Saturday, May 31, 2014

'Cirque de la Symphonie': Remarkable dexterity and control shared from the symphony stage

Among the many ways music can contribute to visually accessible performance media, 'Cirque de la Symphonie' is perhaps the most spectacular. A full symphony orchestra adds so much more to what is already a mesmerizing display of precision acrobatics, graceful and appealing props and costumes, and extraordinary muscular control and balance.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is ending its 2013-14 pops season this weekend with four shows by this international troupe. (Remaining are tonight's 8 o'clock show and Sunday afternoon's "symFUNY Sundays Series" performance at 3.)

Tsarkov applies foot dexterity to rings in an appearance with another orchestra.
Conducted by Jack Everly, who a couple of days ago extended his contract as ISO pops music director through the 2022-23 season, Friday's performance seemed close to flawless — a couple of well-covered juggling drops being the sole exception.

The orchestra was putting its best foot forward, too. The pieces it performed without Cirque members onstage came off well. Only Chabrier's "Espana" sounded routine.

I've rarely heard Shostakovich's "Festive" Overture performed so free from bombast. The quiet portions held the audience's attention, because they conveyed the sense of pent-up energy about to be released. A couple of other Russian warhorses — both by Dmitri Kabalevsky — glowed and danced agreeably.  The first one, the "Galop" from "The Comedians," accompanied clown-juggler Vladimir Tsarkov.  It proved to be a palate cleanser for Don Sebesky's droll arrangement of "Comedy Tonight," the opening song in Stephen Sondheim's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

With its percussion punctuation — a display of novelty instruments not often encountered beyond old
Cables and fabric serve Streltsov and Van Loo well.
Spike Jones recordings — the arrangement recycled the "Galop" and threaded it through the melody, tucking in along the way quotes from Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

It made for a lively prelude to one of the program's lyrical numbers, the incredibly intricate aerial performance of Alexander Streltsov and Christine Van Loo to the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Twisting and turning among suspended red silks, the duo took the breath away, particularly in their wide sweeps aloft above orchestra and audience.

Another Tchaikovsky waltz, from "The Sleeping Beauty" ballet, provided a fine showcase for Elena Tsarkova. A contortionist who blends in well-knit choreography, she used two high stools placed side by side,  which offered all the arena she needed to display her extraordinary suppleness.

Gravity-defying poses made up the program's conclusion.
Before intermission, the act drawing the biggest ovation from the capacity crowd at the Hilbert Circle Theatre was Aloysia Gavre and Andrey Moraru. They made something daring, sensuous and exactly balanced out of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Capriccio Espagnol." It was the one substitution on the ISO's program as printed, replacing a Marquez "Danzon" for the same performers.

In the second half, the segment that generated the most audience astonishment was the finale. The stately virtuosity of the male duo Jarek and Darek — to well-known, exciting music by Strauss and Respighi — featured seemingly impossible, well-judged and -balanced formations by the two men on a raised platform. Superb muscular control and sensitive rapport made precarious poses not only possible, but graceful as well. One pose was folded smoothly into the next, each one a seeming contradiction of everyday physics.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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

 Whatever we most desire may be no more than what's destined to reveal us to ourselves

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.

Browbeating his environment, which comprises the spirits and half-human monster he controls, its tempest-tossed newcomers, and his daughter, Prospero the wizard indulged his will by supernatural means. Hamlet never enjoyed that advantage when it came to testing his will and distinguishing it from the enormity of what he could not overmaster.

T.S. Eliot: His Prufrock has unwitting bond with Hamlet.
The Prince is a new kind of tragic hero, for he is brought down by no idiosyncratic flaw, but a universal one. That has been acknowledged throughout the culture in allusions usually linked to the flaw of indecisiveness. T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock roundly declares: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”  But that sad sack’s loveless love song shares in more of the prince’s dilemma than he can bear to acknowledge. The Dane has larger problems to wrestle with and more “scope” to apply to them. Yet both Prufrock and Hamlet realize that the greatest human resources are unavailing against fate. In that, they are brothers.

