Shakespeare's Mad Men
A Crisis of Authority
Richard van Oort



Shakespeare’s Mad Men is a sequel to Shakespeare’s Big Men.1 The mad men of my title are, specifically, King Lear and Measure for Measure’s Duke Vincentio. There are, of course, other mad men in Shakespeare. One thinks especially of Hamlet, whose madness begins as a self-conscious role but ends in real madness, or Macbeth, whose nightly hallucinations and feverish fits are a consequence of his enormous guilt. In the most general sense, Shakespeare’s mad men constitute a subcategory of Shakespeare’s big men. Not all big men are mad, but, in Shakespeare at any rate, all mad men are also big men. Commenting on the “cycle of change” the tragic hero undergoes, Maynard Mack notes, with some surprise, “how many of Shakespeare’s heroes are associated with this disease” of “madness.”2 No doubt madness, which may be described as a total collapse of the protagonist’s customary sense of his standing in the world, is something that disproportionately affects Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, all of whom share a “monstrous” desire to possess the public (tragic) center. Hence the depth of their resentment when the center eludes them. When Othello calls Desdemona a “cunning whore of Venice,” he seems to have gone quite mad, as does Coriolanus when he deliberately goads the plebeians into banishing him. But quite apart from having already discussed Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s Big Men, I intend something a bit more specific by the term mad men. Lear’s madness is a consequence of his refusal to renounce the center despite his very public abdication of the throne in the play’s first scene. This refusal produces an extended inner conflict between his public and private selves that eventually leads to madness. While the Duke in Measure for Measure doesn’t suffer a similarly dramatic psychological breakdown, he is (like Lear) insincere in his abdication of state authority to the point that first Lucio (like Lear’s Fool) accuses him of playing “a mad fantastical trick” (3.2.91),* and then Angelo worries that the Duke’s “wisdom” might be “tainted” to the point of “madness” (4.4.4–5).3 In each case, madness appears to be the moral and psychological cost of a failed attempt to renounce the center upon which the protagonist’s political authority rests. This is also the sense intended by Ariel when he accuses Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio of usurping their proper selves and drowning in madness. “I have made you mad,” he says, “And even with suchlike valor men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (Tempest 3.3.58–60). We don’t normally think of Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio as mad in the same sense that Lear is mad because we tend to view madness as a purely psychological problem. As I will try to show, Shakespeare’s view of madness is ethical rather than psychological. Madness afflicts those whose renunciation of the center is fake or insincere.

Stanley Cavell and Harry Berger, whose arguments I will consider more closely in the pages to follow, have usefully suggested that Lear’s madness is a method for dealing with shameful feelings and a guilty conscience. Cavell stresses Lear’s shame; Berger, Lear’s guilt. Both argue that Lear uses madness to avoid confronting the truth of his (evil) treatment of Cordelia. I agree that Lear’s madness can be seen as, in Cavell’s terms, a shameful moral avoidance of the other. But I also think we can sharpen the discussion by tracing categories such as shame and guilt to the anthropological hypothesis I introduced in Shakespeare’s Big Men. While the current book can (I hope) be profitably read without knowledge of its precursor, a brief look back, just to get our bearings, may help to make the road ahead a little smoother.

As Marshall Sahlins’s classic anthropological study shows, the big man only looks big next to his fellow mortals, who contribute to the big man’s feasts not because they are especially public-minded or altruistic but because they enjoy consuming the stupendous amounts of food he makes available through his talent for entrepreneurship and people management.4 The big man is good at throwing parties, but the prospect of a good party is the only means he has to cajole his clients into helping him amass enough foodstuffs to prove he is better than his rivals, all of whom would dearly love to unseat him by humiliating him with a bigger and better party than the one he has just thrown. As Eric Gans points out, the big man is a usurper of the ritual center, a position formerly reserved for the gods under whose auspices the community’s foodstuffs are distributed.5 By taking over the role of central economic redistributor, the big man turns a sacred and moral difference (all are equal compared to the god or gods) into an ethical and economic one (not all are equal compared to the big man).

