The Power of Illogic

Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is entertaining and insightful throughout, but when it reaches the year 1600 and Hamlet, it becomes brilliant. Greenblatt attributes the transcendence of Shakespeare’s late tragedies to a technical device that he labels excision of motive. In each case, Shakespeare made his story less logical than his historical sources by removing an obvious motivation. For instance, in the original Hamlet saga, Hamlet’s uncle kills Hamlet’s father the king in plain sight, so that there is no secret as to who the murderer was. Young Hamlet feigns madness for a manifest practical reason, so that his uncle will think he is not dangerous; otherwise, the uncle would have to kill Hamlet for fear that he would eventually avenge his father’s death. Making the murder a secret revealed only by the ghost, Shakespeare removes the rationale for feigning madness, relocating it in Hamlet’s own psychology.

By excising the rationale for Hamlet’s madness, Shakespeare made it the central focus of the entire tragedy. The play’s key moment of psychological revelation – the moment that virtually everyone remembers – is not the hero’s plotting of revenge, not even his repeated, passionate self-reproach for inaction, but rather his contemplation of suicide: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” [p. 307]

Likewise, in the original sources for King Lear, the king poses a test to find which of his daughters loves him most because he is about to divide his kingdom proportionally. But at the opening of Shakespeare’s version, Lear has already divided his kingdom in three equal parts to give to his daughters: thus there is no rationale for the love-test, which seems like an arbitrary neurosis on his part. Shakespeare made his plays more powerful, Greenblatt argues, because the mainspring for the characters’ actions is no longer the logic of the situation, but something gnawing at them from the inside, which we and the dialogue must now focus on to figure out. It’s a compelling reminder that a work of art draws its highest power not from making rational sense, but from clearly-delineated contradictions whose non-sense draws us into the work.

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