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Chaos is come again.

Wall on Shakespeare. A Series.


The Thusness of Things.




‘EVERY WHY HATH a wherefore’

It is Dromio of Syracuse who says this, in The Comedy of Errors, and he acknowledges that it is the standard wisdom.

Critical comment.Every ‘why’ has arisen out of something and somewhere. If ‘why’ had no purchase, then we would be living in a world of chaos. This would not be a cosmos, because cosmos means order; that is where the word comes from. If I engage in cosmetics, then I am involved in restoring order. And Shakespeare lived inside a cosmos (a word he never employed) that contained its own chaos. His imagination was a place of civil war; that was his imaginative genealogy. He had heard and read what happens when chaos triumphs; it features in many of his plays, and as a writer he observes it in a kind of metaphysical silence. It is part of the thusness of things; life’s quiddity. He looks on in awe. Less than a century had passed between his birth and the end of the Wars of the Roses, and then came the Reformation. And as with so many civil wars, and reformations, the notion that it all might fire up again shortly was never too far away. Disputes of faction and succession hovered, as they do in the United States today.

Othello is prophetic regarding his own fate:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.

And that’s pretty much all you need to know here, in the battle between cosmos and chaos. His love for Desdemona is the principle of order in his life. When he abandons it, chaos is come again. Lesser writers (then and now) would have written, Chaos will come again. But the present tense brings us bang to rights. The declarative tells us that it’s already happening, and the name of the agency of this destruction is Iago: ‘Demand me nothing’, he says. ‘What you know, you know.’ The circular void in the last four words there, the repeated 0 at the centre of the words, is the dark hole into which our imagined knowledge disappears. Iago inhabits a region without why or wherefore. He is the embodiment, as one eminent critic put it, of motiveless malignity.

We expect to live in a world of why and wherefore. If we are not living there, then our imagination, that vital organ, is traumatised and dysfunctional.

We expect to live in a world of why and wherefore. If we are not living there, then our imagination, that vital organ, is traumatised and dysfunctional. A world without a why shows a damnable lack of order. It has aborted its own ontology. Primo Levi gave us a horrifying image of a world that has had all of its question-marks removed. They were queueing in the camps (they are always queueing in the camps). It was winter. An old man in the queue was thirsty. He reached up and broke off an icicle and started to suck. A guard seeing this wielded his rifle butt and beat the old man to the ground, from which it is possible he never again rose up.
‘Warum?’ asked another prisoner. Why?

Hier ist kein Warum,’ said the guard. Here, there is no why. So there is no cosmos; only chaos. Shakespeare understood the terror of this, long before the camps. Ulysses obsesses about the chaos to be brought about in the middle of Troilus and Cressida:

The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe.
Strength should be lord to imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead.
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.

In other words, the achievement of chaos doesn’t take much doing. It was the immediate step before creation, and it is only ever an inch away. And chaos is also wombed inside cosmos, since it was its building material. A single grain of chaos can destroy the organism, if it is permitted to grow. In Henry VI Part Three, Richard Crookback describes his own body as ‘like to a chaos’. This is the little chaos that will grow in time into the bigger one; this is the micro-organism that will metastasize until it is potent enough to destroy the entire body. Either the physical body or the body politic.

Richard of Gloucester is vividly aware of how askew he is to nature. His body is bent, and so his mind must be made to correspond, and shape itself into a twinned bentness too. We have to remind ourselves that this is not Richard talking; this is Shakespeare’s Richard talking and thinking. This is what Shakespeare made of Richard, with the help of Thomas More’s brief life. There is a question here, both textual and metaphysical, that is often treated as a minor academic point, but it is not.

DID GOD MAKE the world out of nothing, or out of chaos? Most Elizabethans probably thought He made it out of chaos; the Church had taken to insisting He made it out of nothing. But if there had been a chaos prior to creation, what was it made of? Some thought atoms, but here they were on dangerous ground. Thomas Harriot was called an atheist, because of his likely atomism. The notion that the universe is made of atoms, which are indivisible and eternal, and would outlast anything that happened to our constructed world, was denounced by the Church, and was held to be contrary to the account of creation in scripture. There were classical precedents for it in Lucretius , Epicurus and Democritus. Harriot himself became associated with the phrase ex nihilo nihil fit. Out of nothing comes nothing. Milton thought the same thing, even if he did believe all the atoms ultimately came out of the divine innards. Blake too thought chaos had to play its role. Poets seem to get nervous at the prospect of creation out of nothing, perhaps because they know poetry is never made out of nothing. Though Coleridge in his Notebooks asked a question as relevant then as it is now: how do you get from Newton’s atoms to life?

There must have been a lot of banter about Harriot and his nihil. After he died, so John Aubrey records in his Brief Lives, it was widely reported that he had of course said, ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’. But this turned into a dark joke, since what killed him finally was a nihilum, a tiny red speck at the top of his nose that grew bigger and bigger and finally annihilated him. In other words, a cancer (the quintessence of nothingness) began to gnaw away at him until it proved that out of nihil something could indeed come: death. As though the Latin words had recovered all their initial vigour in order to have their revenge on a wayward Elizabethan atomist.

