragedy’s subject.
The question then, surely, is why we bother with the genre. Life is hard enough without wearying ourselves with stories about all the ways, especially that one ultimate way, in which things go wrong. There are a number of answers to this question, the Victorian novelist, Thomas Hardy, for instance, often uses tragedy in order to focus attention on avoidable social evils, the hero of Jude the Obscure suffers not because of the human condition, but because he lives in a society that deprives poor people of education. And Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, describes a problem that immediately proposes its own solution, a woman should not be punished because she falls pregnant to an unscrupulous man. Writers like Hardy use tragedy as a serious genre, with which to deal with extreme, but in principle, remediable social problems.
Another answer to the question of why we should read tragedy is that it shows us the transience of life, and therefore implicitly urges us to value it. Tragedy is on the side of life, it is obsessed with death because it loves life, this was the conclusion of the 19th Century philosopher Nietzsche. Tragedy, Nietzsche thought, was not pessimistic, but on the contrary, stimulated one’s appetite for existence. Nietzsche wondered, what sort of art would make us love life, in spite of its evils? And tragedy, he argued, revealed how hard and cruel life was, but in such a way that in converted this pain into sublime, or awe inspiring representations and thus reconciled us to it. In tragedy, Nietzsche said, the terrible is tamed by artistic means.
Of course, one might reply that comic or escapist art also enhances our appetite for life, but such art, thought Nietzsche, because it is unrealistic, is less effective as a tonic. Its pleasing illusions might distract for a while, but in the end, reality, unjust, illogical, meaningless, would break in upon our fantasies. Do you know what the world is to me? Nietzsche asked. A monster of force, without beginning, without end, self-creating, self-destroying, beyond good and evil, without goal.
True art, Nietzsche thought, seduces to life, makes us love reality, even though we know it is chaotic and cruel. An art that included as much reality as compatible with the perception of beauty that inspired us while also acknowledging the world as a scene of irrational creation and destruction would be the strongest cure for life weariness.
Such an art was to be found in tragedy, in which, said Nietzsche, passing away appears equally dignified and worthy of reverence as coming into being. In other words, tragedy makes the hero’s death interesting, alluring, exciting, rather than simply pretending the painful qualities of life do not exist, tragedy reflects these qualities back to us under a life-enhancing glow. The gods on Olympus giving us a glamorised picture of human life, the Greek gods, Nietzsche said, justified the life of man by living it themselves. Euripides’s Herakles tells us that there is no mortal, no god untouched by fortune’s blows. For Nietzsche, tragedy makes us look at life realistically, but also admiringly.
The argument suggests another reason for watching or reading tragedy, it concerns remarkable people. I don’t mean remarkable in the sense of socially elevated, but rather people of extraordinary character. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Cleopatra, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine are all amazing people.
Hamlet defines excellence in three walks of life, the courtiers, soldiers, scholars, eye, tongue, sword. Shakespeare’s Anthony is a colossus, his legs bestrid the ocean, his reared arm crested the world. Oedipus is an intellectual prodigy, who saves the city of Thebes by solving the riddle of the Sphinx. Some of these characters are great without being good, Tamburlaine is a merciless conqueror and Faustus signs a pact with the devil. In John Ford’s, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Annabella and Giovanni practice brother sister incest and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a strumpet.
Nevertheless, there is something about all these figures that makes us feel ordinary rules do not apply, they make immorality or crime beautiful. Enobarbus says Cleopatra is so gorgeous that the holy priests bless her when she is riggish, when she is sexually aroused. Shakespeare’s Anthony wandering drunk about the streets of Alexandria, is the abstract or summary of all faults, yet his lustre is undiminished. In Webster’s, The White Devil, Vittoria Corombona conspires in the murder of her husband, her defiance in the play’s trial scene moves one observer to commend her brave spirit.
