Anatoly Lunacharsky On Literature and Art 1934
With astonishing, still unsurpassed genius, Shakespeare perceived and described that in some ways terrifying yet, at the same time, bright and splendid phenomenon – the mighty upsurge of reason in the society of his time. Our intention is to use Shakespeare’s characters in order to define more exactly the characteristics and tendencies of reason in one of its most brilliant representatives of that period – the hero of this article, Francis Bacon.
Conflict plays a great part in all Shakespeare’s plays, and, perhaps, the decisive part in the so-called Histories. The end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, of which Shakespeare was a witness, was a time of tempestuous individualism; the disintegration of a still fairly firmly established social structure was making itself felt everywhere. Jakob Burckhardt, in his profound studies of the Renaissance, notes as one of the basic characteristics of this epoch this emancipation of the individual and his active endeavour to discover in himself his own self-determination and independently to determine his road through life.
The emancipated individual is the constant object of Shakespeare’s concern. The fate of this individual is a matter of profound interest to him. What lies before him: a success to crown his ever-increasing desires, or premature destruction? Either is possible in this wide, chaotic world, in which individual wills are so mercilessly pitted one against the other. Shakespeare’s characters (and still more, perhaps, the heroes of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors, the Elizabethan dramatists) ask themselves: Are not all things permitted? The authority of the Church had declined badly, belief in God had become very feeble, and, in place of that Divine Will which had been quite precisely set out in the teachings collated by the churches, men began to suspect the existence of some other divinity – Pan, perhaps, or some dark Fate, unlikely, it was felt, to be either benevolent or just, possibly even simply cruel, more likely to enjoy the sufferings of mortals than to feel compassion for them.
If all things are permitted, then the following question remains: Of all that is permitted, what is actually accomplishable?
Every form of retribution, whether it be the result of a confluence of circumstances or the cruel reaction of government, society, or enemies, can, in the last analysis, be defined as failure. If a man succumbs to the buffeting of such retribution, it means merely that he has failed to calculate his actions, that, having accepted the more or less justifiable (morally, in the eyes of the Renaissance man) thesis that “all is permitted,” he has left out of account that this does not mean that everything is simply there for the taking, or that it is possible to live selfishly like a beast of prey in a world where the prize goes to the strong, or that he has forgotten the existence of society, of the forces of state and of other, perhaps better-armed predators.
It is better not to be moral – in battle, morality is nothing but an encumbrance: true, morality can very often be useful, but only as a mask behind which to hide cynicism and cruelty. But it is essential to be clever; to be very, very clever. It is essential to be able to play various parts according to the demands of the situation. It is essential to know how to impress other people. It is essential to be able to subjugate them by force. It is essential to calculate in good time what forces you are about to set in motion, and to base your calculations on their maximum prospective strength. To be clever means to leave out of account all religious and moral nonsense, all preconceived opinions, all false values, and to look life straight between the eyes. But this also means taking in the very real dangers of life with the same sober glance.
No genius in the cultural history of the world has made so thorough and intuitively brilliant an analysis as did Shakespeare of the appearance of reason, of the appearance of intellect, of mind as such, of mind unfettered and enthroned.
Mind has been declared a safe pilot. Yet, in Shakespeare, this power awakes the greatest doubts. He is far from convinced that this pilot does not almost always steer to ruin. Be that as it may, the arrogance and the new pre-eminence of intellect is a theme which not only interests Shakespeare but torments him. He is imbued with the most profound respect for intellect. He is far from despising, far from detesting even the most cynical “chevaliers of intellect.” He understands their peculiar freedom, their predatory grace, their incomparable human worth which rests in their very contempt for all preconceived opinions. But, at the same time, he realises that their lot is a perilous one; he who abandons the trodden path, he who sets out to seek happiness and success in the ocean, trusting himself to the will of the winds, with only one captain on board – Reason – is taking too great a risk.
Reason as a weapon in the struggle for success – this is one aspect of Shakespeare’s attitude to intellect, which had become such a great force in the world of his time.
The other aspect is contained in the idea that, to the man of intellect, who uses his reason as a brilliant torch, many things become clear which, for ordinary people, are still dark. Suddenly, with extraordinary lucidity and distinctness, he sees himself and all that surrounds him in this strange and terrible world. Illuminated by the searchlight of reason, it appears that the world is not only strange and terrible, but mean and stupid as well, that, possibly, it is not worth while living in it at all, and that even the greatest successes and victories which it has to offer do not justify this absurd existence, not to mention the fact that such victories are rare and ephemeral and that, come what may, old age and death reign over all, the inescapable lot of all living things.
Here reason, precociously wide awake, becomes the direct cause of the sufferings of the person whom it informs. Here we have to do with one of the most vivid instances of that vast phenomenon which was so correctly and precisely formulated in the title of Griboyedov’s comedy Woe from Wit.
Francis Bacon, a man of intellect, possessed of a mind of huge daring, emancipated by the whole set-up of the Renaissance, had something in common with both types of Shakespeare’s heroes-of-the-intellect. As we become more closely acquainted with his common-sense morality, with the maxims he professed for behaviour in everyday life, we will see his kinship with the followers of Machiavelli.
