The most prominent argument in support of creationism and most difficult to disprove is the notion that something cannot come from nothing. This can be considered an argument from incredulity, a common means to reject the theory of evolution and all subsequent proofs demonstrating its mechanisms of action. A recent example of evolution would be that African elephants; as they are constantly in danger of being poached for ivory, the main targets, the males, have been gradually losing their tusks (or, rather, being born without them to a male parent whose genes didn’t result in tusks.) This is evolution by removal, as all males with tusks would be in much greater danger of being killed before reproducing. This could be considered an observable example of microevolution, a change within species. Macroevolution is still the most contested concept in evolution, but there are many, many examples of this taking place. Continue reading
A ROSE BY ANOTHER NAME IS A POPULAR PHRASE that originated in Shakespeare’s light-hearted romantic comedy, Romeo and Juliet; for reasons we will discuss, it has entered the lexicon. The popular interpretation is that an object’s name doesn’t change an object’s nature. Of course a rose’s smell would not change if it was called a rope. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The essence of a rose should not change if the language used to describe it was changed. The beauty and aroma is entirely independent and separate from its designation. This assumption, this assumption that a name does not carry with it any inherent value which can be added or subtracted based purely on what it’s called or how it’s foreshadowed, is wrong as wrong can be. Continue reading
Philosophicus humanicus – an anthropomorphic concept of an abstract, the embodiment of the academic field of philosophy cobbled together from the parts best suited to the purpose of our present story: a guided tour through the history of great ideas and thinkers, meeting with philosophers, artists, and social critics in order to apply their wisdom to the moral and philosophical questions of our own time. Continue reading
A Poem for Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson
“So I deduce,” a start –
“A truce!” I called,
his hands up-held,
“Surely, Sherlock, some stain,
has given you unique detail,
and through some voodoo
only you do,
you’ve riddled me out,
you’ve found the clue, indeed!
In reflections upon wayward shoes.
But, tell me then, if you’re to read,
My comings and goings and deeds today
“Misdeeds, indeed,” he said, “I’ve seen,
I’m afraid you’ve lied to me again.”
“Misdeeds?” I laughed. “But Holmes…”
“You did not lie about the phone?”
“How could you know —
“Not answering – just banging on..”
“I was alone?”
“Because, my friend, I’ve called you, too,
You hate the phones, and more, the booths,
old fashioned aren’t we, stubbornly,
so instead of picking up a phone which rings,
you’d rather with a station’ry,
send a wire to me at Baker St.”
“How would you know I sent a wire?”
“Across the telegraph office,
for several days,
that Bakery has been ablaze,
and that soot, that ash, has put
the smell of smoke upon your boots.
You waited, watching, quite sad, too,
A man of letters, what do you do?
So full of feeling, and un-tethered,
you left the phone and took the ledger.
A wire you wrote, and for that smell,
does more than your voice to tell,
you stood stiff and bored and thinking,
“And what if I deduce your day,
Sherlock Holmes, monsieur, surely,
You woke to the ringing clock,
at dawn to listen to the docks,
A tincture first, and coffee, pleasant?
A little needle and brief heaven?
Then full of vigor, what to do?
Call on Mycroft, play the Sleuth?
Not now, for Mycroft has gone sour;
his Pall Mall lodgings dank and foul.
You read the paper, yes you did,
the agony column – scratch the itch;
and as you read that smut each day,
you callous up and draw away,
cocaine for dawn, morphine for day,
so excited by this violence
you’ve decided and invited
me to join you by your fire.”
“Clever, very much so,
The fire’s lit for something, true;
Pray tell me, Doctor, how does one do
what one does when one is you?
How often have you told a lie that through
the Strand did multiply,
and underneath such curious eyes,
You told the truth with utter lies!
“How do you, friend,
With just your pen,
your mind, and paper,
On this plot point and this plot string,
which seem to in the ether hang,
on each sweet knot we pick to fray;
Yet when to me, if truth be told,
It’s all apparent, boring, old!
