Campbell Corner Language Exchange

Shakespeare and Hegel: a Confrontation

by Jean Goldschmidt Kempton

….he was only half awake, but the chief thing which he remembered, was Socrates insisting to the other two that the genius of comedy was the same as that of tragedy, and that the writer of tragedy ought to be a writer of comedy also. To this they were compelled to assent.

Shakespeare and Hegel both saw the workings of the world as dialectical. Dialectic is the motion and structure of Hegel's philosophy; it is also the natural stance of the playwright, whose expression takes the form of dialogue. Thus dialectic stands at the bottom of both, but it also reaches to the very top, or infinity of their thought. Its motion is inclusive: the synthesis includes both thesis and antithesis, and the greater synthesis always includes the lesser. At the end, both reach the infinity of self-determination: Hegel's philosophy as mind contemplating itself, having comprehended all external reality; Shakespeare's drama in a vision of art comprehending nature and returning into itself.

Dialectic divides in order to make whole. As Antony says to his attendant Eros (whose name requires no gloss): "Come then; for with a wound I must be cured." This is no idle oxymoron: the wound is essential to the cure, and dialectic includes both in its redeeming motion. I will try, in a detailed discussion of The Winter's Tale, to show the culmination of this movement; but first, because the dialectic of Shakespeare's development is pertinent to the development of his dialectic, I will give a brief chronological sketch showing the gradual motion of inclusiveness as it reached through history, comedy, and tragedy to romance.

The tetralogy of Henry VI-Richard III is Shakespeare's first and crudest view of the historical process. By translating chronicle into drama, he created a primitive dialectic out of linear event; first in terms of the good English against the bad French; later in a simple characterization, the "evil" antithetical Richard, who became, like Hegel's hero, the unwitting instrument of ultimate good. Richard systematically destroys all potentially evil characters, and then is destroyed himself, so that a spotless Tudor society may triumph in the end. This is a crude expression of the power of the negative, but as dialectic it is imperfect because the negative is not included in the solution. It is too easy for good to triumph simply by laying all the blame on evil, then obliterating it; in the next play, Titus Andronicus, wholesale slaughter becomes a tragedy of elimination, with hardly anyone left at the end.

Shakespeare next turned to comedy, a form which no longer limits the imagination to the exigencies of chronicle time, hence freeing it for self-determination. The Comedy of Errors is a farce of disjunction and almost metaphysical confusion, and it seems to contain the germ of romance in its sea-separation of kindred, and the revival of the mother in a religious setting. In The Taming of the Shrew, woman, the great Shakespearean mediator between man and Himself, first appears in that light: by submitting to the role of wife, she symbolizes man as nature yielding to the mediation of society.

Shakespeare returns to history, his imagination enriched by the redeeming circular motion of comedy. History becomes, as it did for Hegel, the product of our directed passions. Chronicle gives way to psychology, and the education of the young prince is linked to the broader movement of history. Hal is torn between the extremes of lawless appetite (Falstaff) and soulless "honor" (Hotspur): he rejects both and becomes himself a synthesis, the "perfect king," Henry V. Time takes on a new texture: first, in the slow death of Henry IV, it acquires a tragic sense of the relentless movement of succession; later, at the end of Henry V, it achieves a romantic redemption which history itself contradicts, and chronology gives way to the logic of myth, where time may occasionally touch eternity.

In his return to the "golden" comedies Shakespeare was capable of embracing a whole world of viewpoints. Comedy is the great containing form: no one is excluded from its final society-Malvolio is freed, Jaques importuned to stay. Each comedy is a perfect world; but it is a world of innocence before experience, where the sundering is minimal and the resolution absolute in the marriage act. Marriage is of course symbolic here for greater resolutions, but even in this light it is not altogether satisfactory. It is a synthesis which is also a thesis-no end, but continuity. In the later plays, Shakespeare becomes increasingly concerned with blood relations, the fruits of marriage rather than its flowering. The relation of parents and children is not merely the self confronting its own product, its projections, which is at the same time alien I its own self-completeness. Hence we have Hamlet, the "problem tragedy" of parent and child.

In Hamlet begins the dualistic vision of theory confronting reality which will also motivate the "problem" comedies. Like most of Shakespeare's dualities, it centers on man's view of woman: In this case, Hamlet is unable to assimilate the fact of his mother's remarriage. In the next play, Shakespeare's most intellectual, Troilus' confrontation with the faithlessness of Cressida seems to split the universe in two:

    " If beauty have a soul, this is not she; If souls guide vows, if vows be sanctimonies, If sanctimony be the gods' delight, If there be rule in unity itself- This is not she. O madness of discourse, That cause sets up with and against itself! Bifold authority! Where reason can revolt Without perdition, and loss assume all reason Without revolt: this is, and is not, Cressida! Within my soul there doth conduce a fight Of this strange nature, that a thing inseparate Divides more wider than the sky and earth; And yet the spacious breadth of this division Admits no orifex for a point as subtle As Ariachne's broken woof to enter. (V, ii, 138-152) ."

