Andrew Lomas argues that Rene Girard's view of Shakespeare is solidly Christian despite his innovative approach.
The Other Christian Shakespeare
The interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays as Christian has always been opposed to those readings which find in Shakespeare radical ideas from the Renaissance or of the modern world, or, worse still, postmodern notions. Yet recently the traditional-minded Christian Shakespeares have been joined by another. He might perhaps be called a “shadow brother”, though he shows no inclination to remain in the shade. Indeed, if you ask after “the Christian Shakespeare” in the halls of academia today, you will likely be directed to the door of this interloper. Seated in his office, you will be lectured on the death of philosophy, the fallacy of essentialism in psychology, undifferentiation, and something called a pharmakos. For, yes, while this alternate Christian Shakespeare may not actually be a postmodernist, he was certainly born under the sign of postmodernism. And his central concepts have very much the flavour of postmodernism’s esoteric terminologies: mimesis, mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry.
The man behind the new interpretation of Shakespeare is René Girard, in his book A Theatre of Envy. Coincidentally, perhaps, Girard is also the creator of the vocabulary of mimesis, the founder of mimetic theory as a general theory of human behaviour, and the tireless exponent of mimetic theory acrosss many books and disciplines. Of course Girard says that he does not read his general theory into Shakespeare’s plays; the plays, rather, he insists, have helped form his ideas about mimesis. My purpose in the present essay is to investigate this claim, seeing if and how far the texts support Girard’s construction: I shall attempt to delineate and evaluate Girard’s Other Christian Shakespeare.
In the space of an essay it is not possible to follow A Theatre of Envy through its close and detailed readings of many of Shakespeare’s plays. As a framework for my paper, I will use what Girard calls the “mimetic cycle” of Shakespeare, a five stage progression he finds in Shakespeare’s work. With each stage, I will try to give Girard’s “best case”, presenting those textual readings which, I believe, most cogently contribute to Girard’s position. To this end, Troilus and Cressida will be front and centre for much of the time, with, later on, some reference to Julius Caesar and The Winter’s Tale.
In Act One, Scene Two of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus is attempting to get Cressida to admire, and desire, Troilus. In the attempt, Pandarus uses a particular tactic. That is, he talks at length about Helen of Troy’s feelings for Troilus. Pandarus pretends that Helen actually prefers Troilus to her own famous lover, Paris, and, “to change, would give an eye to boot”(I.2.239). Now Helen is universally acknowledged as the most beautiful, and the pre-eminent woman of this world. So Cressida is intended to take Helen as a model: to copy or imitate the desire of Helen, and begin desiring Troilus herself. In abstract terms, this desire of Cressida’s would be triangular, composed of subject, object and model, with the subject coming to desire the object by following the desire of the model. Now such triangular desire is just what René Girard calls desire by imitation, desire by mimesis, “mimetic desire”. And Girard’s “mimetic theory” is simply the theory that human desire is predominantly mimetic. Obviously Pandarus, and Shakespeare, have no knowledge of Girard’s terminology. But Girard is quite right in his claim that Pandarus’ pandering shows that both have an understanding of the phenomenon of mimetic desire.
It is my opinion, nevertheless, that Girard’s reading of the scene has serious limitations. For Girard is so focused on Pandarus’ brilliant mimetic strategy that he fails to see that it proves to be completely irrelevant. When Pandarus exits the stage, Cressida drops her pretense of indifference, and declares that “more in Troilus thousandfold I see/ Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be”(I.2.284-85). Later Cressida tells Troilus “I have loved you night and day/ For many weary months”(III.2.112-13)—long before Pandarus began his boosting, and Helen appeared as a model for desire. Indeed, “I was won, my lord,/ With the first glance”(III.2.115-116). From the positioning of these speeches, and our general understanding of the characters, Shakespeare clearly means us to believe Cressida. Thus Cressida’s passion for Troilus is not a mimetic desire at all. It is actually one of those spontaneous passions which Girard regards with great scepticism; worse, it is the “love at first sight” he routinely derides. Girard’s interpretation over-states the role of mimetic desire in Shakespeare’s text, and overlooks aspects of the text which do not fit with mimetic theory. These shortcomings are typical of A Theatre of Envy, and make it, for all its virtues, a frustrating book. In what follows I will not always have time to qualify Girard’s readings, but it should be borne in mind that they generally stand in need of some qualification.
Having established that the Shakespeare of Troilus and Cressida is at least aware of mimetic desire, albeit not quite in the way Girards wants, let us see if the notion might help in understanding one of the “problems” of this “problem play”. The puzzle, that is, of Troilus’ on-again, off-again desire for Cressida.