And when I’ve caught them,
they may sing.
Of glories, sure, but such misdeeds!
The ones your readers love to read.”
“Let’s take a dogcart to the bridge,
and see who lands at 9;
for Watson this new crook of ours,
Imports much more than wine!
Put down your pen and grab your gun,
The fucking game’s afoot, Watson!”
Hagiography & the Fictional You
This essay intends to look at the tradition of what is known in the West as a ‘Mary Sue’ story, which is often an exaggerated account of the author’s own life told through the guise of fiction, wherein faults are omitted and strengths exaggerated, as the author’s own life becomes the source of their romantic imagination. It is worth discussing, as many first time authors will tell similar stories, semi-autobiographical stand-ins for themselves, retelling their own lives as a sort of romantic drama.
In such cases, it’s an autobiography in all but name. Sometimes, it’s a self-deprecation fantasy, as one finds in the work of Franz Kafka, wherein fictionalized portraits of his very real self loathing take the shapes of insects (The Metamorphosis), men condemned for a crime about which they know nothing (The Trial), and a man who starves himself for the enjoyment of an ever-boring crowd, only to be replaced by a panther — an animal with much more vigor and appetite (The Hunger Artist, the last short story before his death). As this will be the first type of novel many young writers try to write, it is worth looking at this much maligned genre.
A hagiography is a style of biography in which the author has cast himself or herself as to romanticize the notions of importance in their own life. Cunning morphs into genius, a man with modest guitar playing talent becomes a world class troubadour. Character flaws are downplayed while positive traits are exaggerated, and is often set to be a way for an unknown author to attempt, through fiction, to tell the world the truth about who they are.
The understanding of this tendency, the need to prove ourselves as credible, professional writers, is best understood as the first strokes taken in a new pool; you’re not quite sure if you’re doing it right, not sure if you enjoy it, and wonder what drove you into the water in the first place. By working through this developmental stage of writing as a natural occurrence it is possible to come away from the story you attempted to tell about yourself with a more genuine understanding of what kind of emotions you intend to convey, allowing you to develop your voice without artsy flourishes, without pretensions, by using the medium of fiction as it was intended: to be propaganda for sentimental and intellectual truths.
Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives, and equally natural to think, when in love, that no one has ever felt so much toward another person. But many have, and also thought the same, ‘no one has ever felt this way,’ thought that many people have when experiencing emotions. This shows up in misery contests – where persons swap stories of their traumas and tragedies and relish in the idea of being more thoroughly miserable than their partner. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us, happening inside of us, and often not apparent to others — at least not as powerfully as it is to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without a doubt the basis for the way we look at everything, wherein all in this little world of ours has special importance. To others, the obviousness of what we imagine to be charm in our story is not actually obvious, and any attempt at dry emotional description will only remind them they’re being manipulated by words. Which is important, mind, to learn the art of rhetoric and persuasion, but in utero, while forming as a writer, it is crucial not to mistake wistful romanticism for ourselves as a crutch for problems we’re unable to face in its true form, in truth. The point is not to dissuade, but to be of use.
To be helpful is not to try to convince new writers not to pursue the writing of hagiography, but since they will, it is more instructive to discuss the ways in which a Mary Sue can be done well. After all, some of the best books of all time are thinly veiled hagiography, at least to the extent of fictionalizing a character for the sake of a mouth-piece by proxy – as many writers with a philosophical bent tend to do. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, everything written by Ayn Rand, even the best novel of all time – Proust’s A la reserches de temps perdu is a Mary Sue, and Proust could draw the sublime from a cup of tea and build the most beautiful of vistas, all centered around a sensitive child who wants to be a writer.
