Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: An Anarchist Meditation.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte:

An Anarchist Meditation.

 Burton Weltman

 “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

John Lennon

Propaganda, Popularity, and Painting: George Orwell and Georges Seurat’s La Grande Jatte.

What makes a painting popular?  Georges Seurat’s painting “Un dimanche apres-midi a l’ile de la Grande Jatte,” which translates into English as “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” hereafter referred to as “La Grande Jatte,” is a very popular painting.  Completed in 1886, it was a sensation when it was first shown in Paris and has been prominently exhibited at the Art Institute in Chicago since 1926, where it regularly draws larger crowds of viewers than almost any other painting.  The picture is so popular that it is the subject of a popular musical “Sunday in the Park with George” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  First performed in 1984, the musical was awarded a Pulitzer Prize among other honors, and has been repeatedly performed ever since.

What makes a painting popular, and is a popular painting necessarily a great painting?  In turn, what makes a painting great, and is a great painting necessarily popular?  There are connoisseurs and experts who evaluate works of art and make judgments based on highly cultivated tastes and esoteric technical criteria.  But that is not the case with most of us who appreciate art but are neither artists nor experts.  Experts’ opinions of the aesthetic values of a painting will get a picture into an art museum, but that doesn’t guarantee a painting’s popularity.  There are a lot of paintings that are highly regarded by experts and connoisseurs but only some of them are popular among the general public.  What makes La Grande Jatte popular?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” dramatizes the painting of La Grande Jatte.  It focuses on Seurat’s unusual pointillist painting technique and his supposedly strained personal relations.  The drama of Seurat’s personal relations is fiction, but the painting technique is actual.  Revolutionary in its time, Seurat’s pointillism was based on theories of color and perception that were newly developed in the late nineteenth century.  In pointillism, dots of pure color are placed together in groups that when seen at a distance are synthesized by the eye into blended colors and shapes.  Different combinations of color dots will be seen as different blended colors and shapes.  When you get up close to a pointillist picture, it dissolves into a myriad of seemingly unrelated little points of color.  Painting La Grande Jatte must have required very intense concentration, and Seurat’s personal relations could conceivably have been in fact strained by the obsessive devotion to his work that pointillism required.  In any case, although pointillism never caught on as a major artistic technique, and has essentially faded into history, La Grande Jatte has, nonetheless, became an almost revered work.

Possibly in an attempt to explain the popularity of La Grande Jatte, the “Sunday in the Park with George” musical includes something of a tutorial in art appreciation.  Seurat is made to frequently repeat an aesthetic mantra in the course of painting the picture: “Design. Composition. Tension. Balance. Light. Harmony.”  Inserting this mantra into the play seems to be a way for Sondheim and Lapine to give the audience an idea of how to evaluate a painting such as La Grande Jatte.  These are fairly simple criteria and they probably represent the sorts of things that most of us in the lay public apply, even if subconsciously, when we are looking at a picture. For most of us, trying to apply simple criteria such as these is pretty much the most we can do in aesthetically evaluating a painting.  It is not all that an expert might do, but it is something.  In any case, it probably does not explain why one picture is popular with us while another isn’t.

George Orwell famously claimed that the popularity of a work of art is based on its resonance as a piece of propaganda.  He said that “every writer, especially every novelist, has a ‘message,’ whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of the artist’s work are influenced by it.  All art is propaganda.”[1]  That is, whether or not people consciously realize it, and even whether the artist realizes it, every work of art embodies moral and political views and propagates them to the public.  It is the message, Orwell claimed, that determines the popularity of a work of art, and that includes paintings.  If a painting’s message resonates with the viewing public, it will be popular, which says as much about the viewers as it does about the painting.

Popularity, Orwell claimed in turn, is a criterion of greatness.  While not all popular art is great, great art is by definition popular.  A great work of art – whether a novel, poem, play, painting, piece of music, or whatever – has been defined as one that you can read, listen to, or look at repeatedly and get something more each time.[2]  A great work may please you but it also provokes you. You can look at a great painting repeatedly and see, feel, or think something more and different each time.  A work can be popular without being great if it merely pleases without provoking.  A great painting is popular because it provokes viewers to think about it and to come back for more.  That is the difference between a hotel room landscape that pacifies guests and a Van Gogh landscape that provokes viewers to ask “What is going on here?”

Applying Orwell’s criteria to La Grande Jatte, it would seem to be both a popular and a great painting.  It is a big picture that occupies a whole wall by itself in a big room at the Art Institute.  It is flanked on three sides by Impressionist landscapes by Monet.  While Monet’s landscapes are great pictures and get a lot of attention, La Grande Jatte gets the most.  That may partly be because of its large size, and partly because of its notoriety.  But there seems to be more to it.  Standing in bunches in front of the painting — alternately at a distance where a viewer can see the objects in the picture and up close where it dissolves into dots — most people spend more time looking at La Grande Jatte than at the other paintings.  Why?

The musical “Sunday in the Park with George” focuses on the technical aspects of Seurat’s pointillism and, thereby, portrays what is essentially the conventional view of La Grande Jatte as an amazing and amazingly interesting technical feat.  I think, however, that this view is only half right because there is nothing in it about Seurat’s politics and that, I think, is the other half of the point about La Grande Jatte.  Seurat was a dedicated anarchist who intended his paintings to convey political messages.[3]  If Orwell is right about what makes a work of art popular, then Seurat’s anarchist political beliefs could be a key to the painting’s popularity, and it may be that the anarchist philosophy that underlies the messages of the painting have subliminal appeal to a largely unwitting public.  Exploring that idea is the main theme of this essay.

Seurat’s La Grande Jatte: Anarchism as an Anti-ism-ism.

Webster’s Dictionary defines anarchism as: “A political theory…advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.”

If you attach “ism” to the end of a word, you have made an ideology out of whatever the word denotes.  John Lennon once complained that “Everybody is talking ‘bout Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism, This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.”[4]  That is, people were taking their own particular ideas or interests and making whole philosophies out of them, essentially making fetishes of them, and then using their ideologies to divide and try to conquer each other.  Ideologies, Lennon intoned, make a mess of the world because they divide people between “us,” i.e. those who agree with someone’s whole program, and “them,” those who don’t.

The problem is that when ideologies and ideologues disagree, there is no room for compromise.  People who have different ideas about something can negotiate their differences but people with different ideologies have non-negotiable differences.  They can only fight them out.  Anarchism, Seurat’s political credo, is, however, a philosophy that endeavors to eliminate ideological barriers.  It is an anti-ism-ism that seeks to give peace the chance John Lennon called for.

In order to explore the anarchist philosophy Seurat hoped to convey in La Grande Jatte, we have to first distinguish anarchism from libertarianism because the two are often confused with each other.  Although both philosophies eschew strong centralized government, they do so in very different ways and for very different reasons.

Anarchism is a form of socialism without a strong central government.  It is based on anarchists’ belief in the inherently cooperative nature of most people.  Anarchists believe that if artificial obstacles to cooperation are removed, people will naturally live together on an all-for-one, one-for-all basis.  Ideologies that are invented to promote and protect oppressive power and excessive property are an example of the obstacles that block pragmatic cooperation among people.  In turn, coercive central governments operate as instruments of the powerful and their ideologies.

Anarchists contend that if we eliminate economic inequality and the coercive governments that protect that inequality, we would eliminate the power struggles and class conflicts that roil society, and the Golden Rule would rule.[5]  Anarchism is, thereby, an anti-ism-ism because it stresses the ability of people to pragmatically resolve their differences and practically solve their problems without ideological barriers getting in the way.  It is the vision expressed in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”

Libertarianism is an ideology that promotes capitalism without a strong central government.  It is based on libertarians’ belief in the inherently self-centered and aggressive nature of people.  They claim that dog-eat-dog conflict is the natural state of humankind.  The universe, in their view, is as a zero-sum competition in which one person’s gain is invariably another person’s loss and vice versa.  The goal is to inflict losses on others so as to make gains for oneself.

Libertarians believe that might makes right and might signifies the righteous. Theirs is an individualistic and essentially anti-social philosophy. They reject government as an instrument of the inferior weak against the superior strong which restricts free competition, while coming down against the deserving winners and in favor of the undeserving losers.  Despite the mutual rejection by anarchists and libertarians of strong central government, libertarianism is the moral and political opposite of anarchism.  Seurat was an anarchist, not a libertarian.

And Seurat was a pacifist anarchist which we must distinguish from militant anarchism. Although the pacifist form of anarchism has historically had, and currently has, by far the most adherents, the militant form has gotten all the publicity and is often conflated with anarchism as a whole.[6]  The goal of both forms of anarchism is to raise the public’s political consciousness so that people will reject authoritarian capitalism and adopt participatory democratic socialism, but they do so in very different ways with very different moral and political implications.

Anarchists assume that people are unhappy with the existing society but that most people don’t think they can do anything about it.  Anarchists believe, therefore, that people need to be convinced they have the ability to get rid of the established order.  Militant anarchists think the public can be convinced of this through exemplary acts of violence – so-called propaganda by deed – that demonstrate the political weakness and physical vulnerability of the ruling classes. Bakunin and Johann Most were well known nineteenth century advocates of militant anarchism.

In the late nineteenth century, militant anarchists assassinated politicians and set off bombs in public places, hoping thereby to provoke a spontaneous mass uprising that would violently overthrow the established order.  In recent years, self-styled militant anarchists have turned peaceful political demonstrations into riots and have damaged public property with seemingly the same goal in mind.[7]

Pacifist anarchists believe in moving public opinion through education.  Tolstoy and Kropotkin were well-known nineteenth century exemplars.  Their method emphasizes exemplary acts of thinking and creating – works of art and science — that demonstrate the cultural weakness and intellectual paucity of the ruling classes. Their method also includes setting up small-scale cooperative communities and industries which, by demonstrating anarchism’s efficacy, could become the cells of a new society.

Nineteenth century anarchists organized communes with the goal of undermining and overwhelming the established order by drawing more and more people into an alternative anarchist way of life that would eventually become the predominant society.  Twentieth and twenty-first century anarchists have established communes with similar hopes.[8]

Seurat was part of a late nineteenth century group of French anarchist artists, mostly Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, led by the painter Camille Pissarro.  Unlike the bomb-throwing anarchists of that period, Pissarro and his comrades were peaceful anarchists who hoped to educate the masses into socialism.  Most of them painted idyllic rural scenes and hardy yeoman peasants as uplifting examples of the utopian way things could be.  They also painted satirical pictures of stuffy bourgeois as negative examples of the way things currently were.

Seurat was a “highly recognized member of the anarchist Neo-Impressionist movement” and it is generally acknowledged that La Grande Jatte, with its pompous bourgeois figures, was intended to satirize bourgeois mores.[9]  Although I agree that Seurat’s intent was partly satirical, I contend further that the pointillism of the picture was intended to be seen as an anarchistic method of painting and that the subject matter was intended to be understood as a meditation on anarchism.

Setting the Scene for a Meditation on Anarchism in La Grande Jatte.

La Grande Jatte seems an unusual picture to be so widely popular, especially compared with the paintings around it at the Art Institute.  Although you can Google a copy of the picture, I will describe what I see as the key elements in it.  The scene is mundane: a bunch of ordinary people in a park abutting a body of water.  The park is not at all scenic.  No pretty flowers.  This is in sharp contrast with the beautiful landscapes by Monet that share the room with La Grande Jatte.

Likewise, while Monet’s landscapes and the Impressionist paintings in the rooms adjacent to La Grande Jatte are fluid and their human subjects are generally portrayed as relaxed, almost all of Seurat’s figures are stiff, almost stilted.  In turn, where most of the subjects in the other paintings are interesting in and of themselves, the subjects in Seurat’s painting are of no inherent interest.  And where the subjects of the other paintings complement their surroundings, Seurat’s figures clash with their environment and some are too small and out-of-proportion to their surroundings.

La Grande Jatte looks at first glance to be a mere clutter of figures and objects.  There are some thirty or more people, at least two dogs, and a monkey scattered on the park’s grass in various poses, some sitting, others standing, a few walking.  There are a number of boats of various kinds in the water.  There does not seem at first glance to be any coherence to the picture.

The impression fostered by the picture is of a hot day.  With the exception of a little girl who looks directly out at us and is in the sunshine, the people are keeping to the shade of umbrellas and leafy trees and are looking away from us.  There is one man in loose-fitting, comfortable working-class clothes. The other people are well-dressed, in fact overdressed for a park in hot weather, and are seemingly of the middle classes.

The foreground of the picture is dominated by three figures: a formally dressed bourgeois man and woman who are standing stiff and haughty with their monkey on a leash on the right side of the painting and the working-class man who is reclining in a leisurely manner on the grass, leaning back on his arm on the left side of the picture. All three seem to be looking out at the body of water, the bourgeois couple glaring, the worker relaxed and smoking a pipe. The bourgeois couple look uncomfortable and tense.  The working man radiates comfort and calm.

The background of the picture is filled with a disparate assortment of people and things in and out of the water.  There are about six boats in the water, including two steamboats, at least two sailboats, and a sculling boat being rowed by four men and coxswained seemingly by a woman.  Among the people, there are two soldiers standing at attention, two girls with fishing poles, a man being shaved by a woman, and two women sitting under a tree.

There is a superficial calmness and quietude to the scene.  A painting, after all, is silent.  And the people in the foreground of the picture are stationary and silently looking out at the water.  None of them is moving or talking.  But much more is taking place behind them.

On the land, there is a man blowing away on what looks like a French horn. There is a yipping little dog just about to pounce on a larger dog, possibly the prelude to a dog fight. In the water at the back of the picture, one of the steamboats seems to be sinking.  A short distance in front of it, another steamboat seems about to run into the sculling boat. The rowers have their backs to the steamboat, seemingly unaware of their peril, and the coxswain’s line of vision is seemingly impaired by her parasol.  So much for the peace and quiet of a Sunday afternoon in the park.

So, how does the setting of this scene relate to anarchism, pointillism, meditation and the ongoing popularity of La Grande Jatte?

Pointillism: Anarchism in the Method of La Grande Jatte.

Most conventional commentaries on La Grande Jatte miss or bypass any connection between pointillism and anarchism.  They focus on pointillism as an interesting semi-scientific technique of making color.  This is the focus in the musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” and is the explanation of pointillism found in Wikipedia and on the Art Institute web site.[10]  There is nothing in these commentaries about how Seurat’s politics might relate to his pointillist method of painting.  I think that is a mistake.

Other commentators who connect pointillism with Seurat’s anarchism do so by characterizing the method as mechanistic and even robotic, with Seurat supposedly dabbing his dots rotely on the canvas to make a picture.  In their view, pointillism is a mechanical method of painting that was intended by Seurat as a critique of the mechanistic nature of modern society.  They contend that the mechanical application and combination of color dots to produce mechanical-looking stiff figures was Seurat’s way of subverting the artistic conventions of bourgeois society.  In this view, Seurat developed pointillism as an anti-humanist method to mirror the anti-humanist society in which he lived.[11]  I don’t agree with this view.

Seurat reportedly developed pointillism as a contrast and counter to the Impressionists’ methods.  Having been trained in Impressionism, he came to reject the method as too impressionistic and thereby, in his opinion, too superficial.  Impressionist paintings are composed of quick strokes of paint.  Impressionists often completed pictures in one open-air session and the pictures comprised an impression of a scene.  As with pointillism, Impressionist pictures are best viewed from a distance of fifteen feet or more, at which distance the paint strokes come together as objects in the viewer’s eyes.  Get close to an Impressionist painting and it usually falls apart into a bunch of paint strokes just as a pointillist painting dissolves into dots.

But Seurat’s dots are not quickly and impressionistically applied.  They are carefully and scientifically placed.  As a so-called Neo-Impressionist, Seurat wanted a method that would reflect more than mere impressions of things and would get at the underlying meaning of a scene.  He spent long periods of time sketching his subjects in the open air and then spent even longer periods of time in his studio – some two years to produce La Grande Jatte – working obsessively on getting his work just right.[12]

Given the effort he put into his work, I don’t think it is likely that Seurat would have seen pointillism as an anti-humanist method that exemplified what he rejected in society.  To the contrary, I think it is more likely that he saw pointillism as a humanistic method and an example of anarchism in action.

The key to pointillism seems to be to follow the color dots.  It is the collaboration of the dots with each other that makes the colors and the objects in the painting.  In effect, the color dots direct the painting of the picture for the artist and determine what we see.  Once the artist has chosen a subject to be represented in a picture, the artist must work with the color dots so that they can come together in configurations to make the picture. In turn, our eyes must collaborate with the dots to see those configurations.

Although it may seem fanciful to speak about color dots collaborating with each other and with humans, pointillism has been compared with the atomism of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus who said similar things about atoms.[13]  Democritus was one of the inventors of atomic theory.  He believed the universe was composed of an infinite variety of atoms of all sorts of shapes that came together on their own to form things.  He seemed to ascribe a certain willfulness to atoms, even though he thought they were essentially inanimate.  His atomism seemed, therefore, to operate similarly to Seurat’s pointillism which is based on dots coming together to make colors and shapes.

As Democritus’ name would seem to imply, he was also one of the first advocates of democracy.  Democritus seemed to think that humans operated on a principle similar to atoms, with an infinite variety of different people voluntarily coming together to create a society.  He is said to have opined that “Equality is everywhere noble,” although like most ancient Greek democrats he did not seem to include women and slaves in this formulation.  He also claimed that “Poverty in a democracy is better than prosperity under tyrants.”[14]  Democritus could, thus, be seen as something of a precursor of both Seurat’s anarchistic pointillist method and his anarchist political philosophy.

The goal of anarchists such as Seurat was expressed in the formulation of “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”[15]  Pointillism reflects this goal in that it requires a good deal of patience and self-control on the part of the artist.  The artist cannot do anything he/she wants, and cannot merely follow his/her feeling in how to apply the paint.  The artist must work with the dots.  There is no room for egoism or arbitrary self-expression.  The artist is not an almighty god imposing his/her will on the canvas but merely a collaborator with the dots.  Pointillism is, thereby, seemingly an example of self-control and cooperation as a way of art and a way of life.  This is the essence of Seurat’s anarchism.

Meditation: Anarchism in the Subject Matter of La Grande Jatte.         

Webster’s Dictionary defines meditation as “A discourse intended to express an author’s reflections or to guide others in contemplation.”

Like many painters throughout history, Pissarro’s coterie of anarchist painters wanted to give viewers something to think about in the subject matter of their pictures.  They intended their works to be meditations on society and hoped that people would meditate on the social messages conveyed in their works.  Most in Pissarro’s group hoped their paintings would inspire people to reject bourgeois capitalist society and embrace anarchistic socialism.  That included Seurat.

Despite Seurat’s avowed political aims, some interpretations of La Grande Jatte, including Wikipedia for example, seem to miss the fact that Seurat was trying to make political points in the picture. These commentators say the picture merely portrays a pleasant day in park.  All is well in the picture according to this view.  Nothing about a French horn blaring, boats sinking, dogs yipping.  There is nothing in these appreciations of the picture about political or social messages.  I think that is a mistake.

Other interpretations of the painting that do make a connection with Seurat’s politics generally focus on the stiffness and stuffiness of the overdressed bourgeois figures and see the picture as essentially a critique of bourgeois society. The Art Institute’s website, for example, says that the picture is a “commentary on the posturing and artificiality of modern Parisian society.”[16]  In a similar vein, other critics see the picture as “an anti-utopian allegory,” and they cite the laid-back worker as representing a healthy contrast to the uptight bourgeois.[17]  I agree with these interpretations but I would go further in interpreting the significance of the worker in the front of the picture and the chaos in the back.  In this regard, I suggest that the painting operates as a meditation on anarchism, and does so on at least two levels.

First, I think that viewers instinctively identify with the worker who is sitting quietly and calmly on the edge of the chaos in the picture.  He is seemingly contemplating the idiocy of the bourgeois around him, who are so formally and warmly dressed on a hot day in a park.  He is also calmly enduring the disorder in the park, in which things are generally falling apart.  The worker is at ease, as though, I think, he is waiting for the idiotic bourgeois capitalist system to collapse so that he and his comrades can then pick up the pieces and put them together again in a better way.  He is witnessing anarchy as possibly a prelude to anarchism.

Sitting immediately next to the worker are two demure bourgeois figures, a man and a woman, who have seemingly joined him in calmly looking out at the water and contemplating the state of things.  They are disproportionately small compared to him, perhaps symbolic of their status in the anarchists’ world view.  But their little group of three contrasts with most of the other groups and individuals in the picture whose actions and attitudes seem to clash with each other.  There seems to be a sort of comradeship among the three of them, maybe a portent of things to come.  And I think we viewers instinctively join them in their meditation.

Second, we make eye contact with the little girl who implicitly challenges us to meditate on the scene, and we do.  We are neither impressed by the façade of order represented by the haughty bourgeois couple in the foreground nor distressed by the chaos in the back.  We look back at the little girl and see a picture of capitalist things falling apart, but we also see them coming together for Seurat as he composes the picture, for the dots as they comprise the picture, and for our eyes in they contemplate the picture. We see anarchist order coming from anarchic disorder, and the process constitutes a meditation on anarchism.

At the Intersection of Propaganda, Popularity and Great Art.

George Orwell is, I think, right in claiming that all art is propaganda in the sense that a world view inevitably lies behind any work of art.  But there is a difference between propaganda that tries to induce you to ask certain questions and propaganda that tries to force you to accept certain answers.  In painting, it is the difference between Pissarro’s pictures of hardworking peasants and the Soviet Realists’ heroic workers.  La Grande Jatte is of the former sort.

La Grande Jatte is a painting that tries to get us to think about ourselves and our position in the world.  Are we like the contemplative worker and the contemplative couple sitting next to him or are we like the pompous couple standing behind the worker?  If we really look at the painting rather than merely glance at it as we pass through the Art Institute’s galleries, then maybe we are more like the former than the latter.

Does the picture promote anarchism as Seurat intended, even if only through its subliminal influence?  Maybe.  I think that even the most casual glance at the foreground of the painting will lead you to identify positively with the worker and react negatively to the bourgeois couple, and that is a start toward Seurat’s message.  If you then look deeper into the painting, I think it is hard not to see that things are in disorder. The façade of normality represented by the bourgeois couple has been shattered.  This leads you further toward Seurat’s message.  If you then think about what you are seeing, you may arrive at Seurat’s desired conclusions, or at least come back to look at the picture again.

If Orwell is right about art being propaganda, and if my interpretation of the painting has any merit, then the popularity of La Grande Jatte may denote some appeal of anarchist ideas to those of us in the art-viewing public.  And this may say as much about us as it does about the picture.

