News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" I

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" I

There are few characters in world literature as evil as Shakespeare's Richard III. Yet, to see his evil unfold we run the risk of assuming that the evil will manifest itself in words and gestures that are too easily discovered. Richard's personality and actions belie this easy perception. And that is, perhaps, the genius of Shakespeare's artistic rendering of this evil. In many ways, Richard is the paradigmatic evil modern man. His power machinations, while wholly Machiavellian, exhibit spiritual qualities that Shakespeare's study points to.

Gloucester: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes. -- Act I, Sc. 1
One can ask whether Richard is not simply a study of Machiavellian cynicism and vertu. Based mostly on the common understanding of Machiavelli's book, The Prince, this understanding sees the politician as a rapacious individual willing to go to any extreme to satiate his or her thirst for power. (I will not go into historigraphical studies that add a more nuanced reading of Machiavelli, especially his republican writings, as expatiated by Skinner and Pocock.)

I think there's much to the common-sense perception of Richard's evil. Its portrayal in art can be very powerful and chilling to see unfold. Yet, like much art, the freezing of evil in a moment or series of moments often exaggerates features of evil that make it grotesque and ultimately deceptive. As much fiction does, art can even sexify evil. This statement does not apply to fiction alone, though. Even news accounts can present evil in such a way that it takes on this attractive quality.

Simone Weil and Kierkegaard discuss this often overlooked tendency of literature. Without going into an analysis, I think Kierkegaard's statement about the "sympathetic antipathy" to the strange and weird makes sense. Writers can exploit this feature of the human psyche to varying degrees, depending on talent and ethical concerns. Kierkegaard himself uses the full panoply of fear and horror to create a spiritual space where the reader finds possibilities open up for different ethical and religious stances toward life.

Something of the horror that great artists can evoke is shown in the following speech of Richard III in Henry VI.

The entire production here is geared to heighten the terrifying aspects of the speech. While highly effective and aesthetically pleasing, the performance and production is so grotesque that it pulls one out of the ordinary in such a way that it is otherworldly. Obviously, this can be the purpose of art: to open up realms of possibility that give insight into our own and others' psyches.

Yet, the obverse of this type of production is that it makes evil or life in general so unreal that we cannot see evil in its mundane everydayness. This can go so far that, as Weil points out, evil becomes alluring and "sexy." From the Marquis de Sade to Anne Rice, the attraction of such artistic renditions obscures the ethical questions posed by the actions portrayed. Commenting on de Sade, for example, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz noted that his de Sade's work is effectively a manual on criminality.

For his part, Georg Lukacs theorized that the reason for much of this failure in ethics is the result of artistic presentation that disregards sociological, historical, and philosophical questions. For Lukacs, the realistic novel addresses these deficiencies. Basing him or herself on an understanding of historical awareness, the novelist can bring in elements that undermine the tendency of art to spectacle and moral indifference.

I will not go into the theoretical aspects of these questions in the following sections. Instead, I will look at the opening scene from Shakespeare's Richard III, specifically his opening speech. I will first do so from within the context of these comments. I will then end with comments by Kierkegaard that places the psychological type of Richard as indicative of an aspect of modern capitalist false consciousness.

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