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Shakespeare, par Alan Wall v.o

26 avril 2010

par Alan Wall

Shakespearian Uncertainties


Was Shakespeare Shakespeare ?

Shakespeare could not have written Wallace Stevens’ line ‘We live in an old chaos of the sun’ because the Second Law of Thermodynamics had not yet been formulated. But he knew an entropic process when he saw one, all the same : Macbeth’s fall into ‘the sere, the yellow leaf’, for example, or those ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. We employed fire for many thousands of years before we could describe it scientifically. In Birstall in Yorkshire there is a statue of Joseph Priestley, who was born there. The plaque proclaims him the discoverer of oxygen. Local wags will happily tell you how, before he came along, everyone had to go around holding their breath. Point taken.

Shakespeare also understood to an astonishing degree the workings of the mind. So thought Freud anyway, who had a certain interest in the matter himself. Lady Macbeth’s suppression of her guilt about Duncan’s murder passes through the waking mind (‘a little water clears us of this deed’) and enters the sleeping one instead, where it expresses itself in a disturbance that visits her nightly. The return of the repressed. One of the first victims in Macbeth is sleep. Macbeth hears a voice informing him that he has murdered sleep. And Hamlet cannot kill Claudius for such a long time, according to Freud, because the ‘bloat King’ is doing precisely what he wanted to do himself : enjoy his mother between the sheets. When he does finally kill Claudius his own death follows minutes later. So if he really was killing his own desire, then he appears to have annihilated himself in the process.

There is a slight complication here, leaving aside the question of whether all young boys really want to kill their fathers and sleep with their mothers. Freud did not believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. He managed to convince himself that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, did that for him, despite the Earl’s undisputed death in 1604. Reading Shakespeare can have strange effects upon the workings of the mind. In Freud’s case his interpretation of the plays required a re-adjustment of the official version of the life. The man who wrote Hamlet needed to have lost his father before taking up his pen (this fitted de Vere) ; and the man who wrote Lear needed to have had three daughters (right for de Vere, once more). Presumably the man who wrote The Tempest should have had one daughter, a brother who modelled himself on Cain, and a spirit of the air continually at his command, day and night. But The Tempest presents no problem to the Oxfordians : since it was written six years after the anti-Stratfordian candidate’s death, it is ipso facto excluded from the canon, and is in any case described by J. Thomas Looney, the major proponent of the Oxfordian case, as an unworthy piece of metaphysical confusion, a confection of intellectual bêtiseries. So, no need to trouble ourselves there, then.

What we are already witnessing here is what Frank Kermode has called the patience of the Shakespeare text ; its readiness to yield meanings wherever such meanings are sought. The writing is so dense with multiple possibility, what Joyce in Finnegans Wake called ‘plurabilities’, that it appears to make interpretation infinite in scope. Let us return to Hamlet for a moment, and try out the hypothesis. Let us suppose that Freud was entirely wrong, and that the real reason Hamlet takes so long to kill Claudius is in fact a different one : he suspects that Claudius is his father. This would at least explain the curiosity with which the play begins : the extraordinary haste with which Gertrude re-marries, less than three months after the unexpected death of her husband of many years ; and not only re-marries, but takes as her spouse her husband’s brother. They had evidently been enamoured of one another for a long time before this, long enough for Claudius to have impregnated his brother’s queen with the young Hamlet.

There are, after all, occasional parallels. Claudius is described as ‘the bloat King’ and Gertrude says of Hamlet at the sword-fight that he is ‘fat and scant of breath’. And when Hamlet in the closet scene describes the two brothers, his description of his supposed father is so distanced, mythic even, that it is hard to imagine the noble figure deigning to engage in the intercourse normally required to produce offspring, including scions of the royal lineage. This reading would make sense of Hamlet’s wish that his own ‘too sullied flesh’ would disappear, transmuting into something purer : he is the bastard of his mother’s fornications with his uncle. How could he not hate his own flesh ? It would also make sense of the extraordinary loathing he expresses in regard to Claudius and Gertrude’s lovemaking : such ‘honeying over the nasty sty’ had, after all, produced him. He often soliloquises to the effect that he wished to God it hadn’t. The horror of incest in the play could even be echoed in Hamlet’s recollection of how he rode on Yorick’s back, as Oedipus rode on the back on the centaur Chiron. [1] He is already standing in a grave when he remembers this.

