Friday, June 23, 2006

The Name of Action

One of the recurring themes in Shakespeare to which I most relate is the question, "when do we take action?" Old Seward, in MACBETH, warns his compatriots that in the teeth of coming battle that

"Thoughts speculative their unsure hopes relate,
But certain issue, strokes must arbitrate..."

Although the context for this warning is Malcolm's potentially over-hasty prediction of success in the fight against Macbeth, it also mirrors Macbeth's decision not to let his imagination and self-reflections keep him from his (immoral) act against Duncan, though Siward fights on the side of good, Macbeth, on the side of evil. Siward's warning also contrasts not only Banquo's circumspection--which leads him to refrain from action, at least just yet--but also Hamlet's, as well (if I knew Shakespeare's plays better, a flood of examples would come to me, but this will have to do for now.) Hamlet, poor shmuck, has good reason to doubt and insist on uncovering sufficient conditions for committing what would be treason, if those conditions are not met, whereas Fortinbras basically doesn't give a shit about all that--if he wants a piece of the rock, he's going to take it.*

At what point do we cease our deliberations, analyses, moral calculus, doubts, and scruples to take action? When would action be precipitous? How much do we need to know before taking action? When does all that no longer matter and we must throw ourselves into action, come hell or high water? These are not immaterial questions in our own day, of course, what, with the "war on terror," in which action is necessary, on the one hand, and the dangers of being precipitous have been all too clearly born out, on the other.

These are also questions about what it means to be 'human,' per se, especially in the social context to which we are always responding. Animals don't think, they act. Humans, sharing a bit of the divinity of angels--higher on the scale of being than is man--do think, but are also animals--lower on the scale of being--who must act and CAN'T think. When does being properly human mean partaking in our 'lesser,' beastial nature? When must we overcome our lesser selves by insisting on higher deliberaton? Macbeth, for one, utterly gives up his humanity (arguably, Siward does as well, when he rejects grief over his son's death, in contrast to MacDuff's insistance on weeping for his family's murder, for which HIS over-hasty action was the cause) by casting out all reason. By the time Lady Macbeth kills herself, Macbeth is reduced to a beast, for which words have lost all meaning, conveying no significance beyond providing a verbal mirror for our fractured impressions of the incomprehensible life coming at us; like the twittering of birds or the grunt of a dog, registering nothing more than indigestion and the need to fart after happily eating the wrong pile of shit on the sidewalk.

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 is 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.

This is the most nihilistic moment in Shakespeare with which I am familiar.

If the world is to retain meaning--if I am to be fully 'human'--when do I give over to introspection--as well as my calculations about how my actions will effect others--and when do I chuck it all aside to act on 'instinct?' When does courage mean refraining from action or taking it?

These are questions that I am exploring in my own work. In my acting, my starting point is "what is authority?" In my writing, it is "does cowardice make true happiness impossible?" Both refract the question, "when must we take action in order to remain human, even it if costs us our lives?"


*[I hate seeing Fortinbras cut out of productions of HAMLET. He is not extraneous to either Hamlet's action or the action of the play as a whole. Directors who cut Fortinbras utterly miss the importance of Shakespeare's epistemological doubts to his ontological and moral investigations.]

*[One of the great contrasts between Hamlet and Macbeth is that the former allows himself to be overwhelmed by Reason--by rationalizations--whereas the later is overwhelmed by Imagination, which are quite different faculties, for Shakespeare. Hamlet heeds thought to the point of dangerous indecision and madness. Macbeth rejects thought in favor of Imagination to the point of over-decisiveness and madness.]

p.s. please forgive the rambling but overly-compact nature of this entry. Perhaps it belongs in an offline notebook, but I like working out this stuff, here.

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