The psychological playwright

Serious business Serious business: In Shakespeare's plays, even comic dupes, like Malvolio in Twelfth Night, are not cartoons, but display psychological depth.

Shakespeare could get into the skin of his characters and yet remain invisible

  • Two of Shakespeare's plays―Richard II and King John―were written entirely in verse

  • The Royal Shakespeare Company sells more than half a million tickets a year for Shakespeare productions


HAROLD BLOOM, an influential American literary scholar of our times, went to great lengths trying to argue that what the west understands as ‘human’ is really an invention of William Shakespeare. At least, Bloom would like to stress, it is the invention of the western literary canon of which Shakespeare happens to be the central figure. Can something similar be said about psychology? Is post-20th century ‘psychology’ really built on a Shakespearean invention? Or, on the contrary, is ‘psychological Shakespeare’ an invention of 20th century literary scholarship and the Freudian study of Hamlet?

Every time one thinks of ‘psychological’ insights into Shakespeare’s plays (although the sonnets should also be counted as a rich mine of wisdom about the human mind), one recalls the soliloquies and monologues―the ugly Richard III grinning at his own shadow and considering investing in a mirror after he makes a grieving widow following her husband’s hearse succumb to his advances, Hamlet struggling with self-doubt, Brutus sleeplessly battling the hideous dream that divides a dreadful action from the first impulse, Macbeth hallucinating as images of horror and retribution keep running into each other in his inflamed mind, Lady Macbeth―who sounded so flinty when plotting Duncan’s murder―walking in her sleep after the killing is over and trying to wash the blood she imagines staining her hand, Iago’s cankered sexual imagination, the despised Shylock spitting racial venom and Lear’s screaming rage against the elements.

One step up, and we get to the subtleties of the psychological plotting: Hamlet’s sexual horror at learning that his mother has been having sex with his uncle, who is his father’s killer, the themes of sex and race coupled in Othello’s mind, the dispossessed Caliban’s twisted yet canny understanding of colonial incursion, Cordelia’s wisdom that love is not commensurable―to be weighed in terms of money, exchanged favours or competitive hyperboles. Even comic dupes are not cartoons, but display psychological depth.

Falstaff plays the comic fool in deriding politics, but is fooled into taking political subterfuge for sport. The self-important steward in Twelfth Night, Malvolio, is made a laughing stock by the household staff of Olivia. But the questions of class and sect spiking the laughter (Malvolio is non-aristocratic and Puritan) are not lost on the audience, and the English Civil War of the early 17th century has been seriously labelled ‘Malvolio’s revenge’.

Granted that Shakespeare was far ahead of his time in portraying human motives and responses, it is still hard to decide which side he was on in these psychological encounters. Was there a recognisably Shakespearean mind? We might, for argument’s sake, identify Shakespeare’s hand in any number of anonymous or co-authored texts, if these showed up some of his typical authorial markers (the way he spelt words which had variant spellings, for instance). But the same is difficult to say of Shakespeare’s mind. It is a non-specialist’s question, but one that needs to be taken seriously. For, there is some such thing that one might call the ‘Shakespeare effect’ or the ‘author effect’ that is Shakespearean. Near contemporaries had felt this, long before John Keats, Thomas Carlyle, T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges attempted to crack the ‘Shakespearean’ puzzle.

There was, for instance, Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who wrote about half-a-century after the playwright’s death that Shakespeare seemed to transform himself into every person he described, to be both Falstaff and the Prince who banished him on ascending the throne, ‘nay, one would think that he had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman, for who would describe Cleopatra better than he hath done’.

86EdwardYoung English poet Edward Young wrote in 1759 that Shakespeare ‘hid behind his Venus’, remaining invisible in his plays.

The English poet Edward Young wrote in 1759 that Shakespeare ‘hid behind his Venus’, remaining invisible in his plays. John Keats famously described this disappearing act as the poet’s ‘negative capability’, while his contemporary Thomas Carlyle put the ability down to the poet’s ‘great soul’ which could take in ‘all kinds of men and objects, a Falstaff, an Othello, a Juliet, a Coriolanus’.

