Analysis of ‘Moby-Dick’

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Mocha Dick, the real-life whale that inspired Melville’s tale.

I) Introduction and Quotes

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, is a novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851. The story is about Captain Ahab‘s mad quest for a huge albino whale, which bit off his leg in a previous attempt to kill it by his crew of harpooners. The story is narrated by a young man, the orphan Ishmael, the sole survivor of Ahab’s second attempt to kill the white whale.

Though the novel got a mixed reception on its original publication, its critical reputation grew over the 20th century, and it’s now considered the preeminent American novel, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. Moby-Dick deals with such profound philosophical issues as epistemology and the nature of ultimate reality, evil, nature, etc., as symbolized by the whale and the ocean.

Here are some famous quotes:

Loomings (1)

“Call me Ishmael.”

“Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

“Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning…we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

The Spouter-Inn (3)

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The Sermon (9)

“…all the things God would have us do are hard for us to do…if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.” –Father Mapple

The Mast-Head (35)

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer‘s sprinkled pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

“There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!”

The Quarter-Deck (36)

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” –Ahab

“Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” Then tossing both arms, with measureless imprecations he shouted out: “Aye, aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.” –Ahab

Moby-Dick (41)

“All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick.”

The Whiteness of the Whale (42)

“What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.”

“Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls…with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.”

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”

The Fossil Whale (104)

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin (109)

“Let Ahab beware of Ahab.”

The Pacific (111)

“There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath.”

The Chase–Third Day (135)

“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” –Ahab

Epilogue

“The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? — Because one did survive the wreck.”

“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

II) Search for Truth

 

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Ishmael’s extracts, supplied by a sub-sub-librarian.

There is a preoccupation with acquiring knowledge of everything in Ishmael’s narrative, as we can see from his discussing all matters pertaining to the whale (a pun on whole; and Moby Dick can be seen as a symbol of the more terrifying aspects of ultimate reality). Recall ‘Etymology,’ which gives a list of whale in various languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon (WHOEL), Danish (HVALT), Dutch (WAL), Swedish (HWAL), etc. Note also “Cetology,” chapter 32, as well as Ishmael’s many digressions into philosophical matters.

I believe this search for truth is his reason, in a symbolic sense, for tiring of the land and wanting to return to the sea; for the waves of the ocean represent that fluid reality of rises and dips (i.e., in fortune) that we all experience everywhere in life. Reality isn’t in the things in the water, like the whales that are caught: it’s in the water itself. The preoccupation with catching those things is what causes our suffering…as it does Ahab.

III) Ishmael and Queequeg: From Foes to Friends

Queequeg

Ishmael has to share a room, at the Spouter-Inn, with Queequeg, a Polynesian pagan harpooner. Their meeting at night, with Ishmael sleeping in Queequeg’s bed, is hostile at first, since the latter isn’t expecting a roommate.

Soon, the two become good friends (Chapter 10, ‘A Bosom Friend’), the two even sharing in each other’s form of worship; for Ishmael bows with Queequeg before the latter’s idol (Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend”, pages 67-68), and Queequeg attends Father Mapple‘s church service with Ishmael (Chapter 7–“The Chapel,” page 52; though Queequeg leaves some time before the benediction–Chapter 10–“A Bosom Friend,” page 64).

Christian Ishmael and pagan Queequeg are opposites who, though clashing at first, soon learn not only to accept each other’s differences, but even participate in the opposite’s ways. Their relationship thus demonstrates the dialectical relationship between opposites, something Ahab can never learn do with Moby Dick.

IV) Mapple’s Sermon

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The Chapel

During Father Mapple’s sermon, which the preacher gives on a pulpit designed like a ship (for his sermons are his way of edifying his “shipmates,” his steering of the boat on the ocean of life, so to speak), he discusses the events written of in the Book of Jonah.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17), for he didn’t want to obey God and preach to the sinful people of Nineveh. We tend to think of the “great fish” as a whale, though of course a whale–being a mammal–is no fish. Melville’s narrative, while acknowledging Linnaeus‘ reference to, among other distinctions, the whale’s “feminam mammis lactantem,” still insists that a whale is a fish (Chapter 32–“Cetology,” pages 139-140), linking Jonah’s story thematically with Moby Dick; for Ishmael calls upon “holy Jonah” as his authority on the matter.

Jonah’s “three days and three nights” of terror “in the belly of the fish” transform him from a rebellious sinner into an obedient servant of God, a dialectical shift from the hell of the bitten tail of the ouroboros to the heaven of its biting head. Transformative moments like these, like a harrowing of hell, make saints out of sinners. Ahab will never make that change, for he forever hates the white whale, even in death.

V) Melville’s Critique of Emerson

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

When Father Mapple says that in obeying God, we must disobey ourselves, Melville is using the preacher as his mouthpiece to criticize the Transcendentalists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, with his essays “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.” In the former essay, Emerson wrote of the apparent divinity of the individual soul, which should be relied upon to the exclusion of accepting any advice from the all-too-conforming community.

The danger of such self-reliance is how it can lead to egotism, narcissism, and contempt for the rights and feelings of others. Ahab personifies self-reliance taken to such foolish extremes, for he ignores Starbuck’s warnings and criticisms, and gets his whole crew killed (save Ishmael) at the end.

Emerson’s “Over-Soul” gives a philosophical, quasi-mystical rationalization of this self-reliance, for this “self” is seen as divinely similar to Atman. Emerson had read translations of such Hindu texts as the Bhagavad-Gita; texts such as these include such doctrines as Atman being equal to Brahman, Emerson’s “Over-Soul,” the unifying soul in all life and in all things.

The problem with Emerson’s interpretation of these Hindu ideas is in how, addled by Western tradition’s preconceptions (i.e., Plato’s idealism, the good soul vs. the sinful flesh, etc.), he Christianizes the “self” (i.e., Atman, the individual soul), and imagines individuality to be all good. Such a sentimentalizing was never intended by the Hindus.

Because divinity in Eastern mysticism encompasses everything–or conversely, it’s described in terms of what it’s not (for to describe the divine in terms of what it is would qualify it, and thus limit it)–it mustn’t be thought of as merely ‘good.’ It has both alluring and terrifying aspects. Bion‘s mystical O, for example, is seen as having traumatic qualities. The divine is everything and nothing, both good and evil…and neither/nor.

But Emerson came from a Christian tradition that sees God as all-good; Western translations of Hindu texts often clumsily render Brahman, or the divine, as God, which is misleading; for God is a monotheistic concept, whereas concepts like Brahman are monistic. Not even ‘pantheism‘ really covers what something like Brahman is.

VI) Pantheism, the Ocean, and the Ouroboros

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The ocean as a dark, frightening place.

When one thinks of pantheism, one often thinks of the peacefulness of walking about in the woods, or dwelling dreamily in places like Wordsworth‘s ‘Tinturn Abbey‘, feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused,/ Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns” (lines 95–97) and the immanence of “A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things” (lines 100–103).

Melville, on the other hand, uses the tempestuous ocean as his preferred image of nature to warn us of the danger of sentimentalizing pantheism (see ‘The Masthead’ quote above). I prefer the image of the ocean as a symbol of the dialectical monism that I subscribe to, for the rising and falling waves suggest our ongoing shifts between good and bad fortune.

When I wrote of how a “contemplation combining what I call the Three Unities (of SpaceTime, and Action) will, with repeated practice over a long period of time, bring us closer and closer to that nirvana of no more pain, a putting of all the pieces back together,” I never meant that to be some kind of feel-good, New Age sentimentality. “Closer and closer” are the key words there: “no more pain” shouldn’t be misinterpreted as an absolute state.

Indeed, the smug excess of sentimentality is the biting head of the ouroboros, where one is “too healthy,” as I’ve written about elsewhere; this emotional state is one of narcissistic overconfidence, a False Self delusion that can lead, if one isn’t careful, to the madness of fragmentation. This is the danger Captain Ahab is throwing himself into, a danger of slipping past the serpent’s biting head to its bitten tail.

You see, the symbolism of the ouroboros as a unifying of opposites (the serpent’s head biting its tail) shows how we should properly understand ultimate reality: a marriage of heaven and hell, a union of knowledge and ignorance, a fusion of good and evil.

VII) Character Pairings: Unified Opposites

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We see pairings of opposites throughout Moby-Dick. We’ve already seen the pairing of pagan Queequeg and Christian Ishmael; we’ve touched on the opposition of wise, cautious chief mate Starbuck vs. mad Captain Ahab; let’s now consider some others.

Other parings include retired Captains Peleg and Bildad, two Quakers who own the Pequod and sailed in it before giving the helm to Ahab. “Like Captain Peleg, Captain Bildad was a well-to-do, retired whaleman. But unlike Captain Peleg–who cared not a rush for what are called serious things, and indeed deemed those selfsame serious things the veriest of all trifles–Captain Bildad had not only been originally educated according to the strictest sect of Nantucket Quakerism, but all his subsequent ocean life, and the sight of many unclad, lovely island creatures, round the Horn–all that had not moved this native born Quaker one single jot, had not so much as altered one angle of his vest.” (Chapter 16–“The Ship,” page 87)

On the next page, “…old Bildad…seemed absorbed in reading from a ponderous volume.

“‘Bildad,’ cried Captain Peleg, ‘at it again, Bildad, eh? Ye have been studying those Scriptures, now, for the last thirty years, to my certain knowledge. How far ye got, Bildad?’

“As if long habituated to such profane talk from his old shipmate, Bildad, without noticing his present irreverence, quietly looked up, and seeing me, glanced again inquiringly towards Peleg. […]

“‘He’ll do,’ said Bildad, eyeing me [Ishmael], and then went on spelling away at his book in a mumbling tone quite audible.

“I thought him the queerest old Quaker I ever saw, especially as Peleg, his friend and old shipmate, seemed such a blusterer.” Yet, in spite of Bildad’s apparent Bible-perusing piety, as opposed to Peleg’s “irreverence” and “impenitent” nature, Bildad’s the “stingy” one, offering Ishmael an exceedingly small share of the ship’s profits (the 777th lay), as opposed to “generous” Peleg’s offer of the three hundredth lay (Ishmael has been hoping for the 275th lay). Here we see the mingling of opposites in Peleg and Bildad, the antitheses of pious parsimony and impious generosity. (pages 89-91)

Another pairing is of Stubb, the cheerful, laughing, happy-go-lucky second mate, as contrasted with Flask, the mean, grumpy, nasty third mate. For all of Stubb’s cheerfulness, though, he feels such a hostility to Fedallah, the Parsee who has an evil influence on Ahab, that Stubb imagines the Parsee “to be the devil in disguise,” with a tail he hides in his pocket; and he’d like to throw Fedallah overboard. (Chapter 73–“Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him”, pages 315-317) And for all of Flask’s surliness, and his own suspicion of the Parsee, he isn’t sure of Stubb’s equating of Fedallah with the devil.

