Sunday, May 25, 2014

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

Did Shakespeare have writing problems when addressing the free will/determinism dilemma?

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 Emersonian dictum that character, possibly predetermined, instills lessons beyond our conceit of voluntary control damages the high stature that our consciences would give morality. Prince Hamlet's moral sense gradually atrophies as a check upon or guide to his own behavior.

Like many intellectuals, Hamlet is cavalier about the feelings and fortunes of others in pursuing his one Big Idea — the possibly ineffectual nature of the will. The pursuit of such an idea is not without a moral dimension, but to enter that dimension requires donning something close to the exceptionalism that Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov claims for himself in "Crime and Punishment."

Hamlet often amuses us, but his ability to do so has unsettling sources. W.H. Auden said that wit is a combination of imagination, moral courage, and unhappiness. For Shakespeare's wittiest character (possibly excepting Falstaff): Bingo!

W.H. Auden identified wit's components.
Contrition is pretty much beyond him. Even Hamlet's apology to Laertes in the fifth act, sometimes interpreted as a sign of his successful passage through a moral crucible, strikes me as an attempt to see if Laertes will buy the “madness” excuse. 

Laertes answers coldly, and it’s when I like him best. His cool diplomacy may be hypocritical, because he has nefarious designs on the Prince. But that's no less than Hamlet deserves, because intellectual curiosity, marbled with existential despair, has led him to put on the mask of madness that he's now claiming is separate from the real Hamlet. "You'd love me if you really knew me," we can almost hear him say.

Besides, the Prince is aware that Laertes’ anger at his sister’s and father’s deaths (Hamlet-caused) has made him an eager instrument of Claudius’ dangerous will.  That will, of course, may not be under the King’s direction, after all. Determinism is tightening its net. None will escape.

Two clotted passages in “Hamlet” substantiate my belief that Shakespeare himself wrestled with the free-will/determinism conflict. For all his virtuosity, even he could not express it clearly, maybe because it evokes the “bad dreams” that confirm Hamlet’s nutshell existence.

The first passage is the second half of a speech (Act I) about Claudius’ habit of publicizing his carouses at court with trumpet, drum and cannon. It's “a custom more honored in the breach than the observance,” his nephew says disdainfully. The phrase is often taken to refer to neglected customs, rather than ones too faithfully observed that might better be retired.

But Hamlet goes on unnecessarily, in one long sentence draped over 13 lines, ostensibly talking about bad reputations. But actually he's expressing his confusion about nature’s overwhelming influence on individual behavior.  How far does that influence extend? How much power do we really have to moderate our behavior in order to remain free of gossip and scandal? The rhetoric is so cumbersome that I wonder how the highly skilled actors who take on the role ever make sense of it to the ear, let alone the brain.

The other passage comes at the end of the Player King’s initial speech in Act 3. Probably these are among “some dozen or sixteen lines” Hamlet has inserted in the visiting troupe’s play, “The Murder of Gonzago.”  In that revised play, the Queen, who “doth protest too much” (Ophelia’s only worldly remark) that she couldn’t ever marry another if her royal husband should die, is rewarded with a tangled counterargument by the King. Her spouse seems to acknowledge the density of his reasoning by the time he arrives at this clarifying conclusion: “But orderly to end where I begun / Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown. Our thoughts are ours./ their ends none of our own.”

Hamlet embodies this contrariness, much to the confusion of his shrewdest commentators. To Harold Goddard, he “is like a drunken man and you cannot determine where he is going from his direction at any one moment. He lurches now to the right, now to the left. He staggers from passion to apathy, from daring to despair.” It is more than coincidence, perhaps, that the determinist Leonard Mlodinow titled his book-length examination of randomness “The Drunkard’s Walk.”

Chapliln's  dogged will tries end run around brain chemistry.
In some contexts, this alcoholic model of befuddlement can be comical: Charlie Chaplin in “1 A.M” is a tipsy playboy whose behavior, determined by his inebriation, runs contrary to his will — which is focused on paying the cab driver, entering his home, and going up to bed.

The gap between routine intention and impaired performance inspires laughter, though the last half of the film bases physical comedy less on the playboy’s drunkenness than on struggles with a wide-swinging clock pendulum and a retractable mechanical bed that would likely defeat even a sober man.

The impairment that attends inebriation is a function of brain chemistry, and can stand here as a rough analogue to nature’s governance of our behavior. Chaplin’s fumbling attempts to exercise his will while sozzled illustrate the barriers we as intentional actors are sometimes conscious of running up against. But we probably operate within those barriers even when we aren’t aware of them, when we're acting at full capacity and glorying in what we choose to think of as voluntary behavior.

"The Tempest" is virtually plotless (in the sense of narrative), in contrast to "Hamlet," though it contains two plots — one of them by the clownish trio of Stephano, Trinculo, and Caliban, undermined by drunkenness but more serious in its aims: killing Prospero, making Miranda a sex slave, taking over the island. The other involves the usurping duke Antonio's attempt to persuade Sebastian to kill his sleeping brother, King Alonso, and the gentle counselor Gonzalo. Both plots are readily thwarted; even the drunken conspirators require the coup de grace of magic.

Successful plotting demands linear thinking, an attempt to envision cause and effect firmly, and of course a steady belief in the force of will. Everything about these two conspiracies is hostile to Prospero — not just to his belief in effecting personal and dynastic justice, but also to his sense of time and authoritarian sorcery. The connection of desire to result is supposed to proceed over time, but Prospero insists on blending desire and result, yoked under his will. Why should time have any perspective that he has not decreed? Establishment of other perspectives would only be an arena for determinism to assert its control, and for others to exercise their own imagined free will, thwarting his.

"What's past is prologue, what to come / Is your and my discharge," Antonio says to Sebastian in laying out his plan of regicide. In Part Five, I hope to show why such thinking is so frightening to Prospero. He knows his magic will allow him to nip the conspiracy in the bud, and Ariel indeed foils it. But he cannot abide others' claims on the march of time, out of which he needs to make a compact present, obscuring past and future from view as much as possible.

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