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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Peter Quince's Ballad: Shakespeare, Psychoanalysis, History

Peter Quince's Ballad: Shakespeare, Psychoanalysis, History

Catherine Belsey, University of Wales, College of Cardiff

In The Rose and the Ring, Thackeray's fairytale of 1854, the sadly unprepossessing, plump Prince Bulbo falls in love with Betsinda, and in this romantic condition Bulbo at once becomes—citational. "I never saw", he says, "a young gazelle to glad me with its dark blue eye that had eyes like thine. Thou nymph of beauty, take, take this young heart. A truer never did itself sustain within a soldier's waistcoat."1 The amorous prince here misquotes not only Shakespeare's Othello (V.2.260-61)2 but also the Irish poet Thomas Moore, whose gazelle had already provided considerable entertainment thirteen years earlier in The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens's text in turn shows the verbose and villainous Dick Swiveller also misquoting Moore in the process of indicating his own unrequited passion for the perfidious Sophy Wackles:

"It has always been the same with me," said Mr Swiveller, "always. [ … ] I never nursed a dear Gazelle, to glad me with its soft black eye, but when it came to know me well, and love me, it was sure to marry a market-gardener."3

Comic characters in love, we are invited to understand, are impelled, like all lovers, to formulate their passion in poetry; but, unpoetic in themselves, they have recourse to a textual memory, and declare their love in quotation marks. When in A Midsummer Night's Dream Nick Bottom the weaver wakes from his night of passion with the Queen of the Fairies, he too seeks a quotation which would do justice to what has happened. Bottom's name, and his transformation into an ass, invite the audience to associate him with the least poetic aspects of life, and yet even as an ass, Bottom has been touched by something special but mysterious, a power which he finds unusually hard to specify. In quest of a way of talking about a half-remembered sublimity, Bottom reaches for the language of the Bible at its most visionary, St Paul's account of the future glory that God has prepared for human beings (1 Corinthians 2, 9), though inevitably he misremembers the text: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was" (MND, IV.1.211-14).

The experience of love cannot be made present in words, and the impulse to represent it draws on a remembered fragment of culture, which has once evoked a corresponding intensity and which therefore serves to define and memorialise the moment. The quotation does not recover the experience, but it takes its place, even if in the process something slips away. What makes Bulbo, Dick Swiveller and Bottom comic here is not so much that they quote, but that they get it wrong. Shakespearean lovers we are invited to take much more seriously also communicate with each other and with the audience by means of shared memories, shared precisely because they are culturally produced and textually transmitted. Lorenzo and Jessica, newly married and alone by moonlight in the fairytale castle at Belmont, seek a common romantic idiom by reference to the classic love stories of the past: Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida, Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, Virgil's Dido and Aeneas (MV, V.l.1-12). It is as if love sets out to transform the quotidian and transfigure the banal by borrowing for the lovers the romance which belongs to their heroic counterparts.

And what invests with grandeur those who are heroic already? The answer, of course, is their inscription in cultural artifacts, a process which commonly includes a similar regress of textual allusion. Even Cleopatra derives something of her cosmic desirability from "o'er-picturing" the famous painting of Venus by Apelles (Antony and Cleopatra II.2.200), and from her own allusion to Virgil's epic:

Where souls do couch on flowers, we'll hand in
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze.
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.
                                  (Ant. IV.14.51-4)

The reference to the Aeneid explicitly appropriates for Antony and Cleopatra the heroism of these illustrious predecessors, and confirms them as duly tragic in the process. Heroic stature, like love, is profoundly citational.

Bottom, meanwhile, perhaps at his most comic as he wakes from his night with Titania, is at the same time momentarily transfigured, paradoxically heroic in his effort to represent what cannot be made present. Bottom's misquotation is not, after all, entirely absurd as an account of his personal midsummer night. The transformation of the biblical text acknowledges in the character of a mortal's encounter with fairy love a certain confounding of the senses, hearing and sight, touch and taste, a blurring of the conventional boundaries between mind and body, and above all a radical unfamiliarity, a strange unearthliness which baffles both experience and description. "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."

What happened cannot be reported because it can't be specified. Even its status as illusion or reality is unclear: was it a vision, or a waking dream? Bottom is not sure. "I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was" (MND IV. 1.204-6). The play, of course, delicately, tactfully, evades the question of what actually went on, since whatever it is takes place offstage, in Titania's bower (III.1.197).4 When they reappear, Bottom is more interested in food—and sleep. Whatever the experience, the ass apparently made very little of it until afterwards, until it is lodged in the memory, but unable to be made present, accounted for, recorded, textualised. For Bottom now, waking up, it is not therefore so much a question of recovering lost presence, as of producing something new which is nonetheless already familiar, of making sense of an experience.