What is intriguing is how quickly the text re-forms itself around the new interpretation. There’s always something there in Shakespeare to back you up, however wrong-headed your notions might be. It is upon this ‘patience’ of the text, this flexible response to our hermeneutic probe, that the great anti-Stratfordian theories have been built. The clue to the anti-Stratfordian position might be found in the introduction to John Dover Wilson’s The Essential Shakespeare, although he was no anti-Stratfordian himself. There we are told that the famous bust of Shakespeare in Stratford on Avon cannot possibly represent Shakespeare. Why not ? Because he looks like ‘a successful pork butcher’. Instead Dover Wilson produces a portrait of a slim young Elizabethan, the Grafton portrait. There is no evidence whatsoever to connect this image in any way with Shakespeare, as he cheerfully admits, but he prefers to think of Shakespeare looking that way, all the same, and so he does. Such is the logic of the anti-Stratfordians. They do not like to think of this fellow who, whatever else he was, was no toff, writing the greatest works of literature in the language, much of it about kings, queens, courtiers and generals. So they find someone of a nobler lineage, who might fit the bill instead. It is significant that no one has ever held an anti-Stratfordian position which involved imputing the authorship to a figure of a lower social standing than the man from Warwickshire.

And so we have Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Lord Strange, and Christopher Marlowe, whose father was another leather worker, but who at least went to university. And once the focus is centred, with its elliptical orbits spinning about it, the text patiently re-arranges itself around the candidate. Clues and anagrams abound. Take one example. The Marlovian argument is that Kit Marlowe did not die in that sordid quarrel in Deptford in 1593. Instead he was spirited abroad, to avoid some dangerous unpleasantness at home. From there, probably somewhere in Italy, he writes the plays we now call the works of Shakespeare. These are brought back to England to be published under the name of a theatrical functionary from the Midlands, a man of considerably less talent, but with a convenient appetite for fame and fortune. And every so often Marlowe leaves us a clue in the text. So in As You Like It we have this : ‘When a man’s words are misunderstood, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.’ The argument in Deptford, the one that ‘killed’ Marlowe, was said to be over ‘the reckoning’, or the bill. But how precisely can anyone be ‘more dead’ ? Perhaps if he has to live abroad, and pretend to be dead ; perhaps if he is writing some of the greatest works of literature ever written, but can’t receive his necessary praise, because a return to England would be a return to Star Chamber, to torture and possible public execution. The first published works by Shakespeare appeared a matter of months after Marlowe’s ‘death’ or disappearance.

It is also in As You Like It that we find the following piece of dialogue, which has proved crucial to many an anti-Stratfordian :

Touchstone : Art thou learned ?
William : No, Sir.
Touchstone : Then learn this of me – to have is to have ; for it is a figure of
rhetoric that drink, by being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the
one doth empty the other ; for all your writers do consent, that ipse is he ;
now you are not ipse for I am he.
William : Which he, sir ?
Touchstone : He, sir, that must marry this woman.

The Shakespeare text needs to exercise its patience with peculiar force here, since Touchstone represents : for the Baconians, Bacon ; for the Oxfordians, Oxford ; and for the Marlovians, Marlowe. [2] The one thing all these disputants are in agreement about is that William represents William Shakespeare, the poor dolt from Stratford who is still thought by the unenlightened to be the author of the plays. H. N. Gibson points out the oddity of the anti-Stratfordian argument : that something meant to be kept absolutely secret, even to the point of death, namely the true authorship of the plays, is constantly signalled throughout the text to any competent acrostic reader or cypher clerk.