Cressida has fallen for Troilus, Troilus has fallen for Cressida, and eventually their mutual attraction is revealed. Immediately afterwards, in a rather seedy moment, Pandarus conducts the tremulous young lovers to a bedroom. Cutting to the morning after, we find Troilus attempting to take his leave of Cressida. And although he is full of flowery endearments, it is obvious, to us and to Cressida, that he can’t wait to be rid of her. “Are you a-weary of me?”(IV.2.7) Cressida asks plaintively, and the answer is clearly “Yes”. Girard, not usually a severe moralist, denounces “Troilus’ disgraceful behaviour on that early morning”(Theatre 128).
Further evidence of changed feelings comes when Troilus learns that Cressida is to be taken away from
and him, to the Greek camp. Troilus accepts his lover’s removal with an aplomb
that is highly suspicious; Cressida, by contrast, goes into hysterics. When
Troilus visits the Greek camp, though, and looks on as Cressida begins an
affair with Diomedes, there is no lack of emotion. He rages that “never did
young man fancy/ With so eternal and fixed a soul”(V.2.168-9) as he for
Cressida. He rushes away to work off his passion by killing some Greeks. Troy
What are we to make of these about-turns? Does Shakespeare want us to think that Troilus really loves the girl, or not? But with Troilus apparently blowing hot and cold at random, is he a believable character at all? And if a central character is not coherent, this surely has grievous consequences for the play.
Girard’s solution to the “problem”, in terms of mimetic desire, begins from Cressida’s ideas about love—which are remarkably cynical ideas for a young woman in love. “Women are angels”, she notes, to men who are wooing them, yet “Things won are done; joys soul lies in the doing”. She who is beloved
“knows naught that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is”(I.2.286-9).
So, as we have already seen, Cressida for a long time plays it cool with Troilus. She “designates herself rather than him as the desirable object”(Theatre 126), projecting an image of autonomy, self-sufficiency. Now Freud called a desire of the self for the self “narcissism”. However Girard does not accept that self-love can be genuinely independent. He contends that the apparent narcissist needs the desires of admirers to feed on, is in reality imitating the desires of these admirers. The self-love, then, remains mimetic; Girard calls the strategy Cressida outlines, and practices, “pseudo-narcissism”.
But Troilus buys her act. Imitating Cressida’s desire for herself, he really believes she is self-sufficient, a being on a different plane from a weak, needy creature like himself—truly almost a divine being. And by “winning” Cressida, Troilus thinks he will come to be like her, gain access to her superior level. Such a desire which “does not correspond to anything real”, and yet “transforms the object into something that appears superabundantly real”, Girard calls “metaphysical desire”(Things 296). ( I consider this rather unfair to metaphysics, but let it pass here.)
According to Girard, metaphysical desire is especially prevalent in the modern world, which began with the Renaissance. This is because, with the decline of Christian religion, people have been searching for a substitute religion. Girard quotes the aphorism of Louis Ferrero: “‘[Erotic] Passion is the change of address of a force awakened by Christianity and oriented toward God’” (Deceit 59; see also De Rougemont 62 and passim). The analysis certainly seems to hold true for Troilus’ passion. Troilus declares that in love “the will is infinite”, “the desire boundless”(III.2.79-80, 80-81, my emphases); erotic love here transcends the biological and becomes religious. It could only be satisfied by a divinity, and only a divinity could truly realize it. “For two or three centuries”, Girard writes, “the underlying principle of every ‘new’ Western doctrine” has been: “God is dead, man must take his place”(Deceit 56). We begin to see how Girard’s mimetic interpretation of Shakespeare is also a Christian interpretation.
But of course Troilus’ divinization of Cressida cannot survive the bedroom. Gaining Cressida does not transport Troilus to a different plane of being. Moreover he finds that Cressida is no autonomous angel; rather she just another needy, dependent soul, one indeed clinging to him for meaning. By Girard’s mimetic principles, it is wholly intelligible that Troilus should be disillusioned, and even a little disgusted, on that morning after.
Then, though, the dashing Diomedes enters the mix. He is very much one of those “Grecian youths” whom Troilus has expressed jealousy about earlier—“full of quality;/ Their loving well composed with gifts of nature,/ And flowing o’er with arts and exercise”(IV.4.75-77). Troilus admires and envies the Grecian youths in general, and Diomedes in particular: they are models for his desire. When, on meeting Cressida, Diomedes immediately shows an interest in her, Troilus’ own desire for Cressida springs back to life. When Diomedes seduces Cressida, Troilus forgets that his passion for her was ever less than white hot. With Cressida paying court to Diomedes, moreover, she is no longer that tiresome, clingy girl, but is back on her pedestal as the inaccessible, yearned-for divinity. Metaphysical desire has transfigured Cressida once more.
Note that the rivalry of Troilus and Diomedes over Cressida realizes a possibility inherent in mimetic desire. A subject imitating a model’s desire for an object may come to desire the same object as the model, and enter into competition with the model over it. Such competition is the next stage in Girard’s mimetic cycle, mimetic rivalry. But with regard to the “problem” of Troilus’ fitful desire, I think we can say that Girard’s interpretation of Shakespeare has proved its explanatory value. Troilus’ vacillations have been shown to follow intelligibly from mimetic principles of human behaviour. And far from being messy and inconsistent, Shakespeare’s play is revealed as offering a penetrating analysis—and an analysis with Christian overtones—of erotic passion.
