William Shakespeare Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self

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Breaking the Illusion of Being: Shakespeare and the Performance of Self

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Emily C. Bartels, Rutgers University

Subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?
                      Richard II 3.2.176-77


"To be or not to be" (3. 1. 55)—that is the question Hamlet asks of himself and Shakespeare asks of him and other self-scrutinizing figures like him (such as Othello, Lear, to some degree Cleopatra and Macbeth), figures emerging largely, though not solely, in the tragedies, where the idea of selfhood and the prospects of self-determination are most prominently at issue.1 New historicism, with its Foucauldian emphases on the coercive pervasion of "power" and the ideological overdetermination of identity, has brought us back, perhaps despite itself, to where early feminisms, with their interest in recovering muted female voices, began: to questions of agency, of the subject's power over and as a self.2 Given a world in which thoughts are subjects to and of a multi-layered network of social and political prescripts, what finally does and can it mean to be, to perform or possess identity, to speak and act as "I"?

It is not surprising that, in trying to bring women out of subjugation and into subjectivity, feminism found a generous ally in psychoanalysis.3 For despite the problematic phallocentrism of its seminal expressions, psychoanalysis provided a useful way to talk about (and hear) voices under cover, to explore the core of being in ways that involved figures of both genders. Seen through its gaze, Ophelia could signify, and signify something crucial, even if that something pointed back to the phallus, to male power and parts and female lack.4 Volumnia could take the words out of Coriolanus's mouth as a "cannibalistic mother," instancing his dependency on her while, to some degree, overcoming hers on him as on the patriarchal system he stands for.5 And Cordelia could signify a physically embodied nothing, which becom"the very ground of being" in the play.6

Yet even (if not especially) as these critiques turn to the body and its innermost parts, especially those that separate the girls from the boys, they find, in essence, nothing, a vacancy that tells us what is missing instead of what is there. The problem is not merely one of gender (though, of course, Cordelia's nothing is different from Lear's—and that difference may be what precipitates the play's crisis); it is also one of approach. Psychoanalytic readings can get us closer to the symbolic relations within early modern texts, but they cannot get us closer to the early modern self, except, as Stephen Greenblatt has suggested, as its effect.7 As Greenblatt has argued, "psychoanalytic interpretation seems to follow upon rather than to explain Renaissance text"8 In looking within, beyond the "seems," to find explanations for what is without, psychoanalytic interpretation anachronistically assumes the presence (and then loss)—or, at least, the means for imagining that presence and loss—of some prior, stabilized identity.9 But it is precisely that kind of identity that seems unimaginable in the early modern period.

Think, for example, of Hamlet, who tries relentlessly to talk himself—and a self—into being and who, consequently, has provoked us (and Lawrence Olivier) to produce him psychoanalytically.10 Hamlet believes, or says he believes, that he has "that within which passes show" (1. 2. 85) beneath his "inky cloak" and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.77-78). And he asserts that some harbor, in their interiors, a "vicious mole of nature" (1.4.24) that leaves an indelible imprint on their thoughts, "virtues," behaviors, and reason (1.4.33). Yet when he looks within himself to find and define "who's there" (1.1.1), the opening and central question of the play, we lose him amid "the whips and scorns of time, / Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, / The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay, / The insolence of office" and so on (3. 2.69-72). Though he tries to be Harrison Ford, he is fated (sadly) to be Mel...

(The entire section is 8,334 words.)