Richard van Oort is engaged in an ambitious study of the ethical and anthropological significance of Shakespeare’s plays. Van Oort calls it “ethical” and “anthropological” because, to borrow words from the anthropologist Eric Gans, van Oort sees “humanity [as] the species for which the central problem of survival is posed by the relations within the species itself rather than with those of the external world.”
The title Shakespeare’s Mad Men does not so much allude to a psychological state of certain characters as to an ethical situation or predicament. The first-order question van Oort asks might be put like this: How is the survival of human beings qua human beings explicable in light of “humanity’s violence toward itself,” and what can Shakespeare’s plays teach us about this?
In Shakespeare’s Mad Men, van Oort treats King Lear and Measure for Measure as works that develop in dialogue with Shakespeare’s attempts elsewhere (in Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Coriolanus) to consider how violent competition with rivals is endemic. Van Oort builds upon theories expounded by René Girard and Harry Berger Jr. in their work on “mimetic desire” and Shakespeare’s “theater of envy.” So long as the power center of a culture was occupied by gods, not human beings, resentment was handled through ritual sacrifice—actual killing. But as cultures become more secular and variegated, resentment gets directed toward the “center’s real human occupant”—away from “an inaccessible sacred center.” The violence this unleashes threatens to spin out of control.
“Mad men,” van Oort proposes, attempt to mitigate such violence by trying to renounce the center—both King Lear and Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure ostensibly abdicate their political authority. By doing so, they test the strengths and weakness, possibilities and limitations, of ethical life unmoored from the violent rivalries churning at its center. These plays by Shakespeare can therefore be read as explorations of how and whether human life and culture can plausibly be shown to survive its own internal, violent threats.
Insofar as van Oort’s book is, as I believe it is, excellent at doing what I have just described it to be doing, then, I also believe, readers interested in these issues will learn a lot from it.
But van Oort’s book can also be read in another way, as exemplifying an important response to another first-order question in the humanities: How does one put theoretical reflections by cultural anthropologists or linguists or philosophers and poetic works, like Shakespeare’s plays, in profitable conversation with one another around a common first-order question, such as humanity’s relation to its own violence?
After all, van Oort’s suggestion is that Shakespeare has something crucial to say to an anthropologist like Eric Gans, not just something to say about debates in which cultural anthropologists can and do engage without ever mentioning Shakespeare’s work and which might be thought to get along just fine without whatever Shakespeare’s plays are capable of teaching. At the same time, what Shakespeare has to teach us, van Oort thinks, can only be properly appreciated if we also bear in mind ways in which linguists or cultural anthropologists independently articulate their questions, shape discourses, and generate concepts.
One obvious but underappreciated fact to bear in mind is that Shakespeare cannot, so to speak, put himself into those contemporary conversations in which his words might be most useful. For one thing, Shakespeare is dead—and so whatever insights his work might bequeath are wholly dependent upon engagement with it by living readers, audiences, theater practitioners, students, and teachers. For another thing, and just as pointedly, contemporary conversations—in the written work of anthropologists or philosophers but also in the mouths of thoughtful people who talk with one another about human life and its violence—occur every day without unfolding as the production of a work of dramatic poetry.
As Plato’s Socrates took pains to note, rational conversations about the sorts of problems van Oort invokes with terms like “ethics” or “anthropology”—the ability to talk rationally amongst ourselves about any of this—requires that we stop, and perhaps even put away, dramatic productions that keep us wallowing in the pain and suffering of human tragedies. This implies not just that rational conversations about human life and violence can get along just fine without the help of dramatic poetry but—rather more forcefully—that rational conversation must demonstrate, in order to take place at all, that it need not cultivate attention to, or unfold as, works of dramatic poetry.
For all these reasons and more, a direct and unmediated dialogue between theoretical reflection and the poetry of Shakespeare is not in the cards. And here is where a thoughtful critic like van Oort can be of enormous help. The thoughtful literary critic can tend to the needs of both poetry and theoretical conversation for each other—and for our overall self-understanding—in ways that neither can adequately do for itself.