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The Ruins of Walter Benjamin


I will! and once more fill a kingdom’s throne.
Spain, I’ll new mould thee: I will have a chair
Made all of dead men’s bones; and the ascents
Shall be the heads of Spaniards set in ranks:
I will have Philip’s head, Hurten- zo’s head,
Mendoza’s head, thy mother’s head, and this—
This head, that is so cross, I’ll have’t.
The scene wants actors; I’ll fetch more and clothe it
In rich cothurnal pomp; a tragedy
Ought to be grave: graves this shall beautify.

—Thomas Dekker, Lust’s Dominion, or the Lascivious Queen, Act V, scene 5

By representing the Trauerspiel through its relations to the politics, religion and philosophy of the society in which it was produced, Benjamin made his work applicable to the contemporary Spanish baroque, and the late Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. In an early draft of his preface, in fact, Benjamin doubts whether the German Trauerspiel can be adequately described without reference to the drama of Shakespeare and Calderón (the English and Spanish Trauerspiel we might call them). The power of Benjamin’s method may be indicated briefly by extending his observations on theatrical conventions of the time, above all the use of illusion and stage properties.

Theatrical conventions are generally treated as something that the contemporary audience—and we, today, as well—must accept blindly and unquestioningly; the conventions are simply given, and we surrender to them. In a brilliant essay8 Christopher Ricks protests against the slackness of this view and insists that a convention must be justified, its probability vindicated by the dramatist each time, and that the vindication must come from plot and character. Against his opponents Ricks wins easily, but he stops midway in his considerations of convention. A convention is indeed not simply given, but has its own raison d’être: the dramatist uses or abuses the convention. Ricks interprets the use, Benjamin goes one step further to interpret the convention itself.

There is an extreme form of Trauerspiel, in which probability has little relevance: the so-called Tragedy of Fate, in which the action moves mechanically and inexorably toward the catastrophe. In this kind of play—for Benjamin the supreme examples are by Calderón—psychological motivation is often deliberately abandoned. Calderón’s “whole mastery lies in the extreme exactitude with which, in a play like the Herodrama, the violent passion is elevated out of the psychological motivation of the action which the modern reader looks for” (p. 133). This lack of motivation is a sign of man’s total subjection to powers which he cannot control or influence, and it brings with it the fatal role of the stage property—the inorganic object which inexorably involves the characters in their doom.

Unmentioned here by Benjamin but clearly relevant is Othello, the only great example of the Tragedy of Fate in English. The stage property is the handkerchief, and the psychological motivation that Ricks demands is emphatically refused to Iago:

Othello: Will you, I pray, demand that demy-Divell, Why he hath thus ensnar’d my Soule and Body.

Iago: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:

This lack of motivation disconcerts not only critics but Iago himself, who says earlier that he hates the Moor because of a rumor that “twixt my sheets / He’s done my Office. I know not if’t be true, / But I, for meere suspition in that kinde, / Will do, as if for Surety.” Neither he nor Shakespeare seems to believe it much, and no one else ever has either.9

In 1692 the critic Thomas Rymer, in a famous attack on Othello, made the infamous suggestion that Othello’s jealousy would have been better grounded had the handkerchief been a garter. Ricks replies that this

ignores the fact that from one point of view such an item as a garter would be too incriminating, might hint a frame-up. The great thing, the fatal thing, about the handkerchief is precisely that it is a trifle.10

Ricks does not appreciate his own insight in the last sentence, because he is, for the moment, too concerned with propriety of motivation—from that point of view Rymer is, after all, surely right, a garter would be more convincing. But it would not be a trifle.

Benjamin’s method, extended to Jacobean drama, tells us, as Ricks cannot, why the garter will not do—it would have too much of the life of Desdemona about it, it is not sufficiently neutral, dead. Benjamin is not concerned, like the scholars that Ricks attacks, with merely confirming the existence of a convention, or, like Ricks, only with its use: he wants to force out its meaning.

He therefore enables us to discover something in Othello that Ricks does not: that the blindness of Othello’s passion, jealousy, is expressed, not motivated, by something as insignificant as the handkerchief. The disparity between the cause of his jealousy and its fury is essential. As Benjamin writes about the German Tragedy of Fate:

For once human life has sunk into the merely natural, even the life of apparently dead objects secures power over it. The effectiveness of the object where guilt has been incurred is a sign of the approach of death. The passionate stirrings of natural life in man—in a word, passion itself—bring the fatal property into action. It is nothing other than the seismographic needle which registers its vibrations. [P. 132]

For Benjamin, the stage property in the Tragedy of Fate, like the absence or presence of psychological motivation, was not merely a convention given to the baroque dramatist, which he could use or abuse: it came to him with ideological strings attached. It had, in short, an inherent expressive function.

