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Shakespeare’s dysnarrativia.



Dysnarrativia: the moment when language, or one language, breaks down, for internal or external reasons, leaving us unable to tell the established story of ourselves.


On December 6th 1273, Thomas Aquinas informed his faithful secretary Brother Reginald that he would write no more. This indefatigable author had turned over his last sheet. Reginald was taken aback. Why? Because, said Thomas, all he had written seemed to him nothing now but straw. He had received a vision of the divine plenitude, and there was a disjunction between the intensity of that vision and the resources available to human language.

His language could no longer tell the story of himself in any way that mattered, since it could not recount the single greatest event he had experienced. This condition is dysnarrativia.

Shakespeare is an expert portrayer of dysnarrativia. When language buckles inside the human mechanism, when discourse is traumatically disrupted so that the channels of disclosure and command are blocked, then we observe a linguistic metamorphosis. This can sometimes be redemptive, as with Lear and Leontes, but it is often dark and destructive. Sometimes grammar disintegrates. The lexicon turns vicious and anarchic.

Lady Macbeth.

IF WE CANNOT tell the story of ourselves, we cannot tell the story of others either. ‘Tis all in pieces. All coherence gone’, wrote John Donne in 1611, five years after Lady Macbeth’s obsessive dreaming took place. The motors that are expected to push narrative along have broken down.

It is part of Shakespeare’s genius that he grasps how, as the conscious mind loses its narrative coherence, the unconscious starts to take over.

Between her confident ‘A little water clears us of this deed’ and her later tragic utterance ‘What is done cannot be undone’ lies a break in narrative and narrativity so severe that it causes Lady Macbeth’s death. It is part of Shakespeare’s genius that he grasps how, as the conscious mind loses its narrative coherence, the unconscious starts to take over. In Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking dream the dreadful deeds are replayed in all their horror. The mind has not accepted her royal command of erasure and oblivion. She relives the horror that brought the prior narrative to such a brutal closure. She believed she could enforce closure upon history too, as Stalin believed he could erase Trotsky from all memories of the Russian Revolution. But history, interior and exterior, is not so easily erased. Like the watercourse dammed and diverted, it awaits the full flow of its future revenge. Those doctored photographs were one representation of history; but others were already in the post.

Freud came to believe that the recurrence of trauma in soldiers returning from the Great War was a form of belated rehearsal; the mind was trying to prepare itself post factum for that which it had not been prepared for when it actually occurred. The mechanized slaughter of the conflict surprised and astounded the western sensorium; it had no way of knowing this was coming. So it had to make amends for such lack of preparation in neurosis, nightmare and repetition. They had not volunteered for this, those poor benighted infantrymen. But Lady Macbeth had. She chose her actions with deliberation, even against her pliable husband’s wishes. So the dysnarrativia that afflicted both the returning soldiers and her ladyship is different in kind. One was passive; the other active. Lady Macbeth willed what the Austrian soldiers merely had to endure. But she had no proleptic knowledge of the force her will was unleashing; she did not understand then, as she does later, that ‘what is done cannot be undone’. What she appears to be rehearsing, in her later dreamwalking, is the unpreparedness of her will to perpetrate such an enormity, despite her vehement insistence at the time that it was ready for anything in order to fulfil ambition.

Freud was obsessed by the childlessness of Lady Macbeth; he seemed to sense that here lies the clue to her character.

Freud was obsessed by the childlessness of Lady Macbeth; he seemed to sense that here lies the clue to her character. It is as though a world that had voided itself of her (presumably male) child, the child that had once made the void of her womb swell, can now be voided of all order and sanctity in the form of the blessed Duncan, whom she helps murder. She can now assume the lethal manhood her own erased son had been denied; except of course that she doesn’t. Those very sensations and thoughts she herself would denounce as womanish return upon her, first in conscious thought and then in the unwilled repetition of dream. The unconscious can still grasp a narrative that has fractured in the conscious realm. Thus did Shakespeare anticipate Freud by four centuries.

The unconscious is a space free of morality; its only dictates are impulse and desire, but even there, memory cannot be evacuated so easily. The unconscious memorializes as it desires; its objects are provided by the sensual world presented to the sensorium, ravished as they may be by wishes deemed illicit in the conscious world.

The death of the child has become a uterine negation. ‘Bring forth man children only’ says Macbeth. But she will bring forth nothing. She will beget nothing but death. The re-runs of the slaughter she choreographed now fill her midnight sensorium. The light that must be kept glowing at all times beside her bed cannot obliterate this darkness. The figures shrouded in darkness in this play never stop moving. They function like the illuminati of the darker powers.

Macbeth must assassinate the future: he remembers too much of it. His imagination is paralysingly proleptic.

