Tag Archives: Shakespeare

Orlando’s Lesson

A short post this week, and maybe none next week, because I have to travel to care for my father, who has suffered a turn in his health. So who do you take with you, I ask myself, on such a trip into terrain where much will be unexpected? I think of the magical places in Shakespeare and ask which fits. Not Prospero’s island, because I’m pretty sure there won’t be some controlling magus to manage the action. And probably not the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is no country for young lovers, where I’m going.

It’s the forest of Arden I think of, where everyone goes when court politics turn too toxic. That forest in As You Like It is a refuge for people displaced, whose lives are going badly. The hero in Shakespeare’s Arden is Rosalind, daughter of the deposed Duke, who disguises herself as a man and ends up being almost the Prospero character, without being a colonizer (or mostly not). Rosalind would be great company, but I’m more in need of her lover, Orlando. Orlando is running away from his evil brother Oliver. He enters the forest carrying on his back the old family retainer, Adam. Adam has generously offered Orlando his life savings to fund their escape, but now he’s too exhausted even to be carried further. They’re both half starved.

Orlando goes to forage and comes upon the company of the deposed Duke, who are just starting dinner. Orlando is not accustomed to generosity, so he springs upon them with his sword drawn, demanding food. Duke Senior, as he’s called, tells him that if he puts away his sword and asks nicely, they will be happy to help him. Orlando sees the error of his ways. It’s a moment of zen-instant enlightenment.

For all its simplicity, or maybe because of it, that fable is good company to take when embarking into the world of airlines and healthcare institutions. Nobody in this world is exactly comfortable, all are on some kind of edge. But people are willing to help, so far as they can, though it’s often difficult to figure how far that actually is. Until Orlando enters the Duke’s camp, he has had to rely on strength to get as much as he has, which isn’t much. Adam begins his moral education, the Duke plays a short but pivotal part, and Rosalind will take it from there. Orlando’s later example of risking himself for another will redeem the evil Oliver.

They all have the good luck to be in a comedy, and that is one big advantage in life. An actor wrote of the need to play your part as if you didn’t know the end of the story. In life, we don’t have to act that ignorance. We don’t even know what genre we’re in: comedy, tragedy, satire, or romance. I doubt this next week will be a farce, though I’m sure it will have those moments. Hope to be back before too long.

Playing Our Part

My work on Shakespeare takes me back to the sociologist Erving Goffman, whose 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life proposed a dramaturgical analysis of how people interact in shared spaces, public places like restaurants or beaches. That was, I think, the first sociology book I ever read. It was assigned reading in a social psychology course and was so badly taught that I sold my copy back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. I met Goffman when I was doing my M.A. at Penn; he gave me very sensible advice on graduate schools. I read him thoroughly while I was doing my doctorate, and when I started to publish he became a mentor and I hope a friend.

Goffman had, I believe, no use for talk about authenticity. He refers to the self, but it’s a slippery thing whatever he means. People seem better understood as playing roles, and their performances fall along a continuum between full embracement of the role–which a person might describe as feeling authentic–to displaying distance from a role. Role distance for Goffman isn’t necessarily alienation; it’s more ironic than existential. In full embracement, the person is the role. Role distance is not necessarily calculated, but a space is opened to watch one’s self perform a version of that self.

Whenever I think I’ve put Goffman on the shelf, he comes back off again, and that happened this week when I was reading a fine essay by the actor Roger Allam, writing about playing the part of the Duke in Measure for Measure (the essay is in the collection Players of Shakespeare 3, edited by Jackson and Smallwood, Cambridge UP, 1993). The Duke, as Allam begins by noting, can be played “in completely opposite ways”. For those who don’t recall the play, it begins with the Duke informing everyone that he’s going on indefinite sabbatical, and all his power–“our terror”, which Allam observes means both his absolute power and his own fear of ruling–is left to Angelo, as ruler in his absence. “The disguised ruler who seeks true knowledge of his world is an old story,” Allam writes. Shakespeare puts that old story together with another.

