Monday, November 4, 2013

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

SHAKESPEARE AND CAMUS

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
 — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

This perhaps is the most profound soliloquy of all Shakespeare’s works. 
Back in school, Macbeth (the complete play) was part of our English literature curriculum. I was nicknamed Macbeth by my classmates, not that I had murdered someone or was villainous by nature but because I had the entire book by heart. I still remember most of the passages and would recite them even while working in the bank. Please do not conclude that I did not do any work. It was a way of getting the staff to work and sometimes it did have the desired effect. In fact I remember that the most effective one was –
 If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th' assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,

Most of them could not follow what I had said but they were left in awe at my ‘profound knowledge’. I did get the desired respect and the work was completed. I never let them in to a secret- that I seriously did not know what else to do to get them to work, after efforts at cajoling and threats had failed. Shakespeare I guess should get the credit for this. Of course I refrained from quoting this in my credit proposals for I knew that the response would be-

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
I remember back in school, the English literature class was taken by the Principal, a Patrician Brother (as they were called) himself. Apart from teaching us he used to enact the characters in the play with such conviction that we used to look forward to this period. Now looking back I can attribute my retentive capabilities as far as Macbeth is concerned, to him even to this day.
That of course was a light hearted banter. But coming back to the main purpose of this post is that soliloquy which I quoted in the beginning. After the passage of so many years this is no longer an attempt to pass an exam but an attempt to understand the underlying philosophy. We have our own views on what life is, from the experiences we have been through. But the thought process has not changed despite the advancements in science. The idea of God, redemption, punishment and ultimately the meaninglessness of life still predominates. We have hope and despair and we talk of good and evil and of a moral fabric that governs our lives. 
Macbeth is a good man, a brave warrior and a loyal subject, who gets corrupted by external forces in a quest for power and position. It is after the deed is done that he is slowly eaten away by the guilt of his actions and realizes his own folly and is killed in the end. It is through this passage that Shakespeare brings out Macbeth’s ultimate realization and in a way his redemption.
It was way back in the sixteenth century that Shakespeare wrote all this but we can see an echo of it in the thoughts of the subsequent modern day philosophers, especially Sartre and Camus and other existentialists and in the writings of Dostoevsky especially in his Crime and Punishment.
It is in ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ that Camus examines the meaninglessness of life and the absurd condition of man. He likens our condition to Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to roll a rock up the hill for eternity. As soon as he reaches the top, it rolls down again and the entire process is repeated. We live every day in the hope of a better tomorrow. But every tomorrow gives rise to another tomorrow and slowly this brings us closer to death. This is what the first four lines of the soliloquy signify. In his book Camus says that the really tragic moment is when Sisyphus starts his trek down the hill when he realizes that he has undergo the exercise again and again. There is no hope. But when he recognises the futility of his condition and the certainty of his fate he is freed. Similarly in the play ‘Macbeth’ Shakespeare brings out the true redemption of Macbeth in this play where he acknowledges that all he had achieved was for nothing, as he was slowly moving towards his death. He equates our life to that of an actor who as long as he is on stage performs and then vanishes as soon as his act is finished.
In another of the famous soliloquy from ‘Hamlet’ Shakespeare examines the existential question ‘Why live? For death could be a worse condition’
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; 
The dread is that one does not return from the dead. Here Hamlet is contemplating suicide but ultimately decides against it in this passage-
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Suicide is not an option. In, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ Camus says that the only philosophical question is prolongation of life or to end it. When man is faced with the meaninglessness of life and the absurd nature of his condition, he faces the question of suicide. Camus says that this should not be an option for one does not know death. He says that once the truth is acknowledged for that is the only way you can overcome it you should ‘revolt’. This in fact is the subject of his next book ‘The Rebel’

Though the underlying philosophy of two great literary figures separated by four centuries find an echo in each others thoughts, their way of getting the message across differs, Shakespeare the dramatist and Camus the philosopher novelist. 

