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10 July 2024

Shakespeare’s guide to living

A Freudian reading of the comedies and tragedies reveals how we can embrace life’s failures and reversals.

By Rowan Williams

Most of us vaguely remember encountering Marx’s pithy observation about history repeating itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Repetition can be absurd, the embarrassingly shallow and artificial effort to recreate what’s lost, or to appropriate the dramatic dignity of past events to clothe the naked triviality of what is currently going on. Marx was thinking of the surreally awful politics of early- to mid-19th-century France; but the comment applies to a wide range of political phenomena – to various attempts to “take back” sovereignty, make America great again, restore the timeless integrity of the Russian world, and so on. But to list these – and to think of what a second Donald Trump presidency might mean in the US, for example – reminds us that ‘“farce” in this context does not preclude a new round of bloody catastrophe. It may not be classical tragedy, but the body count is still high.

Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips have produced a compellingly readable and intelligent book, inviting us to dig back even further: what generates tragedy in the first place? And the answer, for both Shakespeare and Freud, is, it seems, that tragedy is what happens when we are left without resources (inner or outer) to reimagine what is possible for us – to repeat events with some transformative variation. Both authors write with impressive energy. Greenblatt’s chapters are page-turners, accessible, fresh and provocative; Phillips, characteristically, gives us a wealth of aphoristic wisdom, if sometimes tying himself up in arguments whose structure is rather hard to decipher.

But it is a deeply satisfying book overall. Greenblatt, in a series of brilliantly condensed analyses of both comedy and tragedy in Shakespeare, explains how as human agents we begin in a world of unreflective “first chances”. These are inherited, unplanned possibilities: where we happen to find ourselves, who our parents happen to be, what befalls us before we are in any position to choose or understand.

The world of first chances is precarious, far more so than we initially think: we are children playing on the edge of the proverbial precipice. Comedy works by depicting risks avoided, chances salvaged, futures rescued at the last moment from dissolution and catastrophe. The Comedy of Errors – with its shamelessly ludicrous plot about twins separated in early infancy colliding as adults in circumstances that are both hilarious and highly risky – is a rather extreme example of this comic register in which broken relationships are “miraculously resumed”. A Midsummer Night’s Dream sets up a potentially deadly conflict and resolves it by way of a magical, theatrical sequence of betrayals, reversals and inversions of feeling. It’s the kind of process that in real life would be the stuff of profound pain and disorientation, but is here neatly wrapped up as a “dream” that can now be forgotten, having brought everyone back to the place where they really want to be.

Shakespeare’s comedy is thus – among so many other things – a witty, knowing enactment of what drama can do. It can invite you to imagine disaster, to fill it out with all sorts of detail, and then to yield to an irresistible energy making for peace or homecoming. You learn to cope with precariousness by boldly imagining the worst and discovering a resilience you didn’t know you possessed.

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But the price of this is denial. The dream has to be forgotten, the intervening moments of terror and bereavement have to be passed over, the cost to those who have been damagingly caught up in the mechanisms must be muted. Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, cannot quite rest content with this, and the comedies increasingly lean in the direction of giving uncomfortable voice to all these denied or muffled elements (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a stark case). Drama has to do more than this; and tragic drama approaches risk and fear from a radically distinct perspective.

In tragedy you will in fact lose your first chances, and you will not get them back; don’t be deceived. The question then becomes what can be hoped for when you have failed, when you have hurt and been hurt at a deep level. The tragic protagonist is the one who is incapable of understanding that they are no longer secure and innocent; they have to discover the realm of second chances, but, for whatever reason, cannot do so. The second chance is the adult, ironic, self-aware moment of seeing that your failure is real, and also that it cannot be escaped simply by rewinding the tape and starting again. In nearly all the great tragedies, Greenblatt notes, there is a moment where the protagonist is offered some way out of the cycle of sterile repetition in which they are trapped (I am not sure whether this works for Hamlet, and Greenblatt has rather surprisingly little to say about this) – but with varying degrees of deliberation and understanding, these characters refuse or fail to recognise it. The only “second chance” for them now is death.

And – Shakespeare being Shakespeare – the tragic narrative is not the last word either. The late plays offer an audacious possibility beyond even this trajectory of deadly refusal. The Winter’s Tale begins by staging an exaggerated version of Othello’s tragedy of betrayal and suspicion, giving its main character not even Othello’s excuse of having been maliciously deceived, and apparently killing off both the wife and children of the insanely jealous Leontes. It then determinedly vandalises theatrical proprieties and ordinary plausibility by fast-forwarding into a future in which lost lives are (sort of) restored and the shattered and guilty tragic protagonist is given an undeserved second chance. It is a future as wildly unlikely and magical as any in the comedies, yet one that refuses to pretend that the intervening disruption never happened (Leontes’ little son is still dead at the end of the play). Greenblatt suggests that the story of an ageing and unhappy man – who has lost a child and is estranged from his wife and daughter – finding some new possibility of living with all this pain has something to do with the playwright returning to Stratford to be reconciled and to die. It is the kind of criticism that drives some scholars to tear out their hair; but it is hard not to wonder, with Greenblatt, whether the autobiographical echoes are indeed more than coincidence. The drama itself becomes the writer’s second chance – or at least the way of imagining it, magical yet, as Leontes says, “lawful as eating”, natural and necessary.