Angelo’s remit is to enforce laws that have been unenforced for too long, possibly most of the Duke’s reign. To keep this posting within its length, let’s just say that Claudio has violated one of these laws and is sentenced to be executed. He enlists his sister Isabella to go to Angelo and plead for his life. Here we get the second old story, which is the evil judge or ruler who tells the supplicant that he will free her brother/husband/lover if she will be his, at least for a night. We get this story from early English ballads through Tosca. Of course the Duke has never actually left. Disguised as a friar, he insinuates himself in the lives of Claudio and Isabella. He embraces the role of friar more easily than he played the part of Duke.

But who is the Duke/friar? Three of Allam’s observations seem especially useful. First, the Duke has “a rather rarified opinion of himself as being somehow above life, or certainly above ordinary human existence”. Second, “the Duke constantly uses other people … as a means of self-knowledge,” but what makes this less than totally obnoxious is that he is “above all … testing himself”. Third, the Duke becomes most “passionately articulate” when “he equates life with all that is worthless, foolish, base, and ignoble”. Allam’s summary: “I began to form a picture of a man who was a recluse, an intellectual, and a celebate; a man with a rapid mind, but who has, in a sense, thought himself into paralysis and inaction”. Rather than getting personal about how I relate to that description, let me move to the less embarrassing terrain who else it reminds me of.

Shakespeare’s plays take a few characters who have a strong resemblance and put them in different situations, enacting variations on what such a person might do in an alternative disposition of resources and possibilities. Think of who Hamlet might have become if his father had just died when he did, but no uncle slipped between the election and Hamlet’s hopes, and Hamlet had become king at too young an age. I imagine young Hamlet as king would look very much as Allam describes the Duke: someone who puts himself above ordinary existence and always risks devaluing life; a recluse, would-be intellectual, whose rapid mind can lead him into inaction.

If the Duke seems a slightly older alternative version of Hamlet, I also hear Allam describing a younger self of Prospero from The Tempest. Prospero says his reign failed due to his withdrawal into his books, leaving governance to his brother who usurps him. The Duke in Measure usurps himself preemptively. Hamlet may find space to get out of being Hamlet only during his adventure with the pirates; too bad he didn’t stay longer with them. Prospero’s island gives him space to reinvent a self that he knows better, and when he is ready he stages a little drama culminating in his restoration. The Duke stages his own restoration, but unlike Prospero, he has no Ariel and must deal with unexpected developments. Life gets away from the plot so far as he may have planned it, although how far he has planned remains a question.

Allam makes the strong interpretive claim that “the revelation of Angelo’s utter hypocrisy is a complete bombshell” for the Duke. But he acknowledges the problem of this interpretation: the Duke always knows how badly Angelo has treated his former betrothed, Mariana. How complete could the bombshell be? More important, by the end of the play, is the Duke now ready to embrace a role that he had to radically distance himself from? If something comes to the Duke as a bombshell, my choice is the moment when he hears himself proposing marriage to Isabella. I think he’s more surprised than she is. But some part of himself knows–and I in the audience believe–that as ill timed as his proposal may be, she and he need each other. Authenticity, whatever it is, is never solitary. Selves also inhabit intimate spaces. On the question of whether, after the play has just stopped rather than properly ended, Isabella agrees to marry the Duke, I love what Allam writes: “We thought probably they did, but only after a very long conversation.” That seems to evoke both intimacy and authenticity.

Inhabiting, not reading

I still have my Dell paperback copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (95 cents, cover price). I think I read it in 1969 and didn’t understand much. When she gets to her big finale of the title essay–“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”–I had the scarcest idea what hermeneutics was. But as Bob Dylan sang, there was revolution in the air, and replacing something as multi-syllabic and teutonic as hermeneutics with erotics sounded good. Replacing anything with erotics sounded good in 1969.

Forty years later, and ten years ago, I wrote about hermeneutics in Letting Stories Breathe. I was struggling with the necessity of interpretation, our human inability to hear without interpreting, versus the problem of interpreting. Interpretation presupposes a stance outside what becomes the object of interpretation: the text, whether that’s words, pictures, or sounds, becomes an occasion for the knowing subject to exercise her knowledge upon it, and perhaps add to that knowledge, notching up another text on the reading list. The worst of Shakespeare criticism treats his writing as occasions for displaying knowledge, albeit very impressive displays of considerable knowledge. Then to remind myself why Shakespeare matters–why I and others show up at the theatre–I go back to writing by actors and directors. For them, interpretation is merely instrumental to what counts, which is inhabiting the character and the story: being part of it, and letting it become part of you. Which is why Macbeth is regarded with suspicion. Some stories you have to be careful about inhabiting.