Bottom refuses to accept defeat (when did he ever?). The figure who organises the rehearsals of Pyramus and Thisbe, largely directs the production, and longs to play most of the parts, certainly doesn't give way when confronted by a mere problem of representation. Love in the Renaissance seeks textual inscription. When Berowne and his companions fall in love they write sonnets: that is how they betray themselves to one another. Orlando's love poems deface trees in the forest of Arden. Bottom's story presses to be written, and if the weaver cannot do it himself, Peter Quince, probably the author of the mechanicals' play, and certainly of the new prologue (III. 1.17-24), is most obviously the person for the job. "I will get Peter Quince to write a [ballad]5 of this dream. It shall be call'd 'Bottom's Dream,' because it hath no bottom" (IV.1.214-16).

The play here invokes an elusive dream of mortality intertwined with the fantastic, bottomless because ungrounded, and bottomless because at the same time unfathomably profound,6 at once trivial and significant; and in this dream of desire fulfilled, a twentieth-century critic might be forgiven for finding anticipations of psychoanalysis. Freud's interpretation of dreams as wish-fulfilment precisely releases the dream from any grounding in events, whether as re-enactment of the past or as prediction of the future, and at the same time invests it with profound importance, because it speaks on behalf of a bottomless unconscious. For psychoanalysis, dreams recall a desire that is present in the memory, whether or not it was ever realised.

"Let us not forget psychoanalysis", urged Jacques Derrida, whose own relationship with psychoanalytic theory has been at best equivocal and, especially in relation to the work of Jacques Lacan, sometimes uncharacteristically vituperative.7 Derrida's point is not that psychoanalysis can give us the truth of ourselves or our literature, but more simply, and more radically, that "the logic of the unconscious" calls into question any smug reliance on "the authority of consciousness, of the ego, of the reflexive cogito, of an 'I think' without pain or paradox."8 Psychoanalysis has its silly side: its narratives of infantile stages and arrested adults, its unconscious full of demons, its palpable antifeminism. But at the same time it shows us to be other than we are. It brings to our attention those unexpected identities that intrude unpredictably on the rational, responsible, Enlightened subject, which always acts in accordance with common sense and its own best interests. Psychoanalysis invites us to remember what complacency proposes that we should forget.

One of the earliest texts of psychoanalysis is not by Freud at all, but by Josef Breuer, and in celebration of its centenary I want to relate it to Bottom's dream and Peter Quince's ballad. The case history of Fräulein Anna O., first published in 1893, records a vision or a waking dream which takes place one summer night, and leaves the patient barely able to speak, until she remembers some verses in a foreign language. What actually happened is not entirely clear, but Anna O. is left severely physically ill in consequence, and given to periods of what the case history calls "absence", in which she loses contact with her surroundings, behaves aggressively and uncontrollably, and cannot recall her native German. Here is the whole passage, ironically in its English translation:

In July 1880, while he was in the country, her father fell seriously ill of a subpleural abscess. Anna shared the duties of nursing him with her mother. She once woke up during the night in great anxiety about the patient, who was in a high fever; and she was under the strain of expecting the arrival of a surgeon from Vienna who was to operate. Her mother had gone away for a short time and Anna was sitting at the bedside with her right arm over the back of the chair. She fell into a waking dream and saw a black snake coming towards the sick man from the wall to bite him. (It is most likely that there were in fact snakes in the field behind the house and that these had previously given the girl a fright; they would thus have provided the material for her hallucination.) She tried to keep the snake off, but it was as though she was paralysed. Her right arm, over the back of the chair, had gone to sleep and had become anaesthetic and paretic; and when she looked at it the fingers turned into little snakes with death's heads (the nails). (It seems probable that she had tried to use her paralysed right arm to drive off the snake and that its anaesthesia and paralysis had consequently become associated with the hallucination of the snake.) When the snake vanished, in her terror she tried to pray. But language failed her: she could find no tongue in which to speak, till at last she thought of some children's verses in English and then found herself able to think and pray in that language. The whistle of the train that was bringing the doctor whom she expected broke the spell.