In one way, grumpy Flask can be seen as the double of mad, scowling Ahab: “Flask…who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered” (Chapter 27–“Knights and Squires,” page 125); and Stubb–in his fear that “Fedallah wants to kidnap Captain Ahab”–can be Starbuck’s double. Yet in his wish to rip off Fedallah’s “tail,” Stubb’s rather like Ahab in his wish to get revenge on evil; for ripping off the Parsee’s “tail” is a symbolic castration, as is Ahab’s loss of his leg to Moby Dick. Again, characters with opposing personalities find their traits intermingling.

A pairing of particular importance is Ishmael vs. Ahab. Both men are seeking something, obsessively questing for the deepest knowledge. Ishmael demonstrates this in his near-encyclopaedic display of knowledge of all things cetacean. With Ahab, though, there’s only one whale he seeks.

VIII) Knowledge and Ignorance, Black and White

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The whiteness of the whale.

A major theme of Moby-Dick is epistemology, or the philosophy of knowledge and how it is attained. Whales symbolize this knowledge that is sought, for knowledge, like whales, is elusive to its hunter; when you come at it, knowledge can hurt, as when whales smash up whalers’ boats.

The white whale is that ultimate knowledge: its whiteness is like the divine light of perfect knowledge…but that white light can also be terrifying (Chapter 42–“The Whiteness of the Whale”). Ahab is mad to want to confront such dangerous knowledge. Ishmael, in contrast, can adapt and change in his search for knowledge; he can flow and shift with the waves of the ocean. Ahab’s monomania keeps him as rigid and hard as Moby Dick’s powerful body; the captain projects his own evil onto the white whale.

We normally think of darkness and blackness as evil; consider the bigoted Spanish Sailor who taunts Daggoo, the African harpooner (Chapter 40–“Midnight, Forecastle,” page 178). These two are another pairing of opposites who are also alike in crucial ways, for while the Spanish Sailor calls Daggoo “devilish dark,” provoking a fight, consider the swarthiness of the average Spaniard compared to whites of North European descent. And when a flash of light in the dark is said by the Spanish Sailor to be “Daggoo showing his teeth,” we see a mixture of black and white in him, another mixing of opposites.

So as we can see, both black and white can be evil…and good. Both knowledge and ignorance can be evil, too…and sometimes ignorance is better–and safer–than knowledge; since some knowledge simply cannot be found or mastered. Ishmael can accept this reality. Ahab can not.

IX) Marine Masculinity and Narcissism

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The sperm whale: a giant phallus in the ocean.

Yet another pairing is Moby Dick, or sperm whales in general, and the ocean. While Melville’s whales are overwhelmingly masculine (more on that below), la mer est la mère. Now, the feminine is conspicuously absent in this novel, or at the very least minimized, even for a story about men at sea. Even on land, all of the significant characters are male: apart from those already mentioned, there are Peter Coffin, owner of the Spouter-Inn, and Elijah, who prophesies the doom of the Pequod.

The sperm whales, whether male or female in reality, are all male by symbolic association. Though there’s no evidence earlier than the 1880s of dick being used as a slang word for penis, it had been used to mean man, fellow, for centuries. Moby Dick is a giant white phallus spouting water (symbolic ejaculation) swimming in Oceanus, a male god of the ocean. Consider also, as Camille Paglia did (Paglia, page 587), “that unaccountable cone,” “the grandissimus,” that is a sperm whale’s penis being lugged by three sailors (Chapter 95–“The Cassock”).

Moby Dick is the rigid thing Ahab wants for having bitten off his leg (a symbolic castration causing him narcissistic injury), whereas the ever-shifting, ever flowing ocean is a nirvana of no-thing-ness, of anatta (no self). Ahab’s peg leg is made of whale bone, his revenge on ‘castrating’ whales. Phallic harpoons stab into the phallic sperm whales, the piercing a kind of circumcising of them, and a rite of passage for novice Ishmael.

Lacan‘s phallus is a signifier, bringing us into the world of language, the Symbolic Order, uniting us with community through communication. Symbolically castrated Ahab is thus cut off from community, from an ability to communicate in a truly human way, in a way that connects with others and exchanges empathy, hence his solipsistic madness and his never heeding Starbuck’s warnings. Intact Ishmael, however, is so linguistically complete that he gives the words of whales in various languages (“Etymology,” page 9), and he quotes Linnaeus’ Latin in “Cetology,” page 139.

Ahab’s narcissism is apparent in his willingness to “strike the sun if it insulted” him. His egotism is the result of too much self-reliance, as Melville warns us all against. Recall “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.” (Chapter 1–“Loomings,” page 23)

X) Zoroastrian Dualism, and the Deluge

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Fire: Fedallah’s Sacredness, Ahab’s Hell of Desire and Suffering, which can be extinguished only by nirvana, a giving-up of his self.

Next, we must consider Fedallah, the Parsee. His influence over Ahab has been seen as Satanic, if you’ll recall what Stubb has to say about him in chapter 73. In this connection, it’s interesting to note Melville’s allusion to the beginning of chapter six in Genesis (fittingly, in a dialectical sense, at the end of Chapter 50–“Ahab’s Boat and Crew. Fedallah”).

Melville calls the sons of God (or sons of the gods, depending on the translation of b’nei ha-elohim) angels, who “consorted with the daughters of men,” which in turn led to the wickedness that caused Yahveh to bring about the Great Flood, which in the ancient, pre-scientific cosmology meant a bringing together of the previously separated waters of the heavenly firmament and the oceans below, a return to the formless Chaos of the beginning of Creation.

Melville also mentions devils having “indulged in mundane amours,” suggesting such a close relationship between Fedallah (a prophetic, heathen ‘son of the gods’) and Ahab (a wicked ‘daughter of men’–i.e., he’s been symbolically castrated), which will result in a deluge-like drowning of everyone (save Noah-like Ishmael) at the end of the novel.

Fedallah, as a Parsee, adheres to the Zoroastrian religion, which has a dualistic understanding of good vs. evil. The religion has an optimistic eschatology, believing Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd), God and principle of light, goodness, wisdom, and order, will so thoroughly defeat the devil Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), the principle of darkness, evil, destruction, and chaos, that even sinners suffering in Hell will eventually be redeemed, liberated, and brought into heaven.

Such a consummate ‘happy ending’ to sacred history is the kind of thing Melville would have been suspicious of, as we’ve seen in his assessment of Emerson’s ‘self.’ Ahab, in his hopes of killing Moby Dick–the symbol of all that is evil in his world–is searching for that Zoroastrian happy ending, a thorough (Thoreau?) wiping out of all evil–and Fedallah is helping him do that.

So, is Fedallah an angel or a devil…the Hegelian thesis, or its negation? Or is Fedallah a fallen angel…the Hegelian synthesis? Again, we see the merging of opposites, as was the Great Flood a merging of water above and water below, a return to Chaos. And as a Zoroastrian, is Fedallah an agent of Ohrmazd, principle of order, or one of Ahriman, principle of chaos? Is he both principles at once?

Is the deluge-like killing of the crew an evil horror, or is it a purging of evil, like the temporary Hell of the Parsees? Is the infinite ocean of Brahman, the sea of primordial Chaos, a terrifying watery grave one may fall into because of one false step (as traumatized Pip experiences it to be when he jumps ship the second time; Chapter 93–“The Castaway,” pages 395-397; remember also “The Mast-Head” quote above), or is it the painful but necessary purging of the world, creating a purity like the sacred fire and water of the Zoroastrians (hence, Pip’s trauma is also his mystical experience)?

The Zoroastrians would dualistically separate good and evil; as Yahveh Elohim separated the waters above and below, as He separated the divine and human worlds later reunited by the union of the sons of God with the daughters of men. Emerson would keep good and evil so separate as to suggest evil doesn’t even exist in his holy Over-Soul and its immaculate Atman, the individual self. Melville was saying we cannot separate good and evil. The evil of the whales’ painful knowledge will always swim in divine Oceanus; the strongest of these evils–like Moby Dick–will never be defeated.

Noah-like (or rather, Deucalion-like) Ishmael, floating on the arc-like coffin built for Queequeg (comparable to the chest Deucalion and Pyrrha were in to protect themselves from Zeus’s deluge), understands the inseparability of good and evil, of life and death, of black and white, of ignorance and knowledge, or of any pair of opposites; and clinging to a wooden symbol of death, he is the only one of the crew who lives in the end.

XI) The End, But No Surcease of Suffering

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Death: Ahab’s Gift to His Crew

“AND I ONLY AM ESCAPED ALONE TO TELL THEE.”  (Epilogue)

This quote is from Job, chapter one, repeated in verses 15, 16, 17, and 19, spoken by messengers to Job, a good servant of God, all of them telling him misfortunes that have befallen him. The Book of Job‘s purpose is to reconcile how evil afflicting good people can exist in a world ruled by a good God. In other words, it’s a theodicy in allegory…as, in a way, Moby-Dick can be seen to be.

God, the receiver of blessings and praise, can be seen as the thesis, to which Satan (ha-satan, “the accuser,” or “the adversary”) can be seen as the antithesis, or negation, since Job’s Satan offers the counter-argument that Job would curse God if all his good fortunes were to be taken from him. Theodicy is an attempt at a synthesis, or sublation, of the opposing contradictions of good and evil.

As I’ve said above, only Ishmael survives because only he can figure out this sublation. He, after the death of his shipmates, is an orphan: alive, but floating on a coffin.

It is significant that Ahab dies being tied by his harpoon to Moby Dick, and being dragged out into the water with the whale. “Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Chapter 135–“The Chase–Third Day,” page 534) He dies because of his undying attachment to the white whale.