But for this to be possible, you have to “awake your faith”, as Paulina tells Leontes in the play; that is, you have to relinquish a stance of control and compulsion towards the world. Put differently, you have to surrender the delusions of omnipotence that we harbour as small children.

And so we segue into the psychoanalytical chapters of the book: Adam Phillips explores in terms of developmental psychology “what is at stake in the avoidance, or the refusal, or the denial of the second chance”, linking it with the fundamental drama of how the child copes with the withdrawal of the mother into a realm of being beyond the child’s demands. It is the basic koan (borrowing the Zen term for the unanswerable but transformative riddle) of growth and individuation.

As Phillips puts it, Freud is the great diagnostician of our most radical second chance: the discovery that we can love someone other than a parent. But the detail of how this is worked out owes more (as Phillips allows) to Donald Winnicott’s brilliant accounts of childhood experience. For Winnicott, the child begins by “creating” the mother, generating food by its calls and protests; without this there is no nourishment. But when the mother withdraws, how does the child manage? By fantasising the return of the mother, yes, but also by growing gradually into the knowledge that for the mother to nourish, she must be other than the child’s psyche, and therefore beyond control. So, in Winnicott’s version of the story, “second chances” begin with the child’s dawning grasp of a relation with the world that is neither omnipotent control nor resentful passivity.

The mother must prove dependable enough not to leave the child feeling indefinitely abandoned. Memory comes to play a crucial role in shaping a story in which new challenges can be woven into a pattern of letting go and recovering. And, as Phillips frames it, the idea of the second chance is at root the bare fact of learning. Our first experiences of desire and indeed commitment have to be reworked; this involves drastic and painful change, but generates a story that allows for growth rather than the passionate looking backwards that immobilises us.

Which is why, Phillips points out, the second chance does not always sound like good news to the wounded and alarmed subject. Resistance to healing is deep-seated (Freud wrote about how recovery is seen as a “new danger”). We can revert to a fantasy life in which all traumatic loss can be denied or reversed by the exercise of our will; we can treat the second chance itself as a get-out-of-jail card rather than a real reimagining or recalibrating. For the second chance to do its work, we need to see some level of continuity with the world of first chances or choices, we have to be able to recognise the same rhythms of longing and struggle; otherwise we shall never find the confidence to respond in a way that opens new paths for ourselves. This in turn means that the primal world of early childhood must have provided enough emotional nourishment, enough consistent love, to make possible a kind of “regression” that is not destructive.

Phillips expands considerably the idea of first and second chances as they have been sketched in the Shakespeare chapters; but the common themes are clear. The temptation is always present to revert to the psychic world in which there are as yet no limits to choice, no irreversible effects for actions, a world in which the self surveys a range of possibilities and identities not yet soiled by trial and failure, or compromised or undermined by others.

For both Phillips and Greenblatt, that reversion is one of the fundamental building blocks of the tragic: Macbeth’s terror of being seen; Cleopatra’s fear (in one of Shakespeare’s most poignant moments of irony) of being reduced to a theatrical spectacle; Othello’s pathetic efforts to salvage his narrative and his reputation before his suicide; even Hamlet’s insistence that Horatio live on to tell the prince’s story truthfully – all these point to the tragic compulsion to control or absorb the threatening outer world into the self’s story. 

But, if Phillips is right, these great theatrical set pieces are properly read not as terrible aberrations but as the hinterland of all our significant decisions and acts of self-positioning, individual and collective. They are about the utterly routine fictions of power and privilege; about conflicts over race and gender, about antisocial outbursts in adolescence, workplace bullying, abusive marriages, everyday anxiety and fear of responsibility, political lies and journalistic dog-whistles. Both Greenblatt and Phillips emphasise that there is no way back to innocence, and are cautious about any language that suggests “redemption”. Second chances are not quite that.

Yet, rather more than they acknowledge, some religious mythologies work with similar perspectives. The famous phrase embedded in the liturgy of Easter about the felix culpa, the “fortunate failure” of Adam’s primal sin, carries something of the complex understanding outlined here of unavoidable loss as a necessary element of growth. And the way in which Christian theologians from very early on saw the life and death of Christ as a detailed “recapitulation” of Adam’s failure – resisting the temptation, to which Adam had given way, to be “like God”, omnipotent and invulnerable, rather than to be human and mortal – casts another kind of light on this.

Both this type of religious discourse and the secular perspectives of Greenblatt and Phillips ask what might be involved in opting to be human: to act with open eyes in the context of limits we have not chosen; to interrogate our behaviour with a readiness to see where we have taught ourselves to damage and to be damaged. Look around: how many of the moral and political panics of our environment are rooted in the fear of being healed, the fear of second chances, the unwillingness to learn, and the desperate looking back to the time when we were all-powerful in our own eyes?

Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud
Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips
Yale University Press, 232pp, £20

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[See also: Pop’s gay revolution]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change