It follows that a king may be defined as a big man in possession of a sacred title, which he inherits from his forbears and passes on to his heirs. The sacred title allows for continuity and enables the king to accumulate a surplus that he redistributes not merely at the next potlatch or public feast but to his heirs, a task Shakespeare depicts Lear undertaking in the first scene in which he appears.6 Continuity is, of course, much desired by people generally. It is not just a preoccupation of the king and his immediate heirs but of his subjects too. But once the center is opened to ethical and economic differentiation, continuity will tend to accentuate initially small differences between the big man and his clients into much larger differences that eventually get reflected in a permanently stratified social order. This is the fate of all agrarian societies. In his great book on the structure of human history, Ernest Gellner cites the Islamic proverb “Subjection enters the house with the plough” and argues that the differential economic surplus is turned into a differential moral surplus, which is ultimately projected onto a hierarchical world picture representing the different levels of human society.7 The king and his retainers own the surplus, and this gives them a higher ethical standing as well as a lock on political authority. The king is a big man with a sacred crown and, more to the point, an army of thugs ready to obey him because everyone’s status, from the lowest slave to the highest prince, depends upon reinforcing these economic and ethical differences. Whereas the big man has to demonstrate his credentials by throwing ever more lavish parties, the king merely has to point to the royal bloodline. As far as the king is concerned, lavish parties are a perk of the job and must be paid for by somebody else. Once a noble, always a noble, which also implies (sadly, since it describes the vast majority of those living in preindustrial agrarian conditions) once a peasant, always a peasant.

And yet the king is still only a glorified big man. His humble anthropological ancestry serves as a reminder that even the greatest kings are usurpers of the ritual center toward which all human authority aspires. From the point of view of the undying sacred center, the king is bound to appear, for all his magnificent pomp and ceremony, faintly ridiculous, a point the young and beautiful Christian novitiate Isabella eloquently makes in her great speech about the brevity and pettiness of human authority. Dressed in a little brief authority, the big man thunders like an angry ape, making the angels either weep or, if angels were not immortal, laugh themselves to death.

King Lear and Measure for Measure suggest two possible outcomes to this situation, neither of them enviable. Either the king is killed by his rivals, or he will go mad playing all kinds of “mad fantastical tricks” to keep both his subjects and himself distracted from the guilt he experiences as an impersonator of the gods, whose omnipotence he shamefully apes in his attempt to possess the inaccessible sacred center. Shakespeare’s Big Men examines the former problem: the desire to accede to the center from the periphery, a movement that is inherently tragic because it entails violent competition with one’s rivals (that’s the weeping or tragic part). Shakespeare’s Mad Men examines the latter problem: the paradoxical attempt to renounce the center and all the envy, jealousy, and resentment that attends one’s ruthless pursuit of it by returning to the shelter of the anonymous periphery in the hope of discharging both shame, by being unknown or unrecognized, and guilt, by unburdening one’s heavy conscience. Renunciation of desire is thus essentially an ironic or comic gesture, which may explain Shakespeare’s increasing interest in tragicomedy and romance toward the end of his career when he had exhausted his ethical experiments in tragedy. Our very humanity depends upon the “comic” capacity to renounce desire and, more precisely, the resentment that accompanies it.

What is the point of reading Shakespeare in this rather peculiar and unorthodox fashion? Am I saying that Shakespeare is a protoanthropologist? Are his dramas to be understood as aesthetic attempts to address basic ethical questions that philosophers like Stanley Cavell, cultural anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins, social theorists like Eric Gans, or literary critics like Harry Berger are also interested in exploring?8 That is indeed what I am saying, and the point deserves emphasizing. My readings of the plays are not intended as purely literary or aesthetic exercises. The thesis that Shakespeare explores the ambivalent position of the big man who absorbs and purges the desire and resentment directed at him is not offered as a purely literary or aesthetic claim. As Gans in particular has shown, the ambivalent aesthetic experience of desire and resentment toward any central figure can be traced genetically—which is to say, historically—to a hypothesis concerning symbolic representation in general.9 Since humans are the only creatures who represent the world symbolically, this hypothesis must be not merely historical but anthropological. Furthermore, since symbolic representation—in a word, language—is irreducible to more basic perceptual modes of representation (whose origins can be explained in straightforward Darwinian terms), it follows that the hypothesis must be irreducible to more basic nonsymbolic biological evolutionary processes. In other words, it must be originary.

