July 3, 2003
I continue to be impressed by the work of the eminent literary critic and Shakespeare specialist G. Wilson Knight. I’d like to devote a few pages to a discussion of Knight’s work because Knight throws more light on Shakespeare than anyone I’ve ever read, and also because Knight’s work pertains to subjects that Phlit has often discussed, such as the shadow and the occult.
Knight wrote several volumes of essays on Shakespeare. The volume that I’d like to focus on is The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearean Tragedy. Knight de-emphasizes character, and thinks that earlier Shakespeare critics, like A.C. Bradley, sometimes over-emphasized character. He sees an analogy to his approach in modern physics: “the belief in rigid particles with predictable motions has been replaced by concepts of form, pattern and symmetry.... For ‘particles’ put ‘characters’ and we have a clear Shakespearean analogy.”1
Knight thinks that his approach to Shakespeare is akin to Einstein’s theory: “Einstein’s relativity theory served to shift emphasis from individual entities to their observable ‘relationships’; just as, in my early essays on Hamlet, I tried... to see that hero not merely as an isolated ‘character’ rigidly conceived, but in direct and living relation to his own dramatic environment.”2
Knight says that trends in modern physics run parallel with trends in other branches of knowledge, they are “part of a general movement of the twentieth-century mind... [there are] similar tendencies in both biology and psychology. It would be sad were literary investigation to be allowed to lag too far behind these more virile sciences.”3 Knight envisions literary criticism as part of “a newly comprehensive system of knowledge covering the organic as well as the inorganic world, and therefore relevant also to man himself.”4 Has there ever been a bolder, more ambitious preface to a work of literary criticism? The profundity of Knight’s essays matches the boldness of his preface.
But the introduction to Knight’s book, by T.S. Eliot, is neither bold nor profound. It has the dry, pedantic style that we’ve come to expect from Eliot. Eliot’s reputation as a critic is higher than Knight’s; Eliot is as over-rated as Knight is under-rated. Knight regards Shakespeare as a profound philosophical writer, with a proclivity for the mystical and the occult. Eliot, on the other hand, subscribes to the common view that Shakespeare has no philosophy — or at least, no philosophy worthy of the name. “Dante made great poetry,” Eliot writes, “out of a great philosophy of life... Shakespeare made equally great poetry out of an inferior and muddled philosophy of life.”5
I discussed the occult in Shakespeare’s work in an earlier issue of Phlit, and I return to that subject later in this issue. In the last issue of Phlit, I quote a scholar who has found evidence that Shakespeare had a strong interest in the occult, and that Shakespeare was acquainted with a prominent occult thinker (John Dee). As for the mystical side of Shakespeare’s work, Knight says that this is most evident in Shakespeare’s final plays, especially in The Tempest. Knight discusses these final plays in Myth and Miracle, and in The Crown of Life. Since I haven’t read either of these books, I can say little about Shakespeare As Mystic. I can, however, quote those famous lines from The Tempest:
Shakespeare here depicts a dead man merging with the universe — changing into coral, pearls, etc. By merging with the universe, the dead achieve a kind of immortality. These famous lines exemplify the mystical character of Shakespeare’s final plays.6
After writing Myth and Miracle, Knight read a book called Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of The Tempest, by Colin Still. Knight says that “Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages.”7 Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof”) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work.
Knight calls his approach “interpretation”, and distinguishes it from “criticism”. “‘Criticism’ to me suggests a certain process of deliberately objectifying the work under consideration.... ‘Interpretation’, on the contrary, tends to merge into the work it analyzes.... Interpretation is passive.”8 Knight says that the most famous Shakespeare commentators took the interpretative approach: “Coleridge, repelled by one of the horrors in King Lear, admitted that the author’s judgment... was here probably superior to his own: and he was right. That is the interpretative approach. Hazlitt and A.C. Bradley both developed that approach: their work is primarily interpretative.”9
What Knight calls “interpretation” can help us to understand all sorts of literature, not just imaginative literature. Ruskin advocated an approach similar to Knight’s, and thought that approach should be applied to literature in general; Ruskin said that reading means “putting ourselves always in the author’s place, annihilating our own personality, and seeking to enter into his.”10 (This approach came naturally to 19th-century man, who revered the Great Men of past eras, but it doesn’t come naturally to the people of our time, hence “criticism” may be more popular now than “interpretation”.)