Most people feel Malcolm’s bitter description of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, at the end of their play, as this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen, is inadequate, they are evil, but so much more than that. AC Bradley, writing at the beginning of the 20th Century, thought it had to do with energy, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are simply more vigorous than anybody else around them. Tragedy, then, represents imperfect human beings who nevertheless impress us as in some sense wonderful.
Of course we can, if we wish, cast a cold eye upon Hamlet, wonder what all the fuss is about, his plan to avenge his father ends with Denmark becoming the possession of a foreign power, and young Fortinbras of Norway know … the other prince in the play, knows what he wants and how to get it. Hamlet, instead of advancing his cause of revenge, unpacks his heart with words, yet Hamlet remains one of the best loved figures in world literature, as a person of extraordinary insight, eloquence, humour and feeling. The critic GK Hunter, argued that Hamlet redefined heroism, in contrast to Fortinbras, he is a hero less of acting than of being, we admire Hamlet, not for what he does, but for what he thinks and feels.
The point is, there is nothing run of the mill about these figures, tragic heroes and heroines are not happy and may not be moral or responsible or effective or prudent, but they are never boring. Tragedy shows us what human beings can become, for good and ill, one of the emotions renaissance literary critics thought tragedy should arouse was wonder, or intense esteem, and that is another way tragedy makes us love life, to return to Nietzsche’s claim.
We go away from Hamlet or the Duchess of Malfi with a certain pride in our species, there are no doubt, more moral beings to be found in some corner of the universe, but surely not many more fascinating. In short, tragic heroes and heroines demonstrate that not all life need be banal, the 20th Century philosopher, EM Cioran said that, it is not pity, but envy, the tragic hero inspires in us, whereas most of us live rather tepid existences and grateful enough for it too, the tragic hero lives life to the full. We may not have the nerve to live like that, but knowing that some people do makes us feel better about existence generally.
The Irish poet, Yeats wrote that Hamlet and Lear are gay, gaiety transfiguring all that dread, for Yeats, tragedy was inspiring, rather than depressing. The large intensity of lives such as Hamlet’s and Lear’s, makes one happy. Still, one can go only so far with this argument, tragedy after all does have a pessimistic message, lack of freedom. In its preoccupation with suffering, death, limitation, tragedy describes humanity as without agency, a pessimistic recognition of human vulnerability, if only powerlessness before death is at the genre’s heart.
Death is an obligation we all must pay, writes Euripides, tragedy addresses those aspects of life over which we exert little or no control, thus its evocation of fate, the gods, fortune. Despite his authority and cleverness, Oedipus is helpless before his destiny, killing his father, marrying his mother.
I suffered these calamities, he declares, by fate against my will, chance is all in all, his mother/wife says. In the version of the story by the Roman tragedian and philosopher, Seneca, Jocasta tells Oedipus that this fault is fate’s. The intuition of lack of control underlies the genre’s pessimism. Tragedy does tell exciting stories about charismatic individuals and this may lead us to agree with Nietzsche that tragedy is, paradoxically, an uplifting genre, but its focus on powerlessness is troubling, especially for our age, which is perhaps only now, with the reality of planetary, ecological catastrophe upon us, coming to accept that there may be proper limits to human aspirations.
Capitalism tells us that there are no natural limits to human desires, that we can, and should, have it all. The earth is mere raw material to satisfy our own boundless lust for more and more goods. The notion of a limit to appetites is antithetical to capitalism. Only since the rise of the environmental movement, which challenges the logic of ever faster and more intense capitalist expansion, are we humans coming to the view that perhaps our desires cannot be limitless, at least not without destroying nature herself, and civilisation with it.
Who could have supposed that the satisfaction of our insatiable desire for more things would have led us to a situation in which we now contemplate the prospect that earth will become a hell unfit for human habitation? The irony is worthy of tragedy, which has always been alive, to how we humans are subject to history and to the ways in which chance and contingency, rather than human ingenuity and will reign supreme. Euripides’s Iphigenia tells us that chance leads us onto dark pathways.
