Month: September 2015

Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.

Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Hamlet and the Trinitarian nature of man

The Baroque period stands at the transition point between the medieval and the modern, at the crest of the Renaissance and the cusp of the Scientific Revolution. In literature, the baroque stands at the nexus between the Spirit-driven storytelling of the Middle Ages and the Son-driven works of the modern era. As a result, baroque literature, and above all the works of Shakespeare, serves as an ample demonstration of the conjunction of the three drives into a cohesive whole. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in particular, presents an example of a perfectly proportioned dramatic work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare demonstrates the insufficiency of both the purely Father-driven as well as the merely Son-driven and, in the final act, brings the two together into a harmony through the working of the Spirit.

The first half of Hamlet presents a Father-driven narrative which harkens back to the literature of the ancient world. Here the prevailing principles are fate, justice, and the overbearingly paternal. It is the latter element, however, which is the most apparent throughout this section, and which gives birth to the other two. In the first act, three overbearing fathers are introduced: Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of the father of the eponymous Hamlet. Each of them represents a distortion of the paternal, which distortions in turn inhibit the working of the Son and the Spirit.

Claudius is by far the most egregious and obvious example of this distorted paternal element. He has become the king of Denmark by murdering his own brother, Hamlet’s father, and usurping the throne by marrying Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. In this, he represents a son who has unrightfully taken the place of the father through his own will. This is further demonstrated by his relationship to Hamlet, who, given his relationship to the previous king, is himself the rightful king. Whereas Hamlet, as rightful king, has the priorities of a father, insofar as a king is a father to his people, over Claudius, Claudius exercises a domineering and demeaning paternalism over Hamlet. Indeed, the first time in the play that Claudius addresses Hamlet he addresses him as “my son” (act one, scene two, line 64). Hamlet’s response – “a little more than kin, and less than kind” (line 65) – is more apt than Hamlet is able to realize at that point. Hamlet’s meaning, within the context of the knowledge hitherto available to him, is to condemn the marriage of Claudius to Gertrude, which he sees as having occurred too soon after the death of his father; his words, however, represent a correct evaluation of the yet to be revealed nature of their relationship. Claudius is indeed “a little more than,” or closer than he rightfully should be, in his kinship to Hamlet, which relationship is “less than,” or of an unnatural and disordered, “kind.” Hamlet is rightfully the king who exercises the parental privileges therein entailed over Claudius, yet Claudius, through his murder and usurpation, has placed himself over Hamlet. The father and the son are displaced and the spirit unable to act as the seal and stability of the relationship. In this, the case of Claudius appears more than either Polonius or Hamlet’s father to be a distortion of the paternal element of fate. He has, through his own will, usurped Hamlet’s inheritance and ordains for Hamlet a fate contrary to that fate allotted to Hamlet by nature.

In the following scene (scene 3), Polonius makes his first appearance as a distorted father of another type. While Polonius, unlike Claudius, is without a doubt the rightful father of Laertes and Ophelia, he exercises his paternal privileges in a manner which is to the detriment of both in the hopes of using them to advance his own interests in the service of the king. In a particularly pointed comment in scene two, act two, Hamlet refers to Polonius as a new Jephthah, recalling the biblical figure of the Book of Judges who, in Judges 11 sacrificed his own daughter in order to fulfill a vow he had made to God to sacrifice the first thing upon which he laid eyes when he returned home after battle. The ensuing dialogue (lines 403-413) provides a great deal of insight into Polonius’s personality, and his distortion of the paternal:

Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius: What a treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet: Why

“One fair daughter, and no more,

The which he loved passing well.”

Polonius: Still on my daughter.

Hamlet: Am I not i’th’ right, old Jephthah?

Polonius: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.

Hamlet: Nay, that follows not.

Hamlet sees that Polonius has used his daughter, Ophelia, and the mutual love between she and Hamlet to increase his own stature in the view of the king. In calling Polonius by the name of Jephthah, Hamlet reveals Polonius’s perverse willingness to, in a sense, sacrifice his own daughter to advance his political ambitions. Polonius interprets the reference in the manner most favorable to himself, stating that, just as did Jephthah, he does “have a daughter” whom he “love[s] passing well.” Hamlet, however, ensures Polonius faces the full and intended meaning of the reference: it “follows not” that because Polonius, like Jephthah, had a daughter, Polonius also loves her as did Jephthah. Rather, Polonius’s willingness to sacrifice his daughter is indicative of Polonius’s love for himself first and foremost. Polonius, then, is of the three distortions of fatherhood presented in sequence in the first act, the most representative of a failing in the paternal element of headship. He has distorted the leadership of a father from a self-sacrificing care to a self-serving tyranny.

While Polonius proves incorrect on nearly every accusation and prediction he makes, there is one statement made by him in act one, scene three, which is premonitory in spite of the falsehood of its context. In the course of convincing Ophelia that Hamlet’s love for her is merely passing and lustful rather than an authentic and enduring love, which is itself incorrect, Polonius correctly tells her that “his will is not his own. / For he himself is subject to his birth” (lines 17-18).

The true nature of Hamlet’s subjection to his birth is revealed in act one, scene five, the climax of the first act. The ghost of Hamlet’s father visits to inform Hamlet of his murder at the hands of Claudius, his own brother who had usurped the throne, and to spur him on to vengeance. His father’s ghost informs Hamlet that he is “bound” (line 7) by his relationship to his “dear father” (line 24) to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (line 26). In this scene, there is a confluence of all three elements of the Father-driven; fate, justice, and imperiousness are brought together in this third and culminating example of the distorted paternal. Each of these, however, is itself distorted as well. It is not without irony, for example, that Hamlet’s father, in the course of ordering his son to avenge his murder, admits that he himself is suffering in Purgatory for “the foul crimes done in my days of nature” (line 13), among which crimes were also murder (act one, scene one, line 90) and the usurpation of the rule of the lands formerly in the possession of the murdered (lines 92-93). The call for vengeance by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, then, is not an authentic call for justice and the restoration of proper order, but is rather the product of spite and bitterness in the face of a personal affront. Hamlet’s father, then, although he convenes all three elements of the paternal into himself more than either Claudius and Polonius, represents most of all a distortion in the element of justice.