One could describe Ahab’s madness in Buddhistic terms, namely, the Three Poisons of delusion/ignorance, attachment/craving, and aversion/hate. The hard, firm, strong body of Moby Dick–as opposed to the rolling, shifting, changing waves of the ocean–represents Ahab’s delusion of permanently existing things, and thus his ignorance of impermanence, or no-thing-ness.

His monomaniacal craving for the whale, to find and catch it to the exclusion of all other considerations, is of course not out of desire for, but out of hatred of Moby Dick. His wish to kill, to annihilate the white whale leads to his self-destruction because of his delusion of the separateness of self and other, and of the seeming absoluteness of being and non-being; he fails to see the interconnectedness of all things, including self and other.

And in trying to kill Moby Dick, his own evil projected onto the whale, he kills himself. The egotism of the narcissist is actually a ‘pasteboard mask’ hiding his secret self-hate. Though Narcissus, having fallen in love with his reflection in the water, fell in and drowned (“Loomings,” page 23); Ahab, hating the image of the white whale in the water, failed to see its face as a pasteboard mask of himself–thus he fell in and drowned, too.

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Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Penguin Popular Classics, London, first published 1851

Analysis of ‘Richard III’

Richard III, though called “The Tragedy of King Richard the third” in the First Quarto, is a history play written by William Shakespeare in the early 1590s. It’s the last play in a tetralogy on British kings, the first three being parts I, II, and III of Henry VI, which are among the earliest plays the Bard is known to have written.

While Henry VI, Part I is considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, and thus is also believed to be a collaboration (these same two assessments have been made of another early Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus), Richard III is the Bard’s first great play. It is also his second-longest play (after Hamlet).

Richard III is great literature, but it isn’t good history: essentially a propaganda play, it vilifies its namesake in order to justify his usurpation by Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor (Elizabeth I, contemporaneous with Shakespeare, being the last Tudor monarch). While the theory–that Richard III was responsible for the deaths (or, rather, disappearance) of the princes in the Towerseems the most probable one to explain the fate of the two boys, it is by no means proven; accordingly, the Ricardians are trying to rehabilitate Richard III‘s reputation.

Here are some famous quotes from Richard III, and from plays associated with it:

“Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb;/And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,/She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe/To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;/To make an envious mountain on my back,/Where sits deformity to mock my body;/To shape my legs of an unequal size;/To disproportion me in every part,/Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp/That carries no impression like the dam./And am I then a man to be belov’d?/O, monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!/Then, since this earth affords no joy to me/But to command, to check, to o’erbear such/As are of better person than myself,/I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,/And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell/Until my mis-shap’d trunk that bear this head/Be round impaled with a glorious crown./And yet I know not how to get the crown,/For many lives stand between me and home,/And I, like one lost in a thorny wood,/That rends the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,/Seeking a way, and straying from the way,/Not knowing how to find the open air,/But toiling desperately to find it out,/Torment myself to catch the English crown;/And from that torment I will free myself,/Or hew my way out with a bloody axe./Why, I can smile, and murther while I smile,/And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart,/And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,/And frame my face to all occasions./I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,/I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;/I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,/Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,/And like a Sinon take another Troy./I can add colours to the chameleon,/Change shapes with Protheus for advantages,/And set the murtherous Machiavel to school./Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?/Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene ii, lines 153-195

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
;
And all the clouds, that lour’d upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, — instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,—
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, — that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty,
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable,
That dogs bark at me, as I halt by them,—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene i, lines 1-31

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; — but I will not keep her long.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene ii, lines 227-229

“I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch:
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 70-73

“But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 334-338

“O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in air of your fair looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.” —Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 98-103

“O bloody Richard! —miserable England!
I prophesy the fearfull’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon. —
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head:
They smile at me who shortly shall be dead.” –Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 105-109

“I must be married to my brother’s daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass: —
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 62-67

King Richard: I am not in the giving vein to-day.
Buckingham: Why, then resolve me whe’r you will or no.
King Richard: Tut, tut, thou troublest me; I am not in the vein. —Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 120-122

“The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom,
And Anne my wife hath bid the world good night.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 38-39

“Is the chair empty? is the sword unsway’d?
Is the king dead? the empire unpossess’d?” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iv, lines 470-471

“Despair and die!” –The Ghosts of Edward, Prince of Wales; Henry VI; Clarence; Grey; Rivers; Vaughan; Hastings; the boy Princes; Anne and Buckingham, Richard III, Act V, repeatedly throughout Scene iii

“Give me another horse! — bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Sweet Jesu!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-178

“I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die!
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, lines 9-12

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, line 7, then again at line 13

“Inter their bodies as becomes their births.
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled,
That in submission will return to us;
And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red: —
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown’d upon their enmity!
” —Henry, Earl of Richmond, Richard III, Act V, Scene v, lines 15-21

“Off with his head; so much for Buckingham” –King Richard, Colley Cibber‘s 1699 adaptation of Richard III

“Richard’s himself again!” –King Richard, Colley Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III

Because Richard III is part four of a tetralogy, which Shakespeare assumed his audience had seen in its entirety, he makes allusions to the first three parts that would be lost on audiences who’ve only seen the last part. (Colley Cibber tried to solve this problem with his 1699 adaptation.) Hence, to understand Shakespeare’s play, one must give a précis of the first three plays; I refer mostly to those parts relevant to understanding Richard III.

Henry VI, Part I

Henry V has passed away, way before his time, meaning his son, the child Henry VI, must be the new king. Squabbling and mismanagement of the kingdom under the Lord Protector and other nobles, as well as rebellions led by Joan of Arc, have lost England the French territory won under Henry V’s rule. Factions in King Henry’s court choose to side either with the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster. Suffolk‘s plan is for Henry VI to marry Margaret of Anjou, as against the advice of the Lord Protector, so Suffolk can control the king through her.

Henry VI, Part II

The king marries Margaret. Bickering between the two factions leads, by the end of the play, to the Wars of the Roses. The Lord Protector; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, has been imprisoned for treason and killed by hired murderers. The Duke of York, claiming the right to the throne, fights against Henry VI’s Lancastrian faction. The king, too meek and pious to fight, will let his wife, Queen Margaret, lead the Lancastrians.

Henry VI, Part III

The Duke of York briefly gains the upper hand and is made king, but the Lancastrians regain power, put a paper crown on York to mock him, then kill him. Henry VI is king again, but not for long, as the Yorkists get the upper hand again, and York’s eldest son is made King Edward IV. Hunchbacked Richard, Edward’s youngest brother, is made Duke of Gloucester; he lusts for the crown, but in a soliloquy (see first quote above) speaks of how he doesn’t know how to get to it; he compares his difficult quest for power to cutting through a “thorny wood” to get to a clearing. During the ongoing civil war, Warwick is killed by King Edward, as is (in the Battle of Tewkesbury) the Lancastrian Prince of Wales by all three of York’s sons, Edward (the king), George, and Richard, the last of these three later killing imprisoned King Henry VI, who prophesies that the Earl of Richmond will be king after the future King Richard III’s reign. The Yorkists win, Margaret is banished, and the Yorkists celebrate.

Richard III

Only Richard, Duke of Gloucester, doesn’t celebrate with the others, for he is still scheming to eliminate his rivals to the crown. In a soliloquy (see second quote above), he speaks of the great change that has just occurred: from war to peace, from “the winter of our discontent” to “glorious summer by this sun of York” (that is, the Yorkist badge of the sun, or, son of the Duke of York, Edward IV). Instead of making war, the people are making love.

This soliloquy introduces the theme of vicissitudes, or continually revolving changes in condition or fortune (especially from good to bad luck, for as we will see, Gloucester hates this shift from killing to copulating). The theme is established clearly by repeating, over and over again, how bellicosity has changed to such things as “the lascivious pleasing of a lute”.

Gloucester, however, is too ugly to be a lover. No woman would want this hunchback, who has been “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d”, with one leg longer than the other. So, since he “cannot prove a lover”, his emotional rejection, combined with his ambition, has him “determined to prove a villain”. He is determined by fate and by his resolve to become king.

Through Gloucester’s scheming, his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, is being sent by Brackenbury to the Tower because a prophecy says that “G” (George, apparently, but actually Gloucester) will kill King Edward’s heirs. Thus we see the vicissitudes of Clarence’s fortunes, traded with those of Hastings, who has just been freed from the Tower, a change to ill fortune only in the eyes of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan.

To help secure him on the throne, Gloucester must wed Anne Neville, who hates him for having murdered her father, Warwick, her husband, the Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury, and his father, Henry VI. Getting her to change her attitude to Gloucester will be a formidable task for him, but he succeeds within one scene of fiery dialogue with her: he feigns both repentance and love for her, even offering either to have her stab him with his sword or to kill himself. She agrees, amazingly, to marry him by the end of the scene. Vicissitudes follow each other so closely, they’re like a pair of feet stepping on each other’s toes.

Indeed, immediately after she leaves, Gloucester has gone from imagining himself too repellent to woo women, to being a “marv’llous proper man”, and he wants to go out and buy himself some fashionable clothes and gaze on himself in a looking glass.

The nobles have changed from celebrating their victory to squabbling among each other. Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, knows how dangerous Gloucester is to her family. He stirs up more rancour among the nobles by comparing the rise in power of her family to how “wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch”. He claims that, in his opinion, lowly people like her family have become gentlemen, while truly noble people like himself have been abased. More vicissitudes, both real and imagined.

Speaking of abased nobles, Margaret of Anjou, former queen to Henry VI, has defied her banishment and walks among the, in her opinion, “every Jack [who] became a gentleman” and curses them for causing her ruinous vicissitudes. They all scoff at her curses (her curse at Gloucester seeming to be sent back to her by him–Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-234), but by the end of the play, they’ll be weeping or dead, and she will be seen as a prophetess (Act I, Scene iii, lines 299-303–more on the theme of curses, i.e., self-inflicted ones, later).

Gloucester has hired two murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower. He warns them to be quick about it, for if they let his brother speak, his clever words will surely dissuade them from doing the murder. Indeed, his words almost do, and only one of the murderers actually kills Clarence by drowning him in a malmsey butt of wine, presaged in a dream Clarence has had of being knocked off a boat by falling Gloucester, and drowning in the sea while seeing the horrid ghosts of all those Lancastrians Clarence killed (Act I, Scene iv, lines 9-23, then lines 43-63).

