Shakespeare does not suggest this or that. He is not an “egotistic sublime”. He is not declaring anything right or wrong out of his overconfidence. He is not self-opinionated like Milton and Wordsworth.
Instead of defining any certain principles of life, he chooses to recreate life as it naturally is. That’s why we have very few objections to his writings. Because whatever he writes, naturally exists in the hearts and minds of many of us.
He is not eager to reach a conclusion and manages to live with doubts and uncertainties. His stories have unclear endings. He does not consider it necessary to clarify everything. In his plays, many characters are introduced out of a sudden and we are not told about their background. Moreover, he presents before us various concerns and issues to which no answers and solutions are provided by him.
Shakespeare manages to live with half knowledge. That very thing was called “Negative Capability” by John Keats. He admired this very quality of Shakespeare and tried to do the same in his writings.
Of course, there is a difference of greatness between Shakespeare and Keats. The later tried to maintain this very quality but could not do so with the same excellency. Keats did so by raising questions through direct question statements. For instance, in his Odes he repeats the question, “do I wake or sleep?” many times. In ‘Ode to Psyche’ he is not clear whether he has seen Psyche in a dream or with awakened eyes. In ‘Ode to Grecian Urn’ he creates ambiguity by asking questions. That is his half knowledge which is felt by us through the questions that he asks.
Edward Bond in his play, ‘The Sea’ tried to achieve the same impact by leaving the last line incomplete. Shakespeare asks no questions, nor does he leave anything incomplete. But the situations that he creates give rise to many questions in the reader’s mind. His stories are complete, yet still, there is some curiosity left in the reader.
For example, what will happen in King Lear after Lear’s last line, “Never, never, never, never, never, never, never”. Who will run the state now? Will there be peace or the same disruption and disorder will continue?
In Macbeth who will govern the kingdom after Macbeth’s death? Will anarchy come to an end or there will be another Macbeth achieving his self-centred interests and killing every person that comes in his way?
In Hamlet the whole royal family dies but the country is at whose hands now? Who are the stage performers in the play? Who are the gravediggers and how do they know about the main characters? Has Iago planned the deaths of the main characters just for jealousy? Then why does he not tell it in the end? When he is captured in the end and he is asked for the reason behind such a disastrous plotting. The audience is expecting some explanation from him. We anticipate that now he will speak out and we will know about the real stimulus behind the driving force who alone twisted and moulded each and every character and situation in the play. But he refuses to speak even a single word and our curiosity is stuck there.
Shakespeare and the Great Chain of Being
Yet another influence on Shakespeare was the Great Chain of Being. It is a hierarchical structure of all matter and life, thought in medieval Christianity to have been decreed by God. The central concept of the chain of being is that everything imaginable fits into the chain somewhere, giving order and meaning to the universe. It extends from God down to the lowest forms of life and even to the trees and stones of the earth.
According to this concept, all things have a precise place and function in the universe. To leave your proper place is to betray your nature. If someone does not allow reason to rule the emotions, he is going against human nature. When he does not control his emotions through reason and logic, he descends to the level of a beast. To try to rise your proper, set place, as Eve did when Satan tempted her, is to invite disaster.
Consequences of a character breaking the chain can be clearly seen in Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Disorder would also occur if people rose against their king. Civil rebellion or the rebellion from the lower ranks in a state would also face dire consequences.
An overarching theme in Shakespeare’s works is that divine and natural order must be followed or destruction will follow. In his four great tragedies, this hierarchy is broken. Kings do no evil, but it’s the lower ones who disrupt the chain. Killing and betraying the kings or plotting against those in higher ranks bring disorder. But in the end, order is finally restored by some forces. This restoration of order takes many lives and the story becomes tragic.