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Mixing Memory and Desire: Notes for a Psychodynamic Exploration of Shakespeare

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5261

Takashi Sasayama, Kwansei Gakuin University

In a critical attempt to interpret a play of Shakespeare in phenomenological terms, that is, as the source of an intensely integrated psychic experience instead of as a selfcontained artifact with semantic autonomy, nothing seems more crucial than illuminating the relationship of the working of the audience's subliminal mind to the received meaning of the play.

Generally speaking, what a play means is primarily conditioned by how the audience logically makes out the whole sequence of incidents and situations incorporated in the play's action. What happens at a given moment in some development of the plot forms a configuration in our mental vision insofar as it is viewed against the background of all that has been theatrically experienced since the very beginning of the play. Thus, it would appear justifiable to argue that the structured design of the narrative, both temporal and spatial, is the basis for the entire body of audience experience, which is the matrix of the play's central meaning.

Not infrequently, however, watching a performance in the theatre, we find ourselves responding to a character or an element of the dramatic action in a way that somehow seems quite impossible from a rational apprehension in the logical narrative context. In these cases it is to be assumed that our response is more or less controlled by some force of our subliminal consciousness, whose working is intuitive, or sometimes even irrational, rather than discursive or cerebral.

The theatrical experience, unlike a reading experience that can be repeated, is an irreversible sequence of an infinite number of immediate 'presents'. Each present moment on the stage recedes into an amorphous past and is replaced by a new 'present'. In the course of this process there are moments when what has withdrawn into the past suddenly takes shape as a virtual memory, while that which is to come is fantasized as an expected future. Operating at the core of our response mechanism at such moments are, more often than not, certain deeply embedded desires. They were engendered as our consciousness singularly reacted to some specific movement of the drama, and have since kept growing obscurely within ourselves so as to function as special psychic attitudes or anticipations, with which ensuing developments of the action are to be envisioned in terms of wish fulfilments. There is a sense in which the basic formula of the theatrical experience is the creation of desires and the subsequent satisfying (or denying) of those desires in the audience's mind.

I should like to try out this sort of analysis on a few plays of Shakespeare—first very briefly on King Lear, The Winter's Tale, and Hamlet, giving light in each case on the pattern of the inner action of the play from the angle of our subliminal reactions to it in our theatrical experience of the play; then somewhat more extensively on Othello, concentrating the speculation on a couple of important issues related to the tragic effect in the final scene of the drama.

In terms of audience response, two separate layers of action can be discerned in King Lear. In one layer there is the drama of Lear's anger and curse. His anger, being cut off at an early stage from its initial motive, keeps on increasing through its self-generated energy to an unlimited extent. Running a parallel course, his curse starts with his own unnatural daughters, but soon expands far beyond them to find its object in the female body in general and at last in the fertility of nature. The other layer of action is taken up by the...

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drama of the endlessly growing evil of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. Their transformation into beasts becomes complete when their inhumanity towards their fathers and retainers comes to be coupled with their sexual promiscuity. Between these two layers of action there exists no positive causal relation. Still, it is perfectly possible for the audience to respond to the latter layer of action as though all the evil deeds and moral aberrations presented therein were specific materializations of the universal evil upon which Lear in the former layer of action called down horrible curses.

At the same time, suppose that the audience is made to feel in the middle of the play that Lear gradually has come to partake of the rottenness of nature he himself execrates, and is being dragged into the slough of absolute negation, or that all of nature has fallen from grace, and Lear as a "ruined piece of nature" is turned involuntarily into an element of the infernal scene unfolded on the heath: this response must function as a catalyst for awakening deep within the mind of the audience an earnest longing for the redemption of Lear's soul.

This longing soon is projected onto the image of Cordelia, and the audience almost instinctively reads religious overtones into her lines, "O dear father,/It is thy business that I go about", or the Gentleman's words, "Thou hast one daughter,/Who redeems nature from the general curse/ Which twain have brought her to." These psychic phenomena on the part of the audience are made easier by various aspects of Cordelia's characterization—her long absence from the stage, her few words, her total freedom from all the associations of a wife or a queen, and so on.

