Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Inquiry into the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearean Thought
Although the worldviews of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce differed profoundly,
they were united in their misunderstanding of the logic of mythic
expression. Eliot’s lifelong commitment to a single mythology and Joyce’s
increasing need to accommodate all mythologies were of no avail when they
attempted to understand the mythic logic of Shakespeare’s works.
While both Eliot and Joyce drew on the works of Shakespeare for inspiration
and evaluation, their individual trajectories reveal attitudes at odds
with the mythic logic articulated in his Sonnets. Their works exemplify opposing
approaches to mythology that the Sonnet logic rejects and transcends.
The singular approach of T. S. Eliot
Throughout his career T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) rarely strayed from the
influence of his Christian upbringing. He was raised a Unitarian and made
a formal commitment to the Church of England in 1927.
Eliot’s unswerving commitment to the tradition of Judeo/Christian
learning and ‘advancement’ as he called it meant that when he attempted to
include other mythologies within his poetry he was unable to write with
coherence and purpose. Even before he reaffirmed his Christian faith in
1927, his attitude toward other mythologies was largely formal or at best
experimental, as with the use of Indian mythology in the Wasteland. His ad
hoc interest in other belief systems resulted in poems of barely coherent parts.
Paradoxically, Eliot’s most significant early achievement was his least
overtly Christian poem, the Wasteland. And the added irony is that the poem
owes its formal strength to the editorial intervention of Ezra Pound. Pound
reduced Eliot’s repetitious and infelicitous manuscript by over half. His intervention
drew attention to the disjunction between Eliot’s evident craftsmanship
and his lack of a logical system to regulate his ideas.
Although Eliot’s later poetry and plays are more faithfully Christian in
their psychology, their intellectual disingenuousness makes them little more
than apologia for his faith, or the offerings of a troubled mind for troubled
minds. Eliot sublimated his anxiety within his poetics and in his prose
critiques of art and society. In a twist of fate, he was instrumental in
consigning his wife to an asylum when by some accounts she was sane
enough to question his pretences.
When, in Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, Eliot debates the relation
between culture and religion, he uses the opportunity to justify his recommitment
to a traditional belief. He says he does not believe that the ‘culture
of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith’
because ‘if Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes’. (1) Because he
believes religion is ‘incarnated’ (2) in a culture, he cannot see how a culture
could survive without Christianity. Yet he admits that his way of ‘looking
at culture and religion’ allows him to ‘grasp’ the connections only in ‘flashes’. (3)
And he guilelessly confesses that ‘religion…gives apparent meaning to life’
by providing a fortuitous ‘frame-work’ to protect the ‘mass of humanity from
boredom and despair’. (4)
Eliot’s recognition that the Christian faith fulfils a psychological role in
a culture, especially as Christianity has lost its capacity to be identified with
the culture as a whole, is consistent with his lack of insight into mythic logic.
If he had understood Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and hence the mythic philosophy
behind the plays and poems, he would have appreciated the logical
connection between religion and culture beyond the particular manifestation
of the mythic in a religion like Christianity.
Eliot and Shakespeare
In his Introduction to Wilson Knight’s Wheels of Fire, Eliot reveals his
ambivalence toward Shakespeare. While he frequently acknowledges
Shakespeare’s ‘great poetry’ he also exhibits a deep antipathy toward a poet
he dismisses as having ‘no philosophy’ and whose works have ‘no design on
the amelioration of behaviour’. (5) The irony is that until Eliot reaffirmed his
Christianity, his poems had no systematic pattern, and after his recommitment
they still lacked logical or moral coherence.
In the Introduction, Eliot avails himself of the opportunity to compare
Shakespeare with Dante. Even though he acknowledges Shakespeare’s complexity
and depth, he much prefers the Christian ‘philosophy’ of Dante’s
Divine Comedy, with its moral rewards and retributions in ‘hell’, ‘purgatory’
or ‘paradise’. Shakespeare seems by contrast to have only a ‘rag-bag philosophy’
(6) derived at random from his sources, and he ‘elaborated’ no system
Yet, the gratuitousness of Dante’s moral system does not seem to
bother Eliot. After all Dante grants himself and his childhood sweetheart
Beatrice unconditional entry to paradise, he consigns the ‘pagan’ poet
Virgil to purgatory, and while there encounters a colleague who he saved
from hell by procuring a last minute extreme unction. Eliot finds it
difficult to understand how Dante’s ‘superior’ Christian moral system is
‘discounted’ by ‘interpreters’, while Shakespeare’s works are looked to for
moral guidance. Not only does Eliot disparage Shakespeare’s worth, he
believes there is a philosophical pattern and moral system in biblical
mythology despite the devastating critique of its claims by scientists and
philosophers over the last few centuries.