At the same time, it must be emphasised right from the beginning that, although Bacon feels absolutely no shadow of reverence for what is called morality, he perfectly understands all the importance of the moral mask, all the importance of not provoking his entourage by over-frank revelations, all the importance of veiling the audacity of the independent intellect behind verbal concessions to generally accepted views. And where should Bacon do this more effectively than in his openly published works which he dedicated to various high-born patrons! This transparent moral mask, however, for anyone gifted with the least perspicacity, represents no barrier to the understanding of Bacon’s extremely far-reaching intellectualising amorality.
Only from this point of view can we explain Bacon’s behaviour at certain moments of his life when his cynicism overleapt all bounds and, even in the emancipated society of the Renaissance, provoked a reaction of hostility towards Bacon himself. Again, it also explains the seeming “thoughtlessness” which led Bacon to ruin his brilliant career by taking bribes in a manner which, even for that time, was not sufficiently discreet, not sufficiently adroit.
But, if all these sides of Bacon’s character – his common sense, his cunning, his lack of principle – lend themselves to comparison with Shakespeare’s heroes of the emancipated intellect, then there can also be no doubt that Bacon is very close to Shakespeare’s more sombre and, at the same time, nobler types – to his Hamlet-types, of which we shall single out three for close analysis: the melancholic Jaques, that Hamlet in embryo, Hamlet himself, and Prospero who is, as it were, the final solemn chord of the whole theme of doubt and thought associated with the name of Hamlet.
But first, let us take a look at Shakespeare’s cynics. There are a good many of them. The first, most grandiose place in their ranks is occupied by King Richard III. As I have already said, in Shakespeare the conflict between individuals (usually a struggle for power) plays a major part, especially in the Histories. Richard III is the culminating point of the Histories. In the person of Richard himself, Shakespeare gives the most finished product of that time – an age of ruthless mutual extermination among the ambitious nobility.
The historical Richard III may not, perhaps, have been as black as Shakespeare painted him. He was an aggressive,
ambitious king, unscrupulous enough in the pursuit of his policies but probably little worse or better than the others However, the fact remains that the masses of the people took a particularly strong dislike to Richard III. His general reputation was that of a man of extreme cunning and bestial ruthlessness; people were ready and willing to believe in all the long series of crimes thanks to which he is supposed to have achieved and maintained himself in power. It is very likely that those critics, who hold that Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard III was such a tremendous success with the London public because the image which Shakespeare gave them corresponded to the image which this same public expected, are not far from the truth. Nevertheless, one has only to run to Holinshed (i.e., to Shakespeare’s immediate source) to be able to say that, this time, Shakespeare was not entirely faithful to this basic source; he was also considerably indebted to the well-known book on Richard III written by one of the greatest intellectuals of the Renaissance – Thomas More, the greatest figure of Henry VIII’s reign and, one might even say, in his own way, the precursor of both Bacon and Shakespeare.
Chancellor Thomas More, having undertaken the task of compiling a biography of Richard III, wrote what was in fact a profoundly polemical and political work. Thomas More’s aim was not so much to curry favour with the house of Tudor by servile praise as to exult it at the expense of its predecessors – not, of course, as a flatterer, but inasmuch as he was, in a general way, trying to get his own humanitarian and, for the times, profoundly progressive bourgeois politics implemented under the protection of the Tudors (true, this rather failed to come off and Thomas More himself, eventually, fell victim to the monstrous despotism of Henry VIII).
Henry VII, Duke of Richmond, the actual conqueror of Richard III and the first Tudor to ascend the throne was, in fact, a repulsive miser and a most ungifted man. This did not prevent Thomas More from dropping all kinds of hints to the effect that the Duke of Richmond was a virtuous knight whose advent entailed the triumph of justice and the punishment of vice, whereas Richard III was a fiend incarnate, the worst conceivable product of medieval civil strife.
This idea of Richard III’s profound viciousness Shakespeare took from More. However, we are immediately brought face to face with a tremendous difference. For More, Richard III was merely a politically negative figure, a bad king who had fortunately been deposed by a good king from a dynasty in whose service More himself happened to stand; for Shakespeare, the interest lies in the personality of the individual, the grandiose figure in its historico-cultural setting, the unique titanic character.
It never enters Shakespeare’s head to try to rehabilitate Richard III, to deny one single crime – on the contrary, he ascribes to him such crimes as even More does not mention; but from all this he draws no poetic or ethical conclusions. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a monster, but such a splendid monster, so talented, so successful, so sure of himself, so bold, that Shakespeare admires him.
Like the subtle psychologist he is, Shakespeare tries to distinguish various features of Richard’s character and to show them at various turning-points in his spiritual life. Although Shakespeare is bound always to condemn Richard politically as a usurper, in spite of the fact that he piles horror upon horror, that he is constantly appealing to the spectator, exciting his anger against the shameless Richard – in spite of all this Shakespeare still respects Richard. I repeat, he admires him. Not for one moment does he desire to discredit the actual principle of the disciples of Machiavelli, the principle, that is, of rationalised ambition, of civic ambition directed to a definite end with all the resources of scientific analysis and predatory hypocrisy, taken to its logical conclusion.