This is just another way of saying that the experience of desire and resentment, or indeed of any other fundamental anthropological category (e.g., love, guilt, shame, morality, ethics, linguistic and economic exchange, and so on), is irreducible to an MRI scan of neurons firing in the brain. It is no doubt thrilling to discover that Albany’s line uttered to Goneril—“A father, and a gracious agèd man, / Whose reverence even the head-lugged bear would lick, / Most barbarous, most degenerate, have you madded” (4.2.42–44)produces “prompt activation in the visual association cortex.”10 But this observation tells us nothing about why Albany says what he says, or why Goneril replies the way she does. In short, it misses the point of the sentence, which is not to reduce Shakespeare’s words to iconic and indexical representations within the listener’s or reader’s brain, but to understand their various meanings in the context of a dramatic and dialogic scene. The latter (the dramatic scene), not the former (the individual brain), is what we mean by language, the function of which is not in the first place to excite one’s neurons but to communicate meaning to someone else. Needless to say, without a brain you cannot speak (or understand when spoken to). But without a brain you can’t do anything because you’re dead. In other words, the reduction of language to brain processes misses the salient feature of language: namely, its irreducibly social and dialogic—in a word, its scenic—structure or essence. Attempts to reduce language to yet more elementary components within this scene are condemned to failure. From the point of view of biological evolution, the paradox of language origin is that the first word must have been situated on this anthropological scene before it could be represented internally within the brain, which is to say, selected for biologically. The language areas of the brain are a response to, not the cause of, the origin of this dialogic and interactive anthropological scene.

The same point is made by the neuroscientist and evolutionary anthropologist Terrence Deacon, who observes that from a Darwinian perspective, language can only be seen as an “evolutionary anomaly.”11 One cannot generalize from basic internal iconic and indexical representational processes to the intersubjective originary scene of human language. Language is not simply a generalization of more basic perceptual processes. If it were, we would expect many other social mammals, in particular our nonhuman primate cousins, to use language. But they don’t.12 This is not simply anthropocentric prejudice. On the contrary, to hold that chimpanzees can talk does a far greater disservice to chimpanzees because it assumes, on the basis of our own peculiar facility for representing the world abstractly, collectively, and aesthetically, that language—symbolic representation—represents the norm when it comes to explaining how other animals communicate. In short, we take the evolutionarily eccentric case (language, symbolic representation) and project it onto other animal communication systems. This has the highly prejudicial consequence of regarding these other species—chimpanzees being the exemplary instance—as somehow less evolved. “No analytic method,” Deacon writes, “could be more perverse.”13 Or, I might add, more anthropocentric. Treating chimpanzees as characters just like us may make for an entertaining aesthetic experience (as in Planet of the Apes), but it makes for poor science and even poorer anthropology.

The fact is I do not learn the meaning of the word tree by generalizing from my perception of specific trees. Rather, I learn the word only after I have been initiated into the joint attentional scene upon which specifically human (symbolic) cognition depends.14 The notion that language can be traced to more basic iconic and indexical perceptual and representational processes epitomizes the dead end of empiricist theories of language. Nietzsche had already pointed out the incoherence of the empiricist picture of language, and by the early twentieth century it was being systematically dismantled by anthropologists (Durkheim), linguists (Saussure), and philosophers (Wittgenstein).

What makes language so interesting from an evolutionary point of view is precisely the fact that it relies upon a highly unusual and highly counterintuitive representational strategy.15 We can agree with Derrida that language is the fundamental cultural institution.16 We know of no human society, past or present, without language, just as we know of no human society without religion. It therefore appears that human society does not exist without either language or some concept of the sacred. But why is that the case? How do we explain this curious fact? The wager of the current book is that Shakespeare can help us to understand such fundamental anthropological categories as language, morality, and the sacred. Theoretical and methodological polemics aside, the present book is offered very much in the spirit of an ongoing dialogue concerning Shakespeare’s contribution to human self-understanding. If we are to build constructively on Derrida’s celebrated claim that human culture is grounded on the trace or deferral among the signs of the language system, then we must turn this purely metaphysical observation into a hypothesis concerning the origin of humanity as the language-using animal.