Macbeth must assassinate the future: he remembers too much of it. His imagination is paralysingly proleptic. He is an inverse image of Funes the Memorious in the Borges story. The latter is so crammed with the memorialized detail of the present and the past that he is disqualified from the daily functionings of life. Memory is all, and its weight is monolithic. The grammar of Macbeth’s imagination leads so ineluctably towards the future, the tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, that he must either slide into madness, or take up his sword and become time’s avenger, even before time has made its lethal deliveries. The memory of the future darkens Macbeth’s soul until there is no light to be had anywhere; his wife’s memory of the past inhabits the darkness that should bring her sleep. What connects them both is murder. And we recall that Macbeth announces that he murders sleep, and not simply his own.

The ultimate logic of secrecy is that your own mind becomes a prison. Now Lady Macbeth is a highly methodical woman. When she cries, ‘Out damned spot’, she is issuing commands even in her sleep. And such commands obey the requirements of economy in the old sense: actions pertaining to household management. So she is hygienically commandeering, even as a somnambulist. They must all scrub and scrub until the stains of sin should disappear. But the stains remain, imprinted too indelibly on the surface of her mind. When she is locked in sleep, she cannot escape the graffiti on those dark walls. They are written in Duncan’s blood. And she had not expected the old man to have so much of it.

The Doctor here is remarkably enlightened, simply by knowing his limitations. Most doctors around at the time — Simon Forman, for example — would have reached for the almanac, to cast a horoscope. See what astral influences might be contending here. But this one can see that contemporary medicine should commit no trespass, where it possesses no gifts of analysis and repair. ‘This disease is beyond my practice,’ he says. And he also gives a diagnosis: ‘More needs she the divine than the physician.’

Medicine was in a state of radical flux. Astrology was still being used, but was being edged out. Its greatest put-down is Edmund’s speech at the beginning of Lear – a magnificent dismissal of cosmological nonsense as potent now as it was then. It was in 1518 that the College of Physicians had been founded. That might have been a step in the right direction but then in 1564 John Dee had been appointed the royal adviser in mystic secrets. He had embroiled himself in trouble for casting the Queen’s horoscope. He spent his life trying to transmute base metals into gold, and communicate with spirits in the regions beyond, always in the hours of darkness. He might have been the finest mathematician in Europe. These were complicated times. There was still an inheritance from Galen, which was in the process of being discredited during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The Humours: sanguinary, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic. The space between the physician and the quack was often minuscule. Panaceas could be sought in arcane books, like the ones on Dee’s shelves; they could also be bought in boxes and jars. So it shows a remarkable lack of presumption on the Doctor’s part that he gazes on a troubled spirit and declares himself incompetent. Her ladyship’s condition is of a sort that can’t be cured with a Jacobean aspirin.

Macbeth instructs the Doctor as to what precisely he wants — he wants a cure for dysnarrativia.

Macbeth instructs the Doctor as to what precisely he wants — he wants a cure for dysnarrativia. He wants the old world to be re-assembled, the old tale re-told. In any case, by this stage of the play he appears to think of conscience as little more than a womanish complaint. And it is of course a relatively recent addition to Lady Macbeth’s psyche:

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

We are still having a go at this, of course. And we are equally unsuccessful, even though we have substituted Fentanyl for poppy and mandragora. The grief of what you have done, what you have irreversibly done, is an unhealing wound.

Lady Macbeth helps to forge the grammar of her own life; she then finds its manacles inescapable. We are entitled to think that Macbeth and his wife entertained the fancy of being king and queen; perhaps even entertained the possibility of killing to achieve the throne. But to entertain a wish is neither to pursue nor to fulfil it. It is only when Duncan comes unexpectedly under their roof that the possibility of fulfilment arises. Macbeth immediately backs off; his wife immediately presses forward.

Outside the realm of human understanding.

‘I AM THAT I am’, says Yahweh in Exodus, or ‘I will be who I will be’, since Hebrew has no present tense for the verb to be. This verbal phrase refuses the ranks of serried nouns all round it; it will not be nominally contained. Moses is hunting for description and definition, so that he might carry them back to his people, like epistemological souvenirs, but he is given instead a formula for unlimited dynamism. Aquinas would later ponder whether the word God should really be a verb. Subsequent scholars have argued that theos derives ultimately from the Sanskrit di, to gleam.

‘What god are you?’ is not a functional question when addressed to Yahweh. To ask it means you are in the wrong language game.