Knight argues that most Shakespeare commentary is too concerned with temporal factors, sequential factors, and doesn’t pay enough attention to spatial factors, to atmosphere. “A Shakespearean tragedy is set spatially as well as temporally in the mind. By this I mean that there are throughout the play a set of correspondences which relate to each other independently of the time-sequence which is the story: such [are] the death-theme in Hamlet, the nightmare evil of Macbeth. This I have sometimes called the play’s ‘atmosphere’.”11 The spatial element, the atmosphere, may be created unconsciously by the poet, and may be perceived unconsciously by the reader: “With the poet, as with the reader, the time-sequence will be uppermost in consciousness, the pervading atmosphere or static background tending to be unconsciously apprehended or created, a half-realized significance, a vague all-inclusive deity of the dramatic universe.”12
But if the time-sequence is uppermost for most readers, Knight takes the opposite approach, Knight focuses on the atmosphere. Knight says that the atmosphere is ‘pure Shakespeare’, whereas the time-sequence, the plot, is often borrowed from earlier writers (Plutarch, Holinshed, etc.). Knight thinks that a study of Shakespeare’s sources is of little use since these sources don’t shape the atmosphere, the spatial element.13
One of Knight’s chief innovations is to de-emphasize character. He argues that character is merely a role that we play, not our true nature. Shakespeare goes deeper than character, and depicts our true self, our fundamental nature. My yoga teacher often told his students, “drop your personality, the word ‘personality’ comes from the word ‘persona’, meaning mask.” According to Knight, Shakespeare removes the mask, Shakespeare goes deeper than character, deeper than personality, and describes the fundamental drives that all people share.
Knight avoids using the term “character”: “It is impossible to use the term without any tinge of a morality which blurs vision. The term, which in ordinary speech often denotes the degree of moral control exercised by the individual over his instinctive passions, is altogether unsuited to those persons of poetic drama whose life consists largely of passion unveiled. Macbeth and King Lear are created in a soul-dimension of primal feeling, of which in real life we may be only partly conscious or may be urged to control by a sense of right and wrong.”14
If Shakespeare is concerned with the occult and the mystical, as I believe he is, then we should expect him to look beyond character, and look beyond moral considerations. Mystical world-views like Zen pay little heed to character and moral considerations. Likewise, the occult doesn’t deal with character and moral considerations. “Interpretation,” says Knight, “must be metaphysical rather than ethical.”15 To understand Shakespeare, we need to go deeper than ethics because Shakespeare goes deeper than ethics. Do all great writers go deeper than ethics? Do all great writers go “beyond good and evil”?16
Knight focuses on the atmosphere, the theme, the “burning central core” of the play, rather than on the plot, the time-sequence. According to Knight, once we grasp this central core, this theme, then all the incidents make sense. The incidents “relate primarily, not directly to each other, nor to the normal appearances of human life, but to this central reality alone.”17 One thinks of James Allen, who said that thought is the master of circumstances, the circumstances of your life flow out of your thoughts, your mind-set. Shakespeare’s view of human affairs can be described as The Occult View, since Shakespeare regards mind-set as the master of circumstances.
Shakespeare seems to subscribe to one of the central principles of occult thought, namely, that man and the world are connected, psyche and matter are connected. This is what Jung called synchronicity. Jung argues that the Chinese have always viewed the world in terms of synchronicity, rather than in terms of linear cause-and-effect. The Chinese notice what events occur together, rather than seeking causal connections. The Chinese notice, for example, that the death of an emperor occurs together with an earthquake; these events aren’t causally linked, but they’re often found together. The Chinese were interested in synchronicity rather than causality; they never developed what we call science because science is based on causality.