Ultimately, the distorted fatherhoods of Claudius, Polonius, and the ghost of Hamlet’s father are the source of the conflict at the heart of Hamlet. Hamlet is obligated to avenge his father’s murder yet the object of his vengeance, Claudius, has become the king, “the Dane” (act one, scene one, line 17 and act one, scene two, line 44). As such, he is a representative of the nation itself. To kill him, then, is an attack not only upon his person but upon all of Denmark. Indeed, even when Hamlet does, in the final scene (act five, scene two), finally expose the crime of Claudius and take vengeance upon him for his father’s murder, the immediate reaction of all of those assembled is to cry “Treason! Treason!” (line 325). The bulk of the play documents Hamlet’s attempts to resolve the tension of conflicting filial obligations which must be rendered to his unworthy fathers.

Hamlet feels constrained by his dilemma and is unable to act. He refers to Denmark, and even the whole world (line 245), as a “prison” to which people are thrown “at the hands of Fortune” (act two, scene two, lines 241-242). The next time Hamlet enters the stage after being told by his father’s ghost that his murder must be avenged, Hamlet is in fact wandering about the castle, Elsinore, reading a book (act two, scene two, line 168). Hamlet is, however, soon able to formulate a plan by which he hopes to discover whether Claudius is without a doubt the murderer. Hamlet commissions a group of actors to perform a play which features a crime similar to that committed by Claudius. He hopes that, being so publicly confronted with his crime, Claudius will in some way reveal his guilt. Such a confession on Claudius’s part, whatever its nature, will free Hamlet, so he believes, of his obligations to Claudius and allow him to finally extract the vengeance his father’s ghost desires. Hamlet is, however, more taken in by the actors than even he is able to fully realize.

It is at this point, beginning in act two, scene two, and culminating in act three, scene three, that the play shifts from being Father-driven to being Son-driven. Rather than promptly fulfilling his fate and carrying out the act of vengeance on behalf of his father, Hamlet instead takes control. As Hamlet samples the talents of the actors, the dramatic piece he chooses is indicative of the transition being made in the play. It is a selection from the Aeneid, a powerfully Father-driven work, the piece which the actor presents concluding with a condemnation of fate (act two, scene two, lines 493-497):

Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune! All you gods

In general synod take away her power!

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven

As low as to the fiends!

With this condemnation of fate, there is a decisive break with the Father-driven, which culminates in the peculiar actions of both Claudius and Hamlet in act three, scene three.

Claudius has been presented with his sin by the play put on by Hamlet and Hamlet has been provided the proof he desired by Claudius’s reaction to the play. After the ensuing tumult, Claudius finds himself alone and begins to lament his murder of his brother: “Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven. / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder.” (lines  36-38). In recognizing his crime, Claudius begins the process of repentance and has the opportunity to begin to undo the damage he has caused and thereby set things into proper order. He finds himself unable to proceed, however, declaring (lines 40-43, 51-56):

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,

And like a man to double business bound

I stand in pause where I shall first begin,

And both neglect. …

My fault is past. But oh, what form of prayer

Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?

That cannot be, since I am still possessed

Of those effects for which I did the murder:

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

Claudius finds himself at the center of a conflict between the elements of Father and Son. He feels compelled to restore order, yet desires to retain the possessions he had acquired as a result of his sin.

In the same scene, Hamlet also finds himself in the midst of such a conflict. While Claudius is kneeling in his vacillating prayer, Hamlet quietly enters behind him and sees his opportunity to finally kill Claudius and avenge his father (lines 73-75):

Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying;

And now I’ll do’t. And so ‘a goes to heaven,

And so am I revenged.

Like Claudius, however, Hamlet hesitates. He believes that if he were to kill Claudius now, while he is praying, Claudius’s soul will go straight to Heaven. For Hamlet, though, this is not enough. He does not desire mere justice, but to send the soul of Claudius to Hell. He decides, therefore, to wait until such a time that he might find Claudius (lines 89-92)

when he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,

Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed,

At game, a-swearing, or about some act

That has no relish of salvation in’it –

Both Hamlet and Claudius have moved away from the Father-driven. Both refuse to fulfill their fates and obligations and turn instead to their own will, to the Son-driven. Claudius avoids submission to the Fatherhood of God, and the restoration of justice and order which this would inevitably bring. Hamlet, for his part, goes beyond the command of his father and insists on much more than justice. It is at this point, with the resolution of the coterminous indecision of Hamlet and Claudius, caught up between the Father and the Son but without the guidance and activity of the Spirit, that Hamlet the play turns in a decidedly Son-driven direction.

The most central feature of this Son-driven section of Hamlet, which lasts until the final scene, is the feigned madness of Hamlet, which began in act two, scene two, and its contrast with the authentic madness of Ophelia. Hamlet’s pretension to madness is a mimicry of the power of the Spirit. Through his own will, he attempts to drive the course of events toward the resolution he desires. The result is further disorder. Almost immediately after deciding not yet to kill Claudius, Hamlet murders Polonius (act three, scene four), an act which drives Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius and the woman whom Hamlet loves, to insanity, an insanity which eventually results in her suicide (act four, scene seven). Laertes, the son of Polonius, is, in turn, driven to his own sort of madness in his raving desire to slay Hamlet in revenge for the death of his father. In his rage, Laertes puts into words the Son-driven impetus behind the entire section: “My will, not all the world’s” (act four, scene five).

Even while feigning his madness and leaving a profusion of disorder in his wake, Hamlet also moves through this section to awareness of his inability to restore order by his own will; he realizes, in other words, the insufficiency of the Son-driven. The event which is the paramount impetus toward this realization is his observation of a gravedigger digging a grave.

As the gravedigger digs, he throws several skulls out of his way. Hamlet’s initial reaction is one of righteous indignation at the apparent sacrilege (lines 75-80):

That skull had a tongue in it and could sin once. How the knave jowls it to the ground, as if ‘twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches, one that would circumvent God, might it not?

This indignation, however, soon transforms itself into a realization of the mortality of man and the resultant insufficiency of the human will to restore order with its own power. As he watches the gravedigger toss another skull, Hamlet wonders (lines 98-103):

Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? Why does he suffer this mad knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery?