This division will occupy Shakespeare until the end of his career, and will not be truly healed until The Winter's Tale.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella's theoretical Christianity confronts a seemingly unreasonable conflict of loyalties: she must lose her virtue to save her brother; and Angelo's theoretical justice is confronted with the reality of his bestial nature. The resolution is forced-Comedy can no longer enclose the disjunction. Hence in Othello, intellectual dualism becomes a delusion of omniscience, and true tragedy begins.

Like comedy, tragedy encompasses a complete world, but here the hero and his experience are central, and the minor characters are excluded from direct participation. Tragedy thus begins for Shakespeare the convergent motion around the mind of a central character which will end in the dream-like projections of The Tempest. Tragic isolation shows the power of the human mind to contain a whole world, just as comic inclusion shows man in harmony with an outer world which includes his own sexual nature. The problem play is a bridge: man is in utter disjunction, and mind and body collide, but cannot merge.

The actual synthesis of comedy and tragedy is romance, which includes both yet moves higher than both; in Frye's terms, it is

A world of total metaphor, in which everything is potentially identical with everything else, as through it were all inside a single infinite body.

The highest form in Hegel's system is Philosophy, in which the mind, having comprehended the world, returns to contemplate itself. It is the opposite of abstract being, which is emptiness, for it is totally full, the product of a vast emptiness, for it is totally full, the product of a vast dialectical system of external mediators: history, the state, art and religion. It is the dialectic become round, full and self-determined, hence infinite. Shakespeare's reconciliation of comedy and tragedy partakes of a similar fullness, being the product of as long a process. Both share a distinct affinity with the great cyclical/dialectic myth of Christ, who fell and rose to redeem the world.

In The Winter's Tale, comedy and tragedy are projections of a human consciousness capable of assimilating both. Psychology merges into symbol; and events take on the logic of dream, relinquishing the appearance of everyday life in order to convey its inner truth. The central symbol, taken from the heart of life itself, is woman, seen both as radically destructive and ultimately redeeming. No villain in Shakespeare is as evil as Goneril; no hero as good as Portia. In the comedies, Shakespeare's heroine's are vastly more interesting than this heroes. Woman is the antithesis which the male consciousness, moving out of itself, confronts-a projection with which it must come to terms before returning, completed, to itself.

Woman appears in her three relations: wife, mother, daughter. A wife's faithlessness symbolizes the hideous mutability of all things; but except in Troilus this faithlessness is illusory, a reflection of the man's own divided mind. Suspecting one's mother has even direr implications, for it calls into question one's fatherhood, and hence one's very being. Betrayal by daughters, as in Lear, is perhaps the worst of all: it is the denial of the rational order of succession, and hence of rationality itself. Thus Lear's curse of Goneril, "dry up in her organs of increase," is the most hideous malediction in Shakespeare.

Woman's other aspect-that of redeemer-is also a projection. The wife-as-redeemer is evident in All's Well, where the man is an antisocial boor; and in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia appears as Christian mercy outwitting Hebraic law. Cordelia is the first daughter-as-redeemer, but she fails to overpower the evil set in motion by her sisters. Marina, in Pericles, is an image of such purity that pirates and pimps will not touch her, and in the end she raises her father from bestial silence to his full royal nature.

All of these aspects of womanhood are combined in The Winter's Tale. Hermoine is wife and mother, Perdita daughter, and at the beginning of the play they are one. Hermione-for-Leontes is woman the destroyer; Hermione in-herself is woman the redeemer. This view of woman is bound up with the great informing myth of The Winter's Tale: the Fall of Adam. When Hermione begs Polixenes to stay, she asks him about his boyhood friendship with Leontes, and he replies with a vision of primal Paradise:

We were as twinned lambs that did frisk I'th'sun,
And bleat the one at th'other. What we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly "Not guilty", the imposition cleared
Hereditary ours. (I, ii, 67-74)

This changeless "time before time" is mythic; time itself becoming a metaphor for something more profound. Hegel demonstrates philosophically, and Shakespeare dramatically, a notion which lies at the heart of Christian doctrine: that human life does not begin until consciousness divides; and that this division and its hearing are the continual motion of existence.