Act II begins with ailing Edward IV pushing the squabbling nobles to be reconciled with each other, getting forced exchanges of love between Hastings and Rivers, Buckingham and Queen Elizabeth, etc. All would seem well in the eyes of the smiling king, until Gloucester shocks everyone with the announcement of Clarence’s death. More vicissitudes come when the king dies of grief, causing, in turn, the mourning of the queen, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York, the mother of the dead king, Clarence, and Gloucester (Act II, Scene ii).

Though preparations are being made for Edward IV’s elder son, Prince Edward, to become King Edward V, Gloucester, as the Lord Protector, is making preparations to get rid of the twelve-year-old boy and his younger brother, Prince Richard of York.

Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are to be executed on a trumped-up charge, causing lamentations in Elizabeth over “the ruin of [her] house” (Act II, Scene iv). As the three condemned men bemoan their vicissitudes, they remember Margaret’s curses not only at them, but at their enemies, Gloucester, Buckingham, and…Hastings, too! Now they can go to their deaths with a kind of gloating solace (Act III, Scene iii).

Elizabeth has her nine-(ten?)-year-old son, Prince Richard, Duke of York, put in sanctuary for his protection from Gloucester and Buckingham. The boy’s vicissitudes turn sour when Buckingham argues that he’s too young to understand, and therefore merit, the Church’s protection (Act III, Scene i, lines 44-56); so he’s taken out of sanctuary and into Gloucester’s ‘protection’ with his older brother, the boy who would be king…if not for Gloucester.

Though Lord Stanley warns Hastings of a bad dream he’s had presaging Hastings’s death at the hands of Gloucester (the boar), Hastings dismisses the danger, riding high on the news of the execution of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan (Act III, Scene ii). Catesby asks Hastings if he’ll support Gloucester over the two boy princes as the next king; Hastings says he’ll give up his own head before he’ll allow that. Vicissitudes lead to his head, indeed, being chopped off, and what a dramatic swing in fortune do we see when Hastings’s smile is so quickly changed to a frown, all from having said “If“.

So soon after the two princes’ rise in power do we see their vicissitudinous fall, first into the gaping mouth of the Tower, then to being slandered as bastard sons of lascivious Edward IV (Act III, Scene v, lines 72-94), then to their murder by men hired by Tyrell, who at first craves financial gain from just-crowned King Richard III (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 32-41), then quickly switches to remorse upon the sight of the smothered innocents in their bed (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 1-22).

The new king, fearing losing his power, is disappointed with Buckingham, who flinches at the idea of approving of the killing of the princes in the Tower. Buckingham has thus switched from being the king’s loyal friend–who had until now been crucial in helping Richard’s rise to power–to being his enemy. Irked at how the king “Repays…[Buckingham’s] deep service/With such contempt”, Buckingham changes his allegiance to Richmond.

Richard III has undergone vicissitudes, too: he’s gone from being a gleeful villain, who “can smile, and murder while [he] smile[s]”, to a paranoid tyrant who no longer has “that alacrity of spirit/Nor cheer of mind that [he] was wont to have”, and who increasingly hates himself, knowing no one–not even his mother, the Duchess of York–loves him (Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-206).

He’s had his queen, Anne, killed, and he feels the only way he can secure his kingdom is to marry the daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth, who naturally would abominate such a foul marriage, preferring an alliance of her daughter with Richmond. The king tries to charm Elizabeth into allowing the marriage as he did with Anne, but vicissitudes mean he hasn’t the success he had with Anne (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 196-431).

Indeed, the only way Richard can get even the semblance of an agreement from Elizabeth for him to marry her daughter is to curse himself if he ever proves false to her (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 397-417). Since he’s already proven false to that family (as well as to his own) so many times before, he doesn’t need to prove himself false to his would-be bride; so his pretend curse on himself comes true.

This unwitting curse on oneself is not unique to Richard. Anne Neville has cursed any future wife of his, not knowing “his honey words” would make her that accursed future wife (Act IV, Scene i, lines 66-86). Richard Gloucester turns one of Margaret’s curses on herself (Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-240), though this doesn’t stop her curses from having effect on the Yorkists. Buckingham curses himself if he ever proves unfaithful to Queen Elizabeth, saying his own friends, Gloucester et al, should likewise prove untrue to him (Act II, Scene i, lines 32-40)…and this curse, as we know, comes true (Act V, Scene i, lines 12-29).

These self-inflicted curses are made because Anne, Buckingham, and Richard are overconfident, not provident enough to consider how quickly vicissitudes can turn good fortune into bad.

Indeed, with the rise in Richmond’s power and decline in Richard’s, we see a perfect illustration of this trade in fortune in their shared dream, that of Richard’s victims (the Prince of Wales slain in Tewkesbury, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan, Hastings, the princes in the Tower, Anne, and Buckingham) cursing the tyrant to “Despair, and die”, then wishing success to Richmond in the upcoming Battle of Bosworth Field (Act V, Scene iii, lines 118-176).

During that battle, Richard fights bravely, but before his death, he despairs so greatly that, limping on the grass, he would trade the kingdom that has meant everything to him…just for a horse, so he can escape from his enemies.

From craving rule of the kingdom, craving it so much that he would kill anyone standing in his way (family, his wife, even children), to achieving it; then willingly trading that coveted kingdom for a mere horse: such extremity of vicissitudes.

Analysis of ‘Brave New World’

Brave New World is a novel written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1932. Like George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a dystopian novel about a future world tightly controlled by a totalitarian government. There is, however, a crucial difference between these two dystopias: Orwell’s Hell is a totalitarianism predicated on brute force, surveillance, and a manipulation of logic called doublethink; Huxley’s tyranny is more like a Heaven, or a Spenserian Bower of Bliss, predicated on a mindless pursuit of pleasure (promiscuous sex, getting high on soma, and watching ‘feelies’, this last being comparable to the 4DX experience in movies) to distract people from questioning the world around them.

At the same time, there are similarities between these two tyrannies: both involve intolerance of nonconformity, though where Orwell’s thought-criminals are tortured and killed, Huxley’s are simply exiled; and both systems of power do their utmost to erase history to ensure that their citizens never get a taste of an alternative culture, which might lead to a dangerous wish to rise up against the current regime. “‘When the individual feels, the community reels,’ Lenina pronounced.” (Chapter 6)

As with my analysis of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I can’t resist comparing Huxley’s dystopia with our world today. Indeed, in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley himself compared the world of his ‘fable’, as he called it, to the world he saw around him in the late 1950s, and found it disturbingly close in many ways to his fictitious world. He also contrasted his predictions to those of Orwell’s: “It is worth remembering that, in 1984, the members of the Party are compelled to conform to a sexual ethic of more than Puritan severity. In Brave New World, on the other hand, all are permitted to indulge their sexual impulses without let or hindrance.” (page 34)

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, also made a comparison of Huxley’s novel with our world over thirty years ago, feeling that the America of the 1980s was far more like Huxley’s heavenly Hell than Orwell’s more blatant one. The whole idea of Postman’s book was how the once serious discussion of politics, which involved lengthy speeches, detailed analyses of the issues, and fierce debates, all by a literate public, has degenerated into mere TV entertainment. We are not so much bludgeoned by fascistic cops as we’re lulled to sleep with amusement. If Postman were alive today, he would see how much more correct, and prophetic, his analysis was by watching the clownish likes of Donald Trump on TV.

In my opinion, today’s world is about half Orwellian and half Huxleyan. For my comparison of Nineteen Eighty-Four with our world, please go here. And now, for my comparison of our world with that of Brave New World.

One thing to remember about Huxley’s novel is that it is a satiric exaggeration of the early 1930s (and, by extension, today’s world). We haven’t done away with families, procreation, pregnancy, parenthood, and monogamy, as has been done in World State society, but in many ways we are already well on our way to abolishing such things (and, recall above, that Huxley in Brave New World Revisited also believed that in the late 1950s our world was coming closer to such a state of affairs than he’d originally imagined). Western divorce rates are absurdly high, many people are opting out of marriage completely, artificial insemination has existed for decades, and in spite of the fear of STDs, or of men taking advantage of drunk or stoned women, one-night stands in Western countries are as common as the common cold.

As Huxley says in Brave New World Revisited: “The society described in Brave New World is a world-state in which war has been eliminated and where the first aim of the rulers is at all cost to keep their subjects from making trouble. This they achieve by (among other methods) legalizing a degree of sexual freedom (made possible by the abolition of the family) that practically guarantees the Brave New Worlders against any form of destructive (or creative) emotional tension.” (page 34)

A few words need to be said about Huxley’s World State when compared with today’s political world. The notion of an oppressive, global government is the subject of a popular conspiracy theory that sells lots of books and makes lots of money for right-wing kooks like Alex Jones. Needless to say, I don’t subscribe to such nonsense. I once read the beginning of a webpage about the ‘NWO‘ in which the writer claimed there are two ways to interpret all the phenomena of history: they’re either accidents–coincidences; or they’re all planned (i.e., conspiratorial). The belief in this false dichotomy among ‘truthers’ and the like was confirmed whenever I read their use of the term ‘coincidence theorist’ as a straw-man against any doubters of their paranoid ideas.

What’s especially interesting about these conspiracy theorists is how many of them are either right-libertarians or religious fundamentalists (Christian or Muslim). They fancy themselves anti-authoritarian, but they’re in total denial of the hierarchy and authoritarianism inherent in capitalism and religion. They won’t trust the mainstream media, but they don’t mind referring to it when it criticizes ‘socialist’ Big Government. And while we’re on the topic of conspiratorial thinking, since there has been, from the Reagan and Thatcher years to the present, a push towards greater and greater deregulation and tax cuts for the rich–which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, leads ironically to bigger rather than smaller government–it doesn’t seem an ill-founded suspicion to think that the rich oligarchy is more than happy to promote these conspiracy theories. After all, they criticize only the state, while leaving ‘free market’ capitalism and religion well alone. And if the elite is so incredibly powerful, we can’t do anything about it…so don’t bother trying. The capitalists have already won. They would love us to be so pessimistic.

As I see it, a more accurate contemporary parallel to the World State is globalization. The so-called ‘free market’ doesn’t pulverize the state, as the right-libertarians would have us think: it merely privatizes the state. World governments are increasingly being run by capitalists, as such shady deals as the TPP show; multinational corporations can use the TPP to sue any government that makes regulations that limit their profits. To know who has the power, follow where the money is going…and capitalism is all about making as much money as possible.