The realization finally breaks through fully when Hamlet finds the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, on the ground. Picking up the skull, Hamlet reminisces on his experiences with Yorick and asks the skull, “where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not on now, to mock your own grinning?” (lines 188-191). Each man will someday die, Hamlet realizes, and be subject to the will of another. Even those who in life held great power and whose will was effective will not be able to defend themselves against wrongs, much less put right the many and various disorders and wrongs of the world more generally. The will, the Son, is insufficient when separated from the guidance of the Father and the activity of the Spirit.

Hamlet is finally pushed decidedly away from the Son-driven when he discovers the funeral of Ophelia in progress. Shocked at least into action by the sight and spurred onto understanding, Hamlet’s earlier statement (act four, scene two), made during his period of feigned madness that “the body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing –” here comes to full fruition. Hamlet realizes that he is himself the king; as he enters the area where the funeral rites are being performed he announces himself as “Hamlet the Dane” (act five, scene one, line 258), as the living embodiment of the state in a particular person, a position only the king can claim. He has become, in a sense, the father, thereby reconciling the Father and the Son.

The three references to Hercules, the prototypical Son-driven character, over the course of Hamlet are particularly illustrative of the realization and transition which Hamlet is here undergoing. The first, in act one, scene two, is an uncharacteristically self-aware statement by Hamlet in the course of voicing a complaint against Claudius to Horatio. “My father’s brother,” he says, “but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (lines 152-153). Hamlet’s confession of his unlikeness to Hercules is revelatory of the events which will ensue later in the play. While Hamlet is, like Hercules, the son of a king, he lacks the will and the power of Hercules and is unable to accomplish his task through his own strength. The second reference to Hercules comes in act two, scene two, in which Rosencrantz refers to the ability of actors to “carry … away,” meaning win, “Hercules and his load too” (lines 360-362), a fact proven only slightly later in the ability of an actor to cause Hamlet to “[turn] his color and [have] tears in his eyes” (lines 519-520), which moment inspires Hamlet’s plan to put on a play for Claudius about his crime and thereby expose him. In spite of his earlier admission that he is no Hercules, Hamlet has decided to become Hercules, taking on the task and seeking to conquer it by his own will. The final reference to Hercules, however, comes at the end of act five, scene one, and the final transition from the Son-driven section of Hamlet to the Spirit-driven final scene in which the Spirit accomplishes a reconciliation of the Fatherly and Sonly elements. It is here, after reconciling the Fatherly and Sonly elements within himself, that Hamlet proclaims “let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (lines 294-295). Hamlet’s reconciliation of Father and Son is the moment of anagnorisis, his realization of his self and his predicament, which finally allows the effective action of the Spirit.

It is this effective action which is the subject of act five, scene two, the final scene of the play. In a fast-moving succession of events, justice and mercy, Father and Son, are reconciled. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, is killed by drinking from a cup of poison intended for Hamlet (line 313), receiving her justice for her betrayal of her former husband in her incestuous relationship with his brother in a marriage only two months after the death of her former husband. Immediately, Hamlet forces Claudius also to drink from the cup, finally exacting the revenge he had so long hesitated to administer (line 329). Hamlet and Laertes then die from wounds inflicted by each upon the other with a sword dipped in poison. Before their respective deaths, however, the two “exchange forgiveness” with each other (line 331), thereby allowing not only justice to have its way but mercy as well. Finally, Hamlet dies of his wound, having brought his will into line with fate, mercy with justice, and the Father with the Son, resulting in his actions, the effective working of the Spirit. As Hamlet himself says in the same scene shortly before his fencing match against Laertes (217-222):

We defy augury. There is special providence in the final of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

Through letting it be, the Trinitarian elements of man are able to find their confluence in Hamlet.

The final reconciliation and confluence of the three follows after the death of Hamlet. Upon Hamlet’s death, Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince of Denmark enters to find the bodies of Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet strewn about following the action of the scene. Upon the discovery of what had occurred, Fortinbras completes the work of the Spirit, restoring justice in revenge for his father, whom Hamlet’s father had murdered, by taking over the rule of Denmark (390-392), allowing the working of mercy in ordering that Hamlet be honored as a deceased Danish king (lines 397-405), and compelling Horatio to tell the story of Hamlet (388-389).

In all of this, Hamlet presents a remarkable contrast with both Father-driven ancient literature and Son-driven modern literature, where both might suitably end, each for its own reason, immediately following the death of Hamlet, rather than allowing the introduction of Fortinbras to set things right altogether. The Aeneid, for example, presents a powerful contrast as a representative of Father-driven literature; Aeneas, the hero driven by his fate, slays his enemy, Turnus, in rage (Book 12, lines 950-953):

Incensed, he thrust the sword through Turnus’ chest.

His enemy’s body soon grew cold and helpless,

While the indignant soul flew down to Hades.

And there the Aeneid ends, perhaps with the restoration of justice, as Aeneas’s murder of Turnus was in revenge for Turnus’s murder of Pallas, but certainly without mercy and without reconciliation, without Son and Spirit. The Old Man and the Sea presents a counterpoint in Son-driven literature. Rather than the accurate account of Horatio, a living witness, before an eager audience, the story of the old man, Santiago, and his epic struggle at sea with a large marlin remains untold. Instead, a group of tourists spot the half-eaten marlin on the beach and misidentify it as a shark, learning nothing further of the fish or the old man who struggled to bring it ashore. The Old Man and the Sea ends where it remained throughout: in the Son and without Father, as there is no vindication for Santiago, and without Spirit, as there is no memory of him, no one to tell the story of his heroics.

What Shakespeare has accomplished in Hamlet is a perfect harmony of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as these three manifest themselves in man and his literary productions. He has demonstrated the need to bring them into harmony within oneself, most of all in the character of Hamlet, as well as exhibiting the harmony of the three in a work of literature.

Henry V and the Trinitarian nature of man

In Henry V, the culmination of his Henriad, Shakespeare presents a king who exemplifies the perfect combination of the Trinitarian elements within man. Importantly, he does so within the context of a play that, as Shakespeare admits several times throughout, is itself lacking in its ability to bring the three into harmony. He is a man, aware of the source and nature of his existence in the image of God, placed into a world that, while not entirely disordered, falls short of the ideal. Working within the limitations imposed by time, place, and circumstance, Henry works to redeem this macrocosm through the perfecting of himself as microcosm. In his examination of Shakespeare from “the perspective of value,” Robert E. Fitch concludes that “King Henry is Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal leader of men at any time in any place.” Though Fitch rightly hesitates to agree with Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s assessment “that Henry is essentially Shakespeare himself,” Fitch perhaps does not go far enough in his own assessment. King Henry is not only Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal leader; he is Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal man. While he may not be Shakespeare himself, he is undoubtedly the sort of person whom Shakespeare desired to be.

