Archive for Dante

Oh, For a Muse of Fire!

Posted in Henry V with tags , , , on 2014/05/01 by mattermind

Henry V, Prologue

Shakespeare wastes no time starting Henry V, an ironic statement since we begin not with the main action, but instead with a prologue.

Why this isn’t a waste has more to do with The Great Conversation, the Agon of the Ages as Harold Bloom calls it, Shakespeare’s claim to fame as one of the immortals of literature that began with humanity’s first attempts at storytelling in the annals of historical memory.

His words are thunderous, ear-splitting, mind-shattering, echoing previous invocations of the muse by Homer, Virgil and Dante – the Cosmic All-Stars.  Mighty company to keep.

When entering such a hallowed hall, best to make one’s presence known straight off by clanging the gong of a familiar meme:

Oh, for a must of fire that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,

Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,

Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire

Crouch for employment.

Shakespeare twice begs pardon, having tapped into mighty, mythological imagery by invoking the Greek muses, the God of War, and one of the greatest kings in English history.

To rise to the vaunted heights, an aspiring writer needs a magnificent theme.  Shakespeare recognizes he has one here and seizes his opportunity by the throat, announcing to the world from the outset that the playing field has been elevated, his aspirations engaged at the highest levels.

We are invited to become willing participants.  Indeed, he needs our assistance if his words can hope to paint such a sprawling canvas.  We are to lend our aid in imagining the  battlefields, the thunderous hooves of the prancing horses, marching soldiers, bloody battles.

The stage may be a pale imitation.  But in the right hands, and with our active engagement, Shakespeare dares to make a great historic moment come alive.

It’s breathtaking and unforgettable.  And yet the play hasn’t even formally begun.


Put Out the Light, and Then Put Out the Light

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

My final Othello post will deal with the question of why he kills himself.

I thought I had it figured out when I discovered striking similarities with Oedipus in the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles.  Certainly Shakespeare must have been aware of his great predecessor as evidenced in the lines:

But, oh, vain boast!

Who can control his fate?

That’s a line that Oedipus himself might utter.

Throughout the play, Othello has operated out of ignorance.  Like Oedipus, he has striven to behave honorably and “do his best,” only to discover that good intentions aren’t enough.  Other factors such as destiny or the evil machinations of others play a hand.

When Oedipus discovers that he has unintentionally killed his father and slept with his mother, he blinds himself in a spontaneous act of self-inflicted punishment.

But when Othello learns too late that he has been manipulated by the demidemon Iago, he does not kill himself straight off.  It is nowhere near the rash – and one might argue more heartfelt – act by Oedipus who does not allow reason to catch up with profound regret.

Othello, on the other hand, ponders.  At first, he even behaves like a weasel when he pretends not to know how Desdemona died.  He tells Emilia:

OTHELLO: Why, how should she be murdered?

EMILIA: Alas, who knows?

OTHELLO: You heard her say herself it was not I.

Granted, Othello has rationalized that killing Desdemona was an act of sacrifice and imposed justice rather than murder.

Othello soon clarifies to Emilia that he was the agent of Desdemona’s death.  But the more the circumstances are clarified, the faster the revelations pile on.  Once it becomes clear that the handkerchief served as the crucial link in Othello’s crazed mind, Emilia registers that her husband has in fact been the agent of all the mischief.

At this point, Othello profoundly laments.  He strikes out at Iago and demands an explanation from him, which Iago unmercifully denies him.

We watch as Othello realizes that he has been stripped of everything he once had: honor, reputation, power, place, prestige – and a wife who truly loved him.  “Let them all go,” he tells himself.  And later, referring to himself in the 3rd person: “That’s he that was Othello.”  He knows that his old life is irretrievably gone.  And again: “Where should Othello go?”

What options now remain to him?  Adding insult to profound injury, he must accept that Cassio will take over in Cyprus and that he has been stripped of any title, place or standing in Venice.  He will return as a criminal, if one who committed a crime of the heart.

There is little punishment that Venice could inflict which would exceed the toll he has already exacted upon himself.  Othello professes that it will be Desdemona’s innocent look that casts him from heaven to hell.  And yet in guilt he invites the just wrath of the afterworld, bellowing:

O cursed, cursed slave!

Whip me, ye devils,

From the possession of this heavenly sight!

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,

Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

So where does that leave us?

It was then that I read this explanation from Harold Bloom:

Rather than survive in a diminished guise, and with the eternal torment of knowing that he has been led by Iago’s treacheries and persuasions to destroy his wholly innocent and blameless wife, he passes a judgment upon himself that he fears that Venice will not pass, because he still could be very useful to Venice; he condemns himself to execution, and he executes himself. And in doing so, he recovers a certain quality of tragic dignity.

I find this a compelling argument but ultimately unsatisfying.  For while I believe that the rational part of Othello might come to this conclusion, the passionate part chooses suicide for a different reason that can be summed up by the following lines:

I kissed the ere I killed thee.  No way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

These are not the words of a Stoic statesman or a husband rationalizing himself to suicide.  Othello may have soberly contemplated the terms of his newfound criminal status and outlook back in Venice.  But he commits the act from the aptness of its poetic justice, thrusting himself by his own hand within Dante’s Inferno in which every sin has a commensurate punishment and each dreadful act its own metaphorical fulfillment.

Othello has indeed tried and found himself guilty – not by an inner logical criminal court, but by the devastating inevitability of the completion of the arc of love within his heart.