Reading the Book of Ourselves

It is Stephen Dedalus’s speculation in Ulysses that Hamlet is reading the book of himself when he walks on stage to be irritated by Polonius and his diplomatic meanders. This is intriguing because when the ancient courtier asks what he is reading, Hamlet replies ‘Words, words, words’, and it is surely his ability to live entirely through language that constitutes the Prince’s agonies of self-rebuke throughout the play. Agency and intelligence have become separated here, so that language becomes a soliloquy of self-doubt as well as the jousting-yard of intellectual competition. Whatever his abilities at fencing, Hamlet is undoubtedly the champion of the verbal contest : no one else can out-talk him. This becomes explicit in the graveyard scene when Laertes goes for an out-dated form of fustian, and Hamlet effectively says to him what Frank Sinatra sang to Bing Crosby in High Society : ‘Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum.’ The reality of Ophelia and her suicide is momentarily erased by two men verbally duelling over her death. In the soliloquies, Hamlet effectively out-talks himself, since his own intellect, in its antiphonal mode, represents his only worthy opponent. No one else can keep up with him. When he taunts Laertes, it is as though he has seen how everyone is entrapped in their own rhetoric ; how even our grief transmutes within seconds into rhetoric, and that form of emotional show which Shakespeare calls bravery :

‘Swounds, show me what thou’t do.
Woo’t weep, woo’t fight, woo’t fast, woo’t tear thyself,
Woo’t drink up eisel, eat a crocodile ?
I’ll do it. Dost come here to whine,
To outface me with leaping in her grave ?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I.
And if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeist his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart. Nay, and thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

This might be the finest piece of anti-rhetorical rhetoric ever uttered. What it boils down to is : Put your money where your mouth is, and if necessary your life too. This is someone who knows very well how every action, every emotion, every regret can be uttered in language, but unless the language is married to agency (and agency of some immediacy), language merely sounds the echoes of itself, like the instrument Hamlet believes the King, the court, and even his old friends, would prefer to turn him into.

If Stephen Dedalus is right, and Hamlet is reading the book of himself, then he is reading the book of ourselves too. Shakespeare’s world is a world of mirrors, in which we discover ourselves, but also find ourselves reversed : women into men, men into asses, kings into murderers, murderers into kings. Hazlitt said that Shakespeare was just like all other men, except in this one respect : that he was just like all other men. Borges latched on to that and created two remarkable stories out of the notion of universality as a mirroring curse. [3] It was brooding in the same shadows which made Keats think up his notion of ‘negative capability’. And it was this ability to receive all the impressions of the world and personify them that made Wittgenstein uneasy : he could not find in the work that authentic voice, the holistic vision, which he expected of a poet. [4] So often, as he points out, the metaphors or similes should come across as being simply bad, and yet they end up working. The success of Shakespeare seems like a mystery.

Wittgenstein was at least prepared to be baffled. The point the anti-Stratfordians miss is this : the mystery is not that this particular man wrote Shakespeare, but that anyone did. [5] Maybe it is true that the wooden figure in Stratford looks like a successful pork butcher ; who knows, maybe Shakespeare was very happy to look like one. He would probably have found it vastly preferable to looking like an emaciated and unsuccessful poet, and he must have had the opportunity to see many of those in his time. Pope had seen plenty of them too, which is why he has the Queen of Dulness in The Dunciad requiring a nice plump versifier :

No meagre, muse-rid mope, adust and thin,
In a dun night-gown of his own loose skin. (II, 33-34)

Being a theatre-man might be a much lowlier position, but there was a living to be made there. The lesson seems to be that we might not know what we are looking for in Shakespeare, but we find out soon enough as we start to read. What we are looking for might be hidden even from ourselves, but we will discover its dimensions as the pages turn. We would appear to find in Shakespeare whatever we search for. Herman Melville, for example, found a fecundity of metaphor which became indistinguishable from the deity in which he could no longer believe. Metaphors generate metaphors ; worlds create worlds. This riotous linguistic dynamism rages through Moby-Dick, as it raged through Lear and Hamlet. He even remarks that if Jesus were re-incarnated, he would come back as Shakespeare. There is a hole in Melville’s mind with God’s name on it, and that hole takes the name of Shakespeare.

