Bid the Spring Adieu: On Late Keats

Posted in Literature, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2011 by wilkmanshire

The questions that concerns Keats in his later poems, from 1820 on, are far different than the questions that he asks in his earlier poems, from 1817 or before. In Keats’s later poems the line of inquiry that he enters into is far more speculative and complex than his early work, tending toward as methodology of thinking that favors process over completion. This trend in Keats’s development not only points to a more complicated relationship with his craft but also to a more complicated understanding of mortality, love, and imagination. Keats’s early poems, though well crafted, show only the outer workings of the poet that he will become some three years on. In the early poems there is a tendency in Keats’s writing to approach his subject more glancingly, to dwell on delight and fancy. Many of the poems read like a bucolic that frames his way of seeing, and appreciating, beauty and, save for a few examples, generally end in a concise affirmation of his subject. In addition to the above progressions in Keats’s writing there is a more marked turn contextually in his poems away from English traditions and toward the classical traditions of Greece and Rome. All of the these transformations in Keats’s writings show a poet who has undertaken to write and consider his position in his art and in the world that is decidedly more complex and mutable; transformations that embraces ambiguity of meanings and the conflicts of reasoning toward complexity and contradiction.

In the early poems of 1817 Keats utilizes a tone and a contextualization in his writing that figures an understanding of the world and his craft that is formed out of an unrestrained fascination with imagination and beauty. Many of the poems, the sonnets in particular, deal with imagery and with themes that are decidedly bucolic and search out for moments of, in Keats’s phrasing, “delighted fancy”. Much of the early work aims to please and sets as its task the discovery of distilled moments of grace. Sonnet IV (“How many bards gild the lapse of time”) works as a typical example of the style and content that Keats was working with. The sonnet deals, ostensibly, with the role of influence on the poet and how influence operates on the poet’s conscious and on the poet’s work. Two things should be noted from the onset: first Keats is figuring his poem toward an English, Anglo-Saxon, context when he asks “[h]ow many bards gild the lapse of time!” (ln 1), and second he is using the Petrarchian sonnet form. These two features point towards Keats’s position at the time concerning which tradition he should draw from, and his basic dilemma: should he face toward the English tradition, the bard, or should he face toward the classical world toward the Rome of Horace and Ovid. This straddling of poetic tradition is not something that Keats will resolve, but as he matures he begins to take on, more and more, classical figures from myth and history. What’s important in this sonnet, and what is typical of Keats’s early works, is how his content and images work toward fancy and follow a progression in reasoning which is fairly consistent within itself, which is, that the poem works toward a resolution of meaning and reaches it without too many turns or lapses. In Sonnet IV the work one does not find questions or doubts about where the poet is in relation to those that have come before; there is no anxiety over status or decisions concerning voice. Instead Keats figures the ‘bards’ that have come before him as writers of “beauties, earthly, or sublime” (4), and though there is some darker resonances in Keats’s speaker’s reading out the ‘sublime’, the poem does not bring it forward. The speaker then discuss how when he begins the act of writing the voices of these past writers will “throng before his mind”, but they do so in a manner that is both productive and charmed: “But no confusion, no disturbance rude/ Do they occasion; ‘tis a pleasing chime” (7-8). The sonnet continues along these line of pleasure for pleasure’s sake and ends with the very temperate line that those past bards “Make pleasing music; and not wild uproar” (14). Keats here is not striving to create a poem that is grappling with metaphysical uncertainty, as his poems after 1817 are, but is trying to create moments of crystallized ideals of beauty and harmony. In the 1817 poems love is courtly and the landscape framed.

However Keats’s poem “Sleep and Poetry” of 1817 develops a number of textual motifs that Keats will come back to in his later poems. “Sleep and Poetry” is a poem, like Sonnet IV, that deals with the craft of writing, of the poet’s task, and the scope of the art, it is also a poem that finds that the task of poetry is powerful, broad, and ‘fearful’. “Sleep and Poetry” sees Keats working on some of the metatextual considerations that will return throughout his work and it also points to the unresolved methodological approach of some of his later works. There is not in “Sleep and Poetry” a clear line or a concise progression in the internal logic of the poem; however, that is not to say that the poem is not reasoned to its own demands. Instead, the poem is dealing in tropes that cannot be easily reasoned with. It is in this poem that there emerges a radical shift in the position of the poet and his figures. In “Sleep and Poetry” the work of the poet is not to find and delineate clean lines of beauty, but is a darker and more difficult work:


And can I ever bid these joys farewell?

Yes, I must pass them for a nobler life,

Where I can find the agonies, the strife

Of human hearts. (122-125)


Here the work of the poet is ontological, it is meant to enter into being, into its extreme and difficult forms and to be multivariant in its looking, to see from diverse perspectives, or as Keats words it, “thousands in a thousand different ways” (148).

By 1820 Keats has accepted the task of the poet that he had laid out in “Sleep in Poetry”. Not only did Keats begin to work in broader strokes, taking on several longer poems, but his poetry began to formulate a position that dealt in difficulty. Typical of the 1820 poems is his “Ode to a Nightingale”. From the onset of the poem one can see that the world is no longer that of middle ages England but has become tied in with classical figures. Here, instead of Spenser and of knights and damsels, Keats is calling on the world of myth: it is hemlock that has been drunk, it is in Lethe were he has sunk. Additionally, Keats is constructing a poem that follows a line of reasoning that is generally more amorphous than the line of his early poems. “Nightingale” operates with a rhetoric which works through the pairing of diverse figures, namely the nightingale that lacks the knowledge of pain and the poet figure who envies this epistemological state, which work in an interlacing logic that is discordant with the poems of 1817. In “Nightingale” it is knowledge and experience which harbors pain and suffering, it is memory and recollection, two figures which his early poems brought delight, and attached experience to the immortal. In fact, the nightingale’s song, detached as it is from suffering, is instead of a crystallization of ideal beauty, a beauty that the poet longs to die within. It is a song that is devoid of meaning and because of that pain: “I have been half in love with easeful Death,/ Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme…Now more than ever seems it rich to die” (61-64). In effect the speaker in the poem has arrived at the formulation that to be without pain is to be without meaning. An additional break from is early work is made clear in this poem, in “Sleep and Poetry” the poem ends with the poet waking from sleep and preparing to write the lines which the reader has just read. In “Nightingale” there is no clear division between poetic vision and wakefulness, but there is now a line between imagination and reality which has become blurred, or more precisely the differentiation between poetic vision and reality is no longer admitable. In the final line of the poem the speaker posses a question which is, because of its rhetoric, unanswerable and is necessarily so, “Do I wake or sleep?” (89). When Keats asked questions in his poems of 1817 the answer was supplied by the poet or was readily graspable, and almost never ended the poem. Here though Keats has made the final statement of his poem a continuation, an aspect of method. There is no tidy answer to Keats’s question and it is not meant to be. The poem is entering into a new metaphysical ground where it is process and method which are under consideration and not a terminus or crystallization of meaning. Keats here in “Nightingale” and in other of his poems of this period is no longer drawing out lines that inscribe the world in a meaning and in beauty, but is instead confronting his failure to suss out such a meaning, such a beauty. The transition between Keats’s early poems and his later poems is the movement between aligning his poetry along a single perspective toward a vision which contains ‘thousands’. This transition not only presses Keats to write a poetry that is more complicated metaphysically but it also leads him into forms that are more grand and more labyrinthine, and gives an image of a writer that has not settled on the world, a writer that is still naming, that is unfinished.

Safety First: Intuition and Intelligence in Tom Raworth

Posted in Literature, The Mordernist Cha-Cha with tags , , , , on October 1, 2010 by wilkmanshire

When thinking about Tom Raworth’s poetry from the mid-to-late 60’s, it is instructive to hold in mind Charles Olson’s conception of poetics that he put forward in his 1950 essay “Projective Verse”: “[it is] the kinetics of the thing [a poem]. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it…by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader” (New American Poetry 1945-1960 ed. Donald Allen, 387). To Olson, poetics was, by the 1950’s, at a revolutionary point in its formation. It transcended, finally, all of its previous formalist hang ups; it moved away from the domineering influence of the early and late British romantics and had entered into a new contract with its aesthetics that demanded that the poem be a thing that was generative and, as Olson wrote in that same essay, “OPEN verse” (387). Olson, though, was responding to an American poetics that was still attempting to sort out a reasonable aesthetic position for itself after the wake of the high-modernist explosion of Williams, Pound, Stevens, Stein, and gang, a poetics looking to extend the experiment of early American modernism in new directions—to make it new-er.

Raworth, in the late 60’s in England, faced a different challenge, coming as he did at the tail end of the reconstituted formal Hardyism of the The Movement poets, Larkin, Gunn, et al., on the one end of the poetic spectrum, and the poeto-tailismitic line, then being practiced by Hughes, Hill, et al., on the other side. Facing both of these current traditions in poetics practiced in the mainstream at the time, Raworth would have to create a system of composition that would allow him to, as he writes in his poem “South America”, “make rules the next generation can break more cleverly” (l. 6). To such an end, Raworth developed a poetry that moves, as opposed to the The Movement’s formalism or scholastic historism of the Hughes and Hills camp, toward a poetry wherein “intelligence shall not replace intuition” (“Wedding Day” ll. 6-7), a poetry that enters into an ‘open’ field of poetics and moves along lines of reasoning that shies up to the intuitive, the reflective, and reflexive. The end result in Raworth’s early poems is a field that does not work to define operational forms of meaning, that is, the poems do not work to intelligence the world, but instead, present a composition which moves rapidly from statement to statement, image to image, and look toward grammar and punctuation as visual markers for a breath rather than as a system of codifying the rational formation of a phrase. As a result, Raworth’s poems of that period cannot, and in fact defy, a reading that relies on a parsed and systematic approach. In fact, even Olson’s dictums on poetics came over too heavy for Raworth who, when asked about Olson, responded that to write a poem he had “to be completely empty and then see what sounds” (Tom Raworth: An Exhibition quoted from Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, Oxford 614 ). What Raworth’s early poems show is action toward a new form of meaning making, meaning making that is based on the movement of thought, feeling, and the figure of language.