Next day, in the course of a game, she threw a quoit into some bushes; and when she went to pick it out, a bent branch revived her hallucination of the snake, and simultaneously her right arm became rigidly extended. Thenceforward the same thing invariably occurred whenever the hallucination was recalled by some object with a more or less snake-like appearance.9

What is the origin of Anna's paralysis? Breuer's text evades the question, repudiating any simple dualism of fact and fantasy, real and psychic phenomena. Anna's contracture of the right arm is occasioned by a bent branch in the bushes which revives a hallucination of a black snake which might have derived its material from the likely presence of snakes in the field behind the house, which probably frightened her on a previous occasion. And what 'really' happened in this oxymoronic 'waking dream'? If the snake and the death's heads are illusory, what about the right arm which had gone to sleep? Are we to understand it as an actual physical condition or as part of the hallucination? "It was as though she was paralysed." Breuer's text depends on Anna's narrative, of course, and Anna's memory of the event, we must assume, takes no account of the commonsense distinction between illusion and reality.

More important, what is the meaning of Anna O.'s encounter with the uncanny? Breuer does not say, though he insists that the event "constituted the root of her whole illness", and that as soon as she had reproduced it for him under hypnosis, she recovered her native language and was released from her previous physical disorders.10 With hindsight, however, and in the light of a hundred years of subsequent psychoanalytic theory, it is not hard to produce on the basis of Breuer's text a (possible, partial) reading of Anna O.'s waking dream.

In 1880 Anna was 21, Breuer tells us. He goes on: "She was markedly intelligent, with an astonishingly quick grasp of things and penetrating intuition. She possessed a powerful intellect which would have been capable of digesting solid mental pabulum and which stood in need of it—though without receiving it after she had left school."11 It was Anna O. who invented the phrase, the "talking cure" to describe Breuer's treatment of her symptoms.12 She was fluent in several European languages. (Later, Ernest Jones reveals, Bertha Pappenheim, the extra-textual Anna, became the first social worker in Germany, and founded a journal and several training institutes.13) However, according to the case history, "This girl, who was bubbling over with intellectual vitality, led an extremely monotonous existence in her puritanically-minded family."14 In July the father she adored fell ill, and for the first few months Anna devoted all her energy to nursing him, until in December her own health broke down, and she was no longer able to care for him. She developed a cough, which began at her father's bedside, when she heard dance music next door, felt a sudden longing to be there, and then was overcome with self-reproach. During her illness she was subject to two entirely distinct states of consciousness: in one she was unhappy and anxious, but relatively normal, and characteristically sympathetic and kind; in the other she was, as she herself put it, "naughty", displaying her "bad self'.15 She was abusive; she threw cushions at people; she tore the buttons off her bedclothes. And she was unable to speak German.

When she is well, Anna inhabits the proper meaning of the word woman in Vienna in 1880. Her intelligence has no outlet; she puts others first; she nurses her sick father when she would rather go dancing. In her illness she rejects this meaning in its entirety, and the language in which it takes its place. All she can remember are English verses, the culturally transmitted inscription of childhood and its irresponsibility. The waking dream surely fulfils a desire which cannot be consciously acknowledged, in which she neglects her responsibilities as a nurse by daydreaming, and makes no effort to save her father's endangered life. The snake may have its origin in the field behind the house, but it is surely also derived from the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, a cultural memory textually inscribed, and what it promises is another, forbidden identity outside the authorised meaning of woman: rebellious, irresponsible, and perhaps knowing. In her hallucination Anna glimpses an escape from her linguistically defined destiny. No wonder that her first response to the recognition of this thrilling, terrifying possibility is an impulse to pray, and no wonder that she has to be punished by becoming ill. Her illness, it is worth adding, secures her the practically undivided attention of an exceptionally intelligent male doctor.16 It was Breuer, and in this text, who first used the term "the unconscious", even if his discovery of Anna's unmistakably sexual transference and his own countertransference had the effect of scaring him away from psychoanalysis thereafter.17

Anna's forgotten, repressed vision is subsequently 'written' on her body as a symptom, in the form of the paralysis which follows. Release from her illness is possible only when she remembers the event under hypnosis and narrates it in words to Breuer, 'rewrites' it at the level of the signifier.18 Inscribed on Anna's body, presented, however inadequately, in the talking cure, and represented, however partially, in Breuer's case history, the hallucination of the snake reveals another identity for Anna O., another subject position, or perhaps more than one, in excess of the identification her culture offers as the proper meaning of what it is to be a woman. Bertha Pappenheim gave much of her subsequent energy to the cause of women's emancipation.19 She translated Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and wrote a play about sexual exploitation called A Woman's Right.20

