Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Duchamp, Camus, Ionesco, Beckett – these are names that come to mind when one thinks about nihilism…not Shakespeare!
Not the poet who wrote, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, when in eternal lines to time thou growest: so long as men can breathe or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.”
Yet, according to renowned Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, the “Tomorrow” soliloquy in Macbeth is “the most nihilistic speech imaginable”. So what gives?
Perhaps more than any other writer, certainly more than any writer of his day, Shakespeare was concerned with the interaction of ‘real life’ (RL) and ‘stage life’ (SL).
Macbeth is a play, performed on a stage, in front of a live audience. The interaction of the players with the audience takes place outside the play itself, in RL.
Inside the drama, the interaction of the players with one another, the reciting of the lines, the actions and the gestures constitute SL from the point of view of the audience but RL from the point of view of the actors as they perform.
Behind that technique, there is the text itself: the lines and the stage directions. This is SL from the point of view of the actors but perhaps RL from the point of view of the playwright and perhaps also from the point of view of the director.
And behind even that, there is the drama itself: the plot, the characters, the symbols. For the actors, director and crew, this is SL but it is RL for the playwright.
So far, what we have said is pretty much true of any play. But Shakespeare goes deeper still: he often embeds a play within a play. Among others, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labors Lost, and most famously, Hamlet all contain an embedded drama.
In Hamlet, this mini-drama is performed by a troupe of itinerant ‘players’, at the prince’s request and partial direction, for the benefit of Hamlet’s mother and uncle. Here we have players, playing Hamlet, but also, inside Hamlet, putting on an entirely different play. This play-within-a- play is ostensibly (SL) created by the players themselves (with help from the Prince); in reality (RL), of course, it is also written by Shakespeare.
From the point of view of the audience, both plays are SL; from the point of view of the actors, both plays are RL. But from the point of view of the characters those actors play, Hamlet is RL while the play within Hamlet is SL.
Shakespeare was, of course, ignorant of the ideas developed by modern mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, but the cosmology he presents in his plays is an ontology full of Mandelbrot’s famous ‘fractals’.
Like other playwrights, Shakespeare uses the art of drama to probe the world in search of reality. Where does reality end and fantasy begin? So far, we have seen Shakespeare’s exploration as one directional. He has proceeded from the outside in, from relative RL through various layers of relative SL. The flow has consistently been from RL to SL, but this is about to change!
The ‘inside play’ has a role in the RL of Hamlet’s characters. The play is designed to prick the consciences of the usurper King and his Queen, a key element in Hamlet’s plot: “The play’s the thing in which to catch the conscience of the king.”
So now the creative flow is reversing: relative SL is now impacting relative RL. Of course, if you follow this reverse flow all the way, you eventually arrive at the level of the performance itself and the impact that performance has, hopefully, on the RL of audience members.
So ultimately, is there a valid ontological distinction between RL and SL at all? Shakespeare apparently concludes that there is not:
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts…” (As You Like it).
Just as earlier we dug through layers of drama, distinguishing RL from SL at each level, now we telescope back out and see that the RL of the audience is really only SL after all. Conclusion: the distinction between RL and SL is a false one: there is no RL! Hence, Shakespeare’s ‘nihilism’!
At the end of The Tempest, the character Prospero announces this conclusion to the audience:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Obviously, Shakespeare was unaware of modern cosmological theories, and yet…
Now finally, we can return to Macbeth. In this play, the hero and the actor playing him also seem to step out of the drama itself to address the audience directly. And their message is what was called “the most nihilistic…imaginable”:
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Although Shakespeare knew nothing of Quantum Mechanics (QM), his model of human existence is very similar to QM’s model of ‘virtual particles’. According to QM, oppositely charged particle pairs emerge spontaneously from the vacuum only to self-annihilate in a micro second. They are never ‘fully real’. So with us! We are virtual; we are never fully real.
Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow Soliloquy’ stands in radical contrast to Virgil’s famous line, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
The contrast pivots, of course, on the concept of time. For Virgil, time, aided perhaps by art, is universal and perpetual memory. For Shakespeare, time is universal and perpetual erasure. Two views could scarcely be more dissimilar. But which one is ‘right’…or at least ‘more right’?
In Virgil’s day, many believed that the universe had always existed and would always exist (Aristotle). Furthermore, it was now more or less as it had always been and as it always would be. Against this philosophical background, it is easy to see how someone could believe in “the persistence of memory” (Dali).
Shakespeare knew little more than Virgil about the real workings of the universe. His conclusions regarding time and the meaning of life can only be attributed to reflection and personal experience. (The reader will recall the tragic death of his son, Hamnet at age 11.)
We have some advantage over both Virgil and Shakespeare. We know, or think we know, that disorder is constantly increasing in our world (entropy). Memory (indeed mind itself) is, of course, a species of order and therefore must be presumed to disappear in the end as well.