He is, in fact, the sort of man any man of Shakespeare’s time would have desired to be. The ideal embodied in Henry V, says Theodore Spencer, “is the ideal of the whole Hellenistic tradition of the nature of man, whose specific function, reason, should govern the passions which spring from the senses he shares with the animals.” Moreover, according to E.M.W. Tillyard, due to the religious conflicts of the age “the battle between Reason and Passion … was peculiarly vehement in the age of Elizabeth.” In Trinitarian terminology, Henry is perhaps the only personality in Western literature who brings the Father, the Son, and the Spirit into perfect relation. Henry’s will and passions operate in perfect obedience to his reason.

This harmony of the Trinitarian nature of the human being is accomplished by Henry through his pursuit of “knowledge and wisdom,” a pursuit which, says Tillyard, “marks man from angel and beast” in Elizabethan thought. This is the central significance of the dialogue among the three churchmen in the opening scene of Henry V. While the exchange acts as a literary device which explains to the audience why the Henry V presented in this play will be so different from the Prince Hal encountered earlier in the Henriad, the explanation given is one that appeals explicitly to the Elizabethan understanding of the importance of wisdom and knowledge to the fullness of humanity. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s description of Henry hymns his wisdom and knowledge (1.1.39-53):

Hear him but reason in divinity,

And all-admiring with an inward wish

You would desire the king were made a prelate:

Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,

You would say it hath been all in all his study:

List his discourse of war, and you shall hear

A fearful battle render’d you in music:

Turn him to any cause of policy,

The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,

Familiar as his garter: that, when he speaks,

The air, a charter’d libertine, is still,

And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears,

To steal his sweet and honey’d sentences;

So that the art and practic part of life

Must be the mistress to this theoric …

Henry’s “theoric,” as Shakespeare demonstrates it, consists of a fervent love for his nation not only in the abstract but in each of the particular persons over whom he reigns as king. Henry’s own description of the burdens of kings in 4.1 provides an insight into his philosophy of kingship. He begins (4.1.228-231):

Upon the King! Let us our lives, our souls,

Our debts, our careful wives,

Our children, and our sins lay on the King!

We must bear it all.

Henry’s love for his people is surpassed only by his love for God. Henry in fact mentions God more often than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s works. His utter reliance upon God’s judgment and mercy is evident throughout the play, but nowhere more than in his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in 4.3, in which Henry adjures his men, who have expressed their concern at the overwhelming numbers of the French in comparison with their own English forces, “God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more” (4.3.23). “Rather proclaim it … through my host,” he continues, “That he which hath no stomach to this fight, / Let him depart” (4.3.34-36). Henry has taken upon himself the burdens of a king in his self-sacrificing love for his people and, in turn, placed his faith and hope in God whom he loves above all else.

This “theoric” of Henry is exhibited through his “art and practic” in his balance of justice and mercy. Fitch describes this balance as it appears in Henry’s actions; he exhibits “justice in dismissing Falstaff, mercy in giving him a pension; justice in the death penalty for the three traitors against the crown, but mercy for the man who railed against his person.” Even in his application of justice in the extreme case of the three traitors, Henry finds a balance with mercy (2.2.142-143):

Arrest them to the answer of the law;

And God acquit them of their practices!

He finds them guilty and orders them justly punished in accordance with the law. With the next breath, however, he offers a pray on their behalf that God might forgive their crime.

In short, as Fitch notes, Henry embodies all 12 of the virtues necessary to a good king as described by Malcolm in Macbeth (4.3.92-94):

As justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness,

Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,

Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.

Even Henry’s enemy, the King of France, describes him as possessing “native mightiness and fate” (2.4.64). In possessing fate, or the element of the Father, as well as “native mightiness,” a combination of the Son and Spirit, Henry V is an exhibition of the Trinitarian nature of man in perfect harmony.

Henry does have his detractors, however. War-weariness and suspicion of strong political figures are two facets of the predominant mode of the West following the failures and atrocities of the strong centralized state systems of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the communist Soviet Union. This has led some modern interpreters of Shakespeare’s plays to espouse negative views of the strong leaders presented therein. Orson Welles’s famous 1937 depiction of Julius Caesar as a figure much like Benito Mussolini is an analogy which falls far short if the character of Caesar is considered in all its complexity, but which is representative of this modern approach to certain characters. As he is by far the strongest leader presented in Shakespeare’s canon, Henry V has, of course, been the object of much of this derision of leadership. Henry V’s treatment by Harold Bloom in his popular Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human provides one representative example.

Bloom’s central complaint against Henry, the complaint from which all others flow, is what he sees as the injustice of Henry’s dismissal of Falstaff. According to Bloom, Falstaff is Henry’s “endlessly gifted teacher” who “prepares his own destruction not only by teaching too well but by loving much too well.” Henry, on the other hand, is the ungrateful and nearly sociopathic child who “loves no one.” He merely uses Falstaff to advance his own power and discards Falstaff when he is no longer useful. Bloom has turned the dismissal and pensioning of Falstaff by Henry, which Fitch uses as an example of Henry’s balance of justice and mercy, on its head. For Bloom, Falstaff dismissal is a demonstration of Henry’s lack of both justice and mercy. There is, however, an additional consideration which is noted by neither Bloom nor Fitch.

As the clergymen of the opening scene of Henry V discuss, Henry has matured a great deal since his time in the company of Falstaff. He has become a mature man as well as the King of England. Bloom is quite insightful in his characterization of Falstaff as “neither immoral nor amoral but of another realm, the order of play.” However, Bloom fails to appreciate the implications here for Henry. Henry has not cast off an old friend in the ruthless pursuit of personal power. He has, rather, grown up. The words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11 would fit well on the lips of Henry V: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Falstaff as “play in its sweetest and purest sense” is essentially childish. In order to become a man, Henry had to put him away.