The state is just the bouncer of the World Casino, if you will; and who is the state’s boss, if he isn’t a capitalist? Huxley’s satire is as much a critique of capitalism as it is of the state. Indeed, in the 1946 Foreword to Brave New World (page xliii), he described his ideal society as being economically Georgist (which can be considered a variant on left-libertarianism) and politically ‘Kropotkinesque’, and it was he who thus introduced me to anarcho-communism.

References to capitalism in Brave New World include the World State’s class system, with people like Mustapha Mond, one of ten World Controllers composing the ruling class. Then there are Alpha-plus people like Helmholtz Watson and Bernard Marx, beneath whom are upper-middle-class Betas, then the Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, the equivalents of such groups as the petite bourgeoisie and the working classes who are conditioned into being content to stay in their respective castes and/or do menial labour. Note that there is nothing even remotely socialist about such a world, since socialism aims to create a classless, worker-ruled society.

Elsewhere, capitalism in Huxley’s world is seen in the World State’s promotion of consumerism, a constant buying and fetishizing of commodities (“Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”–Chapter 3). Indeed, with the World State’s requiring of its citizens to engage in promiscuous sex (“Every one belongs to every one else.”–Chapter 3), we see even a commodifying of people. In the Hatcheries, where babies, including cloned ones, are mass-produced instead of born the natural way, we see human commodification taken to a satirical extreme.

Speaking of mass production, a worship of Henry Ford has replaced that of Christ; there is even a regular singing of ‘Solidarity Hymns’ to Ford (Chapter 5, part 2). The crucifix is replaced by a T (i.e., the Ford Model T), and A.D. is replaced with A.F., “After Ford,” a new dating system beginning with the year that the first Model T was produced. Ford is honoured because of his development of assembly-line production, which represents the capitalist ideal in World State society. He is so godlike to the World State that expressions like “O, Lord, Lord, Lord,” and “Thank the Lord” are replaced with “O, Ford, Ford, Ford,” and “Thank Ford!” World State citizens worship capitalism just as today’s free market fundamentalists do, with their God-like ‘invisible hand,’ which allegedly guides consumers to making wise decisions in buying products. (I wonder how many of them are aware that such things as their coffee, chocolate, and diamonds are often produced through slave labour in the Third World.) World State citizens, just like so many of today’s conspiracy theorists (who are so above all those unthinking ‘sheeple’), worship capitalism as a religion.

Now, how are the citizens conditioned to be content with their lot, wherever it may be in the caste system? One way is through hypnopaedic conditioning: as children are sleeping, they hear recordings that subliminally teach them to conform. This is comparable to how we passively, thoughtlessly watch TV and accept every entertaining image, as if we were sleeping. TV, movies, and popular music these days are all mindless nonsense, or they bombard us with propaganda, either that of divisive political correctness, or of materialist pleasure (overt sexuality, the ‘He who dies with the most toys wins’ would-be philosophy, etc.). The CIA started influencing world media with Operation Mockingbird back in the 1950s, and it is doubtful if they ever stopped; one of the most influential feminists of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Gloria Steinem, who helped in the shift from second wave to third wave and radical ‘Marxist’ feminism, had CIA connections.

Another way the World State controls the people is through a drug called soma, which gives people a high to help them forget their troubles (“A gramme is better than a damn.”–Chapter 3). This is like how disruptive children in the US are constantly given psychiatric drugs to treat conditions like ADHD or ODD. Pharma for profit, rather than for actually helping people. Elsewhere, people enjoy coffee and nicotine to keep them contented workers, and alcohol to make those workers forget their problems over the weekend. Sure, narcotics are illegal (the gradual legalizing of marijuana notwithstanding), but the prison-for-profit industry in America is all too happy to incarcerate drug addicts and traffickers (consider what a failure the ‘War on Drugs’ has been).

Then there’s all that sugary, fattening food we enjoy: our very own soma. Combining that with the dumbing-down of our society, consider what Huxley had to say in Brave New World Revisited: “And now let us consider the case of the rich, industrialized and democratic society, in which, owing to the random but effective practice of dysgenics, IQs and physical vigour are on the decline. For how long can such a society maintain its traditions of individual liberty and democratic government? Fifty or a hundred years from now our children will learn the answer to this question.” (page 21) Indeed, I think we have.

Of course, all these attempts to make the people conform don’t always succeed. Bernard Marx is unhappy because he is too small in physical stature. Lenina is criticized for not being polygamous enough. Helmholtz is too smart and creative a writer for the World State’s insistence on superficial slogans (for example,”A gramme in time saves nine.”–Chapter 6). Still, all three of them are conditioned enough either to want to fit in (Bernard, Lenina), or at least to accept the contrived World State morality (Helmholtz). Even Mustapha Mond owns forbidden literature, and has read it, and though he as a youth had a dangerously inquisitive mind (in scientific matters), he accepts and defends the need to keep conformity as an indispensable part of life, for the sake of social stability.

Another non-conformist, who nonetheless aches to fit into World State society, is Linda, mother of John the Savage. She is branded a whore both in the World State for accidentally getting pregnant (during a visit to a reservation in New Mexico), and in the reservation, where a conservative sexual morality condemns her for sleeping with the aboriginal women’s husbands.

These people are like most of us, who try to conform either to conservative or to liberal forms of morality, but fail to do so, to varying extents. We’re all trapped in a world of pursuing pleasure and social status.

Then there’s the greatest non-conformist of them all–John the Savage. Given the prejudices of conservative Westerners, there is an amusing irony in labelling John–a white man born to World State citizens (Linda and Thomas, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning), but raised among aboriginals in the New Mexico reservation–a ‘savage’. Added to that irony is how his conservative morality, including such traditional values as monogamy, piety in family and religion, and a love of classic literature (John constantly quotes Shakespeare), is regarded as uncivilized among the people of the World State. Is this not like the scorn left-leaning liberals have for what they deem to be backward conservative ideas?

While I personally don’t believe in God, I don’t feel the need to stick my tongue out at religious people; as long as they keep their faith to themselves, I’ll tolerate it. Still, many of the New Atheists use their disdain for religion to justify Western imperialism in the Middle East. I’m no defender of anti-woman, anti-LGBT sharia law, but the American invasions of Iraq, Libya, and Syria have exacerbated the problem of Muslim extremism rather than diminished it.

This issue leads to my next point. Though John is a white man born out of wedlock and raised among aboriginals, I find it interesting to compare him to today’s Muslims living in the secular West. Like Muslims in America, Canada, and Europe, John is a fish out of water who has great difficulty adjusting to life in the World State. In chapters 8 and 15, John quotes Miranda in The Tempest, who, when she first sees people not from the island she’s been raised on, says, “O wonder!/How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in’t.” But quickly, the novelty of the World State wears off, and John comes to despise this new world around him, as many alienated Muslims in the West must feel.

In the World State, notions of marriage, family, and religious tradition are laughed at and even abominated. In our world, such people as radical feminists on the one side (far more influential in the media than many care to admit) and MGTOWs on the other consider straight marriage to be a trap for their respective sex, a life-ruining decision to be avoided. Because of high divorce rates, Western families way too often are broken. And since religious authoritarianism has caused much more pain than given the comfort and black-and-white assurances it so dubiously promises, many in the West feel more than justified in criticizing religion, if not outright lampooning it.

John, however, believes that marriage, family, and religion fill our lives with a meaning that soma, consumerism, and promiscuous sex cannot. Muslims feel the same way, and just as John takes umbrage at Helmholtz’s laughing at Shakespeare’s writing of mothers and marriage (Chapter 12), or Mustapha Mond’s invalidating of religion (Chapter 17) or the values embodied in the literary classics (Chapter 16), so does the Muslim take offence at the stereotyping of his faith as being, essentially, violent fanaticism.

While we sympathize with John’s alienation, we shouldn’t idealize his alternative to the World State’s philosophy of happiness, either. His self-flagellations and over-reliance on Shakespearian poetry to give him meaning lapse into absurdity. The same can be said of the endless conflict between his desire for Lenina and his prudish refusal to satisfy that desire: consider his melodramatic reaction when she makes sexual advances on him, quoting Othello and calling her an “impudent strumpet!” (Chapter 13) Compare these absurdities to the Muslim insistence that the Arabic poetry of the Koran, for all of its undeniable beauty, is the eternal word of Allah rather than man-made dogma and religious laws created to help 7th-century Arabic tribes cope with the socio-economic and political pressures of their time. The Christian fundamentalist has similar problems with his ‘infallible’ Bible, as does the Mormon with his clumsilywritten appendix to the ‘Word of God’.

Again, I can empathize with the isolated Muslim in the Western world, with his people in the Middle East routinely being killed by drone strikes, with countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria needlessly torn apart by Western imperialists (Iran likely to be the next victim), alongside Israel’s endless persecution of the Palestinians, and the media’s constant blackening of his religion. On the other side, freedom of speech, including the freedom to criticize all religions, must be respected. There are no straightforward answers to these problems.

John is right, however, to try to destroy all the soma (Chapter 15). Too many of us indulge in various forms of substance abuse instead of dealing with our problems directly. While smoking marijuana from time to time may be acceptable, it should be legal, and it’s certainly a lot of fun, many people ‘medicate’ themselves with it every day; and research has shown that there is a link–though a by-no-means straightforward one–between constant marijuana use and schizophrenia. Avoiding pain may be preferable to enduring it, but experiencing pain is part of being human; and people like Lenina and Linda are like living corpses when on soma. Indeed, the death of John’s mother (Chapter 14) from excessive soma use is what throws him over the edge.

Bernard and Helmholtz are exiled to far-away islands, these being almost pleasant punishments in Huxley’s dystopia. Indeed, they’re a far cry from Room 101. But John exiles himself, as it were, by leaving the cities and living in an abandoned ‘air-lighthouse‘ (Chapter 18). The nosy World State media and sight-seers, ever fascinated with this ‘savage’, follow him and do news stories of him beating himself. This is comparable to how the American media (mostly controlled by only six corporations) focus on Muslim extremism instead of Muslim acts of kindness and charity (or Muslim condemnation of Islamic extremism), to feed anti-Muslim sentiment and fuel more imperialist aggression in the Middle East, as well as to distract Westerners from many contemporary examples of capitalist corruption, like the Panama Papers.

