The Virtue of Uncertainty.
By ALAN WALL.
It is a curious fact, a vivid historical coincidence, that the great French scientist Laplace was formulating his notions at precisely the same moment that John Keats was writing his letters about Shakespeare. Laplace was an eloquent spokesman for classical causality: we can summarise this crudely by saying that if we had all the necessary data about any closed system, then we could predict all the subsequent goings-on in that system, in perpetuity. To be fair to Laplace, he added that such a capacious intelligence could probably not in fact be located in our present form of existence. But nevertheless, the monistic world of predictability is to be found here. Using Newton’s three laws of motion, and given all the necessary data, we can predict every motion still to come within our system. Now at the same moment that Laplace was formulating these ideas, Keats was thinking his way to a very different set of circumstances:
…at once it struck me what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.1
Modern physics has taught us that, in one respect at least, Keats was right and Laplace wrong: we have no choice but to live with uncertainties. The uncertainties come, not from an individual lack of information on the spectator’s part, but from the reality of nature itself. There is inscribed at the heart of nature an ontological contingency, an undecidability which inheres in the very nature of reality. The double-slit experiment with electrons demonstrates that we cannot predict the movement of individual particles. We might predict with great accuracy the movement of enormous numbers of particles — the statistical model — but we cannot say whether any individual particle passing through the double-slits will go this way or that way. On the dynamic model, we are stuck with uncertainty. Wave-particle complementarity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also show a limitation placed upon our knowledge of natural phenomena at any one time. We might know the position of a particle or its velocity, but not both simultaneously. And if we want to know about the wave-properties of matter, then we must ask of it wave-questions; if we want to know about the particle-properties, we must ask particle-questions. All of this, at the time of its discovery, represented something of a scandal to classical physics and its expectations of predictability.
In a brilliant essay, ‘The Laws of the Shakespearean Universe’, at the end of his book The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate points out that an acknowledgment of this new situation in physics, and therefore in our apprehension of reality, is at the heart of William Empson’s seminal book, Seven Types of Ambiguity.
An ambiguity is not a confusion of meaning, requiring clarification so that it may be resolved, but an enriching uncertainty, whose multivalence invites elaboration rather than resolution. Empson shows how the division between body-text and footnote effectively consigns to the bottom of the page the richness of potential meaning embedded in the writing itself. The monistic universe does not accept uncertainty, and therefore an ambiguity is a crux, and one should work towards establishing whether the vertical or the horizontal axis is to be preferred. But modern science, he points out, has established that uncertainty is no longer a deficiency in the point of view of the spectator, but an inherent feature of life itself; and the same should apply in the world of literature. The ambiguity is inherent in the text; it is not a function of our inability to clarify a meaning, a line or an image. This makes the reading of a Shakespeare text easier in many ways. For example, a series of lines is frequently not the exemplification of the strict logic of a metaphoric function, but rather the exploration of the preponderating mood or atmosphere which a metaphor, or a series of metaphors, is able to generate. Hamlet says this to his mother:
If thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax
And melt in her own fire.
The rounded white rod of a wax candle seems to have been suggested by the rounded white rod of a bone. If the seeming fixedness of a middle-aged woman’s bones can apparently dissolve with desire, then in comparison the mutability of youth seems like a candle ready to be eroded into moltenness by the flame. This is more the exploration of a metaphoric atmosphere than a strict metaphoric progression.