We also know, or think we know, that the universe did not always exist and will not always exist. In fact, time itself, to the extent that it is even real, apparently comes to be and ultimately ceases to be. As far as we can tell now, it is not even a primary feature of the universe we know.
Therefore, it would be difficult for a person today, unlike Virgil, to entrust eternal life to the functionings of time.
The idea that RL is reflected in drama, in all art really, is by no means unique to Shakespeare. In the view of many, we write, we paint, we compose, we act in order to see ourselves, know ourselves, better.
Shakespeare, among others, takes this concept to another level by making the arrow of reflection bi-directional. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s concluding question in Through the Looking Glass: Was the Red King part of Alice’s dream or was Alice part of the Red King’s dream? Shakespeare might have added, “Or both?”
By making the arrow of reflection bi-directional, Shakespeare abolishes the distinction between RL and SL. The world is deprived of its objectivity. From that perspective, you could even understand Shakespeare as an early practitioner of post-modern deconstruction.
So who is this Shakespeare we thought we knew and genuinely loved in our youth? A ‘fractalist’, a quantum mechanic, a deconstructionist…and a nihilist? Yes, but I think in Shakespeare’s case things are a bit more complex.
Nihilism is rooted in the notion that there are no truly ‘objective values’. That is Nietzsche’s great insight. But in Shakespeare’s plays (unlike Beckett’s, for example), there is not an absolute absence of values. Even in darkest Macbeth, the villains at various times question their actions and even regret them.
In the play’s final scene, Macbeth encounters Macduff whose wife and children he has put to death. From the depths of his depravity, Macbeth : “But get thee back. My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already…I’ll not fight with thee.”
But of course he does fight Macduff and (spoiler alert!) is killed by Macduff: “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!'” And that is the whole point: the values that inform such questions and regrets are never strong enough to influence actual behavior.
Far from being ultimately real, ultimately objective cosmic features, Shakespeare’s values are ‘virtual values’ (see above). They flicker in and out of consciousness but exert no real influence on the course of the world’s events. Like Kant, Shakespeare believes that a world like ours ought to have transcendent, objective and operative values; he bitterly laments that it does not. If Nietzsche was a nihilist out of conviction, Shakespeare is a nihilist out of disappointment.
So we can reconcile the soaring lyricism of Shakespeare’s sonnets with the crushing nihilism of his dramas after all.
In Shakespeare, the values we associate with justice and kindness compete on a level playing field with the values we associate with greed, lust and power. Shakespeare is a dualist. In such a world, our biological nature ensures that the triumph of the later over the former is nearly inevitable.
Contrast this with the views of monistic philosophers from Augustine to Whitehead. In their models, the only values are the ones associated with beauty, truth, justice and kindness. Anything else is simply an absence of those values. Such objective values (‘eternal objects’ per Whitehead) become operative in the world through the agency of God, the primordial ‘actual entity’.
This ontology tips the balance completely. Now the story of the world is the story of the realization of the objective values in actual entities; everything else, whatever its dramatic potential, is just noise.
Compare Macbeth with the Biblical Book of Job. Both focus on the pervasive injustice of the world. But while Macbeth ultimately surrenders to that injustice, Job comes to a radically different conclusion: ” I know that my vindicator lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.” Inaugurating the tradition that runs through Augustine and Whitehead, Job celebrates the reality of objective values and the role of God in making those values operative in our world.
In the end we are like a jury passing judgment on the cosmos. Like jurors, we must ultimately choose between just two possible verdicts. We all listen to the same evidence but we draw different conclusions from that evidence (like Macbeth and Job). We write essays (like this one) or give lectures trying to convince fellow jurors that our own interpretation of the evidence is correct. Ultimately, however, we must vote.
Einstein once said that the single most important question is whether or not Universe is a friendly place. I would reword the question slightly. For me, the single most important question is whether or not there are objective, transcendent values operating in our world. If your answer is yes, your catalogue of values cannot differ much from the traditional Judeo-Christian catalogue found in Psalms and in the teachings of Jesus. Plus, your explanation for how transcendent values came to exert immanent influence in our world must include something akin to the agency of the Judeo-Christian God.
Of course, you need not use the language of Judeo-Christian theology to describe your model but in the end it will pretty much have to perform the same functions.
On the other hand, if you deny the immanent influence of objective, transcendent values, it is hard to see how you can avoid some version of the nihilisms we have described above.
At one point in all our lives, we believed that there was a limitless supply of potential world views, self-consistent models that account reasonably well for the experiences of every day life. As time goes by, however, we see that many of these proposed models contain logical fallacies and/or lack heuristic power. Those that remain say much the same thing using different words. In the end, like jurors, we have a choice to make.