• Email
  • Print

Fatal Triangles

A Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare

by René Girard
Oxford University Press, 353 pp., $29.95

René Girard’s new book interprets Shakespeare’s plays psychologically, but from an unfamiliar perspective. Girard analyzes Shakespeare as a writer who was once alive and possessed of recognizable attitudes and intentions, some of which can be related to the patterning of the plays.

An old-fashioned book about Shakespeare, in other words, but taking a fresh slant; and with little to say about textual problems, nothing about the staging, very little about the sources, almost nothing about the critical history of the plays. It is not a book of close verbal analysis; it is neither feminist, Marxist, Freudian, nor homosexual in its analysis. The argument is doggedly, and sometimes dogmatically, interpretative; references to “the critics” (i.e., previous interpreters of Shakespeare) are few, unspecific, and almost always contemptuous. It is by no means an ingratiating book, repeatedly hammering hard at the same basic point in different contexts. But it has a genuine point to make, and the point has many ramifications which will attract close scrutiny from other critics. Bardolaters and theater buffs will likely wind up feeling impatient; but in graduate seminars and certain other quarters where methodology is a potent concept the book will likely create a stimulating buzz.

René Girard is an Americanized Frenchman currently teaching at Stanford University. His first book—a very fine one—appeared nearly thirty years ago, when he was at Johns Hopkins. Its title in French, Mensonge Romantique et Vérité Romanesque, was a little more cogent than the English version, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. His thesis, illustrated with analyses of Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky (with secondary allusions to Cervantes and Flaubert), was relatively simple and is by now generally familiar. It is the frequent presence in human desire of a triangular or mimetic structure. The model is geometrical in its simplicity. A is, and understands himself to be, in love with the enchanting B; but his passion is stimulated if not actually formed by the presence of a nearby rival, C, who gives price to the love object and validity to A’s original choice, but who also threatens to supplant A in the affections (if any) of B.

Jealousy or envy concealing itself behind the mask of spontaneous desire thus becomes an all but limitless resource for the analytic storyteller—and equally for the analyst of stories, also known as the critic. The third party who controls the lover’s imitative passions may be a personal model (Boniface de la Mole or Napoleon for the suggestible Julien Sorel), or a literary concept (knight-errantry as described in heroic romances for Don Quixote); it applies to females as well as males (Lydia Bennet, desperate to get married on any terms before her older sisters). Lacking a tangible rival, jealousy can create rivals out of thin air, as Corvino does in Jonson’s Volpone. Complications of admiration and antipathy such as rise out of triangular desire can be traced through their secret implications to the limit of the analyst’s ingenuity. One obvious but general consequence may be the darkening of a comic artist’s palette. If desire cannot be untangled from the somber overtones of envy and jealousy, what happens to the witty frivolities and absurd reversals of erotic fortune in plays like The Importance of Being Earnest? Why look for psychic mechanisms inside puppets who are motivated entirely by strings? But no doubt this is a small price to pay for deeper understanding of deeper imaginative actions.

Since his first book, which concentrated on fiction, René Girard has been busy on rather different topics, notably aspects of mythology and religion. I haven’t read these books, but he refers to them often in his most recent return to literary criticism; and though there may be other things there, a major characteristic seems to be the application of his original insight to an expanded subject matter. No less than desire, guilt can be offset and displaced into various forms of vicarious victimage. And it is against this theoretical background of a single deeply meditated and sharply focused (but widely applied) insight that Girard in his present volume turns to an analysis of the plays of Shakespeare. His title is A Theater of Envy.

