Saturday, June 6, 2009

Shakespeare's world view and voice

Shakespeare's world view is contained in his voice, in his particular gift for ambiguous and ironic passages. He was writing plays, where there's dialogue and action and little else, so his voice isn't concentrated, as it might be in fiction, in the narration. Rather his voice comes out in how he treats characters and how they speak and act. (Playwrights and screenwriters must allow room for the actor and director to have voices too!) This is especially clear in Julius Caesar, which explores some of Shakespeare's favorite themes-- the nature of heroism, the danger of charisma, and the contradictory wisdom and foolishness of the mob.

Of course, Shakespeare is the great characterizer. Sure, there were characters before that, as there was some perspective before Brunelleschi, but Shakespeare so advanced the presentation of multi-layered characters that, well, we're still studying them. He's also a bit of a trickster-- Julius Caesar is not the protagonist of Julius Caesar, but then, I bet Marcus Brutus wouldn't have sold that well. :)

Where does Shakespeare's voice come in? Here's where: in his great poetry, in the tossed-off comic lines, in the skill at writing high-flown sentences that actors can render as conversation. But his voice is more than his words. His voice is much more in how he regards the characters and the world they inhabit. (Of course, we know nothing about Shakespeare's personal world view, but we do know how he viewed the world in his writings, because we have them. :) His genius was in, I think, regarding the world and humans with skepticism, but also moving beyond cynicism. It would be cynical to present (as he does in the beginning of Caesar) that perceptions can't be trusted, that they (like the omens in the play) can be misinterpreted and manipulated. But he doesn't stop there. Yes, perceptions can be deceptive... but the truth will always out-- in the actions and the words of the characters.

So a character's real intent is shown subtly in his words (sometimes not so subtly). But that doesn't mean he speaks his intent necessarily, rather that the truth has such power that it will influence the speech and action is ways that we can understand. That is, Shakespeare's voice "gives voice" to the truth, but not in some obvious way. His world view is not transparent-- nothing is clearly clear, and he starts, I think, with acknowledging the complexity of humans. They are not one way. In fact, in the very end of the play, Mark Antony looks down at his enemy Brutus and acknowledges his nobility (which Brutus's own actions cast into doubt), and says:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

That is, the measure of a man is the mixing of elements-- the depth is in the contradictions. Shakespeare's skill, however, took contradictions and never allowed them to become incoherence. That's because, I think, his view was that the contradictions made the character-- he respected the contradictions as having meaning.

So, for example, Mark Antony was a libertine, a cynic, a manipulator. (I admit to being overly influenced by the performance of James Purefoy, not in the play but in the TV show Rome-- he did an amazing job of showing Antony's complexity.) But there was one thing noble about Antony-- he actually, truly, deeply loved and esteemed Caesar. That was not an act, and not just a triviality. It was the core of him. He loved Caesar. Caesar's murder fired him to revenge-- but his way of revenge was characteristically manipulative. The nobility, however, was what fired him to action. (I'm just talking about Caesar. Antony and Cleo is another story. :)

Now Brutus was a noble man. But he had a single ignoble quality, and that was that he was easily flattered, especially about his own honor. In fact, his reputation for honor was more important to him than acting honorably, and both Cassius and Antony make subtle and successful use of his need to be venerated. This single ignobility fires his actions in the play.

That privileging of the single "off" characteristic is, I think, part of Shakespeare's approach-- that "off" trait might actually be closer to the center of the character than all that nice consistent stuff. Antony, for all his faults, is a lover. He loves life, he loves Caesar, he is soon to love Cleopatra-- and all with an abandon that shows that love really is the most important thing to him. So while his willingness to shake the hands of the murderers might seem to show his cynicism and corruption, a deeper view might be that it shows that love is more important than his self-respect and honor, for this is the only way he'll be able to insure that Caesar gets an appropriate burial (and it also sets up for his vengeance). In the play I saw in Stratford, young Antony insists on shaking the hands of each and every conspirator, thereby covering his own hands with blood. But as he goes from one to the next, their glee at killing their enemy begins to change to something not quite shame, but at least embarrassment, at being so clearly revealed as conspirators. This was, even more than the great funeral oration, the pivotal moment in the play, when these little men symbolically confessed to killing a far greater man.

And Antony's speech is, of course, highly manipulative. But there are moments of such love and anguish:
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me.

In Shakespeare's world view, the truth always comes out in one way or another, usually in a character's words and actions. And so even here, when Mark Antony is trying his damnedest to manipulate the mob, the anguish keeps coming out. So there's always a "bursting out," even in as careful a speech as Antony's funeral oration. (That the emotional burst outs help his cause doesn't mean they aren't real.) So think of that as an aspect of S's voice-- that characters reveal, whether they want to or not. Dialogue in Shakespeare is never on one level, meant simply to convey external information. It's also meant to conceal and deceive, and while it's doing that (with the other characters), it's also revealing (to the audience) the truth about this person. This is part of his voice, part of his world view-- humans are complicated, but they are not incomprehensible.

Notice that Cassius pretends that he wants to kill Caesar to save Rome, but his own words tell a different truth, that he is envious of Caesar's charisma and resentful that it isn't his-- a real narcissist, and that slips out when he speaks of why Caesar isn't qualified to lead Rome:

I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar

But that narcissism actually teaches him how to appeal to Brutus, because he can sense that beneath Brutus's undeniably noble qualities is vanity:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

(Notice also Shakespeare's characteristic preoccupation with names-- "Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore are thou Romeo?" Another aspect of voice is what we emphasize and repeat.)