As a further example of Henry’s supposed hypocrisy, Bloom turns Henry’s words in his St. Crispin’s Day Speech against him. Where Henry tells those gathered with him that “he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (4.3.-61-62), Bloom rather assures that “neither we nor he believes a word he says.” On the contrary, Bloom continues, “the common soldiers fighting with their monarch are not going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles.”

Even before Henry speaks these words, however, the play has already offered a rebuttal to Bloom’s dubious interpretation of them. Henry V, to be perfectly Trinitarian, must also be perfectly Incarnational, and so he is. In the first scene of the same act (the fourth), Henry temporarily divests himself of the “ceremony” (4.1.237) which separates kings from their people. He descends among his men and becomes one of them. Henry imitates the Incarnation of Christ, as described in Philippians 2:6-7: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Henry so fully identifies with his men that, while speaking to one of them in his disguise, he assures him “the King is but a man, as I am” (4.1.103). Henry’s words about brotherhood in his St. Crispin’s Day Speech, which is delivered nearly on the heels of his incarnation, are far from empty. Indeed, they have already been fulfilled.

Certainly, none of these men are “going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles,” as Bloom reminds us. No society can function without differentiation in social class and no organization can continue to operate without delineation of rank. The desire for an absolute social equality within the English military or within the whole of English society is absurd and to condemn the reasonable for rejecting absurdity only compounds the absurdity. The Elizabethans knew this better than most societies since. Henry V itself contains arguably the most eloquent description of the Elizabethan perspective of the cooperation of the various social classes within an orderly and peaceful society of any literature of the era or any other (1.2.183-204):

Therefore doth heaven divide

The state of man in divers functions,

Setting endeavour in continual motion;

To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,

Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,

Creatures that by a rule in nature teach

The act of order to a peopled kingdom.

They have a king and officers of sorts;

Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,

Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,

Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,

Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,

Which pillage they with merry march bring home

To the tent-royal of their emperor;

Who, busied in his majesty, surveys

The singing masons building roofs of gold,

The civil citizens kneading up the honey,

The poor mechanic porters crowding in

Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,

The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,

Delivering o’er to executors pale

The lazy yawning drone.

While those who hold to the unhealthily bloated modern notion of equality might scoff at such a perspective on society and the cosmos, it is a more complete picture than that offered by the current equality-via-enforced-homogeneity. In the Elizabethan understanding of world and society, “no part was superfluous,” says Tillyard; “it enhanced the dignity of all creation, even of the meanest part of it.”

Henry V would have failed terribly in his duties as king had he destroyed the social order in the adoption of some preposterously misguided ideal of equality. “There will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deut. 15:11); there will always be leaders and followers. The problem is not with kings and kingship. The problem is with tyrants. Christ’s description of leadership provides the formula by which the two may be distinguished: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). The king is the one who leads to serve; the tyrant leads to be served. Henry, in his incarnation, has proven the truth of his own words: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king” (1.2.241).

The most frequent criticism of Henry V, and the only of the common criticisms which finds its mark, concerns his decision to slay the French prisoners in 4.6.36-38:

The French have reinforced their scattered men.

Then every soldier kill his prisoners!

Give the word through.

Alarmed at an apparent second wave of attack by the French, Henry orders the French prisoners of war held by his men killed as a precaution. The decision is an impulsive misjudgment for which Henry deserves all the criticism he receives. As Fluellen notes at the beginning of the following scene (4.7.1-4), which commences immediately following Henry’s loathsome order, “Kill the poys and the luggage? ‘Tis expressly against the laws of arms. ‘Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert;” though speaking to Gower within the context of the play, he seems at this point to turn to the audience with his question: “in your conscience, now, cos it not?” Gower turns Fluellen’s criticism on its head with his response, but the honest answer is that this slaughter of French prisoners is a violation of the conscience and the laws of war and a singularly terrible stain on the character of Henry. The next words that Henry speaks after the order to kill the prisoners grant an insight into the reason for Henry’s order: “I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” (4.7.54-55), he says. If even only for a short moment, Henry lost his Trinitarian balance.

It is with good reason that Henry V has been compared to King David by some scholars. Reverend James Bell’s Biblical and Shakespearian Characters Compared, as Fitch notes in his comments on the relationship between these particular Shakespearean and biblical characters, accesses the essence of each personality through analogy between them. “King Henry, like King David,” says Fitch, “blends in one person the two achievements that have always captured the imagination of men: he is a great fighter [in the Battle of Agincourt]; he is a great lover [of Katharine].” It might suitably be added: he is a great sinner. Both David and Henry are guilty of the greatest sin a man can commit against his fellow man; both are guilty of murder.

In a comparison between the two, however, Henry emerges as the ethical superior even of David, the archetypical biblical king. David’s murder was prompted by his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, inspired by his lust for her. Henry’s murders, however, are the result of a love his country. Whereas David murdered for personal gain, Henry murdered out of concern for his men. While Henry’s motivations by no means excuse the slaughter of the French prisoners, they do present a contrast with David’s addition of sin to sin.

Henry’s status as a “great lover” presents a similar contrast with David. Whereas David takes Bathsheba to satiate his lust, Henry woos Katharine because he loves her and wishes to be loved by her in return (5.2.128-130): “I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, ‘I love you.’ Then if you urge me farther than to say, ‘Do you, in faith?’” While David chooses a married woman, Henry chooses a woman who is so chaste she initially refuses to kiss Henry before their marriage (5.2.260-261). Whereas David uses his power as king to take Bathsheba from her husband and to have her husband murdered, Henry actively avoids the use of his power in his courtship of Katharine. Henry’s wooing of Katharine is the only scene in Henry V in which Henry does not call upon God to assist him. It is also the only scene in which Henry speaks almost entirely in prose, consciously communicating in a way that “is fit for thy [Katharine’s] understanding” (5.2.124). He wishes Katharine to freely choose to love him because his love for her is authentic.