Raworth’s poem “Wedding Day” exhibits a number of these qualities concerning the construction of meaning. The poem opens with a line that works as a kind of repeated refrain with variation, “noise of a ring sliding onto a finger” (l. 1). The line does a number of things to open the environment of the poem. First and foremost, it introduces one of the primary sensory markers that will recur in the poem; “noise” will be the single word that will connect the above mentioned refrains which are, in addition to the above: “noise of two cine-cameras” (l. 15) and “noise of a bike freewheeling downhill” (l. 26). What is immediately noticeable about the three lines is that the sense appealed to, that is sound, is not the sense that the image itself is adjusted to: sliding a ring onto a finger should be visual or tactile, cine-cameras do make a wiring sound but they are machines that capture visual images, and again the bike going downhill (notice there is no suggested rider) is a visual phenomenon. Though this is far from a synesthasic effect, there is a cross-pollination of sense and data, events which are registered on the visual plain are here being presented as sonic data, but much of the poem is about the slippage of language and how that sliding of connotation creates different modes of understanding.

The next line points toward the slipping around of language, “supposing he did say that” (l. 2). Here there is just the suggestion that something was said and that something was meant by it, but that at the same time, there is the possibility of misinterpretation—suppose he did say that, what would it mean. This is a field of hypotheticals that is presented again further on in the poem: “i wonder what’s wrong with her/ face, she said, because/ there’s nothing wrong with it really” (ll. 16-18). In these lines, there is a history of speculation that has begun outside of the poem and is never carried through in the poem itself. The information that there is, maybe, something wrong with her face, is presented as if has come through a line of rumors and half-informations. The ‘she’ of the statement discusses the face as if it should have some malformation, but that malformation is unknown to the ‘she’, and if there was a problem with the face, it is no longer recognizable. Information is being presented with a slant not only by the poem but between and through the persons inhabiting the poem. There is the suggestion of events but there is no singular, defining, force of meaning construction; rather,  it is the intuition of an event, not the intelligence of an event.

Meaning, then, can do just as much work revealing an object or event as it can to conceal. There is in the intuitive valuation of information a lack of dichotomy, and in that, systems of good and bad, valuable and worthless, art and pop, are no longer tenable; there can be no intelligenced right and wrong. The fog in stanza two moves across the landscape in such a manner, “we came by the front/ sea fog twisting light above the pebbles/ toward the cliffs towards the sea” (ll. 3-5). Notice how the fog moves in all directions at once and inhabits what it passes over equally. The movement of the fog is multi-variable and takes no singular perspective or preference but moves both toward the sea and away from the sea toward the cliffs. Of course, at the same time that the fog moves over the landscape, it also obscures the landscape, that is, it replaces the features of the landscape, the sea, the cliffs, with fog. This process is again another iteration of the sensory and lexical morphology mentioned above. The landscape has become unrecognizable, has undergone a metamorphosis which will then be replicated in the following stanza when a presumable groom or guest changes physical experience, “he// came from the toilet wearing/ a suit, people/ didn’t recognize him” (ll. 9-12). Intuition allows for these morphologies to occur and for them to occur with no inscribed meaning enforced upon them.

Though there is no overt summing up of meaning or gesture which will represent a holistic value to the poem and the images it presents, there is the suggestion of a tone of danger across the whole of the poem. Following the progression of the poem, one sees the seas, fog, cliffs, unrecognizable figures, disfigured faces all culminating into the final few lines which begin take this steady increase of anxiety and bring it further to the fore: “through the window we watched the frigate’s/ orange raft drifting to shore” (ll. 21-22). The image comes into the poem innocuously, there is no great tempest or event that leads into the image. The image simply appears into the field of view of the poem and then is noted. The two things that are important about the image are: the ship is a frigate or war vessel and: any orange raft that would come from a frigate would either be a landing raft or a lifeboat, but the poem gives no agency of control to the raft, it is not sailing toward the shore, it is lifelessly “drifting” toward the coast. The image suggests not just the body of a war with the frigate but also suggests that the frigate has jettisoned a lifeboat without a crew or without a living crew. All in all, throughout the poems suggestion of objects mobalized without control or will, there is the gesture toward a crisis, an anxiety, but it is never brought to bear, it is not the ‘meaning’ of the poem to give the reader a sense of a right or a wrong in the argument, in the war, or in the bike tumbling down a hill.

All of the above is good and fine in understanding the gesture of a poem like “Wedding Day” but does little to draw out what is important about the composition and  end result of such a poem. More instructive is a poem written some two or so years later like “You’ve Ruined My Evening/You’ve Ruined My Life” which takes its opening seven line stanza and refigures its language, its syntax in particular, to recombine and re-value its meaning, so that its opening line, “i would be eight people and then the difficulties vanish” and repeats it with the following two variations at the beginning of it next two stanzas which read, respectively: “i would be eight people each inhabiting the others’ dreams” (l.8) and “i would be eight people with the rib-cage of an elephant” (l. 15). These motions of sliding language make up the whole of the poem which is constantly in a state of giving a new valuation to the previous lines, much like a villanelle, but that the form is open intuitive and measures out its directionality as it sees fit, feeding each combination of words and meaning as it meets them. In many ways it can be seen as a poem that sees the process of composition as its foundation for discourse.

Raworth’s process can be most readily seen in his song poem “Poem Poem” which he says “dates from a time he I thought I could document the poetic impulse” (University of Pennsylvania Reading 2006). “Poem Poem” is played on a glockenspiel and moves away from, at its start, any recognizable minor or major chord tonalities, and instead moves through notes irregularly spaced in their tempo and register, presenting a pattern-less collection of notes that hold very little relation one to the other. Later in the piece, pieces of scales will emerge in the tonal echo of seemingly less random notes, a gesture toward a musically “reasonable” meaning, or a collection of phrases which hold to a singular pattern recognition. The piece continues in this vein for close to two minutes where progressive harmonies appear for brief moments and are taken over while the their sound still resonates by notes in removed octaves. The whole composition speaks to the process of composition of a poem for Raworth, as he notes in his preamble to playing the piece, which is a collection of rapid phrases either speaking to what has come before or what will come or in its own register isolated from the movement as a whole.

This movement between and through phrases is what sets Raworth’s poetry off; this is the impetus. It is to pick up disparate parts of language and phenomenon and place them before each other, to let meaning form out a hyper-reality which can not be codified, grammeratized, or rationalized into a solid whole. Raworth’s poetry begs that there be no solid point of completion, that forms and images, allusions and sound, rebound off one another in such a manner as to belie the work of intelligent reading. Raworth’s poetry will not create tidy packages and set the poet up as meaning maker, as a tool for weddings and funerals and anniversaries. Raworth’s poetry is an art that is in opposition to completion. His is a poetry of process and of growth.

The Changeable World in Shelley: Reading Shelley’s “The Sensitive-Plant”

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , , , on March 10, 2010 by wilkmanshire

Shelley was a highly speculative poet. His verse explored the nature of the world and the principles of human experience through a well trained philosophical lens. Shelley’s verse was one of intelligence and was a poetry that openly worked through questions concerning epistemology and ontology. Shelley’s poetry questioned the nature of reality, of perceived knowledge, and of universal truth. His poetry showed a mind that refused to settle on a single preposition, on a definable truth; rather, his writing operated more as a method, as a work of sustained psychological inquiry into the relationship between sense and perception. Shelley worked over the relationship between how one sees the world and how that frame of seeing informed not only knowledge, but also informed what in the world was perceived. For Shelley looking onto a thing was to change it, that the mind is shaped by and shapes the world around it. The world was for Shelley, to borrow a title from one of his poems, mutable, “that naught may endure but Mutability” (“Mutability” ln. 16). In Shelley’s epistemological universe nothing was stable, or in a singular form; however, Shelley did not find from within this position an untenable world devoid of meaning but instead, aligned his thinking and art to also be in continual motion. Shelley’s poem “The Sensitive-Plant” was one of the longer poems in which Shelley contended with a world in constant flux and the difficulty of locating meaning in a universe governed by chaos and entropy. In “The Sensitive-Plant” Shelley has designed a poem that explicitly works toward the position that in a seemingly godless and violent world there is some form of redemption or salvation. What Shelley ultimately does is to create a poem which, to follow the logic of its conclusion, can be re-ordered. That is, the poem can be read just as appropriately from beginning to end or from end to beginning, and still present the same meaning. Shelley created a poem in “The Sensitive-Plant” which attempted to locate a value in the world that sustained the violence of reality, Shelley located that value in the nature of beauty and, how perception affected the nature of beauty.