The breaking of stage illusion so essential to baroque style was another such convention with an expressive value. It can be understood only in a critical approach as wide as Benjamin’s that reinterprets the past from the perspective of a much later period. Put the following remarks of Ricks against Benjamin’s treatment of illusion:

The scene in Othello (Act 4 scene 1) in which the credulous Othello is snared by Iago into overhearing (and misconstruing) a conversation between Iago and Cassio about Bianca…is no more convincing, no less stagey than [a similar scene in The White Devil by Webster]; the particular convention presents such difficulties, is so intractable, that even Shakespeare here fails to master it….”11

Stagey” is the exact and necessary word; Ricks mistakenly proffers it as a reproach. Benjamin relates the breaking of illusion, the staginess of the Trauerspiel, to the effort to express the “play” character of life itself, which has lost its ultimate seriousness in the despair of Counter-Reformation theology.

In the drama the play element was demonstratively emphasized, and transcendence was allowed its final word only in the worldly disguise of a play within a play. The technique is not always obvious as when the stage itself is set up on the stage, or the auditorium is extended onto the stage area. [P. 82]

The scene in Othello is such a play within a play, staged by Iago for Othello, who becomes a member of the audience, the only one, in fact, to misunderstand what is being played.

This explicit reference to the stage that Benjamin remarks in the German Trauerspiel, moreover, occurs at the moment of crisis of every one of Shakespeare’s major tragedies. King Lear, cast out by his daughters into the storm, stages a mock trial with the footstool as Goneril; Cleopatra, preparing for suicide, does so in order not to be dragged in triumph to Rome and see herself played on the stage by a boy; at the death of his wife before his final disaster, Macbeth compares life to a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; and, perhaps most movingly, Coriolanus, about to order the sack of Rome, sees his wife and mother come to plead with him and says hopelessly:

Like a dull actor now, I have forgot my part,
And I am out, even to a full Disgrace….

The staginess of these references12 is allegorical: they turn the stage itself into an emblem of illusion. Nowhere is this made more emphatic than in Richard II. Forced to abdicate, Richard calls for a looking glass, and begins to quote Marlowe’s Faustus:

Was this Face the Face
That every day under his household roof
Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the Face
That, like the Sun, did make beholders wink?
Is this the Face that fac’d so many follies
And was at last outfac’d by Boling- broke?

(each phrase approaching more and more closely to the famous lines on Helen “Is this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?”). This reference to the stage at the climax of the tragedy is not a poet’s game, an irrelevant frivolity. Richard with his looking glass, like Hamlet with the skull of Yorick, or Lear judging the footstool, is a figure of allegory, frozen for a moment into an emblematic stiffness. “The shadow of your Sorrow,” Bolingbroke says when Richard smashes the looking glass, “hath destroyed the shadow of your Face.” The references to the stage, the looking glass, the death’s head, are all emblems of illusion and premonitions of death. This is why the catastrophe in Jacobean drama arrives so often as a play within a play, a game of chess, or even a dance.

As Benjamin says, the allegorical technique is central to the view that life is an illusion which, when dissipated, reveals nothing. The essential characteristic of seventeenth-century allegory (the only kind with which Benjamin is basically concerned) is discontinuity, an unresolvable discrepancy between a visual sign or image and its meaning, “a dualism of signification and reality” (p. 194). Allegories are never understood easily and naturally, but decoded: they require effort, which takes time, so sign and meaning are never simultaneous, never fused.

When John Donne, in the famous lines of “A Valediction: forbidding mourning,” compares the departing lover and his love that stays behind to “stiff twin compasses” (i.e., the two legs of a drawing compass)—

Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other doe.

And though it in the center sit, Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leanes, and hearkens after it, And growes erect, as that comes home.

—the discrepancy between image and meaning is audacious. The inanimate scientific sign of the compass arrests and stiffens the vital meaning and reveals the kinship of such an emblematic figure with the fatal stage property that seems to have a life of its own and brings death. The dead image of the compass controls the living souls of which it is the sign, and the poem, indeed, starts with a scene of death:

As virtuous men passe mildly away, And whisper to their soules, to goe,
Whilest some of their sad friends doe say The breath goes now, and some say, no:

So let us melt, and make no noise….

an image both of death and of the act of love which changes—imperceptibly—to the image of absence and love figured by the compass.

Benjamin was by no means the first critic to find allegorical elements in baroque drama, but he was, I think, the first to insist on their importance for the works as a whole, not merely for the occasional detail or character; he did not conceive allegory merely as a survival of an archaic technique within a more developed style. He was also a pioneer—as George Steiner has remarked13—in the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century emblem books, and the way that their figures appear in the drama. Other English examples of such emblems abound, and it is easy to add to Benjamin’s German ones. The Duke in The Traitor by James Shirley dies with a series of images drawn from the emblem books on his lips:

For thee, inhuman murderer, expect
My blood shall fly to heaven, and there inflam’d,
Hang a prodigious meteor all thy life,
And when by some as bloody hand as thine
Thy soul is ebbing forth, it shall descend
In flaming drops upon thee: oh, I faint!—
Thou flattering world, farewell! let princes gather
My dust into a glass, and learn to spend
Their hour of state, that’s all they have; for when
That’s out, Time never turns the glass agen.