Thus, in the subconscious of the audience, Cordelia becomes a being whose existence is felt the more intensely for her nonexistence on the stage and whose coming is desired the more earnestly for her slowness in coming. The result is that the audience half subconsciously anticipates her death. The sudden entrance of Lear with her dead body in his arms, therefore, cannot be a surprise to the audience; it is certainly a great shock, but there is something within themselves that tells them that they knew it already, though they did not know they did. This might be one of the reasons the final scene of the tragedy is saturated with an awe-inspiring atmosphere, which partakes more of religious elation than of a nihilistic sense of the vanity of human life.

In The Winter's Tale, too, the same kind of psychic rhythm of awakened desires and their fulfilment as we noticed in King Lear dominates the audience response throughout the play. There is no denying the fact that the episodic scenes with the bear and the clowns during the middle movement of the action psychologically function to distance the pseudo-tragic world of the first half of the play and smoothly modulate the tone of the play from the death-principle to the life-principle. Just at this stage in the theatrical experience of the audience, the role of Autolycus cannot be overestimated. All the time this picaro-trickster is on the stage, play-acting, duping, bragging and pickpocketing, the whole theatre is filled with laughter. This, however, does not mean that the audience laughs at him or with him. The laughter is rather a symptom of physiological reflex to the élan vital, of which Autolycus is an incarnation. With him all moral criticism is simply out of place. To put it after the manner of Falstaff, he is not only the festive spirit in himself, "but the cause that [the festive spirit] is in other men." As the audience is gradually infected by him and nurtures an inclination to sing the joys of life with him, a comic mental set is begot in the deeper layer of the consciousness, which is to annul and remake the pseudo-tragic experience of the past action.

The audience, experiencing the unusually long scene of the sheep-shearing feast, where it looks as if time had stopped to let eternal summer reign, has moments of embracing an illusory vision of the healing of all wounds and the restoration of all that has been lost. As long as the audience remains in this psychic state of wishful thinking, in which dreams may come true at any moment, an involutary suspension of disbelief is possible, when the marble statue of Hermione is seen to move. Recognizing the gratification of a hitherto unrecognized desire, the audience is thrown into ecstatic exaltation, as Hermione slowly steps down during Paulina's most heavily punctuated speech to embrace Leontes and Perdita.

What constitutes the core of our Hamlet experience is the impact on us of the shadow of death covering the all too susceptible mind of the hero who, being nauseated at the rottenness of nature, has fallen into the desperate abyss of existential doubt. As early as the second scene of the first act the setting of Hamlet's deeper consciousness is revealed, though only partially, to the audience. Furthermore, what the audience receives from the sensuous speeches of the ghost in psychological terms must be identical with what Hamlet receives from the same speeches. This somehow causes the audience to share the mental landscape within the hero, and drives them to take in the entire subsequent action with a double vision, that is, their own as well as Hamlet's. It is for this reason that Ophelia, whose innocence is never doubted by the audience on the rational level, sometimes appears the erotic figure Hamlet takes her to be.

It is in the middle of the fourth act where the deranged Ophelia rushes on to the stage that a change occurs to the response mechanism of the audience. The theatrical experience of the play up to this moment, which might be called the 'Elsinore Experience', was nothing less than claustrophobic. It was an experience of a suffocating darkness, which was felt to be so much more unbearable, because every time after it appeared for a moment to be streaked with dim light, that sign soon proved hallucinatory. It is natural that the subconscious mind of the audience, aspiring to be relieved of such an oppressive sensation, should set about groping for a remedial vision of peace, which would serve to dissolve the obsessive sense of uncertainty and emptiness underlying the 'Elsinore Experience'. This instinctive drive deep within is given full play when Hamlet, who has constantly been the central object of the audience response, disappears from the stage, leaving the current of the tragic action momentarily at a stand.