The History devoted to Henry VI was most probably in the main not written by Shakespeare and it is very difficult to establish the truly Shakespearian passages with any real certainty. However, in view of the fact that Richard III was in all essentials written by Shakespeare, it may be safely assumed that those first steps of the ladder which, in this drama devoted to Henry VI, lead up to the chronicle of Richard III, were penned by none other than Shakespeare. In this case, we are presented with a picture of genuine development of character.
Gloucester (the future Richard III) is first and foremost a dashing soldier. He is not afraid of bloody battles, nor
does he shrink from letting blood – his own or others’. He is more energetic and active than his relatives. He is a wild, rough lad, and is feared accordingly. At the same time he is a cripple. His physical deformity is emphasised in Henry VI; it makes him unlikeable, even repulsive to those about him, sets him apart from them, isolates him, forces him into a kind of basic self-reliance. The psychology which is the natural result of these circumstances is voiced by Gloucester in several monologues in Henry VI, which we shall not quote here since, at the very beginning of the play Richard III, we have a brilliant soliloquy which sums them all up (characteristic, by the way, of the artistic device adopted by Shakespeare to show us the inner workings of Richard’s mind).
Richard is a cynic, he knows perfectly well what he is about, he despises prejudice and recoils before no crimes. Crime for Richard is not crime at all, but the means to an end. For this reason he can rehearse his plan to himself quite openly and without fear. On the other hand, it is, of course, scarcely possible to imagine Richard having a confidant to whom he might have told this plan in all frankness. To admit the existence of such a confidant would be to ruin the picture we have of Richard’s character. He must be reserved enough before others. But here the dramatist is saved by the convention of the soliloquy. Richard III, left: alone with himself, ponders his situation and, with a rare brilliance of imagery, exposes his most inward thoughts to the audience (who are presumed absent).
Let us cite the whole monologue which, at the same time, serves as a kind of introduction to the entire play.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings;
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now – instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fight the souls of fearful adversaries –
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stampt, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton, ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinisht, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them; –
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow, in the sun,
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
If we consider this monologue carefully, we are forced to admit that Shakespeare makes the first motive of Richard’s “villainy” the fact that he is made “so lamely and unfashionable,” and, because of this, is at an exceptional disadvantage in peace-time existence amongst the gallant pursuits of the court.
Nevertheless, it is essential to note from the start that, though Gloucester may use the term “villain” here, he is in fact most indulgently disposed towards villainy and we feel at once that he is not in the least inclined to see himself as a “second-rate” person just because he happens to be physically ugly. On the contrary, we feel that this physical deformity which condemns him to a peculiar isolation will only serve to temper him for the main object, for that in which he finds himself, for that in which he finds the chief pleasure of life, namely, struggle, conquest, the achievement of his aims by making others the submissive tools of his will. In the famous scene between Richard III and Anne, Shakespeare hurries to prove this. It is not only that here Richard shows magnificent talent as a man of intrigue, able quickly to weigh up events and to see how he should direct and combine circumstances so as to make his way towards the throne as fast as possible. In exactly the same way, the main thing is not that Richard here shows himself such a consummate actor, not the tremendous art which he brings to pretence and deception, though this is most important. The specific flavour of this scene lies in the fact that the deformed Richard here speaks of love, of passion, that he wins the hand of the wife of a man whom he has slain, and that in the shortest possible time he breaks down Anne’s hatred and changes it to a certain sympathy. This proves that Richard’s crooked shoulders, withered hand and unequal legs are no hindrance to him whatever even when he needs to use erotics as a weapon.
I would like to draw the reader’s attention to the conversation between Richard and Buckingham. This conversation shows what an enormous part was played by the ability to act a part and by cunning dissembling in the relationships between the intellects of that time.
Gloucester asks in the course of his conversation with Buckingham:
Canst thou quake, and change thy colour,
Murther thy breath in middle of a word,
And then begin again, and stop again,
As if thou wert distraught and mad with terror?
Tut, I can counterfeit the deep Tragedian,
Speak, and look back, and prie on every side,
Tremble and start at wagging of a straw:
Intending deep suspicion, ghastly looks
Are at my service, like enforced smiles;
And both are ready in their offices,
At any time to grace my stratagems.
A high degree of this particular kind of acting ability is shown by Gloucester in his scene with the people. It is ravishing in its exquisite out-and-out hypocrisy. I can recommend it to anyone who has either not read or forgotten it. Here, I will confine myself to indicating that Gloucester can not only draw in his talons, and hide his predatory essence, his warlike qualities, the corrosive, mocking sarcasm which is so characteristic of him: he can put on the mask of a Christian, of a man of prayer, of an almost holy man with a hatred for all the vanities of life – and all this in order to take the simplest and easiest way of using to his advantage a perhaps passing mood of the people which has led them to seek in him a king, an upholder of law and order. Later on, when the forces of history are already beginning to turn against him, with what incredible daring does he approach Queen Elizabeth, suing for her daughter’s hand! How much passion, how much urgency, how much disarming tenderness is implicit in the words of Richard! It may seem that even the experienced Elizabeth, who knows him very well indeed, will be deceived. At all events, however hard it must be for him, he again puts up a tremendous stake and, with all the old skill and the old self-possession, sets about building up a whole new system of political relationships, a whole system of alliances with people whom he has mortally offended in order to rebuild a firm foundation beneath his feet.
