Shakespeare's Mad Men
A Crisis of Authority
Richard van Oort


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

Unlike the physical and biological objects of scientific inquiry, the anthropological objects of humanistic inquiry are constituted by the originary scene of representation in which they also appear. A hypothesis is ventured to explain the origin of this scene. Language is essential to human understanding and therefore a necessary element of the hypothesis. Other elements deemed fundamental to human understanding, such as the aesthetic and the sacred, are incorporated into the hypothesis. The case is made for reading Shakespeare as a dramatist of the originary anthropological scene. The various elements of this scene, in which a sacred center stands opposed to the desiring humans on the periphery, provide a minimal anthropological basis for understanding the ethical conflicts in King Lear and Measure for Measure.

1 The King's Last Potlatch
chapter abstract

Tragedy dramatizes the desire for the scenic center and the attendant ethical conflicts that emerge when desire is thwarted. King Lear explores an instance of this fundamental ethical problem. Why does Lear abdicate? He says he wants to make himself ready for death, but his actions suggest the opposite. What drives the tragedy is Lear's repeated failure to renounce centrality. But this failure is conspired in by all the major characters. Hence the prominence of shame and guilt. Even Cordelia is not free of conspiring in the central conflict. When she comes to rescue her father, she brings her husband's battalions. The war with which the play ends may be understood as an escalation of the petty domestic conflict with which the play begins.

2 The Judge, the Duke, His Wife, and Her Lover
chapter abstract

As in King Lear, Measure for Measure begins with an unsuccessful attempt to renounce the center. But where Lear exchanges power for false love, the Duke conspires in the fraudulent presentation of himself as a pious friar. By this sleight of hand, he seeks not merely political but moral control of his subjects. He tells Isabella that he has a love of doing good, but his mad Peeping-Tom tactics suggest instead a strategy of self-centralization and self-exculpation. By throwing dirt on others, he distracts negative attention from himself and tightens his grip on the center. The conflict of the final scene, in which ducal pardons rain down like laser-guided missiles, can be traced to the groundswell of resentment that has been building since the beginning.

chapter abstract

King Lear may be understood as a failed romance. By remaining in the center, Lear is condemned to lovelessness. Hence the poignancy of the final scene in which Lear, cradling Cordelia's lifeless body, dies of a broken heart. Conversely, Measure for Measure may be viewed as a failed tragedy. After setting up Angelo to play the role of scapegoat, the Duke denies us the satisfaction of witnessing the scapegoat's comeuppance. If we superimpose Measure for Measure on King Lear, we find that the common factor is madness—and, more precisely, the madness of the exiled big man. This raises the question of whether exile represents a possible solution to tragic conflict. Can the big man exist as a permanent exile of the center without going mad?