“Shakespeare: The Artist as Existential Hero”
by William Soderberg
March 14, 2005
During the past century, chaos has been unleashed in warfare, some societies have collapsed, and millions have been killed in genocidal policies. Some critics in our own time trace these horrid events to anarchy and democracy and hold that liberal democracy has produced tyrants like Hitler. When each individual determines what is right and good, these critics fear, tyranny and eventually anarchy result. The neo-conservative followers of Leo Strauss constitute one such group of critics.
The common people, according to the neo-con Straussians, cannot be trusted to make informed political judgments. The ordinary people are more likely to vote based on bias and prejudice, say the Straussians, and engage in eliminating the best citizens of the state—such as Socrates in Greece or the Jews in Germany. The Straussians conclude that only an elite group of superior individuals can be trusted to direct society and advise its leaders.
A second proposal in response to the violence and chaos of the twentieth century has been to return to fundamentalist religion. Some have been drawn to the comfort of the view that a divine retribution operates in the world. On this view, God rewards the good and punishes the evil. Dante referred to this order in the world and beyond as a divine comedy. The few spiritual leaders, according to those who subscribe to this view, should show the many the way to return to a state of peace.
In William Shakespeare’s time, a collapse of society was also taking place. The persecutions, executions, and civil strife known as the Reformation of Christianity led people to mistrust their religious and political leaders. A move toward democracy and the election of officials was also in process. Just as some people in our own day have called for strong leadership, many were also doing so in Shakespeare’s day. This sentiment was crystallized within a generation of Shakespeare’s lifetime in the writings of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who saw strong government with martial law as the only way to avoid civil chaos. Some religious groups, including the Puritans, were calling for a return to the original spirit of Christianity and the avoidance of the sin and debauchery that incurred God’s wrath.
Walter Kaufmann, in his book From Shakespeare to Existentialism, finds in the writings of Shakespeare a tragic worldview. He interprets Shakespeare as having contempt for the common person. Kaufmann implies that Shakespeare leaned toward a Hobbesian view and favored an elite group rather than the common people to select the leaders and determine policies. On this view, peace may be found only through complete governmental control of the common people and the suppression of their base prejudices. Some who adopt a Christian worldview today see the world as reflecting a divine order of reward and punishment. They call for strong spiritual and moral leadership and some in this group interpret Shakespeare as presenting a similar Christian message.
I would like to offer for your consideration a third view of Shakespeare’s work. I wish to explore the notion that Shakespeare adopts neither a pessimistic tragic nor an optimistic Christian worldview. Shakespeare did not regard the common person with contempt, I suggest, nor did he approach the chaotic religious and political situation of his day by calling for an elite—either political or religious—to direct society.
Shakespeare’s response closely resembles what moderns call an existentialist answer to chaos and absurdity. Existentialists alert people to what some call “bad faith,” and they try to increase people’s sensitivities to brutalities and oppression in the world. They do so by looking at people’s experience from the point of view of those who are oppressed or marginalized. Existentialists look at the inner reality of the individual, at life as experienced by the existing individual. Autobiographical writing is a common feature of existentialist literature. Autobiography is important in depicting inner reality: authors know best their own inner reality.
To live in good faith, according to the existentialists, is to remain conscious of death. When one escapes this awareness, he or she refuses to engage in legitimate suffering and lives in bad faith. People escape from an awareness of death in various ways, including suicide, an escape into a routine existence, an escape into marriage when one lives vicariously through one’s marriage partner, and failure to recognize one’s choices. Although Albert Camus, a twentieth-century existentialist writer, asserted that suicide is the only serious philosophical question, he does not accept suicide as an answer to absurdity. To engage in suicide is to collapse into inauthentic existence or bad faith.
An existentialist hero faces the meaninglessness of death, does not despair, and creates meaning in the face of absurdity. I interpret Shakespeare as a predecessor of existentialism who tries to capture the inner reality—the sufferings as well as the joys—of persons in the world. He depicts characters who face the question of whether to open themselves to legitimate suffering. One knows one’s own suffering best, and Shakespeare creates meaning in response to the suffering that he experienced in his own life and witnessed in his own time.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a major existentialist writer in the twentieth century who was a survivor of a death camp. He heard a guard in the death camp say: “I have nothing against the Jews, but I must follow orders. I have a family to think of, so I have no choice.” Sartre observes that the guard was living in bad faith. The guard had choices, Sartre points out, even though the choices were few and quite bleak. The guard’s choices included refusing to follow orders or deserting the army. To say that one has no choices when indeed some are available is to live in bad faith—or, as Sartre puts it, to live pre-consciously.