The sweetly plaintive sentiment which pervades the scene of Ophelia's madness and Gertrude's narration of her drowning subtly works on the audience and exerts a radical influence on the structuring of their tragic experience. Metaphorically speaking, the poison poured by the ghost into the audience's ears is now rinsed off by the water which has claimed Ophelia. If death in the form of poisoned and stabbed bodies has so far been responded to as something ugly, odious and infernal, it is now envisioned as an alluring sight of a lovely maid's homeward return to the element from which she took her existence. The perception functions as an incentive for generating in the mind of the audience an illusory vision of dawn, which is to terminate the long night's journey of the 'Elsinore Experience'. And it is quite possible that this vision, which is felt to be the more endearing because the audience knows it is false and illusory, should occasion the wishful fantasizing of a virtual future in which the tragic agon is brought to a harmonious and meaningful conclusion.

It may be that the much discussed change of Hamlet in the final act, which is usually explained in terms of character criticism, has more to do with this issue of audience psychology. When the audience is instinctively prepared to see the subsequent fate of Hamlet under the aspect of suffering rather than action, the whole final movement of the play—from Hamlet's fatalistic words before the fencing match to the sweet beatific vision in Horatio's requiem speech to the dead prince—can be received as a realization of their half-unconscious expectations.

At the last step of my argument concerning the phenomenological aspect of the theatrical reception of Shakespeare, let me focus on the closing scene of Othello and discuss the meaning of what is usually treated as the expression of Othello's heroism just before his suicide. Multifarious comments have been made by scholars and critics on the highly dramatic deportment of Othello in this catastrophic situation. Among many others, the line of thinking broached by Eliot and later followed by Leavis that Othello, being a Bovarist who is in love with himself, is "cheering himself up" was so influential that Laurence Olivier adopted it as the basic principle of his performance in the film made in 1965, as he had done in the National Theatre production of the previous year under the direction of John Dexter. Indeed, the black general, characterized by Olivier, is extremely self-conscious and self-centred, and appears to retain his sense of and capacity for self-dramatization until the last moment. Dexter-Olivier's design for divesting the play of all possibilities of sentimentalism is marked in every facet of the film. It is evident that we are required to watch the terrifying process of a great ego crumbling into dust without any sympathy.

However, there is one scene in the entire film in which the response of the common spectator obviously goes contrary to what might be expected towards a Bovarist cheering himself up. Reviewers of the film almost unanimously mentioned the romantic sympathy with which they responded to the behaviour in the final scene of Olivier-Othello, who delivered his last speech, enfolding the dead Desdemona and rocking her back and forth in his long black arms. Beyond doubt, it is unlikely that Olivier, at this decisive moment of the tragedy, should have deliberately set out to act in such a way as to negate and annul the whole histrionic endeavour that had so far been made to work out the Leavisean image of Othello. Clearly, the cause for the romantic exaltation felt instead of realistic criticism on the part of the audience must be sought, not in the intention of the actor or the director, but in the peculiar psychodynamics of audience response in this tragedy. A close reading of the text, accompanied by a mental enactment to be decelerated and accelerated, as occasion requires, could possibly shed light, though in a limited way, on this recalcitrant issue in the dramatic criticism of Othello.

In most tragedies of Shakespeare there is within the actional movement leading to the catastrophe a sequence of incidents and situations during which the audience, striving to apprehend the meaning of that action, find themselves pressed to choose between two opposite perspectives on life. One is the absurdist vision or the nihilistic perspective of the world, in which the hero's conduct and its consequences, irrespective of their ethical colourings, are viewed as part of the irrational contingency of the cosmos. The other is a vison based on humanistic wishful thinking, which allows the subconscious mind of the audience, looking for order and purpose in all affairs of this world, intuitively to see in the hero of the play a champion fighting for a human cause and value. The friction and the ultimate merging into each other of these two conflicting visions often leads to a tragic catharsis, accomplished with fear and pity working in linkage respectively with the former and the latter visions.