How, then, does Gans explain the origin of language? Instead of attempting to trace language back to more basic, already existing animal communication systems, Gans proposes that the human scene of representation emerges in the breakdown of preexisting iconic and indexical representational strategies. More precisely, language emerges when a centrally perceivable appetitive object (e.g., the carcass of a large prey animal) becomes too dangerous as an object of widespread ethical conflict to remain unguarded by specifically symbolic prohibition. Other social animals (e.g., chimpanzees, wolves) have well-developed pecking orders that allow conflict over disputed objects to be defused or constrained. The alpha goes before the beta, which goes before the next animal in the pecking order, and so on. Of course, conflict is never wholly absent; the beta may fight the alpha. But these challenges for dominance are never represented as moral challenges to the existing social order, which is to say, they are never represented as ethically motivated usurpations of scenic centrality. Animal representation remains unmediated by the collective and dramatic aesthetic scene, with its structure of a sacred center around which the peripheral human group assembles to represent itself collectively (as in sacrificial ritual). What makes the originary (human) sign different from an indexical (animal) signal is that the scene on which the linguistic-symbolic sign is produced deliberately undermines the indexical correlation between the sign and its referent. Smoke is an index of fire because combustion naturally produces airborne particles. Indexical reference inheres in this empirical contiguity between the sign (smoke) and its referent (fire). Pointing with one’s index finger, on the other hand, is precisely not an example of an indexical sign. When one points to an object for the benefit of someone else, one has introduced a third party into the sign-referent relation. The “presence” of the centrally designated object is now mediated by the social and moral relationship between the interlocutors. I can only understand that you are pointing out something for my benefit if I can imagine that the object is significant to both of us. In short, the object is not merely perceptually present to me but symbolically present to each of us as participants in the same scene of representation. The object’s significance is given by its presence on this scene, which is produced by our shared collective and aesthetic attention. But if you are sharing attention toward the object with me, then neither you nor I can appropriate it without also undermining the scene in which this form of shared symbolic and aesthetic attention is produced. Hence Gans’s claim that language originates as an “aborted gesture of appropriation.” In the normal (animal) case, the alpha would proceed to take his piece of the appetitive object. But in the originary (human) case, the pecking order no longer provides a viable method for dealing with the problem of intraspecific conflict. Only when the gesture of appropriation is converted into a symbol of each individual’s renunciation of the object can the specifically ethical task of economic redistribution take place. But central redistribution is precisely not a continuation of the animal pecking order. On the contrary, redistribution now takes place as a communal and sacred act, which is to say that each portion received by the members of the group is sanctioned by the preceding symbolic moment of linguistic renunciation. In this moment of deferral of appetitive appropriation, the specifically human capacity for symbolic representation is born. The originary scene includes within itself all the categories necessary for human thought: desire, resentment, shame, guilt, linguistic and economic exchange, the moral, the ethical, the sacred, and the aesthetic. These basic anthropological categories will be returned to repeatedly in my attempt to develop a picture of Shakespeare’s plays as “ethical discovery procedures.”17

The notion that Shakespeare has something urgent to teach us about our fundamental humanity appears contentious only from a point of view that considers the problem of human origin to be a purely scientific problem, one that will eventually be resolved by researchers working in such empirical fields as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and paleoanthropology. But this is already to concede too much to the scientists, who cannot grasp the specific nature of the problem without erasing the category of the human altogether. No doubt the massive imbalance in intellectual authority and prestige between the sciences and the humanities is a sign of the increasing irrelevance of the latter when it comes to addressing the practical problems of the modern world. Humanists are not going to invent more fuel-efficient cars or greener technologies. Nor are they going to cure cancer or design more powerful computer processors. But before we concede all the important questions to the scientists, we must remember that science exists only because humans have survived long enough to invent what is, historically speaking, a very recent and very peculiar worldview, one in which serious cognition is associated with a universal method (science) rather than with a particular ethical and cultural stance (religion). More precisely, the scientific and technological revolutions upon which our modern world depends would not be possible without the decentralizing of sacred monarchal authority that begins in the West with the rise of early Christianity, passes through the Reformation, and reemerges in the political experiments of liberalism, fascism, and communism, all of which are a response to the rise of a decentralized economic exchange system. Why a society with a free market and a secular system of political governance emerged when it did is not a question science is equipped to answer. And it cannot answer it because it is in the first place an ethical question, not an empirical one.18

It should be no surprise to those working in the humanities that the problem of human origin is also a specifically ethical or anthropological problem. To claim that Shakespeare has something important to teach us about ourselves is, likewise, to adopt an ethical viewpoint on the significance of his works. This does not mean that Shakespeare invented ex nihilo the anthropological perspective adopted in this book. What it means is that Shakespeare’s plays may be understood as aesthetic reflections on the historical conditions of modern anthropological thought.19 The ethical changes in social organization spread by Christianity brought a new cultural and aesthetic self-consciousness. This new self-consciousness reflects the awareness that the aesthetic scene is structured not just by an unapproachable divine center but by a human periphery existing on the margins of the old center. This focus on the human periphery leads to a greater focus on the ethical problem of resentment, a problem that lies at the core of modern anthropological thought, as Nietzsche realized. The most persuasive answer to the question of why we need yet another book on Shakespeare is to point to this ethical motivation.

