Shakespeare’s Lessons About Care

My travelling companion during the last couple of weeks was Marianne Novy’s 1984 book Love’s Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare. Novy has many insights into how Shakespeare positioned men and women in the comedies and the tragedies. She is especially sensitive to moments when one character acts as the audience to another’s performance. In the comedies, “characters of both sexes can be alternatively actors and audience, cooperating in a relationship of mutuality” (83). Mutuality is Novy’s ideal for gender relations; she reads the plays as forming a continuum from mutuality achieved to failed mutuality. The failures tend to occur in the tragedies; that failure is both a cause and an effect of things turning tragic.

In the comedies, the male heroes enjoy women being actors in the dual sense of both active agents and role players. In the tragedies, “The heroes’ suspicion of female pretense darkens their view of the women, whether the women actually pretend or not. The men’s own acting–whether deed or pretense–discourages female participation….Thus, the tragic women are often confined to being audience to the hero, mediating the offstage audience’s sympathy with their own, as Ophelia does for Hamlet, Desdemona for Othello, and even Lady Macbeth for Macbeth” (82).

All this is interesting enough, but it becomes especially relevant to vulnerable reading in Novey’s later comments. She quotes Stanley Cavell’s essay on Lear, in which he writes that in both tragedy in a theatre and tragedy in actuality, “people in pain are in our presence”. What, he asks, is the difference? Cavell then makes what I consider a crucial comment on the ethics of responding to suffering: “In actuality acknowledgement is incomplete … unless we put ourselves in their presence, reveal ourselves to them” (90). That’s where I start thinking of clinical professionals responding to their patients’ pain and also family members responding. Novy’s commentary on Cavell seems to speak directly to the dilemma of response for clinicians, maybe especially hospital workers: “For the theatre audience … no self-revelation to those they see suffering is expected or possible” (90). That last phrase resonates heavily in my experience of hospital care.

Clinical professionals care, often deeply. But here’s the problem: “Many of the examples of sympathy expressed by the women discussed previously have been more like that of a theatre audience–incomplete by the standards of actuality–because they have been expressed in the hero’s absence”, Novy writes (90). Again her examples are Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. Cordelia is a significant exception, because she does express herself directly to Lear in their reconciliation scene.

Care, that most over burdened word, involves both doing and expressing. Those who are cared for often experience the expressing to be as important as the doing, and health humanities is about pulling up the expressive side of clinical practice. I remember a moment in a hospital rounds that I was invited to attend. The discussion was about a patient who was making demands that were upsetting because, in my view, everyone knew they were fully legitimate was embarrassed by not being able to admit that. At one point, someone in audience said, in a tone I heard as indignant, “Doesn’t he know how much time has been spent talking about him?” That line sticks with me because it expresses so much of what patients experience as lacking in care, and how professionals don’t get the problem. That audience member self-positioned like one of the women in a Shakespearean tragedy or the theatre audience member who can only express sympathy in the hero’s absence. The “Nothing about us, without us” thing hadn’t registered. Or in this instance, maybe it should be: nothing for us, except to us.

Ophelia and Lady Macbeth end up mad, then dead. Cordelia ends up dead, but we believe that in her last moments, she felt the redemption of being where she had chosen to be, having said what she needed to say. Getting killed is not, in itself, a tragedy.

Clinical care, especially in hospitals, is all about the duality Novy identifies between acting-as-doing and acting-as-role-playing, and I understand what she calls pretense as a neutral description of an actor’s proper work. It’s not about dropping the pretense; that’s not the goal that Novy imagines for Shakespeare’s women or I imagine for clinicians. What it’s about is achieving the mutuality in clinical care that Novy seeks in gender relations. The comedies are lessons in achieving mutuality; Novy even manages to rescue Taming of the Shrew from the oblivion of irredeemable sexism. The tragedies are cautionary tales of what happens when mutuality fails.

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