A Bard's Story
How Shakespeare dramatized man's fate.
Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By AARON MACLEAN
Willing to Choose
The deathbed conversion can be a moment of comedy, grandeur, or disgrace, depending on who is describing it. One can encounter literary cases which are all three: Chaucer's epilogue to the Canterbury Tales, in which he seeks forgiveness not only for the sin of producing that raucous masterpiece, but for having written most of his life's work (save a translation of Boethius)--not to mention for "many a song and many a leccherous lay." There are also cases in which the author and his readers can differ: Many are the devoted fans of Evelyn Waugh who roll their eyes when Lord Marchmain dramatically concedes, very much at the last hour, that the Church of Rome shall be his salvation. And of course there are moments when the very lack of conversion--Socrates, philosophical all the way to the bottom of his hemlock in Plato's Phaedo--is the whole point.
The conversion, as in Socrates' case, need not principally concern confessional allegiance. Imminent mortality threatens to alter the attitudes of all nature's rebels and fighters, whose causes and battles may or may not show up to be truly significant in light of the great approaching darkness. It is this theme, and Shakespeare's repeated treatment of it, that is the principal concern of an interesting volume of essays by the poet and literary critic Robert Pack. Those hammy moments of the Elizabethan stage when a character has a few words to share between the first spurt of theatrical blood and the last spotlit gasp are, according to Pack, charged with one of Shakespeare's principal insights into the human condition: that one's attitude toward fate--as opposed to one's attempts at altering it--may be the only true province of human volition.
Whether or not this somewhat determinist vision is creditable, either as a feature of nature or a point of Shake speare's--and Pack's arguments are reasonably persuasive for the latter--these essays leave one with a desire to return to the plays, a little bit richer with insight than before. That is a basic but important point of praise, given how much literary criticism has exactly the opposite effect: Just ask any English major of the last half-century. Pack has no drum to beat, no politics to advance, no theory to impose, other than those points of interest which spring from Shakespeare's plays themselves. What a relief.
This being the case, one can forgive the fact that, for a widely published poet, Pack's essays have an academic steadiness that makes a serious interest in the matter at hand something of a necessity. There is nothing terribly wrong with this, for there is an elegance of thought drifting through the often dissertational prose. On a related note, Pack himself warns that he assumes "the reader has the patience to delight in the minute details of Shakespeare's patterns of imagery." So if you are not inclined to read a thorough unpacking of these sorts of things, then consider yourself duly warned.
If, however, you are, then there will be profit in Pack's treatments of Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet (especially Hamlet, actually), A Midsummer Night's Dream, and others. (The absence of any history plays is a bit curious, but it is Pack's book, and he gets to pick which plays he wants.) The inclusion of insight from reliable sources of literary theory like Darwin and Freud is not heavy-handed, and serves to illuminate rather than overexpose the texts. The treatment of the dimensions of Roman history in Hamlet and the Book of Job in King Lear is deft. Most worthwhile is the development of Pack's central thesis on Will's attitude toward will, a punning employed by the Bard himself in Sonnet 136, where he "egregiously" (in Pack's just description) plays on the meanings of the word, which in the course of the sonnet means Shakespeare's name, an inheritance, human desire, freedom of choice, and, if I might add one to Pack's list, spermatozoa. Go on, check line six for yourself.
This pregnant cohabitation of different meanings in "will" is, for Pack, representative of a tension present throughout the plays: That though our desires may not be met, we still possess the power to alter our attitude to our conditions, thus nobly holding on to one sort of will, in face of the failure to satisfy another. And when the dying Hamlet cries out to Horatio not to drink the poison, asking instead that he "in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story" and Horatio accepts, we encounter the essential literary act--the act of storytelling--which is William Shakespeare's legacy to us. A character's epiphany, his acceptance of his life, in the face of the great wordless mystery approaching him, and his achievement of a sort of transcendental peace, becomes our intellectual possession with a little bit of time left still to struggle.
Aaron MacLean, a Marshall scholar at Ox ford during 2003-06, is a writer in Virginia.