The anti-Stratfordians start from a different hole that needs filling. They gaze into the works and see there the impossibility of one so low-born understanding the minds and doings of the high and mighty. They always seem curiously untroubled by the inverse problem : how someone born high and mighty came to understand so astutely the minds and doings of the all-too-lowly. How precisely did Edward de Vere, not, one gathers from the available information, a great listener, to put it mildly, place himself inside the mind of the Gravedigger in Hamlet, or Sir John Falstaff ? How did this petulant courtier with a fondness for Venetian choirboys ever pause long enough in his lordliness to take the register of these very specific languages and then achieve their tones and rhythms on the page, on the stage ? Shakespeare only needed to encounter a reality to inhabit it convincingly, and this seems to be the case whether that reality was encountered in life or literature. Perhaps there was no distinction for him between the two. Perhaps there is not for us either. Most people’s notion of Richard III is surely the Crookback of Tudor demonology, as expressed through Shakespeare’s creation, which has lying behind it Thomas More’s short life of the king. In this sense, not a scholarly sense, but a writerly one, Shakespeare might well have been the greatest reader who ever lived. He made more of the texts he read than most of us could of the entirety of the Bodleian Library. And the energies absorbed through the spectrum lines of his reading re-transmitted themselves through the luminous spectrum lines of his writing.

Perhaps we might think for a moment about constellations. What is curious about them is that they are both there and not there at the same time. They can only be viewed as a pattern in nature once we have discovered or created the pattern. It is thought that the Egyptians gave us The Plough, but they could only have done that after the Neolithic Age. No ploughs on earth, none in the heavens. The constellations are a transaction between the data of the heavens, and our own gift for pattern-recognition. Any form of mirroring is a type of pattern-recognition. The ability to see oneself in a mirror is not a universal attribute : some animals can do it, others cannot. When Coleridge finds himself in Hamlet and Hamlet in himself, he is allowing the text to mirror his own knowledge of himself. And always in our readings, we constellate the proffered data into patterns of some meaning to ourselves.

One form of pattern-recognition and constellating of the text that has been happening a great deal recently is this : Shakespeare was Catholic, but kept it quiet. The truth is that there is no evidence at all for this, but when one turns to the text, Kermode’s adumbrated patience is once more in evidence. The text is rich enough to provide us with the evidence we will need to shape our constellations. Clare Asquith in Shadowplay [6] effectively reads the works of Shakespeare as a long allegory of the old versus the new religion. Keats remarked that Shakespeare’s life was an allegory, and his works the comments upon it, and that appears to be borne out here. Some of these readings are very ingenious, but a question starts to form early on in the reader’s mind : why has no one ever mentioned any of this before ? If this allegorical, coded manner of communication was as common as she claims, surely someone would have dropped us a hint in the historical record. Just as it is inconceivable that Ben Jonson in his cups wouldn’t have let on to Drummond of Hawthornden that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare, but Lord Somebody-Or-Other, so he might surely have mentioned that every play was in truth an allegorical attack upon the Reformation. Jonson did have a certain interest in such things. This would have been too large a secret to be kept so silently for so long.

And yet, the reading does work remarkably well for certain plays. The Winter’s Tale, in particular, becomes even more intriguing from this exercise in perspectivalism. Hermione is the wronged queen, who goes into exile and becomes a statue, a statue that finally comes to life, and the parallels Asquith finds with the life of Lady Montague do seem nothing short of remarkable. This was surely the starting-point of her book. If Hermione is an allegorical representation of the old religion then perhaps Claire Asquith has missed a trick here : the name is evidently an anagram of Hero in Rome, or, with an added ‘e’, Rome Heroine, and Elizabethan and Jacobean spellings were notoriously variable. See how quickly the text has re-arranged itself to suit our assertions. It is exemplary, as ever, in its patience.