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Will comment not on Shakespeare or. Camus but on Macbeth. Macbeth was a legitimate heir to Duncan.

Varsha said...

What we studied in school and college was actually learnt for the sake of passing an exam. Yes we did appreciate the language, the thoughts and the play. We however did not have the wisdom and time to go deep into the philosophy of the writing.
Having gone through life at its own pace, we can now sit back and understand the philosophy. It is time, wisdom of age and all the wisdom gathered at every stage of life which makes it possible.
There is no futility of life, there is no loss of hope, no meaninglessness of life. Life is a time span meant for living. As we go through life, we build relationships, memories. We belong here while we are here and contribute towards the betterment of the world. What happens after death is not for us to bother about. How we live today is what matters.
Philosophies I think can be best understood when we can sit, brood, think and then pass on our wisdom to those youngsters who right now have no time to sit, but are busy living.

ramkumar ramachandran said...

A wonderful comparison you have made. You seem to have studied Shakespeare in depth. I must appreciate your capacity to quote Shakespeare verbatim.
I am an admirer of Shakespeare myself thanks to the extraordinary erudition of my English Professors in Presidency College.
You have rightly observed that Macbeth was a great warrior and his downfall was due to his own misfortune. Penitence is belated and it cannot mitigate the misdeeds of which a person was a party with full knowledge of its repercussions.
From what little I understood from my reading of Shakespeare plays, I found that his tragedies had much to convey to the world about the ways of life.
I would like to refer here the observation of a famous critic on Shakespeare tragedies.
“There is no need for a villain in a Shakespearian tragedy. We are but betrayed by what is fault within our lives”
The above words are so true in real life also. A person gets paid for his misdeeds in the past. There is no real enemy who creates or tries to create obstacles in the life another person. Sounds difficult to believe but it appears to be so. Does this not reflect the words spoken in Baghavat Geetha by Lord Krishna about the effects of Karma? Don’t get me wrong that I have studied and understood Bagahvat Geetha fully. This is just my assimilation from various stories on Geetha I had read.
In “Shakespeare’s King Lear”, the King did not understand the human nature and he believed the flattery by his two daughters who were hypocrites and refused to acknowledge the true affection of his third daughter. He paid a very heavy price for this behavior. There was no real villain though there were others who capitalized on his foolhardiness and accelerated his doom.
This, again, brings us to the truth, as understood in Hindu Philosophy, that happenings are all due to Karma of a person. The good deeds could reduce or completely obliterate the negative effects of previous karma depending upon the nature of each.
Kumar

GS Subramanian said...

Diwakara Tanujaha: Enjoyed reading your article!

We sure make a big thing out of life. May be because of language essays/lessons that what we learnt in school as part of curriculum. Or may be due to the topics we were given to write essay on! And these subtle messages seeped in to us and built our psyche. We have been fed to believe that we need to leave something behind as our contribution. We need to pursue glory!

We are also taught that we need to keep hopes alive when goings are not good. This means that we need to continue what we are doing like Sysiphus. But, what they did not teach us is - hope also furthers futility.

However, when things are done with no vision on the outcome, then the feeling of futility vanishes, as expectation dies. If only Sysiphus did not think about his subsequent trips, perhaps he would not have felt the job as burdensome. If he has framed in his mind the question “Can I reach the mountain in double time?” or “What is the slowest that I can climb?” or “What is the average rate of climb per rotation?” – May be he would have invented Geometry and found the job not as futile at all

In other words, feeling a sense of futility is a creation of mind and is not in the task.

Many a time, availability of an option promotes the feeling of futility. If Sisyphus begins to think or imagine exploring a task other than rolling the stone, then the feeling of futility sets in.

GS Subramanian said...

Sisyphus never had a choice as he was condemned by the Gods till eternity since he dared to cheat Death and had even imprisoned him (Death).

GS Subramanian said...