But what has this to do with Bottom, who is not a woman and whose intelligence is certainly not his most salient characteristic, even if Flute finds that "he hath simply the best wit of any handicraft man in Athens" (MND IV.2.9-10)? Can Anna O.'s dream illuminate his? I believe it can, if we are willing to let it, to the degree that Bottom also glimpses another identity, or perhaps more than one, in his midsummer night's dream. "Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had" (IV.1.207-11). In most modern productions the actor here scratches his head and feels gingerly for the missing ears. Bottom's metamorphosis cannot be named overtly, consciously, and yet of course it reappears in what sounds suspiciously like a sixteenth-century version of a Freudian slip: "Man is but an ass, if he go about t' expound this dream" (IV.1.206-7). But by nudging the audience towards the obvious and the absurd, perhaps modern productions miss another dimension of meaning here, a plurality which vindicates the visionary misquotation from St Paul. Bottom is presented from the very beginning as eager to appropriate and inhabit identities. "What is Pyramus?" he wants to know, when offered the part, "a lover, or a tyrant?" A lover is fine: "That will ask some tears in the true performing of it. If I do it, let the audience look to their eyes. I will move storms." And yet he is reluctant to let go of the tyrant: "I could play Ereles rarely, or a part to tear a cat in …" (I.2.22-30). He also offers to play Thisbe "in a monstrous little voice", and of course the lion as well: "I will roar, that I will do any man's heart good to hear me. I will roar, that I will make the Duke say, 'Let him roar again; let him roar again'" (I. 2.52; 70-73). Bottom has, you might say, an appetite for identities.

A reading in quest of character interprets this as bombastic self-importance, swaggering complacency. But if we examine the impulse to play so many parts in textual rather than psychological terms, does it not also betray a self-dissatisfaction, a discontent with the limitations of a given identity? (What is an actor in Shakespeare but a walking shadow, a figure without substance, such stuff as dreams are made on?) Appropriately enough, Bottom does indeed take on a new identity when he becomes an ass, and finds he longs for a bottle of hay and a handful or two of dried peas.

But Titania promises something quite different when she tells him:

I am a spirit of no common rate;
The summer still doth tend upon my state;
And I do love thee; therefore go with me.
I'll give thee fairies to attend on thee;
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so,
That thou shalt like an aery spirit go.

Only the fairies, it must have seemed, could make it possible to escape the limits confronting a sixteenth-century weaver, a handicraft man, and thus a member of a less than privileged class in Elizabethan England. Perhaps this is the possibility that Bottom encounters in what afterwards can only seem a dream: he glimpses a way of life that is rich and romantic, and to match it an identity which is more than mortal, purged of grossness, beyond the limitations of human life itself. No wonder a version of negative theology seems the most appropriate formula for a person who has for one night exceeded the human condition: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."

In the course of the twentieth century Europe too has glimpsed a range of identities, some more asinine than others, some rebellious, luxurious or sublime. And these visions or hallucinations have left their imprint on our history—and are still leaving marks, indeed, on people's bodies. Only a theory which holds us to be other than we are can hope to do justice to our repeated impulses in the course of this century to swerve from a consensual progress towards the utopia of social democracy, consumer culture and the single market. There is an understandable desire to forget these deviations, to obliterate those aspects of our immediate past which constitute an embarrassment in the present. But my own view is that we should on the contrary remember them, even though we may not be able to do it accurately. As the century comes to an end, we need, I think, to take account of the dreams, whether we see them as hallucinations or visions, which haunted Europe in 1917, 1933 or 1989, and of the discontents which motivated them. It is not a question of recovering the past, still less re-enacting it, but rather of making sense of our own history from the perspective of the present, in the hope of making a difference in the future. What we remember of Europe's past will not be a destiny, but it might constitute a critique.

The philosophy of the Enlightenment, with its commitment to the unified subject, the authority of consciousness and universal reason, does not provide an appropriate framework for such a narrative, which would be a history of alterities. In the play it is Theseus who anticipates the Enlightenment's readiness to exclude the irrational, the arbitrary and the paradoxical, everything, in fact which refuses to conform to the requirement for clear concepts transmitted in plain prose:

        I never may believe
These antic fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.

The play, of course, knows better. Imagination signifies. Love and poetry imagine identity transformed and a world other than it is. The fairies have meaning, thought not necessarily substance, sense, if not reference.