However, the psychology of belief, with which Eliot assuaged his anxious
mind, provides no substitute in the twentieth century for a critical awareness
of the logical relationship of the mind and nature. Eliot’s late Christian play,
Murder in the Cathedral, is an anthem for his failure to achieve a coherent
The ‘monomythic’ ambitions of Joyce
In his early works, James Joyce (1882-1941) graduated from the youthful
idealism of his Stephen Hero, to self-awareness as an artist in the Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Man. Then, once he achieved a perspective on his
youthful idealism, he set out in Ulysses to write a modern myth for Dublin
by duplicating the mythical journey of Odysseus. The achievement of
Ulysses led then, at least in Joyce’s mind, to the need to write the
encyclopedic history of myth, or the ‘monomyth’ that became Finnegan’s
Joyce’s early development from autobiography to critical self-awareness
was achieved through an analysis of the romantic idealism of his younger
self. Joyce, born Irish Catholic, became a searcher/researcher for a more
meaningful spiritual expression at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Under the influence of James Frazer’s encyclopedic catalogue of myths
and Freud and Jung’s exploration of the symbolism of mythologies, Joyce
experienced liberation from his youthful indoctrination in Judeo/
Christian mythology. His decision to base Ulysses on Greek mythology
began a process that ended with the attempt to assimilate all mythologies
into Finnegan’s Wake.
But Joyce, after recreating in Ulysses a day in the life of Dublin as a
mythical journey, began to confuse the logic of myth with the history of
mythologies. The distinction between myth and history is immediately
apparent in the Bible where there are only two passages of mythological
expression. The first, in Genesis, which describes God’s creation of the
world, his forming of man and then woman, with the consequent revelation
of the knowledge of good and evil. The second, in the Gospels, describes
the miraculous conception, birth and death of Christ. The rest of the Old
and New Testaments recount legendary and historical events of the Hebrew
tribes and early Christian communities.
So when Joyce decided to compile his monomyth he compounded,
under the influence of the historicist patterns of Giambattista Vico, the
mythological expressions from the world’s cultures, with their legends
and histories. Even though he had identified some of the logical characteristics
of myth in Ulysses, his decision to record the events of a day in
the Dublin of 1904 led to a confusion of myth and history, with disastrous
consequences for the intelligibility of Finnegan’s Wake as either myth or
Joyce and Shakespeare
Whereas Dante was Eliot’s poet of choice, Joyce considered Shakespeare his
greatest protagonist. He was challenged both by the self-awareness
Shakespeare demonstrated in characters like Hamlet, and by the mythic
depth sounded in plays like King Lear. Despite his regard for Augustine and
Aquinas and other Christian apologists, he intuitively responded to the
mythic achievement of Shakespeare’s works.
But the trajectory of Joyce’s development as an artist led him away from
the possibility of appreciating the singular mythic logic Shakespeare articulated
in the Sonnets as the philosophy behind all his plays and poems. Joyce’s
engagement with Shakespeare never rises to the philosophic heights required
to appreciate the logic of myth. Instead his confrontation with the psychology
of his youthful self and then his engagement with an historical
moment in the life of Dublin deflected him toward repeating the logical
errors of the Judeo/Christian tradition.
Stephen’s deliberations on Shakespeare in the library scene in Ulysses
provide an insight into Joyce’s level of expectation. While Stephen’s
‘theories’ cannot be read as Joyce’s own understanding of Shakespeare, when
they are aligned with the mythological pattern in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake
they give a measure of Joyce’s limitations.
Symptomatic of the limitations is Joyce’s recourse to the biographical
speculations that litter the orthodox literature on Shakespeare’s works.
Despite Joyce’s desire to penetrate the workings of Shakespeare’s mind, his
failure to comprehend the mythic logic available in the Sonnets leads
inevitably to a miasma of biographical and psychological speculation.
In the library scene in Ulysses, Joyce has Stephen expound, with interjections
from the others in the library, on issues such as authorship of the
plays, the identity of Mr. W. H. and the ‘dark lady’, the supposed neglect
of Anne Hathaway, and Shakespeare’s presumed need to journey to London
to discover himself (is it coincidental Joyce was in exile in Paris and Trieste?).
It is indicative of Joyce’s failure to achieve Shakespearean insights that he
devotes a whole chapter to such spurious debate.