What instigated these thoughts was reading two books that make me question how to read. Today I finished another cycle of reading the Tao Te Ching, which I keep reading through, without any beginning or end to the reading, which seems to be the point of what the Tao is, learning to think without beginnings or endings. No primal cause or act of creation, and no telos, transcendence, or Last Judgment. The point seems not to read the book, first page to last with whatever level of attention. Rather, the point is to inhabit the book as an embodiment of the mind of the Sage, although that statement is nothing but metaphors. What we call reading is an active surrender, a forceful giving-up-to. As one example, take the last line: “the way of a sage is to act without contending.” Scholars lapse into contending; establishing one’s difference from others’ work is often contention. The hermeneutics of suspicion–Marx, Freud, Derrida, Foucault–is contentious, except in those rare moments when each gets beyond that. Scholarship is a perpetual struggle to rise above contention. How do I inhabit the Tao, while writing about the issues of bioethics and healthcare? How do I retell testimonies of violences against the ill, without contending? As we live in a moment when the politics of contention threatens us, it requires discipline to hold to a rejection of contention.

The other book is Pat Barker’s novel The Silence of the Girls. I waited for the right moment to read this, anticipating that it would preoccupy me, as it has. If you’ve missed it, Barker retells the story of Homer’s Iliad from the perspective of Briseis (Breye-see’-is, I believe). Briseis is a young queen in one of the towns near Troy, raided by the Greeks. She is taken as a war trophy, awarded to Achilles, then stolen by Agamemnon. Here the pawn speaks. Briseis’s story opens up the women’s world that is the silent background in Homer: all these women, taken as slaves, who served the Greeks doing the cooking, laundry, nursing, and being “bed girls”. Homer has recently reappeared in two translations by women: Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. Barker, when read with Alexander and Wilson, gives us the same turning of Homer that the Globe theatre effects when it plays Shakespeare with gender-blind casting. But no, Barker effects a far more extensive shift of perspective; while sticking to Homer’s plot, she rewrites the story. She gets into my dreams. Putting me into the Greek camp, seeing it as a slave inhabits it, she creates an encounter more than a reading. It’s not a question of interpreting her book. What seems required is allowing the book to have its most extensive effect on how to live, which begins with seeing the world around me. Or better yet, seeing me in the world I participate in recreating.

Is some of that what Susan Sontag meant by an erotics of literature? What is the shift of responsibility as we move from hermeneutics to such an erotics, as a duality of inhabiting and being inhabited?

How to Write, and do other things

I’ve been studying Fran├žois Jullien’s book The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (Zone Books, 1995, original French 1992). It’s not the book I’d recommend for starting to read Jullien, but I want to work with some of his thoughts. The book is an extended study of the multiple sense of what’s meant by shi, a word that Jullien keeps redefining throughout but basically refers to how factors or forces are disposed, in the sense of the disposition of pieces on a chess board. Shi is an arrangement of what can have an effect, the actors in an Actor-network, to use Bruno Latour’s terms that seem remarkably compatible with the Chinese ideas. Efficacy in any action depends on correct assessment of what is disposed how. And because situations are always evolving, efficacy depends on timeliness, in sensing when the time is right for a particular action. When Hamlet, in Act V, utters his enigmatic line, “The readiness is all” (V.2.200), maybe he’s showing a newly gained awareness of disposition. He can act only within that disposition, and he must sense at what moment the disposition is optimal for his action. Lear, at the start of the play, represents the utter failure to recognize shi. He doesn’t know who’s who, and what could happen when resources are redistributed.

On Jullien’s account, efficacy depends on balancing two factors, which we can call the objective and the unprecedented. He describes these factors: “On the one hand, a historical situation–seen as a set of factors operating in a particular way–can be used to determine events objectively, since it allows one to constrain the initiative of individuals” (178). People can act only with resources at hand, whether those resources are cognitive, emotional, or material. How resources are disposed–which are available to whom on what terms of use–is objective; initiative depends on disposition, not vice versa. But: “On the other hand, every situation is new and unprecedented in character, one particular moment in an evolving process. As such, it cannot be reduced to previous models; it leads the course of things constantly to take new turns.” The measure of Shakespeare’s major characters, and some minor ones, is how they adapt to situations constantly taking new turns.