When we move from the love story of Troilus and Cressida to the military/political plotline, Girard’s reading becomes even more persuasive. The Trojan war portrayed by Shakespeare is of course very different from Homer’s epic/heroic version. Consider the treatment of Helen, that “face that launch’d a thousand ships”, the cause and ostensible object of the war. In their reflective moments the major characters of Shakespeare’s play, Greek and Trojan, are scathing in their assessments of her. “[E]very false drop in her bawdy veins/ A Grecian life hath sunk”(IV.1.70-71), is Diomedes’ typical judgement.
But if both sides recognize that Helen is, objectively, of little worth, why does the ruinous war over her continue? For the same reason, Girard contends, that Troilus wanted Cressida again when he saw she was being courted by Diomedes. The Greeks imitate the Trojans’ desire to have Helen; the Trojans imitate the Greeks’ desire to have Helen; the metaphysical desires of both parties transform Helen into a prize of supreme value. With violence and the rising body count, passions are inflamed still further, and the mimetic rivalry ever escalates. “Fools on both sides!” even Troilus at one point says. “Helen must needs be fair,/ When with your blood you daily paint her thus”(I.1.92-3).
However there is not only rivalry between the Trojan and Greek sides, but also within the Greek camp. In particular Achilles, “whom opinion crowns the sinew and the forehand of our host”(I.3.142-3), refuses to accept the authority of the Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, and instead enters into competition with him. In his pride Achilles defies Agamemnon, mocks the tactics of the Greek leadership, and refuses to take the battlefield.
Now the self-will of Achilles may appear to be beyond mimesis. Achilles is, after all, the son of a goddess, actually semi-divine: does not he have then a divine self-sufficiency, is he not an instance of genuine, Freudian narcissism? On Girard’s reading, Ulysses, and Shakepeare, see through “this ‘essentialist’ conception of Achilles’ impressive success”(143). They realize that his host of admirers provide models which the self-love of Achilles imitates—just as Troilus’ desire was the basis for Cressida’s seeming autonomy. Therefore to deflate Achilles’ pride, Ulysses simply arranges to cut off the admiring desires. Ulysses has the Greek camp “pass strangely by” Achilles as he stands at his tent “As if he were forgot”(III.3.39-40). Immediately Achilles’ facade of autonomy cracks. “What mean these fellows? Know they not Achilles?” the great man pathetically inquires. “What, am I poor of late?”(III.3.39-40,70) With Achilles behaving like some fading celebrity of our own day, lamenting that the paparazzi no longer give chase, we see that his self-love is indeed pseudo-narcissism, his rivalries mimetic. Ulysses gives the—Girardian—moral: that man
“Cannot make boast to have that which he hath,
Nor feels not what he owes, but by reflection”(III.3.98-9, my emphasis).
The competition between Achilles and his commander spreads through the Greek army; there is an “envious fever/ Of pale and bloodless emulation”(I.3.133-4). With rivalries in the Trojan ranks, too, and the mutual emulation of the war, we have a world whose structure is collapsing under mimetic rivalry. Differences—between king and subject, leaders and common soldiers—are being replaced by undifferentiation. Hierarchical order—or “degree”, in Shakespeare’s favoured term—is undermined. Girard’s general theory of human behaviour supposes that such a plague of mimetic rivalry has occured periodically in all human communities. It is the next, third stage of the mimetic cycle, a stage which Girard calls the “crisis of Degree”. Girard finds the supreme Shakespearean expression of this crisis, naturally, in Ulysses’ famous speech on Degree.
Ulysses begins the renowned passage with a vision of the cosmos. “The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre/ Observe degree, priority, and place”(I.3.85-6). Yet
“Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows!”(I.3.109-10).
When the planets “to disorder wander”, then “What plagues and what portents, what mutiny”(I.3.95,96). The “bounded waters/ Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,/ And make a sop of all this solid globe”(I.3.111-13). Meanwhile, in human communities, without hierarchical order how could peaceful commerce, primogenture, “Prerogative of age”, and “crowns, sceptres, laurels”(I.3.107) survive? Instead, sheer force would rule, “Strength should be lord of imbecility,/ And the rude son should strike his father dead”(I.3.114-5). To Ulysses, though, the rule of power offers no stable basis for society. Where “everything includes itself in power”, power is subsumed “into will, will into appetite;/ And appetite, an universal wolf”
“Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.”(I.3.119-20,123-4)
The essential point of Ulysses speech, according to Girard, is that degree sets limits to mimetic desire; this is degree’s whole meaning. With the limitation of desire by hierarchical structure, a stable society becomes possible. But “The breakdown of traditional institutions destroys their ability to channel desire into noncompetitive directions that prevent mimetic rivalries”(166). Note that, given Ulysses defends his social order wholly in terms of its instrumental function, he is acknowledging that the specifics of the order have no priveleged status. An acknowledgement which, once again, fits in with Girard’s general mimetic theory. In Girard’s general theory the monarchy, patriarchy, marital codes, etc. of Shakespeare’s Greeks—and of medieval and Elizabethan society—have exactly the same function and status as the rituals, prohibitions, taboos of “primitive”, “savage” communities. Ulysses’ invocation of a celestial order which parallels his particular cultural order is regarded by Girard as “an antiquated medieval idea that Shakespeare might have borrowed for purely decorative purposes”(166).
