Shakespeare's Mad Men
A Crisis of Authority
Square One: First-Order Questions in the Humanities
Published by: Stanford University Press
296 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503633575
- Published: October 2022
This book is about a mad king and a mad duke. With original and iconoclastic readings, Richard van Oort pioneers the reading of Shakespeare as an ethical thinker of the "originary scene," the scene in which humans became conscious of themselves as symbol-using moral and narrative beings. Taking King Lear and Measure for Measure as case studies, van Oort shows how the minimal concept of an anthropological scene of origin—the "originary hypothesis"—provides the basis for a new understanding of every aspect of the plays, from the psychology of the characters to the ethical and dialogical conflicts upon which the drama is based. The result is a gripping commentary on the plays. Why does Lear abdicate and go mad? Why does Edgar torture his father with non-recognition? Why does Lucio accuse the Duke in Measure for Measure of madness and lechery, and why does Isabella remain silent at the end? In approaching these and other questions from the perspective of the originary hypothesis, van Oort helps us to see the ethical predicament of the plays, and, in the process, makes Shakespeare new again.
Unlike the physical and biological objects of scientific inquiry, the anthropological objects of humanistic inquiry are constituted by the originary scene of representation in which they also appear. A hypothesis is ventured to explain the origin of this scene. Language is essential to human understanding and therefore a necessary element of the hypothesis. Other elements deemed fundamental to human understanding, such as the aesthetic and the sacred, are incorporated into the hypothesis. The case is made for reading Shakespeare as a dramatist of the originary anthropological scene. The various elements of this scene, in which a sacred center stands opposed to the desiring humans on the periphery, provide a minimal anthropological basis for understanding the ethical conflicts in King Lear and Measure for Measure.
Tragedy dramatizes the desire for the scenic center and the attendant ethical conflicts that emerge when desire is thwarted. King Lear explores an instance of this fundamental ethical problem. Why does Lear abdicate? He says he wants to make himself ready for death, but his actions suggest the opposite. What drives the tragedy is Lear's repeated failure to renounce centrality. But this failure is conspired in by all the major characters. Hence the prominence of shame and guilt. Even Cordelia is not free of conspiring in the central conflict. When she comes to rescue her father, she brings her husband's battalions. The war with which the play ends may be understood as an escalation of the petty domestic conflict with which the play begins.
As in King Lear, Measure for Measure begins with an unsuccessful attempt to renounce the center. But where Lear exchanges power for false love, the Duke conspires in the fraudulent presentation of himself as a pious friar. By this sleight of hand, he seeks not merely political but moral control of his subjects. He tells Isabella that he has a love of doing good, but his mad Peeping-Tom tactics suggest instead a strategy of self-centralization and self-exculpation. By throwing dirt on others, he distracts negative attention from himself and tightens his grip on the center. The conflict of the final scene, in which ducal pardons rain down like laser-guided missiles, can be traced to the groundswell of resentment that has been building since the beginning.
King Lear may be understood as a failed romance. By remaining in the center, Lear is condemned to lovelessness. Hence the poignancy of the final scene in which Lear, cradling Cordelia's lifeless body, dies of a broken heart. Conversely, Measure for Measure may be viewed as a failed tragedy. After setting up Angelo to play the role of scapegoat, the Duke denies us the satisfaction of witnessing the scapegoat's comeuppance. If we superimpose Measure for Measure on King Lear, we find that the common factor is madness—and, more precisely, the madness of the exiled big man. This raises the question of whether exile represents a possible solution to tragic conflict. Can the big man exist as a permanent exile of the center without going mad?
"This is criticism of the highest order, whose long, careful readings of King Lear and Measure for Measure are in dialogue with the finest readers of Shakespeare for the past century."—Blair Hoxby, Stanford University
"A rigorous yet highly readable attempt to understand Shakespeare and neoclassical drama in general in new terms, Shakespeare's Mad Men demonstrates in admirable detail the analytical power of generative anthropology wielded by a powerful intelligence." ~Eric Gans, University of California, Los Angeles
"Attentive to both the ruses of bad faith and the truths disclosed by Shakespeare's language, van Oort addresses our human predicament as symbol-making creatures whose search for love is troubled by the ceaseless drive for mastery." ~Julia Reinhard Lupton, University of California, Irvine