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29 April, 2016  ▪  Leonіdas Donskіs

William Shakespeare’s prophetic words

William Shakespeare is usually celebrated as the author of great tragedies, comedies and historical chronicles. Yet his sonnets reveal Shakespeare as a poet and as a thinker who found a perfect form for his wit and breadth of his thought

His immortal 66th sonnet reads:

Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry, 
As, to behold desert a beggar born, 
And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity, 
And purest faith unhappily forsworn, 
And guilded honour shamefully misplaced, 
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted, 
And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
And strength by limping sway disabled, 
And art made tongue-tied by authority, 
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill, 
And simple truth miscall’d simplicity, 
And captive good attending captain ill: 
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone. 

This sonnet is one of the most powerful poetic and moral messages left by the genius from Stratford-upon-Avon. It sounds as a sketch of or as a prologue to Hamlet’s monologue, just like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s concerti for piano and orchestra anticipated some arias from Così fan tutte or Don Giovanni.

A serious clue to Shakespeare’s political and moral message could be found in Tengiz Abuladze’sfilm Repentance where the embodiment of evil, Varlam Aravidze, recites Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet to his victims – people who are condemned to perish during the purge. The episode where his son, Abel Aravidze, comes to make a confession to the monk who eats the fish and who turns out to be the Devil devouring God leaves no place for doubt – Varlam Aravidze reading Shakespeare’s sonnet reveals the greatest irony of the Devil lecturing virtue and good.

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This is to say that evil is not banal. We assumed too much after Hannah Arendt’s report from Jerusalem where she depicted Adolf Eichmann as the embodiment of the banality of evil. True, people expected to see the monster, yet what they saw in the court was a colorless bureaucrat of death, a practitioner of the ethics of duty, nearly in the Kantian sense. True, he was far from insane. The bad news was that he was sound and sane; psychiatrists assured Israel and the world that Eichmann, under any other circumstances, would have made a loving husband and a sweet neighbor. That was, as Arendt thought, the banality of evil.

Yet we seem to have assumed too lightly that evil lurks simply in our ability to allow it to pass in full anonymity and impunity only due to our willingness to act as its accomplices. We started taking it for granted supposing that we all participate in the democratic division of evil these days.

What can I say? Yes and no. Or rather yes but… Yes: evil lurks in all of us, and it would be naïve of us to portray evil as the monster with satanic traits and paraphernalia; nor is it sound and logical to clinicalize evil as just another word for illness or insanity. But: evil is something incomparably more than merely our participation in the division of modern inaction, insensitivity, and mass blunders or follies.

“And captive good attending captain ill”: evil turns out to be a victorious captain here, with Good as a captive attending to grace his triumph. “And evil shall have the dominion,” to reverse Dylan Thomas. And good shall praise evil ascribing to it glory, virtue, bravery, and prowess. And good shall negotiate evil trying to elevate it to the rank of a major actor, if not the protagonist, of world drama.

“And captive good attending captain ill”: evil is about how a seemingly decent person or group becomes a nobody or non-entity – a coward and traitor. Fear is the midwife of evil. George Orwell assisted Shakespeare in portraying evil as our surrender to dehumanizing fear and treachery – out of his fear that a starving rat would attack his face and mouth, Winston Smith starts yelling: “Don’t do it to me! Do it to Julia!” (Nowadays it translates into: “Don’t do it to me! Do it to Ukraine and Syria!”)

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“And captive good attending captain ill”: evil is about how we are stripped of our language, sensitivity, and memory. If you deny evil, you will be punished confining you to mental asylum and making you suffer from blocks of memory or lapses of reason. If you evoke evil, you will lose your face, eyes, and physical appearance. Mikhail Bulgakov, another great disciple of Shakespeare, gave us a great lesson about this.    

“And captive good attending captain ill”:evil imposes on us its vocabulary, wording, and phrasing. We are left speechless and thoughtless: the West allows a fascist and terrorist state, Russia, to position itself as an ally in the war on terror, just like the EU negotiates the aggressor, Russia, over implementation of the Minsk peace accords, as if to say that Ukraine is bound to take the aggressor as a peace partner. This is evil, and it is far from banal: this is nothing other than “captive good attending captain ill.” This is just self-inflicted dumbness, numbness, and blindness.

“Tired with all these, from these would I be gone, / Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.” The good news that Shakespeare conveys to us in his plays is that evil will fall prey to itself: those who are left alive and well will eventually kill the master to switch with him.

Yet whether this will turn out lesser or bigger evil is the question worth the year 2016, which marks 400 years since the passing of William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

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