Shakespeare, Ibsen and Plato

A mode of understanding

Our journey is over. Through several plays we have explored Shakespeare's views on human beings and on the relationship between the individual and his community. We have disregarded his language and poetry, his humour, and the finer construction of each play in order to concentrate on the most important parts of the content.

Great writing is formed around inner patterns. Shakespeare disperses his rich offering through language and stories which, taken as a whole, relate a coherent philosophy.

He lets several ways of life throw light on each other, and compares their results. Our actions carry with them consequences for ourselves and others, some of which are good and others bad. Shakespeare is indefatigable in his investigation of the relation of action to its results. Like Plato, Spinoza and Hegel, he sees our choice of action as decided by an ever expanding horizon that leads from the starting point of our body and the here and now to the future and to understanding, from isolated desire to increasingly comprehensive communities. The solidarity of these communities is extended right up to the international societies that meet us in a town like Venice or in the Europe of a visionary ruler like Henry the Fifth.

Shakespeare has in addition given us a series of thorough studies of very complex personalities.
King Richard the Third shows a thoroughbred psychopath; in Macbeth we see inner struggle, fission and repression; Timon of Athens develops a characterisation which avoids any hint of simple-minded preaching on the part of the author.

People's actions and motives are mostly seen in terms of explanations drawn from nature or society, with some light thrown on personal background.

The sum is an understandable world. Actions receive meaning in that some arrangements are better than others, even though happy solutions are rare, and all are sooner or later cancelled by death.

In the course of our discussion we examined and rejected Jan Kott's opinion of Shakespeare as an ‘absurd’ dramatist. There is inner consistency and meaning in Shakespeare's plays.

Modern science uses single cases as points of departure only, while final insights are shown through classes and types, or through laws and forces.

Writers of fiction differ from scientists in that they express their insight through images, characters and stories instead of through conceptual relations and systems. In Shakespeare's work this can be seen from the titles of the plays as well; almost all the great tragedies bear the protagonist's name, and so do the historic dramas. At the same time, each destiny has received a structure of generality, it conveys general phenomena and is made meaningful because of this.

Strictly personal histories tend to limit the means at the dramatist's disposal. His simplest technique is plain juxtaposition, as when Falstaff's disgusting pranks are directly followed by the far wider perspective opened for young prince Hal during his dialogue with the country's dying king. Other techniques are repetitions, miniature plays within the play, collateral stories or revealing conversations; but most important of all are the results that follow from actions. The spectator can see the outcome in full view on stage and can assess it on his own by holding it up against his own experiences in daily life, while the final assessment is made after criticism and debate.

In spite of the overt differences this way of working is in harmony with the basic attitude in the sciences and also in moral philosophy. So are Shakespeare's individual findings; there is consensus on the basic values which are accepted or rejected. Literary criticism and research extract from literature underlying themes, ideas and values and develop them into concepts related to those of philosophy.

Myth and ritual

Philosophy and science are not the only relevant areas of comparison with the drama. Similar knowledge is also found in myth, which is an early form of understanding arranged around gods, fairies, spirits and destinies.

Versions of myths and related folk literature live on in the theatre since the dramatist conveys his message through stories about individuals with names. Uniting the two aims of its teaching, viz exposing the fate of individuals and extending its lessons to society at large, the stage organises its personalities into
types of characters, in the same way that chemistry classifies the world into elements.

Another scenic precursor is ritual as part of the early shaping of mankind, since all learning must be shared with others, frequently repeated, and exercised in structured ways that are met with respect. Basic religious teaching is further safeguarded by the fact that rituals are limited to particularly important areas: birth and death, the renewal of the seasons, and the growth of indispensable ties and communities, from marriage and tribe to city and class. Thus ritual becomes a manifestation of the most fundamental experiences of mankind, having as its aim the strengthening of the sentiments, insights and habits without which society cannot survive.

The theatre attends to the profane part of this task and thus continues myth and ritual as two ancient methods of exercising influence. Great plays survive through natural selection. They are repeated at intervals and find their place among other media of instruction such as church, school, and film. The major topics are successful solutions, on the one hand, and dangerous side tracks leading to failure, on the other.