Prospero’s time is a storyteller’s time, without the distancing, formulaic opening of “Once upon a time.” It is based on the now; when he unfolds the long background to their present situation to Miranda, he speaks sharply to her repeatedly, commanding her attention. There’s no sign she is less than fascinated, however. He knows that she is innocently in the present, and must worry that his long account of past events will seem dull or unintelligible to her.

His sense of time is an Augustinian "now." In the “Confessions,” St. Augustine posits (as paraphrased by Bertrand Russell) that all time has to be perceived as present: “The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation.” Prospero is overwhelmed by what he remembers, by what he now sees when he works magic, and by what he expects as an outcome. “The Tempest” is generous visually, but stingy with time.

Franz Kafka: Dapper before the camera, stumped before the Law.
Prospero reflects consistent awareness that this all-embracing present has been willed and set in place through his special powers, then carried out (with music and special effects) by his imaginative factotum, Ariel, and his minions. Looking on either side of that visible present makes him either crabby or fatalistic. Jesus' lily without spell-gilded raiment holds no interest for him.

The danger of a highly focused will is the shriveling of human capacity and a studied blindness to fate. Franz Kafka’s mighty story “Before the Law” gives us a supplicant stopped at an outer gate, with the Law he yearns to approach no better than a distant promise. This is not the Law that kept Kafka’s ancestors together through covenant, nor the one Jesus proclaimed he had come to fulfill, but rather something like its opposite.

The gatekeeper persuades the traveler to be patient, but will not let him enter. The man devotes his whole life to waiting, becoming enfeebled and in effect reduced to nothing other than the will to enter and proceed toward the Law. Finally he inquires why no one else has asked to be admitted.

Here’s where every reader shudders to imagine his or her destiny when he or she is blocked from whatever is most desired. For this is where the gatekeeper leans over and shouts at the nearly deaf, nearly dead man: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Richard Burton as Hamlet: The sword as cross cannot protect against what the Ghost represents.
The Law, glorious in its unreachable distance, may well be what lies past the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” It’s whatever may be situated beyond this foreordained life that our wills compel us to ignore. In his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet identifies that prospect as something that “puzzles the will.”

One of Shakespeare’s modern editors notes that “puzzles” means “paralyzes.” Paralysis renders action null. That reality is the still, unplumbed water in which Prospero promises to “drown my book.”  And the dubious strength of the will, its likely ineffectuality, is what Hamlet sets aside in favor of plain revelation of himself, to himself, when he says at last, “The readiness is all” and “The rest is silence.”

The loyal Horatio then offers the play's final fragmentary prayer, pious but devoid of reference to any deity: "Good night, sweet prince! And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Where is Hamlet's rest? Wherever has already been determined for him from the start. I'm not competent to assert that the latest science forces all of us to become materialists. Instinctively, we see in other people immaterial entities we call personality, consciousness, even soul. To me, being certain that other people also have the intangible quality we call free will is much more difficult.

Yet the convention of believing they possess and exercise free will seems unavoidable, because we insist on that capability for ourselves. Similarly, we can recognize conditioning, habit and temperament as shaping thought and behavior, and some of us also see heaven's hand as a major influence. But we're reluctant to maximize these causes to the end-point of asserting that they and their effects are all foreordained, whether we identify the source as God, physics or fortune (which Prospero personifies as "my dear lady," Hamlet as a strumpet).

The elfin Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us in “Self-Reliance” that prayers are a disease of the will; creeds, of the intellect.  An optimistic, even jovially creedless, view of the will sustains him throughout this seminal essay. In a 1919 review of "The Cambridge History of American Literature,"  Eliot used Nathaniel Hawthorne as a stick to beat Emerson with, finding "the permanence of art" in the fiction writer, against which Emerson's essays are “already an encumbrance.”