Being in Uncertainties

It is a curious fact, a vivid historical coincidence, that the great French scientist Laplace was formulating his notions at precisely the same moment that John Keats was writing his letters about Shakespeare. Laplace was an eloquent spokesman for classical causality : we can summarise this crudely by saying that if we had all the necessary data about any closed system, then we could predict all the subsequent goings-on in that system, in perpetuity. To be fair to Laplace, he added that such a capacious intelligence could probably not in fact be located in our present form of existence. But nevertheless, the monistic world of predictability is to be found here. Using Newton’s three laws of motion, and given all the necessary data, we can predict every motion still to come within our system. Now at the same moment that Laplace was formulating these ideas, Keats was thinking his way to a very different set of circumstances : ‘…at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

Modern physics has taught us that, in one respect at least, Keats was right and Laplace wrong : we have no choice but to live with uncertainties. The uncertainties come, not from an individual lack of information on the spectator’s part, but from the reality of nature itself. There is inscribed at the heart of nature an ontological contingency, an undecidability which inheres in the very nature of reality. The double-slit experiment with electrons demonstrates that we cannot predict the movement of individual particles. We might predict with great accuracy the movement of enormous numbers of particles – the statistical model – but we cannot say whether any individual particle passing through the double-slits will go this way or that way. On the dynamic model, we are stuck with uncertainty. Wave-particle complementarity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also show a limitation placed upon our knowledge of natural phenomena at any one time. We might know the position of a particle or its velocity, but not both simultaneously. And if we want to know about the wave-properties of matter, then we must ask of it wave-questions ; if we want to know about the particle-properties, we must ask particle-questions. All of this, at the time of its discovery, represented something of a scandal to classical physics and its expectations of predictability.

In a brilliant essay, ‘The Laws of the Shakespearean Universe’, at the end of his book The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate points out that an acknowledgment of this new situation in physics, and therefore in our apprehension of reality, is at the heart of William Empson’s seminal book, Seven Types of Ambiguity.

An ambiguity is not a confusion of meaning, requiring clarification so that it may be resolved, but an enriching uncertainty, whose multivalence invites elaboration rather than resolution. Empson shows how the division between body-text and footnote effectively consigns to the bottom of the page the richness of potential meaning embedded in the writing itself. The monistic universe does not accept uncertainty, and therefore an ambiguity is a crux, and one should work towards establishing whether the vertical or the horizontal axis is to be preferred. But modern science, he points out, has established that uncertainty is no longer a deficiency in the point of view of the spectator, but an inherent feature of life itself ; and the same should apply in the world of literature. The ambiguity is inherent in the text ; it is not a function of our inability to clarify a meaning, a line or an image. This makes the reading of a Shakespeare text easier in many ways. For example, a series of lines is frequently not the exemplification of the strict logic of a metaphoric function, but rather the exploration of the preponderating mood or atmosphere which a metaphor, or a series of metaphors, is able to generate. Hamlet says this to his mother :

Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire.

The rounded white rod of a wax candle seems to have been suggested by the rounded white rod of a bone. If the seeming fixedness of a middle-aged woman’s bones can apparently dissolve with desire, then in comparison the mutability of youth seems like a candle ready to be eroded into moltenness by the flame. This is more the exploration of a metaphoric atmosphere than a strict metaphoric progression.