However, the figure of Richard would remain quite incomplete in our eyes had we not seen how Shakespeare organises his ruin.
Richmond is advancing against him at the head of a great army. One after another, Richard’s false friends go over to the enemy. It becomes clearer with every passing hour that the force of this enemy is crushingly superior. At the same time, Richard is troubled in his own mind. After a whole series of crimes he has killed two innocent children. Here the motif which Pushkin was later to develop in his Boris Godunov is introduced with tremendous effect. But Richard is no Boris. Although he does indeed suffer pangs of conscience, although he is possessed of a human nature which, in accordance with a thousand-year-old tradition, cannot but reproach him, albeit in dream, with his inhuman cruelty, he nevertheless shakes off all these terrible dreams and reproaches, all this trouble of the mind, as soon as it is morning and the time has come to go into battle.
We can only advise reading this truly superb scene, where every word adds a monumental stroke to the portrayal of this terrible, monstrous man.
Here, it is enough to quote Richard’s last rallying speech, which gives an inspired picture of his Machiavellian policy, his ability to choose the only words which could possibly put heart into men who are, in fact, far from being his friends and far from being idealistic “patriots” of his cause. Here, we have a knowledge of mass psychology surpassing even Napoleon’s. And, at the same time, what inner resolution, what steadiness of mind, coming, after a troubled night, to illumine the decisive moment of the struggle.
Go, Gentlemen, every man to his charge,
Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
For conscience is a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe,
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to’t pell mell,
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.
What shall I say more than I have inferr’d?
Enough of Richard III. Of course, this figure is conceived in a far more grandiose mould than the figure of Bacon, but Bacon’s amoral moods are in many ways very close to Richard’s. It is one and the same school of life, one and the same world.
Perhaps Shakespeare comes closer to Bacon in scale when he creates the illegitimate son of Gloucester – Edmund, in the great tragedy of King Lear.
It should be noted from the start that Edmund, also, has his justification. Richard enters into a monstrous struggle for power and explains this by the circumstance of his physical deformity. Edmund enters into a similar plot and explains this by the circumstance that he is a base-born son. Here, we are evidently confronted with a broad generalisation.
Shakespeare asks himself: Why has a type of man come into being who is prepared to put his reason at the service of careerism, of ambition, and who makes so dangerous a servant of this reason, so sharp a poisoned dagger for his will? And he answers – why, yes, all men like that are, in a way, base-born, they are all people to whom fate has not given everything that they should like to have. They are people who see themselves as unfairly done out of their rightful place in life, as slighted from the cradle, and who for this reason set about righting what, they are convinced, are oversights of Nature, with the help of superbly thought-out intrigues.
It must be admitted that the Russian translator of King Lear, Druzhinin, gives, in his preface to the play, an excellent analysis of Edmund’s character – an analysis which is so firmly drafted that we prefer to borrow the whole passage just as he wrote it:
“The basic feature of this type is that brazen insolence and shamelessness which always enables the possessor of such a trait to lie without the least twinge of conscience, to don any mask, acting always under the influence of one dominating desire to make his own way at any cost, even if that way should lie over the dead bodies of father or brother.
“Edmund is no mere narrow egoist, neither is he a blind villain capable of taking pleasure in his own ill-doing. Edmund is a richly gifted character, but a character who has been cankered at the root and who, because of this, can only use his exceptional talents to the detriment of his fellows. Edmund’s genius is evident in his every step, in his every word, for not one step does he take and not one movement does he make which has not been carefully calculated, and these eternal calculations so dry up Edmund’s heart and mind that he becomes old before his time and learns to govern even those bursts of youthful passion before whose onslaughts fiery, easily tempted youth is usually so vulnerable. Another undoubted sign of Edmund’s genius is the way in which all around him submit to the magic influence of his gaze, of his speech, of the general aura of his personality, which inspires women with uncontrolled passion for him and men with trust, grudging respect, and even something resembling fear.”
To this sketch of Edmund’s character we are tempted to add only the famous monologue pronounced by Edmund himself, for this monologue in many instances corresponds almost word for word with some of the tenets of “free morality,” to which Bacon, in spite of certain reservations, comes so close to subscribing whole-heartedly.
Thou, Nature, art my goddess, to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? With baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who in the lusty stealth of Nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land.
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund,
As to the legitimate. Fine word, “legitimate.”
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow, I prosper,
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
Shakespeare’s Iago we consider a third type of intellectualist-cynic, one who uses his mind as a weapon against his fellow man. On the whole, he seems the most puzzling of all the series of characters to have been created by Shakespeare in this field. Indeed, it is impossible to say what were Iago’s guiding principles as he carried out these supremely artful manoeuvres, dangerous to himself and infinitely cruel to others, by which he intended to encompass the ruin of two beings for whom, at the very worst, he could have felt nothing but indifference.