This authentic, freely chosen love between Henry and Katharine leads to the final Trinitarian reconciliation at the end of Henry V. Whereas David’s first son by Bathsheba died in infancy as a result of David’s sin, the son of Henry V and Katharine will grow to be the next king, Henry VI. In the love between Henry V and Katharine which produces Henry VI, there is an analogy to the love of the primordial man and woman, Adam and Eve, which produced Seth (Genesis 4:25). St. John of Damascus saw in this family of Adam, Eve, and Seth an analogy with the Trinity. The love of Adam and Eve and the concomitant birth of Seth is a biblical moment of Trinitarian reconciliation following the fall of man in Genesis 3 and the first murder in Genesis 4; the love of Henry and Katharine and the concomitant birth of Henry VI is Henry V’s moment of reconciliation in the wake of the “fall of man” in 2.2.141 and the murder of the prisoners in 4.6.37. That England will flounder under Henry VI, as lines 11-12 of the short epilogue already presage, is immaterial to this moment, however passing, of perfect Trinitarian reconciliation, just as the eventual sinking of man into wickedness and the coming deluge are immaterial to the moment of Trinitarian reconciliation in the world’s first family. For a moment, Edenic paradise, “the world’s best garden” (Ep.7), has been restored.

Henry V, the perfect man, has been placed into an imperfect world. Shakespeare reminds us of the imperfection of this world in the prologues which precede each act of the play, prologues which Shakespeare himself more than likely read in the earliest performances of the play. The prologue with which the play begins is demonstrative. There, Shakespeare begs the audience’s “pardon” for “the flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” (1.0.9-11). The author, the actors, and the set are unable to provide the Spirit of the play. He therefore asks the audience to complete what is lacking through the use of their own imaginations.

In spite of the significant shortcomings of Henry’s world and despite his own sin, he is nonetheless able to bring about a momentary reconciliation and perfection within it. Theodore Spencer notes that “though to modern readers his behavior as Henry V by no means makes him a perfect individual, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare intended him to embody all that a king should be.” It is Henry’s Trinitarian composition and Incarnational activity which make him “all that a king should be,” the perfect man by Elizabethan standards, even by the perennial Christian standards which stand above those of any particular era, even if not by the degenerate standards of modernity.

Faulkner and Hemingway

As ancient literature is generally characterized by its Father-heaviness and much medieval literature by its Spirit-heaviness, the great bulk of modern literature is characterized by a Son-heaviness. That is, it is driven not by an overarching idea or an inevitable fate, as is ancient literature, nor by the action of the story itself, as in much medieval literature, but, instead, it is driven by its characters. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the human condition is a useful descriptive of the state of the characters of modern literature: “We are left alone, without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.” These characters are not driven by and often have no reference to an overarching idea nor, often, as in Sartre’s own play No Exit, is there is any action, in the usual sense of the word, to speak of. Instead, what confronts the reader is a character or cast of characters thrust into a world they do not understand, acting (or not acting) according to their own whims, impulses, and quirks, which also they do not understand, and, finally, responsible (to whom?) for their own failings (by what standard?).

While the examples of this Son-heaviness in modern literature are multitudinous, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one of the finest examples. Nearly the entirety of the short novelette is consumed by the story of the elderly fisherman, Santiago, being pulled along in his boat by a large marlin in an attempt to capture the fish. He subjects himself to the suffering which ensues, including a terrible cut on his own hand, exhaustion, and dehydration, because he “was born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be a fish.” He must follow the law of his own nature, though he does not understand it or how it came to be, nor is there anything finally redemptive within it.

Notably, Santiago is alone for the whole of his struggle with the fish, interacting only with himself and his personified marlin of his imagination. There is, so to speak, no one to witness his crucifixion and record his story. In the end, a group of tourists sees the remains of the marlin, after most of its body had been stolen away by sharks, lying on the beach and asks a waiter what it is. The waiter, unsure himself, responds by telling them, falsely, that it is “Eshark.”

Meanwhile, Santiago and his young boy assistant, Manolin, have returned to their usual course of living on scraps and trying in, often in vain, to catch the fish they feel compelled to chase after. Because there is only the drive of the characters, there is no final idea, logos, or Father-figure, which can make sense of all of this in the end and no Spirit, ethos, or activity, to enlighten the world about its meaning and its importance. There is a crucifixion with no redemption and no gospel. There is only a return to the norm, to a prolonged and enduring suffering.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a remarkable example of modern literature because it simultaneously keeps its feet firmly planted within this paradigm while stepping outside of it and returning to an earlier order in which the three elements were brought together in more equal measures. The novel is divided into four parts, each of the first three under the direction of one of the elements and the final bringing them together into a near-perfect mixture.

The first part of the novel is told by Benjy, an intellectually disabled man whose narrative of events is often confusing in its nonlinear and ungrammatical structure. It is entirely pathos, or Spirit, driven. Benjy is something of a prophetic figure in that he possesses insights into future events which others lack. His narrative is filled with foreshadowing of the fates of the various members of his family. He vividly remembers seeing his sister, Caddy, who will eventually become a promiscuous young lady pregnant at her own wedding with the child of another man, with “muddy … drawers” while climbing a tree. So much does this event inform his perception of his sister that he continually identifies her with the smell of trees. Similarly, in Benjy’s olfactory-linked premonitions, his brother Quentin, who will later commit suicide by drowning himself, “smelled like rain.”

The tragedy of Benjy, however, is that he his mental handicap is so severe that he is nonverbal. Due to his inability to communicate, Benjy is unable to convey the content of his premonitions through any means but crying, which the others around him regard as a nuisance with no discernable meaning. The Spirit-driven nature of Benjy’s narrative allows him to possess special insights through apparent prophecy and discernment, but renders him incapable of communicating or even understanding his own gifts. With only pathos freed entirely of ethos and logos, there is no means of conveying the message and no grand narrative to place it into and give it meaning.

The second section of The Sound and the Fury is told from the perspective of Quentin, one of Benjy’s two brothers. Quentin’s narrative is ethos, or Son, driven, as Benjy’s is Spirit-driven. Early in his narrative, Quentin conveys much the same idea as Sartre concerning the aloneness of the individual in a world beyond his comprehension and control, saying, “it’s not when you realise that nothing can help you – religion, pride, anything – it’s when you realise that you dont need any aid.” Quentin’s narrative adheres the closest of the four narratives to the framework of modern literature in its Son-driven nature, including the obsessions with freedom and guilt, which manifest in Quentin as obsessions with perception and time.