It should first be noted that Shelley chose a unique poetic form to structure “The Sensitive-Plant”. The poem is made up of 78 stanzas, each of two couplets following an aabb rhyme scheme throughout (save for the 14th, 28th, and 48th stanza which are made up of five lines with a rhyme scheme of aabbb). The tight and unrelenting rhyme scheme gives the poem a kind of sonic urgency; the rhymes operate as a continual march that never varies its consistency. The aabb rhyme scheme is a dangerous one in English language poetry and is generally the type of scheme that traditionally lends itself better for light verse  or short lyrics. It is not a rhyme scheme that was regularly taken up in English poetry for long works or works like “The Sensitive-Plant”, whose gesture was toward broad philosophical inquiry. It is, in effect, a scheme that was not regularly employed for ‘serious’ poetry. The choice of such a scheme, though, demonstrates two things. One: Shelley was willing to see what he could do within a rigid poetic form, and two: it gave the poem a structural unity, a unifying principle that gestured toward harmony and symmetry.

Contextually, the balance in the rhymes is mimicked in the symmetries of the flowers in the garden of “The Sensitive-Plant”, for the poem’s main landscape is a landscape of flowers and flowers are the principle actors in the poem. The flowers, however,  do not exist in the poem simply as objects but are instead anthropomorphized. They have desire and delights; they ‘pant and tremble’, they sleep, and they love. In addition to lending the flowers in the garden human characteristics, Shelley also describes the flowers in non-mortal terms, that is, as deified beauty, as Naiads, nymphs, and Maenads. During the first section of the poem, the section that focuses on the Sensitive-Plant, the flowers and the climate around them conspire in perpetuating a state of continued beauty. The odors of the flowers are lifted like music into the winds and spread across the garden “like ministering angels” (I. 94) in an “undefiled Paradise” (I. 58). The Sensitive-Plant though is unique in the garden in that it is the only plant that is not a flower and is described as being un-beautiful, “It loves—even like Love—its deep heart is full—/ It desires what it has not—the beautiful” (I. 76-77). This want for the beautiful though is a desire, though unfulfilled, which sustains the Sensitive-Plant and the process of seeking beauty, its own longings, leave the Sensitive-Plant “weary of its delight” (I. 112). It is in the first section of the poem that one of the main arguments concerning the nature of the mind is put forth:

And the beasts, and the birds, and the insects were drowned

In an ocean of dreams without a sound

Whose waves never mark, though they ever impress

The light sand which paves—Consciousness. (I. 106-109)

Here, dreams work as a state of being which work on the waking life, on the consciousness of the world, and they do so in such a way that their impact on understanding is profound but nevertheless un-marked, immeasurable. In effect, dreams do the work of making the perceived world; they shape the construction of waking life.

The construction of the world figures more prominently in the second section of the poem where the figure of a Lady is introduced into the garden. The figure of the lady, like the flowers, is placed outside of the mortal realm and, like the flowers, she is a source of beauty, but the Lady is one lined as a figure that amplifies the beauty of the garden. She is the “fairest creature from earliest spring” (II. 57). Also, this Lady operates in much the same way that dreams operate on consciousness. She spends most of her time in the garden tending it, by “killing insects” and removing “things of obscene and unlovely form” (II. 41-42). Though she creates shape of the garden she does not “mark” it: “And wherever her aery footstep trod,/ Her trailing hair from the grassy sod/ Erased its light vestige, with shadowy sweep” (II. 25-27). The Lady in the poem moves through the garden in a way similar to the way that dreams move through consciousness, designing what consciousness is without leaving its mark on it. The lady is also presented in ocean metaphors much like the metaphor used to explain consciousness as a Lady “like a sea-flower unfolded beneath the ocean” (II. 8). In effect, the lady is the dream life of the garden, and if dreams then shape the world that is perceived, shape consciousness, then it is logical that the Lady dreams of paradise, “her dreams were less slumber than Paradise” (II. 15). The Lady is, therefore, a figure created in the dreams of Paradise, and Paradise is a figure created out of the dreams of the Lady. They are symbiotic, and when she dies Paradise dies with her.

The third section of the poem examines the death and decay of the garden and the end of beauty. The third section of the poem is a meditation on the victory of violence against beauty; this section posits the victory as eternal and final: “When winter had gone and spring come back…the mandrakes and toadstools and docks and damels/ Rose like the dead from their ruined charnels” (III. 117). The death of beauty is also the end of sound and music, two elements which were heavily emphasized earlier in the poem. Winter enters the garden gesturing of silence with “One choppy finger…on his lip” (III. 91) and the wind now moves through the garden “without a sound” (III. 94). The synesthasia of the opening of the poem, “Of music so delicate, soft and intense,/ It was felt like an odour within the sense” (I. 27-28) has now been replaced by a motionless world that resides within a vacuum of sound and music. The end of beauty is also the end of music and song and the end of poetry. The third section ends with the defeat of sensation and beauty and the creation of an alien world that no longer desires that beauty increase. It is a tragic trajectory and the transition for a Paradise to a wasteland is not governed through a meaningful conflict, instead, it is just the arch of nature, the browning of a leaf and the death of a gardener. The movement between life and death is, in “The Sensitive-Plant”, meaningless and random.

Shelley, though, does not end the poem on this note of meaningless finality; instead, Shelley re-figures the role of death in the same way that he figured the relationship between dreaming and waking:

but in this life

Of error, ignorance and strife—

Where nothing is—but all things seem…

It is a modest creed…

To own that death itself must be,

Like all the rest,—a mockery. (IV. 9-16)

Here, death is a part of the dream and a part of consciousness, a figure that only exists because it has been willed into existence and that beauty and life, “In truth have never passed away—/ ‘Tis we, ‘tis ours, are changed—not they” (IV. 19-20). The transformation of the garden from beauty into death is a transformation of sense perception. The movement away from beauty is an internal movement, and it is not the world that becomes ugly but the reading of the world that has changed. In fact, for the poet, “love, and beauty, and delight/ There is no death nor change” (IV. 21-22). Beauty and desire are a constant in this world. That is that meaning is immutable and eternal, but our knowledge and perception of meaning and beauty obscures as it seeks: “[beauty] Exceeds our organs—which endure/ No light—being themselves obscure” (IV. 23-24).

It’s Not What You say it’s How You say It: Nabokov’s Lolita

Posted in Literature, The Mordernist Cha-Cha, Writers that we can Forget are Funny with tags , , , , , , on December 23, 2009 by wilkmanshire

Nabokov, in his brief afterword to Lolita titled, “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, makes a claim which carries an enduring resonance in regards to his stance on verisimilitude: “‘reality’ [is] (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes)” (312). Through this brief statement, with its parenthetical aside, Nabokov is positing an understanding of the nature of reality which is suspect and un-fixed, a reality in which there is no sustainable means of identifying a nucleus of certitude. Accordingly, for Nabokov, there can be no “willing suspension of disbelief” since, suis generis, there is no original belief to suspend. Where in the realist fictions that preceded Lolita, there was an impulse to create texts which carried with them a high degree of verisimilitude, an impulse to show the world for what it was, objectively, in a work of art; however, Lolita stands as a work of fiction that continually produces stylistic maneuvers which signal toward its textual nature. Though Nabokov has placed a number of formal mechanisms in the novel which belong to the realist tradition i.e. journal entries, letters, articles, expert opinions, existing place names, etc., he does so in order to belie them by encoding them with anagrams, allusions, alliterative devices, et. al., in order to effectively put them in quotes. Humbert himself belongs to a world which is framed by explicitly un-real devices: nymphets, enchanted hunters, a kingdom by the sea, fairy tales, etc., which he mistakes for the attainable and the tenable, in many ways his desire for the mythical in the world is one of the features which designs his monstrous actions. To this, Nabokov, in Lolita, is always making clear how the novel is a work of enchantment;  in so doing, he subverts the verisimilitude of the fiction and calls into question how artifice and illusion in literature work as a seduction.

The first mechanism inserted into the novel, which is meant to make the narrative of Humbert realistic, is the spurious “foreword” penned by John Ray, Jr., Ph. D.,  placed at the beginning of the novel. The foreword plays a number of games with the idea of a realist text: it has an appeal to authority with the Ph. D. behind John Ray’s name, it codifies Humbert’s narrative behind the tradition of addendum to text (an additional means of authority), and it tells the reader how they will read Humbert’s narrative and how they will respond to the moral abdication of Humbert’s crimes. The first two features mentioned above are readily readable as devices which, in standard texts, are applied to lend a text’s reliability and austerity; prefaces, introductions, and forewords all work to not only frame a text and its context, but also to give the work gravitas; they let readers know that what they have before them can be considered an important text, in one manner or another. In addition, as in many ‘true crime’ narratives, John Ray informs the reader that the names have been altered, when possible, to protect the innocent, which again links the novel to realistic narrative, to ‘true’ events, which is done, John Ray claims, “[f]or the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the ‘real’ people beyond the ‘true’ story” (4). Notice that here, John Ray has placed both real and true within quotation marks, in effect, calling their importance into question and in addition, has insulted readers who rely on these two words as ‘old-fashioned’. Here the text has explicitly called into question the desire to create a fiction which is meant to be read as believable, a text which works to underline some form of universal truth hidden in the world and which is only tenable through the writer who has unlocked this truth. Like most introductory remarks, John Ray’s foreword frames how the text should be read: “[a]s a work of art, it [Lolita] transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader” (5). John Ray has, at this point, designated two different types of readers: one ‘old-fashioned’ and the other ‘serious’ and each reader is meant to take different ‘lessons’ from Humbert’s narrative, one titillating and one ethical. However, all remarks that John Ray makes concerning the Humbert’s text must be viewed with some form of suspicion given the pompous and conceited tone that Nabokov gives to John Ray toward comical ends. It is also worth noting that John Ray won the ‘Poling Prize’ for a book title “Do the Senses Make Sense?” (4), a title which questions the representation of reality.