Shakespeare confines all Iago’s motivation to the scene between him and Rodrigo. Here, we are treated to a whole system of strange attempts at self-justification. At first, we see Iago entering into a plot with a crazed man of crazy desires and, quite without rhyme or reason, just like that, as a kind of low joke, agreeing to forward these desires on condition the other fills his purse. But then it turns out that Iago has other motives for wanting to do Desdemona and Othello an ill turn. There is some suspicion that Iago’s somewhat scatter-brained wife, by whom her husband does not elsewhere appear to set much store, has not been sufficiently correct in her dealings with the General. All this is mixed up with various other considerations, all of them trifling, contradictory.
Why such a subtle psychologist as Shakespeare needed all these various motives leaps to the eye immediately. Obviously, they are not needed to provide the real motivation of Iago’s behaviour but in order to show that Iago himself does not know his own motives.
In all this long scene, which represents a series of confused attempts to provide some justification for an enormous, criminal plan which is due to be executed with the most exquisite cunning and with iron will, the important thing is not the motive but the definition given by Iago to human will in general. This last statement, however, must be modified straight away: not “human will in general,” but the human will of people such as Iago and, perhaps, such as Richard III, as Edmund, as all these Machiavellians in politics and in private life; and, to a considerable extent, of people such as our Francis Bacon.
Here is this amazing passage:
Iago: Virtue! a fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens; to the which our wills, are gardeners: so that if we will plant nettles, or sow lettuce; set hyssop, and weed-up thyme; supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it with many; either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry; why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts; whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scim.
It is quite evident that Iago is aware of tremendous strength in himself; he understands that he is his own master; he understands that, in this little garden which he has just described to us, he may plant out a remarkable series of most subtle poisons; he understands that he is a man of strong will and clear mind, a man not bound by any prejudices whatsoever, not enslaved by any laws outside himself, by any moral heteronomy, and that such a man is terrifyingly strong. In those times, still grey at dawning, when the vast majority did not know how to use their reason, when almost all men were bound by religious and moral prejudices, such a free strong man must have felt himself akin to the Novgorodian hero of our ballads: he would seize a man by the arm – the arm would come off, he would seize a man by the leg – the leg would come off. He can challenge anyone he likes to a battle of wits and can beat him, can make him look foolish, can deprive him of property, reputation, wife and life, and himself remain unpunished. If there is a certain element of risk, who does not know, after all, how much charm risk lends any game for the real gambler? And Iago is a real gambler. He is a poisonous vernal flower, unfolding his petals in the first warmth of the spring of the mind. He is enjoying the sense of his own newness, he wants to try the power of his youth straight away and is spoiling for action.
But why does Iago fall upon Othello, and not some other? Why does he ruin Desdemona, and not some other? Of course, the reasons which he gives are quite ridiculous. No, he falls upon Othello because Othello is his Commanding Officer, because he is an illustrious general and, very nearly, a great man, because he is covered in the glory of past victories over countless perils and sure of his own courage and might. Surely, it must be pleasant indeed to triumph over a man like that? Incidentally, it is also easy, because he is ingenuous, trustful, inflammable as dry straw; it is very easy to get the mastery of him, to lead him by his black nose. And don’t you see what a pleasure that is? Don’t you see how delightful it is to see oneself, Lieutenant Iago, a rascally smart-aleck without the least claim to distinction, in the role of guide, master, Fate, Providence and God in relation to this famous, hot-headed, powerful, dangerous and fiery general?
And Desdemona? She is the daughter of Senator Brabantio, she is the finest flower of Venetian culture, she is all lyrical sensuality and noble devotion, she is all like a song, like the most entrancing fairy-tale, she is a great prize, the highest reward for which a man could hope; and she has surrendered herself to Othello without reserve, has granted him the prize of herself. But she is trusting, she is defenceless, she is honourable. She is incapable of suspecting anyone of double-dealing, she does not even know the meaning of the word. It is very easy to lure her into any net. And it must be agreeable to feel that the fate of such a beauty, such a miracle of Nature is in your hands, that you can push her in any direction you wish – to suffering, to ruin, to make her change from a blessing and a delight into a torment and a malediction?
All this, Iago savours in advance with his subtle Renaissance sensibility, and he triumphs in advance, in advance he sees himself as the god of these people or, rather, as their ill angel. And to see himself as a devil manipulating the fate of such exalted personages is a sight which fills him with pride.
That is his motive.
It is also a very significant complementary trait in the make-up of the type of the “intriguant.” Nowadays things are different, nowadays the “intriguant” has lost his freshness. The genuine, true “intriguants” were running about over the earth’s surface in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was the age which gave scope to the most amazing combinations in these campaigns of human cunning, this was the heyday of the amorous intrigue such as the one we see so perfectly described by the Frenchman Choderlos de Laclos.
Generally speaking, Francis Bacon was sufficiently far removed from any form of amorous scheming, as we shall see from his biography. Intrigue as such, however, provided an atmosphere in which our philosopher felt rather well at home, as we shall also very soon see for ourselves. I do not know whether he was ever possessed by such arch-diabolic powers of ambition as was Richard III, or by such petty, but uncontrollable and fathomlessly vicious demons as Iago. The intrigues in which he was actually involved were perhaps nearest to Edmund’s in type.