When Albany accuses Goneril of ingratitude toward her father, he worries that her offense will breed further evil until society “must perforce prey on itself.” Shakespeare’s characters repeatedly return to this dismal vision of the total collapse of humanity’s civilizing institutions. But this collapse is never represented by Shakespeare as a consequence of malign natural or supernatural influences (though, of course, his characters may represent violence in ways that shift blame away from themselves, as Gloucester does when he blames Edgar’s disloyalty on the “late eclipses in the sun and moon”). Shakespeare’s plays are concerned not with the violent spectacle of humans being destroyed by vengeful gods or natural disasters but with the violent spectacle of humans destroying themselves. In short, Shakespeare’s plays are above all concerned with the ethical question of the survival of humanity in the face of humanity’s violence toward itself. That this is also the basic premise of a generative anthropology suggests the relevance of the latter when it comes to reading Shakespeare. As Gans succinctly puts it in his definition of generative anthropology, “Humanity is the species for which the central problem of survival is posed by the relations within the species itself rather than those with the external world.”20 If the readings I provide in the following chapters have anything lastingly meaningful to say, it will be because they succeed in connecting Shakespeare not just to his particular historical context in early modern England but also to our global and ethically fragile human community.

It has become unfashionable to refer to Shakespeare’s universality. We live in an age opposed to universalism, essentialism, or anything that smacks of the (white male) privilege of traditional cultural authority. Unless, of course, we are scientists. Scientists are obliged to apply a privileged and universal method if they are to be taken seriously by their peers, who are naturally suspicious of the results of experiments that cannot be replicated in their own laboratories. For those skeptical of the notion that Shakespeare might offer insight into our universal humanity, I offer not a universal method but the term “Shakespearean anthropology” or, better yet, Shakespeare’s “ethical discovery procedure.” The latter does not imply that I am applying a method akin to the empirical methods of science (an “-ology”). But nor am I applying an “-ism” or political doctrine (e.g., Marxism, Freudianism, feminism, postcolonialism, etc.). I am trying to think in terms of Shakespeare’s ethical and dramatic aesthetic experiments. The point is not that my version of Shakespeare should be identical to yours. That would defeat the purpose of dialogue. The point is that whereas the finer historical details of Shakespearean drama may be of interest only to specialists, the ethical origins of humanity are relevant to us all.21

The heuristic exercise of tracing Shakespeare’s dramatic experiments to a hypothetical originary anthropological scene is, despite appearances, an opening to, not a closing down of, further critical work. No one, not even Shakespeare, has a monopoly on human self-understanding. If readers find my analyses of King Lear and Measure for Measure the least bit compelling, that is sufficient evidence that my attempt to initiate a dialogue concerning Shakespeare’s “ethical discovery procedure” has been worthwhile.


*Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Shakespeare’s plays are to The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 6th ed., edited by David Bevington (New York: Pearson Longman, 2009).

1. Richard van Oort, Shakespeare’s Big Men: Tragedy and the Problem of Resentment (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

2. Maynard Mack, Everybody’s Shakespeare: Reflections Chiefly on the Tragedies (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 260.

3. Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), regards the Duke as a mad sociopath who comes close to Iago in his desire to control and manipulate others. For Bloom, Barnardine is the only sane character in a mad play. Only Barnardine, Bloom writes, “has the wisdom to stay perpetually drunk because to be sober in this mad play is to be madder than the maddest” (359). Bloom calls the final long scene, in which the Duke attempts to exert absolute control over the actions and thoughts of his subjects, “a perfectly mad coda” (379).

4. Marshall Sahlins, “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and Polynesia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5, no. 3 (1963): 285–303.