[1] George Orwell.  All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays.  “Charles Dickens.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. p.65

[2] Mortimer Adler.  How to Read a Book.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” 12/2014.

[4] John Lennon. “Give Peace a Chance.” Plastic Ono Band, 1969.

[5] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.13, 22.

[6] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.16.

[7] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.430-431.

[8] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. pp.15, 21.

[9] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.”  12/2014.

[10] “Georges Seurat.” Wikipedia.  Accessed 8/24/18.  “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.

[11] “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Accessed 8/24/18.

[12] “Georges Seurat.” The Art Story: Modern Art & Insight. 8/1/18.

[13] Tom Bradley. “Atomic Models.” 11/20/12.  Prezi:atomicmodels

[14] “Democritus (460-370 BCE).”  International Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed 9/3/18.

[15] George Woodcock. Anarchism. New York: World Publishing Company, 1962. p.21.

[16] “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” Art Institute.  Accessed 8/24/18.

[17] “Pissarro’s Politics: How the Neo-Impressionists Incorporated their Anarchist Beliefs.” pissaropolitics.wordpress Accessed 8/24/18.


Don’t let the bastards get you down. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

A Medieval Mystery with a Metaphysical Moral for our Time.

Burton Weltman

“[Humanity] has unquestionably one really effective weapon, laughter. 

Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution…

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Mark Twain.

The Calamitous Fourteenth Century: A Distant Mirror?

“Often the step between ecstatic vision and sinful frenzy is very brief.”                                    William of Baskerville.  The Name of the Rose.

The past is prologue according to Antonio in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Fourteenth century Europe was a tempestuous prologue to modern history according to Barbara Tuchman in her seminal book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.[1] Calamity abounded, as what we call the Middle Ages ended and the Modern Era began, with most people suffering from “plague, war, taxes, brigandage, bad government, and schism in the Church.”[2]  Politics in the fourteenth century were dominated by two arrogant and grasping powers, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope, each claiming global hegemony over men’s minds as well as their lands.[3]  Each sought dictatorial and even totalitarian control over the peoples of Europe.  Cold wars and hot wars were fought between them, and each employed institutionalized corruption to get their ways.[4]

Partisans of the Church and the Empire were divided by rigid ideology and theological frenzy. Both sides persecuted and executed opponents for their beliefs.  The Pope’s Inquisition routinely charged nonconformists with heresy and burned them at the stake.  The Emperor similarly enforced his will.  Both sides stoked fears of witchcraft on the part of the other and charging opponents with witchcraft “became a common means to bring down an enemy.” Accusation was tantamount to condemnation because denial was deemed to be proof of guilt, since that is what a witch would do, and because both the temporal and religious authorities “achieved proof by confession rather than evidence, and confession was routinely gained by torture.”  Fear of being denounced by the authorities or even one’s neighbors was pervasive and socially destructive.[5]

In Tuchman’s rendering, fourteenth century Europe was not a happy time and place.  But does the situation sound familiar?  Substitute the Soviet Union and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and you seem to have something of a mirror of the last half of the twentieth century when the Cold War raged around the world, anti-Communist witch hunts turned citizens against each other in the United States, and stoking fear and hatred brought demagogues to power.  That was Tuchman’s point.  Published in 1978, Tuchman’s book was intended as a warning about what happens when society is pervaded with demagoguery and dominated by fear.

In 1980, Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose, a novel about politics and religion during the early fourteenth century.[6]  It is a mystery story wrapped in theological, political and philosophical debates, and it is effectively a fictionalization of themes discussed in Tuchman’s history.  Like Tuchman’s book, it is also a warning about what happens when society is dominated by ideological rigidity, theological zealotry, public corruption, demagoguery and fear.

The warnings of Tuchman and Eco are still relevant today.  Substitute President Putin and President Trump for the Emperor and the Pope, substitute Russia and the United States for the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, and both books contain a warning about what might be happening to us today.  Eco might, however, also be trying in his novel to point us to a way of combating the pretensions of the Trumps, Putins and other would-be despots, and of helping to restore sanity and civility to what has been an increasingly insane and uncivil world.  And that way is through the universal propensity of people to laugh coupled with a pragmatic common sensibleness of which people seem capable no matter their cultural differences.  The purpose of this essay is to explain that interpretation of the book.

The Story: Irony and Agony in a Benedictine Monastery.

The Name of the Rose has been an international best-selling novel since its first publication in 1980 – over fifty million copies sold and counting.  It is widely considered an unusual novel to have become a best-seller.[7]  It is a hefty book, some five hundred pages long.  It is also an intellectually heavy book.  The story takes place in a fictional Benedictine monastery during the 1320’s and almost all of the characters are monks.  It is filled with abstruse theological discourse on issues that were of interest to fourteenth century Roman Catholic clergymen. There is a small amount of sex in the book, but very little, only just enough to highlight some of the theological arguments.  This does not seem to be the stuff of which best-selling novels are generally made.

The Name of the Rose is, nonetheless, a compelling book and I think that is because of the unstinting and unswerving reasonableness and good humor of the main character, William of Baskerville.  William is a Franciscan Friar who is a sleuth, scientist and philosopher rolled into one.  He is a pragmatist caught in the midst of extremists who push their ideas and actions to the point of absurdity, and beyond to disaster.  He is a rational man among zealots, and we identify with him and root for him as he lobs witticisms at the fanatics and tries to make sense of the mess around him, just as most of us hope to do in our own lives.

It is an extremely erudite and dense book.  It sets us down in an alien world full of ideas and things of which we have never heard, with people arguing passionately over obscure points equivalent to the question of how many angels can dance on the end of a pin.[8]  As a result, the novel is commonly seen as a sort of doomsday book and a postmodern portrayal of the futility of finding common ground with other people and engaging in meaningful communication with them. [9]  But, I disagree.  I think the book is actually a paean to pragmatism and good humor and, through William, it has an optimistic message, albeit wrapped in disorder, death and destruction.

The story is in the form of a long-lost manuscript purportedly written by a medieval monk named Adso which has been found, translated and published by an unnamed fictional editor.  Adso was ostensibly William of Baskerville’s sidekick and amanuensis during a trip they made to the Benedictine monastery for a meeting between representatives of the Pope and the Franciscan Order.  The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether the Franciscans should be allowed to live in absolute poverty as they contended Jesus and his disciples had done.  The manuscript consists of Adso’s notes and reconstructions of what transpired and, especially, what William said and did.  In the manuscript, Adso admits that he often did not understand the purport of William’s philosophical ideas, and it is clear to us that he didn’t.[10]

But Adso is still able to communicate William’s words to us so that we can fathom what William was saying.  That we can understand William seems to exemplify one of Eco’s points in the book that although we see each other and the world through a glass darkly, we can still see clearly enough to make pragmatic sense of things if we try.  There is a faux preface to the book by the faux editor in which he clearly does not understand the import of the book he is publishing and completely misses any comparison of the fourteenth century with today, and this seems to make the same point because we readers can see the comparison.

The Name of the Rose is a complex and complicated.  It has several plot lines and many themes. It is abstruse and hard to penetrate, which I think is consistent with the idea that we see through a glass darkly.  I think, however, that one can identify three main plot lines and two main themes in the story.  The plot lines follow William’s investigation of a series of murders at the monastery, William’s theological debates with other monks at the monastery and his disquisitions with Adso, and William’s participation in the meeting between the Pope’s delegates and the Franciscan leadership.  The themes focus on the morality of laughter and the nature of the nomenclature we use to understand things and communicate with each other.

William is at the center of each of the plot lines.  He has come to the monastery to help mediate the meeting between the Franciscans and the Pope’s representatives.  But, no sooner does he get there than the Abbot of the monastery ropes him into investigating a death that had occurred just prior to William’s arrival, and which is suspected to be a murder.  Consistent with the idea that things are not always what they seem to be, the death is eventually found to be a suicide.

William’s investigation of that death seems, nonetheless, to trigger a series of murders that are not directly connected with either the suicide or with the subject of the forthcoming meeting, but which William is now called upon to investigate.  The murders seem to follow a pattern from the Book of Revelation in the Bible and are possibly intended to signal the second coming of Jesus Christ.  This pattern is eventually found to be a red herring intended by the murderer to lead William’s investigations astray, but it is this plot line that keeps the pot boiling in the book.

In the course of his investigations, William increasingly finds a fanatical blind Benedictine monk named Jorge in his way, and the second plot line consists of theological debates among various monks but especially between William and Jorge.  The Benedictines were historically known for their scholarship, and the book’s fictional Benedictine monastery is supposedly a major repository of ancient texts.  Many of the texts were written by Greeks and Romans who were not Christians, and these texts are jealously guarded by the monks lest they get into the hands of lay people who might misinterpret them in ostensibly heretical ways.

Jorge is an arch-Benedictine who espouses Church orthodoxy and upholds the authority of Authority.  And he does so vehemently.  To Jorge, the Church is constituted by its hierarchy, not its adherents, and the truth is in Church documents, not scientific discoveries.  He claims that the purpose of scholarship should be to preserve knowledge, not to discover or invent it. He derides the quest for new knowledge as sinful “pride” that is subversive of the established Church.  Jorge accepts the literal truth of Scripture and claims it says “everything that is needed to be known.”  To him, science is evil.  “Before we looked to heaven,” he complains, “now we look to earth.”[11]

Soon after William arrives at the monastery, he encounters Jorge in a workroom in which monks were copying and illuminating holy books, and they begin their debating.  When William enters, Jorge is berating one of the illustrators for drawing on the sacred manuscripts absurdly humorous caricatures of humans and other animals which make the other monks laugh.  Jorge condemns the illustrations as distortions that denigrate God’s creation and warp men’s minds.  And he condemns their laughter as inconsistent with the seriousness of a monk’s work.

William defends the drawings as a means of contrasting what is false with what is true and, thereby, highlighting the truth.  “God can be named only through the most distorted things,” William claims, and “He shows Himself more in that which is not than in that which is.”  In turn, laughter, William contends, can be an aid to understanding.  Jorge replies that in the Gospels “Our Lord did not have to employ such things to point out the straight and narrow path to us.  Nothing in his parables arouses laughter.”  And “Christ never laughed,” Jorge concludes.  But he could have, William counters, “nothing in his human nature forbade it.”[12]

And despite Jorge’s claim that Jesus’ parables don’t provoke outright laughter, many of them were certainly witty.  This includes sayings such as “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven” and “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  The former saying disparages riches and indicates that it would be absurd to think a rich man can be good enough to get into heaven.  The latter saying turns on the fact that to a Jew such as Jesus and to the Christian followers of Jesus, everything is owed to God and there is, in effect, nothing owed to Caesar.  It would be absurd to think otherwise when dealing with a Supreme Being.  This was an irony lost on Jesus’ audience and many others since.  Both sayings are quite humorous and were historically used by Franciscans to support their position that Jesus favored Church poverty.

As their initial interchange illustrates, Jorge and William held antithetical views of scholarship and the Church.  Jorge stands for the upholding the past, William for the progressing in the present.  As an erstwhile scientist, William especially promotes the questioning of authority.  Doctrines are merely hypotheses, subject to being proved, disproved, and modified as circumstances change and different evidence emerges.  Institutions are also made to evolve as circumstances change. “Books are not made to be believed,” William explains, “but to be subject to inquiry” and that, he insists to an astonished Adso, includes even Scripture.  Knowledge can, in turn, come from many sources. The Koran, he contends, is “A book containing wisdom different from ours” but there are many things Christians can learn from Muslims.[13]

The third plot line concerns an actual conflict during the 1320’s between the Franciscan Order backed by the Emperor and the Dominican Order that administered the Inquisition for the Pope.  The story in the book is fictional but the dispute is historical.  Historically, the Franciscans were known for their relatively relaxed rules of behavior and liberal theological interpretations, and for ministering to the poor and to social outcasts.  The Dominicans were known for their theological purity and for harshly administering the Inquisition against alleged heretics. During the first part of the fourteenth century, the Franciscans and the Pope were engaged in a virulent and sometimes violent debate about whether Jesus and his disciples had lived in poverty and owned nothing, and whether monks and maybe the Church as a whole should do likewise.

The Benedictine monastery in the story is ostensibly neutral territory and is hosting a meeting between the Franciscan leadership and some representatives of the Pope on the question of whether Franciscans should be allowed to practice the poverty they attributed to Jesus.  The Pope has denied them that right, seemingly because he fears it would reflect badly on the wealth of the Church and the lavishness of his own lifestyle.  The Emperor is supporting the Franciscans merely in order to gall the Pope.  The Pope’s delegation is headed by a zealous and bloodthirsty Dominican Inquisitor named Bernard Gui, who was an actual historical person.  At the fictional meeting, William jousts with Bernard over questions of what constitutes heresy and what should be done with people who are accused of heresy.

Bernard essentially takes the position that it is better to burn a slew of innocent people at the stake than to let one guilty heretic get away.  He seems to want to execute anyone who is accused by any reputable authority of heresy, no matter what the accused has actually said or done.  He claims that the authority and integrity of the Church as an eternal institution are at stake.  To him, anything that calls the Church into question does the work of the Devil.  And Bernard implies that Franciscans who support the poverty movement might be in that number.  William responds with questions that he hopes will demonstrate the absurdity of Bernard’s position but does not directly attack Bernard for fear of getting his colleagues into trouble.  The meeting soon breaks down into shouting among the participants and nothing is resolved.

Later, speaking to Adso, William claims that people become heretics and outcasts because the Church does not address their problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.  The goal should be to reincorporate rebels back into the Church, rather than slaughtering them.  But, he continues, “The recovery of the outcasts demanded the reduction of the privileges of the powerful,” which is why the powers-that-be in the Church prefer to kill rebels as heretics.  When Adso remarks that it seems the Church “accuses all its adversaries of heresy,” William replies that the Church also “recognizes as orthodoxy any heresy it can bring under its control.” Cynicism, William claims, lays behind the faith proclaimed by the Church.  In the holy scheme of things, William contends, “The faith a movement proclaims doesn’t count; what counts is the hope it offers.”  And that is where the Church is failing, he concludes.[14]

It turns out in the end that Jorge is behind the murders. He has been attempting to keep anyone from reading a long-lost book on comedy and laughter that Aristotle had written.  Among medieval theologians and philosophers, Aristotle was a revered pre-Christian philosopher, widely known as The Philosopher.  Jorge was afraid that if Aristotle’s book became public knowledge, it would place a stamp of approval on laughter and humor, which he believes are tools of the Devil.  Jorge arranges things so that any monk who even briefly possesses the book dies almost immediately.  Tellingly, although Jorge thinks the book is evil, he has been too much of a scholar to simply destroy it.

William discovers the truth about the murders but it is too late to avoid further tragedy.  Jorge gains a Pyrrhic victory over William when he destroys the book and the whole monastery in a fire that kills most of the learned monks, destroys all of the other precious books, and also kills himself.  William and Adso escape the inferno.

The Morality of Mirth: Laughter is not a Laughing Matter.

“The Devil is the arrogance of the Spirit, faith without a smile, truth that is never seized by doubt.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

The Name of the Rose is a dense book with many themes.  I think, however, that one can identify two main interrelated themes that run through the book.  They can be characterized as the morality of mirth – whether laughter is a moral or immoral act — and the metaphysical nuances of nomenclature – what we mean when we call something by a name.

The Name of the Rose is not a funny book. It tells a grim story set in a particularly vicious time and place in history. The story mainly consists of serious philosophical discussions that are periodically punctuated by gruesome murders.  The book is, nonetheless, dominated by laughter, laughter as a subject of theological dispute and laughter at the wit and witticisms of the author Eco and the main character William of Baskerville.  William is a proponent and exemplar of laughter whose name is itself a witty reference by Eco to Sherlock Holmes.

Laughter is a common response to disorder.  When things are not what they are supposed to be, it may be distressing but it can also be humorous.  Laughing can be a way of distancing yourself from the pain of an undesirable person or unwanted event by seeing the situation as ridiculous and, therefore, less threatening.  Self-awareness is a key to laughter.  In laughing at a situation, you can see yourself as both in but not of the situation.  That is, you must be able to rise above the situation and see yourself in the midst of others but also apart from them.

Aristotle, whose philosophy dominated the Middle Ages and is at the center of the philosophical discussions in The Name of the Rose, defined humans as animals that can laugh.  Until recently, we humans generally thought that we were the only ones who could laugh.  Aristotle and most people believed that other animals were merely automatons and were creatures of instinct and blind causality.  They were supposedly without self-awareness and, therefore, without laughter.  We now know differently, that other animals are aware of themselves as individuals, can make choices about their lives, and seemingly can laugh.  But laughter is still a universal human characteristic.  People everywhere laugh.

Laughter is a moral issue because it can be an expression either of smug certainty and pride or of doubt and humility.  In its former form, it is often seen as immoral.  In its latter form, it is often seen as a moral virtue.  Philosophers have differed through the ages on the relative virtues and viciousness of laughter, a debate that is played out by William and Jorge in Eco’s novel.

Philosophers and psychologists have categorized laughter in various ways but two theories seem to stand out as most commonly used, the Superiority Theory and the Incongruity Theory.[15]  The Superiority Theory was promoted by Plato, Descartes, Hobbes and others who denounced laughter as immoral.  In this view, laughter is a means of denigrating a person and asserting superiority over him.  Comedy is laughing at a fool and making him feel bad.

Plato rejected laughter as an emotional outburst in which the laugher loses rational control of himself and both the laugher and the target of the laughter are denigrated. Among Christians, Saints Jerome, Ambrose and John of Chrysostom rejected laughter as proudful, uncharitable and unholy.  Saint Benedict, who composed the rules by which most medieval monasteries operated, banned laughter among monks as inconsistent with the seriousness of their vocation.

The Incongruity Theory was promoted by Aristotle, Kant and Kierkegaard among others.  It emphasizes laughter that is about something, rather than aimed at someone.  In this theory, laughter is an expression of surprise and wonder at some unexpected or inconsistent turn of events.  In contradistinction to Plato’s Superiority Theory, Aristotle defined funny as “a mistake or unseemliness that is not painful or destructive.” In this theory, comedy is laughing at foolishness, to which we are all potentially prone, and laughter is a recognition of the absurd contradictions in ourselves, life and the universe.[16]  Summarizing this position, the philosopher John Morreall claims that “Comedy embodies an anti-heroic, pragmatic attitude toward life’s incongruities.”[17]  In this theory, laughter is benign, useful, and a source of humility, not pride.

What are we to make of the incongruity between these two theories?  Laugh, I suppose, but maybe also see them as complementary rather than contradictory.  Instead of focusing on whether the joke is on someone or is about something, we might focus instead on the power relations between the laugher and the target of his laughing.  In particular, we might distinguish between laughter that is intended to afflict the oppressed while comforting the oppressor, and laughter that is intended to comfort the oppressed while afflicting the oppressor.  That is, we can distinguish between the laughter of the bully who seeks to put down someone weaker than himself from the laughter of the downtrodden who seek to take down the bully. It is a difference between the laughter of repression versus the laughter of rebellion.

Based on this distinction, laughter can lay at the root of morality because it can help enforce the Golden Rule.  Some version of what we call the Golden Rule – the admonition to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is part of virtually every culture in world history.  Rejecting the laughter of bullies while encouraging laughter at them can help promote the Golden Rule ideal of treating others fairly and as family.  As the philosopher Jacqueline Bissel puts it: “Laughter can interrupt the banality of evil.”[18]  William represents this position in The Name of the Rose.

It is, of course, not merely dour philosophers who disparage and discourage laughter.  History is full of powerful people who fear the subversive nature of laughter and try to discourage it.  There are also people who would suppress the self-awareness in others that makes laughter possible.  Ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs often seek to overwhelm the selves of their followers and absorb them into whatever causes they are promoting.  Religious cults and revolutionary political parties are notorious examples.  They try to root out independent thinking and feeling in their adherents, and generally oppose laughter as inconsistent with the deadly seriousness of their causes.  Many would disparage the Golden Rule in the name of zero-sum competition in what they see as a dog-eat-dog world or in the name of battling heretics and sinners in what they see as a world full of evil.  Jorge and Bernard Gui represent this position in the book.

The Absurdity Test and Speaking Humor to Power: You laughing at me?

“Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from the passion for truth.” William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

In The Name of the Rose, the case for laughter is espoused and exemplified by William of Baskerville who contrasts with the ideologues, fanatics and megalomaniacs he mixes with at the monastery.  In the course of his investigations of the murders, his debates with Jorge, and his involvement in the meetings between the Franciscans and the emperor’s representatives, he practices what might be called an absurdity test.

An absurdity test is a way of evaluating your own ideas and actions and those of others in order to decide whether they are laughable.  It requires you to conduct thought experiments about the potential results of a belief or action in the event it was extended to its practical and logical limits.  If the long-term results of extending it are practically or logically absurd, that is, if they are laughable, then the results are unacceptable, and you must modify or limit your belief or action.  It is a pragmatic test of the workability of an idea or action, and it tends you toward Aristotle’s Golden Mean which is a middle way of thinking and acting.

A premise of the absurdity test is that people, and especially powerful people, do not like to be laughed at.  The test is an appeal to their humility – maybe I could be wrong — but also to their vanity – I don’t want to look like a fool.  The hope is that people, and especially those in positions of power, will apply the absurdity test to themselves.  William applies this test to himself in his investigation of the murders when he realizes he has fallen for the red herring left by the murderer and laughs at himself for being fooled.

But if powerful people don’t apply the test to themselves, the test should be applied to them by others.  If the Emperor has no clothes, or the Pope has too many, people have a moral obligation to laugh at them, or at least snicker.  That is what William does in the story as he tries to demonstrate to people around him, and especially to the theological and political powers-that-be, the absurdity of their fixed and narrow-minded ideas.

The Metaphysical Nuances of Nomenclature: What’s in a name?

The dispute between Jorge and William about laughter relates to the medieval debate about universals, which was one of the biggest issues in philosophy during the fourteenth century.  A universal is that which particular things have in common.  It is a general idea that groups or connects particular things.  White things, for example, have whiteness in common.  Humans have humanness in common.  Nearby things have closeness in common.  The nature of universals is a question that occupies William in his debates with Jorge and Bernard.

The philosophical question was about the metaphysical status of general ideas.  The question was whether universals exist as things in their own right or are merely names that are arbitrarily given to groups of things.  Does the general idea of things precede the particular things that are covered by that general idea, or do the particular things precede the general idea that they have in common?  On its face, this question seems to have the unsolvable quality of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”   But it is, in fact, solvable, albeit in different ways that have significant theological, social and moral ramifications, including on the meaning and morality of laughter.