Such a summary dismissal of the cosmic background to Ulysses’ speech will be rather shocking to those generations of Shakespeare students raised on E.M.W.Tillyard’s “Elizabethan World Picture”. Tillyard, we well remember, saw Ulysses as referencing the “world picture” of Elizabethan England. This conception of the world was said to be one which stretches back to Plato and Aristotle—being grounded in the science of Aristotle and Ptolemy—and which dominated the intellectual life of the Middle Ages. The world-view supposes, Tillyard explains, that the celestial realm of planets and stars provides a model for human social order. The traditional social order of Ulysses’ Greeks, as of medieval times and the Elizabethans, is a reflection of and participation in the cosmic order, the “Great Chain of Being”. Far from being one pragmmatic arrangement among many, then, the traditional hierarchy is grounded in the nature of things. These notions were held by Tillyard to be “taken for granted by the ordinary educated Elizabethan”(v), including Shakespeare.
Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture is now generally regarded as involving inadequate intellectual and social history. He ignored the waves spreading from the scientific revolution which was overthrowing Ptolemaic/ Aristotelian cosmology . He ignored the scepticism and agnosticism which were influential amongst the aristocracy and intelligensia of Renaissance England (see Burrows xxix; Watkin 347; Parkes 407). There is, though, evidence elsewhere in Troilus and Cressida that Shakespeare took the normative cosmic order seriously.
During the debate in the Trojan camp over whether they should return Helen to the Greeks—Act Two, Scene Two—Hector actually cites Aristotle’s dictum that young men are not fit to study moral philosophy. I believe that Aristotelian philosophy lies behind the discussion more generally. The argument Hector makes in the debate is that, since Helen is indisputably married to Menelaus, “these moral laws/ Of nature and of nations speak aloud/ To have her back returned”(II.2.185-6). “Moral laws of nature”: here we have natural law morality, which was classically formulated by Aristotle. It was also taught by St Thomas Aquinas, and, in Elizabethan England, by the prominent Church of England divine, Richard Hooker (Rosier 574-6, Parkes 403). In all three morality is underpinned by a “nature” which, in its widest extent, is a harmonious cosmic order. All three accept the fundamentals of Tillyard’s Elizabethan World Picture. Now dramatically, in Shakespeare’s play, Hector has the better of the argument amongst the Trojans; even his opponent Troilus seems to agree that Hector has the better reasons, since he resorts to denouncing reason. So there is a strong presence in Troilus and Cressida of moral/social values which are not just means of preventing mimetic rivaly, but are rational, objectively real, and part of a universal order.
Nevertheless, Girard is right to believe that there is something quite irregular going on with the Elizabethan World Picture and its Great Chain of Being in Ulysses’ speech on Degree. The Ptolemaic/ Aristotelian cosmology allowed for some deviation from perfect circular motion by planets in the supralunary realm, and large amounts of corruption and evil in our sublunary realm. But, Girard observes, “nothing like the amazing meltdown portrayed by Ulysses”(162). As Girard asks, “Who has ever seen a great chain of being collapse?”(Violence 54) Ulysses envisages a veritable crisis of Degree amongst the stars, with literally earth-shattering consequences, and the total collapse of human community. He takes the elements of the venerable picture, and uses them to express something quite different. For Ulysses’ vision is not, ultimately, traditional or conservative, but apocalyptic.
And the rough treatment given cosmic laws of nature in Troilus and Cressida is extended to the related “moral laws/ Of nature”. We have seen that Hector makes a cogent appeal to rational morality, and therefore a cogent case for returning Helen to the Greeks. Immediately after his reasoned triumph, though, Hector performs an about-face, and throws his support behind Troilus’ unashamedly irrational determination to keep Helen. In Girardian terms, Hector “becomes a victim of the [mimetic] infection he had shrewdly denounced a few lines before”(151). Joyce Carol Oates has commented that “The scene makes sense if it is interpreted as a demonstration of the ineffectuality of reason as reason”(172). In so doing, it also demonstrates the ineffectuality of rational morality. Shakespeare, we may say, presents an experiential critique of the natural law morality expounded by Aristotle,
and Hooker. Man, or at least the mankind of Troilus and Cressida, is simply not the sort of being who will pay any heed to
such laws. St
The laws that the characters in Troilus and Cressida actually obey, regardless of the presence or truth of cosmic and moral canons, are the laws of mimetic desire. Their world is, indeed, that of Girard’s crisis of Degree: rent by endless rivalry, collapsing into undifferentiation, and heading at breakneck speed toward self-destruction. Yet Shakespeare does not allow us to remain complacently surveying this world, from outside. At the end of Troilus and Cressida Pandarus breaks the “fourth wall”, and addresses the audience. He complains of suffering “aching bones”(V.10.35), from the Neapolitan bone-ache or syphilis—an horrific sign of mimetic contagion. Calling the audience “Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade”(V.10.52)—that is, fellow pimps—he assumes that those watching are also suffering from venereal diseases; and, in a final gesture, says that he will bequeath his fatal dose of the pox to the gallery. Shakespeare here intimates that the Elizabethan playgoers, and us, are just like the humankind of the play, diseased and dying in a crisis of Degree.