It is curiously constructed volume, dealing one at a time—but by no means inclusively, and with wide variations in degree of emphasis—with the plays and some of the poems. The arrangement is roughly chronological. As a class the history plays are largely omitted; and relatively little attention is paid to some others like Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, and Macbeth. Mostly a chapter is assigned to each play, but some—by no means the big guns of the Shakespearean repertoire—are given several chapters. Six chapters are devoted to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and five to Troilus and Cressida; but later on there are further thoughts of a chapter apiece on both plays. In addition there is a chapter on Joyce’s (or at least Stephen Dedalus’s) views of Shakespeare, as presented in the “Library” scene of Ulysses. The book is tightly argued, though loosely organized. Well before the end, the author rightly says that if his point hasn’t become perfectly clear long since, it never will be. The question remains whether Girard has in fact made his case convincingly, and what the effect of his analysis is on our experience of Shakespeare’s plays.

For a long time (that means centuries) the importance of jealousy in the dynamics of Shakespearean drama has been recognized. One need only think of a few random plays, like Othello, The Winter’s Tale, Hamlet, and Timon, to see what nobody ever thought of questioning, that triangular desire and its mirror-image, triangular hate, both known familiarly as jealousy and envy, have a major part on the Shakespearean stage. The usurping brother, the treacherous friend, the betrayed husband, the unscrupulous rival are found throughout the plays; the black image of jealousy pervades the sonnets. Critics from the time of Dennis, Dryden, and Johnson have not failed to observe this. Girard has a way of denouncing “the critics” and their inadequacies, but he does not name names or distinguish one group of malefactors from the others. The fault of some (for example, assuming the uniformity and solidity of a dramatic persona) is pronounced to be the fault of all. The impression sometimes makes itself felt that BG (Before Girard) Shakespearean criticism lay hid in universal night; but in the AG era, all was suddenly light.

How much of A Theatre of Envy is reformulated common knowledge and how much is newly minted Girard would be a hard question even if the book were strewn thick with footnotes; since the documentation is meager, one can only say that there are many passages which, when translated into plain English, sound much more familiar than startling. Besides, where the argument is not familiar, it is not invariably convincing. Much of the account of a particular play is likely to consist of plot paraphrase and summary; and since this work is always done with an eye to establishing the presence of mimetic desire, one finds quite substantial parts of the play being excised. (“Mimetic desire” is Girard’s shorthand for motivation in which imitation of a third party plays either an augmenting or a controlling part.)

In the account rendered of Twelfth Night we learn that Orsino, realizing that he himself is responsible for Olivia’s loving Viola/Sebastian, whom Orsino originally employed as a go-between, turns for a while into a raving maniac. True enough, though a bit overstated; but is it not part of Act V that Orsino speedily recovers and prepares to marry Viola in time to keep symmetry with the Olivia/Sebastian nuptials? In the discussion of Troilus and Cressida, we are given to understand that Pandar’s enticements are responsible for Troilus’s original passion for Cressida; but the very first lines of the play show Troilus already infatuated, and it’s a gratuitous assumption that Pandar had anything to do with it. Similarly, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena is in love with Demetrius from the very beginning (I, i, 110). This is not mimetic desire—at least Shakespeare has done nothing to make it seem so.

Occasionally the question of how much Shakespeare has done to fortify the interpretation that Girard considers crucial becomes critical. Take, for example, the sequence of feelings to be attributed to Troilus in the third and fourth acts of Troilus and Cressida. With Pandar’s far-from-subtle help, the young hero has spent a vigorous night with his lady; in the morning he suggests that she catch up on her beauty sleep because he has to go out and fight some Greeks. Girard takes this to mean that he is now eager to get rid of her. When she is summoned to leave for the Grecian camp, this (as Girard thinks) fulfills his secret desire (so secret that nothing like it is ever expressed) to be apart from her. But then when she (artfully, as Girard supposes) foresees that she will be “a woeful Cressid ‘mongst the merry Greeks,” that one phrase is said to rouse Troilus’s jealous fury, kindling a sudden new rage that will not die down for the rest of the play. Thus instead of a Troilus constant throughout in his love for Cressida, we have a Troilus supposed (on the slenderest of evidence and sometimes on none at all) to vary from passion to satiety to repugnance to violent jealousy.

