Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will (Part One)

Why two great Shakespearean heroes must be the way they are

The Argument: “Desiring this man’s [Prospero’s] art and that man’s [Hamlet’s] scope” [Sonnet 29], the poet-playwright Shakespeare (known familiarly as “Will” and never indifferent to punning) doubts that either of his famous creatures suffices to establish the independence of human action.

The “desert island” scenario beloved of cartoonists is based on the humor of privation. There are one or two ragged and bereft figures who are otherwise like us. Their back story is absent, but they come from places we can relate to. What they have to do without also applies to the natural environment they find themselves in. The popular misinterpretation of “desert” to mean sandy waste (instead of “deserted” or “uninhabited”) gives us the cartoon cliché of a small patch, maximum elevation 3 feet or so, usually with one tropical tree in the middle.

New knowledge amid the lack of just about everything life requires is the payoff. The learning may be trivial or profound.  If they have nothing else, the two castaways now know what happens to all those missing socks in the laundry. Two others discover that flares to stimulate their rescue have gotten attention, even if it comes ominously from the Grim Reaper, poling his way toward them in a dark gondola. 

Ringing the changes on the theme of desert-island isolation has roots fundamentally elaborated in Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” (1719), whose dogged factualism established realistic fiction in English. But well before that, working uncharacteristically without a prior source, William Shakespeare mined original thoughts about making a new life on a virtually uninhabited island to create the last play solely from his pen — “The Tempest” (1611).  Inspired by true stories, both authors used privation as the floor upon which to build their heroes' moral development — Crusoe through practicality, Prospero through enchantment bent toward justice.

("The Tempest" is  this year’s Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre production at White River State Park July 31-Aug. 2. Look for a focused preview here closer to the performances.)

Prospero, self-appointed lord of his desert isle, has quashed any antecedents and made of his unjust privation in the civilized world an environment he thoroughly controls.  Magic is the vehicle, exercised after long study previously as the Duke of Milan, where such esoteric labors cost him his rule. With the creation of the storm that supplies the play’s title, Prospero exacts revenge on his usurping brother and various lofty shipmates on their way back to Italy from Tunis, where they celebrated a dynastic marriage.

Shipwreck and sorcery eventually result in the deliverance of justice, an unexpected high-status wedding, and a show of mercy — all engineered by Prospero and his indebted sprite, Ariel. So complete is his willful control through sorcery that one wonders if he would have been able to exercise it anyplace else but on this island, fortunately placed so that he could right the wrong done to him. Like Hamlet, Prospero confronts a situation that pushes him to explore the limits of free will.

Why did the playwright end his solo career with a romance that is more masque than drama?  Why the reliance on events all generated through the supernatural?  Why put motivation and action under the spell of magic, when real-world conflicts — though sometimes aided by deep mysteries and ambiguity — had drawn from Shakespeare the most enduring theatrical canon ever created? “Personality seems no longer to be a prime Shakespearean concern,” Harold Bloom marvels about “The Tempest” in “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.”

I’m convinced answers may well lie in Shakespeare’s struggle with the question of how we exercise free will (or pretend to). What is our autonomy as actors and thinkers, over against the possibility that everything we do and think has been predetermined?  I believe this perennial philosophical problem first gripped him in “Hamlet,” written about a decade before “The Tempest.”

Normally, creative artists can’t afford to bother themselves much about the reality of free will, because their work would be impossible if they didn’t believe in it, at least provisionally. So I would never suggest this was a constant preoccupation of the busy playwright. On top of his brilliance in setting forth characters, many of whom express shrewd, immortally cast opinions about what they and others do, Shakespeare never tips his hand.  “If he had ‘views,’ he checked them at the door of the playhouse,” says one of his modern biographers, Russell Fraser.

But “Hamlet” confounded him, whether or not he wrote a lost “Ur-Hamlet” in his 20s, as some scholars believe. The mature play’s known source materials in revenge tragedy and historical legend vividly put forth the possibility that human action is “heaven-ordinant” through narrow circumstances — in this case calling for vengeance — and that we follow an externally imposed scenario that our minds can only pretend to govern. Shakespeare’s model, a briefly fashionable genre exemplified by “The Spanish Tragedy” of Thomas Kyd (who may also have written an early Hamlet play) moves the hero’s predetermined course to the forefront, heading inexorably toward resolution.

