Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespearean Beauty, and some absurdly optimistic thoughts on love and vision

Once upon a time, as a ten-year old girl, I found myself contemplating “the three wishes” I would ask a fairy to fulfil; not that I really believed in fairies, but I reckoned it would make sense to be prepared just in case.

I had some qualms about my appearance, so the first thought that floated up my mind was “beauty”, but I had read enough fairy tales to be careful. I knew all the fairies have this uncanny ability to turn one’s wishes upside down by understanding them too literally. I imagined that if I asked for “beauty”, without any specifics, I might accidentally turn into some kind of boring and stupid “ideal”, which would have nothing to do with me. For example, I was sure I would by no means want to end up as a fair blue-eyed blonde; I’d rather turn into a frog.

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.
Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.

Faced with this very real danger, I spent some time trying to make my wish more specific and close any potential loopholes for the future fairy’s mischief, but the more I thought about it, the more hopeless the whole enterprise seemed: whatever desirable quality I tried to formulate with the required precision, my mind would immediately come up with some overblown, absurd visual interpretation. I ended up resolving that I’d rather remain as I am, with all my imperfections on my head, than risk any of the fairy’s cosmetic efforts.

Thus, as a child, I stumbled upon the conflict between beauty and individuation, this feeling that turning into a perfect beauty may, by the same token, turn me into some “non-me” (and the resulting impossibility to describe beauty as a set of specific qualities), which, according to Stephen Greenblatt, originates in Renaissance ideas on beauty. He begins his essay on “Shakespearean beauty marks” (in the Shakespeare’s Freedom) with this quote from Leon Battista Alberti’s Art of Building:

“[Beauty] is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse… ”   

 Greenblatt writes:

“The cunning of this definition is its programmatic refusal of specificity. It is not this or that particular feature that makes something beautiful; rather it is an interrelation of all the parts in a whole.”   

This way to think of beauty explains

“<…> why there is so little specificity in Renaissance accounts of beauty, including Shakespeare’s. Responses to beauty are everywhere in his work, and they are often remarkably intense, but for the most part they are, to borrow Musil’s phrase, “without qualities”. “Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view,” begins sonnet 69, “Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend.” The visible beauty of the beloved literally leaves nothing to the imagination, and the fact that the parts are not specified in any way only reinforces the sense that the effect is produced not by this or that attractive attribute but by a harmonious integration of ideal proportions.”

Indeed, although the young man’s beauty is a major “hero” of the sonnets, we know next to nothing about how he actually looks. There is no specific image, no individual features; nothing to help us picture him. His beauty might leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination, but the way it is translated into sonnets leaves (paradoxically) everything to the reader’s imagination (so I, for example, am free to imagine him as Titian’s young man with a glove). Greenblatt’s point, though, is that this very lack of individuation is a representation of the Renaissance highest ideal of beauty, which finds its expression in painting as well:

Featurelessness is for Elizabethan culture the ideal form of human beauty. In her many portraits the queen’s clothes and jewels are depicted with fantastic attention to detail, but her face again and again is a blank, expressionless mask. Perhaps, despite the intense emphasis on materiality in the representation of dress, the mask of the face is the Renaissance intimation of what Schiller called the “annihilation of the material” in a truly beautiful work of art or what Winckelmann termed the quality in beauty of Unbezeichnung: “Beauty should be like the most perfect water drawn from the lap of the spring, which, the less taste it has, the healthier it is considered to be, because it is purified of all foreign parts.” The figures Shakespeare celebrates as beautiful cannot altogether float free of matter, but the conspicuous lack of content in the term beauty, as he uses it, is a gesture toward this freedom.”

Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490
Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490

Any sign of individuation, any mark of uniqueness, any kind of personality can only be a deviation from the ideal canon of beauty. In short, what makes us different — distinguishable from one another in any way — is what makes us ugly.

