Strange Mimesis

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

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 species-fraud, as though man was always an over-dressed impostor; and partly in the reminder that our fallings-short matter. Enormous trust, unearthly faith, was placed in the fact of our creation: and now just look at us! Power is tiny beneath the heavens, made still tinier by the fact that it can be seen in all its hideous effortful triviality, as at every moment the distance can be appraised between expectation and achievement.  Isabella thus manages to combine disgusted contempt with religious pity. Little wonder Angelo soon feels terrifyingly understood by this maiden; little wonder he wants to renounce himself to her, or that the act must be violent and secret, safe from laughing or weeping eyes. And little wonder, therefore, that the only escape from this withering exposure is a hidden bed-trick, in the abyssal space of off-stage inter-scenic action: because Isabella is identifying the awful distilling truth of public theatre. A meta-theatrical thread runs through Isabella’s indicting sentence, framing man’s very existing as a multiply-observed performance.  She speaks an ethics, a fierce anthropology, of dramatic art. As such it expresses, with metaleptic compression, Shakespeare’s peculiar version of mimesis. So, ‘proud man’ is first imagined as being ‘Drest in a little briefe authoritie’. The first pun emerges out of the near-tautology of ‘little briefe’: it means ‘tiny tiny’, or ‘passingly minor’. But ‘briefe’ also has a legal application – specifically applicable to Angelo - referring to a royal letter or mandate, or a factual summary or abridgement of the cause to which a law officer speaks. As an abstraction, the brief is in danger of forgetting the personal and the particular; as a sheet or letter, it is a flimsy scroll with which to cover one’s person. That Shakespeare is precisely visualizing such a thing is clear from the sentence’s progression: proud man, dressed in next to nothing, playing tricks before a mirror like an ape. The only thing distinguishing man from ape is the bit of paper covering his privates; without the legal carapace, he is all hairy bum and leering mouth. In one of Shakespeare’s favourite conceits, authority is the flimsiest disguise.

The impending application to Angelo is clear enough. But Shakespeare is doing more than bedding-down proleptic ironies. So, Isabella’s accidentally prophetic ‘glass’ directly picks up Angelo’s boast, spoken a mere twenty lines earlier, that the Law “like a Prophet/Looked in a glasse that shewes what future evils…Are now to have no successive degrees,/But here they live to end” (845-54). The repetition of ‘glass’ – once as crystal ball, once as mirror – tells us that Shakespeare is pushing at the image’s connotative field. It is something to peer into, because a container; to see through, because transparent; to look at, because opaque. These different spatial extents in turn open onto different agents and temporalities. The glass is a thing in which to see others, or to see oneself. It figures a projected future, one that will secretly happen (Angelo the exposed ape).  Equally, it figures an already-born future, which will not be permitted to come true. This is the chilling import of Angelo’s ‘glass’, which works as an avidly jealous scan and scalpel, picking out ‘new conceived’ futures and aborting them before they can be ‘hatc’hd, and borne’. The implicit reference is not just to sinners, cut off before they can do worse, but to the actual progeny of sexual misdemeanor, understood as a kind of literal proof of original sin. It isn’t that Angelo is actually going around aborting illegitimate foetuses (he allows provision to be made for the “Fornicatresse” Juliet). Rather, abortion becomes a metaphor for a particular attitude to narrative gestation, rooted in the prevention of possibility: “But here they live to end”. Angelo’s ‘glass’ thus gives a doomed, distanced, laboratory presence to what Leibniz might call the incompossible: possibles that lack the warrant to enter the ‘greater theatre’ permitted by ‘Law’. In other words, the ‘glass’ as crystal ball has the qualities of a counter-factual speculum: we might say of a playworld. The lives which Angelo would ‘end’ are implicitly transferred into Isabella’s care: not just her response to the Deputy’s proscriptive resolve (‘Yet shew some pittie’), but her swift return to the image of a glass:

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.