At the end of the play these supernatural creatures, inhabitants of the forest and the night, take over the sleeping palace of Theseus. It is midnight,

And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecat's team
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.

The arbitrary and the irrational invades the city, the household, the seat of government. How could it be otherwise? This is, after all, a royal wedding night. The dynastic institution of monarchy paradoxically depends on the irrationality of desire, though the play is not so crude as to say so without immediately casting doubt on its own proposition:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumb'red here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.

Equivocal to the end about its own status as truth, the play is the inscription of an alterity, a dream, as its title makes clear, no more—but also no less. Taken seriously, Bottom's vision exceeds any account of what it is to be a person which insists on "the authority of consciousness, of the ego, of the reflexive cogito"; the fairy story indicates that human beings are both more and less than Descartes was shortly to—dream.

Bottom wants his story documented in Peter Quince's ballad. What are the chances that Peter Quince will get it right, will tell the truth of this plural, overdetermined dream? What indeed are the chances that Bottom can give him accurate material to work on? Freud addresses the theoretical problem of the representation of dreams at the beginning of Chapter 7 of the Interpretation. The scientificity of his theory depends, after all, on precisely this problem of accuracy. "It has been objected on more than one occasion that we have in fact no knowledge of the dreams that we set out to interpret, or, speaking more correctly, that we have no guarantee that we know them as they actually occurred."21 Are dreams really as indistinct and as fragmentary as accounts of them imply? How do we know that the analysand tells the truth, remembers the dream correctly, does not inadvertently forget crucial elements, or does not improvise in the interests of consistency, where no coherence existed in the dream itself?

We don't. Freud concedes the argument at once: "It is true that we distort dreams in attempting to reproduce them."22 This distortion is inevitable when unconscious wishes enter into consciousness. But the editorial modifications that take place in the process are far from arbitrary. On the contrary, "They are associatively linked to the material which they replace, and serve to show us the way to that material, which may in its turn be a substitute for something else."23 The inevitable hesitations and transformations that appear in the representation of the dream are an effect of the censorship of wishes which are forbidden entry into conscious thought. We forget our dreams precisely to the degree that they threaten the idea we have of ourselves.

Contrary to popular belief, and contrary, indeed, to much that Freud himself says here and elsewhere, the material of psychoanalysis is precisely representation, the text or script of the analysand, though not of course, what that script intends to say. The edited text of the represented dream replaces the dream itself, which in turn replaces something else. There is no access to a prior and originating presence, only an infinite regress. "We thus gradually arrive at a notion of the unconscious as a movement of translation without an original, as a process of representation without a 'represented', something that 'logically' speaking, is unthinkable—whether as a substratum or as a substance."24 A dream memorialises a wish that refers to the past, but which exists only in a current moment that precisely cannot be made present.

The unconscious is thus not a thing. It is not, as Derrida puts it, "a hidden, virtual, and potential self-presence. It is differed," he goes on, "—which no doubt means that it is woven out of differences, but also that it sends out, that it delegates, representatives or proxies; but there is no chance that the mandating subject 'exists' somewhere, that it is present or is 'itself, and still less chance that it will become conscious." On the contrary, the unconscious is no more than what Derrida calls a "radical alterity". "With the alterity of the 'unconscious,' we have to deal not with the horizons of modified presents—past or future—but with a 'past' that has never been for ever will be present, whose 'future' will never be produced or reproduced in the form of presence."25 This radical alterity, which is not a thing, nevertheless destabilises our control of the meanings we invoke, and in this respect psychoanalysis is only a sophisticated instance of all interpretation, just as dreaming is a common instance of all inscription. The dream is a new text, and its representation is another—a transformation which produces, not a recovery which reproduces. Bottom's memory of his dream is indistinct and fragmentary: "Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had—but man is but a patch'd fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had." And in his account of it he misremembers the quotation. But he adapts the biblical text in a way that makes, I have suggested, a new sense, just as Cleopatra transforms Virgil, and Berowne transforms Petrarch. As representations, all stories, all histories, modify an obscure and fragmentary past. Recovery of the truth of the experience is not an option. We can, however, hope to make a new sense, which brings what is indistinct to light.

The inscription of Bottom's dream will be a ballad. How else but in poetry could the vision of this lunatic-lover be recorded? Peter Quince's ballad will have no pretensions to scientific accuracy. But if he can't tell the truth, does it follow that it does not matter how he recounts the story, that he has no responsibilities as a historian? The text is not, of course, extant. As far as we know, it was never written. But underterred by this difficulty, I want to speculate about what Peter Quince's ballad might have been like.