Background and cause

Shakespeare often lets us understand something of the background of his characters, especially of individuals who are particularly vulnerable. Richard the Third is a cripple. Iago has gone overboard on Machiavelli, while Aaron has twice been kept back as a prisoner of war. Edgar has the security of being born in wedlock, while Edmund is illegitimate. Saturninus owes his throne to Titus and is furious at being indebted to someone who insults him and whom he suspects of striving for power indirectly.

These kinds of explanation in the plays are certainly valid as far as they go. But Shakespeare's emphasis is never on going back in search of a full psychological explanation of causes; instead he looks ahead, from an action to its effects.

In Henrik Ibsen's late plays background and revelation are shown as one, in great simplicity.
Ghosts progressively reveals Mrs. Alving's own guilt together with indications of how her surroundings have previously committed injustices against her. In the works of Shakespeare the relationship between background, personality formation and action never breaks through unequivocally. Instead he lets his audience take the past for granted, while the future is made an object of choice, based on a belief in our ability to change through insight.

Those Shakespearean descriptions of events which do allow us to deduce motive and cause lie mostly in the world of adults. An important advance of the present day is the discovery that grown people are formed from childhood. The understanding of this is ascribed to Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, while in Norway it was anticipated by Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun, immediately before Freud. The most important contribution of the theatre came in 1858, with Ibsen's
The Vikings at Helgeland.

Ibsen's works imply the founding of a developmental psychology of a Freudian type. Ibsen's radical tenet in this field, that influence from childhood determines all later development, is clearly displayed in such characters as Brand, Osvald of
Ghosts, Hjørdis of The Vikings at Helgeland, and Hedda Gabler. An important motif in most of his stories is that the period of growth from child to adult does damage, though with Nora of A Doll's House a clear exception.

Antiquity lacked a clear idea of the importance of childhood, and so did the Renaissance. Important events in the formative years of childhood as explanation is lacking as a general theme in Shakespeare's plays. We can, for instance, speculate on possible Ibsen-like interpretations of Hamlet's behaviour on the basis of his dim past and his apparent ambivalence towards his mother, but there is insufficient support in Shakespeare's text for anything of the kind.

Instead Shakespeare discusses a number of important points of view regarding knowledge, based on a theory which stems from Plato and which took the place of a full-fledged developmental psychology in Shakespeare's day.

Against this background
The Tempest acquires special importance in that Miranda expresses the author's inkling of a whole other realm in addition to the world of fully formed adults which he has so painstakingly investigated. Shakespeare, however, stopped on the brink of this new, vast field. Rather than cross the threshold, he returned to Stratford to secure the future of his two daughters.

Text and life

Prospero's magic in calling his assistant spirits into action is analogous to that of his author in the theatre, and Prospero's life echoes Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's views on his helpers are in turn reminiscent of Ibsen's, as expressed in his treatment of the architect and his collaborators in
The Master Builder. Both The Master Builder and The Tempest indicate definite spans of time corresponding to important periods in the protagonists' lives. On Prospero's island we hear of Ariel's having been held captive by Sycorax for twelve years; then follow the twelve years spent by Prospero himself on the island, with Caliban and Ariel serving him.

These 24 years find a parallel in the time spent by Shakespeare as an actor and dramatist in London, from about 1589 to 1613. Some twelve years were devoted to comedies and historical dramas, culminating in the transitional plays
Twelfth Night, Hamlet and As You Like It. At the turn of the century his production takes two different paths: on the one hand, the completion of the sonnets, relating the bitter story of the relationship with his friend and of a dark lady whom the poet seems to have loved; then follow twelve more years of the great tragedies, and the final peace of reconciliation.

How Shakespeare himself felt the difference between the two main periods of his life we do not know. The historical dramas of the first twelve years have their action fixed by outer events; while the comedies turn the foolishness of the world upside-down with a smile, with no attempt on the part of the author to penetrate the characters he creates.