Empson makes vivid use of these insights in his reading of Measure for Measure. One can apply them, together with the principle of complementarity, throughout the whole work. For example, we can look at Hamlet in terms of the old world and the new. Hamlet returns from Wittenberg and enters the scene of a revenge tragedy, but he has brought the new world of humanism with him, and he can’t simply function in a revenge tragedy. The play acts out the tension between his own articulate interiority and the duty of vendetta placed upon him. Macbeth shows how ambition, should it be forceful enough, destroys the object it craves : to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus. The achievement of such safety requires the destruction of a world. In Lear we see how the possession of power is indissoluble from its exercise. Lear wants one without the other, and the result is that the kingdom starts to fall apart. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, we see how a group of men, in renouncing the company of women, create a hole in their lives through which women re-enter in triumph. The force of their withdrawal creates a vortex through which that withdrawal is rendered ultimately impossible. Prospero in The Tempest shows how the obsessive acquisition of power can render you powerless. He simply wishes to retreat into his cell in pursuit of secret knowledge. His cell is removed from the library in Milan to a cave on an island, where he will exercise his powers upon the elements, as they exercised their powers upon him and his daughter at the point of their exile. One could go on. The Sonnets sometimes seem like an asylum of ambiguity, in which meaning fragments into mirroring shards, all of which have sharp cutting edges. The speed and succession of alternate or alternative meanings produces a species of epistemological vertigo. One meaning automatically generates its opposite or its contradiction, as if by dialectical obligation. No one here ever reposes in untroubled tranquillity.

So let us finally explore another aspect of the uncertainties of Shakespeare, his doubleness, his complementarity. Let us look at one more endless vista of speculation : the gap between the quarto and the folio editions of the plays.


A King of Infinite Space

Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600. One of the accusations laid against him was that he had preached the boundlessness of the universe, or the homogeneity and infinity of space. The notion of a universe without limits raised the possibility of ‘worlds innumerable’, and this in turn queried the unique salvific function of Jesus Christ, according to orthodox teachings. If there were other worlds with other creatures upon them (and the word ‘world’ at this time implied habitation), then by what agency were they to be redeemed ? The messiah had been born, crucified and buried here ; he had descended into hell, and had then ascended to heaven. No diversions had been recorded to any other planets or stars.

Bruno’s speculations might have been Neo-Platonic, but they were also Copernican, and this was still a dangerous arena in which to be speculating : the displacement of the geocentric world still carried a hint of cosmic rebellion. If the earth were deemed to be no longer centering the universe, why not also declare the monarch to be no longer centering the body politic, even from a presiding position above ? The killing or displacement of the king is all too often the trigger that activates chaos in Shakespeare’s world ; ‘new philosophy’, as Donne called it, was calling all in doubt. Still, some called louder than others. Bruno had seemed to call very loud indeed, and his fearlessness cost him his life. Here he is in De la Causa, Principio, et Uno (On Cause, Principle, and Unity) :

This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution
and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time
renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute
up or down, as Aristotle taught ; no absolute position in space ; but the
position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is
incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the
observer is always at the centre of things.

This is remarkable, anticipating as it does not merely the law of the conservation of energy, but also relativity theory, also anticipated to some extent by Galileo. And part of Bruno’s speculation was that there was no reason to posit an outer limit to reality as we know it ; if reality was made of atoms, as he supposed, then its infinite dimension seemed possible if not likely. The indestructibility of matter was part of the doctrine of atomism, linking logically with a notion of matter’s infinite extension.

So the two notions come together, atomism and the concept of an infinite universe. They were dangerous notions, very likely shared by Thomas Hariot, that remarkable contemporary of Shakespeare’s, who tended both Walter Ralegh and Henry Percy, the Wizard Earl, in the Tower of London during the years of their public disgrace. This was that ‘conjuror’ thought to be the dark intelligence at the centre of the School of Night. We don’t really know if there ever was a School of Night, the term itself only ever being used once in a questionable line of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. If there was, then it consisted of a coterie of remarkable men around Sir Walter Raleigh, including Marlowe, Hariot, Hues and Chapman. Raleigh was to be troubled more than once by accusations of ‘atheism’, a far more flexible term then than now, implying as it did simply any form of deviance from orthodox teaching. And Marlowe died in the murkiest possible circumstances ; one can only speculate as to the trouble he would eventually have encountered, had he lived. But Hariot stayed out of the way. He did not publish his extraordinary work, quite possibly through fear of repercussions ; possibly because, like Newton after him, he had a temperamental aversion to placing himself in the public domain. He wrote these telling words in a letter to Kepler :

For things are in such a pass with us, that still yet I may not freely
philosophize. Still yet we stick in the mire. I hope the Good God
will make an end to these things shortly. After which better things
are to be expected…

To philosophise freely was to be a free natural philosopher, the term used then for scientific investigations, since the term ‘scientist’ could not be employed until William Whewell, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, proposed it circa 1839. What did Hariot fear ? He had observed two of the mighty men of his time incarcerated for incurring royal displeasure. He had seen (from a distance) Marlowe done to death in murky circumstances. He was there on the scaffold when his beloved Sir Walter was executed. He heard of the execution of Bruno. He had plenty to fear, no doubt about that.