This is a dysnarrativia between the language of God and the language of humanity; we might even say, the grammar of the human and the grammar of the divine. The linguistic structure of being in both is disjunct and unassimilable. ‘What god are you?’ is not a functional question when addressed to Yahweh. To ask it means you are in the wrong language game. You are trying to pluralise the indivisible. Faced with such a consuming light, you cannot shade your eyes with taxonomy. Ehyeh asher ehyeh, says the Lord. I am not designed to fit into the Israelites’ linguistic containers. Those containers will have to fracture and break even to approach me. Do not translate me into language that can never contain me, says Yahweh. This burning bush you see before you leaves no traces.

This is a revelation of light. In Macbeth we have revelations of darkness. When Macbeth asks the Weird Sisters what they are doing, and they reply, A deed without a name, they are effectively saying what Sweeney says in T. S. Eliot’s ‘Agon‘: ‘I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.’ You are in one world of meaning, and I am in another entirely. Between the two lies the realm of dysnarrativia; the linguistic no-man’s land. Signifying nothing.

Is this the promised end?

ON LOSING HIS only son to the Plague — King Pest as he called it — Simon Forman wrote:

Darkness was on the face of the Deep,
Darkness without light,
Darkness in speaking,
Darkness in understanding.

This contemporary of Shakespeare could be standing in for Edgar in King Lear. The catastrophic events contrived by his half-brother Edmund have landed him in serious trouble. Should he continue to be his courtier self then he will be at the least imprisoned and possibly executed. So he undergoes the most radical transformation conceivable: this bejewelled child of the Court becomes a Bedlam beggar, naked and chanting a lingo from the darkness of the madhouse. How the dim-witted and urbane courtier suddenly finds this phenomenal linguistic resource Shakespeare never reveals. Edgar’s linguistic survival-kit renders him a freak of apocalyptic prophecy and metaphysical provocation. His darkness in speaking alerts us to how dark the age has become. The only light we can find must be within that darkness. There is a precursor for this in the opening of John’s gospel: ‘And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.’ Like the poetry of Paul Celan, Edgar’s speeches wring the language dry. This feels like the ultimate grammar and lexicon of dysnarrativia. Except of course that this dysnarrativia is willed; it is verbal camouflage.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. 

It is willed then, but under duress. Edgar trawls the depths of language to avoid losing his life on the surface. The surface is the most dangerous plane: that is where you are visible and audible. That is where people imagine they understand you; their classifications follow. Classification often precedes punishment, and punishment might well be death. Edgar on the Heath is beyond the law. The grand prefect of the law is here, but he has shed his clothes and, it would seem, his wits along with them.

Edgar as Mad Tom comes close to glossolalia. His language is accessing sources entirely closed to the courtier he was such a short time back. We know some of the sources are from Samuel Harsnett’s denunciation of papish impostures. Hardly Edgar’s palace reading, surely? He would have been more likely to have had his head in Castiglione. But he impersonates with panache:

The foul fiend haunts poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale. Hoppedance cries in Tom’s belly for two white herring. Croak not, black angel; I have no food for thee.

Perhaps as radical is Lear’s catastrophic fall from his previous narrative into a tale seemingly told by an idiot, and most notably glossed by the Fool. We are so used to the play that we don’t always register just how hideous is Lear’s curse upon Goneril:

Into her womb convey sterility!
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her!

In Elizabethan and Jacobean terms, sterility is the cancellation of the future for this particular individual or family. But see how close to the surface this language was (we are still in Act One). However confident we might be in our narratives, dysnarrativia is never more than a curse or two away.

Willed Dysnarrativia.

DYSNARRATIVIA IS NORMALLY thought of as involuntary. Damage to the neurophysiological machinery or a radical imbalance between psyche and world distort or occlude the language of the user. In Jakobson’s classic essay on metaphor and metonymy, he studied how stroke victims often suffered a swerving of linguistic use either towards the metaphoric or the metonymic mode.

But what happens if your dysnarrativia is willed? What kind of language are we looking at if the subject deliberately disconnects from communal usage and expectation, for whatever reason? Hamlet does just this. After his solitary encounter with the Ghost, he speaks in a riddling manner: his communications are of a sort that thwart expectations. Marcellus and Horatio are desperate to discover what secret knowledge, what longed-for gnosis, the Ghost has bequeathed to the Prince. And Hamlet finally reveals it:

There’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he’s an arrant knave.

Horatio is astounded by the banality of this and says so:

There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.

Why has Hamlet reverted to proverb and cliché to provide his answer? Is this a form of defence or equivocation? Is it possible that, full of the appalling revelation the Ghost has delivered, Hamlet decides to dissimulate there and then? If he speaks truthfully, he may be considered mad. His dissimulating manner will soon have him classified as mad in any case. And that appears to suit him. Dysnarrativia can at least supply an alibi.