Suppose that in the absence of straightforward facts and clear explanations, Peter Quince were to draw, whether consciously or not, on a cultural memory to make sense of Bottom's experience. How else, after all, do we learn to narrate, to link heroes, villains and their appropriate modes of action, names and values, unless by reference to the existing stories we remember, or half-remember? In order to compose his own text, Peter Quince might have turned to the ballad of Tam Lin, first mentioned in 1549 and licensed in 1558. Here the handsome Tarn Lin is spirited away by the Queen of the Fairies. But the joys of supernatural life do not come cheap: the fairies are obliged to pay a regular tithe to their overlord by supplying a victim for Satan. In Tam Lin's own words:

And pleasant is the fairy land,
      But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years
      We pay a tiend to hell;
I am sae fair and fu' of flesh,
      I'm fear'd it be mysel.2626

Tam Lin is saved, however, by the love of a good woman, to the rage of the Queen of the Fairies, who swears she would have disfigured him if she'd known.

The ballad of Tam Lin thus joins the interminable list of stories of demonic women who endanger innocent men: lamias and sirens and mermaids, Circe and Morgan Le Fay, the Whore of Babylon and La Belle Dame Sans Merci. To the degree that the stories we repeat serve to reproduce the meanings and values we subscribe to, and thus to legitimate specific power relations, in imitating Tam Lin, Peter Quince might thus have produced, however unwittingly, a ballad that would contribute to the sad history of patriarchy, which demonises any woman who exercises power, especially over men. How we tell it has implications.

There is, however, an alternative model in the ballad tradition. Thomas the Rhymer falls in love with the Queen of Elfland and spends upwards of three years with her. When they part, she gives him a coat, a pair of shoes and the gift of prophecy, which causes him to be widely venerated on his return.27 Supernatural women, it appears, are not all bad.28 Thomas the Rhymer began to deliver his patriotic Scottish prophecies during the thirteenth century. After his death they continued to accumulate, and they were printed in Edinburgh in 1603, when it was evidental that they had all come true.29

But in imitating either of these ballads, Peter Quince would have been false to the textual material at his disposal, and thus reprehensibly irresponsible. There is no evidence that Bottom is endangered, that he is at any point in need of rescue, or that his experience does him any harm. Nor, on the other hand, does it apparently leave him wiser or more venerable than before. A certain inventiveness might, of course, be no bad thing in a ballad, but the fact that we can't tell the Whole Truth in our histories does not mean that they are pure fiction or that we are entitled as historians to make things up. For us the non-presence of truth does not abrogate the notion of falsehood, or legitimise irresponsibility. It does not do away with the scholarly virtues of textual rigour or fidelity to the documents.

Peter Quince's ballad probably cannot avoid citationality, but he need not reproduce his models. On the contrary, he can transform the tradition by misquoting it. In telling a story, in writing in a specific genre, he cannot help drawing on cultural memory, the existing repertoire of narrative and poetic strategies. But it is likely that he will adapt the material he invokes, transforming it in the process. In a sense we always misquote when we appropriate another text to make a new sense.

Both the ballads I have mentioned were collected in the eighteenth century, though they are certainly much older in origin. This origin, the ur-text, a prior presence is, appropriately enough, not available. But one of the features which identifies the ballads as 'primitive' for a culture accustomed to the novel is their common oscillation of tenses between past and present. This invocation of a present historic deviates from the novelistic convention of narration in the past tense, and invests the ballads with an oddly timeless quality, making them appear at once seductively ancient and insistently immediate. It transgresses the distinction we have come to take for granted between a past which is over and complete and a present which is now.

Psychoanalysis also disturbs the temporal relations which seem so clear to common sense. In Freud's account, the past does not merely influence the present: on the contrary, it inhabits it, in the compulsion to repeat long-buried feelings of love and hate which determines everyday relationships, as well as the analytic transference.30 More-over, the past explains the future. This same endlessly repeated past necessarily returns, and thus constitutes a prediction for the future, unless analysis makes sense of it, brings it into a new context, and in the process of the transference changes its meaning. Anna O.'s symptoms subside when she tells the story of the snake. Analysis realigns the repressed feelings, integrates their traces into the symbolic order, and makes a different future possible.31 At the same time, the analysand's account of the past is not unmotivated: the narrative betrays unconscious wishes and expectations for the future. As desiring creatures, we cannot resist telling it like we want it to be. Anna O. wanted a different meaning for the word woman. The wished-for future explains the past.32 Psychoanalysis thus rejects a linear notion of time which distinguishes rigidly between past, present and future.

