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Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery

Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery

ROBERT H. WEST
Copyright Date: 1968
Pages: 216
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130hqzr
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  • Book Info
    Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery
    Book Description:

    Shakespeare has been viewed by critics both as a secular writer who affirmed the dual nature of man and as a Christian allegorist whose work has a submerged but positive and elaborate pattern of Christian meaning. InShakespeare and the Outer Mystery, Robert H. West explores the philosophical and supernatural elements of five Shakespearean dramas --Macbeth,Hamlet,Othello,King Lear, andThe Tempest.

    Through his analysis, West discovers Shakespeare's respect for the mysteries of existence but no clear definition of the philosophical and moral context of his play worlds. An artistic motivation leads Shakespeare to use these elements ambiguously to create a dramatic effect rather than to teach a moral or ideological lesson.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6511-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Preface
    (pp. v-viii)
    R. H. W.
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE The Questions
    (pp. 1-20)

    At the end of Albert Camus’sThe Stranger, Meursault, fearfully awaiting the guillotine, repulsed the prison priest and, staring into the cold heavens, suddenly understood that “nothing, nothing had the least importance.” A “persistent breeze” had all his life been blowing toward him from “the dark horizon” of his future, and the nothingness beyond that horizon justified, he thought, his habitual unconcern with life’s choices and enabled him to lay his “heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.” The indifference Meursault had always felt in himself and the matching inconsequence he now feels in all being impress him...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Evidence
    (pp. 21-40)

    If we follow the lines of dramatic force in Shakespeare’s four great tragedies with respect for Jacobean ways of seeing things and of saying them, we certainly find Christian moral values strongly expressed. The tragedies stress conduct that appeals for judgment to a familiar ethic unquestionably prominent in the minds of Shakespeare’s audience. By way of this ethic the tragedies perhaps point generally to its ground in the Christian chart of being. They elicit our sympathy for faith and love, for instance, and our aversion for treachery and hatred. In doing this with dramatic power they may posit some universal...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Outerness & the Supernatural
    (pp. 41-55)

    The most forthright signs of a positive and purposeful outerness in Shakespeare’s great tragedies would certainly seem to be the Ghost inHamletand the Weird Sisters inMacbeth. On the antique face of them they belong to a larger realm than nature with its circumscribing matter and mortality. To judge by them, outer powers must be active inHamletandMacbeth. But to take them on their face has often seemed naive and uninteresting. As A. P. Rossiter says of the Weird Sisters, they offer “very great difficulties to the modern reader…. We are compelled to think up something...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR King Hamlet’s Ambiguous Ghost
    (pp. 56-68)

    In 1951 Roy W. Battenhouse published what is perhaps the most original and provoking theory of the nature of the Ghost inHamletsince the article by W. W. Greg which, with its contention that the apparition is to be understood as wholly subjective, prompted J. D. Wilson’s study of Elizabethan spirit lore.¹ Battenhouse argues in essence that the Ghost shows far too much vindictiveness to be a saved soul. It must therefore, he thinks, be out of some paganesque purgatory rather than the Catholic one, as Wilson had confidently asserted. Whether or not Battenhouse may be thought to have...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Night’s Black Agents in “Macbeth”
    (pp. 69-79)

    More than any of the other plays of ShakespeareMacbethseems pervaded by some kind of superhuman evil, an evil that shakes and pierces the thin veil of nature and twists its way into the vitals of human volition. Personified in the Weird Sisters, this evil is even more tellingly expressed in such lines as Lady Macbeth’s invitation to “murth’ring ministers” in their “sightless substances,” Banquo’s prayer against “the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose,” and Macbeth’s grim speech:

    Light thickens, and the crow

    Makes wing to th’rooky wood.

    Good things of day begin to droop...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Ceremonial Magic in “The Tempest”
    (pp. 80-95)

    Most present-day critics ofHamletandMacbethadmit that however deviously we now interpret the Ghost and the Witches to make them presentable to moderns, originally they must to some degree have been meant literally. My enterprise, then, of getting at Shakespeare’s showing of outerness partly through his showing of the supernatural might seem, even to the most modern, to have a certain rude justification for those plays. But few now trouble to consider that Ariel and his elves and Prospera’s magic were literally intended. To most criticsThe Tempestis as much fantasy and symbolism as Maeterlinck’sPelléas et...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Iago & the Mystery of Iniquity
    (pp. 96-110)

    The major examples of the supernatural in Shakespeare’s work do not establish any particular outerness in the plays nor surely found their given morality. Through his spirits and magic, I have contended, Prospera achieves his just aims, and he rises to a Christian-like reconciliation with his enemies; but neither the justness nor the reconciliation rests on a given moral outerness affirmed through his magic and spirits. Their nature is, as I have argued, most doubtful. And though Hamlet’s cleansing of Denmark may seem good to most of us finally, the purgatorial status the Ghost claims does not fortify that good...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Othello and Damnation
    (pp. 111-126)

    Although we do not profitably dwell on the damnation of Iago and may not think it vital to the play, we may accept it casually, if we like, as a reading that goes naturally with the time and the background of both Iago and the original audience—to say nothing of Shakespeare. Our sense of Iago’s poisonous rage against creation may give us a sense of his rage against the Creator, whom we may naturally take as the Christian deity. Iago seems in his perverse passion to suggest a link with some perverse outerness, and nothing forbids us to feel...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Christianness of “Othello” & “King Lear”
    (pp. 127-148)

    The failure of the case for Othello’s damnation is that of the most explicit claim for Christian outerness in the play. Perhaps this failure suggests that the more explicit claims are the ones least likely to suit Shakespeare’s work. At any rate, thoughOthello’sallusiveness about Christian eschatology does not provide the kind of authority that the literalness ofDr. Faustusdoes,Othellois in some ways Christian. To give literally the context of Christianity is not necessarily to write a play that expresses Christian faith, much less Christian comfort, and to remain inconclusive about the Christian context is not...

  13. CHAPTER TEN Sex, Death, & Pessimism in “King Lear”
    (pp. 149-166)

    Most of those who find a cosmic pessimism in King Lear think it inescapable there, not only as a feature natural to any tragedy but also as a clear impression and logical inference from the play’s particular action and dialogue. Building upon both the discouragement of the afflicted characters and the decisive events of the play, and especially on Cordelia’s cruel death and Lear’s, they conclude that nothing but sentiment testifies against pessimism. Nature, which the play makes much of, is clearly impersonal, uncaring, nonmoral, these critics say. Of a distinct supernature they find nothing, certainly nothing of outer beneficence....

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN In the Great Hand of God
    (pp. 167-182)

    I end my inquiry into outerness in Shakespeare’s four great tragedies with the claim that the contemporizers are seriously off the track that the text lays down for all. They depart from that track because it is not new and leads nowhere that they think interesting to moderns or worthwhile. Every age, they indicate, must see with its own eyes or go blind. Yet the focusing of both art and the world with objectivity also belongs to seeing. Must we now, regardless of what the text actually contains, either see in Shakespeare some such outline as that of absurdity or...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 183-198)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 199-205)