The tragedies sharpen the conflicts. The women are victims rather than leaders as in the comedies; both sexes have their fates decided by their own conduct, even unto death.

The last twelve year period may perhaps have given Shakespeare a stronger feeling of having understood the play of life fully. All the same he regains his buoyancy when letting Prospero, Ariel and Miranda climb back towards the optimism of the comedies.

The change, not unexpectedly, takes place between the age of thirty and forty. Although Shakespeare is astonishingly mature even in his very first plays, most people seem to experience a growing clarity in their late thirties. Ibsen has his great visions in St. Peter's in Rome while working on
Brand; the fully resolved plays follow from the time he turns fifty, A Doll's House the turning-point. At that age the Stratford writer had retired to await death.

The work and its creator

Some have doubted whether William Shakespeare could possibly be the originator of the plays that bear his name, since the person William Shakespeare whom we know as actor and leader of an acting company is sloppy as regards spelling and textual detail while the plays often show thorough insight into natural science, law, history and psychology. This objection may be reasonable, but another question then follows: Who among Shakespeare's contemporaries would be a more likely source of the plays? Any attempt to explain richness from more limited sources is doomed to failure. At most we may look for parallels in achievement.

A few have thought the real author of the life's work of the poet and playwright to be the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. Both Bacon's writings and Shakespeare's plays emphasise experience and new understanding drawn from ordered patterns; but although Bacon is a considerable thinker, there is little real similarity. Bacon strove for social position, while Shakespeare distrusted most forms of power. The Lord Chancellor Bacon was even charged with bribery and dismissed — hardly in harmony with the author of
Measure for Measure. Furthermore, Bacon shares the Platonist rejection of literature as wishful thinking, while England's great writer is concerned with criticising all the self-deceptions of everyday life, wishful thinking among them. Francis Bacon therefore emerges a late example of the short-sighted intellectual of antiquity; Shakespeare exposes this personality type thoroughly in Hamlet.

Logic and language

The same difference is evident in their attitude to knowledge. Both Bacon and Shakespeare analyse the world according to Socratic definitions. But in Shakespeare's plays, systematically elaborated characters like Iago, Macbeth and Richard the Second are placed side by side with other useful groupings from animate or inanimate nature; while Bacon's lists of classifications tend to end in fruitless truisms.

One of the reasons is that Shakespeare, in much greater measure than Bacon, employs a Platonic logic of negation, for example in the matter of the difference between short term and long term goals. The consequence is a useful analysis of reason and a fully developed critique of life, in which each aspect of our behaviour is held up against every other.

Hence there does not seem to be a particularly close relationship between Shakespeare and Bacon. On the other hand, the more we study Shakespeare, the more we come to realise his important affinity to Plato. This is due in part to the way in which the philosopher of antiquity, like the Renaissance playwright, expresses himself through conversations between named individuals. One of Plato's most important techniques is having the participants in a discussion give up their incorrect assumptions by showing them how these assumptions conflict with their own experience. Assisting him in his work are inner connections between words, expressed through paraphrase, conceptual categorisation and hierarchy, implication, and negation. Against this background Plato develops the Socratic dialogue, with its repeated clarification of the total meaning of important statements.

Shakespeare utilises language and logic in Plato's way. Much of the function of the fools is to provide a running analysis of the closely related meanings of words or of future consequences of actions, both of which their masters may have overlooked. The clearest example is the fool in
King Lear, exposing old Lear's short-sightedness which makes him a fool and not a king. A lot of the fun in the comedies has the same basis, the interludes in the serious plays likewise.

First and most important, there is simple word play bringing out possible ambiguity or contrast, as when Paris of Verona observes that “These times of woe afford no times to woo”, or when the Capulet servants Samson and Gregory open the play by mixing up decapitation and rape, both involving maidens' heads.

Next, words are confused with their content. Aguecheek in
Twelfth Night orders the fool to sing a song beginning "Hold thy peace", but the fool cunningly answers that if he is to be quiet he cannot start singing!