Subsequently, Ophelia has her wits battered askew by her father’s death. She had already been traumatized by her princely lover’s rejection, and her father acting as a spymaster, using his only daughter as the spy. Her dysnarrativia is a collapse into earlier forms of language, songs from childhood, bawdy verses. On a mescaline trip in 1934, Walter Benjamin free-associated and found himself writing down the words of lullabies. He and Ophelia were at this moment attuned. Language has lost its referentiality, except in regard to dream and memory. And pain, of course. That leaves traces too ineradicable to erase.

We are entitled to ask what memory traces were there, ineradicably there, in the audience? Within living memory a king had married his brother’s wife, precipitating the Reformation in England when he sought to discredit his own betrothal by biblical proofs. How dark and silent a memory might that have been? Hamlet has an inner life; the outer life of the court ceaselessly attacks it. He is mournful, draped in black, still pondering his father’s death. But Elsinore is carnivalesque; it is a place of unceasing revels. You can even hear the sound of them out on the battlements. The King carouses. He would appear to have a bellyful of wine night and day. And the Queen undoubtedly enjoys his jocund company. So snugly do they fit together that one can’t help wondering if this relationship might not have got started before King Hamlet’s death. The old fellow was always away a lot on matters of state, after all. And those Danish winter nights can get seriously chilly. For some unstated reason, Claudius has never married. Maybe, in one respect, he never needed to. So now the world cries, Rejoice. But Hamlet doesn’t feel like rejoicing. Mourning and melancholia engulf him like a massive funeral cloak.

Hamlet inhabits his own persona of insanity the way a man might inhabit irony

He inhabits his own persona of insanity the way a man might inhabit irony; and his comments are ironic frequently enough. When that irony is exhausted he suffers from adjectival overload:

I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal; bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!

If only words could kill. But instead the Prince manœuvres his way through the labyrinth of his own enquiring and distrustful mind. He sees off his old chums Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern before they had the chance to see him off, with the aid of the King of England. He kills his lover’s father. He sees his lover’s funeral, having helped to drive her wits astray. He sees his mother poisoned by his murderous uncle, now her doting spouse, and finally gets to kill the avuncular assassin himself. The rest is silence; language it seems cannot cope.


BOTTOM SUFFERS A most peculiar form of dysnarrativia: he switches species. His language is still there, but it becomes no more than the means of enumerating a catalogue of appetities:

Monsieur Cobweb, good monsieur, get your weapons in your hand, and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, bring me the honey-bag.

A posse of obedient fairies is a handy thing if you have been transmuted, and Bottom treats them all like preternatural waiters, for he has been translated and so have his earthly appetites. That means, of course, that his language has metamorphosed too. He now inhabits his own words as though they were the guide book to an enchanted forest, with a sizeable menu attached. And as for Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, she suffers the most tragic form of dysnarrativia: her tongue is cut out and her hands are cut off. Not only is she denied the vocalizations of language; the silent realm of semiology is denied her too. As Chiron from the grandeur of his grubby power proclaims: ‘Nay, then I’ll stop your mouth.’

If I can no longer tell the story of myself, at the risk of my life, then I must tell the story of someone else instead, and become that someone in the telling.

The line between dysnarrativia and impersonation is a wavering one. If I can no longer tell the story of myself, at the risk of my life, then I must tell the story of someone else instead, and become that someone in the telling. Rosalind butches it up as Ganymede, in order to train Orlando to be a man; an acceptable one. He turns out to be a zealous student. Portia dons not only manhood but a judge’s robes. She then proceeds to administer justice in a most ingenious manner: she quibbles over the wording of the legalities. Some at the time might have thought this womanish. It worked, all the same. Mariana in Measure for Measure has to pretend to be a reluctantly yielding nun, in order to win back her beloved Angelo. This is an exercise of the bed-trick. As William Empson pointed out, it was based on the Elizabethan notion that all women are interchangeable after twilight. It goes back a long way before Elizabeth’s reign. The same trick was pulled between Jacob, Rachel and Leah in Genesis. There is probably a vague theology behind it: if God had meant us to recognise one another’s individual features in the hours of intimacy, he would not have switched the lights out.

But Hamlet’s father is dead, surely the most fatal form of dysnarrativia? Even so, he carries on speaking. Except that he is only heard in the echo-chamber of his son’s mind. Dysnarrativia, whatever else it might be, can be a form of enforced solitude. Or, in the case of Caliban, a non-linguistic creature is blessed with human language. Except that he now says the apparent blessing is no more than a curse, since all it has truly taught him is how to curse. It is not merely a question then of whether or not we can competently tell the story of ourselves. It is also a question of who owns the language in which we tell the tale. And what precisely is the place of our narrative in that linguistic hierarchy?

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review.  He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman Books in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint. A second collection of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin is now available.

An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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