So “Is there no way to cast my hook/ Out of this dynamited brook?”, to use the lines of Robert Lowell (38). Can the crisis of Degree be overcome, and Ulysses’ apocalyptic end-game averted? Girard holds that pandemics of mimetic rivalry, which he believes to have recurred in all human communities since human communities began, have usually been resolved. Indeed, the resolution is said to have given rise to new religions, new and effective moral/social orders. Girard detects such a cure in Troilus and Cressida, with the killing of Hector by Achilles’ Myrmidons—interestingly, but rather tenuously, in my opinion. I believe Girard is on much surer ground with the resolution he finds in Julius Caesar. Following my policy of giving Girard’s “best case”, I will switch focus to the Roman play for this part of the mimetic cycle.
of Julius Caesar is in the throes of
a crisis of Degree. The play opens with Caesar’s return to Rome after victory in a civil war with
Pompey’s sons; his victory celebrations are questioned because he has been
killing other Romans (I.1.35-54). This is just the latest in a series of civil
wars, as powerful rivals struggle for control of the Senate. Shakespeare
portrays the senators, even Brutus to an extent, as caught up in envy and
emulation of their fellows. The Republican order is evidently no longer able to
constrain mimetic rivalry. The degeneration of the Republic is underlined when
its great defender, Brutus, is making his speech over Caesar’s body, and for
the moment has the crowd on his side. Then a cry comes from the crowd: “Let him
be Caesar”(III.ii.52). “Brutus wants to save the Republic”, Girard notes, “but
the Republic does not want to be saved”(194). No matter what Julius Caesar
does, and regardless of whether he lives or dies, Rome will be ruled by a Caesar. Rome
Yet the conspirators fix the whole responsibility for the breakdown of society on Julius Caesar. They contend that he, and he alone, is to blame for the Republic’s ills. Therefore if only he can be removed, all will be well. And therefore his removal is not murder, but something quite different. “Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers”(II.i.166), says Brutus. “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods”, so that “We shall be called purgers, not murderers” (II.i.173,180).
Julius Caesar becomes the scapegoat for the Roman crisis of Degree. And, Girard argues, this scapegoating has always happened in crises of Degree. When the undifferentiation of society through rivalry reaches a certain level, the anger and violence polarizes around an individual or group standing out in some way. The person may have a physical defect, be a foreigner, or even be a leader or king. All the mimetic violence is unleashed upon the arbitrary victim, and he is killed. Girard calls the process the scapegoat mechanism, and sees it as the terrible secret behind human society, culture, and archaic religion, at the very foundation of the human world.
As an historical example of the scapegoat mechanism, Girard observes that during outbreaks of the Black Plague in medieval Europe, times of communal crisis, anti-Semitism became hysterical, and the murder of Jews greatly increased (The Scapegoat, Chapter One passim). Another example is the pharmakos rite, so dear to the hearts of postmodernists. In classical
of democracy, philosophy, etc.—a number of degraded people, pharmakoi, were maintained by the city-state
at its expense. At times of civic calamity, these people were ritually
slaughtered. The term katharsis/catharsis,
which appears most respectably in our textbooks of literary criticism, originally
referred “primarily to the mysterious benefits that accrue to the community
upon the death of a human katharma or
pharmakos”(Violence 303). Greece
Like the Jews in plague times, and the pharmakoi, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a scapegoat. Unlike the Christians of medieval
and the classical Greeks, Shakespeare’s play recognizes its scapegoat as a scapegoat. Placing the entire blame
for the societal crisis on Caesar, that is, and killing him, is shown to be a
great wrong. Now for Girard this recognition makes Shakespeare’s vision
essentially Christian. Christ “placed himself at the heart of the system” of
scapegoating “to reveal its hidden workings”(Battling xv); as Jesus quotes of himself, “‘I will utter what has
been hidden since the foundation of the world’”(Mtt 13:35, citing Ps 78:2). In
a way Christ in his crucifixion is just another sacrificial victim of
collective violence. Yet here, for the first time, the innocence of the
sacrificed one shows forth. Christianity, then, differs from archaic religions
in that it proclaims the innocence of the scapegoat; this is, in Girard’s
opinion, its momentous insight. Of course the example of Jews being persecuted
by medieval Christians indicates that, historically, Christians haven’t always
understood and lived up to the message. But in Julius Caesar Shakespeare does.