After John Ray Jr.’s foreword, Humbert’s narrative begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta” (9). These opening remarks are interesting in that Lolita the figure is presented as a purely verbal construction. It is the word ‘Lolita’ that is initially constructed in the novel and not the character; the word is caressed by Humbert just as Lolita the character is, the word is the initial obsession in Humbert’s narrative and language will remain as a central figure in the novel. In addition to the emphasis on embodying the word ‘Lolita’, there is the heavy uses of alliteration in the letter t, in the last sentence quoted above. Marie Bouchet in her essay, ‘The Details of Desire: From Dolores on the Dotted Line to Dotted Dolores” points to these sentence constructions and comments on how these construction call into the fore the textual nature of Lolita: “Nabokov’s prose, when it explores detail, attracts the reader’s attention to its written quality, through the various sound effects, daring metaphors, variations in rhythm, and other stylistic aspects that produce a metatextual effect” (109). Style, in Lolita, does not enforce a mimetic reading instead it subverts such a reading. The following passage highlights these ‘metatextual’ effects:

Monday. Delectatio morosa. I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors. We (mother Haze, Dolores and I) were to go to Our Glass Lake this afternoon, and bathe, and bask; but a nacreous morn degenerated at noon into rain, and Lo made a scene. (43)

The passage begins simply enough with a sentence of a single word delineating the day of the week during which Humbert makes his journal entry. From that sentence though Humbert’s next sentence, now two words, an ecclesiastical Latin term, “Delectatio morosa” (morose delight) was used to define the sin of intentionally thinking on or imaging sexual intercourse; this term loads the remainder of the paragraph and informs what is behind the seemingly innocuous series of events that Humbert narrates, coded in those two words is the “doleful” sexual delight which Humbert is taking from Lolita’s presence. The phrase also informs the language of the following sentence in the above quote.  Not only are the M of morosa and D of delectatio repeated with “my doleful” but the heavy alliteration of the line (“doleful”, “days”, “dumps”, dolors”) stresses the D of delectatio. This alliterative device accentuates that Latin word for delight which inform the morose words “doleful”, “dumps”, and “dolors” in a neat copy of the whole of the Latin phrase. The last word of the third sentence, “dolors”as well is playing triple duty, in that it is not only a part of the alliterative stream of words but it is also the origin of Lolita’s name, Dolores, and is also a word that comes from the Latin verb dolere: to feel pain. This feeling of pain is linked indelibly with the pain that Humbert expresses throughout the novel, the pain of his longing for the nymphet and for Lolita, and it is a pain that he operates in both his desire and the guilt locked in with that desire, and with his pain in not realizing, sexually, his desire.

The alliterative strain is picked up again in the following sentence with “bathe”, “bask”, “but” and the M, D motif is continued in “morn degenerated”. In addition to these recurring language patterns in the above paragraph, there occurs a parenthetical aside which carries a bulk of the “factual” meaning concerning the scene, i.e. the characters involved in the event. This parenthetical device is common throughout the novel and is used to carry large amounts of contextual information (such as Humbert’s mother’s death “(picnic, lightening)”) and points toward a larger pattern of representation which consigns reality to the fringe, or as Bouchet lines in her previous quoted essay, “[t]he [figure]…is textualized, semiotized—turned into a sign” (110).

Also important in this section is the name of the lake that the soon to be Humbert family will visit, “Our Glass Lake”. The name of the lake suggests its reflective surface and plays off the traditional term in pre-modern English for mirror. In this section, the lake is suggestive of doubling and copying its surroundings, of replicating space. Later in the novel the name for the lake will morph in to “Hourglass Lake” (notice that the Humbert Humbert, “HH”, inserts the letter from his name into the title of the lake), the name has transferred from the reflection of space into a reflection of time.

Throughout the novel, Humbert employs similar stylistic modes of representation which call attention to the textual nature of the novel’s ‘reality’, and in so doing subverts the mimesis in the novel. The problem of representation is even addressed by Humbert in his narrative, “my story has reached a point where I can cease insulting poor Charlotte for the sake of retrospective verisimilitude” (71). The problem with the representation of representation can be viewed as one of the central projects of Lolita. Not only does the novel deal in a stylistic mode that brings the surface of the artifice of the fore for the reader, but one of Humbert’s central problems comes out of his difficulty from viewing the world through a non-mythical, pseudo-fairytale lens. Humbert’s language concerning Lolita and his sexual desire are couched in terms that align with the romantic literary tradition. His objects of desire are ethereal creatures that can never be truly grasped or controlled, and the landscape that Humbert moves through is pulled out of a number of romantic figurations, mainly through Poe and to some extant Byron. Humbert’s call to have the reader enter into his reality, to believe and feel the nerve of his story, is the danger of the text, the call to commensurate with a pedophile and a murderer. To check this tendency of mimetic empathy, there is in place in the text’s stylistic devices that stand in the way of empathy, which push the reader away from Humbert’s ‘singing violin’, which makes style the mechanism in this novel that creates the ethic of the text.


Bouchet, Marie, C. “The Details of Desire: From Dolores on the Dotted Line to Dotted Delores”. Nabokov Studies Number 9, Spring 2005.

de la Durantaye, Leland. Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

An extremely through analysis of not just the works of Nabokov (Lolita in particular), but the book also gives a good overview of the critical methodologies applied to Nabokov’s work in the last 50 odd years. Durantaye posits Nabokov’s writings within a moral framework where aesthetic and ethical considerations are on equal footing.

Maar, Michael. The Two Lolitas. New York: Verso Press, 2005. This book explores the relationship between Nabokov’s Lolita and a short story written by Heinz von Eschwege-Lichberg bearing the same title and much the same matter as Nabokov’s novel, though Lichberg’s tale appeared a number of years before Nabokov’s novel. The book explores the relationship between memory and the creative output and it also examines the role of ‘doubles’ in Nabokov’s work and life. It also emphasizes the role that Nabokov’s style has had in making Lolita a classic text, as opposed to the forgotten text of Lichberg.

Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr, New York: Vintage, 1991.

By Any Other Angle: Time and View in Proust’s Swann’s Way

Posted in Imaginary Cities, Literature, The Mordernist Cha-Cha with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2009 by wilkmanshire

Swann’s Way, like much of modernist literature, raises questions concerning its position as a text, generally, and specifically, raises questions concerning its stance within mimesis. Unlike later modernist work like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Proust’s Swann’s Way strives to bring together the experiential quality of its narrator, Marcel, with the surface of the text in order to unify reality and its representation. In order to do so, the narrative of Swann’s Way, like the experience of reality, is fractured and ranges among time, space, and of great importance to Proust’s works, memory. All of Swann’s Way is recollection and like recollection, it is made up fundamentally of what Joshua Landy in his essay “The Texture of Proust’s Novel”, calls “an atmosphere of uncertainty” (117). This ‘atmosphere of uncertainty’ not only extends into the narrative fabric of Marcel’s world, which is at times unmoored linear narrative techniques, but it is also aggrandized in certain fundamental questions concerning the text as a whole i.e. where does the narrative begin: is it in bed just before sleep, is it in a good night kiss, in a cookie dipped in tea, in Combray, in a section called “Swann in Love”, or is it in the history of names? There are even suggestions in the text that the beginning lays even further back in “metempsychosis…of an earlier existence” (3). These questions are not readily answerable, but they do point toward a larger problem in Swann’s Way which concerns the ‘nature’ of experience and the ‘nature’ of things. Rarely is a single object, event, or character presented in the novel in a singular manner, instead the view is fractured, rearranged, and reorganized. This system of narrative organization creates in the novel a perspective which shifts continually the layers of meaning for the object of address. This shifting perspective works to find an essential quality in the object of address, but as it does so, additional information is needed to ground the importance of the object and as more information is brought to bear, the more complicated the view becomes, until the view and the object are in a relationship that is cut through with complexity and contradiction. Marcel frames this understanding of layered view thus: “that the souls of those we have lost are held captive in some inferior creature, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, effectively lost to us until the day…when we come into possession of the object that is their prison” (44). This impetus to find the ‘soul’ of the object and subject seems to be one of the essential features of Marcel’s narrative, to ‘capture’ the object inside of a Kantian ‘thinginess’, to lock it outside of time and memory, these two features in the novel continually subvert meaning for Marcel since the project proves to be fruitless, since time and memory cannot be stilled. This process of layering continues throughout the novel and extends into all aspects that are considered under the narrative lens of Marcel, most importantly, for this essay, the manner in which the self, art, reality, and mimesis, is layered.