It is clear that her glass supplements Angelo’s; the mirror-image is thus also a crystal ball. But a still more basic doubleness in the mirror metaphor is often missed.  So, the glass at once gives back to the ape a reflection of his present body (which the ape is too self-absorbed to recognize) and reserves to itself, as though in glassed safe-keeping, a truer reflection of his essence: a correction or reminder that present fury cannot heed. The ape is at once ignorant of the grotesque image he creates, and oblivious to the true image staring out at him. 

If we superimpose Angelo’s en-glassed vision onto Isabella’s, then the ‘essence’ not heeded is precisely the lives waiting to hatch. We can allegorise these lives in terms of Angelo’s own possibilities (his complicity in the crimes he condemns, his susceptibility to love); or in terms of the Law’s duty of care toward a community and its citizens (the Law is not above the people, but its better image and protective expression). Either way, the thing seen in the glass is the thing looking into it.

It is therefore missing much of the point if we simply hypostasize ‘glassie essence’ as man’s intellectual soul or Godlike faculties. Just as Angelo’s glass is given form by the lives ‘conceiv’d’ in it, Isabella’s is given form by the ‘Ape’ that ‘plaies’ for tears and laughter before it - plays, that is, in the cosmic theatre. The meta-theatrical referents frame the ape as a common player: to ‘ape’ is to act or mimic; players were regularly likened to apes; the ‘heavens’ are the vault above the stage, the ‘Angels’ painted on the roof or the columns. What is more, it may be that ‘Angels’ – already punning on Angelo, the man fallen from his source and station – tropes on the audience, those whose grace is always appealed to, or who have paid their ‘angel’ (coin) for the superior pleasures of attendance. The angels are imagined as suffering spectators, unsure of the mode of play to which they are subjected, this estranging, death-tempting tragi-comedy in which tears and laughter are dangerously co-active (exploiting the doubleness of spleen as the seat of caprice, melancholy, and laughter). 

The glass is thus the most basic metaphor of theatrical mimesis, whether understood as a timely mirror or predictive capsule. Partly it asks the audience to recognize themselves on the stage; equally it implies that here is a ‘glass’ in which inadmissible lives, prevented lives, may find shadowy animation. As a prospective glass it has rare perdurability, seeing beyond immediate presents to incipient possibilities or suppressed pasts. Equally, it is inherently fragile, as easily shattered as a girl’s virginity:

Ang. Nay, women are fraile too.
Isa. I, as the glasses where they view themselves,
Which are as easie broke as they make formes. (1135-7)

But the shatter too holds memory and promise; each shard, like each image or form, may be a remembering or prognosticating crystal. The ‘glassy essence’ thus encapsulates Shakespeare’s creation, rooted in the image’s dazzling paradoxes: the glass reflects and projects; it is a flat plane and a deep container; it moves equally with visible and subvisible agents, with actualized presents and prevented pasts and foreshadowed futures; it is an essence which , like theatre, has no substance other than the materials that render it; its palpability can be seen through, as though nothing; or it exists only as a replica of some putatively more real thing elsewhere, but a reality which cannot be seen other than as a reflection; it may shatter into untold fragments, perhaps an essence in pieces, impossible to reconstitute; perhaps an essence in fractals, with each part potentially a host of substance. For the force of the image-in-the-mirror comes from the range of possible lives it admits: everyday sinners, babes unborn, fantastic apes, reverend justice, vulnerable maidens - and girls in the privacy of their chambers, trying out shapes, projecting into lives as yet unlived. The glass is latent with all such life; it doesn’t need anterior realities or governing rules to spark such possibles into motion. There is in this world no ‘essence’ independent of the modifying glass; no glass independent of its materials; no lives without the glass that generates, receives, and recognizes the desire.

