Iago and Hippolytus

Ever read Euripides’s Hippolytus?

It’s interesting because Hippolytus is very like a Taliban dude. He loves Artemis and hates Aphrodite, and he keeps telling everyone how pure he is. In short, he hates sex.

It has this one speech of his, starting at line 617…

Oh, Zeus! Why did you bring woman into the light of the sun? Woman, this impure, this evil destroyer of mortals! If you wanted to sow the seeds for the mortal race you should not have done it through women but a price. [Read more…]

Social intelligence and the novel

Patricia Churchland opens chapter 6 of Braintrust, “Skills for a Social Life”:

The social world and its awesome complexity has long been the focus of performances – informally in improvised skits around the campfire, and more formally, in elaborate productions by professionals on massive stages. Among the cast of characters in a play, there is inevitably a wide variation in social intelligence, sometimes with a tragic end, as in King Lear. [p 118]

We’ll be talking about Lear next. That’s a very good description of his problem, his “tragic flaw” – it’s not anything grand or impressive, it’s just babyish clumsy oblivious lack of social intelligence. It causes him to set up a ludicrous “contest” which simply begs to be gamed, it causes him to be blind to obviously insincere flattery, and it causes him to mistake loving attempts to save him from his own blindness as treason. He’s pathetically mind-blind, and because he’s a king he’s never been taught better, or taught to let people help him navigate.

Lady Catherine is another such, and she too is insulated from the effects by her status and money. It struck me that social intelligence was Austen’s great subject. That’s not true of all novelists. It doesn’t fit Emily Bronte, exactly, or George Eliot, exactly – Eliot did write about it a lot (Lydgate, Rosamund) but it wasn’t dominant the way it was with Austen.

That’s probably why so many people think she’s minor, or trivial – but they’re wrong. Social intelligence isn’t minor or trivial. Mr Woodhouse is just a Lear writ small; he does less harm only because he has less scope.

Hamlet 2

Let’s continue the Hamlet discussion. There are a million things one could talk about, so let’s talk about a few. (I have a folder of notes on the subject somewhere…I wonder if there’s any chance I could figure out where…)

One item. I noticed once that the word “love” is used often in the play, but it’s almost always used either deceptively or doubtfully. (I didn’t have a computer when I noticed that. It’s trivially easy to collect them all now. There’s something faintly annoying about that.) That fact by itself sums up a lot about the play.

Done badly, that can seem like just teenage angst and self-absorbtion. It shouldn’t be done that way, because it’s not just teenage.

Speaking of which, one of the famous cruxes (a crux being a difficulty, a discrepancy, aka a mistake) is the fact that at the beginning Hamlet is a college student (which could make him as young as 14) and by the graveyard scene he’s 30. Shakespeare made lots of mistakes of that kind. It was a play – a working recipe for a group of actors, Shakespeare being one of them. There was no obvious need to be careful about details.

Shakespeare was unique in that way, you know. He was not only an actor, he was also a shareholder, in the company and in the theater. His company was unique in owning its own theater, and he was unique as a playwright in being also a player and an owner. Ben Jonson did some acting, but as an employee, not as an owner.

Hamlet is about acting, among other things. Acting, dissembling, seeming – it’s all about that. When people talk about “love” they’re usually acting. Polonius’s supposedly wise advice to Laertes is all about acting and dissembling – the much-quoted bromide “to thine own self be true” is deeply ironic. At the end of the play Laertes is acting and dissembling at the behest of the consummate liar and dissembler Claudius.

Your turn.

Lady Catherine

When the ladies returned to the drawing room, there was little to be done but to hear Lady Catherine talk, which she did without any intermission till coffee came in, delivering her opinion on every subject in so decisive a manner as proved that she was not used to have her judgment controverted. She enquired into Charlotte’s domestic concerns familiarly and minutely, and gave her a great deal of advice as to the management of them all; told her how every thing ought to be regulated in so small a family as her’s, and instructed her as to the care of her cows and her poultry. Elizabeth found that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others. In the intervals of her discourse with Mrs. Collins, she addressed a variety of questions to Maria and Elizabeth, but especially to the latter, of whose connections she knew the least, and who, she observed to Mrs. Collins, was a very genteel, pretty kind of girl. She asked her at different times, how many sisters she had, whether they were older or younger than herself, whether any of them were likely to be married, whether they were handsome, where they had been educated, what carriage her father kept, and what had been her mother’s maiden name? — Elizabeth felt all the impertinence of her questions, but answered them very composedly. — Lady Catherine then observed,

“Your father’s estate is entailed on Mr. Collins, I think. For your sake,” turning to Charlotte, “I am glad of it; but otherwise I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. — It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh’s family. — Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?” [Read more…]


A longish time ago we talked about the idea of doing book discussion threads, or was it Shakespeare threads. One of those. Inspired by Pamela Gay’s urgings to make the world better and do something, let’s get to it.

Let’s start at the top, with Hamlet.

We’ll talk until no one has anything left to say.

I’ll start.

Biggest thing: it’s not [just, or primarily] about A Guy Who Can’t Make Up His Mind. That’s become the boring soundbite about it, and it is very damn boring. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a million things, and that one is more incidental than most of them. [Read more…]