Hidden Truth in Shakespeare

Posted By on December 15, 2009

An excerpt from a longer work in progress:

The leading theme of the entire Shakespearean canon, manifest in myriad ways in all the plays, and vital to the plots of many, is the discrepancy between visible but erroneous appearances and hidden but ultimately substantive truths.

This single thematic preoccupation – one might even call it, without fear of overstatement, the author’s own obsession – unites and binds into a coherent whole the variety of plots, characters, speeches, symbolic patterns, and gestures of all the plays, from the blinding of the Epicurean Gloucester in King Lear to the confessions of the gender-disguised Viola in 12th Night.

“I stumbled,” admits the mutilated Gloucester, “when I saw.”

One may generalize without fear of contradiction from Gloucester’s experience. The genial and sensual Duke is readily tricked by his Machiavellian son Edmund  into the false belief that his honest son Edgar is the real author of Edmund’s incriminating forgery. Shakespeare’s most famous subplot, in other words,  turns on a question of authorship.

“You know the character to be your brother’s?” (1.2.64) asks Gloucester – revealing in a subtle stroke his own ignorance of his supposedly favored son, whose handwriting he does not recognize.

Edmund’s equivocating answer baits the hook:

If the matter were good, my lord, I durst swear
it were his; but, in respect of that, I would
fain think it were not.

Edmund’s abstract demonstrative “that” distills the essence of  his theatrical disdain for the contents of his own forged letter. His Iagoesque mastery of  affected partiality  implants the very innuendo it makes pretense to deny, turning  the playwright’s technology — the written word — into a symbol of  the eye’s error.

“It is his” replies the deluded father, without missing a beat…..

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


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