Shakespeare focuses on conscious living and addresses as best he can issues of oppression and marginalization. Queen Elizabeth outlawed the presentation of contemporary political or religious controversies on the London stage. So Shakespeare takes his writing to another level and gives us a portrait of the human condition, where he found a potential for both tragedy and comedy. He depicts the inner reality of people from various classes and cultures. Shakespeare does not force this great variety of characters into the mold of a single worldview—either tragic or Christian. He did not view people as either fundamentally evil or good. He regarded variety as simply part of the human condition.
Shakespeare came from the common people and was probably the first person in his family to be able to read and write. (For this and other aspects of Shakespeare’s life, I am indebted to Stephen Greenblatt’s recent book Will in the World). Shakespeare witnessed the atrocious treatment given to members of warring religious and political factions. By chance or design he found himself in his late twenties acting on the London stage and writing plays for his troupe, known as the Queen’s Players. Some of the plays he wrote were performed in front of commoners, but some were also performed before Queen Elizabeth and her court.
Shakespeare engaged in an extended exploration of the point of view of persons regarded as “the other.” He was in a particularly good position to do so. He himself had experienced living on the margins. In addition to the religious and political situation, Shakespeare had some additional unsettling experiences in his young years.
He had been raised in a Catholic community within a larger society ruled by the Queen, who was head of the Church of England. As an eighteen-year-old he married twenty-six year old Anne Hathaway and six months later their first child, Susanna, was born. Later they had twins, Judith and Hamnet. Shakespeare spent most of the remainder of his life in London. While in London, he wrote a lengthy series of sonnets to a young man. Two book-length poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece also have homosexual themes.
Shakespeare was not college-educated. His father John Shakespeare had serious financial difficulties and probably declared bankruptcy. He was unable to afford to send his son William to college. Shakespeare later found himself writing in the midst of Cambridge and Oxford playwrights in London. One of them, Robert Greene, described Shakespeare as an “upstart crow.”
Shakespeare wrote in his sonnets that his verses gave his love immortality. Perhaps one of the sonnets written to a young man captures Shakespeare’s state of mind when he was labeled an “upstart crow.”
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
So what do you do if you are in Shakespeare’s situation? Here you are, in a position where you can say something in front of the court—in front of the policy-makers whose decisions have had such profound effects on your family and community. How would you as an imaginative young adult respond to the powers that be? How would you approach this situation?
Perhaps we can get a clue to Shakespeare’s approach from a line in Hamlet:
“The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the Conscience of the King.” (2.2.608-609)
Shakespeare begins to pique the conscience of the monarch by telling the court the priorities of commoners. To give an example, while the leaders were promoting loyalty and courage among the troops and reminding them of the fame and honor that would come to them if they were wounded in battle, Shakespeare puts these words in the mouth of a common soldier:
Boy: Would I were in an ale-house in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety. (Henry V, II.1129-30)
Some readers may view Shakespeare as elitist due to his use of flowery language. Shakespeare came upon various conventions on the London stage, which include elevated language. Rather than reject this convention, he adopted it and, indeed, advanced the convention as he conveyed his vision.
Shakespeare also shifts direction and describes to the commoners what it is like to be a king, queen, or a noble. High-placed persons, he reminds the commoners, are also human beings. As humans, they also suffer.
After enjoying less than a decade of success on the London stage, Shakespeare lost one of his children. His son Hamnet died at the age of eleven. In the period that followed the death of Hamnet, Shakespeare wrote most of the great tragedies in his career.
When placed in the quandary of whether to avenge the death of his father the king, Hamlet laments:
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right. 1.5.189-90
Righting the wrongs of the terrors of religious persecution was a heavy burden on the leaders of Shakespeare’s day.
Later in the play, Shakespeare writes:
I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custome of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavenly with my disposition that this goodly frame the Earth seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why it seems no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god: the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me, no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Hamlet’s dying words are “…the rest is silence.”
His friend Horatio adds:
“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”. – Horatio in Hamlet (V.ii.370-371).