In Shakespeare’s time, according to Greenblatt, this fusion between individuation and ugliness was underscored by the fact that blemishes (moles, birthmarks, scars) and deformities were the only evidence available to identify someone, be it — as often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies — a long-lost child, a fallen soldier on the battlefield, or a run-away slave. In absence of dental records, fingerprints, and DNA samples, if you are to be recognised at all, it’s by blemishes on your skin and deformities of your body, these obvious deviations from the ideal human being. As an aside, I cannot help thinking that our age of Botox and Photoshop has but materialised the Renaissance ideal of expressionless faces and spotless bodies.

Shakespeare, on the contrary, did a lot to subvert this ideal — I will return to this theme when I come to the “dark lady” sonnets. The “young man” sonnets, though, seem to embody the ideal of featureless perfect beauty, but with one important qualification: what is challenged in this sequence is the mythological (one might even say, spiritual) foundation of this ideal, the implied Neo-Platonic link between goodness and beauty, between sin and ugliness.

Greenblatt traces the idea of featureless beauty to the power of Christianity:

“For centuries, Jesus and Mary were both routinely described, in the most literal as well as metaphoric sense, as immaculate, uniquely born without blemish or mark. Beauty, writes a mid-seventeenth-century English clergyman, “consists in three particulars; the perfection of the lineaments, the due proportion of them each to other, and the excellency and purity of the colour. They are all complete in the soul of Christ.” And it is not Christ’s soul alone, the preacher observes that is the epitome of perfect beauty, but his body as well.”

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.

The reference is to a book of sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank, printed in 1672. The reverend goes on to observe that every human being ever born has some defect, some kind of stain or mole; in fact, if we cannot see one another’s ugliness (representing outwardly our inescapable sinfulness), it’s only because of congenital defect of our vision. Greenblatt writes:

“Such defect, in this time-honoured Christian vision (a vision that effortlessly crossed the boundary dividing Catholic and Protestant), is the outward mark of the inner sin that stains all humans from their conception. Could we see with perfectly clear eyes, we would find nothing to praise in mortal bodies.”

The perfect beauty, then, is the outward manifestation of perfect goodness and innocence, impossible for mortals:

“Thus it is only in and with Christ, in the resurrected bodies of those who are saved, that human beings are cleansed of their unsightly blemishes. At the Last Judgment, according to theologians, all scars, wrinkles, and other marks on the flesh of the blessed would disappear, and each individual body would achieve its perfect form. All forms of “spottedness,” as John Wilkins enumerated them—“Blemish, Blot, Blur, Mote, Mole, Freckle, Speck, Stain, Soil”—would be erased.”

From this vantage point, the young man’s perfect, indescribable beauty is as subversive as it gets (if not outright blasphemous), especially because his inner goodness (the beauty of thy mind) is often questioned, in sonnet 69 as in many others. There is something no less subversive — and, in some strange way, fascinating — in the idea that today’s Botox parlours, along with the whole industry of commercialised beauty standards and artificial eternal youthfulness, are deeply rooted in medieval Christianity: what they sell, indeed, is nothing short of earthly resurrection.

As a painter, I was particularly struck by the idea of “congenital defect of vision”, which — apparently — prevents us from seeing “with clear eyes” that there is no beauty in this world. What is it that makes us blind to one another’s ugliness? The answer, though, has nothing to do with painting. It was given long ago (Greenblatt quotes Lucretius and Shakespeare on this, but they are certainly not alone): it’s love that makes us blind, and it’s the one we love that we see as most beautiful.

But the effect is broader than the concept of romantic love suggests, because one doesn’t see everyone else as ugly either, at least not always. We see everything through the mind’s eye, and there are moods that make one see inherent ugliness everywhere, but there are also states of mind which make everything and everyone beautiful. And this — quite unexpectedly — leads me to an absurdly optimistic conclusion that the humankind is more capable of love than we generally give ourselves credit for — insofar as we don’t see this ugliness in everyone the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank talks about. What he sees as our congenital blindness is, by this reckoning, just our inborn love and compassion for one another.   

