Monday, October 10, 2005

Strategic Opacity

Shakespeare's biography is impossible for a different reason: an insufficiency of facts. Stephen Greenblatt's recent stab at the task is at times so self-consciously speculative as to resemble a literary experiment. Where Georges Perec wrote a novel (Things) almost entirely in the subjunctive – "They would open the mail; they would open the newspapers. They would light their first cigarette. They would go out." – and another in the second person (A Man Asleep), Will in the World is composed in the mode of epistemic possibility. It tells us only what could have been the case. This generates some comic moments, as maybe compounds upon might, and we end up imagining something that almost certainly was not. But Greenblatt's prose is exquisitely atmospheric, and it motivates the suspension of disbelief.

His best interpretive argument is not that Shakespeare's leather imagery stems from working in his father's glove shop, or that Falstaff was based on Robert Greene, but this:
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.
If Hamlet does not fain madness in order to protect himself until he comes of age – as in some earlier versions of the story – why? If Lear does not test Cordelia's love in order to force a profitable marriage – why?

The theory of strategic opacity deserves a fuller treatment – which it perhaps receives elsewhere. The quoted description suggests, I think unhappily, that it has the character of an empirical discovery, as though Shakespeare noticed the reactions of his audience, and figured out the recipe. This is not what Greenblatt intends. But then he owes us something more, an account of what it means to excise motives, a hermeneutics of the explanatory gap.

It is curious that, in puzzling over the scarce remains of Shakespeare's life – the absence of letters, confessions, essays, even books inscribed with his name – Greenblatt does not mark the irony: if this was deliberate, Shakespeare made himself strategically opaque. Our relation to him is like our relation to Hamlet, or King Lear. He is a figure of myth. That is why, as Woolf remarked, his plays "seem to hang there complete by themselves." I am not sure how to feel about this. Should we want to think of Shakespeare's life as a "riddle to be solved"? Or is the biographer who does so akin to a critic in search of Othello's missing coda – the scene in which Iago grants that, yes, he was in love with Desdemona all along.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Shakespeare's own opacity is a function of the religious-based terror of the times, being a Catholic sympathiser (maybe even a Catholic) living in a Protestant police state.

After Greenblatt, you may enjoy this recent book which argues that WS's plays and poetry contain coded messages to and about the recusant Catholic community in England. Hamlet, for example, Asquith argues, is an argument to the recusant community not to engage in violent attempts to overthrow the protestant state.

Clare Asquith [2005]: "Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare" (Public Affairs).

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Borges, in a fiction and with a different aim in view, accounts for Shakespeare's opacity, and the dearth of facts surviving him, by postulating that he was completely devoid of distinctive personal traits, so that he was the ultimate play-actor; since he was no one essentially, he could become anyone. The story is called "Everything and Nothing"

5:58 PM  

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