Friday, September 22, 2017

The Adulterer, Part V: Bardolatry, contd.

The aspect of The Adulterer evidently drawn from Hamlet, meanwhile, is not a character – or even a piece of dialogue famously uttered by a character – but rather a general scenario. In Act I, Scene IV of the latter, the titular Prince of Denmark encounters what appears to be the ghost of his departed father upon the ramparts of the royal castle, Elsinore. Uncertain at first, Hamlet eventually follows the ghost to a private conference, at which point he is informed of his father’s murder at the hands of his brother and successor Claudius. Hamlet is shocked to hear it, struck by the ghost’s plea to be revenged, and resolves to

Wipe away all trivial, fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.

Among the most famous scenes in the play, Hamlet’s encounter with this paternal apparition sets in motion nearly everything that follows – from the accidental death of foolish Polonius, to the suicide of maddened Ophelia, to the final bloodbath that claims Hamlet himself. And yet, the unmitigated catastrophe that the appearance of the ghost ultimately portends begs certain questions as to the significance of its claims. 

The spirit appeared to speak the truth. By all indications, Claudius did kill his brother the king. And in point of fact, he did marry the slain monarch’s wife Gertrude, and did seize the vacated crown in place of his grieving nephew. Hamlet’s desire to seek revenge, therefore, was seemingly founded upon wholly justifiable outrage. That being said, the result was surely far from what either he or his murdered father desired. By the time the curtain closes upon the final scene of Hamlet, nearly every principle character is dead. Some are killed mistakenly, others driven to take their own lives, and the rest slain either because they were the targets of Hamlet’s single-minded desire for revenge or collateral victims of the same. However valid the ghost’s complaints, therefore, and however earnest Hamlet’s intention, the result could hardly be described as a restoration of the former status quo. In consequence, it seems fair to question the nature of that first spectral meeting. Was that truly the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or some sinister spirit that had merely assumed his form? And yet more intriguing, was it the ghost’s intention to lead Hamlet down the path of ruin, or was the destruction that followed wholly the result of the Danish Prince’s foolishness, singlemindedness, or general lack of prudence? Shakespeare offers no simple answer, though his consistent practice of probing the depths of the human spirit – and the flaws he perceived therein – may perhaps be taken as a signal of his intention.

Warren’s The Adulterer, while once again failing to attain – or perhaps even attempt – the summit of Shakespeare’s verse, his talent for characterization, or his dazzling imagery, nevertheless seemed to borrow from Hamlet the basic outline of the scene cited above. In Act II, Scene I of the former, Patriots Cassius and Brutus express to each other their mutual sorrow upon being informed of the death of an innocent Servian youth by a supporter of Rapatio. In response to Brutus claiming that he would gladly die, “Could but my life atone and save my country [,]” Cassius urges him to, “Live to rescue virtue [,]” by relating to him a spectral encounter of the previous night. His father’s ghost, it seemed, had visited him, and made such demands as a departed father was wont to do. “Cassius attend [,]” the apparition began,

Where is that noble spirit,
I once instilled – behold this fair possession
I struggled hard to purchase, fought and bled
To leave it yours unsullied – Oh defend it,
Nor lose it but in death.

Understandably startled by the vision, Cassius relates that he then swore to defend that which had been left to his care, “And e’er I’ll lose it, meet ten thousand deaths.” Granted, there is much that separates this mere recollection of an ethereal visitation from the far more visceral sight of Hamlet listening attentively to the hellish lament of his father’s ghost. Cassius, for one, is not the principle character in The Adulterer. The narrative does not pivot upon his actions or intentions, and nor does the scene described by him to Brutus function as much more than a particularly colorful exhortation. It doesn’t set in motion the undoing of the principle character or his cause, and it isn’t freighted with the same ambiguity as is Hamlet’s visitation with his spectral progenitor. It is, therefore and undeniably, a less significant scene.

That being said, it is hardly insignificant. The base circumstances, for instance, are generally quite similar. In both cases, the ghost of a father visit his son, bewails the state into which the world has fallen, and requests his progeny to make things right. In fairness, the outward nature of these requests would seem to vary considerably. The forebear of Cassius seems most concerned by the extent to which his native Servia – for which he “fought and bled” – has suffered since his death. Defend it, he commands his son, as might a father who seeks to protect in death what he had earned in life. Hamlet’s father, meanwhile, chiefly addresses himself to distinctly personal matters. What seems to trouble him, more than the depth to which Denmark might sink under the leadership of the usurper-king Claudius, is the fact that he was killed before he could account for the sins he had committed in life, and that his brother – “A wretch whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine” – has taken his place in the marriage bed of Queen Gertrude. “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest [,]” he admonishes his son, lest his priorities be at all mistaken. In spite of the general exhortation delivered to Cassius and the specific grievances names to Hamlet, however, the connection between their respective spectral visitations is perhaps more than merely circumstantial.

