Tuesday, July 1, 2014
Grief, Madness, Repetition
"Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!"
Ever wonder what's going on when characters in Shakespeare simply repeat themselves? It is after all surprising when the greatest writer in the English language gets respect for lines like this:
"O do de do de do de. . . . O do de de."
"O, o, o, o!"
"O horrible, o horrible, most horrible!"
To us such constructions seem wordy, and sometimes incomprehensible. I know you're in dire straits, Tom O'Bedlam, but would not one "Do de do" have served the purpose? And my English teachers always told me, correctly, I think, that intensifiers paradoxically weakened the force of assertions, to the point that I now spend my
writing life avoiding the word "very." To take the third example above, Hamlet's father's ghost is understandably upset about his own weird murder, but wouldn't he have made his point more successfully with one simple, elegant "Horrible"?
HAMLET: Say you so? Poison in your ear, with all your imperfections on your head?
GHOST (shivers and shakes head with disgust): Horrible.
'Tis not to be, however. Instead, we get repetition. The spirit doth protest too much, methinks.
But of course, this is the point. Context matters in Shakespeare. That's why extracted Shakespeare, those universal quotations, are problematic. "Don't wear your heart on your sleeve, Grace," my mom used to tell me. Not until I read Othello did I notice it was a villain, Iago, who vows not to wear his heart on his sleeve, not in order to be stoic, but because to show his heart would blow his cover. Wearing your heart on your sleeve makes you vulnerable, but it also makes you honest. Not wearing your heart on your sleeve is, in Shakespeare, suspicious. When we trace Shakespeare quotations back to their contextual source in a dialogue, their meanings change. Likewise with instances of wordiness. Characters in Shakespeare don't repeat themselves for no reason.
What's up with repetition in that incredibly wordy play, Hamlet? Well, it is the Ghost and Hamlet himself -- a chip off the Old Dane's block -- who do most of it. "Adieu, adieu, adieu!," the Ghost says, fading away when the cock crows. We get it. Goodbye. And also, in a punny way, he's turning into "a dew," or morning mist, like the quasi-suicidal Hamlet would like to: the prince wants to "melt, thaw, and resolve [himself] unto a dew". So the Ghost is punning, and he's saying goodbye, but he's so wordy. How could he ever be the father of someone so -- I don't know, so bold and forthright, so terse, so direct in action, as -- as -- Hamlet! You get my meaning? In fact, it's like father, like son. Hamlet's policy is to leave no avenue of thought unexplored and unexplicated, no thought unrepeated twice, no, thrice. Or maybe four times. That tendency is reflected at every level of his language. "What do you read, my lord?," asks Polonius. "Words, words, words," Hamlet replies. It's not only that "Wordswordswords" merged together yields "swords swords," a repetition which suits Hamlet's bloody mind. It's also that Hamlet likes words. To Polonius's farewell he says, not, "Farewell," but, "You cannot take from me anything that I will not more willingly part withal -- except my life, ecxept my life, except my life." Hamlet's desire to be rid of the "tedious old fool" isn't strong enough to defeat his compulsion to stretch out the moment in a long-winded commentary, one so verbose it includes a double negative which turns his statement into the opposite of what it seems to mean (check it out). And if you think that sentence (mine) was a bad one, well -- sorry. Hamlet's wordiness is affecting me. Even when dying he laments, gasping, that he lacks time to talk: "Had I but time . . . O, I could tell you . . . ." In the First Folio, Hamlet punctuates his last speech with not one but four "O"s (famously known as the "O groans," and omitted as just too much by most directors). So Hamlet's last words are not really "The rest is silence," but "O, o, o, o!" Some go out fighting. Hamlet goes out talking. (And fighting, too, to give him some credit.)
But I don't think it's enough of an answer to say Hamlet repeats himself because he's wordy. It's too much like a tautology. The question remains, why is Hamlet wordy? Well. He's wordy for the same reason his kingly father -- by all accounts a man of action, not words, during life -- gets long-winded and repetitive as he tells Hamlet his woeful tale of incest and murder. Like his father's ghost, Hamlet is stuck in anger and grief. Revenge should be his outlet, but circumstances drive him back on himself, and he's confined to repetitious lament. Words, words, words.
We could compare Hamlet to Macduff when the latter is told his family's been slaughtered by Macbeth. In fact, let's do it! The thane Ross bluntly tells Macduff his wife and children are dead. But Macduff stands there uncomprehending, repeating:
MACDUFF: My children too?
ROSS: Wife, children, servants.
MACDUFF: My wife kill'd too?
ROSS: I have said.
MACDUFF: Did you say all? All?
This interchange is so realistic it hardly bears explaining. As Malcolm says in this scene, "The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'er fraught heart, and bids it break," but speaking so shattering a grief is impossible. Dumb reiteratation is the language of a broken heart. That's why over his daughter's lifeless body, King Lear grieves, "Thou'lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never." Stunned, the mind cannot proceed past the enormity. Language goes off the rails, and -- in a modern metaphor -- becomes a broken record, skipping and skipping. Skipping. Do, de, do, de, do.