This path will be hard enough for an audience to follow; clues are slight, while the changes they supposedly signal are abrupt, extreme, and contrary to what the characters explicitly say. Without René Girard’s particular pre-possessions, viewers will find the pattern hard to discern. But how now will our critic explain the scene in which Troilus and Cressida solemnly swear that “to the world’s end” all constant men shall be Troiluses, all false women Cressidas? Short of emending the text (“unconstant” for “constant”), there doesn’t seem any way out. But Girard has one, which he uses here as on several other occasions when squeezed by a crux. Shakespeare, it appears, was writing two different plays at once, one for a small esoteric clique which understood even remote allusions and tacit implications as evidence of mimetic desire; and the other for heavy-minded traditionalists, who wanted nothing but the old story familiar since Chaucer’s day. As a sop for these dullards Shakespeare threw in just enough of the “constant” Troilus, including the scene of the oath, to keep them contented.

The two-play-two-audience theory—if one can overcome the preliminary objection that there isn’t the slightest evidence to support it—offers several clear advantages to the ambitious interpreter. Whatever can be discovered by microscopic examination of the text and free extrapolation from it occupies a privileged position as having been directed to Shakespeare’s most intimate and understanding readers.* Whatever conflicts with the esoteric reading can be disposed of in one of three ways: it can be quietly ignored, it can be paraphrased out of existence, or it can be dismissed as a reluctant concession to vulgar taste, not to be read seriously.

But of course the esoteric audience is itself a phantasm and a very unlikely one. By resorting to such extravagant suppositions Girard has done his own thesis as much damage as his worst enemy could have inflicted.

This is unfortunate because, if one doesn’t run it into the ground, Girard’s basic insight can lead one into a wide range of speculative appreciation. Very often he sees the plays from a fresh angle; much of his analysis of personal motives is persuasive. In provoking one to differ, he provokes one to think. Readers have sometimes found it easy to write off the two pairs of lovers who provide a lot of the business in the comedies as figures of plot and subplot; Girard delves into their tangled sentiments of admiration, emulation, self-love, and envy. The Valentine-Proteus relation in that flawed comedy, Two Gentlemen of Verona, has some abrupt, perverse overtones that Girard’s analysis helps to appear less mechanical. The four mixed-up lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream go through the motions of puppets without forfeiting the human privilege of finding something terrible inside themselves. The element of ugly animality they touch is reinforced by Titania’s brief experience with Bottom in his ass’s head. Girard’s reading of this sometimes underrated play is not as playful as the traditional one, but it is more tightly wrought.

Toward the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream an exchange takes place between Theseus and Hippolyta, the noble couple for whose marriage the artisans have been preparing their “Pyramus and Thisbe” charade. The delusions of the four lovers are under discussion, and Theseus sets forth in resonant verse the “sensible” view that the night’s events have all been the work of imagination:

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all com- pact….

It is a famous speech; but Hippolyta augments it by urging (though only briefly) that the coherence of lovers’ dreams argues for something more than individual fancies. This is grist to Girard’s mill because in his view mimetic desires are reflected back and forth between characters until they create a collective mythical texture. But he is troubled by the quiet, almost perfunctory, tone of Hippolyta’s lines, which, as he sensibly points out, could easily be overlooked entirely. To make the precious lines stand out more, Girard vigorously denigrates Theseus’s speech, calling it (in less than two pages) a banal tirade, full of resounding platitudes, harmonious commonplaces, facile wisdom, sonorous clichés, and the views of a magnificent windbag.

All this rhetoric proceeds on the assumption that Shakespeare is engaged, through the persons of Theseus and Hippolyta, in an argument over the nature of imagination, the conclusion of which will be “that Shakespeare’s apparent preference for Theseus is a façade that should be disregarded.” This, at least, is what we will do if we aspire to be of Shakespeare’s elite and intimate audience. But it’s quite possible that the playwright here had other things to think about than Girard’s argument. After the hobgoblins and delusions of the spook-infested night he may have wanted to return the characters and the audience to the calm and reassuring light of day. The wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is to proceed majestically and confidently; imagination has its place, but the serene couple know that place and define it. Hippolyta’s supplementary (not contradictory) remark that the lovers’ dreams cohere remarkably could be made in a spirit of wonder. And it has an extra function in directing the audience’s mind away from the real but pedestrian truth that the playwright contrived the play’s pattern.