In Hamlet and King Lear the conflict of these visions continues until the last moment of the tragedy, burdening the intellection of the audience with a variety of metaphysical questionings. In Othello, however, the friction of the two inner perspectives is somewhat more infiltrated with emotionalism and is therefore less liable to be controlled by intellect. This may partly derive from the fact that as the plot develops, the sphere of the action becomes increasingly narrower, and the hero is further separated from his surrounding world, till at last the action confines itself to the claustrophobic space of a closed chamber that symbolizes a complete mental blockade on the part of the hero. But obviously it owes more to the moral ambiguity with which we are expected to experience the ending of the play. In this tragedy the destruction of good and happiness is so wanton that the value and order to be restored by the punitive death of the hero are still out of sight even after the drama has come to its close. It is in search of an escape from this psychological stalemate that the mind of the audience is driven by instinct to conceive in its depth a kind of self-deceptive vision by which the meaning of the life of the unfortunate couple is to be grasped in an affirmative light.

During the earlier half of the play we are not allowed to see inside the hero's mind. It is Iago rather than Othello with whom we are tempted to identify ourselves. Being a cynical debunker as well as a shrewd intriguer, Iago lets us share his cerebration, and in so doing, plants in us a sense of complicity, so that we are made to view Othello somehow with a critical detachment. Moreover, Othello's highsounding eloquence, which culminates in the Senate Scene, seems rather to alienate him from our sympathy. Even the nature of the love between him and Desdemona is not a factor that functions to familiarize them to us. It is such a pure artifact brought into being by many noble exertions other than mutual attachment that it is more likely for us to understand it than actually feel it. Pertinent to this is the fact that the genesis and the development of this love are only narrated, and not enacted before us.

In connection with this it is important to note that the basic mode of reception in Othello is comic. During the earlier scenes of the play it is utterly impossible for us to have a presentiment of the horrible developments in the concluding scene. Even in the so-called Great Temptation Scene we constantly feel reassured with an easy assumption that all will ultimately be brought to a comic denouement. When, later on in the same scene, we are made aware for the first time of the green-eyed monster lurking within Othello, we begin to be haunted by unsettling fear. This, however, does not necessarily mean that we are prompted, as Bradley or Leavis assumes us to be, to try to give to ourselves plausible explanations of what is supposed to motivate Othello's behaviour. As far as our theatrical experience is concerned, our response pattern in this situation would rather be that at first we are overcome by an admiration for the subtlety of Iago in manipulating human psychology, which gradually is taken over by our bridling impatience to deliver Othello from the ominous deception he has fallen prey to. The exceptionally speedy development of the plot keeps the audience more or less free of curiosity about the cause, whether logical or psychological, of Othello's jealousy.

It is not too much to say that our image of Othello does not wholly depend on what we actually find him to be at a given moment, but is influenced by the way in which we respond to other characters, especially to Desdemona. During the first half of the play Desdemona moves us by her endearing human virtues and capacities—capacities for love, sympathy, respect, trust, patience and, above all, self-effacement, coupled with a sense of humour and polite sociability. After she is victimized by Othello's jealousy, she does not cease to speak of her love for and trust in him. The anguish with which we are made to witness the touching evidence of her innocence and love in the most trying situations functions as energy for generating within ourselves a desire to have Othello worthy of her and her love. Thus, the heroic figure Othello cuts in the finale can only be a fantasized materialization of this subliminal longing in the audience.

In the earlier scenes of the play the image of the heroic Othello is not essentially ours; his histrionic speeches and self-conscious gestures on public occasions may indeed strike us as magnificent, but not necessarily as expressive of a heroic spirit. To Desdemona, however, heroism is just what makes Othello Othello. It is by telling her in a romanticizing language about the extreme hardships and exotic adventures he had been through that Othello earned Desdemona's love. She says explicitly to the Duke and the Senate: "And to his honours and his valiant parts/Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate." Later in the play, when we see Othello drawn deeper and deeper into the besoiling mire excreted from his demeaned imagination, we are, indeed, nauseated. But, paradoxically enough, this occasions the confirmation of our hitherto unconscious unwillingness to dismiss utterly from our hearts the heroic picture of Othello that was so dear to Desdemona and from which she would never have thought of parting. It is quite natural, therefore, that much of the pseudo-heroic language in his imprecatory utterances should sound to our ears not as travesty but rather as a nostalgic echo of those majestic speeches of his, which so deeply impressed us in his prelapsarian state.