Empson makes vivid use of these insights in his reading of Measure for Measure. One can apply them, together with the principle of complementarity, throughout the whole work. For example, we can look at Hamlet in terms of the old world and the new. Hamlet returns from Wittenberg and enters the scene of a revenge tragedy, but he has brought the new world of humanism with him, and he can’t simply function in a revenge tragedy. The play acts out the tension between his own articulate interiority and the duty of vendetta placed upon him. Macbeth shows how ambition, should it be forceful enough, destroys the object it craves: to be thus is nothing but to be safely thus. The achievement of such safety requires the destruction of a world. In Lear we see how the exercise of power is indissoluble from its possession. Lear wants one without the other, and the result is that the kingdom starts to fall apart. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, we see how a group of men, in renouncing the company of women, create a hole in their lives through which women re-enter in triumph. The force of their withdrawal creates a vortex through which that withdrawal is rendered ultimately impossible. Prospero in The Tempest shows how the obsessive acquisition of power can render you powerless. He simply wishes to retreat into his cell in pursuit of secret knowledge. His cell is removed from the library in Milan to a cave on an island, where he will exercise his powers upon the elements as they exercised their powers upon him and his daughter at the point of their exile. One could go on. The Sonnets sometimes seem like an asylum of ambiguity, in which meaning fragments into mirroring shards, all of which have sharp cutting edges. The speed and succession of alternate or alternative meanings produces a species of epistemological vertigo. One meaning automatically generates its opposite or its contradiction, as if by dialectical obligation. No one here ever reposes in untroubled tranquillity.
So let us finally explore another aspect of the uncertainties of Shakespeare, his doubleness, his complementarity. Let us look at one more endless vista of speculation: the gap between the quarto and the folio editions of the plays.
Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600. One of the accusations laid against him was that he had preached the boundlessness of the universe, or the homogeneity and infinity of space. The notion of a universe without limits raised the possibility of ‘worlds innumerable’, and this in turn queried the unique salvific function of Jesus Christ, according to orthodox teachings. If there were other worlds with other creatures upon them (and the word ‘world’ at this time implied habitation), then by what agency were they to be redeemed? The messiah had been born, crucified and buried here; he had descended into hell, and had then ascended to heaven. No diversions had been recorded to any other planets or stars.
Bruno’s speculations might have been Neo-Platonic, but they were also Copernican, and this was still a dangerous arena in which to be speculating: the displacement of the geocentric world still carried a hint of cosmic rebellion. If the earth were deemed to be no longer centering the universe, why not also declare the monarch to be no longer centering the body politic, even from a presiding position above? The killing or displacement of the king is all too often the trigger that activates chaos in Shakespeare’s world; ‘new philosophy’, as Donne called it, was calling all in doubt. Still, some called louder than others. Bruno had seemed to call very loud indeed, and his fearlessness cost him his life. Here he is in De la Causa, Principio, et Uno (On Cause, Principle, and Unity):
This entire globe, this star, not being subject to death, and dissolution
and annihilation being impossible anywhere in Nature, from time to time
renews itself by changing and altering all its parts. There is no absolute
up or down, as Aristotle taught; no absolute position in space; but the
position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is
incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the
observer is always at the centre of things.
This is remarkable, anticipating as it does not merely the law of the conservation of matter, but also relativity theory, which is also anticipated to some extent by Galileo. And part of Bruno’s speculation was that there was no reason to posit an outer limit to reality as we know it; if reality was made of atoms, as he supposed, then its infinite dimension seemed possible if not likely. The indestructibility of matter was part of the doctrine of atomism, linking logically with a notion of matter’s infinite extension.
