Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Shakespeare on Death and Transfiguration

A Serious Person would write about Ebola or the Yazidis or the soon-to-be-former Colorado River.  For the moment, I'll stick to Shakespeare, as seen by one of my favorite commentators:
Prospero, Duke of Milan [in The Tempest], deprived of his dukedom and riled on an island, is restored t the end to his former place, a man so altered by his experience that henceforth, he declares, every third thought shall be his grave. Obviously, this is the pattern of As You Like It with the Forest of Arden in place of the Enchanted Isle and with the difference that the Senior Duke is in no need of regeneration. But, less obviously, this theme of the King, Prince, Duke, or other person of high estate losing his place or his inheritance only to recover it or its spiritual equivalent, after exile or suffering, in a sense in which he never possessed it before, is repeated by Shakespeare over and over. All stemming in a way from that early and undervalued study of King Henry VI, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and parts o f Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are built on that situation.They all, in  one way or another, contrast with and supplement Hamlet, whose hero propounds the same problem, wavers on the edge of a fresh solution, only to offer in the end the old erroneous answer. They all, in virus keys, reiterate the theme of Timon: "Nothing brings me all things."
But it is not just those who have lost worldly kingdoms in a literal sense who come to realize this truth. Shakespeare uses the same idea metaphorically. Over and over in his plays when the object valued or the person loved is taken away, an imaginative object or person, more than compensating for the loss, appears in its place.
So Harold C. Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare, v. 2, 288 (1951).I'm not quite sold on this yet but I do think it invites some thought.  One particular, however, strikes me as momentous.  Goddard is reminding us of how rewarding it can be to read Hamlet not only on its own terms (where it is rewarding enough) but also in the context of Shakespeare's entire career.  Hamlet appears at just about the mid-point of Shakespeare's career.  Others have noted how you can read it as summing up everything (i.e., a lot) that Shakespeare has learned up to that time, but also posing questions that he will spend the rest of his career trying to answer.

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