The opening of the novel begins with this system layering, in this case of the self and art: “I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V” (3). The quoted section above demonstrates how, form the onset of the text, there is no solid figure, there is no thing that exists in isolation; instead any and all details are filled in through a system of free association. This will be the modus opradi of the section of the novel that precedes “Combray”, and the language of the section points to the free association of a narrative that construes self and object outside of conscious control. Throughout this opening section, Marcel uses words that are indefinite in their character; the quoted section points to the onset of this language where the ‘church’ and the ‘quartet’ are linked to the indefinite article a as opposed to the definite article the. So that both the ‘church’ and the ‘quartet’ mentioned are unspecified and could mean any church or quartet; they are ambiguous and amorphous. This ambiguity of object though had already begun as a pattern before the quoted section, even the first phrase points to a non-specificity of, in this case, time, “For a long time” (3). Here, at the beginning of the text, time is working as a feature more than as a thing that delineates events or inscribes interval, facets which time are generally associated with. As opposed to a demarcation of time that measures duration, the narrative instead addresses time in a manner that obscures its ability to mark out events—it is not stated that it was a ‘long time ago’ or ‘forever’ or even ‘when I was a child’—but simply ‘for a long time’. Again, the indefinite article allows for the ambiguity to seep in to the phrase and invites a reading that allows for multiple readings, allowing the emergence of layers. Immediately following this phrase, the next sentence in the novel opens with a word that works with ambiguity: “Sometimes” (3). This ‘sometimes’ not only carries with it the feature of time, of the temporal, as in the preceding phrase, but it is a ‘sometimes’ that will frame the section quoted earlier. This ‘sometimes’ then adds onto the a of the church and quartet and allows for additional interpretive modes to filter into the sentence, pushing the solidification of self and time even further afield, so that a singularity of time and self become even more problematic than before i.e. not only is the self of the narrator being replaced by what he reads, obscuring a solidified understanding of self.  In addition, what he reads about is not solidified in time or place. Meaning continues to build on meaning and those systems of representing meaning are, at the outset of the text, opened to allow even further source to enter into the construction. This system of narrative is far removed from the bulk of writers that had come before Proust. Writers like Zola, Balzac, and even, to an extant Flaubert, created narratives that followed a line of narrative that demarcated and inscribed a clear meaning for their reading audience: events happened along a linear progression and narrative voice, generally in the 3rd person, relied on the definitive article. Rarely would one find in such narratives a guiding voice that “did not even understand in the first moment who I was” (5).

This early system of representation of the self continues into the world around the self. As stated previously, Marcel’s readings layer meaning onto the self but at the same time, the self layers meaning onto what surrounds the self: “[a] sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds…as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies…but their ranks can be mixed up, broken” (5). There is no certainty to time and space, or there is but that certainty is fragile and Marcel says later on the nature of time and space that certainty rests in the observers understanding of them as such: “Perhaps the immobility of the things around us is imposed on them by our certainty that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our mind confronting them” (6). Bergson in his “Idea of Duration” looks to these complicating features of time/space, “we accustom ourselves to projecting this act itself into space, to applying it to the whole…which the moving body traverses, in a word, to solidify it: as if this localizing of progress in space did not amount to asserting that, even outside consciousness, the past co-exists along with the present” (65). For Bergson, here, time past is constructed out of the past and are not two states which can be dislodged, one from the other. Likewise, Marcel narrates the architectural formation of the room in which he wakes; it is constructed out of diverse forms, meaning and are constructed out of past rooms, from memory, until something that can be called the room he awakes in is revealed, “Then the memory of a new position would reappear; the wall would slip away in another direction: I was in my room at Mme. de Saint-Loup’s” (7). Just as Marcel’s room is constructed, or found out of memory and recognition, the city of Combray is constructed in much the same way, especially its church which “summ[ed] up the town representing it” (49). For Diane R. Leonard in her essay “Ruskin and the Cathedral of Lost Souls”, this system of construction is the linchpin to the novel itself: “by laying down impressions in the reader’s mind—magic-lantern projections on the walls of his consciousness—which become layered in memory in a vertical ‘fourth dimension’ where they co-exist simultaneously, like the stratifications of different centuries in the Church of Combray” (56). It could be said that the architectural construction of the church in Combray is parallel to the construction of self for Marcel. Like Marcel’s conception of self, which is formed out of all his experiences simultaneously, the church of Combray is likewise formed out of multiple ‘experiences’ of time, a version of Marcel though writ large: “[the church was] something entirely different from the rest of the town: an edifice occupying a space with, so to speak, four dimensions—the fourth being Time—extending over the centuries its nave which, from bay to bay, from chapel to chapel, seemed to vanquish and penetrate not only a few yards but epoch after epoch from which it emerged” (62). In many ways, this can be seen as the desired end result of Proust’s large novel, which ends with Time Regained, where the self has been formed completed and can stand outside of time.

If the self can stand outside of time, and if it can be argued that the self in these early sections in Swann’s Way delineate a portrait of the self that is locked within time, than questions arises concerning what a thing is and what the self is, and if they can be differentiated in the text. The answer comes with the tidal shift that occurs during the famous scene centered around the petite madeleine toward the end of section one. At this point, the narrator is able to find something clear and recognizable in his conception of self, he proclaims the self as an individual entity, however, this moment is brief and it will be the attempt to recapture this experience which will concern the remaining work. At this point in the narrative, Marcel, for the first time, is able to claim that there is something inherent within him that exists outside of perception and association: “[the cake] filled me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me…it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature” (45). Here, the self is not predicated on space and time but has transcended both and has entered into a singular sphere of understanding wherein meaning is not unmoored from its surroundings but is clarified because of its privileged perspective. Bergson in his “Concerning the Nature of Time” points toward a similar understanding: “we catch ourselves doubling and multiplying our consciousness, transporting it to the limits of our outer experience, then, to the edge of the new field of experience that it has disclosed…[creating] through the identity of their inner durations and the contiguity of our outer experiences, the singleness of an impersonal time” (207). The above section also works as a brief copy of an earlier ‘emancipation’, when Marcel finds that he has entered into a new understanding of self after his mother initially refuses to kiss him good night: “an hour after Mama had refused to come up to my room and had sent the disdainful answer that I should go to sleep, raised me to the dignity of a grown-up and brought me suddenly to a sort of puberty of grief, an emancipation of tears” (38). This puberty of grief though is nascently liminal, it is between and moves backwards and forewords from that point, just as Marcel’s revelation of the self in the cake scene is also liminal. This patterning of parallels extends throughout much of Swann’s Way, in fact Roger Shattuck in his essay “Lost and Found: The structure of Proust’s Novel” believes that the second full section of the novel “Swann in Love” “works as an internal replica or miniature of the whole” of Swann’s Way (77). Marcel himself echoes this sentiment, “I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann—to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time” (20). Here again is that system of layering where Swann is both himself and the memory of people from a different time away from Swann, and it is also an example of simultaneity, of relapse and replacers. As Marcel ‘searches’ for that experience that he received from the cake, it should be noted that like the self, time is liminal, or in keeping with the title of Proust’s work, ‘lost’.

The orientation of time, as has been suggested above, does not situate outside of space, that is outside of perspective, or view. The perspective most represented in Swann’s Way is most closely associated with what is called the parallax view, which the OED defines as a “[d]ifference or change in the apparent position or direction of an object as seen from two different points” (OED online) i.e. the apparent displacement of an object occurs due to the movement of the observer between two points. As with time, in the novel, which ‘doubles and multiplies’ experience so too does the shifting of perspective, the manner through which an object or event is viewed predicates its meaning as well as its overall form. Zizek discusses the nature of the parallax in his book The Parallax View:

The philosophical twist to be added [to parallax], of course, is that the observed distance is not simply subjective…It is rather that….subject and object are inherently mediated so that as ‘epistemological’ shift in the subject’s point of view always reflects an ontological shift in the object itself…Sure the picture is in my eye, but I am also in the picture.” (17)

This is the relationship which Marcel when he addresses the experience of space between object and self:

When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.” (85)

Again, one can see that ‘atmosphere of uncertainty’ that Landy talked about, but now the uncertainty, the inability to grasp at the object, to view it outside of the self, is also aligned with the movement through space as well as through time and the position of the observer. Marcel is constantly ‘displacing’ the singularity of the observed object; so again there is the idea of multiple times, of past residing simultaneously and being revealed or re-evaluated as the watcher moves through space. There is always in the motion of the observer an ‘epistemological shift’, that is the knowledge, or meaning, of the observed is transformed and this same shift relates to the state of being, the ontology, of the observer; both subject and object shift in their meaning toward one another but are “always preceded by a zone of evaporation” because of there relationship, in space, with one another.

Finally, though, it is how both time and space operate in conjunction, one with the other, in Swann’s Way that produces the narrative effects in the novel, the feeling that a solid view in time and space is somehow inadequate in expressing the complexity of the reality and its representation. For it is a question in the novel of forming an entirely new relationship in productive mimesis, instead of allowing ‘reality’ to dictate the shape of the art of Swann’s Way. Instead there is a more complicated cross-positioning between reality and its representation; wherein, this binary has equal weight in forming the other or as Harold F. Mosher once commented Proust has created “a reflective fiction dramatizing its own creation” (quoted from Landy 119). What makes the narrative structure of Swann’s Way is that there is no point, or the points are limited, when there is a solidified stance on the nature of reality, there is a deeper meaning which Marcel experiences with his cake and tea, but that deeper meaning is elusive, shifting, and untenable. The difficulty of establishing a beginning to the novel discussed earlier relates to the nature of the novel itself, which is a novel that examines process, not completion. It is a novel that is concerned with the process of memory, of thought, and meaning, and how the process is always in a constantly shifting perspective, that “the past co-exists along with the present”, and that the manner in which perspective, along a time space axis, ranges across the field of experience that allows for the formation of meaning, but a meaning that is always in a state of inception, of process.


Bergson, Henri. Henri Bergson: Key Writings. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson, John Mullarkey. London: Continuum, 2002.

Landy, Joshua. “The Texture of Proust’s Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to Proust. Ed. Richard Bales. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Leonard, Diane R. “Ruskin and the cathedral of lost souls.” The Cambridge Companion to Proust. Ed. Richard Bales. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way. Tr. Lydia Davis. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Shattuck, Roger. “Lost and Found: The Structure of Proust’s Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to Proust. Ed. Richard Bales. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Žižek, Slavoj. Parallax View. Boston: MIT Press, 2006.

