Wednesday, January 25, 2017

`In a Most Humorous Sadness'

Ten years ago, in the notes I kept while reading A.D. Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker, I underlined a sentence that seemed important to remember: “We do not know what he thought – finally -- about anything.” How refreshing, I thought, after almost four-hundred pages in a book titled Shakespeare the Thinker, for the author not to reduce his subject’s thinking to a definitive sound bite. That’s not why we read him. Shakespeare is too big and swarming for that. Nuttall says the playwright never reached a “settled terminus,” and who among us does? He was no philosopher though his characters speak philosophically, as do living, breathing non-philosophers. Unlike Whitman, Shakespeare genuinely contained multitudes.

I stayed up too late Monday night reading As You Like It again. I tend to slight the comedies, which is silly. I remembered why a former newspaper colleague named his daughter Rosalind. One passage stopped me, Jacques’ speech early in Act IV, Scene 1:

“I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation, nor the musician’s, which is fantastical, nor the courtier’s, which is proud, nor the soldier’s, which is ambitious, nor the lawyer’s, which is politic, nor the lady’s, which is nice, nor the lover’s, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry’s contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”

Jacques gets most of the best lines in the play. He embodies the qualities popularly associated with a philosopher – thoughtful rumination and “humorous sadness.” In his essay “On the Melancholy of Tailors,” Charles Lamb wonders why Milton, Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton fail to note the “characteristic pensiveness” of tailors. He quotes Jacques’ speech, and adds, “then, when you might expect him to have brought in `the tailor’s, which is so and so—’ he comes to an end of his enumeration.” Of the writers cited by Lamb, I thought first of Burton. In this passage from The Anatomy of Melancholy, he associates a scholar’s melancholy with, among other things, emulation, as does Jacques in his speech:
“A scholar’s mind is busied about his studies, he applauds himself for that he hath done, or hopes to do, one while fearing to be out in his next exercise, another while contemning all censures; envies one, emulates another; or else with indefatigable pains and meditation, consumes himself. So of the rest, all which vary according to the more remiss and violent impression of the object, or as the humour itself is intended or remitted. For some are so gently melancholy, that in all their carriage, and to the outward apprehension of others it can hardly be discerned, yet to them an intolerable burden, and not to be endured.”

As You Like It may have been produced as early as 1603. Burton first published his book in 1621. I thought of a “gently melancholy” friend who gave no outward sign of depression, who must have suffered in solitude, carrying his own “intolerable burden,” and who took his own life. Burton died on this date, Jan. 25, in 1640.

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for your provocative post. I, too, have slighted the comedies too much but for the most part they are all, like the tragedies, "problem plays" with ample philosophy and confused and confusing characters. They, too, test the reader's acumen almost as much as the tragedies.