In the 21st Century, nature herself, our mother and home, has turned out to pose a fundamental limit to what we can aspire to, and we ignore this limit only if we are maddened by the insane arrogance the Greek tragic dramatists knew as hubris, and in any case, there is surely something repulsive about a life devoted only to the multiplication of one’s own desires. Here is a way in which the fundamentally pessimistic conservative message of tragedy is one we should heed.
Human life, tragedy tells us, is insecure, there is no haven from chance or the cruel tricks of fate, and because even the happiest state of affairs is hostage to fortune, there is ultimately no happiness at all. In its very nature, fortune, like a crazed man, leaps now in one direction, now in another and the same man is never fortunate forever, says Hecuba in The Trojan Women.
Is anyone in all the world safe from unhappiness? Asks the chorus in Oedipus at Colonus. The life of man entire is misery, he finds no resting place, no haven from calamity, confirms the nurse of Euripides’s Hippolytus. Lack of faith in the ability of humans to steer their own course issues in the profound nihilism of Oedipus at Colonus. Not to be born surpasses thought and speech, the second best is to have seen the light and then to go back quickly whence we came.
Such nihilistic attitudes emerge in Lear, as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. And in Macbeth, in which life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Humility or endurance are what tragedy teaches in the face of such facts and these are not virtues to be dismissed, they are valuable because so little heard now. The past couple of centuries have shown repeatedly how revolutionary or utopian optimism, the modern belief, common to capitalism, fascism, communism, as well as to extremist religious ideologies, such as now are all too familiar today.
The belief, that is, that human beings can take control of their destiny and create a heaven on earth through sheer force of will, imagination, reason or faith, we know how this fantasy has ended in catastrophe. The tragic wisdom that holds that human life is necessarily suffering and that our greatest duty is simply to be patient and accept our lot is indeed a profound insight. Hope has killed more people than any other emotion, we might argue, in the past 200 years, the hope that we can live in a perfect world.
Hope, as Cioran saw, is an invitation to fanaticism. Every recipe for salvation erects a guillotine, he said, it is the mania for salvation, lamented Cioran, that makes life unbreathable. Conservative thinkers’ suspicion of revolution often expresses a pessimism about human nature, the cure for fanaticism is a strong appreciation of original sin, the idea that humans are born bad, to see in every baby a future Richard the third, Cioran snarled. In every man, he mused, sleeps a prophet and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world. Shakespeare, incidentally, remained one of Cioran’s essential authors because of his freedom from such Salvationist mania. Shakespeare never served anything, he said.
I want to grant all this, and yet suggest that tragedy is not only a valuably conservative genre, tragedy does allow for human agency. In doing so, I draw upon the thought of the 20th Century philosopher, Sartre, founder of the most radical philosophy, human fre … of human freedom every elaborated, existentialism. Essentially, I suggest that tragedy shows us people freely choosing how to respond to the difficult circumstances they found themselves in.
This is part of my argument, the tragedy is committed to freedom, though it also acknowledges that freedom takes place in a specific, and therefore limiting, context. None of us choose the circumstances we find ourselves in. The 20th Century philosopher, Heidegger, an important influence on Sartre, argued that thrownness was essential to the human condition, each human creature has to find … is brought into the world … into a world, not of its own accord or making, and has to find its way through that world.
The important point, however, for Sartre, is that what one makes of such thrownness, how one interprets and acts in regard to one’s circumstances, is a matter of choice. Tragedy, in other words, shows characters adopting particular stances towards the conditions in which, willy-nilly, they find themselves and what we see are how they interpret these conditions, choosing, as always, within the available options, which may be agonisingly limited. Sometimes protesting these conditions or arguing about their meaning, above all, thinking and questioning.
Hamlet shows us someone trying to make sense of the profoundly difficult predicament in which he finds himself, and precisely because, like all of us, Hamlet is blessed and cursed with human consciousness, he therefore cannot avoid taking up a stance or attitude towards Claudius’s usurpation of Denmark’s throne and marrying of his mother and, in light of that disposition, acting accordingly.