My whole career has been exploring balances between the objective and the unprecedented: how to give each its due. The core issue of doing any kind of narrative analysis is how to recognize that, on the one hand, a storyteller is working with a disposition of resources: character and plot types, available genres, listener expectations, how long a telling can last, what the censors will allow, and so forth. The versions of structuralism that I started off studying extend that: stories are structured in oppositions that are objective. In post-structuralism, discourses structure telling. So any story is predictable in many of its aspects; it mirrors the objective disposition of which it is part. But any story is also unprecedented. People, individually and in groups, are justifiably committed to the uniqueness of a story as theirs, which can require patience from a listener who has heard what sounds pretty much like that same story from others in pretty much that situation. But the patience is justified because each story is unprecedented and distinct.

Institutional medicine seeks to assimilate the individual patient’s story into a generalized disease trajectory. Healthcare research readily takes up thematic analysis, because it discards whatever is distinct in anyone’s story and holds onto what codes as generalized themes. By contrast, narrative medicine seeks to hold onto what is singular and unprecedented in each patient’s story, because to miss that loses a potential for healing that exceeds remediating the disease. Healthcare professionals working in narrative ways don’t give up using diagnostic categories. They just refuse to understand the diagnosis as all that needs to be known.

Now let me flip this and consider the process of writing, telling the story. Jullien paraphrases and quotes the 17C scholar Wang Fuzhi: “If a writer merely positions words here and there without the conscious mind truly expressing itself, the body of the poem ‘will resemble a sickly donkey laden with a heavy burden'” (142). Which pretty much describes how I see many journal articles, and it may say something about burn-out in healthcare professionals. “This is bound to happen if the inner feelings of the person composing the poem have not been truly engaged and [the writer] is simply opting for some subject or another in an artificial manner, and then decorating it with rhetorical figures.” In social science, such rhetorical figures include excess attention to generic matters of method.

Now we finally get to the punchline, quoting Wang Fuzhi: “Make the emotional will-to-tell the principle (factor) and the shi the next factor” (142). It’s more complicated than the apparent binary opposition of this quotation, because there’s also an emotional shi. What Jullien calls the emotional will-to-tell strikes me as what’s left out either in telling researchers how to write their reports or in teaching clinicians how to intervene. Timeliness, sensing the right moment, is not just intuitive but depends on knowing the objective disposition, through study. Write too soon, and your views lack maturity of reflection; delay and writing goes stale.

Shakespeare’s most successful characters act in small ways, assessing and preparing, and then they catch the moment when the disposition is right. The readiness is all, but it’s the readiness of the situation. At the right moment, the person just has to show up–Imogen (Innogen) in Cymbeline keeps herself in the game, and then is there when being there counts, pretty much what Viola does in Twelfth Night. Northrop Frye and others emphasize Prospero’s sense of acting at the right time, only when the disposition is favourable. Hamlet in Act V senses that, but he will still get killed. Of his death, Jullien provides a fitting epitaph: “What counts is not the individual’s moral caliber, but the age in which [that individual] lives” (178-79). Although throughout Hamlet, we’ve seen how much Hamlet’s moral caliber is a product of the age in which he lives.

The priority between the objective and the unprecedented constantly shifts; what else would we expect? In artistic production, the will-to-tell is necessary but depends on preparation; in politics, objective factors determine outcomes but skilled actors know how to use these factors. Life being a constantly shifting layering of personal and political, we have to attend to both the objective and the unprecedented, their relation always unsettled. But we have Shakespeare’s characters as companions.

Late Style

I regret the lapse of this blog during the spring, when I was traveling to lecture and had no words left over. That period morphed into summer holidays. Calgary is having an unusually cool and wet August, with an autumnal feel. It’s time to write again.

For several years I’ve had a copy of Edward Said’s posthumously published book On Late Style sitting on my shelf, provoking me. Actually, I’ve been writing my own version of the book in notes that I intend for other pieces but end up editing out. For whatever reason–timeliness is such a big issue in Shakespeare–it was time to read what Said actually said, what late style means for him. But I want to emphasize that the issue is personal for me. The question anyone my age faces is eminently practical: Which issues do I have something to say about, and which are better left to younger colleagues? That’s a real question every time I write. Matters of policy and practice seem, generally, better addressed by those who are directly immersed in the institutional flux of things, with its rapidly changing demands and media. My own practical issue of late style is what matters can be best addressed by those outside that flux. Late style means not knowing an increasing amount about what’s actually going on–the conditions of practical action–but it also means a liberation from the immediacy and constraints such knowledge imposes.