In the play, nonetheless, Caesar’s murder brings about a resolution of the crisis of Degree. This is prophesized in the dream of his wife, Calphurnia, where she sees a statue of Caesar “Which, like a fountain with a hundred spouts,/ Did run pure blood, and many lusty Romans/ Came smiling and did bathe their hands in it”(II.ii.76-9). The conspirator Decius, with cynical intent but speaking truer than he knows, calls the dream “a vision fair and fortunate”, which “Signifies that from you great
shall suck/ Reviving blood”(II.ii.84,87-8). Rome
Once a scapegoat has been killed, mimetic theory instructs us, the rivalry and violence which had become fixated on him are exhausted. Peace and order return. And since his death has actually brought peace, the victim comes to be seen as a powerful peacemaker, and as the founder of the new, harmonious order. Caesar’s death does not result in peace straight away, as Brutus planned; it is not until Brutus himself has also fallen that the mimetic violence is spent: there are two scapegoats rather than one. But then come the mysterious benefits, the katharsis, a rebirth of Degree. Julius Caesar is established as the founder of a new moral/social structure, a new culture, a new religion. The new order is none other than the
Roman Empire. Here Caesar is a god, and “the Roman
emperor is both an absolute monarch and the official protector of the
Republic”(201). From Caesar’s mutilated body does indeed “suck/ Reviving blood”. Rome
The resolution of the crisis of Degree in Julius Caesar thus accords with mimetic logic. It conforms to the pattern Girard finds in the foundation and renewal of human communities before the Christian era. While Shakespeare portrays this solution, though, he does not approve it. With his recognition of Caesar as a scapegoat, Shakespeare cannot condone Caesar’s killing. It follows that he cannot accept the resulting catharsis, and the resulting renewal of Degree. Shakespeare’s Christian insight leads him to reject the means by which crises of Degree have been overcome, as Girard contends, since human communities began.
But as Christianity rules out one solution to the crisis of Degree, it is said to open up another of its own. Even Girard cannot find any hint of this remedy in Troilus and Cressida or Julius Caesar—which might give us pause for thought. For the final stage of the mimetic cycle we must move on again, to one of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter’s Tale.
Girard maintains that The Winter’s Tale is full of mimetic desire. King Leontes in particular, “this terribly insecure man”, is “hypermimetic”(310, 318). At the beginning of the play Leontes encourages a close relationship between his wife, Hermione, and his best friend, Polixenes. He is hoping their mutual esteem will provide models for his desire to imitate, enabling him to feel more secure about his marriage and friendship. Yet when Hermione and Polixenes show the closeness he has promoted, Leontes is immediately jealous. He fears he has become “a model quite different from the one he wanted to be,...driving his wife into the arms of his friend, and driving his friend into the arms of his wife”(310). Hence Leontes’ sudden and violent rage.
We are back again with the mimetic phenomena and rationality of Girard’s Shakespeare. Unlike the characters we have observed previously, though, Leontes does not remain caught in the web of mimetic illusion. When the death of his son and apparent death of Hermione come hard upon the oracle from Apollo proclaiming her innocence, Leontes is jolted out of his anger, to a recognition of error. His reform is confirmed, Girard believes very importantly, when Florizel and Perdita, Leontes’ disguised daughter, come into his power. Girard suggests this scene could be called the “ ‘last temptation of Leontes’”(327). Florizel has asked Leontes to act as protector for the outcast couple. It is clear, however, that Leontes is inclined to imitate Florizel’s desire for Perdita, and compete with Florizel for her. “I’d beg your precious mistress”(V.i.223), he says, and is warned “Sir, my liege,/ Your eye hath too much youth in’t”(V.i.224-5). But rather than succumbing to the temptation and attempting to appropriate the young lovers’ happiness for himself, Leontes rises above to accept the role of their guardian. Leontes declares of the lovers’ desires, “I am friend to them and you”(V.i.231).
According to Girard, such is the Christian resolution of mimetic rivalry and the crisis of Degree. Taking Christ as a model, imitating Christ, means “to renounce all possessive desire once and for all”(15). It is to abandon the competition for things, status, and persons, and abstain from retaliation against those pursuing competition. “The real choice”, says Girard, “is between tragic conflict and total renunciation, the
the Golden Rule of the Gospels. This alternative is so frightening that
Shakespearean heroes and heroines try to elude it”(15). Leontes, though, makes
the hard choice. Kingdom of God
And is rewarded most prodigally. Having been invited to view a statue of his dead wife, Leontes sees the supposed statue come to life and step down from its pedestal, and Hermione is returned to him. As mimetic desire leads ever further from the real, Girard glosses, renunciation of desire brings a return of the real. The true fulness of being is represented by Hermione’s resurrected flesh—which, in turn, reminds us of Christ’s resurrected and glorified body. Moreover with the “miracle” of Hermione’s return, Leontes is finally released from guilt over his mimetic actions: he is granted “the certainty of being forgiven”(342).