Shakespeare seems to view the world in the Chinese/Jungian way, he describes correspondences between man and the world, between psyche and matter. In King Lear, for example, “Act III begins with thunder, lightning, and storm — a special kind of storm such as there never was before, as one of the characters in the play says.”18 In Shakespeare’s plays tragedy is often accompanied by a storm. This can be seen as synchronicity, though some people may say that it’s merely symbolism. Another example of Shakespeare’s interest in synchronistic phenomena is the following passage from Hamlet:
A similar correspondence between nature and man is found in Julius Caesar, where Casca says,
Disorder in the human world is mirrored by disorder in the natural world; animals behave strangely. A character in Macbeth says,
Knight realizes that the law of causality doesn’t apply to Shakespeare’s world. He realizes that Shakespeare’s world is governed by synchronicity, though he doesn’t use Jung’s term (he pays no attention to Freud or Jung). “The hero and his universe are interdependent.... The original spiritual disorder may equally be said either to cause, or to be caused by, the final disorder in the world.... Thus there is no rigid time-sequence of cause and effect between the hero and his environment: there is, however, a relation, and this relation is cemented and fused by the use of prophecy and poetic symbolism, merging subject and object, present with future. We are shown not merely the story of a murder; not merely the mind of a murderer; nor merely the effect of murder; but rather a single reality built of these three interacting, reciprocal, co-existent.”21
If the future exists in the present, and can be foretold in the present, what happens to cause-and-effect? Are historical events the result of fate, do they flow out of a mind-set or spirit? A century before the Holocaust, Heine predicted, based on his study of German philosophers, that the German mind would roar into the world and cause a genocide that would make the French Revolution look like a “pretty idyll”. Heine’s accurate prediction makes one think that the Holocaust (and other historical events, too) was caused by mind-set, not by a chain of circumstances.22 Perhaps we should view history as Knight views a Shakespeare play; though rational thinking says that events are caused by earlier events, perhaps events flow out of mind-set, out of destiny.
Since Knight regards Shakespeare as a deep thinker, one might suppose that he ignores considerations of style and sound. In fact, his essay “The Othello Music” is a penetrating, much-admired study of Shakespeare’s style.
According to Knight, Othello is a typical Shakespeare play, or at least a typical Shakespeare tragedy. Knight believes there is a pattern in Shakespeare’s work, a pattern found in many different plays; Othello follows this pattern. “The play turns on this theme: the cynical intellect pitted against a lovable humanity transfigured by qualities of heroism and grace.”23 Iago doesn’t believe in love, and thinks that the love between Othello and Desdemona can’t last; he plots to destroy this love. “Iago, himself a kind of devil, insidiously eats his way into this world of romance, chivalry, nobility.”24
Freud said that love often turns into hate. This is part of The Shakespeare Pattern: Othello’s love for Desdemona turns into hate, Lear’s love for his daughters turns into hate, etc. Timon of Athens also follows this pattern: “The theme of Timon of Athens is closely connected with that of Othello.... In both plays we have a protagonist compact of generosity, trust, nobility.... At the crisis each swerves from passionate love to its opposite with a similar finality.”25
If the character of Timon is akin to Othello, who is akin to Iago? The Iago character in Timon of Athens is, according to Knight, the cynical philosopher Apemantus. King Lear also follows The Shakespeare Pattern: “The plot of King Lear is, fundamentally, the plot of Timon of Athens and Othello. Here Lear, Cordelia, and Edmund... replace Othello, Desdemona, Iago.... In each of these plays we see the same three figures recurring. They are representative of (i) noble mankind, (ii) the supreme value of spiritual love, and (iii) the cynic.”26 Let’s make a table:
It doesn’t surprise me that Shakespeare’s works follow a pattern. When I read Kafka, I found that his works clearly followed a pattern, and indeed, most imaginative writers have one Primary Insight, which manifests itself in a pattern.28 The same is true of philosophy: most philosophers have one Primary Insight, one chief idea, which is found in all their works. Ortega said that a genuine philosopher doesn’t have more than one theory.29
A similar structure is found in The Tempest, where “the three figures are seen to be three modes of the poet’s mind: there Prospero has mastered, and controls, both Ariel and Caliban.”30 If Prospero and Caliban, the hero and the villain, are both “modes of the poet’s mind,” is it possible for the hero and the villain to be modes of a character’s mind, for the hero and the villain to be combined in one character?