John just wants to be left alone, just as Muslims want the US military bases out of the Middle East. Lenina wants him, and tries to seduce him again, just as Muslim men must be tempted by all those ‘half-naked’ Western women. Finally, John lashes out at Lenina, shouting “Kill it, kill it, kill it…” This could be compared to the scurrilous behaviour of what seems to have been mostly North African men (mostly not refugees) towards German women during New Year’s Eve, 2015-2016.

John’s attack on Lenina leads to an orgy with the other World State citizens present, in which he participates, to his shame. Overwhelmed with self-hate for having given in to his desire, John hangs himself. His despair is comparable to how many suicide bombers must feel. After all, however one may criticize the world John has been raised in, the World State is clearly much more at fault. The parallels of these two worlds with, respectively, the Muslim and modern Western worlds, should be obvious.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Vintage, London, 2007 (first published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, 1932)

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, Vintage, London, 2004 (first published in Great Britain by Chatto and Windus, 1959)

Analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

The Merchant of Venice is a tragi-comedy probably written between 1596 and 1598.  It is one of the ‘problem plays’, as it’s difficult to classify this play in either the tragedy or comedy category.  A controversial play, it deals with religious intolerance towards the Jewish faith, and thus, by extension, with antisemitism.  It is an open question whether the play openly promotes bigotry against Jews, or merely comments on such bigotry.  Both positions will be discussed below.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” –Antonio, Act I, scene ii, line 93

2. “I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,/For I am much asham’d of my exchange;/But love is blind, and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit,/For, if they could, Cupid himself would blush/To see me thus transformed to a boy.” –Jessica, Act II, scene vi, lines 34-39

3. “All that glisters is not gold.” –Prince of Morocco, Act II, scene vii, line 65

4. “To bait fish withal.  If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.  He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.  And what’s his reason?  I am a Jew.  Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.  If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?  Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.  The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” –Shylock, Act III, scene i, lines 45-62

5. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,/The attribute to awe and majesty,/Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;/But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,/It is an attribute to God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, Jew,/Though justice be thy plea, consider this–/That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.  I have spoke thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea,/Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice/Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene 1, lines 179-200

6. “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’./Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;/But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed/One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate/Unto the state of Venice.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene i, lines 301-307

7. “How far that little candle throws his beams!/So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” –Portia, Act V, scene i, lines 90-91

One important theme in The Merchant of Venice is outer appearance versus inner reality.  This is best and most easily seen in the matter of the three caskets.  The gold and silver caskets may be pleasing to the eye, but what’s inside them is utter ruin for the suitors who are superficial enough to choose them.  Bassanio, however, can see past the dull-looking lead casket, whose message threatens rather than promises; accordingly, he finds Portia’s picture in it, and may marry her.

Another example of this theme is how Lorenzo, in his love for Jessica, can see past her Jewish upbringing, so hateful to Christian bigots, to see the lovely girl she is inside.  Similarly, when she’s disguised as a boy during her eloping with Lorenzo, she feels foolish, “But love is blind,…” (See Quote 2)

Furthermore, in Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (see Quote 4), he shows us how, underneath the surface differences between Christian and Jew, members of both traditions are equally human, reacting the same way to stimuli of pleasure or pain, with the Christian just as capable of vindictiveness as the Jew.

Indeed, the ‘mercy’ shown Shylock by the Christians is hardly mercy at all: he’s allowed to live, but he’s financially and spiritually ruined, giving up his money and property to the state and to Antonio, with Antonio’s half reserved for Shylock’s hated Christian son-in-law and disloyal daughter after Shylock dies.  To top his humiliation off, he’s forced to convert to Christianity.  Gratiano cruelly gloats as Shylock leaves the courtroom in near despair.

During that same courtroom scene, the Duke of Venice is advised to see beyond the physical youth of ‘Balthazar’ and see the age of ‘his’ wisdom.  Of course, neither he nor the husbands of Portia and Nerissa can see beyond the ladies’ disguises to realize who the ‘lawyer’ and ‘his clerk’ really are.

Materialism is a constant preoccupation in this play.  Bassanio spends money as fast as he borrows it, and needs it of Antonio to marry the wealthy Portia (Is this the real reason he loves her?).  Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, waits for his ships to return from such distant places as Mexico to get his money, and he’s delighted that they’ve safely returned at the play’s end.

Usurer Shylock hates Antonio not only because he’s a Christian bigot against Jews, but because he lends money without interest, hurting Shylock’s business by lessening his profits.  Worse, his daughter Jessica steals from him when she elopes with Lorenzo.

The princes of Morocco and Aragon show their materialism when they choose the gold and silver caskets, only then to lose all hope of having Portia on not choosing the right casket.  The Moroccan prince thus bitterly learns, “All that glisters [i.e., glistens, glitters] is not gold.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Shylock is one of the least materialistic characters in the play, going against the Jewish stereotype at a time when one would assume playwrights were free to exploit prejudicial attitudes without fear of politically correct censure.  Shylock is angry with Antonio for lending out money gratis because this generosity hurts his very livelihood, not merely his ability to get rich.  (We must remember how pre-Enlightenment Jews in Europe were hardly allowed any livelihood other than that of usurer, a hated occupation.)

Jessica’s marriage to Christian Lorenzo upsets Shylock more than her stealing of his ducats; and a turquoise ring of his wife’s, also stolen by Jessica, has more sentimental than monetary value for Shylock.

Indeed, when offered, in the courtroom, twice the amount Antonio owes him, Shylock doesn’t accept it, preferring revenge to money.  The useless, valueless pound of flesh he wants is a possession wanted from malice, not materialism.  This malice is something he returns to the Christians for persecuting him with the same spite.

This brings us to the next theme: religious bigotry.  Shylock’s dislike of Christians is as apparent as their intolerance of Jews, which is not to say that Christians have actually suffered as much from Jewish bigotry as vice versa, but just that Shakespeare has thoroughly explored this theme from both points of view.

Before the story has begun, Antonio spat on Shylock; when he confronts Antonio with this abusiveness, Antonio proudly says he’d do it again.  When Shylock says he’ll take a pound of Antonio’s flesh instead of interest if he defaults on the loan, Antonio–assuming confidently that he’ll easily pay Shylock back in time–calls him a “gentle Jew”, then imagines “This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.”  Apparently, Jews can’t be kind–only Christians can.

Jessica can tolerate neither her own Jewishness, nor her father’s; thus, she eagerly wishes to leave him, marry Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity.  Often in the play, Christians use the word Jew as if it were synonymous with devil.  In fact, the explicit comparison of Shylock, or Jews in general, to devils is frequently made (see Quote 1 above, referring to Shylock’s ‘devilish’ interpretation of the Genesis story of Jacob’s dealing with Laban over sheep).

Two more examples of such antisemitism come from the mouth of Solanio in Act III, scene i: “Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.” (lines 18-19); then, shortly after Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, when Shylock’s friend Tubal (another Jew) appears, Solanio says, “Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be match’d, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” (lines 66-67)

Because Shylock has suffered so much from Christian hate, he understandably returns their bigotry to them.  He says, of Antonio and Bassanio, “I am not bid for love; they flatter me;/But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon/The prodigal Christian.” (Act II, scene v, lines 13-15)

Later in the same scene, he says to Jessica, “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum,/And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,/Clamber not you up to the casements then,/Nor thrust your head into the public street/To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces;/But stop my house’s ears–I mean my casements;/Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter/My sober house.  By Jacob’s staff, I swear/I have no mind of feasting forth to-night:/But I will go.” (lines 28-37)

In the courtroom scene, when Bassanio and Gratiano show the limits of their love for their wives, in their willingness to sacrifice them to save Antonio, Shylock bitterly notes, “These be the Christian husbands!  I have a daughter–/Would any of the stock of Barrabas/Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!” (Act IV, scene i, lines 290-292)

Another theme in The Merchant of Venice is the breaking and keeping of oaths.  Portia has sworn an oath to obey her late father’s wish to abide by the conditions he’s stipulated in her suitors’ choosing of the three caskets.  If a suitor chooses silver or gold, she cannot marry him even if she wishes to.  If a man chooses lead, she must marry him, even if she doesn’t love him.  She keeps her oath, and is lucky to get Bassanio for a husband.

Similarly, the suitors swear an oath: if they choose of the wrong caskets, they are forbidden to marry Portia or any other woman, and mustn’t reveal what’s in the casket they’ve chosen.

The document giving Shylock legal permission to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, if he defaults, is essentially a legal oath.  Shylock says, “An oath, an oath!  I have an oath in heaven./Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?/No, not for Venice.” (Act IV, scene i, lines 223-225)  Thus, Antonio is legally bound to give Shylock that pound of flesh.

When Bassanio and Gratiano marry Portia and Nerissa, the women give the men rings, making them swear never to give the gifts away to anyone, under any circumstances.  After Antonio’s trial, Bassanio and Gratiano feel indebted to ‘the lawyer Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise) and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise); the disguised women morally bind the men to give them the rings as proof of their gratitude.  This breaking of the original oath gives the women an excuse to be cross with the men–their revenge for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s willingness to give their wives up to save Antonio.

With the breaking of oaths comes the choice to show mercy, or strictly and stone-heartedly adhere to law.  Here we come to certain stereotypical assumptions made about the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Christian traditionalists tend to assume, as do the Christians in The Merchant of Venice, that the Mosaic law is stern, rigid, and unforgiving to those who transgress it.  Actually, Pharisaic law shows much leniency and mercy to those who study thoroughly all its nuances; but the average Elizabethan Christian would only have known the Jewish law as it’s more bluntly given in the Torah.  Hence the misunderstanding.

In light of this, we can see how Shylock is portrayed as an unbending advocate of the law, while Antonio and all the Christians urge forgiveness of the default on the loan.  Shylock asks ‘Balthazar’, “On what compulsion must I?  Tell me that.” (Act IV, scene i, line 178)  Then the ‘lawyer’ answers with the famous speech on the “quality of mercy”, assumed to be an exclusively Christian virtue, given through the blood of Christ on the Cross.

When Shylock has sharpened his knife and is ready to cut out his pound of flesh from Antonio’s vital organs, however, ‘Bathazar’ uses the rigidity of legal wording to stop the Jew.  Shylock is not permitted one drop of blood, for this is never given in the legal document he and Antonio have signed.  Nor does the document allow Shylock any more, or any less, than an exact pound of flesh.

