February 22nd, 2004

Shakespeare and fate

Ayn Rand saw fiction from the pre-Romantic period as dominated by the idea of fate. And this acceptance of the idea of fate, she saw as constituting a denial of human volition. Human volition is often called free will, of course. But if you tell the average Shakespeare fan that this author did not believe his characters had free will, said fan will stare at you like you don't know what you are talking about.

Why? Because Shakespeare's characters often spend time deliberating over the proper course of action, including considerations of prudence, profit, and virtue. In other words, they make self-aware choices of the best course of action, and proceed to act on those beliefs.

There's some evidence Rand hadn't read too much Shakespeare. Somewhere in The Letters Of Ayn Rand there is a letter she wrote thanking someone who had sent her a better edition of Shakespeare with an improved set of notes to help explain what Shakespeare was saying. The impression I took away was that Rand had never mastered Elizabethan English, and had found Shakespeare too frustrating to plow through very much.

Within Shakespeare, there are factors that characters discuss - factors that are seen as opposing the success of human effort. These factors include inborn character features, supernatural destiny, natural corruption, and sheer accident. Of course, these are Shakespeare's characters talking, not necessarily Shakespeare himself. But he sure does have a lot of talk like this, and at times critics have taken them as representing Shakespeare's point of view.

Personally, I would not exactly call Shakespeare a determinist, nor even quite a fatalist, but it strikes me there is a big streak of fatalism in some of his plays. And perhaps that is what Rand meant by saying that the pre-Romantic literature was "dominated" by the fate motif.

Usually the issue is stated the other way around, by emphasizing that in the Romantic era there was an explosion of the belief in the greatness of human potential and creativity.

Rhyme of the day:

Hamlet, cloaked in inky gloom
Demonstrates a sense of doom.