The troubled modernist, headed toward a doctrinaire maturity, praised Hawthorne for "the firmness, the true coldness, the hard coldness of the genuine artist" — a frigidity not normally considered conducive to art, and nowhere near the characteristic warmth of either Shakespeare or Emerson, genuine artists in the estimation of many.

Emerson steers a confident course between the vagaries of will and the certainties of fate by urging the power of a strong self, incumbent upon each of us to develop. He says we have a duty to fear conditioning and conformity more than the laws of nature. Hamlet and Prospero are well past having to quell such fears. As substantial as they are, however, neither character commands a self strong enough to overcome the apprehension that free will may not exist.

Unintimidated by inexorable fate, Emerson says: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” The Sage of Concord continues, extending his time-traveling advice to this blogger — advice with which I end, grateful to anyone who’s read this far: “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

No, indeed. But I submit that the hypothetical truth of determinism was something the genius Shakespeare pondered nervously and may have recoiled from, but couldn’t quite evade, in two of his most peculiar great plays. To personify its enduring fascination so memorably through art was sufficient.

As for my decision to conclude this exploration here.... it was bound to happen.

Monday, May 26, 2014

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

'Pure potentiality'  exhausts itself on Prospero's island

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.

"Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."  — Miranda to Prospero, "The Tempest," Act I, Scene 2 

[A second epigraph in honor of today's holiday]

 "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that's for thoughts." — Ophelia to Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius, "Hamlet," Act IV, Scene 5

The staggered, staggering Hamlet confronts mysteries of action that Prospero, through his “rough magic,” rigorously circumvents. The isolated wizard is abrupt and fierce in command, a nasty boss to the resentful Caliban and the useful Ariel alike, and an overprotective father to Miranda, whose romance with the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand is micromanaged to the hilt. Prospero is an exemplar of free will yoked to power, which oddly loses at length all feeling of freedom.

Could he have exercised his magical power in Milan, before his dukedom was taken away from him with the connivance of King Alonso? Apparently not, despite years of study there. But why not?

Sartre's freedom means discarding the old self.
Here’s a possible answer: Shakespeare needs Prospero to occupy a space apart to engineer his plan to set right a corrupt world. And his willed exercise of magic also needs to show itself superior to other kinds of magic and centers of authority — to be superior to Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, and her god, Setebos. Every suggestion of past weakness and dereliction of duty needs to be overcome on the dream island.

Prospero thus foreshadows Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist dictum that we are condemned to a freedom so ineluctable that we must first obliterate our past selves. That project is most daunting to a man driven by the need to reverse the life-changing injustice done to him. “How are we to go about changing ourselves if there are no persisting features of the old self to provide leverage?” William Barrett asks in “Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer.”  “At the center of the Sartrian self there is only a pure potentiality, which seems at first glance to be potent and overmastering but in fact floats in the void."

Utopian schemes, on the other hand, paradoxically are all actuality, and lead toward determinism. The ideal society is actualized in its creator's mind and tends to rule out the messy conflict of wills required to advance all human enterprise. That would describe the commonwealth that Gonzalo briskly sketches, to the scoffs of his shipwrecked companions (Act 2, Scene 1).  He would get rid of all commerce, law, labor in farming or industry, social hierarchy — "no occupation; all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure."

A kindly old counselor who secretly provided the exiled Prospero with his magic books, he has been too close to what happens when ambition, driven by the will, is vigorous and unchecked. But, now exulting in his survival of the tempest,  Gonzalo lays out an extreme version of a static actuality as untenable as Sartre's absolute potentiality. Besides, it founders on the will required to establish and maintain it. As the sinister realist Antonio points out: "The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning."