Such indirection becomes important in these closing scenes of the play. After having been absent for the entire body of the play, Theseus and Hippolyta reappear to the sound of hunting horns—not exactly a fanfare but something like one. Then, without even taking notice of the somnolent lovers scattered across the stage, they enter into discourse with each other on the rather surprising topic of dogs—dogs they have heard, dogs they possess, the characteristics of good dogs. The leisured, weighty poetry of their discourse intimates an existence far above the fretful egotisms of the lovers, a world of deliberate leisure that allows one to appreciate the tuned voices of distant hounds in cry. The irrelevance of this speech (for in fact the hunt never takes place, the hounds are never heard in the theater) is its poetic and dramatic power. It’s only a personal opinion that the stately couple are better off talking of dogs they have known—

I never heard
So musical a discord, such sweet thunder

than arguing over mimetic and non-mimetic dream-lives. But Shakespeare wrote the full play, and the reader is free to divide himself into as many audiences as he likes, provided at some time he puts the full play back together.

Dealing as he does with about half of Shakespeare’s plays, and interpreting some of them very closely, others only incidentally, Girard has naturally produced an uneven book. The most successful of his units is, I think, the analysis of Julius Caesar, which traces how the spirit of emulation leads to conspiracy, resulting in factions which in turn produce civil war—which then, not quite so automatically, ends with the re-establishment of social order in the imperial tyranny of Augustus. This is, indeed, the pattern laid out for Shakespeare in his sources, and Girard’s work is limited to filling out the motives of the actors. But it is thoughtfully done, and with respect for the text.

Less successful is his reading of Hamlet, which proposes that the play is a direct attack on the idea of revenge and on the revenge play itself. The rationale for this view is that Hamlet père had fought with Fortinbras père and killed him; therefore, since he bears blood guilt, for Hamlet to avenge his father’s murder by Claudius is absurd in that Hamlet the son and Claudius his uncle-stepfather are mimetic identities. In the fifth act, Shakespeare finally had to have Hamlet kill Claudius, but only to satisfy that hypothetical dullard audience that wanted another revenge play.

Against this is the fact that the fight with Fortinbras Senior is mentioned only once (by Horatio: I, i, 80 ff.), and with emphasis on the perfect equality and strict legality of the encounter. Fortinbras was the aggressor, “thereto pricked on by a most emulous pride,” as a result of which the King of Norway,

by a sealed compact
Well ratified by law and heraldry,
Did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands
Which he stood seized of, to the conqueror;
Against the which a moiety com- petent
Was gaged by our King, which had returned
To the inheritance of Fortinbras
Had he been vanquisher….

To equate this chivalric encounter with Claudius’s underhanded murder of his own brother—and to suppose that Shakespeare meant his audience to equate them—is to go against the entire tenor of the text. Not to mention the hash it makes of a dramatic action which, without any such help, has enjoyed some success on the world’s stages.

Between these two extremes of interpretation, Girard’s book wavers. Presented as it is in an all-or-nothing fashion, the thesis doesn’t encourage readers to make selective and discriminating application of its insights. But selective and discriminating readers will do so on their own.

  1. *

    In the literal sense, half of Shakespeare’s plays (eighteen out of thirty-six) had no readers at all during his lifetime; they first saw print in the Folio of 1623. For the other plays, interpreters had to rely on their memory of words pronounced in the playhouse or on the exceedingly uneven, often incomprehensible Quartos. Close analysis of texts would not be possible until something like correct texts had been created. That would not be until long after Shakespeare’s death, and there is no sign that he ever anticipated such an event or did anything to expedite it.

  • Email
  • Print