Seen in this light, Othello's heroism is not a reality, not an actual virtue to be attributed to him, but part of the virtual image of him which is only a phenomenological product of our theatrical experience. Nevertheless, in the final scene of the play, in which Othello's suicide brings the action to a close, it is none other than this virtual image that plays the vital role in creating the meaning of the whole drama.

Othello is unique as tragedy in that it offers us a totally unexpected experience within twenty lines of the end, thereby necessitating a swift, drastic change of our mode of tragic reception. Moreover, this concluding sequence of the final scene of the play turns out to be another pregnant moment for the audience's psyche. For it is exposed to a clash of the two opposite perspectives of the world I have referred to above. When the curtain falls on the scene of the dead Othello and Desdemona, our minds begin to work retroactively to reconstruct a coherent story of the drama. We recall the ironic fact that Desdemona's absolute purity became the very cause of her undoing and Othello's fall. What then is most naturally expected to come over us is a keen sense of vanity or absurdity. Yet, at most performances of the play, including Dexter-Oliver's film, the audience experiences a certain deep emotion building up quietly. It is an emotion which is hard to define, but certainly it is aroused by a self-projected vision in their minds of a heroic Othello restored at long last to his nobly loving wife.

Before further probing into the nature of this emotion in concrete terms, it would be in order to observe how the Willow Song Scene, which immediately precedes the fifth act, prepares for this psychic phenomenon in the tragic finale by effecting in the audience a radical transformation of the image of Desdemona.

The scene takes place in Desdemona's closet, where stillness is broken only by gentle female voices, in a desultory conversation between the heartbroken mistress and her maid. This is the only scene in the whole play in which Iago does not appear, and Othello, too, has left the stage after a few initial speeches. In this atmosphere of deceptive peace, Desdemona seems to have taken on a new aspect. There is a certain elusive opacity about her. She is not a mere pathetic figure in wistful stasis. She rather appears to have been depersonalized, and the audience gradually ceases to be conscious of her as flesh and blood with her own will and feelings. That her conduct and speeches become more and more simple and childlike till at last she starts singing snatches of an idle lyric might well be interpreted as a symptom of her growing mental paralysis under extreme pain and sorrow, but as far as the theatrical experience is concerned, this only serves to strengthen the impression of her as a symbol of innocence. The angelic purity and naïveté revealed in her ambiguous and disconnected words uttered intermittently in a weary melancholy tone are brought into relief by contrast with the homespun vulgarity of the gossipy Emilia.

In the midst of the Willow Song she suddenly whispers, "Hark! who is't that knocks?" To which Emilia answers, "It is the wind." It may be that this sharp challenge from Desdemona discloses a cleft in her mind, enduring so valiantly all that is unendurable, from which the audience catches a glimpse of conflicting feelings, that is, expectations and fears, hope for love and terror for death, at the prospect of her husband's return in a short time. But there is much more in this. The brief exchange of words between Desdemona and Emilia makes the audience reminisce about those far-off days of childhood when they shuddered at some unidentified noise outdoors on a stormy winter night. In such a Bodkinian archetypal pattern, into which the total effect of the scene converges, Desdemona's corporeality is gradually rarefied, and she is found to have been turned into an element of the symbolic landscape envisioned by the audience's mind.

To a novelistic reader all is not yet definite at this stage of the play. Logically speaking, the fate of Desdemona is still open to many different possibilities. It is theoretically possible that Othello should learn the truth and the play abruptly be brought to a happy end. But to a theatre audience which has experienced the Willow Song Scene, Desdemona's death is afait accompli, which means that we are more or less subconsciously prepared for it from the initial lines of the final scene. Othello's smothering of her, therefore, whatever pity it may arouse in our hearts, cannot overcome us with a sense of unexpected doom. What is most shocking and unbearable to us is not so much the murder of a devoted wife by her husband as the ugliness of spirit in which it is committed. In contrast to the indestructible goodness of Desdemona, who uses a few moments of revival only to commend herself to her kind lord and exonerate him of her death, the repulsiveness of Othello, who ignores her pleas for the mercy of a few minutes' delay, severely taxes our forbearance. It sets an edge upon our inmost wish for preventing Desdemona's self-effacing love for Othello from passing into nothingness. Moreover, our psychic stance towards Othello himself has to undergo a subtle change during the actional sequence between the death of Desdemona and his great final speech.

