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Shakespeare and the Genius of the Absurd Anne Paolucci Literary masterpieces, Benedetto Croce was fond of repeat­ ing, defy comparison; each is an organic whole, best experienced in its uniqueness, as we experience individual personality. Still, critics persist in their bad habits—as Croce himself persisted in comparing great authors—in spite of the warning. And this is perhaps as it should be because, although greatness in literature cannot be measured by purely literary standards (as T. S. Eliot insisted), many other constituents of literary value can be measured, and the comparative study of literary works is at least to that extent justified. Shakespeare’s dramatic genius certainly towers above the dramatists of our age, even as it soared above the best efforts of his own contemporaries. But it is not too far-fetched—not inexcusably absurd—to suggest that in his treatment of character, in his rich use of symbolic overtones, in his paradoxical juxtaposition of certain themes, in his subtle allegorical shadings, Shakespeare “anticipates” the dramatic habits and practice of contemporary dramatists such as Camus, Ionesco, Beckett, and Albee (who, in my opinion, is the best—though certainly not the most absurdist—of our playwrights of the Absurd). Macbeth’s castle, for instance, like the replica of the mansion in Albee’s Tiny Alice, reverberates with dark-light images that serve to intensify the turns of dra­ matic action; Albee’s manic-depressive characterization of Broth­ er Julian in that play is built, like Shakespeare’s characterization of Hamlet, around die painful surfacing of deep and mysterious motives; in both plays, paradoxical extremes produce a Sophoclean irony, and past and future merge in the obsessive verbaliza­ tion of actions and intentions. Dramatic art has undergone many transformations since Shakespeare’s time; yet with the Absurd, there is at least an apparent spiraling back over old ground. From the new perspective of contemporary drama we may gain 231 232 Comparative Drama a new appreciation of some of the oldest techniques of the playwright’s art. We can begin to assess how far the history of dramatic art has spiraled back on itself by recalling briefly the nature of the recent shift from realism to the Absurd. The Ibsen-like realism of an earlier age professed to depict things as they are, to hold a mirror up to nature. But that mirror of realism is care­ fully “programmed”; it is highly selective to begin with. The realistic writer does not simply record events as they happen, in the sequence of actual experience. He chooses those things that will enable him to create the illusion of so-called reality. All art is selective in this way, of course; it recreates the com­ plex organic totality of life by holding a mirror to things we recognize and accept. The mirroring of complexity through organic simplicity is, in a sense, the definition of art. What differs from age to age is the quality of the mirror. Realism holds a smooth mirror up to nature; the Absurd holds a “magic” mirror which distorts and exaggerates familiar things in order to shock us into a new evaluation of experience. The crazy mirror of the Absurd breaks up familiar patterns and forces us to accept a new dimension and a new kind of communication. It insists on the language of existential doubt within a framework of skepticism. In this kind of experience, the direct and powerful statements of “real­ ism” are no longer adequate. Purposeful action inspired by clear-cut values, logical categories, the familiar patterns of hu­ man behavior as defined by the scientific method and unas­ sailable reason are replaced, in the Absurd, by kaleidoscopic insights, fragmentation of intentions and deeds, levels of aware­ ness, a distortion of the very mechanics of apprehension. The historical transformation that has taken place in dra­ matic characterization reinforces the point. The single unswerv­ ing ethical thrust of the Greek tragic figures—all of one piece and wholly taken with their single-minded purpose—gives way in Elizabethan drama to a rich variety of personality with all its quirks and particularity; and this, in turn, becomes in the realistic drama of Ibsen, Strindberg, and O’Neill a kind...


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