Now that Shylock is finally cornered, the Christians use more of the Venetian law against him; for the punishment for a foreigner’s seeking of a Venetian man’s life is to forfeit the victimizer’s property, giving half to the victim, and half to the state.  The victimizer’s life is now at the mercy of the Duke of Venice.

The Duke, in an act of seeming generosity, grants Shylock mercy before it is even begged for; but what mercy is it to be allowed to live when one has had everything taken away?  Knowing this, Shylock himself would prefer death.

Christian ‘mercy’ is extended by allowing Shylock to keep the state’s half, and when Shylock dies, Antonio’s half would be given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  This of course humiliates the father of an already disloyal, thieving daughter.  The most humiliating condition of this ‘mercy’, however, is Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, all to the gleeful Schadenfreude of his enemies in the courtroom.

Knowing all that we do about this Christian ‘mercy’ versus the ‘Jewish’ nature of Shylock’s cruelty, we must now address a difficult question: is the play antisemitic, or is it merely an exploration of anti-Jewish hate?  The answer perhaps depends on the attitude of the viewers of the play, as well as its producers.

In productions up to the early 19th century, Shylock was portrayed as a grotesque, even comical villain, the actor wearing a red wig and a hook nose.  One can easily visualize the Christian audience booing him whenever he entered the stage.  These obviously would have been antisemitic productions.

Sympathetic portrayals of Shylock, however, began with Edmund Kean in the early 19th century, and most famous portrayals of Shylock since then were sympathetic.  (Some of the major exceptions to this sensitivity, of course, were the productions staged in Nazi Germany.)

Next, we must examine audience opinions of the play.  Conservative Christians would have little sympathy for Shylock and all the bigotry he’s endured; they would regard his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech as him justifying his blood-lust.  They would also disregard his humiliation and losses and the end of the play as a just punishment for his violent attempt on Antonio’s life, and his forced conversion to Christianity would be seen as a joyous occasion, the winning of a Jew’s soul to Christ.

This conservative audience would also consider every antisemitic slur against Shylock as a statement of simple fact, whereas a sympathetic audience would consider the source of the bigoted remarks.  Sympathizers with Shylock will regard the slurs as a defect of their speakers, not as an attitude Shakespeare was necessarily trying to promote.

Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech would thus be understood as a legitimate expression of his grievances against his Christian persecutors; and while his thirst for revenge is assuredly going too far, it is seen as the understandable act of a man tragically pushed over the edge, not just an example of his ‘wicked Jewishness’.

In today’s more tolerant world, that the sympathetic interpretation is preferred to the antisemitic one is so obvious as not to need elaboration; there is, however, an artistic as well as humane reason for preferring the former.

The antisemitic reading results in one-dimensional characterizations that are not borne out in Shakespeare’s text–Christians thus would be stupidly good and the Jews dully evil.  The clean-cut happy ending of such an interpretation, with Jews converted to Christ, is also blandly simplistic.

The sympathetic reading, on the other hand, allows for a more complex, nuanced characterization that is evident in the text, with a subtler mix of good and evil in both Jew and Christian; this also accords with Shakespeare’s usual colourful development of his characters. Furthermore, the resulting tragicomic ending, where Antonio is saved, but Shylock is pitifully ruined, agrees with our more morally ambiguous sense of reality, and is thus more artistically satisfying.

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Detailed, Illustrated Synopsis for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

This post is meant to accompany my previous one, ‘Analysis of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”‘ (MND).

Hippolyta and Theseus
Hippolyta and Theseus

Act One: Theseus, the Duke of Athens, having recently captured Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons, plans to marry her.  Egeus complains to the duke that his daughter, Hermia, refuses to obey him and marry Demetrius.  Instead, she loves Lysander, who fights for his right to marry her.  Lysander tells everyone Demetrius used to love Helena, who still “dotes” on him.

Hermia and Helena
Hermia and Helena

The Athenian law punishes those to disobey their fathers with the death penalty, and Egeus wishes to use this law to intimidate Hermia into marrying Demetrius; still, she boldly refuses.  The duke must uphold the law, but offers her a third choice: if she won’t marry Demetrius, instead of suffering death, she can devote herself to the chaste worship of the goddess Diana, and abjure the society of men.  She has until Theseus’ wedding day to decide.  Theseus, Egeus, and Demetrius then leave the room, and Lysander and Hermia are alone.

Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Egeus, and Theseus quarrelling.
Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, Egeus, and Theseus quarrelling.

Lysander comforts her (see first quote from my ‘Analysis of MND’ post), and tells her his plan to take her out of Athens and away from its cruel law.  They’ll go through the nearby forest and stay at his aunt’s home.  Then they’ll be married.  This gives Hermia hope.

When Helena joins them and tells them of her dejection from Demetrius’ preference of Hermia over her, they tell her of their plan to leave, Demetrius then having only Helena to love.  Lysander and Hermia leave, and Helena is alone, complaining in a monologue of her loss of Demetrius’ love (see second quote from ‘Analysis of MND’).  Finally, she foolishly decides to tell Demetrius about her friends’ plan to flee to the woods, hoping this will win Demetrius’ favour.

Peter Quince, having chosen the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe to have his ‘actors’ perform in a play before the duke, gives each actor his role.  Nick Bottom, every director’s nightmare, is to play Pyramus, lover of Thisbe; but Bottom wants to play every role.  Francis Flute, a boy, is to play Thisbe, but he doesn’t want to play a girl because he’s starting to grow a beard.  Bottom wants to play Thisbe, but Quince insists he’s to be only Pyramus.

Snug is to play a lion, but he wants to see his ‘lines’ quickly because he’s ‘slow of study’; Quince assures him he only needs to improvise roaring–this reassures Snug.  Bottom offers to play the lion, and boasts of his ability to roar; Quince says he’ll frighten away the ladies, so Bottom offers to roar softly.  Still, Quince insists Bottom is only to be Pyramis, and tells everyone to meet in the nearby forest that night to rehearse, because he doesn’t want the Athenians to watch how the play is being put together.

Act Two: In the forest that night, a fairy chats with Puck, and Puck tells her of the pranks he likes to play on people.

There is trouble in fairyland.  Oberon, the fairy king, is angry with Titania, his queen, because she, not even willing to share a bed with him, refuses to give him an Indian changeling boy for his page.  She says that the boy’s mother honoured Titania while the mother was alive, and out of friendship with the mother, Titania wants to have the child, and should have him.  She and her fairy retinue leave Oberon.

Oberon and Titania quarrel over the Indian boy.
Oberon and Titania quarrel over the Indian boy.

Wanting revenge for this ‘injury’, Oberon commands Puck, his fairy servant, to go off and find a special flower that one of Cupid’s arrows was shot into.  The arrow filled the flower with a potion, called ‘love in idleness’.  When the ‘love juice’ of this flower is poured onto the eyelids of anyone sleeping, he or she, when waking, will fall in love with the first person…or animal…or thing…he or she sees.  Puck flies away to find the flower.

Puck finds the magical flower.
Puck finds the magical flower.

Oberon plans to put the love juice on Titania’s eyelids as she sleeps that night, making her fall in love with something ‘vile’ to humiliate her.  While she’s thus distracted, he’ll get the Indian boy.

While Oberon is waiting for Puck to return, he sees Demetrius walking through the forest, chased by Helena.  Invisible to them, Oberon listens to what they say to each other.

Though Demetrius insists that he neither will nor can love her, Helena says she loves him all the same.  He warns her of the dangers a maid may encounter in a forest at night, when Demetrius has no inclination to protect her.  He continues to try outrunning her in his search for Hermia, and Helena complains of how men are supposed to pursue women, not vice versa.

Oberon, taking pity on her, tells Puck–when he returns with the flower–to put some of the love juice on the eyelids of a sleeping Athenian man who is disdainful of a woman’s love.  Oberon tells Puck, who’s never seen Demetrius before, he’ll know the man by the Athenian clothes he’s wearing.  So Puck takes some of the flower and searches for the Athenian, while Oberon takes the rest of the flower and finds Titania, whose fairies are singing her to sleep.

When she’s asleep, Oberon pours the love juice on her eyelids and chants a magical poem to make her fall in love with a hideous monster.  He tells her to “wake when some vile thing is near”, and leaves her.

Oberon puts the love juice on Titania's eyelids.
Oberon puts the love juice on Titania’s eyelids.

Meanwhile, Lysander and Hermia are wandering elsewhere in the forest, and they are tired and lost.  They decide to sleep, Lysander’s hopes of getting close to Hermia disappointed when she, out of maidenly modesty, tells him to sleep further off.  He does, and when Puck sees them asleep, he assumes that Lysander, in Athenian clothes and sleeping apart from the girl (presumably out of disdain for her), is the man Oberon wants Puck to use the love juice on.  Puck pours it on Lysander’s eyelids and leaves them.

Soon after, Demetrius and Helena walk by that area, Demetrius still scorning her.  He leaves her alone, and she looks at her reflection in a pond.  Her reflection distorted by the ripples in the water, she sadly concludes, “I’m as ugly as a bear.”  Then she sees Lysander sleeping, and worries that he could be dead.  She wakes him, and he falls in love with her.  Shocked at this sudden change in him, she assumes he is making fun of her.  She leaves the area in tears, him pursuing her, and Hermia is left alone there.  Later, she wakes from a terrible dream, and, frightened, wonders where Lysander went.  She then goes to look for him.

Act Three: The ‘rude mechanicals’ arrive in another area of the forest and begin rehearsing their play.  Bottom points out that the lion may frighten the ladies, so they decide they will tell the audience the lion is really Snug.

Quince then mentions ‘two hard things’: they need a wall on the stage to separate Pyramus and Thisbe; and they need the moonlight to shine on them on the stage, but they doubt that there will be a window to let the moonlight in.  They decide that Snout will portray, as it were, the wall, holding his fingers in such a way as to indicate a chink through which the lovers may speak.  Robin Starveling, holding a lantern, will represent the man in the moon.

As they rehearse, misspoken lines abound: instead of ‘odorous savours sweet’, we have ‘odious’ savours; the lovers won’t meet at ‘Ninus’ Tomb’ but at ‘Ninny’s Tomb’.