The debate over the metaphysical status of general ideas goes back to ancient times and continues in the present day. There were three main ways in which universals were considered during the fourteenth century.  These ways were what are called ontological realism, nominalism, and conceptualism.[19]

To try to simplify a very complicated debate, ontological realism holds that universals are things in themselves that precede the particular instances of those things.  The idea of whiteness, for example, ostensibly came first, white things came second.  And the idea of man came before any actual men.  Among the ancients, Plato claimed that “There is a heavenly realm of greater reality consisting in forms, ideals, or ideas.” He promoted an extreme version of ontological realism in which universals were ostensibly abstract objects that existed in a world of their own.

Nominalism holds that universals are merely arbitrary names that we give to groups of things.  White things came first, the word whiteness is an arbitrary term that we apply to them.  Heraclitus, who famously claimed that “You cannot step in the same river twice,” held an extreme form of nominalism that bordered on nihilism.

Conceptualism holds that universals are names that we give to groups of things, but the names are not arbitrary and, in fact, conform to the reality of those things.  White things came first, but the term whiteness is not arbitrary and conforms with concrete reality of whiteness.  Aristotle, who proclaimed that “Virtue is found in the Golden Mean,” took a characteristically middle position between nominalism and realism.  Aristotle believed in the reality of universals but insisted that they be supported by concrete evidence.

Aristotle’s was a pragmatic and scientific approach to universals.  In this approach, you can subject general ideas to an absurdity test and laugh if the results are absurd. General ideas that work are acceptable.  Those that don’t work aren’t.  During the early Middle Ages, Aristotle was generally thought in Europe to be an ontological realist, but by the fourteenth century, with an infusion of new knowledge of him from the Arabs, he was frequently being cited as a conceptualist.[20]

Interpreters of The Name of the Rose have differed in whether they think Eco is opting in the book in favor of nominalism or conceptualism through the character of William of Baskerville.  And they have differed in where they think the name of the book comes from and what it means.  Eco was characteristically cryptic and ambiguous about the origins of the book’s name.  Among critics, the two leading candidates seem to be Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose” and Juliette’s “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.”[21]  I don’t think that either of these sayings captures the meaning of the book.

Stein said that her phrase was a reference to the language of the fourteenth century poet Chaucer and to his times when, she claimed, if you had a word for a thing or said the word for a thing, you concluded that the thing must really exist.  Stein was, in effect, saying that her phrase was an exercise in ontological realism, the orthodox metaphysics of the fourteenth century.  As such, I don’t think her phrase reflects the meaning of the book because I think it is clear that Eco is not promoting and William is not espousing ontological realism.

Shakespeare’s Juliette is a thirteen-year-old girl who is in the first stages of infatuation with Romeo, a young man from the wrong family background.  She is not a philosopher and she is almost certainly wrong in what she proposes.  Her statement about the smell of roses is preceded by a plea for Romeo to “Deny thy father and refuse thy name.” And he responds “Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”  Taken together, their statements about the name of Romeo and the smell of roses reflect an extreme nominalism that is wrong-headed on at least three counts.

First, Juliette seems to think that if Romeo changed his name, he would somehow be purged of his family background.  And he thinks likewise.  That is clearly not the case.  By any name, he would still be a person with the wrong family background.  Second, if Romeo were to reject his family background by changing his name, he would effectively be changing himself.  He would be saying to himself as well as others that he does not want to be the person he was when he was named Romeo, and he would no longer smell as he had when Juliette fell for him.  Third, if Romeo rejected his name and family background, he would be rejecting the form of himself that she fell in love with, which is the rose that she thinks is so sweet. Names make a difference both as to what a thing is and to how we respond to it.  If Romeo’s name had been Satan, wouldn’t it have made a difference in him if he had been forced to grow up with the name of Satan and mightn’t she have reacted differently to him?  Just think of the song “A boy named Sue.”

I think a better candidate for the meaning of the book’s name is a poem by Robert Frost called “The Rose Family.”  It goes: “The rose is a rose, and always was a rose.  But the theory goes that the apple’s a rose, and the pear, and so’s the plum.  The dear only knows what will next prove a rose.  You, of course, are a rose – But were always a rose.”  The factual point of the poem is that fruit such as apples are in the botanical family of rose plants.  The ontological point seems to be that the name “rose” is a tool with which we make sense of the world.  But it does not have a fixed meaning.  Its meaning changes as we discover new things that botanically fall within the category.  Frost’s is a conceptualist view that fits with a pragmatic philosophy, and that fosters humility – we can never know everything or adhere to fixed categories – and a sense of humor – what we say today may seem absurd tomorrow.  This is, I think, the view that is being promoted in the book by Eco and espoused by William.

In addition to evidence provided by the book’s name, the arc of the book’s narrative seems to tend toward conceptualism.  Adso begins his narrative with the opening words of the Gospel of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  This statement can be characterized as the ontological realist’s credo.  Words come first, concrete reality comes after.

But Adso ends his narrative with a Latin phrase that translates as “The ancient rose remains by its name, naked names are all that we have.”  This is a conceptualist conclusion as well as another potential source of the book’s title.  The phrase seems to mean that words are a function of concrete reality, but when the reality is gone, we still have the words and we can try to gain meaning from them.  Adso has said in the lines just before this closing phrase that “I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about.”  The pragmatic and conceptualist point is that he has left the manuscript for posterity and that is us, and we can understand it and make use of it as best we can.[22]

Nominally nominalist; conceptually conceptualist; pragmatically pragmatist.

“The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”                                       William of Baskerville. The Name of the Rose.

Ontological realism was the metaphysical and theological orthodoxy in the fourteenth century.  As a general rule, ontological realism tends to support any orthodoxy at any time because it holds to a fixed and immutable set of general categories.  The world is the way it is because it was made that way.  Whatever is, is right.  This is the position of Jorge in the novel.  In this view, if anyone questions any of the conventional categories or orthodox ideas, that person is guilty of both heresy – undermining the Truth – and treason – undermining established institutions.  Laughter and even irony are forbidden because they are inherently subversive.  And there is no absurdity test because extremism in defense of orthodoxy is no vice.  A deadly seriousness is the ideal attitude.  This is the position of the Inquisitor Bernard Gui.

William of Baskerville disagrees with the ontological realists.  And in his debates with the other monks and his discussions with Adso, William espouses the views of many of the most progressive thinkers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries in Europe who opposed ontological realism, in particular the scientist Roger Bacon, the metaphysician William of Ockham, and the political philosopher Marsilius of Padua.  William is a fictional character but he expresses the views of actual people who figured prominently in the intellectual life of that time, and who figured especially in opposition to the scientific, political, theological, and philosophical orthodoxies of the day.  The book is a mixture of the factual and the fictional but it is the facts that constitute the main point behind the fiction.

William says that he is particularly indebted to Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius.  Each of them was a Franciscan, as ostensibly is William.  Franciscans and people who used the Franciscan name as cover were often involved in many unorthodox movements during this time, including the Franciscans’ poverty movement.  Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius, in turn, acknowledged deep intellectual debts to ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, especially Aristotle, as well as to contemporary Arab Muslim scholars from whom they got much of their knowledge about Aristotle.  This cultural interchange and indebtedness is highlighted by William in the novel and seems intended by Eco to promote the idea that there is a pragmatic commonality among the best thinkers from different cultures.

Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius all operated within the assumptions of the Catholic Middle Ages, which included adherence to the one and only Roman Catholic Church and its Scriptures. Nonetheless, they promoted ideas that point towards the Renaissance and the Reformation, which are widely considered by historians to mark the beginning of modern history. The fact that these men could intellectually look backwards to ancient cultures, look sideways to contemporary Arabic cultures, and point forwards to modern culture so that we can understand, argue and agree with them today, seems again to support the idea that a common pragmatic reasonableness can emerge from many different cultural frameworks. This is an idea that underlies what I think is the optimism of the book despite its tragic events.

Roger Bacon, who William considers his intellectual forefather, was a late thirteenth century Franciscan whose work as an alchemist and scientist emphasized proving hypotheses through empirical evidence.[23]  Conventional medieval science was based on ontological realism and the reality of universal general ideas. Given this foundation, medieval scientists often arrived at conclusions that were based on deductions from mere assumptions, assumptions drawn from the realists’ storehouse of universals.  Bacon rejected this methodology as absurd. He insisted that propositions be proven through evidence.  Assumptions were mere hypotheses, not reality. And reality was physical evidence, not mere ideas.

Based on new translations from Arabic of Aristotle’s works on science, Bacon rejected ontological realism and leaned toward nominalism.  “A universal,” Bacon claimed, “is nothing but the agreement of many individuals,” that is, general ideas are derived from individual experiences and must be supported by a mass of evidence to prove them.  General ideas don’t precede individual experiences and don’t exist in a world of their own.  Bacon’s scientific and ontological ideas flew in the face of Church orthodoxy.  In addition, he was sympathetic with the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order. As a consequence, Bacon was frequently chastised by the Church hierarchy and even imprisoned for his views.[24]

William also considers William of Ockham to be a mentor and a friend.[25] Ockham was a Franciscan of the early fourteenth century whose ontological theories went even further than Bacon’s in rejecting universals and moving toward nominalism.  In the debates of his time, Ockham frequently bested his opponents through performing the sort of thought experiments that I have called absurdity tests, and thereby hoisting them on their own petards.

In objecting to ontological realism, Ockham argued, for example, that the idea of an all-powerful God in which all Catholics believed was inconsistent with the orthodox idea of universals.  Ontological realism, he said, holds that the general idea of a thing has a real existence of its own, that the general idea precedes any individual examples of the thing, and that the general idea exists irrespective of any individual examples of the thing.  So, he said, according this theory, if we were to posit the general idea of “man” as a universal, an all-powerful God could abolish all individual and actual men but the universal idea of “man” would still exist as a real thing. This, he said, was absurd.  Either God cannot do this because He is not really all-powerful, or the universal idea of “man” does not exist as a real thing.  Since the former conclusion is blasphemous, the latter must be the case.  In the alternative, Ockham added, God could abolish the universal idea of “man” but leave intact all the individual men without any general idea of what is a man, which is also absurd.  The only reasonable conclusion, Ockham claimed, is that general ideas are mental concepts constructed out of actual experiences, which is nominalism.

Ockham was also unorthodox on other theological and moral issues that are reflected in William’s positions in the book.  Ockham argued, for example, that intent determined the morality of an action, not the action itself.  This position put him at odds with orthodox Catholic doctrine which held that various sacramental acts, such as baptism, confession, and others, were keys to morality.  The intent to do these things was not sufficient if they weren’t actually done.  Ockham’s view that intent was sufficient was considered heretical.

Even more significantly, Ockham rejected the Pope’s claim to hegemony over the Christian world.  Ockham claimed that Church and State should be separate but equal domains, and that no one man, not even God’s vicar the Pope, should rule over all things. The Pope is, after all, only a man and there should be checks and balances on the power of men.  Ockham was, in addition, at odds with the Pope in supporting the poverty movement within the Franciscan Order.  Given the radicalism of his views, Ockham was frequently chastised by the Pope and was eventually excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[26]

Finally, William is portrayed as a colleague of Marsilius of Padua. Marsilius was a Franciscan who took even further Ockham’s ideas that Church and State should be separate and that no one man should have absolute power.  He claimed that the Church consisted of the body of believers and was not constituted by the Pope and the Church hierarchy.  The Church was not a universal that existed on its own and that somehow preceded its members but was a concept created in the minds of its members and constituted by their persons.

Subjecting orthodox Church doctrine to what I have termed an absurdity test, Marsilius claimed that if the Church was constituted by its hierarchy, then theoretically it could exist without members, which is absurd.  The Church is an idea and institution that is conceptualized and realized by its members.  Marsilius similarly insisted that the State consisted of its citizens and was not constituted by the Emperor and the aristocracy. Even more radically, he believed that the government of both the Church and the State should consist of councils of ordinary people, which was a fundamentally democratic idea.  Like Ockham, Marsilius was excommunicated and persecuted as a heretic.[27]

In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco brings the ideas of Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius together through the character of William of Baskerville.  William repeatedly references them or paraphrases their arguments in his statements.  Mirroring Ockham, William rejects universals because they “would imply that God is their prisoner,” which is absurd.  He insists that everything must be open to questioning and reinterpreting, even the Holy Scriptures.  No one, not even the Pope, had the absolute truth or the last word on Scripture.  And William subjects Scripture to what I have termed an absurdity test and concludes that “the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.”  Scripture is couched in human words.  If God is restricted to our words and our interpretation of those words, then even if they were inspired by God, we are saying that we can define and restrict God and that we are more powerful than God.  That is either blasphemous or foolishness.[28]

At the same time, William rejected as absurd the extreme positions of people, including some of his fellow Franciscans, who took nominalism to the point of anarchism and even nihilism, which some in the book do.  Extreme nominalism in which everything has its own name, and there are no general ideas, is unworkable because it “creates an infinity of new entities,” which is absurd.  Like Ockham, his solution to the problem of universals is a conceptualism in which individual things are mentally grouped into general ideas.  Like Bacon, he proposes to start his analysis of any problem with hypotheses — “Imagine many general laws” — and then follow the facts to his conclusions.  And like Marsilius, William concludes “That for the management of human affairs it is not the Church that should legislate but the assembly of the people.” [29]

Reformers and Reactionaries: The Empire invariably strikes back, but don’t panic.

“If you find it hard to laugh at yourself, I would be happy to do it for you.”             Groucho Marx.

It seems that it is always the best of times and worst of times, only sometimes the best are better and the worst are worse.  I am writing this essay during July, 2018.  Right now, it seems to be a worst of times in many places in the world.  But, who knows?  The events in The Name of the Rose ostensibly took place during the 1320’s and things looked as though they couldn’t get much worse.  But they did.  The Black Plague hit in the 1340’s and killed off a third of Europe’s people.  It seemed then as though things would never get better and the world would go out with a whimper. But it didn’t. The Renaissance happened instead.  And so on and on, back and forth between reformers and reactionaries, and between better and worse times to the present day.

Our hero William was defeated in the book.  His mentors Bacon, Ockham, and Marsilius were defeated in their time.  Bernard Gui, the Inquisitor, was triumphant both in fact and in the fiction.  But who today remembers, let alone celebrates, Bernard Gui?  Meanwhile, Bacon, Ockham and Marsilius are widely known and highly celebrated.  And that, I think, is the ultimate point of the novel.  The pragmatic and common sensible ideas that those thinkers gleaned from the ancients and developed further within their own medieval culture have been passed down to modern times and developed further within ours.  Those ideas bucked the conventional wisdom and faced opposition from emperors and fanatics in ancient times, then again in medieval times, and still again in our modern times.  But the ideas have survived.  And although these same pragmatic ideas and common sensible attitudes are under assault today by a host of would-be emperors with the support of modern day fanatics, we cannot let the bastards get us down.

When we find ourselves on a downward slope, we should remember that every slope isn’t slippery, and that laughter can check a free fall. History repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” Karl Marx intoned in 1852 when comparing the newly crowned French Emperor Napoleon III with his celebrated ancestor the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Applying what I have called an absurdity test to Napoleon III, Marx proceeded to heap serious ridicule on the buffoonish erstwhile emperor, and that is largely how he is remembered today.  Napoleon III was pathetic and might have been an object of pity if he had not been doing so much harm that he became an object of sarcasm and scorn instead.[30]  It is the same with Donald Trump today.  How awful it must be to be him.  Nonetheless, when dealing with the would-be emperor Trump, we should proceed as Marx did with Napoleon III, and maybe Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel can show us the way to help bring him down.

B.W. 7/2018


[1] Barbara Tuchman. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. New York: Ballantine Books, 1978.

[2] Ibid. p.XIII.

[3] Ibid. p.306.

[4] Ibid. p.26-30.

[5] Ibid. p.43.

[6] Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose. New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1980.  

[7]  Ted Gioia. “The Nature of the Rose.”  New Angles on an Old Genre.

[8] Kenneth Atchity. “’The Times’ 1983 review of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: An intriguing detective story.” The Los Angeles Times, 2/20/2016.

[9] “The Name of the Rose.”

[10] Eco. op. cit. p.11.

[11] Eco. op. cit. pp.400, 472.

[12] Eco. op. cit. pp.77-81, 95..

[13] Eco. op. cit. pp.116, 315 -316.

[14] Eco. op. cit. 202-204.

[15] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[16] Jessica Wahrman.  Quoting Santayana in “’We Are All Mad Here’: Santayana and the Significance of Humor.” Contemporary Pragmatism, Vol.2, No.2. 12/2005.

[17] John Morreall. “Philosophy of Humor.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9/28/2016.

[18] Susannah Laramee Kidd.  Quoting Jacqueline Bissel in “Review of The Laughter of the Oppressed by Jacqueline Bissell.” April, 2009.

[19] Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra. “Nominalism in Metaphysics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015.

[20] Jonathan Barnes. Aristotle: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.pp.71-74.

[21] “The Name of the Rose.”

[22] Eco. op. cit. pp.11, 502.

[23] Eco. op. cit. p.17.

[24] Jeremiah Hackett. “Roger Bacon.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Spring, 2015.

[25] Eco. op. cit. p.18.

[26] Rondo Keele. Ockham Explained: From Razor to Rebellion. Chicago: Open Court Pub. Co., 2010.

[27] Bertrand Russell. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1943.

[28] Eco. op. cit. pp.207, 493.

[29] Eco. op. cit. pp.206-208, 262-263, 304.

[30] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.

From Phallus to Phalanx. Is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy? The End of a Heroic Age.

From Phallus to Phalanx.

Is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy?

The End of a Heroic Age.


Burton Weltman


“The tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of

[Shakespeare’s] performances.”   Samuel Johnson.


When is a Tragedy a Comedy?  Telling a fool from a hero.

The main thesis of this essay is that Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Coriolanus would be better played and more meaningful if it were read as a dark comedy rather than as a tragedy.  That sounds like nonsense and even blasphemy against the sacred Shakespearean canon.  I think, however, that the definitions of tragedy and comedy are fuzzy and flexible enough, and that Shakespeare’s writings are complex and multidimensional enough, to make that thesis plausible.

One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is that you can read the lines and play the scenes in many different ways that legitimately represent the original text.  And you can come up with different meanings depending on how you say, stage and act the words.  Shakespeare also liked to play around the edges of story forms, combining and overlapping different genres to produce intricate dramas.  It is in that context that I contend Coriolanus is a comedy.

Story forms can be categorized into three main types – melodrama, comedy, and tragedy.[1]  Melodrama is the predominant story form in our society and the form in which most people instinctively react to adversity.  It is a story of good against bad, good guys against bad guys.  “Who is doing this to me and how can I defeat them” is the first reaction of most people to a problem.  This reaction is essentially the “fright, then fight or flight” reaction that we have inherited from of our piglet-like precursors who had to make their way in a world of giant carnivores.  It is a function of the brain stem, the earliest and least sophisticated portion of the human brain which we inherited from those puny ancestors.  Comedy and tragedy are more complex reactions that derive from the cerebral cortex which evolved later in humanoids.[2]

Comedy is generally defined as a story of wisdom versus folly, wise people versus foolish people.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools,” and the solution is for the wise to teach or restrain the fools so that they can do no further damage.[3]  Comedy involves conflicts and struggles but the action is usually peaceful, although it can become violent and even fatal.  The humor in a comedy stems from our recognition of the stupidity of the characters.  A comedy may have a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the fools learn their lesson and whether violence is avoided.

Tragedy can be defined as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a potential disaster.  The character’s tragic flaw is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, that the world may contain competing goods, and that an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his personal limits and reconcile contradictions within herself, within his society or between herself and society. The goal of tragedy is for the tragic hero and the audience to recognize the narrowness of the hero’s perspective – recognition of the character’s flaw at the end of the story by the character and the audience is a key to this narrative form [4]

The lines between melodrama, comedy and tragedy are not hard and fast, and the story forms overlap in many respects.  Each, for example, can contain elements of stupidity, conflict, violence, and pride, and each can have an unhappy ending.  Too much of one element can transform one story form into another.  Too much conflict, for instance, could turn a comedy into a melodrama, and too much stupidity can turn a comedy into a tragedy.

Shakespeare often wrote so-called comedies that can be read as bordering on melodrama.  For example, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine can be seen as misogynistic and malevolent. In The Merchant of Venice, the treatment of Shylock by Antonio and Portia can be read as cruel and un-Christian.  In The Comedy of Errors, the treatment of foreigners and slaves can be interpreted as brutal and brutish.  Read in these ways these plays should perhaps be called comic melodramas or, at least, melodramatic or dark comedies.

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies also have endings that may superficially look happy but seem to contain within them the seeds of future melodramatic conflicts and even disasters.  The Taming of the Shrew, for example, ends with Kate making peace by seemingly subordinating herself to her husband, but it looks like a fragile and temporary peace at best.  Likewise, the marriages at the end of The Merchant of Venice look like the prelude to future marital conflicts between manipulative women and macho men, and the likelihood of unfunny abuse.

Comedy can also border on tragedy, and too much stupidity and too little dignity can turn what purports to be a tragedy into a comedy.  I think this is what happens in Coriolanus. As described by Aristotle, a tragic hero is someone who suffers from hubris or excessive pride, makes an error of judgment as a result of his hubris, suffers a serious reversal of fortune which is greater than he deserves, and then recognizes that his downfall was his own fault.  Applying these criteria to Coriolanus, Coriolanus clearly suffers from excessive pride and makes serious errors of judgment based on his overweening pride, but I do not think that he suffers a downfall out of proportion to his faults or that he ever recognizes that his downfall is his own fault.  And his boorish behavior and outlandish language do not befit tragedy.

Coriolanus can best be seen, I think, as a comic fool, not a tragic hero, and that, I contend, is what makes Coriolanus important for us today.  Shakespeare was dramatizing the end of an age of individualistic heroes and the beginning of an age in which cooperation among common people was imperative.  We live in an era in which proponents of an anachronistic individualism are battling to stop a similar pro-social transformation and turn the clock back a hundred years to a Social Darwinian struggle of each against all.  Coriolanus is a play that can help us understand those people and help us stop their retrograde political, social, and intellectual programs.

The Relevance of Coriolanus: Putting Things in a Historical Context.

“But no man’s a hero to himself.”  Ray Bradbury.

Unless he is Coriolanus, King James I, or Donald Trump. And therein lies a tale worth telling.

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus is the story of a renowned Roman warrior who lived in the fifth century BCE. The play deals with real historical people and events.  It is based on Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.[5]  The play focuses on the personality and actions of Coriolanus and on his interactions with the common people of Rome in a time of widespread popular protests against food shortages and almost continuous warfare between the Romans and their Volscian neighbors.