Bon Hiver: Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale as Parody

Posted in Literature, Writers that we can Forget are Funny with tags , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by wilkmanshire

The Winter’s Tale has come under a number varied critical lenses during the past fifty odd years. In the middle part of the 20th century the play was read as a mistake at worst, as a weak piece of writing at best, and consistently as a problem for the Shakespeare canon. Stephen Miko in an essay that bears the title of the play observes that the critical response to Shakespeare’s late plays generally employed a line of reasoning that drew on an image of Shakespeare as “tired, mellow, or even in his dotage” (259). It is easy to read Winter’s Tale as a play that falls into this category, because the play lacks the outright strength of Shakespeare’s previous works. Rarely in the play is there the verbal intensity of his earlier works and most of the characters in the play read more like vaudevillian cut-outs rather than as deep psychological portraits which can be found in his work preceding Winter’s Tale. More than that, there is the odd structure of the play which has generally been read as a tragedy for the better part of the first three acts, acts which include a healthy number of undo deaths, and the last two acts of the play have been read as belonging to the comedic tradition, one marriage and a reconciliation of a marriage thought to be doomed. The anxiety to find an appropriate genre taxonomy for the play has lead to the creation of the romance for those plays which do not follow the recognizable lines of genre convention common to Shakespeare’s canon: history, tragedy, and comedy. The Winter’s Tale is a unique play in the works of Shakespeare and it can easily be read as ‘bad Shakespeare’, as mentioned above the play is without the stylistic complexities that abound in most of Shakespeare’s plays, there are no lexicological motifs, there are no soliloquies that balance difficult philosophical conjectures concerning ontology and epistemology, and most strikingly there appears throughout the play actions and dialogues gestures which completely undo the illusion of theater. Finally there are a number of conventional theatrical devices which appear in the play that belong to the tradition of theater that were relevant in the generation before Shakespeare began working and which would become obsolete for the generation after Shakespeare; conventions that belong to the mystery plays and the pastorals of late middle-ages England which would have still been the popular form of theater outside of metropolitan London. Though the above can point toward evidence of a writer who is in his “dotage” one should also bear in mind that this is the same writer who in the year following Winter’s Tale will produce The Tempest a play that has had a fairly stable place among Shakespeare’s works as a ‘strong’ work. If then this is not Shakespeare ‘mellowed’ then what are the reasons behind the strange shift in the play and the vulgar conceits that appear in the play? The supposition that this essay will follow is that Winter’s Tale first and for most is a parody, not just of the theater of pre-English renaissance but of broader convention of genre and, possibly, of Shakespeare’s own work, and a parody on the illusion of art.

A number of writers have pointed out that one of the interesting features of Winter’s Tale is that, as opposed to the majority of Shakespeare’s plays, the play follows closely the plot and structure of it source material, Robert Greene’s romance Pandosto. However, as Stephen Greenblatt et al points out in the introduction to the play, Shakespeare has not only changed a number of the names in the play but he has reversed the geography of the action, so that in Greene’s story Bohemia is home to the jealousy and wrathful king and Sicily is home to the even-minded king. For Greenblatt the reason for this shift was informed by a deeper symbolic order: “In The Winter’s Tale the reverse is true, and one reason may be the association of Sicilia with the myth of Proserpina” (Norton Complete Shakespeare 2875). However, if the play is read as a parody than two major feature concerning Pandosto signal this work as being fair game for Shakespeare. First, the Pandosto was not only exceedingly popular during the late 16th and early 17th century but it also was composed along stylistic lines that were in keeping with the expectations of the reading public of the time period, its language was formulaic and its themes ‘juicy’. In addition to the above, Pandosto was in keeping the pre-renaissance tradition of the moral tale, of jealousy “cured with wholesome counsel” (n pg.). The lack of originality in the work would easily lend itself to easy parody by an author like Shakespeare and its familiarity would make that parody accessible to the literate audience, at the same time though Robert Greene was also one of the first negative critics of a then young Shakespeare, who in one of his last works wrote Greenes Groats-worth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentance:

Yes trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautiful with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shakes-scene in a countrie. (Norton Complete Shakespeare 3321-3322)

Not only does Greene attack Shakespeare as a crow in peacocks feathers but he also uses Shakespeare’s own work, Henry VI, to levy the attack, as Greenblatt point to in a footnote, “O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide” (Henry VI 1.4. 138). All together a not so subtle jab at Shakespeare as fake.

As discussed earlier Winter’s Tale utilizes a language unique to Shakespeare. If acts I-III are to read as tragic, in the sense of that term vis-à-vis genre, then a large amount of the language used in those first acts falls far short from the type of language employed by Shakespeare in his own tragedies. Leontes’ speech after first suspecting Hermione of infidelity with Polixenes is a case in point: “Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a forked one” (1.2. 186). The beginning of Leontes speech here gives no indication of a broad or deep seated hatred and desire for revenge. The language instead falls around the problem of being mired to the ‘knee-deep’ and ‘inch-thick’. The language points to an image which suggests a minor problem or an uncomfortable position, there is not, as in other of Shakespeare’s tragedies, those powerful images of melting flesh, thundering tongues, daggers in smiles, unsexed women, or references to infanticide, patricide, regicide, or any other cide. Instead Leontes’ ‘rage’ is framed along this fairly comic rant which continues: “And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by/ Sir Smile, his neighbor” (1.2. 196-197). Here there is not just the comically named Sir Smile but there is the unnecessary repetition of ‘neighbor’ reiterating the stumbling inarticulate style of Leontes, a style that is a far cry from the grandiloquence of an Iago or Richard. Leontes indictment treads the same style as his ocular proof of “paddling palms and pinching fingers” (1.2. 117), where again the crime is trifles just as Leontes rage is trifles. Miko acknowledges this system of rhetoric employed by Leontes: “this language…to us is usually absurd; and Shakespeare makes it go on long enough to push us beyond our initial judgment (the man is crazy) to consciousness that this is a psychological study, a symbolic game, and finally a kind of black joke” (262). Later in 2.1. Leontes rhetoric and designs to murder his wife’s presumed lover are openly mocked:

Leontes            Come, follow us,

We are to speak in public; for this business

Will raise us all.

Antigonus [aside]            To laughter, as I take it.

If the good truth were known. (2.1. 197-201)

Though Leontes up to this point in the play has been reminded of his folly in pursuing his line of reasoning concerning Hermione’s fidelity, here the play takes a metatextual shift and reminds the reader that they are not just coconspirators in the play but that the play will dramatically shift into a more ‘readable’ comedy. Miko points to these moments in his essay, “I take his attitude to be…playful, especially playful with the extremes which literary conventions exist to control: death, obsession, contrary or excessive emotional attitudes, and at the bottom our ineradicable wish to make the world fit our desires” (“Winter’s Tale” 260).

By the third act of the play Shakespeare begins to push the limits of his genre with more excess beginning with the brief exchange between Cleomenes and Dion concerning there mission to consult the oracle of Delphi. Their exchange contains none of the weight that such a task should carry, a task which would exonerate or convict Hermione from/to death, instead their conversation falls on the fine weather and the charming architecture: “The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet;/ Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing/ the common praise it bears[1]” (3.1. 1-3). The oracle itself becomes a work of comic juxtaposition when it is read out in the court. Not only does its simple nature belie the mortal importance of its message, but because of its simple language it stands in the face of the modus operandi of oracles in Western literature. Where traditionally oracle pronouncements are given in verse and in a language which is coded and obscure (generally leading to a misreading of the oracle that turns toward tragic ends), here in Winter’s Tale the oracle is presented in the plainest speech: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall live without an heir if that which is lost be not found” (3.2.131-133). If the part concerning ‘that which is lost’ comes off as not readily answerable Shakespeare makes sure to clear up any confusion by naming Leontes daughter Perdita—Latin for “lost one”. This reading comes at the height of what should be a readable tragic moment, it comes just before the one and a half deaths of Mamillius and Hermione, but this oracle comes with a flat clear language which is in open, parodical, opposition to the theatrical tradition of such conceits.

The next major parodic device appears at the beginning of scene four when the character, and chorus, Time appears in the play and narrates the transition of a sixteen year gap in the action of the play. The manifestation of a character with a name like Time is highly unorthodox in the Shakespearian canon and the use of an allegorical figure of this nature belongs to the tradition of the mystery and morality plays which began to be performed as early as the 15th century. Plays of this nature, as in the morality play, Everyman, usual portray actions which mimic well known biblical tales and generally move along a plot line that traces down fall to redemption. One of the key features of these plays, beyond their plot, is the heavily allegorical nature of the pieces, for example Everyman follows the exploits of Everyman who encounter characters by the name of Good works, Fellowship, Beauty, etc. By placing an allegorical figure in his play Shakespeare can be seen as making a “playful” nod to the past tradition while at the same time parodying theatrical conventions that are far from relevant, though still played, to the London theater. It is important to look at how Time himself, in the text addresses, with textual consciousness, his role in the play as well as the matter of the play itself, “so shall I do/ To th’ freshest things now reigning, and make stale/ the glistering of this present as my tale/ Now seems to it” (4.1. 33-35). Not only is there a sly mocking rhyme with the stale/tale, but the entire speech is written in heroic couplets, a style of poetics that almost never is utilized in Shakespeare and here draws attention to itself by its overly astringent form. From then on Winter’s Tale goes into the nature of poetics and their relationship with truth, and a public willing to buy that truth with an exchange between Autolycus, Clown and Mopsa:

Autolycus         …I have about me many parcels of charge.

Clown              What hast here? Ballads?