Besides murder, over which the old king has every reason to be perturbed, the principle crimes that Hamlet’s father hurls at his brother Claudius have to do with the supposedly “unnatural” quality of the new king’s marriage to the aforementioned Gertrude. “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,” the ghost declares of his brother, whom he further claims, “Won to his shameful lust / The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.” Again, it seems his anger is aroused more by the thought that his wife has been somehow soiled than that his throne has been usurped. Consider, however, the nature of the thing. Claudius captured his brother’s crown and his brother’s wife with a single act of fratricide – he married Gertrude, and thus took her slain husband’s place as King of Denmark. Far from a simple marriage partner, then, Queen Gertrude may be seen to represent the kingdom itself, to which Hamlet’s father pledged himself and lesser Claudius cannot fail to spoil. Claudius is thus an adulterer in both the literal and figurative senses – his place upon the throne and in the bed of Gertrude is unnatural, unholy, and doomed to ruin. Now consider Warren’s antagonist, Rapatio. Has he not stolen what the father of Cassius worked so hard to defend, Servia itself? By his “marriage” to the land – as its governor – does he not diminish its virtue? Is he not, then, the titular adulterer? Though Warren does not make clear how it is that Rapatio became governor – through merit, favoritism, or trickery – her depiction of the man would seem to indicate that usurpation is not beneath his dignity. And while it is Brutus, rather than Cassius, that leads the charge against the continued perversion of Servian rights, other scenes make clear that Brutus feels the same sense of fealty to his forebears, though he was spared a direct confrontation with the same.

Observe, to that end, a speech delivered by Brutus in Act I, Scene I of the Adulterer. While reflecting, alongside Cassius, upon the plight of Servia at the hands of cruel Rapatio, Brutus declares,
I sprang from men who fought, who bled for freedom:
From men who in the conflict laughed at danger;
Struggled like patriots, and through seas of blood 
Waded to conquest. I’ll not disgrace them.

Shortly thereafter, upon the arrival of fellow citizens Junius and Portius, Brutus offers another meditation on the sense of obligation he feels to those that preceded him in defending the liberties that Rapatio presently threatens. “By all that’s sacred!” he cries,

            By out father’s shades!
            Illustrious shades! who hover over this country,
            And watch like guardian angels over its rights:
            By all that blood, that precious blood they spilt,
            To gain for us the happiest boon of Heaven;
            By life – by death – or still to catch you more,
            By Liberty, by Bondage. I conjure you.

Evidently, though he managed to avoid a direct visitation by the ghost of one of his predecessors, Brutus is nonetheless conscious of exactly those things that the spirit of Cassius’ father made known to his son, and feels exactly the sense of obligation that Cassius determined to swear. In consequence, though his place in the parallel scene is filled by Cassius, Brutus otherwise seems to embody the Hamlet archetype, as adapted to the context of The Adulterer. He feels driven by a sense of filial duty to avenge – or at least remedy – the abuses done to his patrimony by the figurative usurper Rapatio, he is not infrequently melancholy and anxious, and he seems given to indecision. The key difference between the two – indeed, the difference between Hamlet as a piece of art and The Adulterer as a piece of political commentary disguised as art – is rather the object of their quests and their respective relationships to it.

Whereas Hamlet seeks to avenge the death of his father and rid his mother of her adulterous lover, Brutus’ aim is somewhat more abstract. Though it may fairly be argued that his forebears represent his departed father and Servia his benighted mother, his desire to restore to its proper place the rights that he and his fellow citizens regard as their collective birthright is of a different quality than Hamlet’s determination to seek personal revenge. The Prince of Denmark is motivated by filial duty – his father has been killed, his mother despoiled – and he thus allows his emotions to guide him to often unfortunate ends. Brutus conversely expresses his intentions by way of an abiding love of country. He wishes to redeem his suffering homeland – his “mother” – from a sense of duty and devotion, and aims to redeem the sacrifices of his forebears – his collective “father” – by rescuing the thing that they sacrificed for from the clutches of a cruel and covetous autocrat. Brutus – like Hamlet – does not always see matters clearly. He seems to vacillate between seeking bloody revenge and pursuing a course of forbearance and rectitude. He talks at length, and acts but rarely. And when success seems within his grasp, he accepts it thoughtlessly, more eager to claim victory than verify it. Nevertheless, he avoids Hamlet’s greatest follies by moderating his passion. It is not, after all, a parent’s life or their virtue he seeks to redeem, but the life and virtue of his country. In this he is not alone, and it is perhaps this sense of solidarity that keeps Brutus from allowing his fleeting impulses to make a bad situation worse.     