To replace a dismal actuality (his deposed and exiled condition on a wild island) with potentiality (his restoration to an exalted position in society), Prospero becomes something less than human: No ambiguity, no uncertain knowledge must be allowed on his dream island, and no floating in the void. When he sets his plan in motion with the tempest, he instructs Ariel to deliver the shipwreck victims safely to shore, with their clothes in even better condition than when they first put them on. Obviously, part of what grounds him as a magician is to show himself less evil than nature. His will through magic must not merely provoke fear of his power, but admiration for its results.

He has a near meltdown when the masque he is staging for the pair he's yoked together (Ferdinand and Miranda) is interrupted by the approach of Caliban and the tipsy conspirators leading him. His powers must be unchallenged. Mystery is for other people to be baffled by.  King Alonso, who engineered Prospero’s replacement by Antonio, finally realizes “there is in this business more than nature / Was ever conduct of.”

Prospero (John Gielgud here) has lots to worry about.
Prospero’s most famous speech, beginning “Our revels now are ended,” occurs shortly after the masque is interrupted by his realization that “the beast Caliban and his confederates” are on their way to overthrow him. His beautiful meditation on his magic seems to encompass all human life, ending “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

It’s easy to forget that right after these lofty words, the magician says, “Sir, I am vexed. Bear with my weakness; my old brain is troubled.” Prospero is vexed by the knowledge that “our little life” is only his and Miranda's on the island, not all mankind’s in the wide world.

The sleep that rounds this isolated existence is the irrecoverable past at one end and the baffling future on the other, neither of them accessible to the dreams he has erected upon his wave-lapped realm of enchantment. In context, his attempt at generalization to all human life is easy to see through.

Whenever Prospero generalizes or turns abstract, we should remember he's still talking about himself. He's a supreme egotist. In his lengthy account of their past to Miranda, which he peevishly interrupts to make sure he has his daughter's full attention, he asks what she can recall "in the dark backward and abysm of time."

A memorable phrase, but why would Prospero label the past in such glowering terms in talking with his daughter, who is all innocence? Only because the past is frightening territory to a man who needs to bring it under the spell of the present. At the end, the old magician even wants to govern King Alonso's attempt to apologize for past faults. "There, sir, stop. Let us not burden our remembrance with / A heaviness that's gone."

Prospero’s "sleep" is paradoxically the waking life of the real world, which presents imponderables enough for most lifetimes. This is why he speaks the epilogue, asking for release from his prison of sorcery. The formula of soliciting applause to complete a stage performance was conventional, but Prospero has an urgent personal reason to make his pitch. He is baffled by the constraints on magic he’s mastered. He is seeking readmission to the common life of wide possibilities, even if all of them have been set out for us beyond our ken.

Gielgud as Prospero in headgear.
John Gielgud recalled that in one of the productions in which he appeared as Prospero, he removed the character's cap as he came forward to recite the epilogue. The gesture was poised on the boundary between Prospero relinquishing his enchanted rule and the actor preparing to take off his costume and rejoin our world until the next performance. That's something Prospero can do only in the audience's imagination. His future success must remain a mystery, because it would come without everything we have known him by in "The Tempest."

“The occult is not mysterious enough,” the poet John Ashbery once said in explaining that his occasional appropriation of astrological terms in his poetry was merely ornamental. So, what is mysterious enough? The integrity of nature, which the magician cannot hope to match, because his kind of control allows nothing to be self-fulfilled.

“Before a leaf-bud has burst[,] its whole life acts,” Ralph Waldo Emerson says of the rose in "Self-Reliance." “In the full-blown flower there is no more; in the leafless root there is no less. Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike.” In floral terms, Prospero’s manipulated nature is more like Jesus’ lilies of the field, with the magician as the god who has imbued them with a glory greater than Solomon’s. But even the hold of magic cannot extend that glory beyond an anxious present.

Attempting to contract time and space, Prospero eventually recognizes the limitation of occult studies, once their deliverance of personal justice is complete. Why finally does he brag about powers beyond those he’s exercised in the play, such as raising the dead and causing earthquakes? To make himself feel better about giving them up (though his forgiveness of his usurping brother is risibly grudging).