If we have been fashioned out of chaos, we can easily disintegrate back into it. Shakespeare’s Sonnets rehearse over and over again how the entropic powers are all-consuming and inescapable. The final couplet often seeks to re-assert an order hard-won from the preceding ruins, but it is often a desperate manoeuvre:

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

If you believe that we are all made ultimately out of chaos, then the chaos isn’t far beneath the skin. As in Othello: ‘And when I love thee not…’ Shakespeare is greatly preoccupied with the ease with which people and societies fall back to chaos. The four humours are in a state of perennial civil war. It doesn’t take much to unbalance them. He also becomes much preoccupied with the nought. The word zero is first recorded in the OED as being used in 1604; it does not occur anywhere in Shakespeare. It comes from the seventh century zero used in Arabic calculations. But it had to wait until the thirteenth century for it to be received by the West, and the Church was still profoundly uneasy about it.

But the nought is there all right. Employed in numbers it is such a lethally potent figure that one can see the Church’s point. If I say your value as a man, your wergild, is 1, then see how quickly you grow or diminish according the use of O. Suddenly you have gone from being 1 to being 000001, and that means you have now been saddled with infinitesimal worth, the merest smidgeon. On the other hand, let’s say you owe me £10. But let’s get going with that figure which appears to be the emblem of nothingness, a hollow crowned. And now you owe me, £10,000, enough to put you in prison. It makes a big difference, as the Fool in Lear knows. What has the King reduced himself to, with his grand divisions? ‘Thou art an O without a figure’ he says. An O without a figure, even a mere 1, is a floating nothingness. That zero was of immediate significance in the calculation of tithes.

Within a few years of the death of John Shakespeare, who was probably a recusant till the end of his days, that pushy young son of his was collecting tithes, which a few centuries before were the monopolies of churches and monasteries. He was wielding that ‘O’ frequently and vividly. It was helping him become a wealthy man, after all. Any reading of the Sonnets shows how much of a wordsmith Shakespeare was, how he saw with hallucinatory vividness the intermarriages of words. He writes:

Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.

If you ram the word ruin into the word mate, you end up with ruminate. And when Hamlet says ‘For O, for O, the hobbyhorse is forgot’ how much was his word-aware mind playing here? The hobbyhorse represented tradition, the goings-on around the maypole, and it all but vanished (you can still see one in Padstow). And for what was all that customary life traded? For an O? Almost like calculating tithes, then. And so we are entitled to ask impertinent questions.

Is it a mere nothing, a nihil shall we say, or a trifle anyway, that The Comedy of Errors contains a Syracusan, a rare enough word in English, only recorded for the first time in the dictionary two decades before? It happens to come perilously close to being the nearest anagram we have in English for recusancy. Which Shakespeare’s old man John was probably guilty of. One who stuck to the old faith, to the faith of those ‘bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.’ Or that the Syracusan is described as a merchant; merchant was a code-word for Jesuit missionaries in Elizabethan England. Is this something or is it nothing? The Syracusan merchant is forbidden entry to Ephesus, at peril of his life. Exactly like a missionary priest.

Or look at the word Othello. An unusual name, not found elsewhere. Some claim it derives from Hebrew. Maybe. Or maybe the word-obsessed writer put together two Os, one at the beginning and one at the end. Exclamations perhaps or emblems of the new wonder-weapon of accountancy? And what does he squeeze in between them? The word hell. For O, for O, it seems we are in hell. Othello.

We can only speculate about what was in Shakespeare’s mind when he wrote. But he constantly observed how easily order was reduced to chaos or a mere nihil all around him:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortalitie o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

Or here, in another sonnet, perhaps pondering at a distance the fall of Raleigh:

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,
When sometime loftie towers I see down raz’d,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage…

A lot of brass monuments had been smashed up by the more devoted iconoclasts of the Reformation. Shakespeare’s father might well have been involved in painting over the religious images in the church at Stratford.

It seems to me that Shakespeare had understood early on that order is performative, not static. It must be re-enacted constantly, or it collapses back towards chaos.

It seems to me that Shakespeare had understood early on that order is performative, not static. It must be re-enacted constantly, or it collapses back towards chaos. Order is a dynamic affirmation. Every time we write a poem, or enact a play, or sing a song, we are asserting order. A curious parallel was to come later in science. Newton thought space and time were static perpetuals. Only with the discovery of Einstein’s space-time continuum did it become apparent that they are no such thing. Space and time are a dynamic interrelationship. Take all the mass out of our universe, and you drain the time out too. The doctrine of special creation made it all look static too. We were made thus and thus, and had to stay so, until the end of time. But Darwin’s evolution turned us into a dynamic response to changing circumstance. Shakespeare finds dynamism where others find stasis. Richard II at the end of his time says:

I wasted time and now doth time waste me.

That single sentence encapsulates a civil war. See how the bland abstract noun time rushes off-stage and comes back as an emblematic personification. And waste is a zeugma: it performs two different functions. Firstly, it is frittering. But by the end it means annihilation. There is no stasis to be had; not even inside a single sentence.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. 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. 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. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman 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, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

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