Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Love-Child of Shakespeare and the Kabbalah

When I did a little research on The Tempest a few weeks back, I found this amazing chart:

I’ve been trying for weeks to decipher this nutty thing. It’s an attempt by scholar G. Wilson Knight to map Shakespeare’s cosmic order, which he dubbed “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe”. Knight wrote one of the 20C’s great works of Shakespearean scholarship, The Wheel of Fire, but this looks like something a mad kabbalist would’ve come up with. The source is The Shakespearian [sic] Tempest, which I finally dug up, only to find it as impenetrable as the chart:

The opposition of tempests and music is itself regarded as provisional, since tempests are part of 'great creating nature', and indeed themselves a music. They are thus more ultimate than 'disorder' or 'death', which remain negative and provisional—you cannot use the words without some sense of the deplorable, or the bad (disorder always sounds nasty)—while the Shakespearian heart is, and must be, a grand positive, beyond all moral or metaphysical negations.

Since I found this chart, I’ve been trying to decode its mysteries. I’ll only bore you for a minute…

Bisecting the chart is a “line of poetic insight”; I have no idea what that means. But it acts as a mirror, so that the social realm on its left has its reflection in the personal on the right. Similarly, at the equator, “tempest” merges into “order” above and into strife (“armed opposition”) below. Now, you see the little arrows near the “harmonies” that point off the chart? At first I read them like a “straight” line at the poles on a Mercator map, which on a globe would be a circle. So if you head up on the left, you’d arc back on the right. But according to Knight’s notes, they’re actually like the warp tunnels in Pac-Man: if you go up from the top, you come out at the bottom.

Enough of that. This chart exerts a magnetic tug, pulling me into its madness. We can map the cosmos of Dante or Milton or Blake, since their works were themselves cosmic visions. But Shakespeare had no conceptual unity in the 37+ plays he wrote over 20+ years. That’s not to say he started each new script with a blank worldview. But his poetic imagery and plot & character arcs don’t translate naturally to spatial terms. In fact, to call Macbeth’s metamorphosis from Act 1 to Act 5 a “character arc” is to rely on a conventional metaphor, and maybe not the most accurate one.

So I’m trying to develop an alternative to “Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe”. One of the flaws in a spatial representation of Shakespeare's cosmos is that it doesn’t account for the plasticity from play to play. Elements such as tempests and battles, strong queens and canny fools, forests and courts, England and Rome, father-daughter pairs and plays-within-plays, even styles of prose and poetry, may loom large or fade into the background, fuse into one chimera-symbol, or get ignored entirely. A project in this blog will be tracking these and other tropes from play to play, deducing their meaning within the play's context and in the larger scope of Shakespearean dramaturgy.

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