So the two notions come together, atomism and the concept of an infinite universe. They were dangerous notions, very likely shared by Thomas Hariot, that remarkable contemporary of Shakespeare’s, who tended both Walter Ralegh and Henry Percy, the Wizard Earl, in the Tower of London during the years of their public disgrace. This was that ‘conjuror’ thought to be the dark intelligence at the centre of the School of Night. We don’t really know if there ever was a School of Night, the term itself only ever being used once in a questionable line of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. If there was, then it consisted of a coterie of remarkable men around Sir Walter Ralegh, including Marlowe, Hariot, Hues and Chapman. Ralegh was to be troubled more than once by accusations of ‘atheism’, a far more flexible term then than now, implying as it did simply any form of deviance from orthodox teaching. And Marlowe died in the murkiest possible circumstances; one can only speculate as to the trouble he would eventually have encountered, had he lived. But Hariot stayed out of the way. He did not publish his extraordinary work, quite possibly through fear of repercussions; possibly because, like Newton after him, he had a temperamental aversion to placing himself in the public domain. He wrote these telling words in a letter to Kepler:
For things are in such a pass with us, that still yet I may not freely philosophize. Still yet we stick in the mire. I hope the Good God will make an end to these things shortly. After which better things are to be expected…
To philosophise freely was to be a free natural philosopher, the term used then for scientific investigations, since the term ‘scientist’ could not be employed until William Whewell, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, invented it circa 1839. What did Hariot fear? He had observed two of the mighty men of his time incarcerated for incurring royal displeasure. He had seen (from a distance) Marlowe done to death in murky circumstances. He was there on the scaffold when his beloved Sir Walter was executed. He heard of the execution of Bruno. He had plenty to fear, no doubt about that.
It was a confusing time for many. The nova of 1572 and various observed comets on the far side of the moon threatened the old order: they signified that it was not only the sublunar sphere which was the arena of mutability. The heavens, Aristotle’s realm of perfection, were apparently changing too. Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius in 1610 would demonstrate definitively that the heavens were not a realm of perfection. The imperfections on the surface of the moon itself showed that. Interestingly, Thomas Hariot had observed this himself through his own telescope in 1609, and made drawings, but he never published. Perhaps he was still brooding about the dreadful fate of Giordano Bruno.
It is thought that Shakespeare in Love’s Labour’s Lost might well have been mocking Ralegh and his circle. Perhaps. It is inconceivable that he was unaware of the man’s fate; or that he didn’t know where this extraordinary adventurer and fellow poet was, while he himself slowly climbed to a social position of advantage. It might easily have been Raleigh whom Shakespeare had in mind when he was writing Sonnet 64:
When I have seene by times fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworne buried age,
When sometime loftie towers I see down rased,
And brasse eternall slave to mortal rage.
When I have seene the hungry Ocean gain
Advantage on the Kingdome of the shoare,
And the firme soile win of the watry maine,
Increasing store with losse, and losse with store.
These deadly transactions certainly fit. Ralegh’s poem to the Queen was called ‘Ocean’s Love to Cynthia’, and she referred to him coquettishly as ‘Water’. What he had won, in all his watery adventures, he had lost again soon enough to the kingdom of the shore. What pulls the tides back and forth is the power of the moon, and the moon in classical mythology was often associated with Cynthia or Diana, by which names Elizabeth was frequently addressed by many poets besides Ralegh.2
Shakespeare must have heard too of the judicial execution of Bruno. Frances Yates speculated more than once that Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost was based upon Bruno; if this is true, then it would show a keen interest in the man long before his death. He hears of the execution itself either during the writing of Hamlet or immediately before. What resonances that play might have had during its early performances. Here is a king gross in appetite — ‘the bloat king’ — preventing a legitimate royal succession, and gaining his queen, his brother’s wife, by improper means. There must surely have been some in the audience who wondered in silence if this dramatist, the fellow from Warwickshire now knocking about with London bigwigs, might not have been trying his luck a little, since Henry VIII had done something remarkably similar, according to many. Claudius also kills his queen, if inadvertently. And Henry was surely the most famous queen-killer since the Arabian Nights. And then there’s that word ‘nunnery’. No one seems unduly troubled by it in the standard editions, but it must have sounded like a quoit ricocheting off ruined priory walls to some in the audience. There weren’t any nunneries left. In living memory they had been razed, or looted or handed over to the gentry, so as to secure the latter’s loyalty during the spoliation of the religious houses. They were part of the ‘bare ruin’d quiers’, the fragments of tracery that remained half a century after the Reformation. (The notion that Hamlet is referring to a brothel will surely not withstand close scrutiny of the text.) And then there’s the Ghost: what was he then? In official belief, purgatory had been abolished as a papist superstition half a century before. Either the Ghost is proclaiming the continuance of Catholic truth in these newly reformed lands, or he is a demon out of hell. Hamlet briefly permits himself this speculation, but it does not seem to deter him for long. And it transpires that the Ghost tells the truth, of course. But then the Devil does that, whenever it suits him.