As an unknown writer, I understood how it felt to need validation. And because of this, to advertise ourselves, we create a fictionalized, externalized self-portrait, wherein almost all of what is recounted is non-fiction, “non-fiction except the names” the saying goes. We do this as a way of showing not only our literary merits but personal worth. The trope is best described as a semiautobiographical, thinly veiled origin story for the author. The narration is the proxy through which we attempt to communicate our philosophy, what we think about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s natural and it’s part of maturing, by becoming more comfortable with the less exaggerated, more normal person you really are, and should truly be celebrated for being.
The technique can work – but only if the person attempting the Mary Sue is skilled and / or witty, or is intending to tell a story more-so than tell an allegorical representation of Things They Did; but if the intention is to make the story as real as possible, might I suggest autobiography? That’s what it’s for! And if there are to be true elements and fictional elements, what is a necessary fiction doing in an autobiography, you hypothetical hack? If your life is interesting enough, no embellishment should be necessary. If you don’t deserve a genuine biography, making a slightly fictionalized account of yourself and adding fictions to make your story more interesting, then your life probably wasn’t interesting enough for a novel. I’m sorry you had to hear it from me.
William S. Burroughs said it best in The Western Lands:
“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
The more obvious the intent to blur the recognition of a by-proxy facsimile makes more embarrassing the entire situation. And, considering you’ve admitted to yourself no achievement worth an actual autobiography, choosing to enhance your good characteristics and be virtuous by proxy, to be cared for by proxy, this all makes a sad, sad soup of amateurism and intellectual dishonesty. Nonfiction is for truth, yes, but that doesn’t mean fiction is for lying. If you want a biography, do something to change the world. Invent a working system of government—you’ll get a Mary Sue for that. Or at least an eloquent ghostwriter.
An example of a unique type of Mary Sue
I was a big fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a child. The first two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four were the best books ever, as far as I was concerned. I would later get the rest (of the Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories), always trying to work out how the crime took place. So I pestered my father into getting me a tourist map of London that would’ve been accurate during the time that Watson and Holmes undertook their adventures. When I first started thinking about it as an adult, I started to think that, since Watson was a disabled war vet, he may have created Holmes to somehow live an exciting life as an important, intelligent and useful man, after being invalided out of the military. This is a Mary Sue by which the author gets to live vicariously through a better, more intelligent literary self, but isn’t a Mary Sue in the life story business. Or perhaps he created Holmes as an imaginary friend, to escape the monotony of a slow and unfulfilled life. There is evidence to support this.
First, within the framework of the story, there is a surprising lack of Holmes in newspapers despite his brilliant career—as for his reluctance for validation, it does not make sense for the character as described by Watson. The Sherlock Holmes as described had few weaknesses; yet, time after time, he is prone to vanity and showmanship, despite the repeated insistence that he disapproved all forms of popular applause.
A man so moved by vanity would naturally take credit for his deeds. Yet, when not on the scene or talking to witnesses, Sherlock dislodges himself from the scene entirely, like a moth roused from sleep by the hint of a greater fire. Watson dramatized the stories by making Holmes an artist and magician.
In The Hounds of the Baskervilles, Sherlock was absent for almost the entire story – until Watson cannot form a conclusion on his own. As events begin to move along at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is found camping on the moors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a good author of fiction, but he is much greater at bringing together lots of disparate strings in his particular type of deductive denouement. Conan Doyle was Holmes, if for no other reason than the words from Holmes’ own lips were words written by Doyle, and Doyle solves each case through Holmes.
In between these cases, Holmes is described as abstracted, detached, and aloof – almost like he isn’t there. The sole motivation seems to be to perform these pieces of drama at the behest of his friend, Watson. At the end of The Sign of Four, the denouement is usurped by the wonderful story of the main antagonist, the one-legged Andaman islander Johnathon Small. The ending is brief but telling: (From the ending of The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
“The division seems rather fair,” says Watson. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there is cocaine.”