A different explanation came from T.S. Eliot in 1953. If one looked for Shakespeare, one would find him in his characters, since the only thing common among the characters was that Shakespeare alone could have given them the words they speak. Eliot borrowed from the 19th century French novelist Gustave Flaubert to confer on a great dramatic author a kind of divine presence in his works: ‘The world of a great poetic dramatist is a world in which the creator is everywhere present, and everywhere hidden.’ In the last century the Argentine writer Borges would describe the same mysterious author effect as Shakespeare’s ability to be ‘everything and nothing’.

This year, two researchers have claimed that the psychological profile of an author may be put together, and that there is an identifiable ‘psychological signature’ of Shakespeare in the play Double Falsehood (performed in 1727), long presumed to be an adaptation of the lost Shakespeare play Cardenio (1612-13). The play is attributed to the 18th century Shakespeare scholar and playwright Lewis Theobald, who claimed that he derived the plot (originally based on the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote) from copies of a Shakespeare manuscript burnt in an accidental fire.

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker of the University of Texas at Austin claimed that core psychological features, the way an author uses language at a deep psychological level, rather than a mere count of linguistic authorial markers, can be identified to fix the authorship of a work. They analysed the extant text of Double Falsehood using the known plays of Shakespeare, nine plays by John Fletcher (his collaborator in a few plays and possibly on the lost play, Cardenio), and a dozen by Theobald as experimental control.

Their statistical results led to the conclusion that the play, or at least a bulk of the first three acts, was composed by Shakespeare rather than by Fletcher or Theobald. The analysis pitted ‘function words’ used in regular textual study such as prepositions and articles against ‘content words’, that is, words that fitted into ‘content-categories’ such as emotion, family and faith. The research also tried to study ‘categorical writing’ which, the researchers noted, was strong on nouns, prepositions and articles. Categorical writers were objective, distant, detached problem-solvers, while those who were weak in categorical thinking were limited to issues of the moment, including social problems.

After reading the post on the Association for Psychological Science website (the APS brings out Psychological Science), I am undecided if the researchers are saying that Shakespeare makes the cut simply because he was a strong categorical thinker. Shakespeare was distant from all characters, because he could slip into the skin of each. He could be remote from the moment because he could articulate the most intense response to the pressures of the moment, including political and social issues of the day. To recall Borges’s words, Shakespeare could be ‘everything and nothing’. I doubt if the paper got this paradox right.

Perhaps, a better way of approaching the Shakespearean paradox is to see that he was writing for the stage. The Tudor and Stuart playhouse was situated in a space intersected by the forces of liberty and licence. Plays and playhouses had to be licensed, and at the same time they were mostly built outside the city ‘liberties’, that is the municipal jurisdiction.

Shakespeare’s troupe displayed a comparable paradox of patronage. He was part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men. But mere patronage meant little in an economy where services were marketable. Shakespeare was part-owner of his company and playhouse, and had a share in its profits. He was thus the King’s servant, and also part-owner of his own business. As for the player’s liberty, he could speak, but only in sport, licensed by the Master of the Revels―a secular office, unlike the Inquisition in Catholic countries―to criticise the authorities like Lear’s Fool.

In short, one could speak by hiding behind the player’s mask, and Shakespeare himself was a player, in the sense of being an actor and a ludic performer (a performance is termed khel in parts of north India). This ludic element made the author practise his disappearing skills, and the best way of doing so was to make the dramatis personae speak ‘in character’, that is, with a credible psychological point of origin, followed by equally credible evolution. Of course, such conditions for attempting ‘psychology’ on stage were true for all contemporary playwrights. It is only that Shakespeare was immeasurably superior to them in exploiting the conditions.

Chakravorty is Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore distinguished professor, humanities, at Presidency University in Kolkata.

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