None of that is what Said had in mind. His version of late style begins with timeliness–what is appropriate at different ages of life? Then he upsets me, in the best sense for which I’m grateful: “What if age and ill health [he had lived with leukemia for years as he wrote] don’t produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?” Without trying to address his usage of that difficult-to-gloss phrase from Shakespeare, what stops me here is that the bias of my work has always been toward some form of serenity as a telos, a proper destination, and a possibility, however much stands in its way. Said confronts me with my serenity bias.

He continues, laying out an alternative late style “that involves the nonharmonious, nonserene tension, and above all, a sort of deliberate unproductive productiveness going against….” The final ellipses are in the text, although whether they are Said’s own or his editor’s, I don’t know. My guess is that against is to be left open, without specified predicate. It’s the against of Lear in the storm. Said’s “deliberately unproductive productiveness” is also difficult to gloss, but it makes intuitive sense to me. Universities and other institutions not unreasonable expect productivity. I see those demands becoming so incessant that they stifle creativity, but that’s another issue. Late style seeks an unproductive productiveness, perhaps in the sense of giving up concern with what anyone is going to do with what’s produced; certainly not telling people what they’re supposed to do with it.

Mozart is one of those whose late style Said considers in detail. He offers the marvellous description of the characters in Cosi fan tutte as “terrifyingly embroiled in feelings and discoveries that they are unprepared for and largely incapable of dealing with,” which I find an apt description of most of us at any age. My father, living the far reaches of being nearly 100, is unprepared for what that brings, as I am unprepared at my age still to be someone’s child. The fundamental condition of serious illness is being unprepared, as are most of those who care for the ill.

Said continues, describing the characters “as figures driven by forces outside themselves that they don’t comprehend and make no serious effort to understand.” That’s one of those moments when I discover the most useful Shakespeare criticism in writing that’s about something else. Said makes me think immediately of Shakespeare’s jealous husbands: Othello, Leontes in Winter’s Tale, and Posthumus in Cymberline. I find them too painful to watch; when I first tried to read Winter’s Tale I had to stop. Only later, in a stage production, could I tolerate Leontes unravelling with such destructive effects. He repents and finds a measure of forgiveness, but does he make what Said calls a serious effort to understand? Can he understand, in what sense of understanding? Can any of us? Jealousy that makes no sense if we imagine it as an internal state makes good sense as an external force. It’s just more terrifying to think of life that way.

This line of thinking is late style, in one sense anyway, because it’s the sort of talk that used to drive my students up the wall when I presented it in a sociological idiom. Young people want, need, to think in terms of agency; my students liked talk about agency. They don’t like to think about forces outside themselves, which made sociology a curious choice of study, but that also is another topic.

I’ll write more about Said and late style, but now I’ll push this argument one step further. Embedded in the discussion of Cosi, Said writes about Beethoven’s Fidelio: “All is not really well [at the end], and not everything has been fixed: the brief righting of wrongs is but a temporary respite from the darkness.” That again describes Shakespeare so well, especially the endings of the comedies. How temporary the respite is becomes most explicit in the last so-called comedy, Measure for Measure, in which the Duke’s proposal of marriage is left unresponded to.

Late style, for me, is a willingness to recognize–a capacity to tolerate–that one useful task of writing is to offer temporary respite. But late style realizes how temporary that respite is–as if that were going to be a durable solution. The beauty of late style lies in the fragility of its self-consciousness that respite will be temporary. Said’s On Late Style seems to me to have greater political relevance today than when it was published in 2006. Rightings of wrongs that we imagined were secure have proven temporary. We need Said’s clear vision of the darkness.

Two Recent Articles, Expanded

Right now I’m writing several lectures that I’ll present at conferences and events this spring, so today’s blog is written by my double–my deamon voice, as Phillip Pullman would say–who will expand ideas in recently published articles.