Although the play is full of action, colorful characters, and biting dialogue, scholars have noted that Coriolanus “has not, on the whole, been a popular play, either on the stage or with the literary critics,”[6] and has been called Shakespeare’s “most neglected play.”[7]  It is not widely read or performed.  I think that is unfortunate because the play is eminently relevant to events in our world today.  There seem to be two main reasons for the play’s unpopularity.

The first reason is the repulsive personality of its main character, Coriolanus. He is characterized by an overweening egotism, a derogatory attitude almost everyone around him, and an unwillingness or inability to keep from violently insulting anyone who differs with him.  As the ostensible hero of this play, most people find it hard to identify with someone as obnoxious as Coriolanus. The second reason for the play’s unpopularity is the way the common people are portrayed, which is generally seen as anti-democratic and, as such, objectionable to modern-day democratically inclined audiences. [8]

I think, however, that reading the play as anti-democratic and as a tragedy misses its main points and its relevance for us today.  Shakespeare lived at a time of significant changes in England from a still largely medieval society to an incipient modern society.  These changes met with considerable resistance and conflict.  Shakespeare was aware of the changes and conflicts, and he wrote about them in many of his plays, sometimes explicitly, other times implicitly.  Coriolanus, which was completed in 1608 during the early years of the reign of King James I, portrays political and social changes and conflicts that took place in fifth century BCE Rome which reflect similar changes and conflicts that were taking place in early seventeenth century England.

Both societies were moving from dictatorial to more popular forms of government, from isolated monocultures to more inclusive and diverse cultures, and from more individualistic to more socialized institutions of war and peace.  The relevance of the play is that changes and conflicts of this sort have been taking place over the past century in the United States and much of the western world. In seeing the play as an anti-democratic tragedy, I think that interpreters fail to take fully into consideration the changes that were taking place in ancient Rome and Stuart England and in so doing, they misinterpret the personal and political implications of the play.

In my opinion, the play is better read as a dark comedy.  In this view, Coriolanus is not a tragic hero but an arrogant ass who is the chief fool in the play, and the play includes an implicit but daring criticism of James I.  The play is not anti-democratic but a plea for balance in government and justice to the lower classes.  The noxiousness of Coriolanus is one of the things that made the play relevant to people in Shakespeare’s day and makes it relevant to us today.

The Plot: A Vicious or Virtuous Cycle of Debate?

The basic plot of Coriolanus is fairly simple. The backstory of the play is that Coriolanus, whose given name is Martius, after the Roman god of war, has been raised by his mother to be a proud and valiant warrior with an inflexible personality.  She is a true Valkyrie who would love to be a warrior herself.  The play opens with an argument between some plebian citizens involved in protesting food shortages and Menenius representing the patricians who control the food.  The plebians want the government to make food available to the hungry people, which the patricians resist on the grounds that it is their food.  Martius intervenes to denounce the protesters and call for them all to be hanged.  How one interprets who has the better of the argument in this scene is crucial to how one views the play.

Shortly thereafter, Martius performs heroic individual military feats in defeating the Volscians and taking the city of Corioles.  He is given the name Coriolanus in honor of his heroics.  He then repeatedly rejects any special payment for his service to Rome because he considers himself above any kind of service to the state.  He does what he does because he wants to do it.   He considers any reward to be demeaning, as though he were for hire and acting heroically for pay.

Based on Coriolanus’ military heroics, the patricians propose elevating him to be a counsul, which was one of the two chief executives in the Roman government.  An assembly of the plebians initially approves this appointment.  But then they hear of his refusal to share food with the populace and his plans to eliminate the newly created position of tribune, which gave the plebians a say in government.  Coriolanus repeatedly insults the plebians and their tribunes and rejects the idea that as counsul he would be serving them.  He considers himself above doing service to anyone, let alone a bunch of lowly plebians.

The plebians retract their approval of Coriolanus’ appointment as consul and conduct a trial in which they find him guilty of treason based on his plans to abolish the tribunes and thereby overthrow the established government, a crime for which he could be executed.  But because of his prior heroic service to the state, which ironically Coriolanus refuses to acknowledge as service to the state, the tribunes decide to spare his life and exile him instead. The government then distributes food to the hungry populace, much to Coriolanus’ disdain and chagrin.

In exile, Coriolanus spitefully offers his services to the Volscians whose leader literally welcomes him with open arms.  Coriolanus then leads a Volscian army toward Rome with the vengeful intent of ransacking the city and killing its inhabitants.  He rejects pleas from former Roman friends to spare the city from annihilation but eventually responds positively to a plea from his mother.  Coriolanus decides to go back on his agreement with the Volscians and spare Rome. How the scene with his mother is played is also crucial to interpreting the play. The play ends with Coriolanus being killed by the Volscians as a turncoat.

Coriolanus is a talky play, chock full of personal and political debating.  People are continually debating the virtues and vices of Coriolanus and the pros and cons of popular government.  The weight of the debate continually swings back and forth between fear of tyranny and fear of mob rule, and between concern for the personal problems of Coriolanus and the political problems of Rome.[9]  The debaters circle around and around so much that many critics are flummoxed as to what Shakespeare intends.[10]

I think this confusion is to a large extent a result of interpreters trying to fit the debates into the serious story form of a tragedy instead of a comedy in which most of the characters are confused and many of them are fools, even if they are dangerous.  Most of the debates are conducted in hyperbole, and most of the speeches should be played as overblown and somewhat ridiculous.  Among the main characters, only the Roman general Cominius stands out as a voice of reason and reasonableness who tries to bridge the gaps among the arguing parties.

So, is the play a virtuous cycle of debate that leads to the softening of Coriolanus and the salvation of Rome?  Or is it a vicious cycle that culminates in a hardening of Coriolanus’ pride and an exacerbation of the class struggle in Rome?  Explicating the historical contexts in which Coriolanus lived and in which Shakespeare wrote can help answer these questions.

Coriolanus in Ancient and Modern Historical Context.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”           Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Developments in fifth century BCE Rome paralleled developments in seventeenth century England and that, I think, is a key indicator as to what Shakespeare intended with this play.  Rome in the fifth century BCE was politically moving from a kingship to an aristocratic republic with some democratic elements.  We see in the course of the play Coriolanus the beginnings of the development of the basic ideologies and institutions – the autocratic consuls who stood in place of a king, the patrician senate that represented the rich, and the democratic tribunes and general assemblies of plebian citizens – that were the foundation of the Roman Republic for the next four hundred years.  They were also the source of almost continuous conflict as the social classes represented in each of those institutions vied for power over the others.  Much of the cycle of debate in the play revolves around whether Rome will be ruled by a dictator, for which position Coriolanus was a leading candidate, by an aristocracy, by the demos, or by some combination of these three possibilities.

Paralleling the political movement from one-man rule to a more popular and collective government, Roman military tactics were moving from a more individualistic and heroic form of combat – the simultaneous one-on-one battles of hordes of men that one sees in The Iliad – to a more collectivist combat of large numbers of men organized into phalanxes – groups of armed soldiers standing close together and presenting a wall of aggression and opposition to the enemy.  In one-on-one combat, victory generally went to the most highly skilled and most wildly ferocious soldiers.  It was the sort of combat made for heroic individuals such as Coriolanus.

Phalanx warfare, by comparison, required little skill and less intensity.  Patience and fortitude were the keys.  Soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with spears or swords outstretched, each soldier supporting the others next to him and willing to stay in formation with his comrades no matter what.  Not the sort of thing for free-lancers or egotists.  They would at best look foolish and would likely endanger the rest of the group. Nor would phalanx warfare be likely to produce individualistic heroes.  Heroism, in this context, was Emerson’s standing together for five minutes longer.  It was, however, the sort of warfare that enabled Rome to conquer much of the world.  The play Coriolanus in effect dramatizes a last hurrah for someone like Coriolanus whose heroism was becoming obsolete in Ancient Rome, but not without resistance from high-ranking supporters of the old ways.

England in the early 1600’s CE was facing a similar situation and conflict.  King James I was claiming to be a divine right king whose will should be considered omnipotent.  James was a scholarly and deeply religious man and was, after all, responsible for the publication of the almost universally acclaimed King James Bible.  But his religiosity also took him down some dark alleyways.  He was, for example, obsessed with the dangers of witchcraft and personally supervised the torturing of women to get them to confess to being witches.

Born in 1566, James became King of Scotland in 1567 and was not only raised to be a king but was raised as a king.  James grew up endowed with autocratic power that he attributed to God.  In The True Law of Free Monarchies, published in 1598, James claimed that “The state of monarchy is the supremist thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.”  Talk about hutzpah.

Upon assuming the throne of England in 1603, James immediately came into conflict with Parliament.  Parliament represented English aristocrats who did not generally ascribe to James’ theories of divinely instituted autocratic monarchy.  They insisted that what James considered the legitimate freedoms of the monarch be balanced by the freedoms of aristocrats as set down in The Magna Carta and English common law.  And these patricians asserted their rights through Parliament’s control over the government’s purse.  If James did not approve laws and take other actions they wanted, they would not grant him taxes to run his government and engage in wars.

This running conflict between the King and Parliament eventually erupted in civil war in the 1640’s and led to the execution of King Charles I, James’ son, who went to his death insisting on the divinity of an autocratic monarchy.  These later events were past Shakespeare’s time, but he lived through the beginnings of them and portrayed similar events in his plays.

While King James and the aristocrats in Parliament were battling over their rights, the lowly English masses were demonstrating against the enclosure movement and on behalf of what they claimed as their rights as free-born Englishmen.  During the Middle Ages, a portion of a nobleman’s land was generally set aside as a common area on which peasants could graze their animals and raise some crops.  Over time, this use of the so-called commons became considered a legal right of the peasants.  But starting in the 1500’s, patrician landowners began enclosing these common areas, and banning the peasants from using them, so that the patricians could devote the commons along with their other lands for grazing sheep.  Exporting wool to the European continent became a very profitable industry for these patricians.

But the combination of closing off the commons and dedicating most of England’s other farmland to raising sheep resulted in a large decrease in the amount of grain being grown in the country.  Unable to use the commons, huge numbers of peasants were bankrupted off their land.  And with little land devoted to raising grain, grain shortages occurred and bread prices for the urban poor skyrocketed.  The result was bread riots in the cities and anti-enclosure demonstrations and land occupations in the countryside.  In the latter case, peasants would tear up the newly grown hedges that enclosed what had been common land, then they would dig into the land and plant crops.  Hence these protesters were called Diggers.

In 1607, a group of some five thousand peasants known as the Diggers of Warwickshire addressed a petition to King James I asking for help against the landlords.  Frequently citing the Bible, they claimed the enclosures were an offense against the King since they “deprive his most true harted (sic) communaty (sic)” of the right to live.  James responded by calling their petition “a wicked instrument” and sending troops that slaughtered hundreds of the peasants.[11]

The parallel of James’ response to the protesters with that of Coriolanus couldn’t be closer.  Shakespeare was not only aware of the events in Warwickshire when he completed Coriolanus in 1608, he incorporated the arguments and the very language of the Diggers’ petition into the opening scene of the play in which a group of citizens representing the hungry Roman populace debate with a spokesperson for the Roman patricians.  In their petition, for example, the Diggers repeatedly spoke of themselves as members of a body politic – “We members of the whole” –  that was being starved by greedy landlords. The metaphor of a political body that is made up of members that serve different functions and need to be cared for is at the center of the debate between the protesters and the patricians in Coriolanus.  Significantly, I think the protesters get the better of the argument in the play.[12]

Changes in warfare that were taking place in seventeenth century England also paralleled those in fifth century BCE Rome.  Just as Rome had moved from the individualized combat of phallic sword fighting to collectivized phalanxes, so too warfare in Shakespeare’s time was moving from the individualized battling of knights in shining armor to the collectivized combat of massed musket-wielding soldiers.

Muskets were newly developed weapons in Europe that shot bullets which could penetrate armor and made armored knights obsolete.  Muskets had smooth barrels, however, which made them extremely imprecise as to aim.  They propelled round lead balls that wobbled down a barrel and then out into the air in the general direction in which the musket was aimed.  An individual musketeer was very unlikely to hit any specific thing at which he was aiming.  But a massed row of musketeers could launch a wall of lead that would mow down an enemy army.

Armored knights were highly trained and skilled warriors whose individualized combats were often heroic as, for example, in Shakespeare’s play Henry V.  As with Roman phalanxes, massed musket warfare required little skill, since aiming a musket was almost irrelevant, and it involved little in the way of individual heroics.  Again, as with the Roman phalanx, heroism was standing together for five minutes longer.  It was, however, massed armies of plebian soldiers that enabled England to become the world’s largest empire.  Individualistic heroes of England’s recent past, such as Henry V, were becoming obsolete in Shakespeare’s time and, I think, this was one of the implications of his play Coriolanus.

Conventional Interpretations: Psychology, Sociology, and Tragedy.

Most interpretations of Coriolanus focus on the character, psychology and personal relations of Coriolanus and on the character, psychology and social relations of the rebellious citizens.  The variety of interpretations of Coriolanus is vast and often contradictory.  There are analyses that focus on Coriolanus’ abilities and actions as a military general and civilian leader, some in praise, others in disparagement. There are characterizations of Coriolanus as a fascist warmonger and a Leninist communist revolutionary.  There are Freudian analyses of Coriolanus as suffering from Oedipal problems with respect to his dominating mother and absent father, and as a repressed homosexual whose sexuality is perverted into violence.  There are laudations of him as a Nietzschean superman who is in fact above it all. There are also various interpretations of the plebians.  These include mob psychology analyses of the plebian crowds in the vein of Gustave Le Bon, Malthusian interpretations of the plebians as exemplifying overpopulation problems in Rome, and Social Darwinian interpretations of the Roman plebian as a useless underclass.

But there are two common factors in almost all these interpretations of the play.  One is that Coriolanus is seen as a tragic figure, a “man of war [who] cannot keep the peace,” but whose underlying soft-heartedness leads him to accede to his mother’s wishes and spare Rome in the end.[13]  The other is that the Roman plebians are seen as an irrational mob who are ignorant, gullible, and easily manipulated by the vile tribunes that supposedly represent them.[14]

The distinguished Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard claimed, for example, that the way in which Coriolanus concedes to his mother’s wishes at the end of the play shows that he must have been a natural poet as a child.  Despite Coriolanus’ rough language and rude behavior, Goddard insists that “Coriolanus is all tenderness at the center.”  Goddard also dismissed the plebians as ignorant, gullible and fickle.[15]  I don’t agree.

Coriolanus as Comedy:  The Line Between Tragic Hero and Comic Fool.

I think that my contention that Coriolanus is best seen as a comedy can be illustrated by focusing on two scenes, the opening scene where Menenius confronts three plebian citizens with respect to the food shortage in Rome and the scene at the end of the play when Coriolanus accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome from invasion.

The play opens with the entrance of a group of citizens armed with clubs and other rude weapons.  These are far less murderous than the swords and spears carried by patricians and their soldiers.  Emphasizing the collective nature of the group, only two of them are singled out as individuals by Shakespeare and they are called merely First Citizen and Second Citizen.  These two are the leaders of the group.  The First Citizen opens the play with three statements: “You are all resolved to die than to famish,” then “You know that Caius Martius [Coriolanus]is chief enemy to the people,” and then “Let us kill him, and then we’ll have corn at our own price.”  To each of these statements, the group shouts its approval.

The First Citizen then goes on to explain that they are threatening violence only because the patricians, led by Coriolanus, are hoarding corn and will sell it only at an exorbitant price.  The patricians are taking advantage of the plebians’ plight, the First Citizen claims, and “our sufferance is a gain to them.”  It is significant that the plebians are not demanding free corn or threatening to steal it.  They only want to be able to buy it at “our own price,” that is, a price they can afford.  And although they condemn Coriolanus as “a very dog to the commonalty,” they don’t want to kill him and propose to do so only because he is the chief obstacle to their gaining corn.  They are acting, they say, “in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.”

The way that you read and play these opening lines spoken by the First Citizen are a key to your interpretation of the play.  Harold Goddard speaks for many critics in characterizing the First Citizen as “an egotistical, loud-mouthed, malicious, illogical troublemaker and knave.”[16]   And it is certainly possible to play these lines in that way.  You can merely have the actor say them with a sneer and a leer, have him wave a club around in a murderous way, and you’ve got a demagogue leading an irrational mob.  But, I think if you just look at the lines themselves, they are not the words of a demagogue, and the consent of the crowd to the First Citizen’s speech is not irrational.  The citizens merely want to buy bread because they and their families are hungry, and they need to eliminate the person who is keeping them from doing so.

No sooner has the First Citizen finished speaking than Menenius, who is the main spokesperson for the patricians and chief apologist for Coriolanus, enters to respond to the citizens.  He launches into a speech blaming the food shortage on the gods and defending the control of Rome’s grain by the patricians. He compares the patricians to the belly of the body politic that must take in all the food and then provide sustenance to the rest of the body as best meets the needs of the various body parts.

The argument is so ridiculous that even Goddard compares Menenius to the fool Polonius in Hamlet.  But Goddard and most critics claim that Menenius convinces the even stupider citizens.  Goddard says that the citizens “can only stammer in reply, ‘Ay, sir; well, well’” and stupidly ask “’How apply you this?’” and offer other seeming inanities.[17]  And you certainly can play Menenius as a well-intentioned fool and the citizens as ill-intentioned idiots taken in by his arguments, but I think if you just look at the lines, that is not the best way to play them.

On its face, Menenius’ speech is anything but well-intentioned toward the citizens, especially if you see it in the context of his later conversations with Coriolanus and others in which he expresses the deepest scorn and ill regard for the plebians.  Like Coriolanus, he would just as soon see them starve.  And I think that the citizens are anything but taken in by his arguments.  Their questions and monosyllabic responses should be seen as satirical rather than sincere, which Menenius eventually seems to realize and begins to insult them at the end of his speech.

As Menenius is beginning to insult the citizens, Coriolanus comes onto the scene and his first words to them, without anything having been said to him, are “What’s the matter you dissentious rogues?”  He goes on to call them “curs,” among other insults, and call for them all to be hanged.  At the end of the scene, a messenger comes to inform them all that the Volscians are on attack. Coriolanus rejoices that now “we shall ha’ means to vent our musty superfluity,” that is, rid Rome of troublesome citizens by having them killed by the Volscians in battle.  In this scene, Coriolanus does not look like a tragic hero who is going to fall from a height and suffer more than he deserves.  And Coriolanus, for whom threats are a stock-in-trade, keeps up this kind of over-the-top rhetoric, degrading others and elevating himself, throughout the play.

It is the plebian citizens who come off as the most reasonable people in this scene.  And despite Coriolanus’ implacable opposition to them, they later even grant him leniency when he is convicted of treason and faces execution.  In sum, although the citizens sometimes vacillate, and their tribune spokespersons play political games during the play, they are much more sympathetic characters than Coriolanus.

The scene at the end of the play in which Coriolanus agrees to spare Rome from invasion is almost invariably interpreted as a softening of his heart in response to the emotional appeal of his mother.  But I don’t think that is the best reading of the scene.  In this scene, Coriolanus, after refusing to see any of his Roman friends who want to plead with him to spare Rome, reluctantly accepts a visit from his wife, son, and mother.  He insists on seeing them in the presence of the Volscian commander, Aufidius, to show that he is not doing anything underhanded and to show off his strength of will against any pleas for him to change in his mind.

Through extensive entreaties from his mother, wife and son, Coriolanus stands firm in his intention to destroy Rome until his mother launches into one last-gasp appeal in which she grasps at one argument after another and then, as she is seemingly getting ready to leave in despair, hits on what seem to be the magic words.  “Come, let us go,” she says, and then pointing at Aufidius, continues “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; His wife is in Corioles, his child like him by chance.  Yet give us our dispatch: I am hushed until our city is afire, and then I’ll speak a little.”  In a flash, Coriolanus changes his mind and decides to spare Rome.  Why?

The conventional view is that his pride is softened.  My view is that his pride is hardened, and that is why he changes his mind.  Coriolanus is a man who needs to see himself as superior to everyone else.  He has already been trying to assert his military superiority over his Volscian commander Aufidius, which has displeased Aufidius.  Now Coriolanus’ mother has implied that if he sacrifices his own mother, wife and child in the attack on Rome, he will be making a sacrifice in the service of Aufidius that Aufidius does not himself have to make.  He will be putting himself at a lower level than Aufidius.  It is this that Coriolanus cannot accept.

Although Coriolanus has already several times rejected his mother’s pleas, he tells Aufidius that she has convinced him, and that Rome will not be invaded.  He gives the order to his commander Aufidius.  He is the one taking charge.  And Aufidius has no choice but to agree.  Coriolanus seems to think he can get away with this because the Volscian soldiers in Aufidius’ army seem to respect and even revere Coriolanus more than they do Aufidius.  Coriolanus has previously turned traitor to Rome by joining the Volscians.  Now he turns traitor on the Volscians, but thinks he is above approach and reproach.  Aufidius, however, has had enough, connives with some assassins to have Coriolanus killed, and that is how the play ends.  Coriolanus falls, but from vain stupidity rather than tragic heroism, and this is the mark of a comedy, not a tragedy.

Trump, Coriolanus and the Present Danger.

Coriolanus is a play about power, politics, and pride.  These are three things that almost invariably go together, and that’s a problem.  It takes a good deal of vanity to seek political office in the first place and if you attain high office, that will itself reinforce your pride.  Then of course, you will likely be surrounded by sycophants and panderers who stoke your pride, plus you will be in a position to exercise power over people and society, and that will feed your pride even more.  It is a vicious cycle in which overweening power can result in overweening pride, and that is not a good thing for anyone.

Set in fifth century BCE Rome, Coriolanus speaks to issues that were relevant to people at that time and place but also to people in Shakespeare’s day and in ours today.  Two issues raised in the play stand out in particular: the resistance of people to change from a more individualistic to a more collectivistic society; and, the threat posed by would-be dictators who would take advantage of that resistance to change to gain absolute power.

Over the long course of history, societies have ebbed and flowed back and forth between more individualistic and more collectivistic social orders and power structures.  Writing today in the spring of 2018 in the United States, we are witnessing in this country and in many other countries around the world the resurgence of would-be authoritarians and autocrats.  These Trumps, Putins, et al are being aided and abetted by billionaires who stand to profit from their support of these would-be dictators.  Coriolanus can help us think about the perils of our situation in the United States in at least two ways, first, by comparing and contrasting Coriolanus with Donald Trump and, second, by comparing and contrasting our political systems with those of fifth century Rome and seventeenth century England.

Coriolanus and Trump have some key similarities.  Both are enormous egotists who think of themselves as above everyone else and above the law, and who try to bully everyone to get their way.  They both use a doomsday strategy in which they threaten total destruction to their opponents and even to their own societies in order to get their way.  Coriolanus threatens to hang the plebians who oppose him and to destroy Rome for having rejected him.  Trump routinely threatens to jail or otherwise destroy his opponents, and periodically threatens nuclear war.