Particularly revealing of the inadequacy of Joyce’s achievement is
Stephen’s play on the relation of ‘father’ and ‘son’. Joyce’s struggle to gain
a perspective on his youthful idealism, and his ruminations on
Shakespeare’s psychological similarity to Hamlet, led him to formulate the
circular metaphor of a ‘father’ who gains artistic maturity by giving birth
to the literary ‘son’ who fathered the maturity. The telling irony is that by
focusing on the literary relation of Shakespeare to Hamlet, and to the
‘ghost’ of Hamlet’s father, Joyce ignores the role of Hamlet’s mother
Joyce’s exploration of an autobiographical connection between Shakespeare
and Hamlet, which reflects Joyce’s consciousness of his youthful self,
does not account for the mythic objectivity achieved by Shakespeare in his
plays. Ulysses demonstrates that Joyce could reflect objectively on Stephen
and Bloom’s path to maturity, but the discourse in the library, which presents
a litany of Sonnet ephemera, shows that Joyce did not appreciate the mature
vision evident in Shakespeare’s Sonnet philosophy. And the absence of the
Sonnet logic from Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates that he never achieved
Shakespeare’s level of mythic insight.
A precise indicator of Joyce’s failure to understand Shakespeare is the
absence of significant conversation between Leopold and Molly Bloom and
more critically between Steven and Molly. There is no examination in the
Portrait or Ulysses of a mother/son/daughter dynamic equivalent to Joyce’s
examination of the relation of ‘father’ and ‘son’.
Ulysses, possibly in imitation of the conventional psychological misunderstanding
of the relation of the ‘friend’ and ‘dark lady’ in the Sonnets, does
start with the youthful Stephen and ends with the ‘dark’ ruminations of
Molly. But there the resemblance ends. Neither Stephen nor Bloom engage
with the woman who should have been central to Joyce’s attempt to recreate
myth. Molly begins and ends the day lying in bed. If she were to emulate
Penelope’s role in Odysseus’ epic journey her attitude toward her ‘suitors’
would have been less self-indulgent and non-committal.
The mute self-reflection of Molly is in contrast to the role of the Mistress
in the Sonnets. In the Mistress sequence, the Poet first imbibes the logic of
beauty from her sensory presence (127 to 137) and then, in the verbal interaction
of the second half, he learns the logic of truth (138 to 152). If Molly
represents the passivity of nature for Joyce, and Gerty and the whores are
the active female principle, he doubly misrepresents the logical role of the
human female in relation to the male.
Joyce’s unwillingness to create a credible female character, who can
demonstrate the priority of the female over the male through her appreciation
of the logic of both beauty and truth, leads inevitably to the mythological
confusion of the Wake. By focusing primarily on his own experiences
as a male, Joyce perpetuates the male-God illogicality of the Judeo/Christian
Joyce and Eliot
Joyce and Eliot were both determined to recover the mythological
dimension in literary expression. The use of traditional mythologies in their
earlier work, and their determination to engage with the mythical at a philosophical
level in their later work, sets them apart from most other twentieth
century writers. They differed, for instance, from Yeats whose interest
in the arcane and the spiritualistic crippled his capacity to engage seriously
with mythologies. Similarly the crypto-religious writings of fantasists like
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, with their sentimental idealism, make Joyce
or Eliot seem rigorous.
At least Joyce and Eliot had an apprehension of the significance of the
higher sensations of the mind. Eliot’s description in Tradition and the Individual
Talent, of the relation between ‘ordinary emotions’ and ‘new ones’ in the
mind was an attempt to express the consequence of the ‘concentration of
a very great number of experiences’ which unite in an ‘atmosphere’ of ‘a
passive attending upon the event’.(7) For Joyce, the difference between the
‘kinesis’ of ordinary emotions and the ‘stasis’ of art is the ‘satisfaction of
certain special feelings’. It involves a process so that ‘as we come to see truth,
so we come to feel emotional stasis’. (7)
Yet Joyce and Eliot seem inarticulate when their efforts are compared
with the consistent logic of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. While they both mused
on the nature of the aesthetic experience, neither was aware that the Sonnets
give a precise and comprehensive presentation of the logic of aesthetics and
ethics. Sonnets 127 to 152 consider the logic of beauty and truth, and
sonnets 20 to 126 consider the logic of truth and beauty. If they had been
aware of Shakespeare’s logic, Eliot would not have accused Shakespeare of
having no philosophy and no morals and Joyce’s later work would not have
been stunted by its mythological presumptions.
