Shakespeare’s creation is often at odds to customary ideas of lives and worlds, which presume extension in time and space (her life, that world), a communally agreed physical presence (the life can be seen, the place can be entered), and a public name to accord with this essentially single entity (Juliet, Verona).1 There is more to life than this. Though it is true that everything in playworlds is spoken by named characters, there can be abundant life that is not possessed by or attributable to these characters. Think of how impoverished our sense of life must be, if we understood it only as human life, and then only as that element of human life that could be seen, now, like serried commuters at a bus-stop, and which could be downloaded in present time to a spectator who instantly understands everything. What would such a world be like? No memory, no confusion, no completing planes, nothing unfinishable; no birdsong, no moss, no germs or bones or smells. Just these more or less finished exemplar, telling us what they are for. The dead plays do pretty much this, the ones that only scholars bother with, for completeness sake. But not the living ones, the ones that remain possible, because they are alive, like any ecology is, with potentiality.
In Shakespeare, the named things are invariably patterned with variations and discontinuities, constituted by all kinds of parts and planes and vectors. Very often they exist in more than one place, and more than one time, even as they appear to be just where we can see them. Very often location is metaphysical, a thing of memory or projection, as well as physical. It is easy enough to think of a world as a potential concatenation of lives. But the converse is true: each life is a potential concatenation of worlds. Then there are worlds within worlds, and lives within lives. A world needn’t have its own geography or weather, just as a life need not have its own name. If such an artform is indeed mimetic, then it is not imitating anything that can be vouched for by the unanimous public eye:
Each substance of a greefe hath twenty shadows
Which shewes like greefe it selfe, but is not so:
For sorrowes eye, glazed with blinding teares,
Divides one thing intire, to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gaz’d upon
Shew nothing but confusion, ey’d awry,
Distinguish form. (Richard II, TLN 966-72)
This is Shakespearean mimesis, less a rectilinear mirror, more a faceted tear, dividing the single substance into swarming differentials, every one a kind of fate. Only the eye awry will distinguish form; look too head-on and you will miss it. We always need to be shifting our position, wielding a virtual mirror to see things right, or to see how one thing inverts or extends or reflects another. In Shakespeare, every space, however miniscule, is a plenum.
His truly is a strange form of mimesis. It is Hamlet who says that a play holds a mirror up to nature. The thought perhaps seems straightforward. But there are various kinds of mirror; and as for nature, who knows where it begins or ends? Here is another take on the theme:
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little briefe authoritie,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
(His glassie Essence) like an angry Ape
Plaies such phantastique tricks before high heaven,
As makes the Angels weepe: who with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortall.
(Measure for Measure, TLN 874-80)
Isabella is railing here against Angelo, the “pelting petty Officer” who has condemned her brother Claudio to death. Her theme is the inordinate exercise of power. But as her temper heightens, the speech moves somewhat beyond its immediate rhetorical purpose (to dissuade Angelo from executing sentence) into this embracing indictment of humankind. It is a multi-pleated allegory, its swift movement between apes and angels tightly tuned to the playworld’s unstable ethics and permeable ontologies. Isabella’s speech is self-evidently risky, even reckless. But this isn’t only because of her perilous situation as helpless suitor to an autocrat. Her speech conjures a kind of phylogenetic obscenity: man stripped naked, bent before a mirror, exposed as an ape before the weeping eyes of angels. The risk is partly in the imputation of some kind of...