Both also see themselves as the leaders of countries that have the might and therefore the right to rule over other countries.  Coriolanus represents a Rome that in the recent past had essentially been an organized criminal enterprise which routinely conquered and plundered neighboring societies.  In proclaiming a slogan of “America First,” Trump wants Americans to personally pursue their own selfish self-interests above all other considerations, as he always has.  But, he also wants the United States to use its power to extort concessions from other countries in a zero-sum game in which we get more of everything and they get less.

Coriolanus and Trump are also both bloviators.  Goddard claims that Coriolanus is merely a blunt speaker who is too honest to speak in euphemisms.[18]  But I think that in any objective review of Coriolanus’ language you have to conclude that this is a man who cannot or will not control himself so as to speak decently.  And I think that his speeches are best played comically as ludicrous.  Trump is, likewise, incapable of speaking of himself in other than platitudes and of others who disagree with him in other than insults.  He lives in a melodramatic world in which he and his supporters are the good guys and everyone else is a dangerous bad guy.  In Trump’s case, noxiousness is a matter of politics and policy as he tries to garner support by stoking fear and hate, and then showing he scorns the people his supporters fear and hate.  He is ludicrous but also very dangerous in sowing the seeds of bigotry, misogyny, and dissention.

Coriolanus and Trump are both fools, albeit dangerous fools. They are also both destined from the start to fail in the long run unless they bring about the destruction of their respective societies, which Coriolanus could have done if he had gone through with his plans to invade Rome and which Trump could do with a push of the nuclear button.  Coriolanus’ overreaching and overweening pride brought his career to an abrupt end.

Trump and his right-wing supporters will also, I think and hope, fall prey to demographic changes that will foil their plans to restore a nineteenth century regime of individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and white peoples’ power in the United States.  The population of the country will soon be a majority minority, and young people are overwhelmingly more progressive than their nostalgic regressive elders.  Coriolanus represented the last-gasp of a heroic age as Rome evolved from monarchy to republic, and Trump represents a last-ditch effort of American right-wingers in their century-long battle to keep the nineteenth century from ending.

But the differences between Coriolanus and Trump are also important.  Coriolanus was completely honest, which even his fiercest opponents recognized and admired.  He would not lie or cheat.  In fact, I think Coriolanus was not so much honest as above dishonesty.  Trump is a chronic, almost compulsive, liar and a notorious cheater in business and probably in politics.  He has repeatedly bragged about his sharp business practices, and they may be a factor if he falls from grace as a result of investigations currently ongoing.

Coriolanus was also a brave warrior who repeatedly volunteered for military service and rushed to the most dangerous spots in the battle.  The down-side of this bravery was that he was essentially a thug at the head of a gang of thugs.  He was the guy who could whip everyone else in the gang and so he became their leader.  At the same time, Coriolanus also eschewed adulation and was immune to criticism.  He had a thick skin and he was above any need for praise, but the down-side of this is that he refused correction when he was wrong.  Trump was a draft dodger, and he is seemingly also a coward who has historically gotten others to fight his battles for him.  In turn, Trump lives for adulation and cannot stand criticism.  Trump is clearly a weaker person than Coriolanus, but not necessarily less dangerous for that very reason.

Shakespeare wrote many plays about tyrants and his art often imitated life.  In Coriolanus, he also suggested the potential solution to the problem of tyranny.  In the fifth century BCE, Rome was developing a split government of consuls, senate, tribunes, and popular assemblies, with different institutions representing different groups of people, each of which could check and balance the others, and which required the agreement of all of them to make the society work.  Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, Parliament, with a patrician House of Lords and a bourgeois House of Commons, along with street demonstrations of the populace, were evolving to check and balance the King.  Things did not always work the way they should have, and both the Roman Republic and Stuart England suffered from repeated conflicts and civil wars.

In the United States today, we have institutions of divided government and separation of powers like those in the Roman Republic and Stuart England but, hopefully, more effective at keeping the peace while saving the country from authoritarians.  The division of powers between the federal government and the state governments and within the federal and various state governments ought to provide sufficient checks and balances on a would-be dictator if these institutions do what they are supposed to do.  In addition, we have a free press that did not exist in either Republican Rome or Stuart England and which provides another check on a potential autocrat.  Finally, we have a free theater which can remind us with plays such as Coriolanus of the dangers we face and the collective institutions we need to rely on to meet those dangers. With supports such as these, we can hopefully keep Trump and company from turning what is already bad enough as a dark comedy into a disastrous melodrama.

B.W.  5/18

Postscript: 2018 Stratford Ontario Festival Production.

A Shameful Production: Promoting authoritarianism.

I recently had the mixed pleasure of attending a performance of Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival.  The production was awesome.  The interpretation was awful.  Worse than awful, it was shameful.

Coriolanus is a play that features protests against the mistreatment of the lower classes, warnings about the rise of dictators, and arguments in favor of checks and balances in government.  These were developments in the sixth century BCE when Coriolanus lived and in early seventeenth century when Shakespeare lived.  And they are still critical issues today.  Shakespeare was clearly sympathetic with all three of these developments.  But you would not know that from the interpretation that has been given to the play at Stratford this year.

To the contrary, the play is staged as a glorification of the authoritarianism of Coriolanus. In an age of Trump, Putin, and other authoritarians and would-be dictators, how could the Stratford management let this be the interpretation of their play?

Awesome Staging: Now you see it, now you don’t.

The director Robert Lepage is a genius when it comes to staging the play and using lights and other technologies to enhance his production.  Just as one example that I can describe simply: He had Coriolanus get into a car on the stage and then drive through a series of landscapes, with the illusion of movement perfect.  The other illusions are too complicated for me to describe in a few words, but walls came and went with a change of light, people were in one place then another in a flash, stage sets moved from one place to another… I have no idea how he did these things, but they worked.  They were not just high-tech gimmickry aiming to distract and entertain.  The gimmicks added to the story.  It was the sort of thing you can imagine Shakespeare doing if he had had the technology.  Brilliant.

Awful Interpretation: Tragic or Fitting Death?

Lepage’s interpretation of the play is something else.  He has Coriolanus played as a man whose public persona is overly proud and harsh but who is actually humble and warmhearted underneath.  Coriolanus is played as a misunderstood hero whose disdain of the masses is justified and whose death results from a softhearted response to his mother’s pleas to spare Rome.  Lepage has the masses of people played as idiots and the tribunes as scoundrels.  He has Menenius played as a wise elder statesman rather than a long-winded fool.  These are very different than as I see them and as I have described in the essay above.

And Lepage has Coriolanus killed by one of Tullus’ men in a moment of anger rather than as a result of Tullus’ connivance as Shakespeare wrote it.  Lepage has Coriolanus’ death played as tragedy.  But I disagree.  I think Coriolanus got the death that he wanted as proof of his superiority as he would see it, and as proof to us of his overweening pride.

Coriolanus’ pose all along has been that of a man who is above everyone and everything.  He disdains praise because he considers himself above those who would praise him.  He disdains reward for his service because he will not demean himself to be seen as acting heroically for gain.  He even disdains the idea of public service because service implies he is beneath those whom he is serving.  When he agrees to spare Rome from the Volscian army, he is asserting his superiority over his commander Tullus.  And when Tullus has him killed, Tullus is effectively admitting that he is jealous of Coriolanus and that Coriolanus is his superior.

Earlier in the play, when Coriolanus first went over to the Volscians, he challenged Tullus to either accept him into the Volscian army or kill him.  Coriolanus was thereby challenging Tullus either to work with Coriolanus or to admit that Coriolanus was too big for Tullus to handle, that Coriolanus would outshine him. This is just what happened and is why Tullus had Coriolanus killed.  Shakespeare seems to be portraying this as a fitting death, not a tragic one, that confirmed Coriolanus’ pride and crowned his proudful life.  Coriolanus was a hero for another time but a harmful fool in his own.

B.W.  June 16, 2018


[1] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954.

[2]Jared Diamond. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Pp. 220-221, 276-310.   David Sloane Wilson Evolution of Everyone. New York: Delacorte Press. 2007. Pp.51-57, 285.

[3]Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. P.59. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press. 1961. P. 41. Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.1954. Pp.82-100.

[4] Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. Pp. 61, 81-86. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Pp.37, 39.  Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954. Pp.35, 172.

[5] Plutarch. “The Life of Coriolanus.”  The Parallel Lives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.

[6] H.R. Oliver. “Coriolanus As Tragic Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959. P.53.

[7] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.209.

[8] Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare.  New York: Modern Library, 2004. P.173.

[9] Scott Palmer. “Timely Tragedy.” Bag and Baggage Productions, 6/23/16.

[10] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244.

[11] Steve Hindle. “Imagining Insurrection in Seventeenth Century England: Representations of the Midland Uprising of 1607.” University of Warwick, 2018.

[12] Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. P.298.

[13] Jonathan Bate.  “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P. VIII.  Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244

[14]  Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare.  New York: Modern Library, 2004. P 170.  Jonathan Bate.  “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P.XII. Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.246. Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Pp. 218, 232, 234.

[15] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.223.

[16] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.210.

[17] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.232.

[18] Harold Goddard.

The Comedy of Errors or the Errors of Comedy. Shakespeare does Saint Paul (the saint, not the city). What’s in your Conscience?

The Comedy of Errors or the Errors of Comedy.

Shakespeare does Saint Paul (the saint, not the city).

What’s in your Conscience?

Burton Weltman

“Wives be subject to your husbands…

Children obey your parents…

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

Letter to Ephesians.  Saint Paul.   


1. Funny is a Point of View?

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”  Will Rogers.

A play opens in what may be a courtroom.  A meek and mild elderly gentleman is addressing a stern-looking government official.  As the opening lines of the play, the old man says: “Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall. And by the doom of death end woes and all.”  That is, the old man is telling the official, whose name is Solinus, to go ahead and execute him.

In succeeding lines, we learn that the scene is taking place in a city called Ephesus and that the condemned man is a merchant named Egeon who is from Syracuse.  Solinus is the ruling Duke of Ephesus.  In sentencing Egeon to death, Solinus explains that even though Egeon is innocent of harm to anyone, and may be a great guy to boot, the law does not permit any exceptions and “Excludes all pity from our threat’ning looks.”

Egeon’s crime?   Egeon is a Syracusan and Syracusans have been banned from Ephesus on penalty of death due to some ancient trade dispute.  Egeon has been traveling around looking for his long-lost son and innocently happened to land in Ephesus in that quest.  The only thing that can save Egeon’s life is the payment of a large sum of money that he does not have.  At the end of the scene, Egeon is taken away by the jailer to await his execution the next day.

The rest of the play takes place during this same day before Egeon’s scheduled execution.  The impending execution casts a pall over the whole of the play.  All else must be seen in light of Egeon’s desperate situation.  Or should.  Does this seem like the setup for what is usually performed as a light-hearted comedy?

2.  The Plot: What a Tangled Web We Weave.

“The laughter of man is more terrible than his tears, and takes more forms, hollow, heartless, mirthless, maniacal.”  James Thurber.

The play I am describing is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (hereafter Comedy).  Comedy is a very clever mishmash of misidentification and misdirection involving two sets of identical twins.  The backstory of Comedy is that Egeon and his wife had identical twin sons.  They bought two slaves for their sons who were themselves identical twin brothers.  The whole bunch of them were shipwrecked and Egeon lost his wife, one of his sons, and one of the slave boys.

Thereafter, Egeon renamed his remaining son and the remaining slave with the names of the lost son and slave, Antipholus and Dromio, respectively, and they grew up with him in Syracuse.  After many years passed, Egeon went in search of his lost son and Antipholus independently went off with his slave on the same quest for his lost brother.

As the play opens, Egeon and Antipholus have unbeknownst to each other coincidentally landed in Ephesus, where Egeon quickly ran afoul of the law.  Meanwhile, Antipholus and his slave went about the town and got into trouble of their own.  As it happened, the long-lost son and his slave had been washed ashore from the shipwreck in Ephesus, where the son grew up, married a woman named Adriana, and prospered.  His name, of course, is Antipholus and his slave is named Dromio.

The two sons of Egeon and the two slaves are still identical, and they bear the same names, so neither they nor anyone else can tell each from the other. The resulting confusion, as masters and slaves misidentify each other, the Ephesian wife of the long-lost brother mistakes his Syracusan twin for her husband, and various merchants and public officials mistake the twin masters and twin slaves for each other, is madcap.

But it is also brutal. In Shakespeare’s stage directions for the play, the slaves are beaten at least five times, and there are almost continual threats of more beatings, some of which could be taking place offstage.  The Ephesian brother repeatedly threatens violence against his wife and her maid.  He buys a rope with which to beat his wife and begins to do so before being stopped. Meanwhile, his wife makes threats against him, and she beats a quack healer.  Both brothers are variously assaulted, arrested and bound by law officers.  There is rough language and physical contact when the brothers are accosted by merchants for the payment of debts.  The Ephesian brother tries violently to break into a house (albeit, his own) while his Syracusan twin brandishes a sword and threatens to kill anyone who gets in his way.

The play is also full of oppression and repression, full of people kissing up and kicking down.  Higher-ups routinely oppress and repress their inferiors in the social hierarchy – masters against slaves, husbands against wives, wives against servants, government officials against citizens, citizens against foreigners.  Higher-ups frequently threaten and hit their subordinates for making mistakes.  In turn, the play is full of complaints by the oppressed slaves, wives and others against their oppressors.  Ephesus is not a happy or peaceful place.

In the end, Egeon and his two sons are reunited, as are the two slave brothers, and Egeon’s long-lost wife, whom no one seems to have been looking for, turns up as the abbess of an Ephesian priory.  In the last lines of the play, Egeon’s Ephesian son is seemingly going to come up with the money to save Egeon’s life.  A close call for Egeon, but a happy ending, and all is well that ends well.  But is it?

How are we supposed to take the violence and oppression in this play?  Is the play merely a slapstick farce in which the violence is of the Punch-and-Judy or Three Stooges type in which no one is really hurt and which we are, therefore, not supposed to take seriously?  Slapstick as a form of comedy was developed during the sixteenth century in Europe.  Shakespeare was aware of this comic form and used slapstick elements in many of his plays.  But maybe this is more than mere slapstick.  Maybe we are supposed to take the violence and oppression seriously, even if humorously?  Most interpreters think the former.  I opt for the latter.

3.  Conventional Interpretations: Full of Sound and Funny albeit Signifying Nothing.

“The shortest distance between two people is laughter.”  Victor Borge.

Comedy is almost invariably seen as a light-hearted slapstick farce.  Performed in this way, it can be hilarious.  The misidentifications are brilliantly crafted, and can be vehicles for wonderfully clownish performances, especially in the roles of the slaves.  The pending execution of Egeon is conveniently forgotten in this interpretation. That and other missteps in the script are attributed to the fact that Comedy is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and represents the level of his skill when he was still learning his stagecraft.  For detractors of the play, this is a flaw. For supporters, it is part of its charm.

Harold Goddard, a highly regarded Shakespearean scholar of the mid-twentieth century and a supporter of the play, conditioned his appreciation of Comedy on a distinction between comedy and farce.  Goddard contended that comedy is based on genuine conflicts among significant characters whereas farce is based on merely “manufacturing a misunderstanding and letting the audience in on it.”  Farce, he contended is “a cheap but infallible recipe for making a play.”  This, Goddard claimed, is what Shakespeare did in Comedy.  Despite its title, it was not really a comedy but merely a farce.  Nonetheless, while conceding that the play exemplifies “an inferior dramatic type,” and that its structure is mechanical with its characters mere “puppets,” Goddard still concluded that it is a wonderful example of “pure theater” and “a masterpiece of its kind.”[1]

Mark Van Doren, another highly regarded mid-twentieth century Shakespearean scholar, was not so sanguine.  While his analysis of the mechanics of the play was similar to Goddard’s, he differed with Goddard in his final judgment.  Van Doren belittled Comedy as an “unfeeling farce,” funny but with no emotional or intellectual depth.  It is a contrived comedy of “situation” made up of mechanical plot manipulations. The characters are, in turn, mere “marionettes” that are manipulated to cheap comic ends by the playwright and have little personality of their own.  Ephesus is, in turn, a silly “city of slapstick,” full of foolishness that signifies nothing.[2]

The contemporary Shakespearean scholar Michael Wood differs with both Goddard and Van Doren in his estimation of the structure of Comedy. Where they saw it as contrived and wooden, he says it “is very cleverly plotted” and “works a treat with its helter-skelter action.”  Wood’s final judgement is that the play is “brilliant” and that it shows Shakespeare “was becoming an expert at his craft.”[3]  So much for uniformity of opinion among Shakespearean scholars.

Except in one key respect.  While Goddard and Wood loved Comedy and Van Doren did not, each saw the play as a light-hearted comedy that we can laugh at with impunity.  I don’t agree.

4.  Saint Paul’s Challenge: To Have the Conscience of a Christian Conservative.

“Three things will last forever: faith, hope, and charity; and the greatest of these is charity.”    1 Corinthians 13:13.   Saint Paul.

Comedy is set in the city of Ephesus. Why Ephesus?  Of all the thousands of cities in the world, why did Shakespeare pick Ephesus?  Ephesus was in what is today Turkey.  It was an ancient city and an early center of Christianity.  It was where Saint Paul lived for several years and where he wrote some of his most important statements about Christian morality and, particularly, about the relations between those with and without power.[4] These statements include his paean to charity in 1 Corinthians.  He later addressed a letter on social relations to Christians in Ephesus, his Letter to Ephesians.  Although Ephesus had long been abandoned by Shakespeare’s time, Elizabethans would have known of the city and about Paul’s writings from and to the city.  And the themes of Paul’s Ephesus writings parallel those in Shakespeare’s play.

Paul was particularly concerned in his Ephesian preaching and writing to try to unite the followers of Jesus, and to eliminate the national and ethnic dissentions among them. He was also concerned to counter radicals among Christians who took literally Jesus’ rejection of wealth and who contended that Christians should live together in communistic equality as Jesus and his Apostles ostensibly had.  These radicals stoked class conflict between the rich and the poor and pitted Christians against each other, a situation that appalled Paul.

Instead of Jesus’ rejection of wealth, Paul focused on Jesus’ admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Consistent with this dictum, he admonished those without earthly power to pay obeisance to those with earthly power, meaning that slaves should obey their masters, wives their husbands, children their parents.  Underlings in general should bow to their overlords.  At the same time, Paul insisted that those with power and wealth must treat with charity those who were without.  Citizens should treat foreigners with respect, husbands should respect their wives and children, rich people should care for the poor.

In his Letter to Ephesians, Paul implored the Ephesians to “be completely humble and gentle” toward each other and toward strangers, “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” and live together in peace and harmony. In 1 Corinthians, he proclaimed the supervening importance of charity above all things, especially for the rich and powerful.  Paul preached that the purpose of wealth was to give the rich an opportunity to practice charity toward the poor and for the poor to practice humility toward the rich.  If a rich man refuses to give alms to the poor, he is effectively stealing from the poor man and abusing one of God’s children.  If a poor man rejects his lowly status and aspires to be rich, he is effectively rejecting God’s social order.

Paul’s dicta became the heart of Catholic social doctrine during the Middle Ages.  It was a doctrine that we might call Christian conservatism.  People should faithfully occupy whatever stations in life God had placed them but should also help those in positions lower than themselves.  All people deserved respect and care as God’s creatures.  Some radical Christians even claimed that if a rich man refused alms to the poor, the poor man had the right to steal from him.  And some more extreme Christians resurrected the idea of Apostolic communistic equality.  These extremists were abominated by the Church and generally exterminated by the nobility.

Shakespeare lived at a time that we recognize as a major historical turning point when medieval European society was giving way to what we think of as modern society.  Medieval European society had been based on feudal ties of personal loyalty among powerful nobles and between lordly nobles and lowly serfs.  Medieval culture had been based around the teachings of the Catholic Church, which included the homilies of Saint Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas and many others who insisted on the obeisance of underlings and the charity of overlords.

Modern European society was in Shakespeare’s time evolving toward a more impersonal basis, emphasizing contractual relations between people in which bargaining for the best deal replaced loyalty.[5]  Moral imperatives changed.  Self-help became the ideal rather than mutual support.  God now ostensibly helped people who helped themselves, and not people who could not productively contribute to society. Personal wealth was no longer seen as an opportunity to be charitable to poor individuals.  It was, instead, now considered an opportunity to generate more personal wealth from which society as a whole would ostensibly benefit in a trickle-down effect.

Charity and alms to the poor became widely considered a waste of good resources that could otherwise be used in productive investment.  This was a very different justification for the wealth of the rich than the previous doctrine of Christian charity.  Although many still held to the old doctrines, and there were radicals who still proclaimed a communistic doctrine of perfect equality, a morality of personal freedom was replacing an ethic of community obligations.

Shakespeare’s plays express an ambivalence between the medieval ideals of personal loyalty and communal obligations and the modern mantra of personal freedom, with even an occasional nod by him toward an ethic of equality.  For the most part, he seems to lean toward what we might today call a compassionate conservatism, someone who favored a social hierarchy but also fair treatment to all.  He generally portrays hierarchy in a positive light and radical social disrupters in the negative.  He portrays generous characters positively, greedy and excessively ambitious characters negatively.  He rejects disloyalty, disruption and disorder, and hates unreasonable and unruly mobs.  His ideal seems to be power leavened by conscience.  As such, Shakespeare seems to follow Saint Paul’s Ephesian principles, and Comedy can be seen as a dramatization of Paul’s strictures and a commentary on them

5.  An Alternative Interpretation: Guilty Laughter and a Mirror on Our Worse Selves.

“Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.”  Thomas Hobbes.

While Comedy is almost invariably taken to be a light-hearted farce, I think that this is taking the play too lightly and that, instead, it should be seen as a serious-minded morality play dressed up as a farce.  It is a play that is intended to make us laugh but then ask ourselves what we are laughing about and whether we should be laughing.

This interpretation is supported both by the dialogue and action in the play and by the similarity of the play’s themes to the Ephesian teachings of Saint Paul.  The tension between obedience and social order on the one hand and charity and social justice on the other were at the core of Paul’s preaching from and to Ephesus.  They are also at the core of Comedy.

Each of the first three scenes of the play sets up a theme of social injustice, and a tension between obedience and fairness.  Each of these scenes opens with and focuses on a form of social oppression, first against Christian foreigners, then against slaves, and finally against women. Each also contains some very eloquent complaints by the oppressed against their repressive conditions.  The play thereafter repeatedly portrays these conflicts through the dialogue and interaction of the characters.  It is the sort of behavior that provoked Saint Paul’s Letter to Ephesians and that he hoped to counter with an appeal to Christian charity.