The autobiographical elements mix with the action of the play. The stage of the Globe theatre was called the earth and a canopy above the stage was painted to depict the sky with a golden sun. The theatre, it appears, had become for Shakespeare in the period following his son’s death “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.” The orderly sequence of births and deaths—when the deaths of parents precede the deaths of children—was disrupted.
Horatio’s words may have served as Shakespeare’s public expression of grief and love for Hamnet: “Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Perhaps the noble heart that cracked was Shakespeare’s own.
Shakespeare’s contemplation of death recurs throughout his
writings. One example is Hamlet’s contemplation of suicide in the opening of a famous soliloquy:
“To be or not to be, that is the question
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep.
” (Hamlet 3.1.56).
Another example may be found in the reflections on death by
Claudio, who is condemned to die, in Measure for Measure:
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot…
To be imprisoned in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling; ‘tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
Measure for Measure 3.1.117-131
An orderly world is absent from Shakespeare’s plays. This absence is particularly striking in Hamlet and other tragedies that Shakespeare wrote during the period after Hamnet’s death. In the source play, Hamlet plots and kills the king, leaving the audience with a sense of retribution for the king’s crime. Shakespeare does not give us such a just and orderly outcome in Hamlet.
In the great tragedies from this period of Shakespeare’s writing, Shakespeare does not assign motives to the tragic heroes. Hamlet’s choice to require proof of Claudius’ guilt is not explained, nor is Lear’s inscrutable test of Cordelia’s love. Iago’s hatred of Othello is without motive.
The lack of an orderly world—the absence of a world in which retribution for one’s intentions operates—reflects Shakespeare’s portrait of the human condition. Tragedy is one possible outcome from human choices; comedy is another. Tragedy, however, is not always the result of an evil motive, nor is comedy always the outcome of a good motive. Tragedy and comedy are simply part of the human condition. It is as if Shakespeare is saying: “There is more in the world than is dreamt of in the Christian worldview.”
The Christian view that God rewards the good and punishes the evil in an afterlife may be described as optimistic. The optimism of the Christian view, Shakespeare seems to recognize, can become the source of a “cheery denial,” a term that I borrow from the contemporary author Sara Ruddick.
Shakespeare does not propose to put the selection of a leader and policies in the hands of an elite group to deal with chaotic political or social situations. To turn to an elite group would reflect a pessimistic view that the common people with their prejudices must be controlled if order is to be maintained. Thomas Hobbes, as I have mentioned, reflects just such a pessimistic view. People cannot be trusted to govern themselves, Hobbes maintains, because they are aggressive and acquisitive by nature.
Shakespeare adopts another approach, but to characterize this approach as simply optimistic doesn’t do Shakespeare justice. While Hobbes reflects a pessimistic view of humanity, Shakespeare does not reject pessimism in favor of a simple optimistic view. While Hobbes’ worldview is pessimistic, Shakespeare goes beyond simple optimism.
An extremely pessimistic view of the world may lead to depression, despair, and even suicide. An extremely optimistic view, on the other hand may lead to a cheery denial of injustices and other harsh realities of the world.
Shakespeare does not succumb to despair and commit suicide in response to his chaotic society and his life on the margins, nor does he escape into a denial of harsh realities in his world. He transforms pessimism into cathartic or healing tragedies, and he breaks the crust of cheery denial in uplifting comedies.
He does not see evil everywhere and throw up his hands in despair. While he sees many evils in the world, he does not adopt a pessimistic view and portray humans or the world itself as evil. He paints a picture of societies that give people choices. He writes in Henry V:
For government, though high and low and lower,
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congreeing in a full and natural close,
Like music. (Henry V I.1.326-329)
Consent to leaders and to policies unites a political community, in Shakespeare’s account. Shakespeare’s characters face choices, and while the choices may have tragic results they remain the free choices of humans. At the same time that he sees much good in the world, he does not go so far as to say that human nature or the world itself is good. It is not cut out to human dimensions, Shakespeare seems to suggest, to make such sweeping claims as “humans are good,” “humans are evil,” “the world is good” or “the world is evil.”
Shakespeare spares his audience the pessimistic view that the world is evil. He does so by entering the inner reality of his characters, life as experienced from the perspective of a human agent. As we view the unfolding tragedy from the perspective of the tragic heroes, we can recognize that an ambitious Macbeth, a vacillating Hamlet, or a love-torn Romeo is not evil. Nor is the hero unqualifiedly good. A mixture of good and evil is present. Adding to the mix of good and evil is the tragic figure’s response to the situation. The combination of the character and the situation gives rise to a tragic outcome.