Such is the case, according to Knight, with Hamlet, who is both noble hero and cruel cynic. Hamlet is cruel to both Ophelia and his mother, and he eagerly kills Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; “Hamlet thus takes a devilish joy in cruelty towards the end of the play: he is like Iago....31 Hamlet is both hero and villain in his own drama.”32 Since Hamlet is both hero and cynic, the play doesn’t have an Iago character, doesn’t have a “pure cynic”, Hamlet performs two parts himself. “His mind wavers,” Knight says, “between the principle of good, which is love, and that of evil, which is loathing and cruelty.”33 Hamlet is both light and shadow, both positive and negative, and thus he is closer to real people than other Shakespeare characters.
Like other Shakespeare characters, Hamlet speaks scornfully of love. Knight frequently mentions “the ‘hate-theme’, which is turbulent throughout most of these plays: an especial mode of cynicism toward love, disgust at the physical body, and dismay at the thought of death; a revulsion from human life caused by a clear sight of its limitations — more especially limitations imposed by time.”34 Knight argues that Hamlet is the first of Shakespeare’s plays to express the hate-theme, to express “love-cynicism and death-horror.” Many of Shakespeare’s later plays elaborate themes first expressed in Hamlet.35
One of the essays in Knight’s Wheel of Fire is called “Shakespeare and Tolstoy.” It argues that Tolstoy’s mid-life depression, described in his book My Confession, closely matches Hamlet’s depression. “In Tolstoy’s case the sense that life had any meaning whatever was for a time wholly withdrawn.”36 Though he recovered from his depression, at least partly, Tolstoy remained scornful of the establishment. The same scorn of the establishment is found, says Knight, in Timon, who “curses the whole of civilization.”37
Like Hamlet and other Shakespeare characters, Tolstoy spoke scornfully of love; Knight speaks of “the hatred of sexual impurity in Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata.”38 Knight concludes his comparison of Shakespeare and Tolstoy by saying that “these two great men” were “closely akin... on a matter deep in the soul of each [i.e., sex].”39
Unlike Tolstoy, Shakespeare never wrote an autobiographical piece, never wrote My Confession. So how does Knight know that Shakespeare was akin to Tolstoy? Knight makes deductions about Shakespeare from Shakespeare’s works; in other words, he thinks that Shakespeare reveals himself in his writings. Knight suggests that Shakespeare may have experienced “tremendous” pain; “the nausea of Hamlet, the railing of Thersites, the volcanic curses of Timon, would surely tell their own story.”40
“You mentioned Othello, King Lear, Hamlet, etc., but you didn’t mention Macbeth. Is Macbeth an exception to the rule, or does it fit this so-called Shakespeare Pattern?” According to Knight, Macbeth doesn’t fit this pattern, doesn’t exemplify the “hate-theme”. Macbeth exemplifies the theme of evil, what Knight calls “nightmare evil”. So the chief themes in Shakespeare’s work, or at least in Shakespeare’s tragedies, are (according to Knight) Hate and Evil. One is reminded of Freud’s late works, in which he emphasized the sadistic, violent, evil impulses in human nature.