Peter Quince's ballad will be a narrative of the trace of a past. It will make sense, in a way that Bottom can't, of a moment of intensity, but it will also integrate this moment into a new context that will alter its meaning, and change the future into the bargain. "I will get Peter Quince to write a [ballad] of this dream [ … ] and I will sing it in the latter end of a play, before the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her death" (MND IV.1.214-19). These lines are notoriously cryptic. What play? Pyramus and Thisbe? Whose death? This-be's? And yet it hardly matters. In any case, Peter Quince's ballad will represent an account of a past which it cannot fail to redefine and restructure. At the same time this inscription of the past is to be motivated by a wish for the future, specifically the pleasure of an aristocratic audience and the greater glory of Bottom the actor. The linear time which unscrambles past, present and future is affirmed by the Englightenment, and yet paradoxically the implied or repressed tense of Englightenment history is not the past but the future. The account it gives of the past is motivated by a wish. To the degree that this is a history of progress, development or emancipation, it moves towards a future to be accomplished, organises its material in the light of an Idea which must be realised.33 "To be concluded" is the implicit promise of such a narrative. It is fundamentalist history, by contrast, which genuinely employs the perfect tense. Fundamentalism looks back to a completed founding moment and its project is the reinstatement of an original, ancestral purity. "Once upon a time", it begins. But the tense of our postmodern history is, I want to propose, the future anterior. Its object is to ascertain what will have been the case, what will have been the meanings, the regularities, the possibilities for change. "To be continued" is its modest undertaking, but its purpose is to intervene, to put the past to use in influencing what will turn out to have been the case.

The future anterior is the tense of psychoanalysis. Analysis attends to what will turn out to have been the meaning of the trace of the buried past which inhabits the present. Discussing the importance of the psychoanalytic dialogue as a process of production—"For the function of language is not to inform but to evoke", Lacan says—he adds,

What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.34

In a brilliant exposition of the implications of this pronouncement, Samuel Weber explains that, while psychoanalysis looks back, the analytic past can never be entirely remembered, since it will never have fully taken place. At the same time, psychoanalysis has a future goal, "a process of becoming", even if this cannot be specified in advance.35 Thus, the future anterior entails a conjecture: what will have been the case "designates a surmise, a conditional prediction and hence, a proposition bearing upon an uncertain state of affairs."36

The Enlightenment narrative of emancipation knows its own end; its privileged narrator stands outside the information itself, has mapped the field objectively, and knows, without intervening, the direction of history. The past moves irresistibly towards this end. For fundamentalism, by contrast, the past is there to be recovered, re-enacted. The postmodern narrative, however, is hesitant, tentative, unclosed. Its past is indistinct and fragmentary, or incompletely realised. It predicts, but conditionally, since its function is to evoke what may become the case. It thus bears on uncertainty. Moreover, it alludes to the uncompleted past, not as the missing contents of its story, but as the unpresentable, the conceivable which cannot be made present. Such presentation is not transparent, but opaque, and postmodern history thus shares with art a determination to 'misquote' or parody the inherited rules and practices of good writing. As Jean-François Lyotard puts it in his essay, "What is Postmodernism?",

The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done. Hence the fact that work and text have the characters of an event … Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo).37

Contemporary Europe, I have suggested, is haunted by memories of other identities, which were, in some instances, never fully realised. But what was never realised can perhaps be formative for what we are in the process of becoming, and its history remains to be written: not accurately, perhaps, and certainly not completely, but not irresponsibly either, and in a way which is attentive to its own presentation. An identity which exceeds what we have been so far may depend on that inscription.

I want to end—of course—with the play, and Oberon's memory of the time he heard a mermaid singing. He recounts the event to Puck, who comments briefly, "I remember". Oberon goes on:

That very time I saw (but thou couldst not),
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all arm'd. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
And loos'd his love-shaft smartly from his bow,
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts;
But I might see young Cupid's fiery shaft
Quench'd in the chaste beams of the wat'ry moon,
And the imperial vot'ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
Yet mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell.
It fell upon a little western flower,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
Fetch me that flow'r; the herb I showed thee
The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.
                              (MND II.1.154-172)

This lyrical passage is a tissue of citations. It draws on a whole range of cultural memories—of Seneca, Golding, Chaucer, Sir Thomas Elyot and Lyly.38 The story of lovein-idleness adapts Ovidian metamorphosis and creates a new myth of Queen Elizabeth in the process. This story of the past is also an instruction to Puck: it thus evokes what may become the case; and in consequence it constitutes an intervention, producing what by the end of the play will have been the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Its privileged narrator has access to a knowledge not available to Puck, which enables him to make predictions. But Oberon is not an Enlightenment historian: things don't go quite as he plans. His narrative thus bears on uncertainty. What is more, the passage is extremely attentive to its own presentation.