Two articles of mine are now available in print or proto-print. One is a fairly long omnibus review, “Narrative Selves Create Memories”, published in the open access journal Narrative Works 8 (1/2), 106-126. I discuss four books published in Oxford’s Narrative Psychology series. As good as each of these books is, reading them together led me to my concluding section, “Why I am not a narrative psychologist”. Here I discuss what, on my account of selves and storytelling, the books leave out. More exactly, I ask whether the books follow through on expressions of their own best intentions; for example, Jens Brockmeier writes that “We start with a story”, but does he actually understanding stories as the starting point for experience?

To present something of that argument differently than I do in the article…. One of Jacques Lacan’s notions that has stuck with me over years since I used to read him is his description of the infant as a zero, a null entity, an empty signifier. To stick with the semiotic metaphor, I believe that stories are what that signifier comes to signify, and in that same process of learning stories, the child develops her capacity to signify. Our narrative resources–most basically, the stories we know–fill in the initial emptiness of who we are. And these resources give us the capacity to become more than who we presently are. And, some stories are better resources than others. Much of my work on Shakespeare involves making a case why his stories are better resources. It’s not exactly the content of the stories; rather, it’s how his stories are generative. They generate variations on themselves, in part because they are already variations on earlier stories. And they generate a curiosity for more stories.

For those who don’t already know Narrative Works, published at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., I hope my review essay will be an introduction to it.

My article “Does Medicine Need Universal Values?” should be available in the advance online version of Society. The print version will follow. I am part of a symposium of responses to the book Hostility to Hospitality by Michael and Tracy Balboni, in which they argue that more attention to spiritual care would help people, which is easy to agree with, but also that there should be an “equal partnership” between medicine and religion. The latter argument causes me considerable problems. Throughout my career I’ve written about spiritual aspects of illness and care. I’ll never get my thoughts straight, nor do I think it’s necessarily a good objective to do so. Writing the Society article was another step in the process.

Again to jump to the end of the article, much of the difference between how the Balbonis understand the world and how I understand it comes down to the usage of the words immanence and transcendence. In the Balbonis’s world, which they would claim as being Christian, immanence and transcendence exist in opposition to each other. They associate immanence with materialism in a reductionist sense. Their immanence is the end point in what Max Weber, whom they cite extensively but selectively, calls disenchantment. That’s not at all my understanding of immanence. Here I offer a longish quotation from David Hinton, in his Introduction to his translation of the Tao Te Ching.

“In the lexicon of early Taoist texts, heaven is a synonym for Wayheaven’s most primitive meaning is simply ‘sky.’ By extension, it also comes to mean ‘transcendence,’ for our most primal sense of transcendence may be the simple act of looking up into the sky. By association with the idea of transcendence and that which lies beyond us, heaven also comes to mean ‘fate’ or ‘destiny.’ But this unsurprising complex of ideas is transformed completely when early Taoism adds ‘nature’ or ‘natural process’ to the weave of meaning, for then heaven becomes earth, and earth heaven. Earth’s natural process is both our fate in life and our transcendence, for self is but a fleeting form taken on by earth’s process of change–born out of it, and returned to it in death. Or more precisely, never out of it: totally unborn. Our truest self, being unborn, is all and none of earth’s fleeting forms simultaneously.”

As I understand Hinton, what he says becomes a most useful interpretive gloss on what Shakespeare is getting at in Prospero’s speech following the masque he stages: “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and // Are melted into the air, into thin air” (The Tempest 4.1.161-163). We are all of Shakespeare’s characters simultaneously, all and none of earth’s fleeting forms. We materialize into life, stories are told, enacted, and reenacted, and then we melt back into the air. Funny thing is, institutional, professional medicine doesn’t believe that any more than the Balbonis do. There are multiple ways to separate immanence from transcendence. I believe the Tao is correct that all these separations lead to grief.

Or, separating immanence from transcendence leads humans to grief. Way just is. Is Shakespeare then no Taoist, because in his world there is forgiveness or not, and whether or not matters? Hinton points out that Lao Tzu was too compassionate to be consistent with his own ideas. He felt compelled to witness the grief he saw around him. Way just is, heaven and earth just are; humans care.

I’m happy to send pdf copies of these articles to anyone who doesn’t have other access, especially the article in Society. Write me at arthurwfrank@gmail.com.

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.