Both themes are introduced early in Quentin’s narrative. The theme of time is the first introduced, only a few sentences into Quentin’s narrative, as he remembers his father’s admonition to “forget [time] now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.” Shortly after, there is a veiled reference to Quentin as a Christ-figure in the modern sense of the term, as he remembers another statement of his father “that Christ was not crucified: he was worn away by a minute clicking of little wheels.” Quentin, like Santiago of The Old Man and the Sea, will not be subject to a horrifying but brief and glorious crucifixion; instead, he will, like Santiago, be worn away by the inevitability of time, by his own listless and unsatisfactory freedom.

The theme of perception is most insightfully introduced through Quentin’s meditation on his observations of blacks in the North and how they differed from those whom he had grown up around in the South. He realizes that the blacks he encountered during his upbringing in the South had learned to behave in certain stereotyped ways in order to act in accordance with the preconceptions of the Southern whites with whom they interacted. “That was when I realised that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior;” he says, “a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.” His conclusion is that perception is reality. And what he desires to be in reality is a terrible sinner; therefore others must perceive him as such. To this end, Quentin continually attempts to convince others that he is far more sinful than he is in actuality. He confesses to his priest that he has engaged in incest, a crime of which he is not guilty, he lies to his sister about his sexual exploits, and finds joy in being falsely arrested for attempting to kidnap a young girl.

These two themes, time and perception, coalesce into Quentin’s obsessive desire to protect the virtue of his sister. Faulkner’s own commentary on Quentin in the Appendix to The Sound and the Fury are particularly illuminating. Faulkner points out there that Quentin clung to “some concept of Compson honor precariously and (he knew well) only temporarily supported by the minute fragile membrane of her maidenhead as a miniature replica of all the whole vast globy earth may be poised on the nose of a trained seal.” Driven by this antiquated notion of honor, Quentin desired to become a great sinner that “he, not God, could by that means cast himself and his sister both into hell, where he could guard her forever and keep her forevermore intact amid the eternal fires.” Quentin, then, is a man out of his own time. He clings to ideals of martyrdom and chivalry whose day had long sense passed. As a result, he clings to them in a way that dislocates them chronologically and reorients them focally. Whereas martyrdom and chivalry had had God and the Christian ideal at their center within their respective historical contexts, Quentin’s martyrdom and chivalrousness instead have only an unidentifiable and unconquerable drive which results in the will to self-destruction. Because the Father/logos and Spirit/pathos have been stripped from his perspective, Quentin is left with only the Son/ethos, he has the desire to do what is right, but without the guidance, meaning, or means only imbued by the Father and the Spirit.

The third narrative in The Sound and the Fury is that of Jason, the final of the three Compson brothers. Jason’s narrative exemplifies the third element, the Father, or logos, in literature. Jason’s Father-driven nature presents itself in his obsession with fulfilling his duties and his constant insistence that others fulfill theirs. Jason’s narrative hearkens back to the literature of the ancient world in its preoccupation with fate and destiny. As Aeneas, driven by his fate and his need to fulfill his duty, leaves the sorrowful and suicidal Dido in his wake in Virgil’s Aeneid, Jason’s drive to fulfill his duty leads to the further destruction of his family, as his young niece, Quentin, is driven from the family home and his brother, Benjy, is sent away to an insane asylum. Without the Son or the Spirit, the Father becomes a tyrant in Jason’s narrative as in ancient literature.

After presenting each of these three characters, each driven along by a single element of the three, Faulkner completes his quartet of narratives, apparently presented as a foursome in imitation of the four biblical evangelists, with a final section in which the narrative proceeds from the objective perspective of a disinterested observer who brings the three elements into harmony. This imitation of Shakespeare, however, is too late to prevent the destruction of the Compson family. Instead, the separation of the three elements that has predominated the narrative has resulted in a family that has self-destructed due to its imbalance.

The one source of hope presented throughout the novel is the black house servant Dilsey, referred to in the final sentence of the Appendix with the mysterious phrase “they endured.” Throughout the entire course of the decline and fall of the Compson family, it is only Dilsey who consistently bears suffering patiently and greets every situation, no matter how terrible, with a calm and self-sacrificing love. It is this Christ-like love which shines as the only point of potential redemption in the narratives which make up The Sound and the Fury. Though she remains on the margins throughout the novel, ignored by the members of the Compson family except insofar as she can be of use to their varied ends, it is Dilsey may be the greatest character in the novel. In her are combined in perfect harmony the Trinitarian admixture of Father/logos, Son/ethos, and Spirit/pathos, with a fourth element which binds the three together: self-sacrificing love.

Fatalism in Gilgamesh and Sophocles

Literature of the ancient world is saturated with what can be succinctly described as fatalism. Throughout, there is a definite sense that man is being perpetually driven toward a fate over which he has very little, indeed perhaps altogether no, control. This fate, of course, is death. In death, for the ancient mind, there is nothing of a redeeming or edifying character. Rather, death is a final and inevitable end of all human beings. In David R. Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, Creon, having sent the maiden Antigone away to die, wonders aloud, “Wailing? Complaining? It won’t make any difference or postpone death for even a moment. Why do people bother?” This sentiment, indicative of the character of Creon, is indicative of the nature of ancient literature generally. In the terminology of Dorothy L. Sayers, this obsession with death and destiny, and the inescapability of both, is to be identified with a fixation on the Idea, the Father of the Christian Trinity, whose presence, if not mediated through Energy and Power, Son and Spirit, becomes overbearing and oppressive. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex will serve as examples.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh first attempts to prevent the death of his friend Enkidu and finally tries to prevent his own death; both attempts, though heroic, are in vain. After a warning in a dream, Gilgamesh ventures into the forest to battle the terrifying monster Humbaba, who is slain as Enkidu repeatedly urges Gilgamesh to “finish him off, slay him, grind him up, that I may survive.” Enkidu, however, does not survive. Instead, he quickly begins to lament the arrogance of his actions in killing Humbaba, an act that challenged the authority of the gods and claimed for humans an undue equality with them. Soon after this, his hubris is punished by the gods with a fatal illness.