Prospero was a failure the first time around as “Absolute Milan,” and his hope that he will now do better in that position makes him more than slightly anxious. No wonder he predicts that, once he's restored to his duchy, “every third thought will be my grave.” 

After so spectacular an exercise of will, he suspects that his course in the real world is as determined as everyone else’s. Death will be welcome, but his acceptance of living until then under fate’s decrees is much less wholehearted than Hamlet’s in his play's final scene — though clothed in comparably magnificent language.

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.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

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

Calisthenics for the will: Keeping 'out of the shot and danger of desire'

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.

"O, you must wear your rue with a difference."
                                 -- Ophelia to Queen Gertrude ("Hamlet," Act IV, Scene 5)

Early in "Hamlet," the Prince is eager to see whether what may feel like a determined course can be altered by force of will.  Rising to the fore in this scrutiny is an abundance of sexual disgust.

Why does sex preoccupy him so? I think Hamlet’s doubts about our command of will explain it.  He is at one with the view of St. Augustine, summarized like this by Bertrand Russell: “What makes the ascetic dislike sex is its independence of the will. Virtue demands a complete control of the will over the body, but such control does not suffice to make the sexual act possible. The sexual act, therefore, seems incompatible with a properly virtuous life.”

In "The Tempest," the Augustinian caveat seizes Prospero as well. He warns Prince Ferdinand against giving vent to lust before the solemnization of his union with Miranda, and repeats the warning fiercely not long afterward — despite the upright Ferdinand's immediate promise not to assail the virtue of the wizard's daughter. Prospero's need to control cannot countenance even secret fantasies of ungovernable desire.

Augustine saw lust's independence of Christian will.
To warriors of the will like Hamlet and Prospero, the abyss opens up where lust is involved. Looking down into it is irresistible.

If the adultery that resulted in his father’s murder were enough, why would Hamlet earlier have harangued the virginal Ophelia mercilessly, then subjected her to flippant bawdry as the court gathers to watch the visiting troupe’s play?  Yet he has roaringly commanded the demure woman to enter a convent. (I’m among those who believe the scene’s context makes the Elizabethan slang meaning of “nunnery” as “whorehouse” unlikely.)

And in the Closet Scene, indifferent to the fact that he has just killed Polonius by accident, Hamlet reviles Gertrude in vivid moralistic terms for her weak sensuality. When she moans “thou has cleft my heart in twain,” Hamlet’s imperative to “throw away the worser part of it” evokes Jesus’ hard saying: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” (One-third of an omniscient Godhead in Christian theology, Jesus is also the avatar of a ferocious free will, charged with rejecting sin and seeking salvation. It’s a contradiction so mammoth even Hamlet can barely acknowledge it.)

He is so focused on his mom-bashing lecture that the Ghost reappears to remind him of his “blunted purpose” — the mission of revenge that Hamlet no longer believes in. When he can bring himself to recall the body behind the arras, he speaks dismissively of it, except for this: “For this same lord, I do repent, but heaven hath pleas’d it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister.  I will bestow him, and will serve well the death I gave him.”

Serve it with the King’s death, or with his own? It’s almost a matter of indifference now. When all are dying in the final scene, Hamlet kills Claudius last before succumbing himself. In his culture, regicide is the ultimate challenge to the way things are supposed to be. Hypocritically, the usurping monarch  has earlier calmed Gertrude, fearful of Laertes' rumored insurrection (Act IV), with this reassurance: "There's such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will."

Caught up in the death-dealing final scene and acting little of his will, Hamlet has failed to "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery,” which his creator implies is all mankind’s.  Where does our freedom lie, when even the most clear-headed act may be the product of a mistaken assumption of personal autonomy?

The Prince imputes so much to nature or to heaven as determinants that his own thoughts and acts are famously given over to “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Something rough-hewn is not botched or ineptly made, it should be remembered, but rather sketched out, planned or inchoate.

