"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’–Fun And Games In A Sanctimonious Age

When Macbeth can’t stand his guilt and fear anymore he seeks out the witches out to learn his future. They know he’s coming, and as he approaches, the second witch tells her sisters: ‘By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes.’ Macbeth is now a thing, not a person, not the hero he was, not even just a thing, but something wicked, coming this way.  The image is terrifying.

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Of course the fates know very well that Macbeth will never survive his greedy ambition, nor overcome his moral compunctions, nor his hectoring and devilishly vixenish wife; and in Shakespeare’s hands he will end up as badly as most everyone else in his plays.  Blind ambition has its consequences.  In fact none of the heroes or heroines of Shakespeare’s Tragedies end well. Few of them have any real redeeming qualities and some, like Richard III are evil.  Othello was a great general but was naïve and untutored in affairs off the battlefield especially in the ways of women.  Coriolanus could never leave his mother who had groomed him for power since he was a child but in so doing robbed him of his confidence, his purpose, and his courage.  Hamlet’s ambition was morally right – avenging the murder of his father, the king; but he too was unable to sort out affairs outside the court.  He was incestuously bound to his mother, debilitated by his love-hate relationship with her, and unable to act honorably and kill the new king nor make love to Ophelia. Cleopatra was a marvelous ruler of opulent sybaritic Egypt, a woman of charm and canny ability to bed Roman rulers.  Yet she misjudged Augustus, the boy emperor, and all her attempts to buy influence and retain power were of no use.

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So there was wickedness everywhere.  Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, and Cymbeline all had ambitious and wicked designs on their husbands, lovers, fathers, and kings.  The famous women of Shakespeare’s Comedies were equally wicked but their wickedness was playful.  The antics of Beatrice, Portia, Rosalind, and Viola were harmless trickery – ways to shame ill-suited suitors, entice would-be lovers, and to make fun of those who were simply silly and disposable.  Portia cynically dismisses one buffoon suitor after another in The Merchant of Venice. 

Shakespeare was well aware of the immutable human nature that drove heroes and fools – that insatiable, ambitious, unstoppable desire to win out.  His plays are tales of human foibles as well as chronicles of a history.  History would never change because human beings never changed, and every work was a reminder of the ineluctable nature of history and human events and a delightful show of the impossibly arrogant and ignorant ways we all fall prey to our own predetermined destiny.

Was Shakespeare a moral playwright? Hardly, for his characters get their comeuppance not because of some great moral failing or classical tragic flaw, but because they were propelled to commit outrageous acts because of the persistence of impulses of venality, greed, self-interest, and self-defense that are inextricably woven, permanently part of our human being.  We can’t wait for Othello to go mad over Iago’s outrageous claims; or for Titus Andronicus to bake Tamora’s children in a pie; or for Richard III to find another innocent victim to kill; or for Lear’s insatiably greedy daughter to rob him of his kingdom and his sanity.

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Shakespeare’s lesson was simple and amoral – people behave badly.  They were created to do so, and their wickedness, silliness, ignorant stupidity are all part of God’s bargain.  There are no lessons in his plays, moral tutelage on right behavior, justice, or moral order.  For every Richard there will be a Titus; and for every Titus a Volumnia; and for every Volumnia a Cleopatra – the cycle of history would be boring if it weren’t for the magnificently unique ways individuals act out their predestination.  Every one of Shakespeare’s kings went about rule differently, but every one acted humanly; and so did their wives who picked up the pieces.  Margaret who went to battle for her weak husband, Henry VI, Lady Macbeth who humiliated her husband because of his delays in killing the king.  Eleanor, wife of Henry II and mother of kings who did everything she could to see her favorites accede to the throne.

It was Dostoevsky who perhaps enunciated Shakespeare’s non-lesson most eloquently in the character of Ivan’s Devil, a man-about-town, boulevardier, vaudevillian who told Ivan that without him, the Devil, life would be a crushing bore of perpetual goodness, church, and right behavior.  He was there to spice things up, to make a purposeless and meaningless life at least fun. ‘Lighten up’, he says to Ivan, a man burdened with philosophical doubts, hardline conservative principles, and an abusive, intolerable father.  ‘You worry too much’, the Devil said, ‘and worst of all, you are obvious’.

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So the Shakespeareans among us who never react to the fall of a dictator or the rise of another; who smile at the worst family fights over wills, legacy, and restoration; and for whom news, fake news, history, and fantasy are all part of the same perpetual motion machine of human nature being its wicked, predictable self, are unmoved by the likes of Donald Trump who is as wicked as they come, Ivan’s Devil in modern dress, a true vaudevillian, burlesque actor, a comedian as devious as Iachimo, a devious but harmless trickster or Bertram, a cad and duplicitous suitor.  He has moments of Cleopatra’s operatic grandeur, Henry V’s patriotic cover, and Falstaff’s crude, rude humor.  He is not Donald Trump, but true to the vaudevillian and Shakespearean stage, he is everyone and no one, bits and pieces of exaggerated characters and personalities that he calls up when it is time to go on stage.  He not only plays fast and loose with the truth, facts, and history but just like Shakespeare’s clowns and buffoons he has a purpose in mind – a balloon-puncturing, deflating, desire to get rid of all bullshit but his own.

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He definitely is not ‘presidential’, that is, he is nothing like any of his predecessors who, regardless of ability or influence, acted with deference, respect, and a sense of compromise; but who ever defined ‘presidential’, an undefinable term made so because of the infinite variety of men to sit in the President’s chair.  A president ipso facto acts presidential, so, Trump’s supporters say, ‘Get over it’.

Shakespeare had not a progressive bone in his body; and how could he when, as a well-known Shakespearean critic, Jan Kott once noticed, if you laid out Shakespeare’s Histories in chronological order, you would find the same tales of ambition, decline, and fall in every one, distinguished only by the uniqueness of their personality and the particular uniqueness of their greed.  There are no tales of heroism, great moral courage, or righteous outrage.  We human beings are not like that.  Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Tolstoy,  Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer among others saw no particular meaning to life and therefore the idea of progress was equally meaningless.

Yes, horrible things could happen under Trump’s watch, but probably no worse than under Bush I, Bush II, Johnson, Reagan, Nixon, or Kennedy.  Reagan’s attack on Panama and Grenada were silly little adventures.  Nixon’s Watergate follies were comedic farces.  Clinton’s outrageously hilarious defense of “It depends what it is”, or Rumsfeld’s famous, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know”.   Trump and Kim Jong-un are two pit bulls pissing on each other; making nice with Putin is playing marbles with the big kids.  Pulling out of NATO and the UN and other international bodies is ‘It’s my ball’ geopolitics.

Why the American Left gets so exercised over Donald Trump is a mystery.  They have read Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.  They  have studied history.  They have seen the same familiar human behavior in families, tribes, social groups, nations, and empires.  The course of human events is not tragic nor even horrific when seen in context.  The War of the Roses and the One Hundred Years War lasted forever.  There were three Crusades.  The Scots, Irish, and English were always skirmishing.  Imperialism has been popular since the first Chinese Emperors and Japanese shoguns. 

When anything is so predictable, unavoidable, and inescapable,  it is laughable; and one indeed has to laugh at the irony of God who made us into such foolish, foolhardy, dopes.  A little perspective is all that’s needed to turn one’s grimace into a head-shaking smile.

Is Donald Trump evil?  No, he’s wicked, and that’s all the difference in the world.

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