It was a confusing time for many. The nova of 1572 and various observed comets on the far side of the moon threatened the old order : they signified that it was not only the sublunar sphere which was the arena of mutability. The heavens, Aristotle’s realm of perfection, were apparently changing too. Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in 1610 would demonstrate definitively that the heavens were not a realm of perfection. The imperfections on the surface of the moon itself showed that. Interestingly, Thomas Hariot had observed this himself through his own telescope in 1609, and made drawings, but he never published. Perhaps he was still brooding about the dreadful fate of Giordano Bruno.

It is thought that Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost might well have been mocking Raleigh and his circle. Perhaps. It is inconceivable that he was unaware of the man’s fate ; or that he didn’t know where this extraordinary adventurer and fellow poet was, while he himself slowly climbed to a social position of advantage. It might easily have been Raleigh whom Shakespeare had in mind when he was writing Sonnet 64 :

When I have seene by times fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworne buried age,
When sometime loftie towers I see down rased,
And brasse eternall slave to mortal rage.
When I have seene the hungry Ocean gain
Advantage on the Kingdome of the shoare,
And the firme soile win of the watry maine,
Increasing store with losse, and losse with store.

These deadly transactions certainly fit. Raleigh’s poem to the Queen was called ‘Ocean’s Love to Cynthia’, and she referred to him coquettishly as ‘Water’. What he had won, in all his watery adventures, he had lost again soon enough to the kingdom of the shore. What pulls the tides back and forth is the power of the moon, and the moon in classical mythology was often associated with Cynthia or Diana, by which names Elizabeth was frequently addressed by many poets besides Raleigh. [7]

Shakespeare must have heard too of the judicial execution of Bruno. Frances Yates speculated more than once that Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost was based upon Bruno ; if this is true, then it would show a keen interest in the man long before his death. He hears of the execution itself either during the writing of Hamlet or immediately before. And we might well speculate as to what resonances that play might have had during its early performances. Here is a king gross in appetite – ‘the bloat king’ - preventing a legitimate royal succession, and gaining his queen, his brother’s wife, by improper means. There must surely have been some in the audience who wondered in silence if this dramatist, the fellow from Warwickshire now knocking about with London bigwigs, might not have been trying his luck a little, since Henry VIII had done something remarkably similar, according to many. Claudius also kills his queen, if inadvertently. And Henry was surely the most famous queen-killer since the Arabian Nights. And then there’s that word ‘nunnery’. No one seems unduly troubled by it in the standard editions, but it must surely have sounded like a quoit ricocheting off ruined priory walls to some in the audience. There weren’t any nunneries left. In living memory they had been razed, or looted or handed over to the gentry, so as to secure the latter’s loyalty during the spoliation of the religious houses. They were part of the ‘bare ruin’d quiers’, the fragments of tracery that remained half a century after the Reformation. (The notion that Hamlet is referring to a brothel will surely not withstand close scrutiny of the text.) And then there’s the Ghost : what was he then ? In official belief, purgatory had been abolished as a papist superstition half a century before. Either the Ghost is proclaiming the continuance of Catholic truth in these newly reformed lands, or he is a demon out of hell. Hamlet briefly permits himself this speculation, but it does not seem to deter him for long. And it transpires that the Ghost tells the truth, of course. But then the Devil famously does that, whenever it suits him.

So what might the resonance have been when, engaging in some weary joshing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet suddenly says this :

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of
infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.