No one would deny that one of the peculiarities of our Othello experience is the awkwardness we constantly feel at the insurmountable gap in knowledge between Othello and ourselves during the greater part of the play. It is a matter of course that, being an omniscient presence outside the world of the drama, the audience should know all that is happening, while Othello, a character in the drama, is left totally ignorant. Nevertheless, we are continuously made to feel that the smallest bit of information given to him would instantly save him from his impending fate. But the sheer impossibility of this happening constantly irritates us, and oppresses us with an almost physiological discomfort. So, when Othello, after his smothering of Desdemona, has his eyes opened for the first time to the truth, we feel as if the wall that has stood in the way of our emotional engagement with him has suddenly been broken down. The pleasure and delight with which we come to embrace in our heart the hapless victim-hero we rejected for so long may naturally overshadow our judgment, which ought to approve of his imagining himself falling into Hell. We even desire, though not necessarily on the conscious level, that his subsequent behaviour will be such as is revelatory of human dignity, instead of self-scorn or despair in the face of the apparent meaninglessness of the cosmic design.

Thus, the self-conscious understatement in the opening part of Othello's speech, culminating in " … one that lov'd not wisely but too well", functions to endear him to our hearts rather than to alienate him, while the exotic imagery with which he refers to his tears brings back to our memory with nostalgic reverberations those romantic stories of himself that he told to Desdemona in order to win her love. He then proceeds to talk of the resolute patriotic justice he once inflicted on a Turk who traduced the state of Venice, and we feel ready to reminisce about the magnificent figure he cut in our eyes in the initial acts of the play.

The next moment, however, he himself becomes the Turk, "the circumcised dog", and stabs him, that is, himself.

The punisher is transformed into the punished, and the heroic deed of a Christian executing a pagan wrongdoer overlaps with the desperate act of a civilized man annihilating himself in order to punish the barbarian in himself. This is doubly theatrical in that it is an engrossing performance that serves as an effective reminder of his courageous devotion to the state in the past, while at the same time it is a well-calculated gesture to impress his audience on stage (as well as the real audience) with the appropriateness of his self-inflicted justice.

It is possible to view this final deportment of Othello, as Eliot does, as an aesthetic attitude rather than a moral one. Eliot says, " … [Othello is] dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself." Eliot may be right. But isn't the root of the theatrical experience in being taken in, that is to say, in being so deluded as to believe in the reality of that which has no existence except as a phenomenon of the mind? As far as audience response in the finale of Othello is concerned, it does not matter of what kind of personality the hero has ultimately proved himself to be. What is important is that a quiet upsurge of emotions evoked in response to the integrated effect of his narrative speech and his dramatic action works to make the audience willing to be taken in and accept, not morally but aesthetically, the beautiful image of the heroic Moor into which Othello at the last moment has fashioned himself.

In terms of the psychology of the theatrical experience, Othello's last speech and his self-stabbing make up, so to speak, a provocation for the audience cheering themselves up to have their long-nursed inmost desire fully realized once and for all. In a spiritual exaltation of wish fulfilment, we are beguiled into accommodating ourselves to the tragic reality of life. Half unconsciously, we are converted to a humane vision of the world that enables us to accept outward defeat for the sake of inward victories, making life seem not only bearable but worth living as well. It is a vision which moves us to cry to ourselves in calm excitement, against all voices that say it is a fallacy or a self-deluding illusion, that however things may go awry in the world, man nevertheless has splendours of his own.


The present article is based on two of my papers read at British Council Hakone Seminars in 1984 and 1990, under the chairmanship of Professor Yasunari Takahashi.

Source: "Mixing Memory and Desire: Notes for a Psychodynamic Exploration of Shakespeare," in Surprised by Scenes: Essays in Honour of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, Kenkyusha, 1994, pp. 27-40.


Mixed Verse and Prose in Shakespearean Comedy