The limitation of Joyce and Eliot’s understanding of Shakespeare’s natural
logic can also be seen in the significance both writers give to the concept
of time. In the Four Quartets, Eliot muses plaintively and frequently on the
passage of time. He is concerned about past, present and future as well as
the beginning and the end. His concern is consistent with his commitment
to a death-orientated religion that many dismiss as being irrelevant to the
demographics of the twentieth century except as a psychological bulwark
for anxious minds.
Joyce’s attempt in Finnegan’s Wake to bring all the historic expressions of
the mythological sensibility into focus in one man’s dream similarly subjects
the logic of myth to the exigencies of time. His reliance on Vico’s temporal
cycles of the human spirit, the ‘Religious’, ‘Heroic’, and ‘Civil’, (8) anchors
his understanding of myth to temporal concepts.
It is no wonder then, that neither Joyce nor Eliot appreciated the mythic
philosophy of Shakespeare works and particularly the precise articulation of
mythic logic in the Sonnets. Shakespeare gives exact expression to the priority
of nature over time (sonnet 126), and to the logical relation of birth and
death, and the priority of the female over the male. Joyce and Eliot’s
acceptance of the supremacy of the male, whether in Finnegan’s dream or
in the male-God of Christianity, prevents them from understanding the
philosophy of a poet and dramatist whose influence they could not avoid.
When the work of Joyce and Eliot, with their attempts on the one hand
to construct a novel based on all mythologies, and on the other to recover
faith in a particular mythology, is compared with that of their contemporary
Marcel Duchamp, the differences are striking. Duchamp demonstrates what
is possible when the illogical basis of traditional belief is challenged and
rectified. It is ironical, particularly given the complex ironies in Joyce’s work,
that neither of them were aware of the penetrating insights of an artist
regarded as the most astute aesthetic practitioner of the twentieth century.
Shakespeare’s challenge to Joyce and Eliot
So far, the mythological stances of Joyce and Eliot and their regard for the
works of Shakespeare have been noted. Both desired to regenerate a mythological
level of expression in their writing. They differed, though, as to
whether Shakespeare’s works were a resource for the recovery process.
Eliot sensed a mythic depth in Shakespeare’s works but dismissed the idea
that he developed his own philosophy, and did not consider the possibility
that he articulated the logical conditions for a mythic level of expression.
Instead he turned to the Christian mythology of Dante, and renewed his
own faith in the Judeo/Christian tradition. The result was a body of verse
that lacks mythic resonance, despite the ever-present background of his
Joyce attempted to access the mythic depth available in Shakespeare’s
works. Even though he based Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey, he revealed his
fascination with Shakespeare in Ulysses and throughout his works. But
Joyce was not able to penetrate the mythic logic of the Sonnets and plays,
so he remained at the mercy of a psychological and biographical level of
To gain an insight into Joyce and Eliot’s opposed attitudes to the mythological,
the mythical dimension in their work can be compared with the
complete mythic logic presented in the Sonnets. Because the Sonnets present
the logical conditions for any mythological expression, the exercise should
not only identify the elements missing from Joyce and Eliot’s work but also
rectify their errors. And because their works remain within the male-based
psychology of the Judeo/Christian tradition, the comparisons also critique
Shakespeare’s Sonnets detail the relationships in nature that lead logically
to a comprehensive and consistent understanding of the mythic level of
expression. By taking nature as a given, and by recognising the irreducible
elements in human logic, Shakespeare is able to locate the components
of the world that enable the human mind to perceive, think, and then
experience intensified sensations.
Once Shakespeare lays out the logical structure of human understanding
within nature, he is able to structure his writings according to the same logic
to reflect his awareness of the dynamic of understanding. Because his development
of the relation of body and mind in his writing is consistent with
the natural process of human evolution, his work automatically carries with
it the logic of the mythic possibility.
The logical structure evident in the Sonnets can be expressed diagrammatically
to show the linear relationship of the interconnected components.
Eliot’s decision to reaffirm his Christian faith puts him diametrically at
odds with Shakespeare’s natural logic. Not only could Eliot not see the
brilliant philosophy articulated in the Sonnets and apparent in all the plays,
he opted for the system of Christian apologetics, and its greatest poet, Dante.
Even though Eliot was operating under the aegis of a recognised mythology,
he was not actively able to engage the components of mythic logic in his
work. The major role he gives to time (‘beginning and end’) highlights his
inability to appreciate the mythic components available even in his own
Eliot’s difficulties with Shakespeare can be expressed in a template that
takes the components of Shakespeare’s natural logic and shows how they
are redistributed to accord with the priority of the male God over nature.