Gilgamesh reacts by desperately seeking to avoid his own death. “Shall I die too? Am I not like Enkidu?” he laments, “grief has entered my innermost being, I am afraid of Death.” He runs to Ut-napishtim, the only human who has been granted immortality by the gods, and begs Ut-naphishtim to help him avoid death to which one goes, according to Gilgamesh, “never to rise, ever again.” Ut-napishtim’s response to Gilgamesh, however, is to inform him that “Death is inevitable” for everyone. “Nobody sees Death,” says Ut-napishtim

“Nobody sees the face of Death,

Nobody hears the voice of Death.

Savage Death just cuts mankind down.

Sometimes we build a house, sometimes we make a nest,

But then brothers divide it upon inheritance.

Sometimes there is hostility in the land,

But then the river rises and brings flood-water.

Dragonflies drift on the river,

Their faces look upon the face of the Sun,

But then suddenly there is nothing

The sleeping and the dead are just like each other,

Death’s picture cannot be drawn.

The primitive man is as any young man.

When they blessed me,

The Anunnaki, the great gods, assembled;

Mammitum who creates fate decreed destinies with them.

They appointed death and life.

They did not mark out days for death,

But they did so for life.”

Even after this testimony to the inevitability of death, Ut-napishtim, at the relentless urging of Gilgamesh, offers Gilgamesh two tasks by which he may secure eternal life for himself. Both tasks, however, prove fruitless for Gilgamesh.

Before the conclusion of the Epic, Gilgamesh is given one last lecture on the unavoidability of death by the ghost of Enkidu. Enkidu’s words to Gilgamesh present a series of admonitions to avoid such activities as putting on clean clothing, putting on shoes, making noise while walking, and kissing a wife or a child. In the end, Enkidu’s advice to Gilgamesh is: the only way to avoid death is to not be human. Gilgamesh is drawn along toward death by a fate that is entirely out of his control and against his will, and there is nothing that even this greatest of men can do about it. To apply the terminology of Sayers and describe Gilgamesh in Christological categories, as the presence of the Son/Energy of this Epic, Gilgamesh is the Son who refuses to submit to the will of the Father. In spite of his struggle against death, Gilgamesh finds that, in the words of Slavitt’s translation of Antigone, “the power of Fate is strange and very strong. Neither wealth nor martial valor can stand against it.”

The same theme of the Son refusing to submit to the will of the Father is discernable in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex. Upon learning that his fate was to “lie with my mother and bring forth children the world would hate to look at, and that I would be the murderer of the father who sired me,” Oedipus “left Corinth at once, … getting as far away as I could to prevent such terrible predictions from coming true.” It was through this self-imposed exile, however, that Oedipus stumbled into doing precisely what he had tried to avoid. Not realizing that either was his parent, he killed his father and married his mother. In running from his fate rather than confronting it, Oedipus had unwittingly run directly into it.

A different variation of the same theme is shown in Sophocles’ Antigone. Here, Sophocles presents a willing Son, “Antigone,” with a domineering and oppressive Father. Throughout the play, Creon, the Father-figure of the play, remains unwilling to waver in his stern decree that Antigone should be put to death for performing funerary rites for her brother, contrary to Creon’s desires. In his hubris, Creon even usurps the power of the gods in his claim that his decrees “apply both to the living and the dead.” Creon’s son, Haemon, attempts to reason with him, but Creon refuses to accede to Haemon and instead only hardens his determination to punish Antigone. The end result is the suicide of Antigone, Haemon, and Creon’s wife. Through his own despotism, Creon brings his entire family to ruin.

The eponymous character Antigone is the “Son” of the play, whose attitudes and activities contrast sharply with those of Creon as well as with Gilgamesh and Oedipus. Antigone chooses to do what is morally right by rendering the proper honors to her deceased brother and willingly faces the consequences of her actions. She knows full well before she disobeys Creon what the penalty will be and accepts it; speaking to her sister Ismene, who refuses to take part in Antigone’s plot, she acknowledges her responsibility and voices her willingness to submit to the consequences which will inevitably follow:

I am not trying to persuade you. No,

even if you were willing, I would not let you

join me in this now. Be what you are.

You have made your choice, as I have made mine. I will

bury my brother, and if I die, it shall be

with honor. He is my own; I will lie with my own,

not guilty of any crime, but pious, holy.

We are dead for a long time, and to death’s demands

there is no ending ever.

This willingness to submit to death and the inevitability of fate contrasts sharply with the fitful acquiescence of Gilgamesh and the nearly frantic attempts at escape by Oedipus. Antigone’s willing submission to the will of the Father lends an air of dignity in death and even works to, in a sense, redeem death.

There is a paradox in Antigone’s death in that while it remains dreadful and an object of antipathy, it nonetheless loses some of its ugliness and becomes a source of hope. Whereas the deaths of Gilgamesh and Oedipus invoke little else but terror, Antigone’s death invokes awe, a feeling which combines terror with wonder and even veneration. Both feelings are expressed, only a few lines apart, by the Second Chorister present for the condemnation of Antigone. Noting the sublime nature of Antigone’s death, the Second Chorister describes her to herself:

You go in honor and strength and your full beauty,

admired by all. No diminution by sickness

or disfiguring wounds of battle will have touched you.

Of your own free will you make your stately descent.

Only a few lines later, the same chorister verbalizes the dread and sorrow of death as well as the sense of helplessness in the face of its inevitability in another statement directed to Antigone:

You have braved all human limits and now confront

the lofty altar of Justice. Poor suffering girl!

You are punished perhaps for the crimes of your famous father.

Even this statement lamenting the demands of a fate beyond Antigone’s control, however, reveals the redemptive nature of her death. Antigone has “braved all human limits and now confront[s]” the final and mysterious end of all human life. She has, in the words of William F. Lynch, completed her “passage through the totally human.” In so doing, rather than allowing death to rob her of meaning, as did Gilgamesh and Oedipus before her, she instead imbues death with new meaning and becomes a source of meaning even in death. It is only because she is “punished perhaps for the crimes of [her] famous father” that this is redemption is possible. She is an innocent who willingly suffers for the sins of others. What St. Paul once asked might also be asserted of the death of Antigone: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.” Antigone chose to fulfill the law and to willingly face the punishment brought on by the transgressions of the law committed by her forebears. In so doing, she transformed and redeemed death. In Antigone Sophocles has transcended his Father-ridden world and offered a glimpse, however slight and incomplete, of the time when “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment,  but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.