From here the road leads to negating collocations bordering on the poetic. Romeo describes his sadness as
not having that which would shorten his hours if present; Leontes and Paulina in The Winter's Tale speak of the queen's kisses as treasures of a kind that leave the giver richer in what she has given away.

The simplest version of an abstract periphrasis is to use a substantive instead of a verb to denote action; as when Orlando in
As You Like It says “thou art a mocker of my labour”. The nub of all such elaborations is the poet's sense that he is free to replace any expression at all by infinitely many others. A clear example is the dying John of Gaunt in King Richard the Second who desires to speak a word of warning to the king, hoping to “undeaf his ear”. Quite often the plain and concrete is described by something more general, as when the duke in As You Like It rephrases rudeness as “in civility ... empty”.

The verbal manipulations and ribaldry of the fools come close to the abuse of language and logic by the Sophists in ancient times; but this danger, too, Shakespeare has clearly seen. He lets the fool in
Twelfth Night speak of words “grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them”. The Sophists used destruction of language as a means of dissolving the firm ground of people's lives; the fools of the theatre instead use their own confusion as a joke or to show us how the short-sighted calculations of the multitude lack sense.

In spite of his obvious delight in the rich possibilities of language, Shakespeare is like his fools: Language is used for the purpose of clarification, not for empty entertainment. Over time he cuts down ever more on rhyme in his plays. Ultimately he limits himself to the splendid rhythm of his simple blank-verse and to a use of imagery that is made to serve the most varied of attitudes. A comparable toning down can be found in Ibsen's writings over the years.

None of the similarities between Shakespeare's texts and Plato's philosophic exercises need stem from reading. Important parts of the heritage from antiquity may have merged with common forms of joking, or simply result from the same kinds of heads applying themselves to the same kind of topics.

Rationality and consequences

The similarity between Shakespeare and Plato is everywhere. In his most famous monologue Hamlet debates whether it is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice, together with the possibility of a judgement after death — all on the very best Platonic patterns. So too the Socratic ‘Know thyself!’ is recognisable in the reflective reasoning of the duke in
Measure for Measure.

Basically both Plato and Shakespeare hold the view that man is an open, impressionable mind which can be filled with the most varied of contents.

There is further similarity in their attitudes to sensory experience and knowledge, the moment and the future. Bacon bases his investigations on the theory of sensation of the atomist philosophers, like the ‘early Socrates’ of the simplest dialogues; while Plato and Shakespeare both distrust all purely sensory impressions deeply, even though Shakespeare's world is more concrete than most playwrights'. Both Plato and Shakespeare are interested in unsuccessful experiments, and with parallel motives: Sensations are of the instant. We accept them only because they shut out alternative sensations from the instant which they fill. Counter-arguments must come not from other sensory impressions but from the intellect. As early as in
Romeo and Juliet, the point is formulated: “... madmen have no ears”, “... wise men have no eyes”; the former refusing to listen to the experience of others, the latter shutting out the siren-song of the present and trying instead to foresee such as is not yet visible.

Two other objections against trusting in the eye, closely connected to the first, also unite Shakespeare and Plato: Basing ourselves only on the limited information of the present we can never foresee the consequences of an action in the long term, and, secondly, it is for this reason correspondingly easy to surrender to the perceptible temptations of the present. Our fleeting impressions, passions and impulses are often contradictory and offer no solid foundation for stable relationships. Our desires last as long as they are disappointed but cool when satisfied, as expressed by the sensible Rosalind: “... men are April when they woo, December when they wed.”

The image of our volatility — our ‘midsummer madness’ — Shakespeare finds in the crescent moon of his great love scenes, waxing and waning with our desires, and companion to such unreasonableness as Othello killing Desdemona.

But intelligence is not in itself a sufficient guard against the rash instability of feelings and sensations. Shakespeare's judgement on Hamlet especially shows that he is far from being an uncritical admirer of the intellect. Intellectual abilities must not fossilize into academic snobbery, or knowledge be used as a destructive or selfish instrument. Both of these failings point to a too restricted horizon. Acquiring a sufficiently wide overview requires time and a sense of what may be learnt from Time. Sophistic intelligence provides only the limited scope of our immediate impressions. It tends to backfire, as it did for Iago or the greedy claimants to the throne during the civil wars. The counterpoints to Plato's sophists Thrasymachus and Callicles are Shakespeare's Macbeth, Timon of Athens and in part Hamlet. All such short-sighted use of intelligence leads astray, as is most clearly exemplified in Cleopatra among the women and Iago among the men.