Either submitting to the new regime, perhaps by pretending to himself the situation is really not so bad, Claudius has his good points, in any case, this is the way of the world, enjoying one’s private life is more important than anything else etc, etc. Or deciding to resist the tyrant, taking arms against a sea of troubles and becoming a political actor and choosing what to do in this context is far from easy, since it involves Hamlet taking a stand on the basic kind of person he wishes to be.
As Sartre put it, for human reality, to be is to choose oneself, this is the emotion Sartre called anguish, the awareness that one must choose, indeed, human consciousness for Sartre, is nothing but choice and therefore anguish. We cannot overcome anguish, he wrote, for we are anguish. Put otherwise, freedom is not something we have, but are. Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently, there is no difference between the being of man and his being free, or as he put it famously, man is condemned to be free.
Let us consider a little more closely, Gloucester’s statement already quoted, about the gods and their sadistic treatment of humanity, as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport. Nothing detracts from the pessimism of the statement except that Gloucester is saying it. In other words, Gloucester’s thinking this thought reminds us that humanity is unlike anything else we know, in that it consciously reflects upon and questions its condition. Like other characters in the play, and as in tragedies ancient and modern, Gloucester attempts to understand his world, in particular why evil and suffering exists.
As far as we can tell, no other creature does this, it is as if, by the very act of saying that human beings are the helpless victims of external forces, no more autonomous or significant than flies, Gloucester proves the opposite, that human beings are uniquely different from everything else round them and absolutely free.
The flies that boys kill for their sport do not question what is happening to them, only human consciousness turns suffering and evil into a problem. In doing so, Gloucester attests to human freedom, every other creature simply is. It is only humans who think their existence, turning evil into material for enquiry.
Like Heidegger, Sartre holds that humanity, or consciousness, is that being for which its being is in question. Horses, dogs, trees, clouds, stones, waves, winds, musical notes, yachts, bacteria, do not make their, or others, existence into a problem for consciousness. But as soon as one acknowledges that human beings, just in so far as they are conscious, do unavoidably stand back from what happens to them and reflect upon it, one has granted them freedom, since one can choose to think about one’s condition, in any number of ways.
For instance, in response to the evil about him, Gloucester might have said, as his son Edgar does say, that men must endure their going hence even as they’re coming hither. Might, that is, have taken a different, more stoic or providential attitude towards his plight. Tragedy then is the genre that shows people explicitly thinking about some of the harshest problems of life and choosing, among different ways, of conceiving these problems.
Or more accurately, it turns these phenomena into problems. In doing so, it depicts free creatures, subjects of their world, rather than mere passive unthinking objects. Sartre draws the sharpest possible distinction between human consciousness and everything else.
Human consciousness is a nothingness, a hole or decompression within being, as he famously puts it, man is the being who is his own nothingness, and by whom nothingness comes into the world. Everything except the human simply is what it is, and is nothing except what it is. It is only man that projects himself, for instance, into the future, imaging what he will be in some future state or only man that adopts a specific stance towards his own past, deciding what its meaning is for him.
Only the human then, is not identical with itself, is instead present to itself, as a question, a set of goals, a project, only human consciousness and nothing else has this reflexive quality. As Sartre puts it, man is free because he is not himself, but presence to himself. This is why Sartre describes human reality as nothingness, because it is a pure potentiality, since the nature of consciousness is to be what it is not and not to be what it is. Thus, for instance, it is only through humanity that a concept of futurity exists at all, no other thing experiences itself as what it might be, and paradoxically, the freedom that is consciousness is non-negotiable.
Consciousness condemns humanity to freedom, Sartre says, because we have no choice but to think our existence, we are not free to cease being free. The human then, is not simply being, but thought about being. Only … as far as we know, dolphins or apes do not wonder, as Hamlet does, what comes after death, that undiscovered country from whose born, no traveller returns.