“You said that Shakespeare’s final plays express a mystic vision, an affirmative world-view. Are Shakespeare’s tragedies completely dark and pessimistic, or do they contain a mystical element, an affirmative element?” Knight argues that Shakespeare’s tragedies, however permeated by Hate, Evil, etc., usually end on a positive note, and usually are somewhat affirmative. For example, “the beauties of the Othello world are not finally disintegrated: they make ‘a swan-like end fading in music’.”41
The paradox of tragedy is that it affirms even though it depicts suffering and death. “The optimism of Shakespearean tragedy is, no doubt, irrational: but it is potent.... It is not nihilistic, but... philosophic and mystic. Especially in Timon of Athens, during the final scenes, we scale the silences of eternity. Terrible and somber, yet irresistibly grand, the death-mysticism of the play is compelling, and leaves a memory, not of pain, or hate, but profundity and infinite significance.”42
In addition to comparing Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Knight also wrote an essay that discusses Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare. Tolstoy was perhaps the most harsh of all Shakespeare critics; Tolstoy describes Shakespeare’s works as “beneath criticism, insignificant, empty, and immoral.”43 Why was Tolstoy so critical of Shakespeare? Perhaps because Tolstoy was a rational thinker, and Shakespeare had a penchant for the irrational, for the occult and the mystical. As Knight put it, “Tolstoy... suffered from clear thinking.”44 Tolstoy’s rationalism made him contemptuous of the mystical, mysterious side of religion; the doctrine of the trinity, for example, made no sense to him (‘how can one be three, and three be one?’). Perhaps rational thinkers can’t relate to Shakespeare, perhaps only people who are receptive to the occult and the mystical can relate to Shakespeare.
Tolstoy complains that Shakespeare’s characters don’t have clear motives. Knight says that Tolstoy is right, but Knight regards this vagueness of motivation as a merit, not as a weakness. In actual life, motives aren’t simple and clear — even to ourselves — they’re complex and uncertain. “Motive is always vague,” Knight writes, “a complex woven of conscious desire, semi-conscious promptings, opportunity, and, in addition, certain unknown quantities which any analysis will falsify.” If Macbeth’s motives are unclear, says Knight, we shouldn’t criticize Shakespeare for this, we should praise him: “[Macbeth] presents a vision of essential evil in all its irrationality. Again, the critic has attacked the poet for his profundity, regarding as an ugly blot the very signature of his genius.”45
Tolstoy excoriates Hamlet for having “no character at all.”46 Again, Knight says that Tolstoy is right, Knight has high regard for Tolstoy as a literary critic. But Knight says that it’s precisely Hamlet’s lack of character that makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest creation, Shakespeare’s most life-like creation. Hamlet, says Knight, “expresses many impulses, good and evil, and thus is one of Shakespeare’s most universal single creations. As men are not different in the instincts and desires they possess, but only in those they express, the deeper we go in human understanding, the less ultimate meaning we must attribute to differences of character between man and man.”47 Hamlet is “like a real person with a real person’s potentiality for all things.... Hamlet is universal. In him we recognize ourselves, not our acquaintances. Possessing all characters, he possesses none.”48
What started Knight on his career as a Shakespeare interpreter? “A question posed suddenly by my brother during a performance of The Tempest to which I had persuaded him to accompany me: ‘What does it mean?’ For many years I have been laboring at the answer.”49 Among Knight’s many books is a biography of his brother, W. Jackson Knight, who was a Classics professor and the author of several books on Vergil. Knight also wrote The Saturnian quest; a chart of the prose works of John Cowper Powys. If we can believe Powys’s fans (of whom Knight is one), Powys is the best modern English writer whom you haven’t heard of. [I discussed Powys in a later issue.]
G. Wilson Knight has set a new standard for Shakespeare commentary, he has revealed aspects of Shakespeare’s genius that weren’t previously appreciated, and he has enriched our understanding, not only of Shakespeare, but of literature in general and of human nature.