Yes, indeed, Francis Bacon really did consider himself not altogether legitimate. He did not choose his parents, but had he been offered a choice, he would have chosen others. He was always having to pull strings through his influential uncles. And after all, in Cook he had a powerful opponent. He cultivated the strangest, most tortuous friendship with the most original figure of his age – with Essex. He had to play the part of flatterer to the most despicable people such as King James and his favourite Buckingham. He had to move among shameless courtiers, cunning lawyers and knavish parliamentarians in a world that was dangerous, unprincipled, alert – and, in this world, he managed to carve himself out a great career, almost entirely thanks to intrigue, and clambered his way to such a height that once, in the absence of King James, he even enacted the part of monarch in London. Then – he came unhinged. To understand all this aspect of Bacon is only possible by taking into account his own moral philosophy, although he himself expressed it but cautiously, and by examining it in the light of that psychology of the shameless chevalier of intellect which we have just been analysing, and which is embodied in the three Shakespearian types we have just been discussing with the reader.
Now let us turn in another direction. Let us examine those Shakespearian characters in whom is reflected the spring-like yet infinitely melancholy “woe from wit” which afflicted the world at that time.
In the sense of what might be called scientifically psychological observations about reason, Shakespeare had precedecessors and contemporaries. In the field of the active intellect he had a splendidly concentrated mentor in Machiavelli.
In the case of the contemplative types, the part of Machiavelli might have been played by Montaigne; it is significant that the appearance of this contemplative and profoundly mournful reason, enjoying as it does the author’s unlimited, albeit melancholy sympathy, as bound up in Shakespeare with a tendency to contrast “pastoral” philosophic principles with the hypocrisy of court life – a tendency which is also characteristic of Montaigne.
Berthelot, in his work La sagesse de Shakespeare et de Goethe, sets out to prove that Shakespeare in general paid a very considerable tribute to the preaching of elegant simplicity of life in contrast to arrogance and vain luxury, but this was the essential significance of all the pastoral moods of the sixteenth, seventeenth and, in part, eighteenth centuries. Be that as it may, Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It is, as it were, the central play indisputably dedicated to the philosophy of the pastoral.
It is not, however, this particular Shakespearian trend which interests us. We do not, in fact, even consider that Shakespeare defended the pastoral spirit with any very particular vehemence in this comedy. We are, however, interested in one of the most important, though not most active, characters of the play – in the melancholy Jaques.
Jaques is referred to several times as a melancholiac, and this is significant. He himself tries to define the reason for his melancholy and does this in a special, half-jesting way. It is one of his general characteristics that he clothes his high wisdom and the findings of his mind, which differ from the vision of the so-called averagely clever man to the point of paradox, in an ironic, joking form.
Here is how Jaques defines the genus of his melancholy: “I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s which is proud; nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”
Jaques does not wish to hide his extraordinarily sad conclusions from other people. But he knows that they will not understand them straight away. And he is visited by the desire to put on the motley and to act like a jester whose privilege it is to speak in paradox. He “can use his folly like a stalking-horse and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit!”
O, that I were a fool!
I am ambitious for a motley coat.
...It is my only suit
Provided that you weed your better judgements
Of all opinion that grows rank in them
That I am wise...
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
From this it is clear that the melancholy Jaques does not consider the world a hopeless invalid. He simply sees that the world is seriously ill, and believes that Reason, having diagnosed the disease, can cure it by speaking the truth – even if Reason must go clothed in jester’s garb.
Jaques looks for the most exact parallel to this world, and finds it in the theatre.
We shall not quote in full Jaques’ wonderful monologue:
All the world’s stage,
And all the men and women merely players...
But only the end:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
In this way, the basis of Jaques’ understanding of the world becomes quite clear. It is a repetition – not a theoretical, but a practical repetition of the famous Eastern saying “He who increases wisdom increases boredom.”
The world is so arranged that it is possible to play one’s part with verve and pleasure, only if one does not realise that one is on the stage. Otherwise the transience of all that is, the aimlessness of all that goes on, will poison the whole act for you, and the whole part.
The question remains as to whether, having such a truth to disclose to the world, it is possible to open the eyes of this same world to the fact that it is “a dream,” that it is “a play,” and to what extent it can be put right.
The cure, evidently, can only consist in people adopting a Buddhistic attitude and ceasing to attach importance to youth, to beauty, to ambition, to honour, to victory, to success. All this should, in their eyes, carry the stamp of mutability.
In the works of our hero Francis Bacon, it is possible to come across bitter aphorisms in the same spirit. He has something in common with Montaigne, whom he knew. However, such words are not typical of him. The hypothesis that Bacon is the author of Hamlet is ridiculous. But that Bacon is a kindred spirit of Hamlet’s is undoubtedly true.
In what particular does Hamlet differ from his prototype – Jaques? Why – in so far as Hamlet is not void of Machiavellism, of intellectualism. He is a prince of talent, a prince of humanity, a soldier-prince. He is not just “a talker” – he is a soldier. (This is the side of his nature which seduced Akimov in his paradoxical production in the Vakhtangov Theatre. ) The fact that Hamlet is a strong-willed young man has been noted by many.
