The handsome, extraordinarily brilliant, and always punchy Nobody (who has been happily blogging at Any Eventuality for some time now) sent in this juicy piece of poetry from Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 129.  (I should also point out that Nobody is almost a month late for his top movies of 2006, but I digress.)

All this the world well knows yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The line reminds, of course, of Midsummer Night’s Dream (of which there was no little discussion here in December), when Helena laments Demetrius’ abdication of her love:  “He will not know what all but he do know.”  Later, as she pursues Demetrius in the forest, she says, “I’ll follow thee, and make a heaven of hell, to die upon the hand I loved so well.”

If the Sonnet can be admitted as extra-textual evidence for an interpretation of the play, then it does question the notion that the issue in Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of “reason vs. madness.” The whole Sonnet reads:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action; and till action, lust

Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,

Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

Past reason hunted, and no sooner had

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait

On purpose laid to make the taker mad;

Mad in pursuit and in possession so;

Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;

A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

The notion that “past reason” hunts this object that it then hates suggests that the problem of lust is not unreason, as “past reason” hunts this object.  I was initially going to suggest that the problem is faulty reasoning, but I am now inclined to think that Shakespeare is silent on the cause of lust.  Just as it is not clear exactly why Demetrius leaves Helena for Hermia, here too it is not clear why past reason hunts the object of desire so ferociously, or why it is so dissatisfied upon the attinemnt of that desire.  It seems here we must again raise the questions, and be content without answers. 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. […] Ranking of 2006 Films Filed under: Movie Reviews — by Nobody @ 7:57 pm I’ve been meaning to post this all week, honestly, but it was Matt’s observation that I’m “almost a month late” (I don’t think he meant that in a feminine way) which finally lit the fire under me. So without further teases, here are my thoughts on 2006: […]

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  2. While reading Antony’s funeral oration just now I noticed another slight analogue to those MND lines, if not Helena’s line (“He will not know what all but he do know”) then at least Quince’s in the Prologue to Pyramus & Thisbe: “You shall know all that you are like to know.” Marc Antony says:

    For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
    Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
    To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
    I tell you that which you yourselves do know…
    (J.C. III, ii, circa line 200)

    Given the speaker the statement’s appearance, intention, and irony are all different than those of the lines in MND, but in terms of Shakespeare it seems to be yet another example of his exploration of instruction/persuasion (moral or immoral), seeing/hearing/reading, and interpretation.

    Moreover, Antony’s speech is kind of the opposite of the prologue to P&T since it turns out to be a successful attempt to (apparently) change opinion. Antony’s reverse psychology throughout the speech contrasts with Quince’s explicit “All for your delight / We are not here.”

    Antony raises Caesar’s will like Thisbe’s bloody mantle, and the will is a token he alludes to without reading (initially) and the crowd, already roused to avenge Julius, forgets about what might be in it. Antony then upgrades to the bloody corpus delicti itself (even more persuasive than Thisbe’s clothing), providing an interpretation of the corpse while saying he is letting it speak for itself:

    …I only speak right on;
    I tell you that which you yourselves do know,
    Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
    And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
    And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
    Would ruffle up your spirits, and put a tongue
    In every wound of Caesar, that should move
    The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.

    Such is the interface between objects and understanding. Meaning is not self-evident; the world is mediated to us via interpreters, internal and external, personal and institutional. The obvious warning is that we are easily manipulable, but since total skepticism is of course self-contradictory, the antidote seems to be simply self-awareness of our hermeneutical choices.

    Antony finally reminds the crowd of the will, but by the time he reads the text (ostensibly Truth) it doesn’t really matter what its content or context is (assuming he is in fact reading it). Once his interpretation is in place anything that follows is simply proof-text.

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  3. Nobody,

    Great, great comment. I am in desperate need of reading through Julius Ceasar again (it’s been since high school) so I can’t say much beyond, “great comment!” :)

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