Granting the extent to which The Adulterer deviates from Hamlet ­– in large part embodied by the differing circumstances and responses of their respective protagonists – it doubtless bears asking why Warren evidently believed that the allusion served her. Why, in short, did she appear to refer to elements of the tragedy of the Prince of Denmark in her theatrical representation of the plight of contemporary Massachusetts? What purpose could it – or indeed, references to Julius Caesar or Macbeth – have served? The most likely answer to these questions is perhaps also the most intuitive – i.e. because that is what authors do. Indeed, it is what artists do. In attempting to communicate with their audience – whether in the 16th, 18th, or 21st centuries – a novelist, playwright, painter, or musician often freely references, adapts, or replicates some element of a pre-existing work. They do this to pay homage, to celebrate the art that they themselves enjoy, or to connect with their readers, listeners, and viewers in ways that take advantage of their experiences and expectations. Sometimes they seek to short-circuit an emotional or atmospheric trigger by way of a kind of shorthand. Replicating a scene from a well-known piece of literature within their own work, for example, may effectively harness the connotations of the former to the advantage of the latter. In other cases, artists may seek to manipulate audience expectations by using familiar elements to establish a sense of comfort and equilibrium that may then be shattered for the purpose of narrative or emotional payoff. References and allusions, in short, form part of the essential language of creative expression, along with things like color, tempo, intonation, or diction. To allude, therefore, is to seek to connect with an audience upon a common plain of experience.

Warren’s use of Shakespeare as a frequent reference point in The Adulterer certainly falls within this realm. Not only was she familiar with the works of the Bard of Avon, but she doubtless understood that her prospective audience was similarly conversant. Shakespeare, therefore, represented a type of shorthand between author and reader – a means by which the two might communicate more efficiently and effectively than otherwise. Indeed, Shakespeare likely represented the most common shorthand available among citizens of late 18th century Massachusetts, save perhaps for the Bible. By giving her antagonist the name of Brutus, therefore, Warren could reliably depend upon her readers to make the connection to the tragic hero of Julius Caesar and calibrate their expectations accordingly. By putting words in the mouth of her villain Rapatio that resembled those famously uttered by the vile and scheming Lady Macbeth, she could hope to harness the feelings her audience likely nurtured about the latter towards more effectively characterizing the former. And by drawing similar associations between filial duty, adultery, and revenge as were depicted in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Warren could endeavor to conjure audience impressions of the Danish Prince and his motivations in service of establishing the disposition and intentions of her own protagonist. In this sense, strange as it may seem, Warren’s use of Shakespeare is perhaps the most relatable element of her first foray into political drama.

However important Joseph Addison’s Cato may have been to the Founding Generation, and to Warren in particular, in its sober celebration of personal integrity, it is not at present a widely renowned – or even widely known – piece of theatre. Productions of Cato are not mounted yearly in cities around the world, it has not been widely adapted to television or the cinema, and its characters and expressions have not become part of the common lexicon of everyday vernacular English. It has hardly been lost to time, of course, though neither has posterity seemed to celebrate it much. In consequence, though Cato’s influence upon the form and substance of Warren’s The Adulterer is both pronounced and highly significant, the average 21st century reader will likely pay it little heed. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is as vital in 2017 as it was in 1773. Festivals that celebrate the Bard of Avon and his work are a regular feature of the cultural life of most countries in the English-speaking world, and countless expressions coined by Shakespeare – from “all’s well that ends well” to “wild good chase” – have since become a integral components of spoken and written English. Far beyond the national poet of England itself, William Shakespeare has become the national poet of an entire linguistic culture.

While this hardly represents any kind of revelation, it should serve to give pause to those interested individuals who struggle to connect with the events and personalities of the American Founding. Though it may be something of an oddity that the most accessible point of reference between an 18th and 21st century reader of The Adulterer appears to be a set of plays originally written and performed in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is nonetheless the truth. And in that truth, there is something infinitely precious. Mercy Otis Warren, as the above examination has hopefully shown, wrote for an audience that was – like herself – literate in the works of Shakespeare. Her references to Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet were not indulgent flights of artistic fancy, but techniques by which she sought to more effectively communicate with her readers. Though over two hundred years have passed since then, this is hardly an unrecognizable gesture. She was doing in 1773 what artists working in a variety of mediums have since attempted across the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries – i.e. adapting, alluding to, or directly referencing characters, scenes, or plotlines from the works of Shakespeare. And in the process – though certainly without intending to – she has made it possible for someone born nearly two centuries after Warren died in 1814 to in some way grasp both her own frame of reference as well as that of her audience. She liked Shakespeare. They liked Shakespeare. So do countless people living in the English-speaking world today. That commonality – that shared reference point – presents a tremendous potential entry point into a deeper and more vital understanding of The Adulterer, the American Founding, and the personalities that shaped each of them.

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