5. See Eric Gans, The End of Culture: Toward a Generative Anthropology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), esp. 150–62, and Science and Faith: The Anthropology of Revelation (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990), esp. 32–47. Recently, Marshall Sahlins, in “The Original Political Society,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7, no. 2 (2017): 91–128, seems to have come around to Gans’s position. He is now calling for “a Copernican Revolution in the sciences of society and culture” (117), a shift from an anthropology that understands the sacred as a reifying projection of existing (secular) human relations to an anthropology that sees the “original political society” in the relationship between human periphery and sacred center. “Human political power,” Sahlins writes, “is the usurpation of divine power” (119). Sahlins’s evidence for this claim is the presence within egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies of a highly developed hierarchy among the sacred beings who govern these societies. Sahlins calls these sacred beings “metapersons,” and he argues that they should be understood to be the prototype of personhood as such. These sacred beings or metapersons have the power “to impose rules and render justice that would be the envy of kings” (93). It follows that the sacred precedes and structures the development of social hierarchies in agrarian societies. The original political society is therefore not the agrarian state but, more fundamentally, the human relation to the sacred. In other words, the political and the sacred are coeval, which is to say (with Gans), originary.

6. Harry Jaffa, in “The Limits of Politics: King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1,” in Allan Bloom with Harry V. Jaffa, Shakespeare’s Politics (1964; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 113–45, is one of the few critics to have noticed that far from being a mere fairy tale, Lear’s love test is a pretext for a serious ethical problem—namely, the problem of political succession. “If Lear is, in fact, Shakespeare’s greatest king,” Jaffa writes, “and if it is true that to perpetuate such a rule is an even greater task than to establish it, then the opening of King Lear shows us the old king confronted with the supreme problem of his great career—that of providing for the succession to his throne” (114).

7. Ernest Gellner, Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989). The Islamic proverb is cited as an epigraph to the first chapter.

8. The reader may be surprised by the omission of Northrop Frye from this list of anthropological critics. Is he not an “originary” anthropological thinker? Frye’s literary anthropology can be traced to the last great Victorian anthropologist, James George Frazer. Despite the sophistication of Frye’s taxonomy of literary archetypes, when pushed to explain the origin of these archetypes, he falls back on a positivist (i.e., pre-Durkheimian) account of symbolic representation. Thus, he explains the origin of culture as an attempt to synchronize an archetypal symbolic pattern, whether in ritual, myth, or literature, with the individual’s non-cultural perception of seasonal change. Consider, for example, this passage from his Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957): “A farmer must harvest his crop at a certain time of the year, but because he must do this anyway, harvesting itself is not precisely a ritual. It is the expression of a will to synchronize human and natural energies at that time which produces the harvest songs, harvest sacrifices, and harvest folk customs that we associate with ritual” (120). But where does this passion to synchronize “human and natural energies” come from? Frye assumes precisely what he needs to explain, namely, the capacity to represent the world symbolically. In this sense, Frye’s originary scene is not all that different from Max Müller’s account of the origin of myth in the individual’s perception of the awesome spectacle of the rising sun. As Durkheim pointed out, if the sun rises every day, why would a solitary and prelinguistic protohuman find this habitual sight awesome, which is to say, worth representing collectively? Significance comes not from nature but from humans collectively and symbolically representing themselves in the figure of the sacred (i.e., the god or “metaperson”). It follows that representation cannot be derived empirically by a psychology of iconic and indexical associations between naturally occurring phenomena such as the rising sun or the passage of the seasons. Frye is on firmer ground when he writes that Frazer’s “Golden Bough is, from the point of view of literary criticism, an essay on the ritual content of naïve drama: that is, it reconstructs an archetypal ritual from which the structure and generic principles of drama may be logically, not chronologically, derived. . . . The literary relation of ritual to drama, like that of any other aspect of human action to drama, is a relation of content to form only, not one of source to derivation” (109). Frye touches on the essential problem here, which is the relation of form to content or, to put it in more overtly linguistic terms, the relation of the word to its object. This problem is not unique to literature; it concerns any use of symbolic reference, which is basically a means for designating central (scenic) significance or, to use Frye’s term, “content.” In the end, however, Frye’s literary anthropology remains too wedded to the positivism of a pre-Durkheimian—and a fortiori a pre-Derridean or pre-Gansian—account of symbolic culture.

9. See, in particular, Gans, End of Culture and Originary Thinking: Elements of Generative Anthropology (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993). The term genetic is used here in the most general sense of “relating to origin or development” (Oxford English Dictionary). Concepts such as desire and resentment are cultural categories and, in that sense, assume the existence of cultural institutions such as language, religion, and art. A hypothesis seeking to explain the latter must therefore also be historical, which is to say, the particular cultural elements we wish to explain must be genetically traceable to historical precursors going back, ultimately, to the first cultural moment or institution. The “originary hypothesis” assumes that the fundamental cultural institution is language, the origin of which it is the purpose of the hypothesis to explain. The hypothesis is not an empirical hypothesis but rather a heuristic by which to understand the general historical development of more complex cultural forms—such as, for example, Shakespearean drama.

