Shakespearean Nihilism

David Cowles

Jul 13, 2022

Editor’s note: It’s that time of year when many readers attend ‘summer theater.’ If Shakespeare is on the bill, you may find this essay relevant. Don’t leave home for the theater without reading this first!

Machiavelli, Nietzsche, Duchamp, Camus, Ionesco, Beckett – these are names that come to mind when we think about nihilism…not Shakespeare!

Not the poet who wrote, “But thy eternal summer shall not fade nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade, when in eternal lines to time thou growest, so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Yet, according to renowned Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher, the ‘Tomorrow Soliloquy’ in Macbeth is “the most nihilistic speech imaginable.”

But let’s not start there; let’s start with The Tempest, where Prospero shares this conclusion with the audience:

“Our revels now are ended. These, our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air; and—like the baseless fabric of this vision— the cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples, the great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on…”

Now back to Macbeth. On the nihilist spectrum, can anyone possibly top Prospero? Macbeth, like Prospero, seems to step out of the play itself and address the audience directly. But “the most nihilist imaginable” (above)? Let’s see if it lives up to its billing:

“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day to the last syllable of recorded time, and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Oh, yeah, it lives up to its billing…and then some!

Macbeth’s ‘Tomorrow Soliloquy’ stands in radical contrast to Virgil’s famous line (reflected in Shakespeare’s sonnets), “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

The contrast pivots, of course, on the concept of ‘time.’ For Virgil, time, aided perhaps by art, is universal and perpetual memory. This well fits the ‘Shakespeare of the Sonnets.’

For ‘Shakespeare of the Play,’ however, time is not our friend. It is not perpetual memory; it is perpetual loss. Time erases everything that ever was and everything that might yet be.

Two views could scarcely be more dissimilar. For Virgil, time is memory; what is, is, and always will be. Time makes events immortal (immortal, not eternal; for more on this distinction, check out Eternity vs. Immortality in Issue #1 of ATM).

For ‘Shakespeare of the Plays,’ however, time does not just limit the scope of events (mortality); it erases those events (a-mortality)!

To paraphrase a current meme: ‘No lives matter’ to time. “For now I (time) have become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The Bhagavad Gita

While Virgil offers ‘always will be,’ Shakespeare offers ‘never was, is not now, never will be.’ Quite a contrast! What ever happened to ‘here today, gone tomorrow?’ So, are events immortal, mortal, or a-mortal (nihil est)?

Can we settle this dispute? Can we determine who’s right, Virgil or Shakespeare? Surprisingly, it seems that we can! And if we can and to the extent that we can, the winner is…Shakespeare! (Sorry, Virgil.)

In Virgil’s day, many believed that the universe had always existed and would always exist (Aristotle), that it was now more or less the same as it always had been and always would be. Against this philosophical background, it is easy to see how someone could believe in “the persistence of memory” (Dali).

Shakespeare knew little more than Virgil about the real workings of the universe. His conclusions regarding time and the meaning of life can only be attributed to his personal experiences and reflections. (The reader will recall the tragic death of his beloved son, Hamnet, at age 11.)

We have an advantage over both Virgil and Shakespeare. We know, or think we know, that disorder (entropy) is constantly increasing in our world. Memory (indeed mind itself) is a species of order and, therefore, must disappear over the course of time.

Consider the aging process. Memories fade and eventually vanish. Well, phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny! My death prefigures the heat death of the cosmos. We also know, or think we know, that the universe did not always exist and will not always exist. In fact, time itself, to the extent that it is even real, apparently comes to be and ceases to be at a singularity.

Therefore, it would be difficult for a person today to entrust life to time with the expectation of eternity, or even immortality. Or would it? Folks often say things like, “I lived my life; now it’s ending, but no one can take that life I’ve lived away from me.”

Oh really? Turns out they can take it, they will take it, and they have taken it!

So, is this Shakespeare, whom we thought we knew and genuinely loved, really a nihilist?