The beginning of the Book of Genesis is the great myth of division. God divided the light from the darkness, then divided the water; finally he created man in his image. To Hegel, this would indicate that man's rationality and that of God are the same: there is nothing which man cannot contemplate with his divine reason. The primal division of man from God is the basis of man's being; the healing of this division is the constant task of his rational existence. But Shakespeare finds his symbol for the primal disjunction later, in the creation of Eve out of Adam's flesh:

And Adam said, "This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man." Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. (Gen 2:23-24)

Woman taken out of man caused man's fall, but in the end he called her Eve, "mother of all living." Wife and mother at once, she is forever ambiguous, untrustworthy, and ultimately redemptive. Human reason begins with the splitting-off form god; time and change with the loss of innocence (reason is prior to knowledge). Polixenes gently blames Hermione for the original sundering of himself and Leontes; it is a division of man from himself, healed symbolically at the end with the marriage of Perdita and Florizel.

The rupture of Leontes' universe is as absolute as its original unity, and is as immutably rooted in his being. No external motivation is given for his jealousy, as it is in Othello; rather its irrationality is linked with that of the world itself, and its existence seems as unshakable:

                                                                     Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings
If this be nothing.
(I, ii, 291-294)

The symbolic nature of this break in Leontes' reason is aptly described by Camillo: Leontes is "one/ Who in rebellion with himself would have/ All that are his so too." Leontes himself unconsciously projects the split externally: Camillo should see Hermione's guilt "Plainly as heaven sees earth and earth sees heaven." Human psychology and external reality are no longer radically different; the entire universe is contained by the mind.

The sundering "tragic" action proceeds: Camillo defects with Polixenes, Hermione is accused and imprisoned, and the child Mamillius begins to pine. But here the tragedy literally contains the comedy: Hermione is accused while pregnant with redeeming Perdita. In his certainty of knowledge, Leontes sends Perdita away before hearing the Oracle: thus he precipitates both the comic and the tragic action at once.

The illusory, nightmare quality of the action reaches its peak in the trial of Hermione, expressing itself in a conflict of absolutes: truth and falsehood, rationality and bestial unreason. Leontes's madness has reached beyond all possible communication; as Hermione says:

You speak a language that I understand not.
My life stands in the level of your dreams,
Which I'll lay down.

To which beautiful ambiguity Leontes replies, "Your actions are my dreams." To him, truth has become completely subjective, and when the cold, clear voice of Greek reason appears in the form of the Oracle's message (remarkably straightforward as such things go) he denounces it as well. A moment later, the news that his son has died makes him realize his error; with his wife's seeming "death" he is instantly repentant. The compression of this scene is like a thunder clap: the sudden tragic recognition of one's own ignorance. Yet the play is only half-finished; the tragedy must be linked to the comedy.

At this juncture the romantic world is made manifest on stage as an image from Lear is rendered dramatically: Antigonus, carrying the child, is pursued across the stage by a bear. This apparition is comic, being manlike and in rapid motion; it is tragic, in that it is destructive, mindless and devouring; but above all it is an animal of romance, of Northern fairy-tales told to frighten children to sleep on winter nights. The bear's appearance at the tuning-point of the play is a moment of wonder and mystery. Here it is clearly the symbolic Winter solstice ( the bears of the imagination do not hibernate); Spring will return when Perdita is found and Hermione revived. The devouring of Antigonus and the sinking of his ship is the second great indirect narration, this time delivered by the Clown. The knitting of the tragic to the comic action, with powerful Christian overtones, is completed in the Shepherd's line: "Now bless thyself! Thou mettest with things dying, I with things new-born."

The second half if the play is begun by Time, who appears as a chorus, the true hero of the play and mover of the action. It is Midsummer and sixteen years have passed-the atmosphere is one of freedom, song and hope. A new character is introduced: Autolycus, who in Greek myth is the son of Mercury and father to Odysseus. Ovis tells us that Autolycus inherited his father's traits : a gift for thievery and trickery, and the power to charm with song (it is Mercury who put the watchful Argus to sleep by playing on his pipes and telling a story). Mercury was also the messenger of the gods-Autolycus is the intermediary who helps to effect the reconciliation. Ovid says of the original Autolycus: "He made white look like black and black look like white." Shakespeare may have been thinking of this line when he had his character sing:

Lawn as white as driven snow.
Cyprus black as e'er was crow.

We recognize in Autolycus the trickster-hero universal in mythology, from the sly fox of the northern Europe to the Coyote of the American plains. Here, as always, his function is that of mediator: free from society's bonds, he corrects its faults by disrupting its decorum; his is the "wound that cures."