As with Antony, Brutus reveals what matters to him, what drives him, in his speech. He might be trying to save Rome from the man he thinks might be a dictator, though he also seems to want to save Caesar from becoming just another ambitious tyrant. But he's truly getting played by Cassius, who knows just how to get to him-- Here's Brutus, reading an "anonymous" note ostensibly sent by a common citizen:
Opens the letter and reads
'Brutus, thou sleep'st: awake, and see thyself.
Shall Rome, etc; etc. Speak, strike, redress!
Brutus, thou sleep'st: awake!'
Such instigations have been often dropp'd
Where I have took them up.
'Shall Rome, etc; etc.' Thus must I piece it out:
Shall Rome stand under one man's awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call'd a king.
'Speak, strike, redress!' Am I entreated
To speak and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise:
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!

Cassius appeals to his vanity, his sense of himself as the last in an illustrious line. They were, all of them, the "First of Rome," but Caesar somehow got ahead-- and Brutus is easily led to thinking there was something uniquely unjust in that, especially if all of Rome were sending him the anonymous requests to rebel.

So Brutus uses his friendship with Caesar to set up the murder, and his reputation for honor to sway the Roman mob to his side. But Antony is clever-- or maybe Brutus is easily used, for Antony maneuvers him into allowing Caesar a decent funeral and a loving eulogy. Brutus has to agree, if he's going to be an honorable man, and Antony makes great use of that term in his eulogy:

He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.

The crowd turns on the murderers, and Brutus never quite catches up after that. But Shakespeare doesn't stop there. The last acts deal with Brutus slowly coming to understand what has happened, what his vanity led him to do, when he finds out that Cassius, the one who proclaimed Caesar to be corrupt, is selling public offices:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes.

Notice that first line, that quintessentially Shakespeare line:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Its tragic wail, the anguish of it, is not about the words (although, wow, he could put together words), but about everything that has been Brutus in this play-- the honorable man, the one who admired and envied Caesar, the naive Brutus, the disillusioned Brutus caught up now in a war against the city he loves-- caught up in a loop of self-recrimination and self-doubt, and how does that come out? In repetition. Brutus isn't repeating words because they're pretty, or because it's Shakespeare's habit, or because he's read some book about how to be poetic... he's repeating because he can't get past it. He can't get past what he's done:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Yes, Shakespeare uses repetition ("Out, out, damned spot!") but not because it's good "voice"-- it's because it's good character, because when you're caught up, as some of his characters are, in events they set in motion but can't now stop, your mind just goes round and round and round, obsessively repeating what you regret. You can feel that in Brutus's March/March/Remember/Remember (Shakespeare was writing for theater, and he had to write lines in a way to convey to the actor how to speak this, so it's no surprise we can hear Brutus's anguish in those words).

We have only words. But words are more than just words. In story, they are everything-- and so your voice is everything. Your voice is how you convey it all-- what's happening and who these people are and why it hurts so much. And if you know all that-- if you are in the story and it's in you-- the words will come. But the words only matter because they convey the story-- and yes, they convey the story in the best way. But if you start with words-- if you think that your voice is about alliteration or punctuation-- you're starting where you should be ending.

Shakespeare has a voice that transcends genre. He doesn't "sound" the same in the sonnets as in his tragedies and comedies-- but he's always trying to convey more-- sometimes the opposite-- of what's on the surface. His voice shines with jewel-like facets not because he was so adept at assembling words as shiny surfaces, but because he believed in the depth of human beings, believed that in their self-deception you could find their truth, and in the end, the nobility was in the possibilities:
...the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world 'This was a man!'

If you know yourself and your story, your characters and your meaning, then your voice will come through. And if your voice is in every bit of your story, then my deleting a semicolon (well, probably not me-- I like semicolons-- but the Evil Managing Editor and Even More Evil Copy Editor-- and you know who you are, evil semicolon-hating ones!) won't make any difference.

Yes, yes, all this was an elaborate justification. :) But really, think about what your attitude is, what your sense of the world is, what truth means to you... those really are (or should be) a more important factor in your voice than words and punctuation.

-- you know, really, I love film, but there's nothing nothing nothing like live theatre


Ali said...

Great post. I love the break-down.

JewelTones said...

Best advice I ever got from someone about writing was not to marry yourself so much to the material that you're unwilling to bend or change or be open to a new approach or a new way of expressing things. A word here... a punctuation mark there... I consider that really minor. Ask me to change an entire character's stance on, say, honor or loyalty or some other core element driving the story and we'd really have to talk about it.


Edittorrent said...

JT, yes, changing the character stance would have far more effect on the voice than my editing out sentence fragments!
Hey, that makes me think of another exercise we can do....

Kassandra said...

Love your point about repetition. I saw a play translated from French where an uncommon word was repeated within just a few minutes. It jarred so horribly, broke the spell, and all I could think about was how repetition always has meaning. Unfortunately in that case it meant the translator was asleep at the switch. Shakespeare was a master of it, and used the rhythm to build tension. Your post was fascinating, for so many reasons. Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

Repetition always has meaning. Wow. Great thought. Can I fore-blog it?