Nihilism is rooted in the notion that there are no objective values. That was Nietzsche’s great insight in Twilight of the Gods. But in Shakespeare’s plays (unlike Beckett’s, for example), there is not an absolute absence of objective values. Even in Macbeth, the villains at various times question their actions…and even regret them.

In the play’s final scene, for example, Macbeth encounters Macduff, whose wife and children he has put to death. From the depths of his depravity, Macbeth blurts out: “But get thee back. My soul is too much charged with blood of thine already…I’ll not fight with thee.” But of course, he does fight with Macduff: “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!'”

So, values do exist in ‘Shakespeare World,’ but their influence on events is never quite strong enough to influence actual behavior. Does this sound at all familiar by any chance?

Far from being ultimately real, in Shakespeare, values flicker in and out of consciousness but exert no real influence on the course of the world’s events. Like Kant, Shakespeare believes that a world like ours ought to have transcendent, objective, and operative values; he bitterly laments that it does not.

20th century nihilists, on the other hand, seem to relish the absence of objective values; it fits in with the agenda to ‘God-proof’ the world. Not so, Shakespeare! If Nietzsche was a nihilist out of conviction (‘it cannot be’), Shakespeare is a nihilist out of disappointment (‘it should have been’).

In Shakespeare, the values we associate with justice and kindness compete on a level playing field with ‘anti-values’ associated with greed, lust, and power. Shakespeare is a dualist. Compare his views with the views of monastic philosophers from Augustine to Whitehead. In their models, the only values are positive values, values associated with beauty, truth, justice, and kindness. Anything else is simply an absence of values. Such objective values (‘eternal objects’ per Whitehead) become operative in the world through the agency of God, the primordial ‘actual entity.’

Now, values do not just influence the unfolding of events, they ultimately determine the import of those events. The story of the world is the story of the realization of objective values in actual events; everything else, whatever its dramatic potential, is just noise. I am reminded of a line from a medieval Irish hymn traditionally attributed to St. Dallan: “Naught is all else to me, save that Thou art!”

Compare Macbeth with the Old Testament Book of Job. Both focus on pervasive injustice; but while Macbeth ultimately surrenders to that injustice, Job comes to a completely different conclusion: “I know that my vindicator lives and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.” Inaugurating the tradition that runs through Augustine to Whitehead, Job celebrates the reality of objective values, values that are even incumbent on God. (Check out The Riddle of Job in Issue #1 of AT Magazine.)

In the end, we are like a jury, passing judgment on the cosmos. Like jurors, we must ultimately choose between two possible verdicts. We all listen to the same testimony, but (like Macbeth and Job), we may draw different conclusions. Why? Why do different people draw different conclusions from the same data?

We write essays (like this one), or give lectures (podcasts), trying to convince our fellow jurors that our own interpretation of the evidence is correct.

“…Singing songs and carrying signs, mostly saying ‘Hooray for our side.’” – Buffalo Springfield.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to one juror, one vote.

Einstein once said that the single most important question is whether the universe is benign. I would reword that slightly. For me, the single most important question is whether or not there are objective, transcendent values operating in our world.

If your answer is yes, your catalog of values cannot differ much from the traditional Judeo-Christian catalog found in Psalms and in the teachings of Jesus. Plus, your explanation for how transcendent values came to exert immanent influence in our world must include something akin to the agency of God and, perhaps, even something akin to the Incarnation itself. Of course, you need not use the language of Judeo-Christian theology to describe your model, but in the end, it will pretty much have to perform the same functions.

On the other hand, if you deny the immanent influence of objective, transcendent values, it is hard to see how you can avoid some version of nihilism. At one point in our lives, we believed that there was a virtually limitless number of potential world views, self-consistent models that account reasonably well for the experiences of everyday life.

As time goes by, however, we see that most of these models contain logical fallacies or lack heuristic power. Those that remain all say much the same thing, just using different words.

In the end, like jurors, we have a choice to make. In the words of Deuteronomy: “I set before you, Life (objective values) and Death (nihilism); therefore, choose life.” (30: 19)


 

Image: The Chandos portrait (held by the National Portrait Gallery, London


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.

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