The more conventionally pious Horatio expresses a similar view much earlier, on the battlements of Elsinore. To Marcellus’ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" — the second-most famous line in the play (after “To be, or not to be”) — Horatio prophetically says: “Heaven will direct it.”

Dr. Johnson wrote, likely in astonishment, that “Hamlet is through the whole play rather an instrument than an agent.” The iron hand of foreordainment descends upon all the characters, but the Prince is the only one with the wit and imagination to resist it. Johnson goes on to marvel at Hamlet’s weak will after the play-within-a-play reveals the King’s guilt on both counts — adultery and murder.

It’s significant that, as fervent a Christian as Johnson was, he recognized Hamlet’s reluctance to kill the King at prayer as an excuse for non-action. Christian scruples never bother Hamlet elsewhere in the play, so why should they here? His spiritual depth bears an uneasy relationship to conventional religion. When he interrupts the Ghost's revelations to cry, "O my prophetic soul!" he is really saying, in amazement: "O my imagination!"

That considerable faculty has too much to process in Hamlet's encounter with his martially attired
For Wallace Stevens, imagination brings the universe down to earth.
father, who imparts terrifying information and instructions on how to proceed. Hamlet Senior's posthumous sufferings cannot even be spoken of, he warns. On this side of mortality, how is the Prince to weigh the truth of any of this? The poet Wallace Stevens, in his essay "Imagination as Value," may be helpful here: "If the imagination is the faculty by which we import the unreal into what is real, its value is the way of thinking by which we project the idea of God into the idea of man."

If such a willed projection is indeed Hamlet's, its daring scope bumps quickly against necessary limits in a predetermined universe. Sex is the joker in the vulnerable hand human beings are forced to play. Laertes had spoken more truly than he knew when he warned Ophelia about her strange lover: “His will is not his own.”

In "The Tempest," Prospero has no reason to suppose his will is not his own, or that it is anything but absolute. True, his capable servant Ariel shows some initiative and a feeling for the liberty the sprite is desperate for, but it's of the fulfilling kind under the rule of a master "whose service is perfect freedom," in the happy phrase of the Book of Common Prayer.

The deposed duke's complete authority on the island has not made him happy, however. As Ferdinand, forced to fetch and haul wood to show himself worthy of Miranda and motivated by true love rather than concupiscence, says of his future father-in-law: "He's composed of harshness."

Emerson speaks with his usual gnomic authority, applicable to both Prospero and Hamlet, when he says: “Character teaches above our wills.”

Friday, May 23, 2014

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

Hamlet can never rule from the throne, so he tries to do so from the majesty of his mind

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.

Common sense and vanity lie at the bottom of this new, unsatisfying revision of the Cartesian foundation: “I think, therefore I must suppose that I act freely.” It’s a porous basis for the defense of free will.  It’s what troubles Hamlet throughout his play. It’s the situation Prospero circumvents by using magic to extend his conscious mind, his force of will, to direct events from beginning to end on the island he has appropriated.

John Stuart Mill put the problem of free will like this: “The metaphysical theory of free will, as held by philosophers…, was invented because the supposed alternative of admitting human actions to be necessary was deemed inconsistent with everyone’s instinctive consciousness, as well as humiliating to the pride and even degrading to the moral nature of man.”

J.S. Mill recognized the appeal of free-will doctrine.
Literary critics who implicitly accept the theory of free will tend to boggle at Hamlet’s actions and/or wonder at his transcendence of both morality and his former appetite for life in Act V. Similarly, they make too much of Prospero’s abjuring his magic in the last scene, and elevate his apparent magnanimity, undercut by a mania for control, to the level of Christian self-sacrifice.

I believe that Prospero’s character is thus overvalued and Hamlet’s is excessively mired in mystery and somewhat disparaged, despite near-universal admiration for his charisma and intelligence.