One person is not depicted as good and another as evil in Shakespeare’s plays. Nor are persons depicted as good and the world evil. Good and evil outcomes are possibilities in any situation. Shakespeare portrays particular outcomes as comic or tragic—but the mixture of tragedy and comedy is present in all his plays. He does not depict some people as good and pit them against others who are portrayed as evil: to do so would be mere melodrama. Nor does Shakespeare offer straightforward morality plays in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished. Such an orderly world would reflect a Christian worldview that Shakespeare has absorbed, but he has created another alternative in response to its inadequacies.
The lack of cosmic order and justice apparent in Shakespeare’s major tragedies also appears in some of his comedies. In Measure for Measure, for example, the Duke has turned over the ruling of Milan to his Deputy Angelo. Angelo strictly applies an old law and condemns a young man Claudio to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant before marriage. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a nun, is informed of Claudio’s sentence and seeks a pardon from Angelo. Angelo demands that Isabella have sex with him in exchange for her brother Claudio’s pardon. The thirst for revenge against Angelo is palpable as the audience awaits the Duke’s return. Yet when the Duke returns, he pardons Angelo in exchange for an admission of shame. Shakespeare surprises his audience here just as he did in his major tragedies.
Shakespeare does not lose the opportunity, however, to castigate the arbitrary exercise of authority. He satirizes Angelo’s abuse of authority with Isabella’s response:
Man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep….
(Meas for Measure. Act ii. Sc. 2.874-879)
Shakespeare does not turn to a dominant political or religious group to direct society. His proposal for social stability turns on the recognition of all persons as deserving equal respect. Shakespeare’s writings as well as his life itself suggest that one may respond to social absurdities and inequalities by imaginatively entering the inner reality of the individual human being—at every level of society and in every walk of life. Further, he views matters from the perspectives of men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals.
Shakespeare does not leave out variety. He presents a variety of people with different characters, races, ethnicities, genders, political affiliations and religions. He explores a vast range of emotions and temperaments. He enters into various times and cultures.
A cross-gender attraction in Twelfth Night occurs when a woman (Viola) posing as a man (Cesario) is attracted to the Duke and the gentlewoman Isabella is attracted to the sexually amorphous Cesario. This cross-gender attraction is further complicated by a practice on the Elizabethan stage: young men played the parts of women. So the role of Viola is played by a young man playing a woman. The character Cesario, then, is played by a young man pretending to be a woman posing as a man.
In Shakespeare’s writings, variety is simply part of the human condition. He does not condemn variety; rather, he celebrates it. The ritual known as the theatre enables Shakespeare to celebrate the range of human types. He does not distance himself from this great variety of human characters, nor does he depict the variety for the purpose of favoring some types and condemning others.
Shakespeare’s entry into the inner reality of his characters enables him to present a sympathetic account. He does not condemn his characters—even when they make tragic choices. He invites the viewer to share in this sympathy and tolerance. From this sympathetic perspective, the reader or audience can look at the world in another way—through the eyes, mind, and heart of a character who may be the least well off in a particular situation.
His exploration of the inner reality of his characters enables Shakespeare to examine situations from the point of view of the least well off. The sufferings of a high-placed person evoke sympathy, as do those of a low-placed person. A high-placed person may be the least well off in some situations, and a low-placed person may be the least well off in other situations. The point of view of the other, the victim, must be taken into account if policies are to be fair and just.
As a young man, Shakespeare found his voice and took up the challenge to speak truth to power. We look to you, the imaginative young people of today to tell what life is like from the perspectives of both ordinary persons and policy-makers. The young can tune in and alert the rest of us to various forms of oppression, marginalization and suffering in our world. Perhaps one of you sitting in this audience will be among the next to find a medium to remind us that variety in the human condition is to be celebrated and not condemned by religious zealots nor suppressed by governments that have come under the influence of the elitist views of Straussian neo-con men.
Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Random House, 1955.
Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2004.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. 1651 (text available through this website: http://www.epistemelinks.com)
Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1960.
Ruddick, Sara. Maternal Thinking. Beacon Press, 1989.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Human Emotions. New York: Philosophical Library, 1957.
Strauss, Leo. Liberalism: Ancient and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.