In writing “Hamlet,” Shakespeare chafed against the format’s restrictions, passing on that  resistance to his hero. I believe much of the difficulty of understanding Hamlet’s character can be explained by his struggle to resist his hunch that nothing he may do to avenge his father’s murder issues voluntarily from him. And that nothing anybody else ever does exhibits any more freedom from a prescribed destiny.

The playwright imaginatively occupied Hamlet’s dilemma: a visit from one’s recently dead father, purporting to explain disturbing events — a reigning monarch’s life suddenly snuffed out and a hasty marriage contracted between his crowned brother and the queen, the Prince’s mother. How could Hamlet take the ghost’s appearance other than as the deliverance of his personal destiny? And how could he avoid wondering how much freedom of action anyone so situated might be able to exercise?

The prospect of regarding free will as merely an illusion is disturbing to the average human being. Determinism throws all law into a cocked hat, for one thing. It makes examination of human action through novels, plays and poetry questionable as it complicates cause and effect and the simplest motivation. Fate seems to have the upper hand in many great dramas, from “Oedipus Rex” up through important works by Ibsen and O’Neill.  But the notion that everything might be determined is harder to sustain. Interpersonal conflict and the struggle to maintain self-esteem and steer one’s own way through life become unacceptably reduced to physics and chemistry, a secular authority that seems more absolute than any supernatural one yet dreamed up or believed in.

Leonard Mlodinow finds heroism preordained.
On May 4, Krista Tippett welcomed the physicist Leonard Mlodinow to her program “On Being." As I listened on WFYI-FM, I appreciated her discomfiture as the guest made the case for determinism. (She nervously referred several times to an earlier scientist guest, Brian Greene, whose determinism had likewise unsettled her.) Consider that Mlodinow’s father survived the Holocaust by falsely admitting to stealing bread to avoid the threatened execution of all the suspected thieves. Then the camp's baker took him on as an apprentice, enabling the senior Mlodinow to survive the war.

Understandably, Tippett wondered how her guest could believe his dad’s actions were determined. Without free will, stepping forward to say “I stole the bread” would mean nothing, wouldn’t it? His boldness in risking personal annihilation was freely chosen and admirable, wasn’t it?

Mlodinow’s answer was wise, if inevitably unsatisfying to his host and probably most of her listeners. Still, it provides an insight that can be applied to the protagonists of “Hamlet” and “The Tempest.” He told Tippett his father’s actions revealed himself, and that was a sufficient source of meaning:  “His decision is no less heroic if it is based on who he is,” Mlodinow said of the false confession that turned out well for his father and made possible the physicist’s very existence.

What a display of courage means, in sum, is that you are the kind of person who would make a courageous decision. You imagine you could have chosen otherwise, but you didn’t. It was determined that you would act as you did.

Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it this way in “Self-Reliance”: “I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being…Your genuine action will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions.”

With science accounting for so much of the behavior of everything in the universe, the doctrine of free will doesn’t explain anything. Our brain chemistry, which determines all our mental operations from high to low, is governed by the same laws as the composition of stars and planets.

Randomness doesn’t support free will, either. Our inability to predict the behavior of subatomic particles surely doesn’t mean they have free will. As Mlodinow formulates it: Random events plus our responses equal our determined fate. Without any apprehension of quantum physics, Hamlet speaks near the end with conviction about randomness: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come.”

Descartes: What follows "I think" may be due for revision.
Determinism implies that as you gain a better understanding of yourself, you relinquish the illusion of control. That’s what Hamlet does philosophically in the last act. That’s what Prospero does as well at his play’s end. He’s more ambivalent about it, however, and his eloquent magnanimity is a tad condescending. Pleased with his hocus-pocus triumphs, he ostentatiously sets aside the magic he knows will not serve him well in the real world.

Determinism remains hugely unattractive; its likely truth, perpetually disturbing. But the burden of proof falls on the side of the free-will argument, which may have nothing to support it besides common sense. So much the worse for common sense, perhaps.

And it hurts to concede that the argument against determinism must be grounded, flimsily, in the vanity of human consciousness. Thought comes first, but by what authority can we go further? It pains me to suggest there's good reason for amending Rene Descartes’ reductive formula “I think, therefore I am,” to “I think, therefore I must suppose that I act freely.”  Hamlet comes close to casting aside this supposition; Prospero can’t bring himself to, seduced by the magic he at length abandons.