The question remains, of course, whose eyes are “clear” (or at least clearer): the eyes of someone who loves, or the cold eyes of someone perfectly indifferent? The eyes (and mind) of someone who sees beauty or the eyes of someone who sees ugliness? This is, to me, but one version of the eternal question of whether we say “yes” or “no” to life — and, frankly, I am all for “yes-saying” (as, I believe, is Shakespeare, most of the time), which means — doesn’t it? — that love clears our vision rather than blinds us.

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Julian Jaynes and William Shakespeare on the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of bicameral mind

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action…

William Shakespeare. Hamlet

According to Julian Jaynes, consciousness as we know it — this illusion of the inner world, where one does one’s introspecting, thinking, imagining, remembering, dreaming, planning, talking with oneself — depends on language and its metaphor-generating abilities. This particular mental set-up, which we tend to take as a biologically determined reality, could arise only at a certain stage of language evolution, and, it turns out, at a rather late one.       

Giotto. Legend of St. Francis
Giotto. Legend of St. Francis

If, as Jaynes proposes, we take the earliest texts of our civilisation as psychologically valid evidence, we begin to see a completely different mentality. In novel and stressful situations, when the power of habit doesn’t determine our actions, we rely on conscious thinking to decide what to do, but, for example, the heroes of Iliad used to receive their instructions from gods — which would appear in the times of uncertainty and stress.

This is what Jaynes calls “bicameral mind”: one part of the brain (the “god” part) evaluates the situation and issues commands to the other part (the “man” part) in the form of auditory and, occasionally, visual hallucinations (Jaynes’ hypothesises that the god part must have been located in the right hemisphere, and the man part, in the left hemisphere of the brain). The specific shapes and “identities” of these hallucinations depend on the culture, on what Jaynes calls “collective cognitive imperative”: we see what we are taught to see, what our learned worldview tells us must be there.     

The bicameral mind, and the corresponding systems of social organisation, began to break down about three millennia ago. Jaynes quotes remaining texts from the end of second millennium BC from Mesopotamia, where it must have started:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

And even this, which might be viewed as evidence of brain processes involved:

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment.

Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904
Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904. Oil on canvas. 131 x 155 cm.

Perhaps stressful situations became too complex and novel for the “god part” of the brain to deal with successfully, or the language evolution was reshaping human minds and brains — but gods left this world, which is to say, their commanding voices ceased to be heard, albeit gradually and — even now — not completely. Although consciousness verbal thinking about novel situations, rationalising one’s behaviour, willing oneself into action — had to replace gods as a decision-making mental mechanism, there are vestiges of the earlier bicameral mentality in a variety of “abnormal” phenomena nowadays, from schizophrenia to children’s “imaginary friends” to hypnosis to “spirit possession” in more traditional cultures.

And in ghost sightings, of course — which brings us to Hamlet, whose most famous soliloquy is quoted as the epigraph to this post. Let’s return to this part of the soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

What is Hamlet talking about? He begins the soliloquy with a contemplation of suicide, but this is evidently about something else, something more general — one would hardly call suicide an enterprise of great pith and moment.

There is a word here which can easily mislead a modern reader, because it has undergone a significant semantic transformation in the intervening four hundred years — conscience. In the modern language, it refers to an inner sense of right and wrong — but this meaning doesn’t really fit here: if this conscience stops us from doing something, it’s not cowardice, but rather moral strength and courage. But here is how conscience is defined in “Shakespeare’s words”, a glossary of Shakespeare’s language compiled by David Crystal and Ben Crystal:

  1. Internal reflection, inner voice, inmost thought (Cymbeline, I.viii.116 from my mutest conscience to my thought)
  2. Real knowledge, internal conviction, true understanding (3 Henry VI, I.i.150 My conscience tells me he is lawful king).
  3. Sense of indebtedness, feeling of obligation (Twelfth Night III.iii.17 were my worth, as is my conscience, firm, You should find better dealing)

We see that semantic scope of conscience in Shakespeare’s language is notably broader than in the modern English; it comprises all kinds of inner voices, introspections, convictions, awareness and, in particular, that which we would now call consciousness — a word that didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s English: consciousness (in contrast to conscience) was invented by John Locke almost a century later, in his attempt to understand “human understanding”.

Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet.
Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet. 1877. Oil on canvas. 196 x 131 cm.

Once consciousness (as a word) came into being, conscience — which was inherited from Ancient Greece via Latin — gradually narrowed its meaning to its modern moral sense. But this hasn’t yet happened for Shakespeare (and for Hamlet). Hamlet abandons the idea of suicide not because his moral sense of right and wrong (which must have been, for all we know, supported by his religious beliefs) tells him that it would be wrong. He abandons it because he contemplates its possible consequences, and finds that he doesn’t have enough information to take such an irrevocable action (there is the rub…). And then To be or not to be turns from a contemplation on suicide to a reflection on the conscious mind’s attempts to make high-consequence decisions without sufficient information. Death, in this context, is but the ultimate expression of both high consequences and lack of knowledge — the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

 Conscience here, then, stands not for “conscience” as we know it, but rather for conscious thinking as a decision-making tool: consciousness as the modern instrument for making up one’s mind. And the whole play turns out to be about a clash of two mental paradigms, two different mentalities: the bicameral mind and the conscious mind.

The bicameral mind is represented, of course, by the ghost. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, ghosts weren’t quite as exotic and abnormal phenomenon as they are now; they belonged to what one might call the “collective cognitive imperative” associated with the Catholic faith, which had just recently been banished in England. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in “Hamlet in Purgatory”, ghost sightings used to be common enough, so there was an established procedure for distinguishing between “honest ghosts” (souls from Purgatory) and hallucinations or demonic apparitions (the procedure Horatio tries to follow during his first encounter with the ghost). Since Reformation had abolished Purgatory, ghosts were losing their church-sanctioned place in the collective cognitive imperative, and ghost sightings became less frequent (although never disappeared completely). This is the historical and cultural context of staging the ghost in “Hamlet”.     

Presumably, a bicameral man would have followed the ghost’s command without questioning, just like the heroes of Iliad followed the commands of their gods. But Hamlet is not an ancient hero, he is a conscious man; he doesn’t act, he thinks. Consciousness interferes between the ghost’s command and the man’s action — and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.  

Surprisingly, many people — Shakespearean scholars, directors, psychologists, just readers — find it puzzling, and even occasionally frustrating, that Hamlet cannot make up his mind to kill his uncle. Just recently, I’ve taken an online course on Hamlet, and was struck by this once again — both in the course materials and on discussion boards. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind pause to think before springing into action if they see a ghost who commands them to kill someone? It would seem that, in our modern world, someone who tries to follow such questionable commands would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia (or some other mental illness). And yet, people keep looking for an “explanation” for Hamlet’s unwillingness to act (like Freud, for example, who found it necessary to invoke the Oedipal complex to explain why Hamlet cannot kill his uncle — the theory enacted in Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet).

I’ve come up with my own explanation for this puzzling reaction to “Hamlet”. In Hamlet, we are directly confronted with something the modern science only began to discover and address in the second half of the last century, and which makes us distinctly uncomfortable: although consciousness presents itself as a decision-making mechanism, it actually isn’t. We perceive consciousness as the initiator of our actions, but it’s an illusion — just as commanding gods of yore used to be. It is as hard to let go of this illusion as it is to see the blind spot, or — I would guess — just as it is hard to someone experiencing auditory hallucinations as the voices of gods to stop hearing them or to disobey them.

I still remember the shock I experienced when I first read about the  fraudulent nature of consciousness in Tor Nørretranders’ book “The User Illusion: cutting consciousness down to size”, but this shock was accompanied by a palpable feeling that I (or some part of me) knew it, even if non quite consciously. It would seem that Shakespeare uncovered this “user illusion” long before even the word for consciousness appeared in the English language. “Hamlet”, just like Hamlet himself instructs his players, hold(s), as ’twere, the mirror up to natureHamlet tries to use his consciousness to decide what to do and to will himself into action, and fails, because consciousness is good at preventing us from action, but not at initiating an action. This mirror is as revealing and unflattering now as it was then (if not more so), because it’s not just about Hamlet: it’s about our consciousness, too.         

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