So what might the resonance have been when, engaging in some weary joshing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet suddenly says this:
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of
infinite space — were it not that I have bad dreams.
A king of infinite space: the doctrine of the infinity of space was one of the beliefs that had cost Bruno his life, and it was probably one of the doctrines which ensured Hariot’s silence. Is it not odd too how ‘bounded in a nutshell’ seems emblematic of atomism, in its visualisation of something minuscule, tightly bound, unbreakable?
It is only possible to speculate so far. Shakespeare, according to his own text, was no Copernican; nor was he a member of the School of Night, assuming that entity ever really existed. His cosmology, at every crux, would appear to be geocentric, conforming to Ptolemaic and Aristotelian proprieties. But he also seems to have allowed nothing to be lost on him; perhaps it was a momentary intellectual breeze blowing over the land which prompted him to create that phrase. And what exactly would it mean to be ‘king of infinite space’, except to be God? So why then the indefinite article?
Here is another oddity. The words do not appear in either of the quartos. They appear in print for the first time in 1623 in the Folio. We have evidence that between a quarto and a folio, changes could be made through circumspection. That evidence is provided by Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. In the quarto we have the line ‘Will take his oath, o’ the Greek Testament’ but this has changed in the folio to ‘Will take his oath, o’ the Greek Xenophon’, the reason being that profanity on the stage was subject to increasing disapproval. What we cannot know is whether or not Shakespeare’s words were spoken on stage during the first performances. If they were, is it possible that the phrase was simply too dangerous to be printed, and that it was retained memorially, or kept in a stage copy, until things had quietened down? The lines seem authentically Shakespearean, not an interpolation from another hand. The first quarto is usually attributed to the memorial capacities of the actor who played Marcellus. And it is worth pointing out that John Hayward uses the phrase ‘infinite space’ in 1601. But his usage ‘infinite space of eternytie’ somehow seems sanctioned by authority in a way that the words in Hamlet are not.
What would be the genealogy of the phrase? The Earl of Southampton was a close friend of Essex, who married Sidney’s widow. There is thus a route from Shakespeare himself to that Neo-Platonism which is the other great source of Bruno’s speculations. What is evident in the lines from Hamlet is that contemplation of the smallest and the largest, the minuscule and the majuscule, the microcosm and the macrocosm, prompt the Prince immediately to the recollection of his ‘bad dreams’. With those dreams, Hamlet is surely announcing to us the world in which we now live, where the interiority of psychology can, for the first time, negate everything on the outside. Except that this interiority also appears to include everything on the outside. The first terrors of modernity are being glimpsed, and they have an intimate connection with illimitability. Nine years after the first performances of Hamlet, Galileo will stare through his telescope in Tuscany and begin to appreciate the vastness of the Milky Way and the even greater vastness (infinity perhaps?) of space. Soon enough Pascal will be expressing his terror faced with the silence of those ‘infinite spaces’, and they will still be haunting Baudelaire when he writes ‘Le Gouffre’. From the tiniest possible space inside the nutshell of the atom to the infinity of space: such dimensions can have a nightmarish quality, with or without inquisitors and censors. We are left in the presence of an ambiguity, with all its potential richness. There is no obligation to attempt to resolve it.
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 Placebo. Jacob, 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 Volumes, The 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.
Image credits: Arrest of Giordano Bruno (by Vladi333); Laplace, vintage engraved illustration. History of France – 1885 (by Morphart); John Keat’s portrait (by linoka); Giordano Bruno’s portrait, by Iu. Antanovskiy, 1892, St. Petersburg (by wowinside); Galileo’s instruments (by Archivist); Globe Theatre (by Christine_Kohler),