The Winter’s Tale, on Girard’s reading, brings to conclusion the internal logic of mimesis in Shakespeare. In plays like Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare has explored mimetic desire, and shown it leading to the crisis of Degree. In Julius Caesar the scapegoat mechanism, as a solution to the crisis of Degree, is revealed and rejected. All that remains is appetite, the “universal wolf” that must “last eat himself up”, or Christian renunciation. Before Shakespeare gave us The Winter’s Tale “signs of humility and compassion were not absent from his theater, but they were few”(342). However with this play Shakespeare’s oeuvre achieves a Christian consummation. “I view The Winter’s Tale”, declares Girard, “as the successful accomplishment of a purpose that long remained unfulfilled”(338).
Girard’s interpretation of Shakespeare involves a rejection of the account of desire given in classical philosophy. For classical philosophy, human desire is a response to the nature of its object. In Thomist terminology, “It is the cogitative power which determines the movements of our sensitive appetites”(Gilson 241). The realities we find desirable, by this analysis, are not mere neutral stuff; they are “value-laden”. In particular, they may have intrinsic moral or aesthetic value. Now if desire is determined by the way things are, there are grounds for desire, reasons for desire, and desire is, in a sense, rational. Desires can be merited or unmerited, appropriate or inappropriate, proportionate or disproportionate (Lewis 15-17).
Girard intends that all this should go; his mimetic theory avows that desire is determined by a model, not by the object. Yet in their detail Girard’s readings of Shakespeare tell a somewhat different story. We have previously noted the verdict Girard gives on Troilus’ weariness with Cressida after their tryst—“Troilus’ disgraceful behaviour on that early morning”(128). We have also observed, though, that Troilus’ actions can be explained as following from disillusioned metaphysical desire; they obey mimetic logic. Yet if Troilus simply desires, and acts, mimetically, how can his behaviour be “disgraceful”? It can only be disgraceful as an inappropriate response to the reality at hand. To the value-laden reality, that is, of a young woman who has given her heart to him. So Girard’s criticism of a mimetic desire presupposes the classical account of emotions he explicitly rejects.
Nor is this just a one-off slip. Girard has defined illusory “metaphysical desire” as desire which “does not correspond to anything real”(Things 296). But implicit in this definition is that non-illusory, non-metaphysical desire will be desire which does correspond to the real, which is proportioned to the nature of the object. Achieving “right desire”, then, is not just a matter of following a different and better model, but of following reality. Drawing out the logic of Girard’s own concepts, we realize that a mimetic understanding of desire is not sufficient: imitative desire must be integrated with classical desire. Shakespeare’s plays, by embodying the traditional account, reveal this inadequacy in Girard’s theory. So Shakespeare may be said to deconstruct Girard’s theory of desire.
If we must attend to grounds of desire as well as mimesis, however, a host of further difficulties crowd in for the Girardian Shakespeare. Perhaps most importantly, doubt is thrown on The Winter’s Tale being a Christian conclusion to the mimetic cycle.
Girard has argued that Leontes’ jealous rage is in accord with mimetic logic; the king is “hypermimetic”. Girard therefore feels able to scorn the “traditional critics” who find Leontes’ jealousy “‘insufficiently motivated’”(317). But what these “traditional critics” , working with a traditional understanding of desire, mean, is that Leontes’ jealousy is insufficiently motivated in relation to reality. And Girard admits as much. Leontes’ wife of many years is loving and wholly faithful; his best friend from childhood is trustworthy; his servants and subjects dutiful and devoted. Leontes’ passion has no basis in objective fact. Mimesis may account for his jealousy, but cannot justify or excuse it. The behaviour of Leontes is, like that of Troilus, “disgraceful”—indeed, far more so. The traditional critics are quite right to find Leontes’ rage, as Girard notes, “disturbing”(317); malice and madness are here scrambled together. That the fury ends as abruptly as it began only makes it the more unnerving. As for Girard’s “last temptation of Leontes”, over Perdita. Well, one can be thankful that Leontes does not act on his lustful feelings towards a girl who is not only young enough to be his daughter, but, as we the audience know, actually is his daughter. However Leontes managing, just, to respond to her with basic decency does not make his behaviour some glorious Christian abnegation. Contrary to Girard’s contention, The Winter’s Tale does not encourage us to identify with Leontes.
Now in critiquing Leontes’ passions by reference to their grounds, we see that the king’s Sicilia is not undergoing a crisis of Degree. While Leontes may be “hypermimetic”, the world he lives in is not. Leontes is surrounded by decent people who wish him the best, within a stable social order accepted by all as good. There is even a benevolent cosmic/ religious order, as demonstrated by the truthful oracle from Apollo. Leontes’ renunciation and repentance is just a matter of complying with the norms of his world.