Why, it is enough to reread Hamlet’s famous words at the end of the third act:
There’s letters seal’d; and my two school fellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar, and it shall go hard,
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon. O, ‘tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
There is no need to point out that these words could have been spoken by Richard III, or by Edmund, or by Iago.
On such a path, Hamlet might not only have survived the struggle, but might well have emerged victorious. But such a prospect would have given him no pleasure, for he knows that the “world’s a prison” in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, “Denmark being one o’ the worst.”
His acute mind penetrates all the imperfections of the world. But to understand the imperfections of the world implies the possession of high ideals of some sort with which to contrast them. And indeed, Hamlet dreams of a world which has been somehow made straight, a world of honest people, honest relationships, but he does not believe that such a world will ever in fact become reality.
Hamlet respects his friend Horatio most of all for his honesty and firmness of character, that is, for his ability to bear insult with dignity. Hamlet is moved by his meeting with the host of Fortinbras.
...Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible events,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure!
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell...
And, dying, Hamlet has not forgotten Fortinbras:
O, I die, Horatio:
The potent poison quite o’ercrows my spirit.
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
These are the people whom Hamlet is prepared to respect. They seem to him to be leading the kind of life which would have suited him.
The soliloquy “To be or not to be” is so well known that it seems unnecessary to quote it here in full, but to subject it to some analysis in this particular aspect is absolutely essential.
We will leave aside Hamlet’s doubts as to whether a man can risk suicide when he is uncertain what may await him beyond the grave. This is a special question which does not, for the moment, concern us. We are interested in how Hamlet sees this life. He asks:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them.
And points out that the lot of the living is “heart-ache” and a “thousand natural shocks”:
To die – to sleep –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to!
And, further on, he elaborates his thought rather more clearly. He says:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might...
And so on.
The first discovery made by Shakespeare’s awakening mind is the existence of tyranny, the absence of rights.
This is not the place to go into the question of which social strata it was Shakespeare’s intention to show. It is enough to have ascertained that the first and most repulsive aspect of life to be discovered by reason is the profound contradiction between the idea of justice and reality, which is found to be subject to tyranny. What follows are the more abstract moral complaints of Hamlet. Everything can be reduced to one and the same idea: that very bad, despicable, unworthy people do exist and society is so organised that they have power, that they are in a position to oppress others, to spurn others, that the world is so constituted that the best people, the worthy, noble and clever people, are pushed to the wall.
It goes without saying that such an attitude was acceptable not only to some of the “malcontents,” that is, to certain representatives of the gilded youth of the old aristocracy, which was feeling the pinch under Elizabeth’s middle-class monarchy, but also to a part of that very intelligentsia which represented talent, which represented those devoted to the arts, and of whose flesh Shakespeare was flesh.
For the gilded youth, on the one hand, in so far as their whole class was slipping and sliding across the surface of life and could see ahead of them only something in the nature of ruin, and, on the other hand, for the middle-class intelligentsia which had only recently awakened to life, the world around had suddenly been stripped of illusions (and even to these newly awakened people there seemed to be no solution) – and it was at this moment that the thought of suicide obtruded. If they did consent to go on living, then only clothed in mourning because of the impossibility of calling life good or of making it so.
The real meaning of the monologue becomes apparent to us if we compare it with the LXVI Sonnet, written about the same time, in which Shakespeare puts forward Hamlet’s basic arguments. But, this time, in his own name:
Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry, –
As to behold Desert a beggar born,
And needy Nothing trimm’d in jollity,
And wrest Faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded Honour shamefully misplac’d,
And maiden Virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right Perfection wrongfully disgrac’d,
And Strength by limping sway disabled,
And Art made tongue-tied by Authority,
And Folly, doctor-like, controlling Skill,
And simple Truth miscall’d Simplicity,
And captive Good attending captain Ill.
Tir’d with all these, from these I would be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Here, all the reasons for the sadness of the awakened intelligence are particularly clearly shown.
Everything is topsy-turvy. High places are occupied by hideous masks. True might, true modesty, true sincerity, true talent – all these are set at naught, and there is not the least hope of setting things to rights.
It may be that, at the time of Essex’s plot, Shakespeare did nurse some absurd hopes that this particular, impractical plot with its extremely indefinite programme might change something or other for the better; but it is quite certain that the suppression of this plot could have been the cause of that terrible disenchantment which left such a profound imprint on the second period of this great world poet.
Bacon knew Elizabeth’s court. He also knew the court of James. Of the injustices of both these courts and of the contemporary world in general he had particularly acute personal experience. He himself, for that matter, was not above committing similar injustices when the opportunity offered. But Bacon was a friend of Essex and was close to the plot, though admittedly in rather a curious position.
When we become better acquainted with Bacon’s so-called wordly morality, we shall see in it traces of that disenchantment and of that sadness which were so disturbing society. However, it is safe to state categorically that, although Bacon is related in type to Hamlet (because he is equally intellectual, whether as an active or an analytical intellect) he nevertheless represents quite a different type. And perhaps, in order to come a little closer to him, it is essential to bring in yet one more figure from Shakespeare’s gallery of wise men, the most mature figure and the last, the hero of The Tempest – Prospero.