This magnificent collection of bric-a-brac—meteor, burning shower of blood, hourglass, all familiar from emblem books—illustrates what Benjamin called the arbitrary grouping of elements within the allegory. He wrote:

It is perfectly clear that this fragmentation in the graphic aspects is a principle of the allegorical approach. In the baroque, especially, the allegorical personification can be seen to give way in favor of the emblems, which mostly offer themselves to view in desolate, sorrowful dispersal…. It is as something incomplete and imperfect that the objects stare out from the allegorical structure. [P. 186]

In allegory the observer is confronted with the pallor of death, the ‘Hippocratic countenance’ of history as a petrified, primordial landscape,” as Benjamin writes (p. 166). Earlier, he observes that the Trauerspiel gives us “the transposition of the originally temporal data into a figurative spatial form” (p. 81)—as the Duke’s dying speech in The Traitor freezes the movement of the sovereign’s life into the image of the hourglass.

The allegorical structures of the baroque age are better represented by the German Trauerspiel than by its more successful relatives in Spain and England—just because of their greater artistic success: the vitality of Spanish baroque drama comes from its playful brilliance, that of the English from the fusion of comedy with Trauerspiel. The elemental power of Shakespeare, as Benjamin says, rendered the equally important allegorical character of the plays almost unrecognizable for Romantic critics. Precisely because such artistic power was denied it, the German Trauerspiel can reveal the beauty of the genre and of the allegorical structure that underlies it.

For allegory is not just an artistic technique but also, as Benjamin points out, a corrective to art. By its discontinuity of image and meaning it rejects the false appearance of artistic unity, the fusion of meaning in the symbol, and presents itself as a fragment, a ruin. The German Trauerspiel, too, is just such a ruin. It has been eroded by time. The critical action of time is a well-worn cliché: it is time that separates the masterpieces from the second-rate, the great artist from the small fry. For Benjamin time had a different function: the passage of time not only decided the success of a work, but—more importantly—separated the essential from the inessential in it, distinguished between the elements which were immediately appealing to contemporaries and those which had a more lasting interest. That is why the post-history of a work, the tradition it created, is as indispensable to the critic as its pre-history, its sources and the tradition it came from.

The Origin of German Trauerspiel has an esoteric secret, nowhere stated directly although implied at many points and inescapable from a close reading. Benjamin believed that every work of art in order to retain its essential nature had to become a ruin. This could—and generally does—happen in its history, but it is a potential of all works and discoverable to the critic. Every authentic work of literature, for Benjamin, was a metaphorical embodiment of philosophical ideas. Every critical reading should move toward that moment when the work appears to exist for the sake of the philosophical truth within it: it no longer exists for itself, and it therefore loses its charms. It reaches the condition of the inexpressive. As a ruin, the Trauerspiel is an allegory of art in general.

The business of the critic, for Benjamin, is not to resuscitate the dead, or to reconstitute the original which now stands before us fragmented, but to understand the work as a ruin, and in so doing paradoxically to awaken the beauty present in it as a ruin. But to achieve this Benjamin had to invent a methodology for criticism, based on an idiosyncratic and esoteric philosophy of language, and a radical theory of knowledge and history.

(This is the first of two essays on Walter Benjamin.)


The Play’s the Thing January 26, 1978

  1. 8

    The Tragedies of Webster, Tourneur and Middleton: Symbols, Imagery and Convention” in English Drama to 1710, edited by Christopher Ricks (Sphere Books Limited, London, 1971).

  2. 9

    The silence of Iago after the crime is a convention, too, going back to Prince Hieronimo’s words in The Spanish Tragedy after the final murders: “But never shalt thou force me to reveale / The thing which I have vowd inviolate,” after which he bites out his tongue. It signifies the irrelevance of motivation against the power of fate.

  3. 10

    Ricks, op. cit., p. 349.

  4. 11

    Ricks, op. cit., p. 309.

  5. 12

    See also, among many other examples from other dramatists, the final scene of Middleton’s The Changeling.

    Almero: I’ll be your pander now;

    rehearse again

    Your scene of lust, that you may be


    When you shall come to act it to

    the black audience,

    Where howls and gnashings shall be

    music to you.

    Clip your adulteress freely, tis the


    Will guide you to the mor-


    Where you shall sink to fathoms


  6. 13

    TLS, October 25, 1974, p. 1198.

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