Shakespearean possibility always includes the presently incompossible: the stuff that cannot otherwise be seen; the worlds that cannot yet be reached; the ideals, terrible or redeeming, which cannot yet be put to the proof, and which exist on probation as much as we do. And what this means is that playlife is not finally dependent on being recognized. It is often there, perceived or not, waiting for hermeneutics to catch-up. Shakespeare has an extraordinary, perhaps arrogant improvidence – a nonchalance about results which belies the intensity of his creative processes - and often he seems not to mind that things will pass beneath notice, regularly embedding scenes and speculations which escape attention, or permit only furtive, half-swallowed recognition. Often these things cannot be acted, any more than they can be acted upon, on-stage or off-stage. Of course this is not the whole story. W.B. Worthen writes of Shakespeare’s “misleading verbal density”, stressing how much of his meaning depends upon unwritten performance conventions.2 This is true too: but still the epistemological scandal remains: that his forms pulse, like sperm, with unlived or possible lives, implied more than explicated, dwelling beyond conventional knowledge. It is the most implicate order imaginable.3

But still, it is a difficult thing, as Michel Serres has written of his own philosophic ambition, to ‘conceive of the multiple as such, directly, without unification coming to its aid’; a hard task to ‘speak of multiplicity itself without ever availing myself of the concept [ie a preempting, unifying idea]’.4 That the multiple – Shakespeare’s proliferant forms – is no more than ‘the ordinary lot of situations’ does not make it easier to do justice, or fully to hear. We might well discern a great swarm of meanings, passing us by like a flock of birds, and resign them to some collective noun, a school or an aggregate, that stands mainly for distant incomprehension.

Shakespeare’s fissioning semantics and forward and backward syntax means that significance never rests in any single moment. Isabella’s speech is stirring theatre, its emotions galvanizing, its politics sharp: but still it simply defies adequate understanding in ‘real time’. As is reliably the case whenever Shakespeare is working at high intensity, the writing threatens the most basic contract of understanding.  At every turn his playworlds partially subvert his chosen media, with its supposedly shared immediacy. Shakespeare often baffles the very possibility of unanimity. We are moved with the flow and suddenly stopped: what did he just say…? Did he mean…? Why that…? Stanley Cavell says we ‘occupy the same time’ as the play-action: but in basic ways we do not, we cannot.5 It keeps dropping things that we can’t pick up, or if we try to pick them up we must fall behind. These things are often semantics, but not only: they can be the simplest questions of motive and event. Not just what did he say, but why did he do that, and indeed did he do that? (And if he did, what then…?) Puzzles about the event, its facticity or ontology, become puzzles about ethics, about our own adequacy or accounting. We are one in a crowd, and at the same time lost or hunting in our own private minds. We divagate, in part, from community, just as we do from a time shared with the playworld.

It is an excess that speaks the inadequacy of present symbolic orders and institutional definitions. It speaks for and to what may come – ideas, forms, audiences – a promise that exceeds our possession, opening onto unfinished possibilities, whether culturally attested or frighteningly new. His work, I think, presupposes future attenders, ones who might have the time to return to these multiplying lost moments. Shakespeare’s craft seems to assume – or more than that, to create - a layered auditory, correspondent to a layered public, nominally one but potentially many, with sets and subsets: and not least the sets and subsets of each present individual.

But Shakespeare’s style, for all its difficulty, is not exclusive. It is very different, for example, from much twentieth century modernist art, where the style begins with resistance to immediate comprehension, and its satisfactions depend upon working out the difficulty. Shakespeare does not privilege intellectual aristocratism; there aren’t esoteric meanings to be gleaned; he doesn’t set his listeners hermeneutic tests, or suggest impatience with those unschooled in literary decorum. His work is permissive, un-jealous, open. Above all, his writing is generous, in the invitations and the trust that it affords to both actors and attenders; a trust that necessarily extends to his own creations, that they will remain open, and partially yielding, when the actors and attenders return: as they must.







  • 1. This essay is abstracted from _Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds_, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2014. The Hare gratefully acknowledges CUP for permission to print it.
  • 2. Drama: Between Poetry and Performance (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 55.
  • 3. I take this term from David Bohm.
  • 4. Michael Serres, Genesis, trans. Genevieve James & James Nielson (University of Michigan Press, 1995), 4-5.
  • 5. Stanley Cavell. ‘The Avoidance of Love’, Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 105.