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The Forms of Things Unknown

For all the power of his poetry, volume of his vocabulary and sheer prolific output, Shakespeare seemed intent on telling us that we cannot know, truly know, what we most want to know, or even think we already know. We know this on several levels.

We’re frustrated enough that he left no correspondence, no diary, no memoir, no hand-written manuscripts. How we’d love to see those edits, deletions, insertions, rephrasings. Did he or didn't he blot a line, or a thousand? Those particular lacunae in an otherwise rich body of work are enough to make some people question whether William Shakespeare, a grammar school-educated boy from the outback, actually wrote the plays. Fortunately, there’s enough documentation in the historical record to conclude, despite the enthusiasm of the QAnon wing of literary speculation, that William Shakespeare wrote the plays. Or, as Lawrence Ryan of Stanford University liked to tell his doubtful students, William Shakespeare may not have written the plays, but they were certainly written by someone whose name was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's characters, often become complicit, through fear or anxiety or even desire, in creating their own delusions.

What makes Shakespeare more intriguing, however, is what he would not tell us within his plays. Among the themes woven through his dialogues and monologues, among the fields of philosophy explored within those themes, one of the more frequent is epistemology and its variants — appearance and reality, certainty and doubt, science and magic, astrology and free will. His metaphors often reference air, dreams, shadows, reflections, vapors, clouds, bubbles, things that appear and disappear, things of the earth, and not.

What was Iago’s motivation to wreak so much evil? Shakespeare didn’t tell us. The source on which he based Othello gave Iago a motivation, but in his adaptation, Shakespeare omitted it. Why did King Lear decide to give his kingdom to his daughters while he was still capable of ruling? Shakespeare’s source, King Leir, gave the king a back story that explained his motivation. Shakespeare’s adaptation cut it. What was Cleopatra’s unfathomable appeal that led Antony to debase himself and finally end his own life? In the play, Enobarbus tells us she was extraordinarily, almost mythically beautiful, but Rosalind in As You Like It tells us, “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” Cleopatra said of herself, “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life.” Okay — fire and air, smoke and mirrors, shadows and reflections, appearance and reality. Shakespeare seems obsessed with the illusiveness of certainty. So many compelling arguments countered by equally compelling arguments — which is why Shakespeare makes us both more wise and more humble.

So, on one level, Shakespeare’s omissions and ambiguities keep us, the audience, grasping for an understanding of his characters’ motivations and actions. But on another level, Shakespeare’s characters themselves, especially many of his tragic characters, grasp futilely for truths that elude their understanding. Their misperceptions often lead to their downward spirals. Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, among others, share this course. Hamlet and Macbeth have much in common. Both men’s stories begin with the visitations of supernatural apparitions. Hamlet’s ghost relates a history; Macbeth’s witches foretell a prophesy. Hamlet and Macbeth each questioned the very nature of what appeared to them.

Appearance, as in “appearance and reality,” suggests false surfaces masking hidden truths. But Shakespeare is often less concerned with the surfaces his characters see than with the images they create, in their imaginations, as expressed by Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy.
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

So whatever the original source of the deceit, Shakespeare's characters, often become complicit, through fear or anxiety or even desire, in creating their own delusions. Hamlet’s imagination is roiled by images of his father’s murder, which were told to him by the ghost. Or was it a ghost, and if it was, was it telling the truth? This perplexity feeds his imagination with images of his own creation, such as his mother and his uncle sharing a bed, which further inflame his imagination. Macbeth’s imagination is roiled by images of assuming the throne, which was prophesied to him, by witches. Or were they bubbles of the earth, and are they only tricking him? In stews of ambition and guilt, his fertile imagination creates images of an intangible dagger floating before his eyes and of his blood-stained hands turning a green ocean red.

In the opening scenes of each play, witnesses affirm Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s apparitions. But later, as the central characters descend into apparent states of madness, only they can see the apparitions. Hamlet sees his father’s ghost in Gertrude’s bedroom, but Gertrude doesn’t. Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, but no one else does.

Othello is different. No ghosts. No witches. Just Iago, an ordinary human being (until Othello, in the last scene, refers to him with a demonic epithet). In fact, Iago possessed neither the mystery of the supernatural, the power of a monarch, nor the authority of a superior. He was Othello’s subordinate. He possessed only the power of words, of revelation and illusion. He whispered innuendos in Othello’s ear, and Othello created images in his own imagination. Iago understood, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.” — An observation not far from Theseus's “…and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”

Memories, prophecies and slanders, expressed in carefully crafted words, haunted the imaginations of these characters. Words impelled their imaginations to body forth, “The forms of things unknown,” which led to their destructive ends. And being Shakespeare, he offered no moral, no lesson, just the observation, beautifully expressed — for example, Iago’s last words, a rhetorical repetition, compact with ambiguity and irony:

Othello
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?
Iago
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

“What you know, you know.” “I never will speak word.” Knowledge was the theme. Words were the medium. Their illusion was the art. I’d love to imagine that Shakespeare reveled in giving Iago those last illusive lines. But, of course, I don't know.

Am not I your Rosalind?

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Give me my robe

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Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?

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More strange than true

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I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin

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