10. Robert McCrum, “‘Perfect Mind’: On Shakespeare and the Brain,” Brain: A Journal of Neurology 139, no. 12 (2016): 3011,

11. Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 34. Deacon specializes in the study of Darwinian evolutionary processes. If a neuroscientist can make the claim that the brain evolves in response to the origin of outside-the-brain social and symbolic processes, then humanists should not be shy about repeating it. The claim strikes me as an urgent call to action for those in the humanities, who should put aside their misguided fascination for pseudoscience and scientism. On the topic of scientism in the humanities, see Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (Durham, UK: Acumen, 2011).

12. How do I know that chimpanzees don’t use language? Isn’t it possible that I simply haven’t figured out how to speak “chimpanzee”? The short answer to this question is that if wild chimpanzees used language, they would be able to represent their interests collectively both to themselves and to others (e.g., the United Nations, the governments of the countries in which they live, researchers like Jane Goodall, etc.) rather than have humans speak for them—by, for example, setting up chimpanzee sanctuaries such as the one in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. For the long answer, see Deacon’s Symbolic Species. A useful introduction to this question is Robbins Burling’s beautifully lucid discussion in The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

13. Deacon, Symbolic Species, 52.

14. For an ontogenetic account of the joint attentional scene, see Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

15. See, for example, Deacon’s analysis of the many language-training experiments of chimpanzees in part 1 of Symbolic Species. I have discussed the relevance of Deacon’s work to literary studies in “Cognitive Science and the Problem of Representation,” Poetics Today 24, no. 2 (2003): 237–95.

16. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

17. I have deliberately kept my summary of the originary hypothesis brief because I think the best test of the hypothesis is to put it to work in a reading of King Lear and Measure for Measure. For a more detailed summary of the hypothesis as well as an account of some of the convergences between generative anthropology and recent Shakespeare criticism, see the first two chapters of Shakespeare’s Big Men. If the interested reader would like to delve further into generative anthropology, I recommend beginning with Gans’s Originary Thinking. This book provides a clear exposition of the hypothesis, which Gans then applies to the areas of language, religion, ethics, and aesthetics.

18. Paul A. Kottman, in Love as Human Freedom (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017), makes much the same point when he observes that the spectacular advances in science and technology that have so transformed the world in which we live cannot themselves explain this world. “We may,” Kottman writes, “find ourselves empowered by modern science to bring into being nuclear weapons, medical cures, mechanical demands on our time and attention—but none of these phenomena can be fully explained or evaluated by the natural-scientific discoveries that gave rise to them.” “The social authority of the scientific method as a social practice or institution,” Kottman continues, “cannot itself be evaluated by means of the scientific method” (16). Kottman’s specific aim is to carve a space within the humanities for a philosophical anthropology that addresses fundamental categories of human self-understanding, in particular, the notion that “love is a fundamental form of human self-education” toward freedom and rationality (3).

19. On the idea of Shakespeare as a precursor to modern anthropology, see my “Shakespeare and the Idea of the Modern,” New Literary History 37, no. 2 (2006): 319–39.

20. Gans, Originary Thinking, 2 (Gans’s italics).

21. There appears to be increasing dissatisfaction in Shakespeare studies with the historicist orthodoxy. See, for example, William Kerrigan, Hamlet’s Perfection (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), esp. chap. 1; Edward Pechter, Shakespeare Studies Today: Romanticism Lost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); Paul A. Kottman, “Why Think about Shakespearean Tragedy Today?,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd ed., ed. Claire McEachern, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 240–61; Michael Bristol, “Vernacular Criticism and the Scenes Shakespeare Never Wrote,” in Shakespeare Survey, vol. 53, ed. Peter Holland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 89–102, and “Macbeth the Philosopher: Rethinking Context,” New Literary History 42, no. 4 (Autumn 2011), 641–62; Ewan Fernie, The Demonic: Literature and Experience (London: Routledge, 2013); and Amir Khan, Shakespeare in Hindsight: Counterfactual Thinking and Shakespearean Tragedy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).