And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
Watson was the narrator in all but a few stories: two in which Holmes recounts the adventure, such as The Blanched Soldier and The Lions Mane, both from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. In His Last Bow, two stories are written from a third-person omnipotent perspective, The Dying Detective and The Mazarin Stone, respectively. Watson narrates the rest, and exclusively in the first-person perspective, except for the second half of A Study in Scarlet, the first book to feature the world famous detective. The story is told in a third person to give the murderer, Jefferson Hope, a back-story which takes place in Utah and really pisses on Mormons. The same thing happens in the second half of The Valley of Fear, which tells the story of John Douglas’ time in America as an undercover Pinkerton detective going by the name Jack McMurdo. Doyle goes to great lengths to flesh out his fictional characters when they’re not even named until the final act.
Consider how Watson describes Scotland Yard’s MacDonald as a protégé to Holmes: ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, while genius instantly recognizes talent.’
Consider who is more likely to exist: a man capable of riddling out your job by the calluses on your hands, where you live by the unique stains on your boots, and where you sat in a carriage because of the direction of the splash of mud across your jeans, someone who can read your mind, basically, just by following your eye-movements, or a retired military man playing his own little game of literary cops and robbers, imagining himself as Sherlock Holmes, a man of genius, wit, and skill, as their mutual creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle certainly was. Even Watson’s injury isn’t consistent from the first story to the second: in the first, he says:
“I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”
In the first chapter of The Sign of Four, Holmes manages to upset his dull companion by his accurate deduction of his brother’s habits and character. In that scene, it becomes a leg wound that, ‘aches with the change of weather.’
Watson’s greatness and his weakness was projected onto Holmes. After Sherlock’s death in The Final Problem, published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, [he] is assumed to have died in combat with Moriarty, having fallen into the Reichenbauch Falls. However, in The Adventure of the Empty House, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of stories after Holmes’ death, Watson tells of his comings and goings in Sherlock’s absence. Interestingly omitted from Watson’s account of life without his famous friend is his wife Mary, whom he met in The Sign of Four. Who, died somehow? It is never really mentioned. But how does he find Sherlock Holmes again? He runs into him while contemplating another problem, that of the death of a fashionable London socialite, Ronald Adair. Holmes, disguised as an old man, bumps into Watson, carrying a pile of books. And from that disguise, from the pile of books, Sherlock Holmes reappears.
To imbue your fiction with aspects of your life in a relatable way is different in a very important way than the first type of Mary Sue, which is little more than exaggeration and just shy of outright lying. To have a character with your mother’s manners or your father’s name is natural. The reason the Mary Sue is so frowned upon is because it negates the problem of imagination at the same time fictionalizing what isn’t the province of the fictional – the real world. The best thing about writing fiction is the discovery of truths within the fancy, within the obviousness of the falseness. When you understand what makes the best art so valuable is that it has a dual and positive effect: the motivation to acquire the skill to create, and the sensibility and identification with the material to know what you’ve created.
On Shakespeare’s Drama,
Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons
SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he did with King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin.
At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by powers, and what justifies the need or want of power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intend to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires already there. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.
Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.
MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he.
MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre,
“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”
Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.
“That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”
In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is too evil to be seen, and far too much for him to see, to be confronted with the evidence of your crime so graphically, as Claudius was in Hamlet.
The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. The self-fulfilling prophecy is another popular trope in theatre. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan, showing his complicit choice at each stage, aware of the risks, and then, because of what it took to get there, is unable to enjoy his rule. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from the favor of fortune, through temptation and gradual capitulation to desire, until he is a base creature, in complete service to his indulgences.
Methought I heard a voice cry
“Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,”
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life,
sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds,
great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn. Not unlike the tangled yard of the Weird Sisters (something else Shakespeare inherited from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.
In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.”
Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.
“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though all were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.
Tragedy is of two popular forms now in the West. Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods, and sometimes regular people too. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind their eventual downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the flaws of the protagonist, the tragic hero.
Romeo and Juliet – a broadstrokes tragedy – In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, a tragedy of fate, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected equally, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.