Mopsa             Pray now, buy some. I love a ballad in print, alife, for then we are sure they are true. (4.4. 249-251)

Here there is a look to a public that is willing to suspend all disbelief, a public that will do little to question opinion presented as fact or illusion presented as reality.

This final point leads toward the final scene of the play, the statue scene, in which Leontes is confronted with a ‘statue’ of his long dead wife Hermione. As a conceit of theater the scene belongs to the comedic tradition, it allows for a clean ending where all can be tidied up, and as in a play like Midsummer’s Night Dream (a play whose title also gives agency to a season), with the use of magic or a miracle. First there are two things to points out about the statue. First is the artist Giulio Romano who is said to be the artist of the statue and who was, in fact, an architect and painter during the period of the Italian renaissance. In this there are two items of note: firstly Romano died in the 16th century AD a time period far outside which one would find an operational oracle at Delphi, and second Romano was not a sculpture. These two combined fact should dispel any qualms that a reader of this play may have in trying to ‘buy’ the truth of Winter’s Tale, with this reference Shakespeare has done away with any allegiance to time and authenticity, Winter’s Tale is not as it appears to be, a period piece. The second item of note is the presentation of marble statuary before, and in some part during, the Italian renaissance, which would have been considered finished when it had been painted. The painting of statues during this time period was meant to give the pieces a more mimetically life-like appearance, to seem more real. During the statue scene Paulina continually remonstrate Leontes for drawing too close to the statue since, “it is newly fixed, the colors/ not dry” (5.3. 47-48). Here the statue is presented as painted, as bearing a cover over the marble that is meant to solidify its mimetic effect. If the idea of the painted statue that mimics a life-like form by being painted over is to be understood from these lines then it would mean that on the stage would stand a Hermione that in no way, save stillness, resembles marble, since it is the art (of the non-sculpture) Romano that has made the illusion so believable.

Finally it is the question of believability that hangs over this reading of Winter’s Tale. Miko questioned the seriousness of other critics approach to Winter’s Tale: “For example, how seriously can we take (and therefore treat) Leontes’ jealousy? Or, for that matter, the statue scene?…Do the packages of ideas (and rules) that come with ‘tragicomedy,’ ‘romance,’ or ‘pastoral’ really help us when we find the play incoherent, or embarrassing, or perhaps even incomprehensible?” (259). The question is worth raising. If Winter’s Tale can be read as a parody is it unique in its status as such? Are there other plays that continue such a sustained line of parody? Whatever the answer, Shakespeare had a particular design for this play which bear little resemblance to his other works. It is metatextual and intertextual, it uses lines from his own works, and continually subverts generic modes of representation and calls out those who fall in for those ‘modes’ of interpretation that take illusion for reality, as Leontes does in the statue scene: “O, She’s warm!/ If this be magic, let it be an art/ Lawful as eating” (5.3. 109-111). Leontes unquestioning reading of the magic in the statue is followed by the more rational voice of Polixenes who is quick to point out the illusion of the living statue, ‘and make it manifest where she has lived,/ Or how stol’n from the dead” (5.3. 115-116). These final lines echo the odd relationship that many readers of this play have, the first line addresses the skepticism surrounding the illusion that is at the fore of Winter’s Tale, the second line comes out of the belief that the reader has that what is happening in the play is truly worth marking and empathizing with; both positions though are valuable, in that, it seems that Shakespeare is playing both games at once, pulling us into the play only to drag us  out and re-examine where we had been. In effect Winter’s Tale is one of the few plays in the canon that openly questions its existence, while at the same time questioning the relationship between art and reality.


Greene, Robert. Pandosto. Elizabethan http :/ / www. elizabethanauthors. com /pandosto1.htm.

Miko, Stephen J. “Winter’s Tale”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring, 1989.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

[1] A special note on the use of the word ‘bear’: In a quick count there are just above 30 uses of the word bear throughout the play. In general it is used as a verb: to bear both emotionally and physically, and it is also used in reference to the animal i.e. “[exit pursued by bear]”. It also appears in the words forbear in relation to an oath, and in cupbearer in relation to Leontes plan to poison Polixenes cup. Also of interest Perdita’s line 4.4. 38-39 “I see the play so lies/ That I must bear my part”; and Leontes 5.3. 63-64 “Would you not deemed it breathed, and that those veins/ Did verily bear blood?”

In Noise so Rude: Language as Performance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Posted in Literature with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2009 by wilkmanshire

Like many of Shakespeare’s works Hamlet is a play about the nature and the force of language. Unlike many of Shakespeare’s works, however, language in Hamlet is a supreme activating force. Throughout the play it is language, or in Shakespeare’s terminology ‘speech’ that calls into being the action of the play and the surface of appearances that this actions moves across. More often than not, Hamlet has been viewed as a play without action, and it is this propensity toward inaction that has been seen as the central contextual anxiety of the play. Arguments concerning the action of Hamlet tend to focus on what is not happening, about the role of meditation, mediation, and introspection, how those ‘natural philosophies’, impede or disavow the action of vengeance so central to the structure of the play. These arguments are by no means unfounded and it is the angst of inaction that drives the core of the play, that lends it its ‘tragic’ structure, but like a majority of Shakespeare’s works, Hamlet is at its heart about the nature of language. Hamlet, in its drive toward the speech act as the prime motivator of action in the play uses language as a guiding device that consciously calls this theatrical world into being, language is, throughout the play, a force both generative and destructive. The speech act as deus ex machina cannot be overly represented in a discussion of Hamlet,  but in addition to the status of language, or because of this status, the speech act should also be viewed as one of the governing principles of the play, if not its central figure. In effect, language is not a means to convey desire but is in itself the creator of desire and the facilitator of action in the body of Hamlet; what Bruce Danner in his essay “Speaking Daggers” notes is “this congruence between the natural world and narrative language [in Hamlet]” (44).

The calling forth of the world with speech begins with the play’s opening phrase “Who’s there?” (1.1. 1). This question can be seen as the lexicon logical framework for one of the major dilemmas of the play i.e. Hamlet’s questioning of his nature, of his identity and attached to that the nature of his will and motivation, a dilemma which is couched in the following line which carries the imperative “unfold yourself” (1.1. 2). These speech acts reach into the darkness surrounding the scene and call forth the two first players. This calling forth is then echoed in a like manner by Barnardo who, with his narrative concerning the appearance of the Ghost (1.1. 33-37), calls forward the Ghost in a way that suggests that the speech, the language of description, activates the presence of the Ghost, or as Danner has it in the above mentioned essay, “the Ghost’s subsequent presence functions less as an interruption to the tale than a completion of it, as if Bernard’s words take shape in the apparition itself” (44). In addition to the language in this early section bringing forward elements of the world (and the unnatural world), there is the motivation for bringing Horatio into the scene, which is, for Barnardo and Marcellus, to “speak to it” (1.1. 27), and where Barnardo and Marcellus demand speech of Horatio, Horatio echoes this same demand of the Ghost to have the Ghost “[s]tay, speak, speak, I charge thee speak” (1.1. 49.). This opening emphasizes over and again how crucial the operation of language is in Hamlet, not only is the charge in this opening scene that speech be used and addressed, but it is also worth noting that it is action, the casting of Marcellus’ partisan which drives the Ghost from the scene; this leaves the mystery of the Ghost, his identity and reason for appearing, intact.

It is this selfsame force, the ability of words to circumscribe reality, in the ‘natural’ world of the play that also defines the logic of the action in the court of Elsinore, where the condition of ‘finding out’ generally hinges on acts of verbal deceit, of coloring over the world with language, and thereby changing its appearance. In order to look closely at this logic of action, it is important to first look at how speech is used by the inhabitants of Elsinore. Appearance, physical appearance, is the first matter addressed to Hamlet, in particular it is the constant state of mourning that Hamlet has been attired in since his father’s death. Here, one of the key traits of the environment of Elsinore is brought forward—the difference between appearance and reality:

GERTRUDE              If it be,

Why seems it so particular with thee?

HAMLET        Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems’…

These indeed ‘seem’,

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passeth show— (1.2. 76-58)

In this interchange, Hamlet professes himself as a person who is unable, or does not see the necessity, of representing himself in a form other than the one that he feels is native to himself, and it is this state of personal understanding that Hamlet delivers forward, that his nature is not one of disguise or conceit, but instead his outward appearance and action are in check with his inward self. This stance by Hamlet can be read in a number of ways, it can be seen as a critique on the superficiality of the court and politics, it can be read as consternation concerning the short time between the marriage of his mother and uncle following the death of his father, and it can be read as a characteristic habit of thought and system of understanding that Hamlet will return to throughout the play. It is this last reading of the exchange quoted above that warrants the closest inspection, especially in light of Claudius’ response to Hamlet’s speech. Here Hamlet addresses the state of the world as a thing that is definable, that a state of being is best understood at and for its own sake. For Hamlet, at his core, meaning is derived by addressing directly the subject itself. This may seem an odd statement concerning the character of Hamlet since he has often been judged as a character who’s inability to act has been framed around his indecisiveness, his inability to find meaning directly (interestingly, though, Hamlet speaks through a pun on ‘seems’ and ‘seams’, the nature of a pun though rests on the mutability of language, of a words double-sided nature). Though this may be true, his inaction can also be seen arising from the manner of his rhetoric. In his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet takes two states of existence and measures one next to the other in an un-transformed state; he takes the subjects directly, “To be, or not to be; that is the question” (3.1. 58). There is no equivocation in the pointedness to which Hamlet holds these to binaries one to the other. Notice here how the action of living or dying is filtered into a speech act, a question. Importantly language has become the source of meaning. Daniella Jancsó in her book Excitements of Reason: The Presentation of Thought in Shakespeare’s Plays and Wittgenstein’s Philosophy comments on Hamlet’s form of understanding: “Hamlet’s utterances…exemplify the relativity of the ‘appearance-reality’ reference system: what is denoted as ‘reality’ and…‘appearance’ depends on where the reference system is set up” (135). This “reference system” in the character of Hamlet is generally set up in the knowable, measurable and the real, as in Hamlet’s entreaty to the recently arrived players is one which emphasizes a more indelibly human performance, a performance ground in believability and realism, as opposed to a performance that dabbles in spectacle, type, and superficiality. This understanding of art and in effect the nature of reality, is commented on by Danner in such a way that points again toward the transference of reality and language, or in this case, reality and theater: “For Hamlet, the verisimilitude of theatrical representation, the notion of the theater as a world (theatrum mundi), develops into a conception of the theater as the world, a mirror of historical events, a lens for determining guilt or innocence, and, ultimately, an agent for conducting worldly action” (37).