An entire Shakespearean pastoral comedy is contained in the fourth scene of Act IV. The lovers are happily united at a rustic, ritualistic sheep-shearing, and Perdita gives her flower-speech, expounding prettily on art and nature. Autolycus provides the song and charms and robs everyone. Polixenes and Camillo appear disguised, and trick Florizel into revealing his love; Polixenes then reveals himself and prohibits the marriage. The lovers plan their escape, assisted by Camillo, and at the end of the scene, the recognition is set in motion by the shepherd aided by Autolycus. Everyone sets sail for Sicilia, where the final knitting-up of the plot will take place.

Act V contains the two great reconciliations. The recognition of Perdita occurs offstage, but it is a beautiful scene nonetheless; the action is exalted, removed to the "sacred distance" of myth. Our sense of miraculous possibility is heightened-this is a scene so splendid, so apocalyptic, that the stage cannot encompass it. In the end the statue of Hermione is mentioned, and the First Gentleman's words show us the new world, as transformed by romantic possibility: "Every wink of an eye some new grace will be born."

Like everyone in the play Perdita is a piece broken off form the central consciousness of Leontes: she is his lost innocence, and hence her loss is his perdition. But Leontes is also his kingdom; he is usually referred to as "Sicilia," and as succession is barred from him by the oracle's dictum, the kingdom must lie in "still winter in storm perpetual" until her return restores it to fertility.

The new universe of grace reaches its culmination in the revival of Hermione. Whether it is an actual miracle or merely a "play" is left ambiguous: indeed the whole play is only partly a drama, resembling in places myth and in places ritual. The miracle is staged by Paulina, the ascorbic matron whose name is hardly accidental: she requires that faith be awakened, and that unbelievers depart. The revival is accomplished with music, like so many of Shakespeare's romantic redemptions, and as Hermione (whose name surely puns on "harmony," not to mention "her my own": projection) steps down, the stage is suffused with mystery and grace. All the sundered characters are now gathered together, and the symbolic reunion is accomplished when Leontes bids Polixenes and Hermione join hands.

Thus The Winter's Tale is neatly framed. The world of time and succession exists at the very beginning of the play and at the very end; before and after the two symbolic joinings of hands. The first action precipitates the play into its wild universe of subjectivity, madness, disjunction and redemption: the second returns it as suddenly to the ordinary world, where life goes on. The action framed becomes as a dream: seen as a whole, the play loses all temporal reality; it seems to explain the hidden meaning behind every instant of existence, in a simultaneous flash at the moment of taking hands.

Hegel's dialectic of the Notion, which lies within the reasoning mind, moves out into the world of time to become history. God became flesh and descended into time at a given moment, to symbolize the intersection of time and eternity which is really occurring continuously, in the descent of the World-Reason into history. The Notion itself, inside the mind, moves with a beautiful wave like rhythm, like Perdita's dance:

               When you do dance, I wish you
A wave l'th'sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that, move still, still so,
And own no other function.
                                        (IV, iv, 140-144) * The Motion of the Notion is the Ocean

The Notion, as self-contained idea, descends into nature and returns as spirit. Spirit goes out and reproduces reason in the form of mediators; then returns to itself as self-consciousness, expressed in art, religion, and finally philosophy. At the pinnacle of the system mind contemplates itself, and discovers in itself the Notion; hence the dialectic resolves into a circle, made spiral perhaps by the movement of time. But Hegel's circle does not close off possibility, as Nietzsche's does: instead it opens up, for to be self-determined is to be self-limited, hence infinite.

We have shown The Winter's Tale to be a segment abstracted out of time, to indicate the underlying eternity of human action. It is also an archetypal portrait of a single human consciousness, of its sundering and reuniting in a symbolic lifetime governed by a greater year of winter and summer. Hermione's actions are Leonte's dreams, but these in turn are governed by an unseen reason, a hidden purpose.

In Hegel the antithesis "does the work" of the dialectic: it is the flaw which keeps reason in motion. Unreasoning passion, in the form of individual self-interest or unconscious drives for power, drives the historical process, but reason guides it. This is Shakespeare's solution as well: he ends on a note of well-reasoned yet mystical idealism. The evil which posses Leontes is the original flaw of mankind, without which no action could occur, no fragmentation, and no redemption. As Hegel says (speaking here on epic):

Acting disturbs the peace of the substance, and awakes the essential Being; and by so doing its simple unity is divided into parts, and opened up into the manifold world of natural powers and ethical forces. The act is the violation of the peaceful earth…. (Phenom, p.733)