Only humans, as in tragic drama, for instance, ask about death’s meaning. Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breath at all, asks Lear, before the dead Cordelia. For Lear, Cordelia’s murder is an outrage against the nature and meaning of the cosmos. Here again though, what matters is that for Lear, as for any human being, death is something we are obliged to adopt an attitude towards, whatever that attitude may be.
Once again, the genre underscores humanities fundamental freedom, for all other creatures death simply is, only for humans has it meaning, though what kind of meaning is up to us.
But tragedy reminds us, again, that we are not godlike masters of our destiny, a lesson we need to learn, we should be mindful of how nature, history, culture, shape who we are, place limits on what we do, Utopians think they can remake the world according to their own desires, but the world has a way of asserting itself despite best laid plans.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the official hope was that that tormented country could be brought out of tyranny into a new era of democracy, harmony and peace, the west would show Iraq a new way, our way, light and reason would prevail. I leave aside the extent to which these plans may have served western interests. Now, after 12 years of unbelievably vicious war, when the situation is worse than ever, how absurdly hubristic that hope seems. More pessimism, less optimism would have served us well in 2003.
Tragedy tells us we are born into a scene we never chose and cannot control, the ultimate limit on our autonomy being lifespan, thrust into situations over which it has limited, if any, influence, humanity is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward, as the bible says.
Even if we no longer believe, with Kent in Lear, that it is the stars, the stars above us that govern our condition, tragedy reminds us of the countless ways in which our ability to get done what we wish to get done is subject to forces outside our will. And yet again, again and again, and this is the key point I want to insist, but I won’t labour it any more, we see characters choosing how to interpret the constraints upon them, Romeo and Juliet act according to their desire, no matter what the constraints on them, Anthony and Cleopatra pursue their life, no matter what the constraints around them, and so on. Tragedy brings bad news.
The world is limitation. Commonsense tells us that even a just world will know loss, frustration, heartache, the Marxist theorist, Sebastiano Timpanaro wrote that even a fully emancipated social order will not evade certain constant experiences of the human condition, including love, the frailty of human existence, the contrast between the smallness and weakness of man and the infinity of the cosmos, and so on. This is what Karl Marx meant when he said that men make their own history, but not under conditions they have chosen for themselves, rather on terms immediately existing, given and handed down to them. We do not choose the scene of existence into which we are thrown, to use Heidegger’s phrase, but as Sartre tells us, we inevitably must adopt a conscious attitude towards it.
I want now to conclude by simply saying, and switching around again on the other side of this argument, that tragedy has a political dimension, and that’s not a surprise, in … because if you think about the origins of tragedy in Athens, the Athenians clearly believed in their democracy that hu … that the political life was subject to collective, deliberative control. And I want to turn to the … finally to Hamlet’s, to be or not to be speech, the most famous speech in English drama. Tragedy of Shakespeare’s day, also had a political focus, it bore witness to the suffering of a world disfigured by oppression, injustice and equality, all the social ills that Hamlet articulates in to be or not to be.
As everyone knows, that speech reflects a debate in Hamlet’s mind about whether or not to take his own life, he runs through the reasons that might incline one towards suicide. What is notable, however, is how many of these meditations mount an attack on social injustices, Hamlet calls attention to such matters as the oppressor’s wrong and proud man’s contumely, that is the arrogant abuse of ordinary folk by socially powerful ones. He lists other social abuses, such as the law’s delay in correcting crimes and the insolence of office, the arrogance of those in official positions. Hamlet’s thinking prefigures King Lear’s attack on a corrupt legal system, favouring the rich over the poor.