 “Hamlet can seem an actual person who somehow has been caught inside a play, so that he has to perform even though he doesn’t want to,” writes Harold Bloom.  No: the character’s actuality is an illusion generated by the author’s investment of so much philosophical scrutiny into the human predicament. As capacious as he may seem, the Prince is an elaborate machine of immense, three-dimensional charm for dramatizing the root dilemma of human action and thought: determined or free?

It no doubt occurred to Shakespeare to have his hero use the feigned madness found in the play’s sources not as a ruse for protecting the prince from his wicked stepfather, but as a trick to test everyone around him on their susceptibility to external control. It’s an explanation worth exploring. Shakespeare’s first astute critic, Samuel Johnson, truly finds in Hamlet’s crazy pose “no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity.”
Hamlet's feigned madness bothered Dr. Johnson.

The “antic disposition” is thus a device of less use in the revenge assignment than it is an excuse to probe a vexing dilemma: How will I know what course I’m free to pursue, if it’s possible that whatever I do may only express who I really am, the person who I am willy-nilly destined to be? Are others like me in this, or will they push back, change before my eyes, or confirm what I already thought about them?

Hamlet vacillates from the start on his specter-ordered mission, which Shakespeare cannily avoids framing as a direct command to kill Claudius. Can the Ghost of his father be trusted?  He quickly tells his fellows “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you,” but later entertains the thought  that the apparition is the devil. So does the circumspect Horatio, who signals his skepticism about ghosts when he answers the watch's question "What, is Horatio there?" by muttering "A piece of him."

The Prince's resolve to “sweep to my revenge” is repeatedly checked, in ways he can't understand himself. He meditates several times on the paralyzing nature of thought and its relentless power to inhibit action. As late as his final soliloquy, he frets: "I do not know / Why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do' / Sith I have cause and will and strength and means / To do it."

Hamlet knows that his mind allows him immense scope (a favorite Shakespearean word), but he suspects that nothing he may try is freely the product of his will. “O God," he says,  "I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.” What are those bad dreams? Images of the realization that the will is irrelevant, powerless — and that being bounded in a nutshell is a metaphor for the human condition, once free action is truly seen as being of no account.

Much of Hamlet’s peculiar behavior is a way of testing other characters, starting with the royal counselor and father of Hamlet’s putative beloved, Ophelia. Polonius’ entrapment in the role of nosy top adviser, schooled in listening and agreeing, is mocked in the dialogue about clouds and their perceived resemblance to animals. Polonius' long practice as a yes-man runs true to form. Hamlet's first test of someone else is a lark. Those tests that remain will sorely test him as well.

Polonius has also accepted tacitly that Hamlet is indeed reading a satirical description of old men like him when the Lord Chamberlain interrupts his browsing. There is little redeeming skepticism in the over-the-hill counselor, so the Prince wants to assess how much Polonius’ behavior is determined by the need to believe in Hamlet’s antic disposition. Totally, it is soon evident. Polonius bears an overload of what physicist (and "Star Trek" screenwriter) Leonard Mlodinow calls “confirmation bias,” the tendency to select the parts of mixed evidence that confirm what we already believe.

Delacroix's view of the "flute scene" with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Where is Hamlet to go for evidence of free agency in human behavior? He knows his old school buddies, fellow intellectuals but easily led, have been thoroughly suborned by the King, and tweaks them sharply for it, mocking their inability to play upon him any more than they can the flute. When the adventure at sea on the way to England allows Hamlet to discover that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying Claudius’ request to the English king to have him killed, he doesn’t hesitate to write a note of his own, consigning the messengers to execution.

As he tells Horatio the story, the tone is proud and free of second thoughts. Subconsciously, he has arranged a temporary truce between willfulness and destiny. Carrying his father’s signet ring, Hamlet enacts his hopeless claim on kingship by sealing the note he’s written condemning his false college chums to the death that Claudius had ordered for him. They are done for, thanks to the one royal order Hamlet will ever issue.