Prospero is a scholar, Prospero is a wizard. Prospero wields a magic book and a magic staff by whose power he can control the forces of Nature.
Prospero has much in common with Bacon.
By means of creative invention, by means of scientific investigations, man achieves great power over Nature. Bacon is on the look-out for just such a magic book, just such a staff. If he denies the old magic, it is because it is false. At the same time, he is inclined to call the power of technical knowledge which man achieves through applied science a new magic. Through his own peculiar Academy, Bacon passes out into the Utopian Atlantis. Bacon really is a kind of Prospero.
It is almost possible to believe that Shakespeare was familiar with some of Bacon’s most subtle arguments. In this way, for instance, it is very easy to explain Ariel as the embodiment of that which Bacon calls “form,” a conception to which we will return. Prospero’s power over Caliban represents at one and the same time his power over the lower elements of Nature, over the common people in general and over the “natives” of colonies in particular.
However, Prospero is not so much unhappy as indifferent to happiness, setting no store by it. He does not even desire to revel in his revenge on his enemies. He does not even desire to see some acceptable order established on the earth. True, he arranges the affairs of those who are to go on living, or at least improves their lot; he takes care of his beloved daughter Miranda. But his first concern is to divest himself of his power as quickly as possible and to seek retirement. The world does not seem to him worth ruling. He does not hate the world, he simply knows its worth. He has had enough of this “fata Morgana.”
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits
And melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric o f this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like the insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
This is the message of Shakespeare’s idealistic and pessimistic wisdom.
Having passed through a stage of infatuation with the world, having passed through the bitterness of struggle with the world, he has arrived at a certain reconciliation with it, but he is reconciled only in so far as he has realised the full extent of its vanity.
How good it is that life is not eternal. How good that everything passes. How good that death must come. How good that there is an ending. On these conditions it is still possible to keep one’s seat for a while in this theatre.
It goes without saying that such a mood is neither the “beginning” nor the “end” of human wisdom. It is the distinctive mood of a class. The great mouthpiece of a déclassé, changing aristocracy in the process of transition into a class of bourgeois magnates and himself the representative of the class of bettered craftsmen who provided the nobility with their cultural distractions, Shakespeare, in that epoch when the middle classes as a whole were developing into the incarnation of avarice, hypocrisy and puritanism, could see no bright rifts in the massing clouds ahead. No such rifts were promised by the monarchy which was being built up from these confused social relationships. There was no way out. The alternatives were to kill oneself, or to grumble on endlessly about the unfortunate way the world had been made, or to be thankful for mutability, instead of discovering therein cause for melancholy.
For our hero, Bacon, things were quite different. In his wisdom there is a special note which we do not hear from Prospero, which is broken in Prospero. Bacon holds fast to one thing: to his magic book and to his magic staff. A great work needs to be done here to sort out all the methods and inventions of science.
Bacon is full of youthful, happy, sparkling, naive faith in science. He knows that the social order is unjust. He knows that it is necessary to come to terms with many things as inevitable. And, in general, he is well aware of various shady aspects of the world, but he makes light going over them. He is not like Prospero, who is prepared to put away the staff of science and the possibility of technical power simply because he feels, or assumes, that “there is nothing but heart-sorrow and a clear life ensuing.”
No, Bacon leaves “heart-sorrow” out of it and announces first and foremost: With the right method we will divine the secrets of Nature, establish our authority over it, and then it will be time to take another look round!
From this point of view, it would be possible to maintain that Bacon, a giant of intelligence, stands lower than the highest giants of intelligence, created by Shakespeare, for he fails to penetrate the last depths of the folly and unsatisfactoriness of the world as it really is in a class society.
In this sense, Shakespeare’s pessimism or the high resignation of Prospero rise like a tower above the head of our far more prosaic and practical chancellor. On the other hand, Marx was not letting fall idle words when he said that matter was still smiling encouragingly at man in the person of Bacon, that, for him, it still appeared full of life, charm and promise. Bacon’s strength is in his youth, in his talent: the main thing is not that, armed with reason, I make my career, like a snake, and crawl up high (but, perhaps, only to fall back again, to the depths), nor is it that, with the great, sad eyes of the clever man, I see much that is sad in life; the main thing is, that reason should give the strength and the ability to pass on to another kind of power – to the power of science and technical knowledge, on which we will found new forms of social life. There, before us, open up the most attractive perspectives, almost limitless perspectives, whither I am calling.
And, as, in all the works of Shakespeare, there is not one representative of the intellect in whom this note dominates or even sounds particularly strongly, this may be taken as one further indication that Bacon had no direct influence on the works of Shakespeare.
It seems to us, however, that we have made this colourful excursion to some purpose, since in it we have met people resembling Bacon among the “chevaliers of intellect” in the great gallery of William Shakespeare’s portraits.
1. In 1932 the Soviet producer Nikolai Akimov staged Hamlet in the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow. This was Akimov’s first independent production and was of an experimental nature. – Ed.