Bottom walks away momentarily.  Puck has been watching all of the rehearsing, and he’s much amused by the actors’ lack of talent.  He uses magic on Bottom, changing his head into that of a donkey.  When Bottom returns to say his next words of love to Thisbe, all the other actors run away from him in terror at his ‘monstrous’ transformation.

Puck gives Bottom a donkey's head.
Puck gives Bottom a donkey’s head.

Bottom, not yet knowing what’s happened to him, pretends not to be afraid at what he thinks is a prank, and he sings a song, waking Titania.  She falls in love with him and takes him with her to be waited on by her fairies.

Titania in love with ass-headed Bottom
Titania in love with ass-headed Bottom

Meanwhile, Oberon is angry with Puck for putting the love juice on the eyes of the wrong man.  Later, Hermia finds Demetrius and demands to know where Lysander is; she suspects Demetrius may have harmed Lysander.  When Demetrius insists he neither hurt Lysander nor knows where he is, Hermia leaves Demetrius, and he falls asleep.

Now Oberon puts the love juice on his eyelids, while Puck finds Helena and uses his magic to bring her near sleeping Demetrius.  Lysander, still in love with Helena, follows her, and Puck, amused, observes the young lovers’ folly (see ‘Analysis of MND’, third quote).

Lysander, weeping, pleads with Helena that men who love in jest don’t weep as they woo.  Helena retorts that his jest increases in cunning, and chides him for forgetting his true love, Hermia.  Lysander says he was foolish to love Hermia, and that Demetrius loves her, but not Helena.  This wakes Demetrius, who immediately calls Helena, “goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!”  Now Helena thinks both men are making fun of her.  Lysander and Demetrius start to show hostility to each other as rivals for Helena.

Then Hermia appears, happy to have finally found Lysander.  When she asks him why he left her, he bluntly tells her he hates her and now loves Helena.  Hermia can’t believe this, while Helena imagines all three of them are in ‘confederacy’ against her.  She chides Hermia for it, saying it’s unladylike, while Hermia says it’s Helena who scorns her.  The fighting between the four of them continues, with insults directed at Hermia’s shortness.  Lysander and Demetrius leave the girls to fight elsewhere.

Oberon blames all this trouble on Puck, who explains that Oberon told him he would know the man by his Athenian clothing, so it was an honest mistake.  Still, Puck doesn’t mind the mistake–to him, causing mischief for the four Athenian lovers is all good fun.

Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius fighting; Oberon and Puck watch.
Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius fighting; Oberon and Puck watch.

Oberon then orders Puck to use his magic to separate Lysander and Demetrius so they won’t hurt each other.  Soon, when all four lovers fall asleep, Puck is to use the love herb on Lysander’s eyes, correcting them so he’ll love Hermia again.  When everyone wakes in the morning, all the night’s folly will seem a dream.  Puck must hurry, for morning is coming soon.  Oberon will go to Titania and get the Indian boy.  Then he’ll release her from her love of ass-headed Bottom, “and all things shall be peace.”

Chanting, “Up and down, up and down,” Puck leads Lysander and Demetrius away from each other by imitating their voices, fooling each man into thinking he’s chasing the other.  They soon grow weary of the chase, and fall asleep.  The girls also grow weary and fall asleep.  Puck squeezes the love juice on Lysander’s eyelids, and chants a magical poem to ensure that he’s in love with Hermia again.  “Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill.”

Act Four: Titania is in bed with ass-headed Bottom.  He asks for her fairy attendants, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, and Mustardseed, to scratch him.  Itchy, he feels “marvellous hairy about the face,” and needs a barber.  When Titania asks him what he wants to eat, he asks for hay, though she offers to have one of her fairies fetch him nuts.  They decide to sleep, and Titania tells her fairies to leave them.  Holding Bottom in her arms, she says, “O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!”  They sleep.

Oberon and Puck watch Titania and Bottom.
Oberon and Puck watch Titania and Bottom.

Oberon and Puck watch, and the fairy king begins to pity his queen for her foolish ‘dotage’.  Now that he has the Indian boy, which she quickly gave him, he will “undo this hateful imperfection of her eyes.”  He also orders Puck to change Bottom back to normal.  Then all will think “this night’s accidents but as the fierce vexation of a dream.”  First, Oberon chants a magical poem to change Titania’s judgment back to normal.

She wakes up and tells Oberon, “Methought I was enamoured of an ass.”  Indicating Bottom, Oberon says, “There lies your love.”  Shocked to see Bottom’s ass head, she asks how all of this happened.  Oberon says now that he and Titania are reconciled, they’ll go to Duke Theseus’ house tomorrow midnight, “and bless it to all fair prosperity.”  There, all the lovers will be happily married at the same time. Puck changes Bottom back to normal, saying, “Now when thou wak’st with thine own fool’s eyes peep.”

The next morning, Theseus, Hippolyta, Egeus, and their attendants, hunting, come by the forest.  They find the four young lovers sleeping there.  They wake.  Theseus asks what happened.  Lysander confesses that he eloped with Hermia to escape the Athenian law.  Egeus demands that the law be enforced, but Demetrius says–though he doesn’t know by what power–his love for Hermia “melted as the snow.”  He now loves Helena again.  Theseus overrules Egesus’ will, and they will all be married together in Athens.

Bottom, with his human head again, wakes up, and is amazed at his dream of having an ass’s head.  He says only a fool would tell people of such a dream, but he’ll tell everyone anyway.  He’ll have Peter Quince write a ballad of it, called “Bottom’s Dream”, and Bottom plans to sing it towards the end of their play.  He leaves the forest to find the other actors.

Back in Athens, the other ‘mechanicals’ are worried about what happened to Bottom.  Not knowing where he is, they conclude the play can’t be performed.  Snug tells them the Duke is coming from the temple.  If their play had gone forward, they’d have been all made men.  They are all disconsolate; then Bottom suddenly appears, and everyone quickly cheers up.  He tells them to hurry and get ready to perform, for he says, “our play is preferr’d.”

Act Five: Theseus and Hippolyta talk of love in his palace.  (See the fourth quote in my post ‘Analysis of MND’.)  Philostrate, master of revels, presents Theseus with a paper showing all the plays to be considered for the evening’s entertainment.  After rejecting several proposed plays, Theseus chooses “A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus and his love Thisby: very tragical mirth.”  Fascinated with these paradoxes, he asks Philostrate about the play.  Philostrate insists it’s unfit, but Theseus insists on hearing the play.  Philostrate reluctantly leaves to tell the ‘mechanicals’ to get ready to perform.

The play begins with all three married couples as the audience, and with Peter Quince as the Prologue: “If we offend, it is with our good will.”  As he continues speaking, it is obvious to Theseus, Lysander, and Hippolyta how inept Quince is.  He continues, introducing Bottom as Pyramus, Flute (in drag) as Thisbe, Snout as the Wall that separates the lovers (his hand shaped like a chink through which they can whisper to each other), Robin Starveling (with his lantern, dog, and bush) as Moonshine, and Snug as the Lion.

Quince gives a brief synopsis of the play: Pyramus would be with his lady Thisbe, but a wall separates the two lovers, and they can communicate only through a small hole in the wall; they agree to meet at Ninus’ Tomb; Thisbe arrives there first, but a Lion appears, and chases her; she gets away to safety, but only after a piece of her clothing is bitten and torn off, it being stained with the blood of a recent kill of the Lion’s.  Pyramus arrives, and sees the bloody piece of Thisbe’s clothing; he assumes she’s dead, and kills himself.  She returns, sees him dead, takes his sword, and kills herself, too.  Then Quince tells the audience his actors will now act out the story.  He leaves.

Snout presents himself as the wall, holding his hand out to represent the hole.  Bottom as Pyramus enters, reciting some ludicrous poetry about the night: “O night, O night, alack, alack, alack,…And thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,…Show me thy chink, to blink though with mine eyne.”  Wall holds up his fingers, so Pyramus can look for Thisbe.  Pyramus thanks Wall, and looks, but sees no Thisbe.  Disappointed, Pyramus says, “O wicked wall,” and curses Wall.  Theseus thinks the wall, being able to speak, should curse back; but Bottom comes out of character and tells the duke that Thisbe will be coming out now.

Francis Flute, in women’s clothes, enters as an absurd-looking Thisbe, hoping to speak with Pyramus.  They speak to each other briefly, and try to kiss through Wall’s chink, but obviously cannot.  Pyramus asks her if she’ll meet him at “Ninny’s Tomb”.  She says she will, and they leave.  Wall, having finished his part, says good-bye to the audience, and leaves also.

The 'rude mechanicals' perform 'Pyramus and Thisby'.
The ‘rude mechanicals’ perform ‘Pyramus and Thisby’.

Theseus, Demetrius, and Hippolyta comment on how ridiculous the play is.  Snug and Robin Starveling enter as, respectively, Lion and Moonshine.  Lion reassures the ladies, “whose gentle hearts do fear,” that he is really Snug the joiner.  Robin Starveling tells the audience his lantern represents the moon, and that he is the Man in the Moon.  Thisby appears, but Lion, roaring, scares her.  She runs away, and Lion tears her clothing.  Thorougly entertained by this unintended comedy, Demetrius, Theseus, and Hippolyta respectively shout out their compliments to the actors: “Well roar’d lion”; “Well run, Thisby”; “Well shone, Moon.”

Pyramus enters, thanking the Moon for its light.  He sees the piece of Thisbe’s clothing, “stain’d with blood”, and assumes she’s dead.  He takes out his sword and stabs himself.  He dies a slow and melodramatic death.  Moonshine leaves, and Thisbe re-enters.  She asks, “Asleep, love?  What, dead, my dove?”  She takes his sword, and says, “Come trusty sword; Come, blade, my breast imbrue.”  She stabs herself, and dies.  Theseus and Demetrius note that Moonshine, Lion, and Wall will have to bury the dead.

Bottom gets up and asks the audience if they’d like to see the Epilogue, or hear a Bergamask dance.  Theseus says no to the Epilogue, but will have the Bergamask.  The actors dance.

Then Theseus tells all the lovers, it’s “almost fairy time”, and so they must all go to bed.  They all leave, and the fairies enter, saying magic poems to bless the newly-weds, and singing and dancing.  They all then leave, except Puck, who addresses the audience.  (See the fifth and last quote from my ‘Analysis of MND’.)  He wishes a “good night unto you all.”

The fairies confer blessings on the newlyweds.
The fairies confer blessings on the newlyweds.

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