That's Edgar as mad Tom singing in King Lear, a play in which characters' grief drives them mad, or nearly so. Edgar, like Hamlet, feigns madness, yet (also like Hamlet) is nearly unhinged by grief when he begins to do so, which gives his performances an air of truth. Edgar's been told his father seeks his death, so he hides, semi-naked, in a storm-pelted hovel and pretends he's a "bedlamite," or wandering lunatic. There he meets King Lear, who is really off his rocker partly because his aging brain is declining, but mostly because two of his daughters have treated him with shocking coldness and cruelty. In Lear, fruitless, impotent rage and madness combine. Shakespeare expresses Lear's mental and emotional entrapment by alternating his lucid speeches with lines where he's caught in repetition: "Fie, fie, fie!" "Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!" In speech he's like Lady Macbeth, who, maddened by guilt, can only repeat "To bed, to bed, to bed," "Come, come, come" as she sleepwalks. She can't think outside the horror of the king's murder, so she can't speak outside it, either.
In "Mad for Shakespeare," Australian scholar Derek Peat proposes that Shakespeare and other Renaissance playwrights visited Southwark's Bethlehem Hospital, known as Bedlam, to study the insane, and patterned their mad characters' stuttering, repetitive speech on one particular madman (see Parergon 21:2 , 113-32). But anyone who's known someone with mental illness, cognitive impairments, or a neurological speech challenge like autism is familiar with the repetition phenomenon. Echolalia -- the continual verbal replaying of overheard speech -- is an attempt to express thoughts and feelings which are beyond the speaker's powers to articulate. Rocking back and forth is a physical expression of trapped, repetitive speech, as it is of grief. Shakespeare found grief and guilt sufficient dramatic causes for the tipping of speech into similar kinds of verbal "stuckness," and rocking often accompanies such speaking. In the case of Lady Macbeth, the repetitive action is rising from the bed, sleepwalking, fake-handwashing, going back to bed, then doing it all again. There's something Lady Macbeth-like about Beckett's short play Rockabye, in which an elderly woman eternally and repetitively describes her memories while ceaselessly rocking in a chair.
Not that Shakespeare characters don't repeat themselves for other reasons, as well -- I mean, for reasons besides grief and madness. There's creepy, magical, incantatory repetition, as when Macbeth's Witches command otherworldly spirits to "Show!" "Show!" "Show!" themselves to Macbeth. (On such magic repetitions, see David Kranz, "The Sounds of Supernatural Soliciting in Macbeth, Studies in Philology 100:3.) There's repetition calculated to irritate and slow a conversation, as when Shylock keeps repeating the words of the impatient Bassanio, who wants a loan:
SHYLOCK: Three thousand ducats, well.
BASSANIO: Ay, sir, for three months.
SHYLOCK: For three months, well.
BASSANIO: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shall become bound.
SHYLOCK: Antonio shall become bound, well.
By this time Bassanio wants to strangle him, as would I. There's also semi-apoplectic repetition, as when The Merry Wives of Windsor's Master Ford, believing his wife is sleeping with Falstaff, starts running around saying "Cuckold! Cuckold! Cuckold!," squawking like a chicken. (Though, when I think about it, Ford's is really a comic version of grief-and-rage repetition. He just can't get verbally past the image of himself with horns on his head.) There is repetition meant to create a sense of life's pointless monotony: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps at this petty pace from day to day . . . ." (Context, again: this is said by Macbeth, whose actions have earned him universal hatred and who's just been told his wife is dead.) There is, finally, rhetorical repetition (also familiar to English teachers), whereby a character repeats something that needs repeating because everyone seems to have forgotten it. In Measure for Measure, the wronged Isabella stands before Duke Vincentio in the public square and calls for "justice, justice, justice, justice!"
But to my mind, the most compelling forms of Shakespearean repetition are those which indicate a kind of shut-down in the mind's ability to flee from grief. Devastated characters who repeat themselves aren't talking themselves away from or around their grief. They are inside it, speaking their hearts from grief's heart of darkness. I was recently discussing with my inspirational high-school English teacher Sherley Keith how Shakespeare's language of grief evolved over his career as a playwright. Here is Capulet's lament at the apparent death of Juliet (Romeo and Juliet, 1595):
Her blood is settled, and her joints are stiff;
Life and these lips have long been separated.
Death lies on her like an untimely frost
Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.
. . . . Death, that hath ta'en her hence to make me wail,
Ties up my tongue and will not let me speak.
And here, again, is Lear with the dead Cordelia (King Lear, 1605):
. . . No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never.
Old Capulet only describes his grief. King Lear actually grieves. Readers may judge which father's pain is felt by the playgoer, but anyone who has seen both plays already knows.