Ironically, while the diagram for the biblical myth incorporates the literary
basis of belief, it illogically presumes that the literary structure has priority
over the natural logic from which it was originally derived.
The crucial inversion is the reversal of the priorities of the sexual and
the erotic. In the God template the state of human desires comes before the
sexual dynamic from which it arises. The absence of eroticism in Eliot’s own
writing demonstrates his ignorance of the logical priority of body over mind.
A psychological fear of the sexual is apparent in his avoidance of the erotic.
Eliot even states his belief that the body is an ‘enminded’ thing. Eliot’s
ignorance of the logical significance of the increase argument and its implications
for truth and beauty means his work lacks both a basis in common
sense and an active truth dynamic.
Joyce at least recognised that the Judeo/Christian tradition had lost its
singular hold over the imagination of thinking human beings in the West.
His determination to engage afresh with the mythologies of the world
ensured that many of the components of mythic logic are genuinely present
in his work. Instead of creating a disembodied poetry like Eliot, in the
Portrait Joyce explores his psychological development as a male, and then in
Ulysses gives a rudimentary expression to the relation of male to female.
Joyce is uninhibited in exploring the sex life of his characters and,
whether he realised it or not, has both males and females in Ulysses assuage
their erotic desires through masturbation rather than having sex for the
purpose of increasing humankind. The eroticism in Ulysses, and this is
particularly the case with Leopold and Molly’s masturbations, seems to
acknowledge the non-biological status of literature. Joyce’s apparent intuitive
appreciation that the eroticism in Genesis and the New Testament is autoerotic,
because myth both presents the basic logic of the world and reflects
on its own non-sexual status as erotic, governs the sexual relations in Ulysses.
But Joyce, as demonstrated by his largely psycho/biographical approach
to Shakespeare, did not appreciate the logic of the mythic level of expression.
He uses natural features around Dublin as the matrix within which the action
occurs, and even though Molly Bloom forms the background against which
his human drama unfolds, neither nature nor the female is restored to its
rightful priority, as in Shakespeare. If Joyce had understood the Sonnet
philosophy he would have recognised the need to acknowledge the logic
of increase as prior to the possibility of truth and beauty.
Joyce’s inability to appreciate the philosophy of the Sonnets meant that
his work hovers uncomfortably between the apologetic illogicalities of Eliot’s
resort to orthodox beliefs and Shakespeare’s achievement of locating the
logic of any mythic possibility. Joyce did not see that the Sonnet logic frees
Shakespeare from the history of mythological expression, and enables everything
he writes to be inherently mythic. Because Shakespeare isolates the
key components for writing at will at a mythic level, unlike Joyce, he had
no need to give expression to all the myths and legends and folktales in
The comparison between the inventiveness and deep drama of
Shakespeare plays and the formal and stylistic games of the drama-less
Finnegan’s Wake is a measure of Shakespeare’s philosophic brilliance and
Joyce’s continued subjection to the psychology of male-based idealistic
egoism. (Ezra Pound summed up the syndrome with the laconic title of his
journal, The Egoist.)
None of this would matter if Eliot was not so determined to deny
Shakespeare a deliberate philosophical ‘pattern’ and Joyce was not so susceptible
to making life easier for himself by belittling the mythic achievement
of the plays. Together, along with 400 years of persistent misrepresentation
either by believers wishing to deny Shakespeare his rightful standing or by
well-meaning egoists who fall into the trap of psychological identification
(such as Oscar Wilde in his book Portrait of Mr.W. H. (9)), Joyce and Eliot show in
opposing ways how to get it so wrong about Shakespeare.
(Acknowledgment is given to S. L. Goldberg’s Joyce, Oliver and Boyd,
1962. His precise summary of Joyce’s achievement has proved an invaluable
resource over the last 30 years. Even though this critique goes beyond
Goldberg’s comments by examining Joyce’s relationship to Shakespeare’s
mythic logic, Goldberg’s analysis of Joyce’s trajectory from youthful idealist
to ambitious mythologist provides an invaluable preparation for appreciating
1 T. S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, London, Faber and Faber, 1948, p. 122. Back
2 Ibid., p. 33. Back
3 Ibid., p. 30. Back
4 Ibid., p. 34. Back
5 T. S. Eliot, Introduction, G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, London, Methuen, 1965, p. xx. Back
6 Ibid., p. xix. Back
7 S. L. Goldberg, Joyce, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1962, p. 10. Back
8 Ibid., p.106. Back
9 Oscar Wilde, Portrait of Mr.W. H., 1891 Back
Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
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