Shakespeare tries to break down the rivalry and feud between two families; the Capulets and Montagues Many tragedies are been presented in the play including that of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, Juliet, and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy, which could have been caused by rivaling senses of authority, codes of honor, masculinity, rebellion, ambition, and – again, fate.
From the very beginning of the play, fate is constantly referenced, starting with the prologue,
“A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.”
This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny. Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job in convincing the audience this was due to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.
Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, you have to believe in destiny. Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”
Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control;
“…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”
By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to believe this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end was to go against a tide he put in motion.
Fate was used by a number of playwrights, and Shakespeare used it well as a dramatic device, showing what fruit there is in believing one’s life out of one’s hands. Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.
Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of an ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet indicates his naiveté more than anything. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.
The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision-making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic.
Youth’s Romantic Rebellion.
Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families, as most young men and women do. They enhance and exacerbate the rivalry between them by marring one another, rather than taming it. The play presents numerous examples of youthful rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris, something unheard of in a society where fathers are the ultimate source of patriarchal authority, and authority in all things, moral and spiritual. As both rebel against their parents through their continued association, Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying,
“…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”
Things did not end well. For anyone, really.
Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet in his sleep. In Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, however, he pushes himself higher and higher. In Hamlet by bringing the drama closer to the personal and neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is proof of this, as his mental anguish is the subject of the entire play. Perhaps it was due to the death of his own son Hamnet, that Shakespeare’s interest would become deconstructing the relationships between fathers and sons.
After his son was carried away by the plague, we have the character Hamlet, a consonant shy of having the same name of his deceased son, looking into a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued in his philosophy of the absurd, in works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus stated,
‘There is one principle issue in philosophy, and that is suicide.’
Shakespeare’s own anguish and regret seeps into his characters, who, even when seemingly on top of the world – as Shakespeare had been himself, showing up to a coronation decked out in red velvet – find ways to bemoan the everyday life of the depressive:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
The way to dusty death
Out! Out, brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets
His hour upon the stage
And is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury –
Shakespeare’s characters are all saddled by one form of loss or another in this period, and they deal with grief in different ways. His later work is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of the mundane, day to day, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, just a passing storm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Shakespeare’s guilt over his son’s passing seeps into his greatest play, King Lear, as the King mistreats his one honest daughter while at the same time giving lavishly to his other daughters, who are sycophantic and gratifying, incurring his good favor by building up his self-esteem, so when it’s time to parcel out the kingdom, Cordelia doesn’t get as much as those other assholes.
It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed, or wherewith he is speaking in his own voice, as himself. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present, such as the problems with the monarchy and the many religious schisms of his age. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet is in keeping with more reflective, pensive melancholy – about the loss of his father – and his ghost is who tips him on to what Claudius has done; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of the playwrights in England to a grieving father; he had money and fame at a time when it meant less than it should have.
At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd, his detractors and contemporaries did well, but fell out of favor, gradually. Kip Marlowe has retained a popularity that the former did not, but even his doesn’t rival that of Shakespeare, the Bard, inventor of words like puke and queasy. That’s a legacy.
When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see one’s self before that same mirror thinking the same thing: what have I to lose by losing everything? Will it mitigate my loss? Will destruction save me from the torments of my conscience? These are natural questions to ask, to wonder if there is providence, and to wonder if we can actually defy fate on any meaningful level. If there be providence in this world, must this be the greatest lack of mercy? This denial of consolation the grave offers us all? No grace, no word of condolences from that undiscovered country. To ask these questions during a time of religious upheaval were questions in need of asking. It is no consolation that the dead stay silent, and grace is a spectre over our noblest endeavors.
The dead may silent, sure, but they may find their voice again; if the proper necromancer restored these spirits to our world, to live out their days in one folio or painting or another, this preserves the voice of voices we can’t hear and is unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give the English a hint at what that definition could be.