In the first scene, as we have already seen, Egeon is condemned to death in a most cruel fashion.  His pleas of innocence and extenuating circumstances are coldly met with rejection.  The Duke’s parting words to Egeon that “Thou art doomed to die. Jailer, take him to thy custody,” are chilling.  Egeon closes the scene lamenting “Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend. But to procrastinate his lifeless end.”  Saint Paul would almost certainly have condemned the laws of Ephesus as they appear in this play and the behavior of Ephesians towards Syracusans like Egeon as uncharitable and un-Christian, and Shakespeare’s audience would likely have agreed.

In the opening lines of the second scene, immediately after we have seen Egeon unfairly condemned to death, his son the Syracusan brother, having no idea what has just happened to his father, gives money to his Syracusan slave and orders him to undertake some tasks.  The brother finishes his orders with a harsh and imperious “Get thee away.” The Syracusan slave responds to his master’s harsh tone in an aside in which he says “Many a man would take you at your word and go indeed, having so good a mean [opportunity].”  That is, the slave indicates he is so badly treated, he really ought to take literally his master’s orders to go away, take the money and run.

The slave grumpily decides not to run off, but his master, having no idea or interest in what the slave is thinking or feeling, then says to a nearby colleague that the slave is “A trusty villain [slave]” and often “Lightens my humour with his merry jests.”  The master ignorantly and stupidly thinks the slave is devoted to him and happy with his lowly position in life.

This interchange is reminiscent of the history of slavery in nineteenth century America.  Slaves in the antebellum South would be seen by their masters singing and jesting, and the masters would conclude that the slaves were happy with their lot.  In reality, the slaves were frequently singing and joking about their hardships and their longing for freedom.  The song “Go Down Moses” was, for example, a plea for a modern-day leader to help them escape, not merely a religious devotional.

The rest of this second scene consists of misunderstandings between the Syracusan brother and the Ephesian slave.  The Syracusan brother thinks the Ephesian slave is his Syracusan slave, while the Ephesian slave thinks the Syracusan brother is his Ephesian master. These misunderstandings end with the Syracusan brother beating the Ephesian slave.  That is, instead of the Syracusan master asking what would seem to be some obvious questions to the slave that might have revealed the truth of the situation, the master resorts to the violence that is inherent in master-slave relationships and beats the slave.  In sum, as with the opening scene in which Egeon is condemned, Shakespeare has in the opening of this second scene set up a theme of social injustice and social conflict of the sort addressed by Saint Paul in his Letter to Ephesians.

In the opening of the very next scene, the first scene of the second act, Shakespeare sets up yet another social justice theme, that of the unfeeling domination of husbands over their wives.  In this scene, Adriana, the Ephesian brother’s wife, launches a powerful attack on the injustices of marriage.  Her husband, the Ephesian brother, is late for his dinner which she has taken great pains to prepare on time.

When Adriana complains of this to her unmarried sister, the sister sanctimoniously says that “A man is master of his liberty,” and that husbands can come and go as they please. In essence, she tells Adriana that she should just like it or lump it.  Adriana replies “Why should their liberty than ours be more?”  The sister responds that Adriana’s husband “is the bridle of your will,” to which Adriana retorts “There’s none but asses will be bridled so.”

Adriana charges her sister with hypocrisy because while the sister preaches that wives should pay obeisance to their husbands’ whims, she is herself unwed.  “This servitude makes you to keep unwed,” Adriana claims.  She says it’s easy for her sister to preach the virtue of patience because “thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee.”  A spinster has no right to counsel a wife to be obedient to her husband when the spinster has no husband to limit her own freedom.  Adriana then proceeds to beat her husband’s slave for failing to bring her husband home with him for dinner, an example of the kicking down that occurs in the play.

An irony of the oppressive conditions portrayed in these scenes is that the slaves do not revolt or run away and the wife accepts her husband back.  The oppressed are not liberated in this play.  At most, they get back at their oppressors through smart retorts.  They return physical abuse with verbal abuse, often such that their oppressors don’t understand they have been insulted.  And that seems to be the point.

It has long been noted that as part of the master-slave relationship slaves often identify with their masters and establish their own identities in connection with their masters.  In turn, masters establish their identities as a reflection of their slaves.  Neither can see himself or do without the other.  We can see that exemplified in Comedy both in the way the oppressed stick with their oppressors but also in the way the oppressors accept a fair degree of insubordination from their underlings.  The oppressed are not content but their ability to respond and rebel is limited mostly to repartee and to subtly making fun of their masters.  It is this repartee by the slaves and Adriana that is, I think, the real humor and fun in the play.

6.  Talking the Walk and Walking the Talk: You Talkin’ to Me?

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”  Mark Twain.

Comedy consists mostly of dialogue between people who are misidentifying each other and communicating at cross purposes with each other.  The conventional way to play this dialogue is as light-hearted almost giddy repartee in which each party gives as good as he or she gets as though they are almost equals.  But there is another way this can be played that better recognizes the power differences between the characters.  In particular, the speeches by the underlings can be better played as either timorously trying to court the favor of their superiors through humor, or passive-aggressively getting back at their superiors through subtly disguised insult.

For example, in the second scene described above, the Syracusan brother mistakes the Ephesian slave as his own slave to whom he had given a thousand marks of money.  When the Syracusan brother asks the Ephesian slave to give him his marks, the slave is nonplussed, thinking he is being addressed by his Ephesian master who has not given him any money. The Ephesian slave responds to the man he thinks is his master as follows: “I have some marks of yours upon my pate, some of my mistress’ marks upon my shoulders, but not a thousand marks between you both.  If I should pay your worship those again, perchance you will not bear them patiently.”  That is, the slave is saying that he is often beaten by his master and mistress, he has marks on his body to prove it, and he is wishing to be able to inflict similar punishment on his master, if that is what his master is insisting that he do.

This response is a subversive form of verbal rebellion couched in a submissive phraseology.  It would have been hard for his Ephesian master to object to the subtle tone of this response.  Since, however, it is the Syracusan brother whom the slave is addressing, not the Ephesian brother, and the Syracusan brother thinks he is being addressed by his own Syracusan slave to whom he has given a substantial amount of money, the Syracusan brother responds by beating the Ephesian slave.  As previously noted, a few simple questions by the Syracusan brother could have cleared the whole thing up, and possibly ended the play.  But he responds as an imperious master and not as a good Christian as Paul would have him do.  The play is full of this sort of interchange in which the slaves and women get the better of the verbal joust but the masters are able to impose their physical and legal will on the underlings.

The subversive humor of the slaves in the play is similar to that of the slaves in the antebellum American South.  Humor was a weapon against despair.  Laughing was an alternative to crying and a creative way to do good in the world, to create joy out of suffering.  Making fun of oneself was a way of taking some of the sting out of one’s humiliation by putting into one’s humor.  Humor could even turn humiliation into humility, a cardinal Christian virtue.  And humor was a way of sticking it to the masters without their knowing.  It was a subversive way for the last to become first.[6]

Although Shakespeare generally seems in this play to be a conservative supporter of social hierarchy, the play ends in a most subversive way.  It closes with everyone disclosed as who they really are, and all seemingly reconciled with each other. The characters then leave the stage, seemingly in order of their social rank, to have dinner. In the last words and action of the play, the two slave brothers, the lowliest and therefore the last to go, debate who should precede the other as they leave.  Since they are identical twins, neither is the elder who would deserve precedence. They first think of picking cards to see who goes first, but then decide to go in together, side by side. “We came into the world like brother and brother. And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.”

This last statement is perhaps the most radical and telling in the play.  It is effectively an assertion of human equality and, implicitly, a rejection of the hierarchical views expressed in Saint Paul’s dictum on social inequality.  As I see this scene playing out, all of the other characters are very careful to exit in order of their social rank, with a good deal of sorting out amongst them before they march off.  They are very concerned to get the social hierarchy just right.  The two slaves then, instead of leaving according to some hierarchical ranking system, insist on going forward on the basis of equality.  So, is Shakespeare implying that we all come into the world as brothers and should proceed thereafter as equals?  Was he leaving his audience something really radical to think about?

7.  Grimm and Grimmer: A Mirror on our Better and Worse Selves?

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

I am writing this essay in the spring of 2018.  These are grim times for most of us in the United States and in much of the world.  If people want to seek escape in light-hearted comedies, I have no problem with that and I do it myself.  So, I don’t want to be a spoil-sport or unnecessarily hard-hearted in my analysis of Comedy.  But neither do I want to participate in sugar-coating brutality and oppression, which is what I think is done in conventional interpretations of the play.  To do so is to encourage callousness and indifference to the suffering of others.  Drama is supposed to encourage us to empathize with others, not be insensitive.

It has been said that comedy is like a mirror of society.  It is a good indication of who we are and where we are going.  In my observation and experience, there has been a tendency in recent years to Disney-ize Shakespeare’s comedies, that is, to take the sting out of them the way Walt Disney took the sting out of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tales.  There has also been a tendency to Rambo-ize some of the tragedies, that is, to emphasize and romanticize the fighting and pyrotechnics.  These are seemingly well-intentioned efforts to attract a new and younger audience to see Shakespeare.  But I think these efforts have unintended negative consequences and are essentially a reflection of our worse selves.

Playing Comedy as a light-hearted slapstick farce falls into the trap of laughing at the cruelty done to others which is not, I think, where most of us want to be or be going.  The question is whether one can play Comedy truthfully but also hopefully, seriously but also comically?  I think one can.  The key, as I have indicated above, is the way in which one approaches and plays the dialogues between overlords and underlings, and how one stages their physical interactions.

The overlords, that is, the masters, husbands, and male government officials, should be played as lordly and imperious.  The underlings, that is, the slaves, women, and commoners, should be played as clearly subservient and either timorously seeking favor or slyly seeking verbal revenge.  The underlings should demonstrate resentment in gestures unseen by their overlords, and in the tone of their voices, even when they relent to the commands of their overlords.

The overlords should literally walk over the underlings, not only through beating and pushing them around, but also through expecting them to jump out of the way, similar to the way white Southerners in the United States expected (and some still do) blacks to cower and duck when a white person walked by.  I think that these interactions can still be funny but only from the point of view of the underlings.  It is their reactions and coping mechanisms that should provide the humor, not their humiliation.

And the plight of Egeon should not be forgotten.  He should be kept visible somewhere in the back of the stage throughout the play, in chains and isolated in some sort of a cell.  The overriding cruelty of the situation in Ephesus should not be overlooked.  He could act as a silent witness, commenting on his own desperate situation and on the action in gestures to the audience that the other characters cannot see.  His gesturing can be both comic and pathetic.  That would make his situation both part of the humor but also part of the morality of the story.

Comedy comes in many different forms but one element that is common to virtually all comedy is the foolishness of at least one of the characters in the story.  It is the errors of fools that produce the plot-line and the laughter.  One of the key questions about a comedy is whether the audience is laughing at or laughing with the foolish characters.  If the audience is laughing at the characters, the comedy may promote the vanity of the members of the audience, setting us up as beings who can see ourselves as superior to the fools.  The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, held that laughter was a function of rejoicing at our own successes and the failures of others.  Comedy was, for him, laughing at others.

Most Elizabethan comedy was of this Hobbesian sort, as essentially a form of cruelty.  Hobbes saw the world in what we would call zero-sum terms in which my laughter is a function of my winning and your losing.  Some of Shakespeare’s comedies and some of the comic characters in his tragedies include cruel humor of this sort.  I think, however, that Shakespeare’s Comedy is more an example of laughing with rather than at the fools.

If an audience is laughing with the characters, comedy can serve as a means of self-criticism or humbling for the audience, holding us up to a mirror for self-examination.  In empathizing and identifying with the losers in the play, we can open ourselves to the idea that ‘There but for the grace of God go I” that Saint Paul was trying to instill in the Ephesians of his day.

Comedy should be played in such a way that the humor results from the self-awareness of the underlings, from their comic self-deprecating remarks and their verbal take-downs of the overlords.  Mark Twain has said that humor is the ultimate weapon, and that it is a weapon of necessity for the oppressed both against their own feelings of helplessness and against the arrogance of their oppressors.  This is what one can see in Comedy.  The young Shakespeare may have lacked subtlety in the mechanics of his play, but he did not lack nuance in its themes.

The title of the play, The Comedy of Errors, can itself be seen as a self-deprecating redundancy.  A comedy is by definition a tale triggered by errors.  Errors, fools, and foolishness are what comedy is all about. It is the source of the plot and the humor.  So, to call something a comedy of errors is effectively to say it is a comedy of comedy or an error of errors.  Such a title is either foolishness in itself or implies there is something erroneous about calling the play a comedy.  It may imply that the play is in the form of a comedy but may not be funny after all.  Shakespeare seems to be making fun of himself in the titling of his play.  And he may be telling us that we can laugh at the humor in Comedy, but not without some discomfort and concern for why we are laughing.  That is the moral and morality of the play.

B.W.  5/18


Postscript: 2018 Stratford Ontario Festival Production.

Silly instead of Satirical:

I recently attended a performance of The Comedy of Errors at the Stratford Festival.  It was very well staged, with an excellent cast of comic character actors.  But it was for the most part just a silly slapstick farce and failed to take advantage of the opportunities for social satire and social criticism that I have suggested in the essay above.

This failure is particularly disappointing since the director has made some very interesting changes in the genders of some of the characters.  He has one set of Antipholus and Dromio as men and the other set as women.  He has the Duke dressed in woman’s clothes and the courtesan is a transvestite.  These changes work well with the play and they could provided support for an interpretation that focused on the mistreatment of women, slaves and foreigners in the play.

                                                                                                                                    B.W.  6/12/18


[1] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Pp.23,26-27.

[2] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. Pp.33-36.

[3] Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. P.156.

[4] On Saint Paul’s social and moral ideas, see What Paul Meant by Garry Wills. New York: Viking Press, 2006.

[5] For a brilliant analysis of Comedy as a clash between medieval and modern legal norms, see Eric Heinze. “’Were it not against our laws’: oppression and resistance in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.” Legal Studies. Vol.29. Issue 2. 4/8/09.

[6] See the brilliant discussion of slave culture and humor in Eugene Genovese. Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.

Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View. Things fall apart and apart and apart…

Idealism as Egoism in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

The Contradictions in a Depressive’s Dystopian World View.

Things fall apart and apart and apart…

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”

Bob Dylan

Burton Weltman

A. Prologue and Warning.

Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is one of the most highly regarded novels that is least read.  This is a dubious distinction that it shares with such novels as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  Each of these novels is long, with a complicated narrative structure, lengthy descriptions of scenes and things, and abstract philosophical interludes. Each is full of soliloquys, speechifying, and long internal monologues that can seem stilted and unrealistic.  They are challenging reads.

First published in 1904, Nostromo has been called “a novel that one cannot read unless one has read it before.”[1]  It is chock full of characters, and the plot would be complex enough if it was narrated in a linear fashion, which it isn’t.  Conrad repeatedly switches from the novel’s present to the past and then to the future, and he gives the reader little clue when he has done so.  He also repeatedly switches the perspective on events, with different narrators presenting differing pictures of the same events.  There is no clear master narrative to the book, and not even common ground among the narrators or between the narrators and other characters.  The result is that the reader can never find a secure footing.  Staying with the book is an effort.  Many have questioned whether it is worth the effort, and decided that it isn’t.

I first read Nostromo some forty years ago.  I remember finding it exciting but disconcerting, and I wasn’t sure why.  I recently read Maya Jasanoff’s new biography of Conrad, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World,[2] which inspired me to reread Nostromo.  Once again, I found it exciting and exacting, but still disconcerting.  I think, however, that I now know why the book disturbs me.  I have also concluded that it is well worth the effort.  It is a beautiful, inciteful and haunting book about ideals, idealism, and ideas that forces you to rethink your own principles.  But I must add the warning that taking this book out of context could be hazardous to your mental health, and to your political and intellectual will.  I hope, herein, to explain what I mean.

B. The Plot: Making a Long Story as Short as I Can.

Nostromo is the story of a political revolution in the imaginary South American country of Costaguana (coast of bird dung).  The country is caught in a seemingly endless cycle of violent upheavals in which brutal dictatorships alternate with inept republics, over and over again, so that nothing ever really changes.  The current disorders revolve around a silver mine which is coveted by both would-be dictators and erstwhile republicans.  The republicans are portrayed in the book as the good guys, the dictators as bad guys.

In my reading, Nostromo is a story about the futility and fatality of idealism.  Jasanoff claims that Conrad believed that “force will crush ideals – and that ideals have victims,” a theme that “recurred throughout his writing” and particularly in Nostromo.[3]  The story is full of idealists, the bad guys as well as the good, who idealize all sorts of things that they think will make for a better world, but whose dreams invariably become nightmares.

The conflicts and contradictions among the characters’ ideals, and the egoism that lies behind them and pushes them forward, is the substance of the story.  It is not an uplifting tale. Conrad opines in his own voice that “A man haunted by a fixed idea is insane.  He is dangerous even if that idea is an idea of justice.”[4]  Idealism, according to Conrad, is a form of egoism, and idealists are pitiless in pursuit of their respective ideals. That is what repeatedly happens in the book.

Nostromo, the book’s namesake, is an ostensibly incorruptible employee of the shipping company that serves the silver mine.  He idealizes himself and lives only for the purity of his reputation.  He is a sympathetic character, but one who is clearly defined by egoism, and it is his egoism that leads to his downfall.  Other characters are not so openly egoistic, but egoism still underlies Conrad’s descriptions of their idealism.

Charles Gould is the owner of the mine.  He is an upright and universally respected man, whose materialism – his belief that money makes the world go around – is the basis for his idealism.  He believes his mine will provide the material foundation for a peaceful Costaguanan republic, and he openly speaks of himself as the savior of the country.  His efforts to develop the mine are backed by an American financier who also seeks to do good, so long as it is profitable.

Don Jose Avellanos is an aristocratic republican who was tortured almost to death by the previous dictator.  He upholds the ideal of noblesse oblige.  Antonia, his daughter, idealizes and supports her father.  Martin Decoud idealizes and pursues Antonia.  Giorgio Viola is a former follower of Garibaldi in Italy who idealizes heroic leaders, including Gould and Nostromo.

Mrs. Gould, Charles Gould’s wife, is a self-consciously saintly woman who idealizes humanity, and cares for the misfits and outcasts of Costaguanan society.  She is the exception that seemingly proves the rule in the book, as she is the one idealist who is not an egotist.

There are many other good guys in the book, and variations on the idealist theme.  There are also bad guys who are idealists, albeit idealists of evil.  They are exemplified by Guzman Bento, the previous tyrant who had tortured Don Jose Avellanos, and by General Montero and his brother Pedro Montero, would-be dictators in the current crisis.

In Conrad’s view, evil can be idealized.  He says, for example, of Guzman Bento that “The power of Supreme Government had been in his dull mind an object of strange worship, as if it were some cruel deity and it was incarnated in himself.”[5]  Bento is an idealist.  Each of these bad guys has an ideal of an orderly society in which he is the dictator.  And the fact is that the dictatorship of Guzman Bento brought peace to Costaguana, even if it was temporary and bought at a high cost in human suffering and death.

In the midst of the competing egos and ideals of the would-be saviors of Costaguana, the masses of ordinary people are rarely in evidence and invariably described in disparaging terms by the various narrators, including the voice of Conrad himself.  Conrad is no democrat.  The people are “the mob,” and victims of their own “mental darkness.”  He opines that “The popular mind is incapable of skepticism; and that incapacity delivers their helpless strength to the wiles of swindlers and to the pitiless enthusiasm of leaders inspired by visions of a high destiny” which, in turn, leads invariably to violence, brutality and oppression.[6]

None of the idealistic hopes of any of the characters is fulfilled, and this outcome is foredoomed by the fact that the idealism of each is essentially a form of egoism.  Each holds fast to an idea of an ideal world in which he/she rules and his/her ideas reign.  There is very little connection between and among these people or their ideas.  To each of them, it is “my way or the gallows.”

The book ends with the defeat of the Monteros and the installation of a weak and seemingly temporary republican regime.  More upheavals are inevitably in the offing.  The conclusion of most of the characters, and the book itself, is disillusionment.  Mrs. Gould speaks for most of the characters, and seemingly for Conrad, when she bemoans “Is it this we worked for, then?”[7]  Symbolizing the moral of the story, Nostromo performs heroically and righteously on behalf of the republican forces throughout three quarters of the book but dies ignominiously at the end after having compromised his integrity by stealing a consignment of silver from the mine.

C. Interpretations: Capitalist, Socialist, Imperialist, Anti-Imperialist, Racist, Humanist, Nihilist…You name it.

Nostromo has almost as many differing interpretations as it has interpreters. Commenting on this, Jasanoff says that “Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of antiglobalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists,” just to name a few.[8]  I think this diversity of interpretation is largely a function of there being so many narrators with different perspectives in the book.  They all take turns in being the voice of the book, even the bad guys.  Depending on which narrator you think that Conrad is favoring, you are likely to come up with an interpretation along the lines of that narrator’s perspective.

Some critics, for example, claim that the central message of the book is Gould’s argument that “material interests” will be the means of civilizing Costaguana, specifically in the form of his silver mine.  This ostensibly makes the book an encomium to capitalism.  Others claim that Nostromo’s affiliation with the workers in the book and his support for their wage and other claims makes the book an argument in favor of socialism.[9]

Some argue that the book is an apology for imperialism because the main voices in the book are those of Gould, Mrs. Gould, Decoud, and Nostromo, all of whom grew up and lived in Europe and who, thereby, represent a Western imperialist view of Costaguana.  These Europeans plus some European engineers and seamen are also the only competent people in the book.  Native Costaguanans are almost invariably portrayed as incompetent.  This argument is bolstered by the fact that Gould’s mine is dependent on the investment of an American financier who openly proclaims that America will one day rule Costaguana.  At the same time, other interpreters claim the book is effectively an anti-imperialist story because it portrays the futility of these Europeans to establish their republican government and civil society in Costaguana.  Costaguana is, after all, in as big a mess at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.[10]

Since native Costaguanans in the book are invariably portrayed as ignorant, incompetent, and irrational, mostly appearing in the form of rioting mobs, Nostromo has been condemned as racist.  At the same time, since the book repeatedly portrays ordinary Costaguanans as being exploited and oppressed by elites from all political parties, European and Costaguanan alike, the book has been praised as humanistic and humanitarian.  Finally, with all of the confusion and contradiction among the characters and their points of view, and with an overall picture of Costaguana as a worst of all possible worlds, Nostromo has been characterized as an exposition of nihilism and an example of post-modernism before its time.[11]

I think that each of these interpretations is plausible.  But their differences leave us readers as confused as the characters in the book.  What are we to think?  I think we can safely say that Conrad’s descriptions of things in the book are beautiful, even stunning.  His characters are brilliantly etched, and his transcriptions of their internal monologues are moving and convincing.  His portrayal of the action is riveting.  And Conrad’s discussion of social and political issues is incisive. Finally, I think we can say that the book is disconcerting.  This is in part because the book’s characters are uniformly depressed and the plot is thoroughly depressing.  But, even more, I think it is disconcerting because Conrad’s view of the world is a contradiction in terms.