Shakespeare, I can't help thinking, could have taught Peter Quince—and perhaps not only Peter Quince—a thing or two about how to write a story.


Lecture delivered at the Shakespeare Tage 1993 in Weimar (on 23. April).

1 William Thackeray, The Rose and the Ring or, The History of Prince Giglio and Prince Bulbo (1854) by Mr M. A. Titmarsh (London: Macmillan, 1934), pp. 82-3. Chapter 9.

2 Shakespeare references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, eds. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

3 Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), ed. Angus Easson (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 513.

4 The text does, of course, propel the imagination of the audience in a fairly specific direction:

               lead him to my bower.
The moon methinks looks with a wat'ry eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little
Lamenting some enforced [violated] chastity.
                                       (III. 1.197-200)
cf. So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle
Gently entwist; the female ivy so
Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.
                                        (IV. 1.42-4)

5 "Ballet" in F, Ql and Q2.

6 Harold F. Brooks, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream (London: Methuen, 1979), p. cxvii.

7 Jacques Derrida, "Let Us Not Forget—Psychoanalysis", Oxford Literary Review 12 (1990), 3-7, p. 3. For Derrida's most detailed exploration of psychoanalysis see The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

8 Derrida, "Let Us Not Forget", p. 4.

9 "Fräulein Anna O.", Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1974), 73-102, pp. 92-93.

10 Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", p. 95.

11 Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", p. 73.

12 Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", p. 73.

13 Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud, Life and Work, vol. 1 (London: Hogarth Press, 1952), p. 248.

14 Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", p. 74.

15Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", pp. 76, 101.

16 I owe this point to Christa Knellwolf.

17 Breuer, "Fräulein Anna O.", p. 100, 95 n.l. See also

18 According to Ernest Jones, Breuer's account of Anna's recovery is optimistic (Sigmund Freud, p. 247). His 'cathartic' treatment, 'ignoring' the transference and countertransference, is, of course, radically incomplete. See also

19 Jones, Sigmund Freud, p. 248.

20 Lisa Apignanesi and John Forrester, Freud's Women (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992), p. 78.

21 Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 656.

22 Freud,The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 658.

23 Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, p. 659.

24 Samuel Weber, Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan 's Dislocation of Psychoanalysis, trans. Michael Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 4.

25 Jacques Derrida, "Differance", "Speech and Phenomena" and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1973), 129-60, p. 152.

26 Francis James Child ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (New York: Dover, 1965), 5 vols, vol I, no. 39, 335-58, p. 342.

27 The ballads, collected at the end of the eighteenth century, do not all tell the same story. Only Scott's version attributes to Thomas "the tongue that can never lie" (and Thomas seems to think that this gift will only lead him inso social difficulties). The whole story is recounted in a fifteenth-century romance (Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, I, no. 37, 317-29). For a detailed account and the romance in full see James A. H. Murray ed., The Romance and Prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, EETS, O. S. 61 (London, 1875).

28 In the ballad of Allison Gross the queen of the fairies undoes the spell cast by the wicked witch (Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, I, no. 35, pp. 313-15).

29 Murray, Romance and Prophecies, pp. xxx, xl.

30 Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, On Metapsychology, ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1984), pp. 269-338, 288-94.

31 Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 55-8.

32 See Malcolm Bowie, Psychoanalysis and the Future of Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).

33 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985 (London: Turnaround, 1992), p. 29.

34 Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Travistock, 1977), p. 86.

35 "Analysis can have for its goal only the advent of a true speech and the realisation by the subject of his history in his relation to a future" (Lacan, Ecrits, p. 88).

36 Weber, Return to Freud, p. 9.

37 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester U. P., 1984), p. 81.

38 Brooks, ed., A Midsummer Night's Dream, pp. 36-8.

Source: "Peter Quince's Ballad: Shakespeare, Psychoanalysis, History," in Deutsche Shakespeare-Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch 1994, pp. 65-81.