In other words, Shakespeare's attitude to reason parallels his attitude to feelings: Both must be integrated into a lasting, meaningful framework.

The Tempest portrays nature as good so long as it remains undisturbed, a clear paraphrase of Plato's belief. Captain Antonio in Twelfth Night says of what appears to be a gross violation of decency and friendship: “In nature there's no blemish but the mind”. ‘The mind’ must here be understood to refer to the short-sighted human intelligence which can think out perfidy in defiance of natural order, ‘nature’ to arrangements which have passed the test of time and still remain because they are of lasting value.

Great theatre shows all those consequences that become clear only after a time. One of Shakespeare's clearest confirmations of this is given towards the end of
The Winter's Tale, where Time appears as a prologue chorus in the fourth act: What we shall now see “Is th'argument of Time.” The most important contribution added by consequences is the developmental patterns that gradually appear. The more our consciousness grasps of the world, the better we understand our dependence on patterns much wider than the isolated part and the present moment.

The ‘arguments’ that Time carries in its lap are connections that range from consequences, couples or families, over language and class to the whole of humanity; while the single individual, given time, finds a corresponding completeness in his own short life. The content of important patterns is displayed in our most important research subjects: Natural science and philosophy take care of the world as a whole, history investigates peoples and mankind, the social sciences describe social groups such as classes, and the theatre discusses the main forms of individual life.

Philosophy, doomsday and the theatre

There are, however, two deep differences between Plato and Shakespeare in their attitudes to art. The ancient philosopher has two objections to the Homeric rhapsodies: firstly, that poetry deals only with individual cases; secondly, that art tempts us with momentary impressions and therefore becomes a wishful dream. Philosophy overcomes both of these weaknesses but only through abstractions — like the world of ideas — which make Plato doubt the feasibility of its reaching everyone. In its place he develops an unusual means of instruction by postulating a life after death, with punishment and reward on the day of judgement. This idea that our personal lives should be extended beyond death in order for all relationships to become manifest turns up in
Hamlet, but is otherwise of as little importance in Shakespeare's plays as in those of Ibsen.

Instead, all great dramatists take life as seriously as Plato took doomsday and see the same kinds of issues and values in the light of our life on earth. Writers certainly make use of characters and stories instead of concepts and regularities but can on the other hand do without Plato's world to come, since the theatre utilises simple means that reach all spectators with a message wholly pertaining to our present life.

In the condensed display of the stage all important consequences can be shown during the couple of hours available, and the theatre is the closest we come to a purely worldly doomsday, in which well-known developments are exhibited before the audience as judges.

Which variant we prefer is a matter of taste. The deepest contributions of the theatre are those that are akin to philosophy, but they can easily be overlooked by spectators or critics who do not search for them but instead give in to the entertainment value which good plays also have, or to the enjoyment of the actors' performance. The sharply defined theses of the philosophers are, on the other hand, too abstract for many ordinary people and therefore require the backing of religious or political wishful dreams, be it in Rome or in Tirane.

So there is a confluence of God, thought and theatre into a broad river. Each part of the stream has its special river-beds and brings across content washed and purified, but in isolation each of the three can end up in shallowly foaming backwaters. Our richest source is found where they merge and reinforce one another. In this sense what goes on at the theatre concerns the totality of our lives, and all great art is eternal.

Shakespeare took the plot of
Hamlet from an old story in Saxo Grammaticus, Ibsen part of the figure of Hjørdis in The Vikings at Helgeland from the early Germanic Volsunga saga, and Freud a different motif from the Oedipus legend of Greek antiquity. So close is the connection between the myths of the past and our own new efforts. But each writer forms his clay-like material into an original universe of his very own.