Diwakara Tanujaha; Yeah I know. But, I was referring to Albert Camu quote u mentioned "Camus says that the really tragic moment is when Sisyphus starts his trek down the hill when he realizes that he has undergo the exercise again and again. There is no hope. But when he recognises the futility of his condition and the certainty of his fate he is freed. " and was responding to that.

GS Subramanian said...

That realization dawns for a fraction may be, that perhaps was his moment of realization. Once there is acceptance he is freed for no longer does he have to face the absurdity of his condition. The example of Sisyphus is only to illustrate the condition in which an individual finds himself, Sisyphus did not have a choice but we do- suicide or rebellion and Camus advocates the latter to find an authenticity in this life which we lead. This is the underlying strain in all existential heros- be it Mersault in Camus 'The Outsider' or Roquentin in Sartre's 'Nausea'. But Shakespeare's tragedies have always fascinated me with their deep insight into the human condition.

GS Subramanian said...

Diwakara Tanujaha : You have drawn a very fine connection between Macbeth and Albert Camus. I too love looking at the human condition as Shakespeare portrays it, as a tussle between, the emotional/survival impulse and the moderating/tempering human intellect.

GS Subramanian said...

Sreeram Gopal : A wise man once said,"Life is a disease sexually transmitted from one human to an another. Death is the cure". Was he sure about death, is an another question. But i guess, to drive a point that which one does not fully understand or comprehend, language is the best resort. Both Shakespeare and Camus tread similar lines. Their lifetimes are centuries apart. But the doubt which propels their wisdom is the same, "The Purpose of Life". Now Plato put it very simply, "If one can define and design creation properly, then he is God". I guess both of the above mentioned ones tried defining their doubts with characters and mythological heroes. And they were each successful to a large extent. Only because we still talk about their definitions with great enthusiasm.

GS Subramanian said...

Diwakara Tanujaha : While I agree that both Shakespeare (being a play wright that he is, he needs to speak many ideologies from the point of characters that he builds up. We really do not know, what is his personal take on that. So, here by Shakespeare, I mean the character Macbeth and Shakespeare thinking through the character that he has created) and Albert Camus (He is different in the sense that we are getting to know his mind on the subject) try to define their doubts, I would not agree that 'successful' is the right word. Because, of English Language proliferation, many English works became successful. That hardly matter for our discussion, does it? I am discussing here, with great enthusiasm, because, I am responding to the way Gopalasamudram Subramanian has drawn the connecting line. That is more relevant for me. Not because, I am fascinated by the ideology. Sreeram Gopal

GS Subramanian said...

Sreeram Gopal That's why i mentioned that they were successful to a large extent! So the term is relative in the mind of an individual! Even Camus chose a mythological hero! The inferring point is enthusiasm stoked in an individual due to the nature of their presentation. Shakespeare spoke through Macbeth, whereas Camus spoke for Sisyphus! Its impossible in eons of history to see through someone's mind. The object is identified and the subject is deduced. Language is what we make of it. My only assertion is that both the men were proponents of their doubts in different styles. A doubt which is a perpetuating ring of fire in each and every person's mind!!! In enabling people to understand and question that particular doubt with different offerings, they were largely successful. So my term for success here does not speak of a marketing prerogative of a language, but rather one of an idea! "The Eternal Doubt of the Purpose of Life"!!! Enthusiasm need not be for an idea, but also for the resultant discussion that ensues in its direction to create a response! That in itself is quite a success i guess..

Suprabhat Ganguly said...

Brilliantly written.Nobody knows what happens after death and when death will visit us and nobody will ever know it. We will never know our destiny. Probably God, if we believe in God does not want us to know it.Knowing beforehand our destiny may ultimately rob the charm of our life as the uncertainty of the future and its challenge make a life worth living.
According to our Gita death is transition of soul from one body to another body as we discard our old clothes and wear new ones and not the end of everything as Shakespear and some other scholars might have liked us to believe. We do not know what the truth is but bleiving in what has been said in Gita may help us to take a positive view of life inspite of its trials and tribulations.