Plate sin with gold, cries out Lear, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it. An old story, one law for the rich, another for the poor, flood, a modern courtroom with enough money and QCs and almost any corporate criminal or tax evader will get off scot-free and that is exactly what Lear is saying. In Hamlet, Claudius makes the same point, when he acknowledges how, in the corrupted currents of this world, offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice and the wicked prize itself buys out the law. In other words, the rich buy off judges by the very proceeds of their crimes. Similarly, another social abuse hamlet lists is the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, the insults patiently endured by meritorious persons at the hands of those who are unworthy, but powerful. And finally, Hamlet alludes to the back breaking daily toil of the rural and urban labouring classes, as another reason why someone might look upon death as a consummation devoutly to be wished.
For, he asks, who would fardels that is burdens bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life, but that the dread of something after death makes one fear to take one’s own life. The lines summon up a whole world of suffering endured by the common people of Shakespeare’s England, endless, poorly rewarded toil, a weary life of sweating under burdensome loads. We think of to be or not to be as having a lofty philosophical focus, and so it does, but it also is preoccupied with … not with other worldly matters, but with here and now social ones, lack of freedom, inequality and justice, the harsh lives of the poor.
The conjunction of avoidable and unavoidable ills in English renaissance tragedy is essential to the genre, and I simply want now to conclude by ending on a speech of Hamlet’s, very famous speech, it’s when he’s talking to himself at a dark point of the play, he says, what is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed, a beast no more, sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unused. Hamlet is here insisting on the dignity of thought and what I’ve been trying to suggest in line with Sartre’s ideas there, is that tragedy is a genre devoted to thought. Hamlet says that the principal good and profitable purpose of human life is the free exercise of rational and discursive powers, consciousness being, for him as for Sartre, the faculty that marks us off from the animals.
Our maker, Hamlet claims, did not give us consciousness, this godlike reason and large discourse or power of speech, merely to grow mouldy in us through lack of use, but it takes only a moment to realise that it is precisely under a tyranny that such capabilities as reason and speech, the sorts of things the humanities are devoted to, I might add, fall into decay because the last thing a tyrant wants is a populous reasoning freely.
Tyrants prefer their subjects distracted by feeding and sleeping, Hamlet says, or as we might add, by entertainment, drink, drugs, sex, porn, social media, lifestyle choices, material consumption. In other words, tyrants prefer passive and unthinking beasts rather, to use Hamlet’s language, rather than reflective and enquiring human beings. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we remember, is wary of Cassius, Cassius thinks too much, such men are dangerous.
Caesar’s future assassin reads much and as a result looks quite through the deeds of men rather than accepting them at face value. Readers are not wanted in Caesar’s budding dictatorship. So tragedy is concerned with both avoidable and unavoidable problems, often characters in tragedies are called upon to tell the difference between the two, how much of what ails us is fate or necessity, how much within our control?
In Julius Caesar, Cassius observes to Brutus that men at some time, he means during the Roman republic, were masters of their fates, and he concludes that the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. What Cassius means is that it is not fate, but because people like he and Brutus and other citizens of the republic have chosen to allow Caesar to become, in effect, a king, that they have become underlings or slaves.
In the next scene, Cassius proposes that Caesar has been able to assume a position of dictatorship solely because the Roman citizens have permitted it by their willing civility. And why should Caesar be a tyrant then? Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf, but that he sees the Romans are but sheep, he were no lion, were not the Romans hinds.
And he goes on to worry that Brutus might himself be a willing bondman. Cassius here addresses the whole problem of what the renaissance writer, Etienne de La Boetie called voluntary servitude. Tyrants govern, because the majority let them, if consent were withdrawn a tyranny would fall like a house of cards. The real problem is our readiness to acquiesce in enslavement. But tragedy does not just show us people who give in to tyranny, Brutus and Cassius don’t, Cordelia and numerous characters in King Lear don’t, Hamlet doesn’t, Antigone doesn’t.
Tragedy often shows people not, in fact, as servile hinds, but as free agents who stand up to tyranny. It is good to know what we can change, and what we should seek to change, and what we cannot change or should not seek to change, tragedy addresses those questions and that is why we should read it today.