If Hamlet’s speech is filled with a rhetoric that demands that a thing be looked at straight, then Claudius, in his speech following Hamlet’s “seems” quip, can be seen as a speech that produces affirmation in its counter form. For Claudius, the subject is best looked at through its negation, that is that as opposed to holding the subject verbally in its affirmative, or direct state, Claudius measures things through what they are not. His speech concerning appearance is peppered through with these negations: so that Hamlet’s grief is “unmanly”, with a heart “unfortified”, a mind “impatient” and “unschooled”, which is “unprevailing”, and Hamlet’s decision to stay at Elsinore is an “unforced accord” (1.2. 94-123). Here Claudius uses a language where the shape of the subject can only be come at slant, Hamlet is not acting girly (which is what Claudius means) but instead he is not acting like the thing that he should be i.e. manly; this manner of verbal construction re-posits the subject in what it is not portraying as opposed, and as Hamlet addresses subject, to what it is, is not what is contained but what is not contained. This same system of language will be mirrored in Polonius’ manner of speech as well, however, Polonius draws attention to the rhetorical device, “That we find out the cause of the effect—/Or rather say ‘the cause of the defect’” (2.2. 101-102). It is in a mixture of these two forms of address, Hamlet’s and Claudius’, that the Ghost uses, later, to describe his murder as “most foul, strange, and unnatural” (1.5. 28). However the case may be, Inga-Stina Ewbank in her essay “Hamlet and the Power of Words” outlines the role which language enacts throughout the play: “what the still small voices…have in common with the loud and eloquent ones is a general belief in the importance of speaking” (157).

The second appearance of the Ghost brings back again the capacity of language in creating and circumscribing the world of Hamlet. Again when the Ghost comes, it is language that is called for from the Ghost, speech is the first and final demand on the Ghost and it is the one thing that the Ghost will give forward. Notice as well that like Barnardo, Hamlet’s first impulse is to describe the Ghost as bearing the look and dress of his dead father (1.4. 20-36), Jancsó discusses this interchange through the shape of language: “one cannot relate to a ‘questionable shape’, however: it is necessary to settle on a conclusion…Hamlet solves the problem by switching from the descriptive to the performative use of language” (119). The descriptive mode has already been addressed and it harkens back to Barnardo’s descriptive act, the performative language comes before the Ghost makes his first “beckoning” gesture toward Hamlet, with Hamlet’s imperative, “Say, why is this” (1.4 38) which is followed by the performative, “I say, away! Go on, I’ll follow thee” (1.4. 63). Upon following, Hamlet learns of his father’s violent death by murder and more importantly by poison administered through the ear. This mortal location (though a somewhat questionable means of injecting poison) locates the organ in the body that contains and understands speech, it is the ear now that will become the target for Hamlet, and though up to this point the image of the ear (and all attendant puns) has been used often, generally in regards to speech; the ear now, for Hamlet, has become a locus in his designs for revenge, from this point in the play on,  the word ‘ear’ will recur continually and the way that the ear is abused through language will garner an even greater significance. In addition to this shift, it is also important to note that it is the words of the Ghost, not the actions of Claudius, in which Hamlet locates meaning in “the book and volume of [his] brain” (1.5. 130), and which will be punned, after Hamlet writes in his table, “now to my word” (1.5. 111).

Following Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, we are given a verbal portrait of Hamlet, in his antic disposition, as related by Ophelia to the upper branches of the court of Elsinore. Hamlet’s first movement toward his ‘feigned’ madness is positioned as a pantomime. This scene is interesting in the way in which it mirrors the dumb play in the ‘Mousetrap’, in that it ‘acts’ out the inner state of Hamlet without speech and, like the dumb play, does nothing to activate understanding; it gives no meaning and shapes no real action in the world. Here the play takes a turn toward a mode of operation that will be repeated throughout the play, that of contrivance, of resurfacing the world in order to understand it better, or, in the rhetoric discussed concerning Claudius, to order the world by what it is not in order to come at what it is. What has changed at this point in the play is that Hamlet has shifted his public rhetoric to match that of the courts. This shift in Hamlet comes as a binary opposition to his original public statements concerning his position on the way in which he “seems”, at this point Hamlet has conjoined, publicly (this insistence on Hamlet’s public self is here emphasized because Hamlet’s intimate, private self is still concerned with the world behind appearance) the conception of rhetoric and the world that belongs to Claudius. Hamlet uses this form of speech- rhetoric to his advantage, so much so, that his adversaries become unmoored in their conception of language and the world that language creates. It should be noted that Hamlet has entered a world, that of politics and law, that creates through language, through edict and writ, a world where the rule of law follows the mantra ‘so it is written, so it will be done’. Which now points to the contrived meeting of Hamlet and Polonius designed to ‘find the matter out’. In the opening of this interaction (2.2. 173-185) a number of motifs are mirrored in earlier and in later sections of the play concerning language, toward the early parts of the play there is the issue of being “too much in the sun” a notion which is repeated but which is moved onto Ophelia instead of Hamlet, and Hamlet’s insistence on taking the direct route in the meaning of words:

POLONIUS   —What do you read my lord?

HAMLET        Words, words, words.

POLONIUS   What is the matter my lord?

HAMLET            Between who? (2.2. 191-194)

echoes the interaction between Hamlet and the Clown/Gravedigger, where Hamlet finds that only the literal meaning of words will do, “[w]e must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us” (5.1. 162-127).  This warning about speaking to the card will be picked up again in the play where we find Polonius, taken so far in these types of word games, that he no longer is able to express the nature of the world as he sees it. He has been drawn into a world that is shaped primarily through Hamlet’s linguistic construct:

HAMLET        Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

POLONIUS   By th’ mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.

HAMLET            Methinks it is like a weasel.

POLONIUS   It is backed like a weasel. (3.2. 345-349)

To continue in this vein, it is important to understand what a strain this shift in rhetoric, this redrawing of the world in words that do not suit, has on Hamlet; a strain that is both sincere and ironic, sincere in that Hamlet is “Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/ Must like a whore, unpack my heart with words” (2.2. 562-563), and ironic in that it is through these unpacked words that Hamlet will create, in part, a play “Wherein [he’ll] catch the conscience of the King” (2.2 582).

Hamlet’s shift in intercourse parallels an equal shift in court around him, especially in Claudius and in Gertrude. In Act Three, there is a tidal change in Claudius in regards to his feeling of guilt, and this alteration in Claudius is adjudicated around language, “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience…Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it/ Than is my deed to my most painted word” (3.1. 52-55). This surface cover that Claudius has used, constructed of words, is here compared with a harlots face, with the application of make-up as a means of redrawing the nature of identity through a change in outward appearances. This strand of thought, and this image will be picked up some hundred lines on when Hamlet remonstrates Ophelia, “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (3.1. 142). These two lines show clearly how both Hamlet and Claudius understand the crime of re-drawing facts through appearance through much the same rhetoric, it also demonstrates a certain moral equivocation on the part of Hamlet who, while chastising Ophelia over her changed appearance, is doing so while wearing his own version of a changed appearance. By this point in the play, language has taken the role of actual violence, the actual poison in the ear has been supplanted and replaced by words that cut, or as Hamlet expresses it, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none…How my words somever she be shent” (3.2. 366-368). This violence, generative and destructive, of language is brought forward by Ewbank, “human intercourse is enacted and the power of words demonstrated and what we say, and by saying do, to each other, creating and destroying as we go along” (155).

Ultimately, as the above passage points toward, words in Hamlet contain in equal measure the ability to create the fabric of appearance and to destroy. Language in Hamlet is a type of violence the follows the natural violences of creation and destruction. Ophelia’s death is a death of words, it is passaged by Hamlet’s silence, it is a death that is only presented through narrative, it is a death made of speech acts. Gertrude speaks to the force of language fittingly, toward the end of the play when she asks Hamlet why he should speak to her “In noise so rude against me” (3.4. 39), and who later, in the same scene, interlaces language and action, “Ay me, what act,/ That roars so loud and thunders in the index” (3.4. 50-51). The end of the play signals, in a way, the failure of language. The real violence in Hamlet’s ending points to a shift from reason into the realm of the ‘dumb animal’, a movement that is guided by silence.


Jancsó, Daniella. Excitements of Reason: The Presentation of Thought in Shakespeare’s Plays and Wittgenstein’s Philosophy. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2007.

Ewbank, Inga-Stina. “Hamlet and the Power of Words.” Shakespeare and Language. Ed. Catherine M. S. Alexander. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2004.

Danner, Bruce. “Speaking Daggers.” Shakespeare Quarterly Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2003, 29-62.

Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.