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1 November, 2012

Shakespeare as a Modern Sensibility

William Shakespeare is likely to have become a modern sensibility. Like Niccolò Machiavelli or his own contemporary and significant other, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare seems to have developed into a modern moral and political sensibility, a criterion of modernity, and even a symbolic design within which we perceive and interpret ourselves and the world around us.

We cannot bypass Shakespeare when we encounter a problem of evil, either in its classical forms or in its modern incarnations. The psychogenesis and sociogenesis of modern feelings and sentiments, namely, love and friendship, as opposed to traditional forms of our grasp of the world and of human powers of association, is also inseparable from Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. It is with sound reason, then, that such modern sensitivities as loyalty, intimacy, and privacy are tested and closely observed in the political world of Elizabethan dramatists.

Shakespeare appears not only as a miracle of his time; he comes to us as a mystery and as a pivotal test of our sensitivities. Whether he existed and whether he wrote his plays and sonnets is a secondary issue in the face of the miracle of his profoundly modern perception of human reality whose embodiment and symbol he has become. The quarrel over the definite and final stroke of brushwork as to whether it was executed by Rubens or his entourage, Rembrandt or Ferdinand Bol or Aert de Gelder, is as senseless and meaningless as the ink spilled in the debates on whether William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote his immortal plays. The miracle of Shakespeare has little if anything to do with who exactly Shakespeare was.

The way Shakespeare was perceived by Goethe and Schiller tells us something of critical importance about the clash of modern sensibilities in the epoch of Friedrich the Great and the Sturm und Drang movement when the principles of Bildung and Kultur prevail over that of Zivilisation in an epoch where social and moral sensibilities were shaped by the conflict of semi-feudal and modern approaches to the world.

Furthermore, the way in which Shakespeare was interpreted by Leo Tolstoy tells us something of critical importance about the encounter of opposing modes of critical discourse or Eastern and Western European hermeneutics, especially in interpreting modernity. At the same time, the way in which Shakespeare was perceived by Sigmund Freud tells us something disturbing and crucial about a problem that Shakespeare poses for a modern world which, no matter how egalitarian, is tinged with some elitist interpretations.

Far exceeding the boundaries of Renaissance perceptions of reality, Shakespeare offers in Hamlet not only la mente audace ideal as key to the brave mind of a modern hero who thinks and acts simultaneously or who comes to bridge thought and action, Shakespeare also appears with a strikingly modern idea that the will to misunderstand the world around us lives side by side with the will to understand it — that religious and erotic feelings can be rolled into one; that there is something deeply erotic about power and something powerful about intimacy; that we tend to speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable; that we choose to be deceived or to deceive ourselves, as the truth is unbearable for us. In this, Shakespeare precedes and anticipates Freud.

Like in Hamlet, the emergence of the individual can signify the marriage of thought and action. This ideal of the brave mind put forward by Renaissance humanists is obvious in Hamlet’s ability to outsmart and get rid of his treacherous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Yet the arrival of the modern individual may signify the reverse tendency, the divorce of thought and action, which is the case with Hamlet and which becomes the reason of his defeat – albeit political rather than moral – and death.

In many cases, Shakespeare sounds uniquely modern. He is a contemporary in terms of his powers of anticipation of human dramas, political and existential. It is enough to recall for instance that Othello signified, among other things, a new kind of fear over success, in Italy and England, of some strikingly different individuals from remote countries and societies to realize how similar the worries and anxieties of Shakespeare’s epoch could have been to those of our time.

The fear of the Other capable of becoming one of us appears to have been with modernity from its inception, which powerfully reminds us of identity dramas in 19th century Europe. It paves the way for the bright individuals who treat their biographies like works of art inventing their personae and miraculously adapting to societies that had long been hostile to them. In Othello and Shylock, there is something that strikingly anticipates the emergence of such heroes of modernity as Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, to remember Isaiah Berlin’s masterpiece essay on two modes of Jewish identity as best embodied by those two men.

Shakespeare understood better than any other poet and playwright that the choice between a friend and an institution (or established practice) can be as dramatic as that between a lover and a clan. Albert Camus once noted that he respects justice, yet would be willing to protect his mother from it. Did not Shakespeare come up with that same painful dilemma portraying Prince of Verona Escalus as bound to choose between his kinsman Mercutio’s friend Romeo, who avenges the death of his cousin, and the law and order of Verona?

Are we not in these shoes each time when forced to choose between an incompetent state with its flawed judicial system and a courageous and virtuous individual who breaks the law?

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