How then does the solution to the crisis of Degree which Girard finds in The Winter’s Tale, renouncing possessive desire, apply to the very different worlds of Julius Caesar and Troilus and Cressida, worlds which are consumed by mimetic rivalry? Renunciation is no part of the social norms in
and the Trojan war, and it is hardly
plausible that these communities would suddenly and unanimously adopt the Golden
Rule. As the mankind of Troilus and Cressida are not the sort of beings to
obey natural law morality, still less are they going to follow the Beatitudes,
barring some pretty spectacular miracle. So Christian repentance cannot resolve
crises of Degree in the way the scapegoat mechanism does. For on Girard’s
admission, remember, this mechanism has and does bring communities into
unanimty, against the scapegoat, and does bring order, once the scapegoat has
been murdered. Rome
The suggestion might be made that forgoing possessive desire is an answer on an individual level. Yet Christian renunciation on the part of, for example, Troilus, would not bring the reward Leontes receives. If Troilus let go of acquisitive desire, in all liklihood his lover Cressida would have him supporting her while she dallied with the “merry Greeks”. Troilus would probably lose respect and status in the Trojan camp, and if he tried to stop the war, or refused to fight, would probably be killed by the Greeks. Troilus’ fate, in short, would be just that of Lear and Cordelia, when thay renounce possessive desire in a world of mimetic conflict. Obviously, the fact that following the Golden Rule may bring suffering and earthly failure—different forms of crucifixion—comes as no surprise to Christianity, and is no argument against it. But The Winter’s Tale does not engage with such harsh realities. This is not a criticism of The Winter’s Tale; my criticism is of the way Girard attempts to use the play. In my opinion, Shakespeare’s play is not in any way attempting to formulate the Christian response to the crisis of Degree.
Yet once we abandon Girard’s narrative of a mimetic cycle in Shakespeare, leading up to the Christian consummation of The Winter’s Tale, he is left with a multitude of interpretative complexities, and complexities of aesthetic evaluation. To take one example: the statue scene in The Winter’s Tale, and the scene at the sheep-shearing festival before it, are among the supreme episodes in Shakespeare. Nevertheless, The Winter’s Tale is not one of Shakespeare’s very greatest plays. Arguably some of the comedies are greater, but the five major tragedies certainly are. According to Girard, though, “signs of humility and compassion” are “few”(342) in these tragedies, a Christian purpose is “unfulfilled”(338). But if Shakespeare’s greatest works of art, his most searching and profound portrayals of the human condition, are not Christian, where does this leave Girard’s Christian Shakespeare?
Apart from a few fervent Girardians, who know a lot about Girard but much less about Shakespeare, and of course Girard himself, I don’t suppose there is anyone who believes that Girard gives a comprehensive and exact picture of Shakespeare. Counter-examples to Girard’s reading can be piled high. In my opinion, though, concentrating on such “falsifications” does not give an adequate assessment of Girard. For a different perspective, I note that modern accounts of rationality, following the work of Imre Lakatos, have moved away from regarding falsification as the main principle in the evaluation of scientific theories, or “research programmes”. After all, there are numerous falsifying instances, labelled as anomalies, to all major scientific theories. Instead, and especially with new and developing theories, greater emphasis is placed on confirmations of different types (Lakatos 135-7).
And Girard’s theory of Shakespeare has confirmations in abundance. We have seen how mimetic principles are able to explain the age-old critical chesnut of Troilus’ inconstant passion. More generally with Troilus and Cressida, Girard has predicted, and verified, that the agresssion and sexual desire which dominate the play are not instinctive, “animal” drives, as the standard reading maintains, but are imbued by mimesis, by emulation and envy. A whole new level of meaning in the play is thus opened up. A new theme is opened up, too, across Troilus and Cressida, Julius Caesar and numerous other plays, through recognition of a contagion of mimetic rivalry which undermines the social order—the crisis of Degree.
As regards Shakespeare and Christianity, Girard finds in Shakespeare an understanding of the false divinization of erotic passion, that Renaissance and modern substitute for declining Christian belief. The Shakespeare of Julius Caesar exhibits what is for Girard a profoundly Christian attitude: recognizing the innocence of the scapegoat, and rejecting the scapegoat’s murder. These fairly sketchy readings leave much room for further and deeper investigation. Finally, Christian renunciation appears in The Winter’s Tale as an alternative to the delusions of acquisitive mimetic desire; and this play shows that, in some circumstances at least, possessive desire can be conquered by a Christian redemption.
Given so many and such significant verifications, though not denying the need for modifications, renovations, and even wholesale reconstruction of the theory, my conclusion is that Girard’s research programme remains afloat. I believe it provides us with a most lively and challenging Christian interpretation of Shakespeare. Alongside the critical Christian Shakespeares down the centuries, room must be made for this rather eccentric, sometimes infuriating, defiantly new-fangled Other Christian Shakespeare.
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