In traditional monarchies, the sole station in life closest to running a manifest determinist course is that of heir to the throne. Hamlet has literally put a seal on that status, though scholars tell us the Danish monarchy was elective. But as he shouts a little bit later after leaping into Ophelia’s grave to grapple with Laertes: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” What can that self-identification mean? They are all Danes there, of course. (Remarkably, "Hamlet" is a play as patriotic in its own way as "Henry V.") Hamlet is declaring publicly a claim on the Danish throne, his by right, that he will never occupy.

With this in mind, it’s not so odd that the dying Hamlet gives his blessing to the royal election of Fortinbras, ruler of neighboring Norway, which his late father had defeated in battle. Warfare is governed by something much greater than the competing wills of the combatants, as Leo Tolstoy would demonstrate for all time in "War and Peace." Destiny presides over all battlefields. Not for nothing is Fortinbras' "Go, bid the soldiers shoot" the last line in "Hamlet."

 “In proportion as our will declines, our belief in destiny mounts,” says Harold Goddard in "The Meaning of Shakespeare," though he is mistaken in applying this wisdom to Hamlet’s growing indifference to morality. It’s more all-encompassing than that. Transcending right and wrong is collateral damage when one engages such a formidable foe as the will’s puzzlement.

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.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Spotlight 2014 moves right along, tugs at heartstrings, opens pursestrings

Spotlight, the annual community variety show to benefit the Indiana Aids Fund, has more than goodwill in its favor. It draws on the talents and energy of some of the metropolitan area's most seasoned and most up-and-coming performing artists.

Artistic director David Hochoy designed the entertainment to occupy segments lasting no more than five minutes each, within a 90-minute span. The design was crisply executed in "Spotlight 2014 Out Loud" Monday night at Clowes Hall.

What to do about that untoward urge?  "Turn It Off"
Making a big deal of ranking the acts seems inappropriate to apply to a show in which all the talent was donated to the cause. Still,  I came away with a few impressions I'd like to shine a light on.

The forthcoming Broadway in Indianapolis presentation of "The Book of Mormon" got a bit of a preview — not so much of the touring production as the hit show itself — when the Indianapolis Men's Chorus, in dark pants, narrow dark ties and white shirts, performed "Turn It Off."

The song vigorously mocks the open-and-shut repression that is part of Mormon practice (along with many other religions). The staging was lively and nicely contrasted the mandated inhibitions with hints that they could be easily shed given the right catalyst. The entrance of a much larger group of straitlaced mock-Mormons behind the front line as the song proceeded brought it to a riotous peak.

"Diamante," a ballet that premiered Monday.
Another act offered a preview of a specific production. BOBDIREX Productions, the brainchild of a master of large-scaled musical theater, Bob Harbin, will present "Hair" this summer. The perennial "tribal love-rock musical" may have some life left in it. My suspicions that it might be too dated to capably project any kind of credible "dawning" were partly allayed by the gang that put across "The Age of Aquarius," but not entirely. Curiosity about how intact the Harbin magic might be with this decades-old piece might get me to the full production.

For inspired juxtapositions, a poised new piece called "Diamante" displayed some of the Indianapolis School of Ballet's most accomplished dancers. The piece, choreographed by company director Victoria Lyras, made inspired use of a piece for string orchestra. Similar idiomatic suitability of music and dance occurred in "Messing Around," the work immediately following, a sassy modern-courtship interpretation of  a couple of Ray Charles songs by Vanessa Owens and Nicholas Owens. Their troupes, Kenyetta Dance Company and Nicholas Owens Dance Company, blended seductiveness, coyness and bravado.

"Messing Around": Searching for love in a soulful setting
The show contained too many other fascinating bits to catalogue for the sake of completeness. It seems all right in this instance to bring forward just a few of the acts here.  Those who attended can arrrange their own bouquets from this annual garden of earthly and unearthly delights.
(Photo credit: Freddie Kelvin)