A king of infinite space : the doctrine of the infinity of space was one of the beliefs that had cost Bruno his life, and it was probably one of the doctrines which ensured Hariot’s silence. And ‘bounded in a nutshell’ seems emblematic of atomism, in its visualisation of something minuscule, tightly bound, unbreakable ?

It is only possible to speculate so far. Shakespeare, according to his own text, was no Copernican ; nor was he a member of the School of Night, assuming that entity ever really existed. His cosmology, at every crux, would appear to be geocentric, conforming to Ptolemaic and Aristotelian proprieties. But he also seems to have allowed nothing to be lost on him ; perhaps it was a momentary intellectual breeze blowing over the land which prompted him to create that phrase. And what exactly would it mean to be ‘king of infinite space’, unless one were God ? So why then the indefinite article ?

Here is another oddity. The words do not appear in either of the quartos. They appear in print for the first time in 1623 in the Folio. We have evidence that between a quarto and a folio, changes could be made through circumspection. That evidence is provided by Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. In the quarto we have the line ‘Will take his oath, o’ the Greek Testament’ but this has changed in the folio to ‘Will take his oath, o’ the Greek Xenophon’, the reason being that profanity on the stage was subject to increasing disapproval. What we cannot know is whether or not Shakespeare’s words were spoken on stage during the first performances. If they were, is it possible that the phrase was simply too dangerous to be printed, and that it was retained memorially, or kept in a stage copy, until things had quietened down ? The lines seem authentically Shakespearean, not an interpolation from another hand. The first quarto is usually attributed to the memorial capacities of the actor who played Marcellus. And it is worth pointing out that John Hayward uses the phrase ‘infinite space’ in 1601. But his usage ‘infinite space of eternytie’ somehow seems sanctioned by authority in a way that the words in Hamlet are not. Hamlet is a dangerous talker.

What would be the genealogy of the phrase ? The Earl of Southampton was a close friend of Essex, who married Sidney’s widow. There is thus a route from Shakespeare himself to that Neo-Platonism which is the other great source of Bruno’s speculations. What is evident in the lines from Hamlet is that contemplation of the smallest and the largest, the minuscule and the majuscule, the microcosm and the macrocosm, prompts the Prince immediately to the recollection of his ‘bad dreams’. With those dreams, Hamlet is surely announcing to us the world in which we now live, where the interiority of psychology can, for the first time, negate everything on the outside. Except that this interiority also appears to include everything on the outside. The first terrors of modernity are being glimpsed, and they have an intimate connection with illimitability. Nine years after the first performances of Hamlet, Galileo will stare through his telescope in Tuscany and begin to appreciate the vastness of the Milky Way and the even greater vastness (infinity perhaps ?) of space. Soon enough Pascal will be expressing his terror faced with the silence of those ‘infinite spaces’, and they will still be haunting Baudelaire when he writes ‘Le Gouffre’. From the tiniest possible space inside the nutshell of the atom to the infinity of space : such dimensions can have a nightmarish quality, with or without inquisitors and censors. We are left in the presence of an ambiguity, with all its potential richness.


[1There is no reason to suppose Shakespeare might not have read Sophocles. We know that Queen Elizabeth I did. We also know that Shakespeare’s fellow-student at Stratford, Richard Field, as well as printing Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, later printed books in Greek as well as the poems of the Catholic martyr Robert Southwell.

[2See H. N. Gibson, The Shakespeare Claimants (London : Methuen, 1963), Chapter XI, ‘The Hidden Hand in As You Like It’.

[3‘Everything and Nothing’ and ‘The Memory of Shakespeare’.

[4See in particular the comments scattered throughout Culture and Value.

[5‘You change the name, that’s all. The mystery remains…’ In Peter Brook, Evoking Shakespeare (London : Nick Hern Books, 1998), p. 9.

[6Clare Asquith, Shadowplay (New York : Public Affairs, 2005).

[7All the planets and the sun were referred to as ‘he’ until the middle of the nineteenth century, with only two exceptions : the moon and Venus. Even the personal pronoun itself can be metaphoric.

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