D. The Dangers of a Disillusioned Idealist.

Conrad’s world views, according to Jasanoff, were derived from his personal experiences which were filled with hardships and disappointments.  Conrad was a Polish refugee from Russian oppression who had difficulty finding a country in which to settle.  He was from a self-styled aristocratic family but had to work as a young man in menial jobs and as an ordinary seaman.  He began his literary career writing popular sea stories, and had trouble being taken seriously when he began writing more serious fiction.[12]  He also suffered most of his life from clinical depression.  Jasanoff opines that Conrad had a “blighted childhood” that “inspired a fatalistic sense of the world as a realm where, no matter how hard you tried to make your own way, you might never slip the tracks of destiny.”[13]

Conrad’s parents were idealistic activists for Polish independence from Russia.  His antipathy to idealism seemingly was initially derived from the futility of their idealism.  His parents fought, and they and he suffered, as the Russians persecuted his parents for their activism.  Conrad’s anti-idealism also stemmed from his disappointment that what he remembered as the brotherly community of seamen on the ships on which he sailed did not prevail on land.  Conrad idealized merchant ships as cooperative societies in which superior authority was respected.  Based on his shipboard memories, Jasanoff claims, “he treasured a misty ideal of personal honor, commitment to duty, a community of people willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger.”[14] Conrad’s dismay that he did not find this ideal being honored on land, especially among erstwhile idealists, was acute.

As a result, Conrad disdained idealism and saw himself as a realist.  Most critics have agreed, but I do not.[15]  I think that in Nostromo he is a disillusioned idealist who has become a pessimist but is still an idealist.  Conrad rejects idealism but still judges the world in idealistic terms.  What he is really condemning is idealism that takes the form of ideology, as opposed to idealism that stems from an ethical ideal.  While condemning idealism in toto, he applies an ethical ideal to those he is condemning.  This contradiction between what he preaches about the world and what he practices in his judgments of the world leads him to a view that is solipsistic, dystopian, and hopeless.  It is a view that is unrealistic, unhelpful, and unnecessarily demoralizing.  It is inherently inconsistent, and I think Conrad does not really believe in it.  Its inconsistencies undermine the book’s credibility, and they are disconcerting to readers trying to make sense of it.

I will elaborate on this argument and make some comparisons of Nostromo with Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart which, like Nostromo, is a story about a third-world society in crisis.  In Achebe’s book, what had been a fairly stable and well-functioning African peasant society is disrupted and ultimately destroyed by an invasion of Europeans, many of whom are idealists of one sort or another intent on civilizing the natives according to Western standards.[16]

E. Idealism as Ideology and Ethics: Give Peace a Chance.

Conrad makes a sustained attack on idealism in Nostromo, blaming the mess in Costaguana primarily on idealistic politicians blinded by egoism.  He then, however, applies to the behavior of these misguided idealists an ethical ideal even as he condemns the idealism in them.  This contradiction between what Conrad preaches and what he practices is disconcerting.

Idealism is commonly defined as the pursuit of perfection.  “Pursuit” is the operative term in the definition.  Perfection is to be perpetually sought after but is never expected to be achieved.  One can, however, distinguish between conceiving idealism ideologically and conceiving it ethically.

An ideology is a body of doctrines, a set of fixed ideas with definite meanings and boundaries.  It is something to be followed and tends to be exclusive.  It defines right versus wrong, and good versus bad.  Those who don’t agree with your ideas become the opposition, and even the enemy.  In Nostromo, Conrad portrays ideals as ideologies and idealists as people who seek to impose their fixed ideas on the world.  These people all too easily become fanatics in their single-minded idealism, and it is a fanaticism rooted in egoism.  The ideologue insists that reality must fit into the Procrustean bed of his/her ideas.

Idealistic ideologies in Nostromo include Charles Gould’s ideal of a capitalist society in which peace and prosperity would be ensured by the mutual interests of all people in the free flow of commerce.  This was a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Western Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Guzman Bento’s ideal was an authoritarian society in which peace and prosperity were ensured by the iron fist of a dictator, himself.  This was, and still is, a favorite ideal among the upper classes in Eastern Europe, among other places.

Idealism is for Conrad the insanity of the man with a fixed idea who will destroy anything in the way of his ideal of perfection, and who will slaughter people to save the world from their imperfections.  In this conception, idealism almost invariably generates the fear, hatred and vengeance it is supposed to eliminate.[17]

An ethic can be described as a set of principles and a process of applying those principles.  An ethic can be seen as an image of perfection which has core values but can be fuzzy around the edges.  Images can be more flexible in form and substance than ideas. An ethic can be more inclusive than an ideology, and an image can be seen as overlapping with those of others, or at least not inconsistent with them.  People’s ethical principles don’t have to match exactly for them to cooperate with each other, and the way ethical principles are applied can depend on the situation.  Idealism can then respond creatively to changes in circumstances, rather than ignore or deny them.  It can be pragmatically inclusive, rather than ideologically exclusive.

The Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you if you were in their situation” is an example of such an ideal.  The Golden Rule is flexible, inclusive, and its operation depends on the circumstances in which it is applied.  And it is the antithesis of egoism, requiring empathy, the acceptance of differences among people, and cooperation with others in devising the solution to a problem.  There is a version of the Golden Rule in almost every religious and philosophical system in the world, which makes it a potentially unifying ethic.

The Golden Rule is the sort of “one for all and all for one” ethic that often arises spontaneously among people working on a project together.  If Conrad had been interested in exploring the ways of life of ordinary people in Costaguana, he could probably have conceived it in operation, at least to some extent, among the Costaguanan peasants and workers.  Chinua Achebe portrays this sort of cooperation among ordinary people in Things Fall Apart and it cushions some of the pessimism in his book.

With the exception of Mrs. Gould, Conrad does not explore this concept of idealism in Nostromo or imagine how it might have played out among ordinary people.  If he had, the book might have had a different outlook.  Of course, it is not for a reader to tell an author what book to write.  The author gets to make that choice.  It is ironic, however, that the Golden Rule ethic exemplified by Mrs. Gould is the ideal to which I think Conrad himself holds, and by which he judges the book’s characters.  With the exception of Mrs. Gould, they all fail to be empathetic, inclusive, cooperative or pragmatic.  Each and every one of them runs off on his own tangent, insisting on his way is the only way.  And Conrad condemns them for failing to practice what I am describing as the Golden Rule ideal.  This generates a disconcerting contradiction between the anti-idealism he preaches in his narrative and the idealism he practices in his judgments.

Bob Dylan expressed something of the Golden Rule ethical ideal in his “Talking World War III Blues.”  The song is a dystopian dream of the world following a nuclear war.  In his dream, the narrator of the song sees himself as the only person left in the world.  He is lonely and does not see the purpose in living.  The narrator then goes on to say that he is finding more and more people who are having dreams of nuclear war in which they are the only ones left.  So, he concludes his song with a proposal to everyone who is having such dreams that he will let them be in his dream if he can be in theirs.  The song is an ironic expression of hope in the midst of dystopian fears.  It is a minimalist hope, but still something to build upon.

F. A Fall from Grace without Grace: Humpty Dumpty at least had a wall.

The society Conrad portrays in Nostromo is ostensibly a fallen world of the sort we would today call a dystopia.  Almost everything that can go wrong in the book goes wrong.  There are no good options from which characters can choose.  They are continuously faced with trying to choose between the lesser of two evils, making that choice, and then having the greater evil come to pass.  Things fall apart and apart in an endless dissolution.

The problem with this picture is that you cannot fall if there is nowhere to fall from, and things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  That is what is missing from the story.  There is no starting point or reference point in the book that is not dystopian, and seemingly no time when things were not dystopian.  There is, therefore, no benchmark by which you could say that society has fallen.  This is not merely an analytical problem — about how to measure the amount the society has fallen – it is a disqualifier.  You cannot describe a situation as a mess if you have no conception of what a non-messy situation would be like, or from whence the mess derived.

In Things Fall Apart, for example, Achebe begins the book with a description of Nigerian society before the Europeans arrived, and then proceeds to describe how the advent of the Europeans brought down the hero of the book and his society.  One thing led to another, and things fell apart.  This is the way most stories work, even those that like Nostromo begin in media res, that is, in the middle of things.  Things cannot fall apart if they were never together.  A story either begins with a “Once upon a time” description of an original status quo or refers to some prior time and situation that constitutes a reference point for the story’s action.

Not so with Nostromo.  We are apparently supposed to believe that chaos reigned eternally in Costaguana.  That cannot be, and Conrad knows it.  He also knows that his readers will inevitably try to make sense of the Costaguanan situation by imagining some sort of normalcy that preceded the cycle of crises in which Costaguana is caught.  In failing to provide an explicit normalcy reference point, Conrad is, in effect, cheating.  He is counting on the fact that humans will instinctively and intuitively fill in the gaps in a story, so that we readers will imagine a benchmark with which to describe Costaguanan society as fallen.

Conrad seemingly does not want to admit that ordinary Costaguanans were ever able to exist peaceably and productively.  Conrad thinks the masses are irrationally emotional   He is not a democrat, and the word democrat is repeatedly used disparagingly in the book.  In Nostromo, brutes who disguise themselves as populist leaders mesmerize the masses.  Claiming to idealize “the People,” they sell dictatorship as democracy, and this ersatz democracy inevitably succumbs to “Caeserism.”[18]  Conrad prefers an aristocratic republic for Costaguana, but he cannot see how such a government can survive the idiocy of the masses and the malevolence of the demagogues.  The result is the vicious cycle of crises that he describes in the book.

But the reality is that the current state of chaos in Costaguana that Conrad describes could not exist without there having been some past state of relative normality, some functioning society of ordinary people, that underlies the present crisis and sustains the country even in the midst of the chaos. And Conrad knows this and knows better than he is letting on.  Conrad’s unwillingness to describe a past state of normality seems to be a function of his disdain for the Costaguanan natives who would, after all, be the ones who created and supported any such state of normalcy, and who he repeatedly describes as ignorant, incompetent and idiotic.

Conrad’s disdain of native Costaguanans in Nostromo, and his disregard of natives in his other books as well, has been described as racism by Chinua Achebe, among others.  I do not agree.  I think his disparagement of native peoples is primarily a function of Conrad’s class-ism, his disdain for the working classes.  Conrad was himself from an aristocratic family that fell on hard times.  His elitism and ignorance of how ordinary people live is evident in Nostromo.

Conrad is unwilling or unable to recognize that normality is a result of ordinary people doing ordinary things – growing food, making things, transporting stuff around, and providing necessary services, which are the foundation of any society.  Without this foundation, the elite classes could not engage in the shenanigans that he portrays in his book.  And as a reader, it is disconcerting trying to figure out how a society can be fallen from nowhere, and how an elite class can exist without a functioning underclass and a social system that supports it.

G. Solipsism without Sincerity: You talkin’ to me?

The world Conrad portrays in Nostromo is peopled with characters who are unable to make meaningful intellectual and emotional contact with each other.  It is a solipsistic world in which people essentially talk to themselves even as they talk to others, without making a real impression on each other.  Conrad seems to be saying that people cannot meaningfully understand each other, even if they try very hard.

In Nostromo, the Europeanized political elite, both the good guys and the bad, talk past each other, caught up in their respective egoistic ideals.  They also talk over the heads of the masses and there is nothing the ordinary people have to say to them.  In contrast, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the European colonists often talk past each other, and there is very little meaningful contact between the Europeans and the Nigerian natives, but there is meaningful communication among the natives.  Conrad does not portray this sort of thing and, so, we are left with a picture of almost complete dysfunctionality.

The problem with this view is that in writing and publishing this book, Conrad seems to be assuming that he and his readers can make meaningful contact.  As such, he seemingly contradicts his book’s thesis in writing the book.  We have become used over the last century or so to writers who are intent on expressing themselves irrespective of their legibility to the reader.  But this was not the case with Conrad.  Nostromo is not a book that he just tossed off without caring if anyone read it or understood it.  Conrad was not a proponent of art for art’s sake, or an expressionist writer.  Nostromo is a complex book, but it is essentially a conventional narrative.  It is also a passionately written book, and Conrad cared very much about reviews of the book and readers’ responses to it.[19]

As such, Conrad’s conclusion that people cannot make meaningful contact seems to be contradicted by his premise in writing the book, and Conrad’s message does not seem consistent with his medium.  It can be disconcerting for readers to try to understand a complex narrative that seems to be saying that we cannot understand each other anyway.

H. The Moral of the Story: What can we say and do?

Nostromo is a depressing book that almost saps the reader’s will to work for progressive social change.  Conrad would seemingly have us believe that the situation in Costaguana, and seemingly in the world at large, is hopeless, what with inevitably egotistic people invariably talking past each other, and unable to act in meaningful consort.  But I don’t think he believes it.

Conrad refused to find hope or to imagine hopeful choices in the Costaguanan situation.  He proclaimed a reign of hopelessness.  But in so doing he contradicted himself.  For despite their depressing circumstances, the surviving characters in Nostromo were all planning for what they hoped would be a better future as the book ended. So, there must be at least some hope.

To be hopeless is to be without future prospects.  No one but a dead person is without future prospects.  You may feel hopeless, but it is instinctive to be continuously looking forward to the next moment.  That’s just part of the psychology and physiology of life.  Arthur Schopenhauer, for example, whose philosophy of hopelessness depressed generations of Germans during the nineteenth century, was something of a gourmet who, despite his philosophy, had no problem with looking forward to his next meal. That was a man with hope.

Since hope is inevitable, the better part of wisdom would seem to be to seek the best of all possible choices even in a worst of all possible worlds.  It does no harm to a truthful picture of a grim reality to look for possibilities of change for the better, even if they are slight.  We have no choice but to choose, so the reasonable thing is to choose what looks better, rather than pretend to give up but still go on looking forward to your next good meal, as Schopenhauer did, or your next book, as Conrad did.

Idealism is not necessarily a vehicle for egoism.  Mrs. Gould exemplifies this point, and while she is portrayed as an exception in Nostromo, this is not inevitably the case.  In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the main character is an egotistical idealist, whose egoism brings him down and significantly harms his community.  But Achebe also credibly portrays many people whose idealism is combined with a form of communitarianism, and who subordinate their egos to the needs of the community.  That idealism is a hopeful point in an otherwise dystopian picture.

Conrad described in Nostromo a situation in which political regimes rapidly succeeded each other and tried to overturn whatever the previous regime had done.  This scenario led him to despair of progressive social change.   But social change is a long-term game, and while progressives need to survive short term reversals of fortune, progress depends on long-term cultural and demographic changes, especially among ordinary people.

Conrad refused to focus on the ordinary people, and so he missed the underlying foundation of Costaguanan society.  In turn, he missed an opportunity to imaginatively explore the possibilities for long-term cultural and demographic changes in a country like Costaguana that might support progressive social changes.  In focusing his story solely on elite politicians whose primary goal was to overthrow each other and impose their own will on the world, Conrad, not surprisingly, came to a pessimistic conclusion about the possibilities of social reform.

We are seeing this sort of short-term political reversal in the United States today under the Trump presidency and with right-wing Republican ascendancy in Congress and on the Supreme Court.  These right-wing politicians are trying to overturn whatever had been achieved by the progressive presidency of Barack Obama and Democratic Congressional majorities.  A short-term focus on politicians and politics might lead progressives today to a pessimistic conclusion like Conrad’s.  But I think that would be a mistake.

As I write this essay in March, 2018, long-term underlying cultural and demographic changes seem to favor progressives in the United States, which perhaps helps explain the extremism and seeming desperation of the regressives in charge of our federal government and some of our so-called red-state governments.  Using something like the Golden Rule as our image of the ideal, and keeping our eyes and efforts on the long-term while seizing whatever short-term possibilities that present themselves, we can rescue hope from despair.  And while realizing what is missing from Nostromo – interest in ordinary people and on how things get done in everyday life – we can read the book for the beauty and insights it affords without losing our political and intellectual will.

[1] Kenneth Ligda. “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab at

[2] Maya Jasanoff.  The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

[3] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. pp.82, 283.

[4] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[5] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.160.  Also p.357.

[6] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.231, 357, 384.

[7] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.453.

[8] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.9.

[9] Matthew Waller. “The Allegorical Nostromo.”

[10] Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.   Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.           M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014.

[11] Kenneth Ligda “Nostromo.” Yale Modernism Lab.  Jacek Gutorow. “The Paradoxes of the European Narrative: Edward Said’s Reading of Joseph Conrad.”  4/22/08.

[12] Ironically, Conrad disdained Herman Melville as merely a writer of popular sea stories. The irony is that Melville faced the same prejudice as Conrad when Melville turned from writing adventure sea stories to more serious fiction such as Moby Dick. See Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.11.

[13] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.53.

[14] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.149.

[15] M. Wilding. “The Politics of Nostromo.”  2014

[16] Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

[17] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. p.350.

[18] Joseph Conrad. Nostromo. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. pp.372, 384.

[19] Maya Jasanoff. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. p.305.

Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty. Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Dreamers and Misdemeanors: Amnesty and Honesty.

Adverse Possession as the American Way of Life.

Burton Weltman

Prologue: An Argument on behalf of the Dreamers.

I am writing this in early February, 2018 in the midst of the national debate about what should be done with the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrant children who were illegally brought to the United States by their parents and who have grown up as Americans.  Depending on how you define Dreamers, there are between some 800,000 and two million of them.  I present herein an argument on their behalf.

Illegal is not Dishonest.

One of the talking points of the xenophobes who are opposed to allowing so-called Dreamers to remain in the United States is that allowing the Dreamers to stay would be giving them and their parents a reward for illegal behavior.  Xenophobes have couched the debate in terms of amnesty versus honesty, denigrating those who support the Dreamers’ right to stay as favoring an ignominious amnesty, and congratulating those who oppose the Dreamers as upholding the principles of honesty.  The debate is portrayed by the xenophobes as dishonest law breakers versus honest law supporters.

I think the xenophobes have got it right that the debate is about honesty versus amnesty.  I just think they have it the wrong way around.  Honesty is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as being fair and straight-forward.  By this definition, the Dreamers are the honest ones.  They have not done anything underhanded or unfair.  The overwhelming majority of them have lived upright and productive lives in the United States.  They may be illegal, but they are not being dishonest.

It is their xenophobic predators who are being dishonest.  And I think the debate is better seen as between faith breakers and faith makers, a matter of honesty is as honesty does.  It’s the Dreamers who are the honest faith makers and their opponents the dishonest and dishonorable faith breakers.  The Dreamers were brought here as children, are in this country on good faith, and are just doing what most good young people here do to be successful.  It is the xenophobes who are breaking faith with the Dreamers.  In turn, I do not think the Dreamers should be seen as needing amnesty.  They just need a fair construction of the law.

Illegal is not a Crime.

There is a fundamental distinction in our legal system, going back to the Middle Ages, between what is termed malum in se and malum prohibitum.  Something that is malum in se is considered evil in itself and is deemed illegal because it is evil.  Something that is malum prohibitum is considered inconsistent with the public welfare or disruptive of the public welfare, and is deemed illegal essentially because it is inconvenient.

There is also a fundamental legal principle going back to the Middle Ages that considers something as your right if you have been doing it continuously and it is not harmful in itself, i.e., is not a malum in se.  That means if something is merely a malum prohibitum, you can gain the right to do that thing if you have been continuously doing it.  Just because something is illegal, that is, it is not authorized by the law, does not necessarily make that thing a crime.  And it may even become legal under the appropriate circumstances.

Trespassing on somebody’s land is the classic example of a malum prohibitum that becomes a legal right if you do it continuously.  If you regularly walk or drive across someone’s land for long enough with at least the implied knowledge and/or acquiescence of the landowner, the landowner will eventually no longer be able to prohibit you from entering and traversing his land.  You have gained the right to cross his land by what is called adverse possession.  It takes years to gain this right, but it is an example of turning something illegal into something lawful.

For most of American history, there were no prohibitions against immigration.  Anyone could come into this land and after a period of years could apply for citizenship.  With the exception of a short and shameful period during the 1790’s when the Alien and Sedition Acts provided for the deportation of immigrants on political grounds, there was virtually no regulation of immigration until the late nineteenth century, and no immigration quotas until the early twentieth century.

Most citizens of the United States today are the descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was either totally or almost completely free.  In the early 1900’s, laws were enacted which changed things, and essentially required you to get authorization from the federal government to immigrate into the United States. These laws made unauthorized entry into the country illegal.

What is called illegal immigration under current law is really two different things: unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States and unlawful entry into the United States.  Unlawful or unauthorized presence in the United States is not defined as a crime.  Dreamers who were brought by their parents to this country as children may be present unlawfully, but they did nothing wrong and they have not committed a crime.  Under the law, they can be deported but not otherwise punished.  Their only offense is living, and theirs is a genuinely pro-life defense.

Unlawful entry is a crime.  The Dreamers’ parents may be guilty of unlawful entry and, therefore, guilty of a crime.  But it is only a malum prohibitum.  There is nothing inherently evil about what they did.  And both the unlawful presence of the Dreamers and the illegal entry of their parents are essentially forms of trespassing.  As a consequence, continual residence in the United States especially by the Dreamers, but also by their parents and most other illegal immigrants of longstanding presence in the country, ought to lead to the right to remain here, especially if they have otherwise been lawful residents.  The Dreamers, their parents and most illegal immigrants ought to benefit from the principle of adverse possession.

Honesty should not be a Crime.

Amnesty is for people who have committed crimes.  The Dreamers should not need amnesty because their status is not criminal.  Not a felony, not a misdemeanor, not even an infraction.  The idea that allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States and possibly become citizens is a form of amnesty is contrary to the fundamental principles of our legal system.  It is dishonest to treat them as offenders when they have committed no offense.  Unfortunately, dishonesty is not a crime in this country.  If it was, it is those who oppose the Dreamers who would be the offenders, not the Dreamers.  But if dishonesty is not a crime, honesty should certainly not be considered one. For this reason, the Dreamers should not need amnesty.