|1.|| Preface, p. viii, ix back|
|2.|| ibid, p. ix, x back|
|3.|| ibid, p. x back|
|4.|| ibid, p. x, xi. Knight’s argument was influenced by “a recent account [7/17/47] by Mr. Lance L. Whyte of modern developments in physics” but I’ve treated the argument as Knight’s own for the sake of clarity. back|
|5.|| ibid, p. 17 back|
|6.|| Knight speaks of, “the birth and resurrection dramas of the Final Plays... true myths of immortality.”(ibid, ch. 14, p. 296) back|
|7.|| ibid, ch. 1, p. 16 back|
|8.|| ibid, p. 1 back|
|9.|| ibid, p. 2 back|
|10.|| Sesame and Lilies, 1st lecture back|
|11.|| ibid, p. 3 back|
|12.|| ibid, p. 5, 6 back|
|13.|| ibid, p. 7, 8 back|
|14.|| ibid, p. 10 back|
|15.|| ibid, p. 11 back|
|16.|| My theory of history argues that renaissance-type writers are amoral, while decadent writers are usually moral. back|
|17.|| ibid, p. 11 back|
|18.|| Ibid, ch. 14, p. 291. The quotation is from Tolstoy, who despised Shakespeare, and thought that the storm in King Lear was a “coarse embellishment”. back|
|19.|| I, iii, 4 back|
|20.|| II, 3, 60 back|
|21.|| Knight, ch. 6, p. 138 back|
|22.|| Click here for some remarks on fate in history. Perhaps at this point we should recall Kant’s view that causality, like space and time, is only a category of the human mind, it doesn’t exist in reality, in the thing-in-itself. back|
|23.|| ibid, ch. 5, p. 112 back|
|24.|| ibid, p. 115 back|
|25.|| ibid, ch. 12, p. 249 back|
|26.|| ibid, p. 252, 253 back|
|27.|| This play, says Knight, fits The Pattern “with certain modifications.” (ibid, p. 252) back|
|28.|| Click here for a discussion of The Kafka Pattern. Proust believed that there was a pattern in every writer’s work; “The great men of letters,” wrote Proust, “have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various mediums an identical beauty which they bring into the world.” (The Captive, II, 3) A Proust scholar wrote, “Proust saw in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, The Well-Beloved, and A Pair of Blue Eyes the same nucleus. He recognized the same basic content in all the work of any one artist.” (Nostalgia: A Psychoanalytic Study of Marcel Proust, by Milton L. Miller, ch. 10) back|
|29.|| On Love, II, 1 back|
|30.|| ibid, ch. 12, p. 256 back|
|31.|| ibid, ch. 2, p. 27 back|
|32.|| ibid, ch. 12, p. 254 back|
|33.|| Ibid, ch. 2, p. 29. One thinks of Kundera’s view, discussed in the last issue of Phlit, that there is a border separating the meaningful from the meaningless, separating joy from gloom, and we live in the proximity of that border. back|
|34.|| ibid, ch. 1, p. 15 back|
|35.|| Ibid, ch. 12, p. 253. If the “hate-theme” can be traced to Hamlet, where did Hamlet get it? What is the ultimate source of the “hate-theme” in Shakespeare’s work? The hate-theme, like much else in Hamlet, can be traced to the poet’s own life. Shakespeare’s father died when he was 12, and his mother re-married soon after. These experiences sowed the seeds of cynicism, melancholy and preoccupation with death — all of which are common among young intellectuals, but intensified in Shakespeare’s case. back|
|36.|| Ibid, ch. 11, p. 240. This is a quote from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which discusses Tolstoy’s depression. back|
|37.|| ibid, ch. 11, p. 247 back|
|38.|| ibid, p. 248 back|
|39.|| ibid back|
|40.|| ibid, ch. 11, p. 243, 244 back|
|41.|| Ibid, ch. 5, p. 119. “Swan-like end fading in music” is from The Merchant of Venice, III, ii, 46 back|
|42.|| Ibid, ch. 11, p. 246. My own remarks on the affirmative element in tragedy can be found here. back|
|43.|| ibid, ch. 14, p. 272 back|
|44.|| Ibid, ch. 14, p. 279. Is “clear thinking” typical of the Russian mind? Were the Russians prone to rationalism, and to kindred “isms”, such as nihilism and communism? When Russia became Westernized, perhaps it became more “Western”, more rational, than the West itself. back|
|45.|| ibid back|
|46.|| Ibid, p. 285. Knight has a deep appreciation of Tolstoy, as he has a deep appreciation of Ibsen, Nietzsche, etc. Knight says that Tolstoy has a “rock-like simplicity” and he speaks of “the grand simplicity in his soul.”(p. 277) back|
|47.|| ibid, p. 285 back|
|48.|| ibid, p. 288 back|
|49.||ibid, prefatory note, p. xi back|