It is ironic that most of the people who are objecting to the Dreamers’ presence in the United State are descendants of immigrants who came here when immigration was essentially free, and who occupied this country in what could only charitably be called adverse possession against the real owners of the country, the Native Americans.  The occupation of the country by Europeans was actually more like breaking-and-entering with murderous force, a highest level of felony in our criminal code.  But, at this point, the Europeans’ continued appropriation of the land is justified as a so-called fact-on-the-ground, a fait accompli that represents the right of their adverse possession.

The Dreamers have done nothing so egregious as the Europeans who took this country by force and fraud from the Native Americans.  The justification that most European Americans today would give for their right to continue to live here is that European settlers (“settler” being a euphemism for trespasser) and their descendants have been here for so long, it would be unfair to send them back to Europe.  The same reason should apply to most illegal immigrants.

Since this country essentially justifies its existence on the grounds of adverse possession and continues to operate under that principle to the present day, Dreamers and other ostensibly illegal immigrants of longstanding residence in the country should not need a charitable act of amnesty to be able to stay here.  The honest thing to do would be to recognize their continued residence in the United States as a matter of right.

BW 2/6/18


Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Just how dead are they? A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Just how dead are they?  A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

 Burton Weltman

 “We cannot choose our circumstances,

but we can always choose how we respond to them.”



1.Prologue: Existentialist Nightmares.

“We are our choices.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

We have all had this nightmare.  You are trapped in a scary place that you can’t get out of, or you are being chased by someone or something that you can’t get away from.  You almost get free, but then not.  You are baffled and can’t figure out what to do.  But, just before you are done in by whatever is threatening you, you wake up, shaking, but free of the danger.

That is essentially the experience of two minor characters from Hamlet as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s comic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Caught in what appears to them, and to us in the audience, as a nightmare, they stumble about, futilely trying to figure out what is going on, and how to get out of whatever it is.  The dreamlike quality of their existence is exemplified by their frequent inability to remember things, including the events of their own lives before they were caught up in Hamlet’s story.  They also repeatedly find themselves in scenes of Hamlet and not remembering how they got there.  It is like a nightmare.  Only they don’t wake up.  And they are done in at the end.[1]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play set inside another play, Hamlet, and it runs in tandem with the other play.  Whatever happens in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is bounded and limited by what happened in Hamlet.  That is, nothing can occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that would conflict with or contradict the script of Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must work out their own fates within the confines of Hamlet’s tragedy.

Stoppard is generally considered to be an existentialist playwright.  Existentialism is generally considered to be a philosophy of choices.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard has created a situation of severely constricted choices.  He has, thereby, pushed the existential situation to its extremes.  Since Hamlet ends with an announcement of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we the audience watch the humorous antics of the two bumbling characters in Stoppard’s play with muted horror because we already know the ending of Hamlet.  But we still hope against hope that they will wake up to their situation and escape what seems to be their fatal fate.  They don’t wake up from their nightmare and they don’t escape, but could they have?  I think this is the crucial question of the play.

Were there options that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have taken within the confines of Hamlet that would have allowed them to survive, despite the announcement of their deaths at the end of that play?  Were there choices that Stoppard could have had them make that would have enabled them to survive, despite being constrained by the terms of Hamlet.  I say “Yes,” there were.  They could have survived, and that is the main point of Stoppard’s play.

2.The Plot: Such as it is.

“Man is conditioned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two young Danes, apparently Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends and classmates at Wittenberg University in Germany.  They have been summoned by the newly installed Danish King Claudius to the King’s castle to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet has recently returned from Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the late King Hamlet.  Prince Hamlet is behaving in suspicious ways, which is of concern to the new King since he had secretly murdered Hamlet’s father in order to gain the throne, and he would not want the Prince digging up the dirt on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seeming to have no real option but to obey the command of their King, agree to watch Hamlet and report on him.

The two characters spend the rest of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wandering around inside Hamlet’s play.  They show up at key dramatic moments of Hamlet, openly appearing in the action of Hamlet where they have been written into the script of that play, secretly behind the scenes of Hamlet where they are not in the Hamlet script.  They observe the action in Hamlet, but play no active role in the course of either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are passive actors in both plays.  But, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were by the terms of their play unable to alter the course of Hamlet’s play, that does not mean they were without options and choices.

3. A story inside a story: An existentialist dilemma.

“I rebel; therefore, I exist.” The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus.

Every story, whether factual or fictional, begins with some sort of “Once upon a time” scenario.  “Once upon a time” creates the existential situation within which the characters in the story will make their way.  It provides the background and the setup of the story, that is, the status quo from which the story proceeds.  The story’s plotline will then disrupt the status quo – that is the gist of the story – and the story will generally end with some new ordering of things.

The opening is critically important to a story because the opening usually portends the story’s ending.  The setup of a story generally indicates who and what is important, and inclines events in a certain direction.  The options allowed to the characters, and the existential choices they can make, are defined and constrained by the opening setup.  It is like setting up a debate.  Whoever gets to set the terms of the debate is most likely to win, and if you join the debate on someone else’s terms, you are most likely to lose.

It is often the case in a fictional story that if you are not there at the beginning, you are likely to meet a bad end.  That is one of the problems facing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their play.  They are there at the beginning of their own play, but they are almost an afterthought in Hamlet’s story and, as such, they were expendable to Hamlet.  But that does not mean they weren’t important to themselves, or that they were expendable to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard did something quite unusual in this play, for which there isn’t even a name.  He told a story about two minor characters in Hamlet, and did so within the confines of that play.  It is a story inside a story, which is different than a play within a play, such as the one Shakespeare included in Hamlet.  The play within Hamlet was part of the plot.  It was a device used by young Hamlet to further his goal of unmasking Claudius as a murderer.  But Stoppard’s play is not part of the plot of Hamlet.  It occurs in, but is not of, Hamlet.  

It is not uncommon for an author to piggyback his work onto an existing popular story, either a story by another author or by him/herself.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  There are prequels that tell the backstory of the original work; interquels that fill in happenings taking place between events in the original story; sidequels that tell of things taking place at the same time as the original story; and sequels that tell of what happened after the end of the story.

In the case of Hamlet, a prequel might have described young Hamlet’s childhood. An interquel might have described what Laertes did while he was away from Denmark during the middle of the play.  A sidequel might have described what Fortinbras was doing before he appeared at the end of the playAnd a sequel might have described what happened in Denmark after all the main characters in the play were dead and Fortinbras had taken over.  In composing each of these types of “quels,” an author must be consistent with the original story, but he/she is essentially operating outside of that story and has a good deal of latitude in composing his/her own plot.

But Stoppard did something else.  He placed his story directly inside the story of Hamlet and, thereby, narrowly limited the scope of his invention and his characters’ options.  His two main characters must repeatedly come up to the mark of their roles in Hamlet.  Whatever they do or wherever they go, they must be back to make their scheduled appearances in Hamlet, and nothing they do can conflict with their roles in that play.

But that does not mean that Stoppard had no latitude within which to play, or that his characters could not act on their own behalf in their own play.  There was wiggle room in Hamlet within which he could create and they could react.  So, how could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have escaped their seemingly fated deaths, and why didn’t they?

4. Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism: Finding Existential Wiggle Room.

“Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a philosophic play that raises many questions, including questions about whether people are capable of willing freely what they choose, or are bound by deterministic chains of cause and effect.  Most critics claim that the play is intended to illustrate the randomness of the universe as it appears to us and the determinism of the universe as it is in reality.  The play, they say, emphasizes the contradiction between the way in which we experience the world as freedom and the way in which the world really is.

Stoppard, these critics argue, portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “moving towards an inescapable fate,” despite what they experience as “the randomness of life.”  The two characters are chronically befuddled, and have no real options or choices.[2]  The play shows people “at the mercy of external forces,” and “unable to make any significant choices.”[3]  It is “a play about the tricks of fate” which render Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “incapable of helping themselves,” and make them symbols of  a helpless and hopeless humanity.[4]  In this view, Stoppard portrays the world as “absurd” and “uncertain,” and the “hapless” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify humanity’s inability to make significant choices and take meaningful action.[5]  In sum, the moral of the story is the futility of free will and the fatality of determinism.

In support of this reading, critics point to views in the play expressed by the Player and seconded by Guildenstern.  Stoppard identifies the Player as the chief of the actors hired by Hamlet to enact the play within his play.  These actors play a small role in Hamlet but a big role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of discussions between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about life and living.  Consistent with his vocation as an actor, the Player holds that all of life is scripted for us, and that our role in life is to follow the script.  “We have no control,” he declaims. “Wheels have been set in motion,” and “Events must play themselves out,” he insists.[6]

The Player’s is essentially a deterministic view of life.  It is a view, however, that relegates most of us to playing subordinate roles in scripts written by and for others, putting ourselves in the service of others, and without any say-so.  The actors in the Player’s troupe are, in fact, willing to perform any script and any action for anyone.  They don’t even need to be paid money.  They merely need an audience.  Significantly, they apparently moonlight as male prostitutes.  Guildenstern buys into the Player’s rationale, and it is on this basis he and Rosencrantz act.

Many critics claim that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent anti-existentialist characters because they repeatedly refuse to choose, and just meander along within Hamlet’s play.  The play, in this view, is a refutation of existentialism.  But that is not accurate.  Existentialism claims that we cannot refuse to choose.  We are choosing all the time, even when we refuse to choose.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially Guildenstern, may not want to choose, but they are choosing anyway.

While the setup of the play mitigates against the idea of free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must perform their roles in Hamlet and are not free to choose otherwise – there is a third way of looking at the human condition that encompasses both free will and determinism.  And it is a way that is consistent with the existentialist point of view with which Stoppard is usually associated.  It is called compatibilism, and I think it is what the play is mainly about.  Compatibilism proposes that “My action is free, because the event which immediately precedes it is an act of will; it is necessitated because it comes at the end of a series each of whose items is a necessary consequence of its predecessor.”[7]

That is, in retrospect, we can look at a result and see how a chain of causes and effects led to the result.  But, we can also see the choices that were made in creating that chain of events, and we can see that if different choices had been made, the chain would have been changed and the result would have been different.  In turn, we can prospectively see the options we have and choices we must make, which will be the beginning of another chain of events.  We have free will, but it operates within the constraints of our context which consists of chains of events that we cannot change.  For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their context is the play Hamlet, but they are free to move about within the constraints of that play.

Compatibilism essentially encompasses what existentialists describe as the facticity and anxiety of the human situation.  The facticity is that we find ourselves in a universe that we didn’t make or choose, that we don’t control, and that is essentially indifferent to our existence.  The anxiety stems from the fact that we must choose what to do, and how to make our way.  Refusing to choose, which we are free to do, is still choosing.  And we can’t make choices or make our way on our own.  We must do what we can with what we have, and do it with others.  Others are part of our context.  The stories of our lives are inevitably intertwined with others, and we can do nothing without the cooperation of others.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if you’ll let me be in yours,” intones Bob Dylan in a song about surviving the nightmare of nuclear war.  No one’s survival is secure without the survival of the others.[8]  Hamlet tried to compose and enact his story on his own, not trusting to include even his best friend Horatio in his plans, and Hamlet failed badly.  His story became a bloody nightmare that none of the principles escaped.  If only he had confided to Horatio about his interactions with the Ghost, the play may have ended very differently, and he might have survived.  So might have Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes, who were innocent bystanders to Hamlet’s story, as were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a similar choice to spin out their tale on their own, without confiding in Hamlet or anyone else, and they, too, did not survive.  But they could have.

5. In for a penny, in for a pounding: Rationale vs. Rationalization.

“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

Literature is full of twosome heroes and heroines.  The pairs can take different forms and serve different functions within the stories in which they appear.  Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the dominant character is the smarter of the two and comes up with the answers to their problems.  Other times, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is the subordinate character who is smarter and has the answers.  Quixote is a scholar while Panza is illiterate, but Quixote is also a fool and Panza is clever.  In the play Waiting for Godot, to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is often compared, the dominant character, Vladimir, is the more intellectual of the two.  He frequently philosophizes and rationalizes about the predicament in which he and his sidekick, Estragon, find themselves.  And his conclusions generally help.  So, the two of them are able to work through their crises, and make their situation bearable.[9]

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the dominant character, Guildenstern, is the more intellectual of the two, but his rationalizations of their situation only lead the two of them into deeper trouble.  Rosencrantz is intellectually feeble, but intuitively a genius.  In the 1990 movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard, Rosencrantz repeatedly stumbles into inventing all sorts of modern devices.  He also repeatedly tells Guildenstern that something is dreadfully wrong with the situation they are in and that they should get out of there fast.  Guildenstern, however, dismisses Rosencrantz’s inventions in the movie as silly and, in both the movie and in the script for the play, he dismisses Rosencrantz’s rationales for leaving as foolish.  Guildenstern, instead, constructs rationalizations for their staying the course.  So, they stay.

Guildenstern’s rationalizations essentially take the form of what in scientific circles during Shakespeare’s time were known as “saving the appearances.”  “Saving the appearances” was a phrase that from ancient times through the seventeenth century was applied to the attempts of astronomers to make sense of the geo-centered Ptolemaic model of the universe.  The Ptolemaic model put the Earth at the center of the universe and portrayed the other planets and the stars as revolving around the Earth.  Over the course of the centuries, however, astronomers discovered new planets and stars that did not fit within the original geo-centered model.  So, they adduced increasingly weird orbits for these planets and stars – epicycles and other wrinkles – in order to save the appearances of the model.  It was a brilliant construction that occupied some of the best minds for two millenniums, but it became very complicated and convoluted.

The Ptolemaic system was finally rejected by Copernicus and his followers during the sixteenth century in favor of a simpler helio-centric model that encompassed all of the observations of the planets and stars without all of the complications of the geo-centered model.  Conservatives, including the Catholic Church, resisted the new model on the grounds that it demoted the place of humanity within God’s creation and conflicted with passages in the Bible.  For the Catholic Church of that time, science was supposed to serve dogma, and facts were supposed to be massaged to uphold what was considered Gospel.  Willingness to go along with saving the appearances in astronomy and other scientific fields became a life and death issue for scientists in some Catholic countries, as Galileo, among others, found out.[10]

The Copernican system was, however, readily accepted in Protestant countries such as Shakespeare’s England, where the practice of saving the appearances of preconceived notions through rationalizing away inconsistent evidence was rejected by empiricists such as Frances Bacon.  For many Protestants, science was a means of discovering God’s word as it was embodied in the physical universe.  So, facts mattered, even in the study of alchemy, magic and ghosts, which were important subjects of study for scientists such as Bacon and, later, Newton.  And theories must conform to the facts.

The conflict between facts and preconceived notions, and the problems that arise when people try to save the appearances of preconceived notions, is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  This includes Hamlet, as when Hamlet adjures Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Facts count, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, even if they don’t fit our cherished theories.  The problem with trying to save the appearances is also a main theme in Stoppard’s plays, as exemplified in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Guildenstern’s rationalizations of his and Rosencrantz’s situation.

Guildenstern seems unable to think outside the box, to use the current terminology for the problem of trying to save appearances.  He has been caught up within the Hamlet story and cannot think his way out.  He is brilliant and knowledgeable, but terminally narrow-minded.  “We are presented with alternatives,” he intones, “But not choice.”  “We’ve been caught up” in Hamlet’s story, he explains, and “there is a logic at work.”  So, he concludes, he and Rosencrantz should just relax and “be taken in hand and led, like being a child again.”[11]

Rosencrantz is slow-witted and ignorant, and doesn’t even seem to know there is a box.  But that enables him to be inventive (look at all the things he unwittingly contrives) and intuitive.  He can think outside the story, and can think pragmatically rather than dogmatically.  He knows trouble when he senses it.  Rosencrantz is a wise fool, a type that is a favorite of Stoppard.[12]

6. What is to be done?

 “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Given that they are caught in Hamlet and can’t contravene that script, there are still things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have done in their own play that might have saved them from the death announced in Hamlet.  Built into Stoppard’s play are opportunities for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make choices that could have changed things for them.  They were not fated to act as they did, even if they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that Stoppard provides for them.   They could, for example, have confided in Hamlet at various points of their play.  Shakespeare provides a perfect opening for such a confidence in Hamlet when Hamlet first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

After welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as old friends, Hamlet asks “Were you not sent for?…Come, come deal justly with me.”  Hamlet wants to know whether the King has set them to spy on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivocate.  Hamlet repeatedly presses them, conjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the constancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love.”  Prompted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern finally admits “My lord, we were sent for.”  The three of them then engage in desultory conversation, ending in the coming of the actors whom Hamlet will hire for his play.

This was a perfect opportunity within the context of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to consult with Hamlet in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Having admitted that the King had sent for them to spy on Hamlet, they could reasonably have followed up that admission with a discussion with their old friend about what was going on.  This is particularly the case since in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two of them quickly come to their own conclusion that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.  Once they have reached that conclusion, it is unreasonable of them not to open up with Hamlet.  But they choose not to.

There were many opportunities within both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for them to consult with Hamlet.  But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hem and haw throughout the play, saying to themselves that they want to talk with Hamlet, but unable to get themselves to do it.  They even practice various ways in which to begin conversations with Hamlet, but never carry them out.  In any case, Guildenstern’s rationalizations in defense of doing nothing keep them from saying or doing anything that might change their situation.  That was their choice.

Their rationalizing and equivocating come to a head when the two of them discover in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the letter from Claudius that they are carrying to England requests that the King of England kill Hamlet.  At that point, Rosencrantz has had enough.  He wants to confide in Hamlet.  “We’re his friends,” Rosencrantz insists.  How can they be accomplices to the murder of Hamlet?

But Rosencrantz’s humanity is overridden by Guildenstern’s callousness and cowardice, as he once again rationalizes in favor of doing nothing.  Death isn’t so bad, he claims, and Hamlet’s death would be just one man dying so, “from the social point of view…the loss would be well within reason and convenience.”  Besides, Guildenstern concludes, “there are wheels within wheels,” and who are they to try to change things.  It is bad faith rationalization at its worst, and it is that which leads to their own deaths.[13]

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had confided in Hamlet at any point in the play, the three of them could have worked out a joint plan for saving all of their lives.  Since Hamlet was explicitly doomed by the script of Hamlet – he dies onstage in full view of the audience – such a plan would not have saved him.  But it could have worked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Their deaths are only announced in Hamlet, not actually seen by the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could, for example, have colluded with Hamlet to change Claudius’ letter as Hamlet does in Hamlet. They could then have faked the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so as to avoid any blame and punishment that Claudius might hit them with because his scheme for Hamlet’s death had failed.  Hamlet’s later comment to Horatio in Hamlet that he cared not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be dead could then be part of this joint plot.  Stoppard could have written something like this into his play – the key is faking the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – without contradicting Hamlet.  He didn’t.  Why not?

7. Comedy, Tragedy, and a Good Conscience.

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

“The play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the king,” Hamlet proclaims.  So, too, the play may be the thing to capture the consciences of the audience for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe touch their vanity.  Hamlet is a tragedy.  A tragedy has been described as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy generally involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.[14]

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her personal limits, and to reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society.[15]  In the case of Hamlet, it is arguably his hubris combined with his gullibility toward the ghost who, I think, is an agent of the Devil, that leads almost inevitably to disaster.[16]  In any case, a tragedy may contain humor, but it is not expected to be funny.

In contrast with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy.  It is expected to be funny.  A comedy has been described as a humorous conflict between folly and wisdom, foolish people and wise people, with a happy ending that results from the wise peacefully overcoming the fools and their foolishness.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools.”  The solution is for the fools either to be corrected or constrained.[17]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both fools.  Much of their story is also very funny.  But the play ends with their being hanged.  That’s not funny.  And while they don’t know what’s in store for them as they wander through their play, we do.  How can an audience in good conscience laugh at the high jinks and foolishness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing that the play will end after the somber line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?”

I don’t think an audience can in good conscience laugh at the thought of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  I think that either members of the audience must be people of bad conscience, smug in their superior knowledge to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and callous at the death of two fools – losers in the parlance of Donald Trump – or audience members must believe that somehow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.  And maybe they aren’t.

8. Epilogue: Life after reported death?

Estragon: “I can’t go on.” 

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” 

Waiting for Godot.  Samuel Beckett.

When his demise was wrongly reported in the newspapers of his day, Mark Twain quipped “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Might the same be true of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  In his last speech before seemingly being executed, Guildenstern muses that “Well, we’ll know better next time.”  Next time?  What’s with this “next time?”

In the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the actors that Hamlet has hired show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to fake being hanged.  At the end of the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown being hanged.  But are they?  Maybe it’s a fake hanging.  In the play, they merely disappear at the end, and it is not clear how they died.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make farewell speeches, but maybe they are just fooling everyone, including us in the audience.  Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually dead?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full of trickery and slight-of-hand, starting with the opening scene in which a flipped coin repeatedly comes up heads, seeming to contradict the laws of probability.  Then there are the numerous inventions that Rosencrantz stumbles onto in the movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard.  In the movie version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also repeatedly saved by chance or random choice from discovery or death.  Faking their deaths at the end of the play could be Stoppard’s last bit of trickery, a trick played on the audience.

In any case, dead or alive, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, I think, ultimately a hopeful play.  Despite operating within an extremely narrow range of options, being tied into and almost tied up by the script of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still had options to survive the demise announced for them in that play.  If they didn’t survive, it was a result of their own lack of imagination and their own choices.  In his farewell speech, Guildenstern muses that they should have just said “No” when they were summoned by the King.  And they should have.  A moral of their story is that you don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s story in which you are just a throwaway bystander.

So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a fateful misstep into Hamlet’s story.  But that fateful misstep need not have become a fatal mistake.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern implies that in even the tightest and direst situations, there still may be leeway and hope.  And just when you may seem to be without options, there may still be choices you can make.

B.W. 12/17

[1] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.16, 38.

[2] Evar Johnson. “Characters in search of a purpose: Meaning in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

[3] “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes.” The Stanford Freedom Project. Fall, 2015.

[4] Peter Travers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Rolling Stone. 2/18/91.

[5] Shmuel Ben-Gad. “A Semi-Existentialist Comedy: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’” American Culture. 5/20/15.

[6] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp..25, 63, 79.

[7] Anthony Kennedy. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.666.

[8] Bob Dylan. Talkin’ World War III Blues.

[9] For an analysis of the play as a love story, see my post on this blog “Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.”                       

[10] Thomas B. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

[11] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.39- 40.

[12] For an analysis of Arcadia that discusses this theme, see my essay on this blog entitled “Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?”

[13] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. p.110.

[14] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. pp.35, 172.

[15] Kenneth Burke Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p.37.  Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. p.81-83.

[16] For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the Devil, see my post at this blog website “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[17] Aristotle 1961, 59.  Burke 1961, 41.  Goodman 1954, 82-100.