- Shakespeare's Big Men: Tragedy and the Problem of Resentment by Richard van Oort
In his new book, Shakespeare's Big Men: Tragedy and the Problem of Resentment, Richard van Oort offers up generative anthropology as an interpretative lens through which we might better understand the dynamics of Shakespearean tragedy. Van Oort sees in the work of cultural anthropologist Eric Gans a humanistic (that is, nonscientific) way of approaching certain fundamental categories—the first principles of human community. Once established, these categories can then be used to illuminate the structures and basic tensions in literary texts.
More specifically, van Oort finds in Gans an account of the deep interconnection between mimesis and resentment. According to Gans's "originary hypothesis" humans develop representation as a strategy for deferring conflict. Because a representation can (at least temporarily) stand in for the thing itself, violent competition over resources can be suspended so long as competitors can be satisfied with partaking in the sign of a thing rather than actually possessing the desired object. This could be the origin of ritual. However, due to its illusory character, representation can only ever defer conflict, for "in attending to the word, the subject experiences resentment at not having the object. This experience leads the subject to return to the object in a characteristic oscillation between word and object that is the hallmark of the aesthetic" (13).
The "Big Men" of van Oort's title begin as individuals who symbolically take possession of desired goods and therefore occupy a position at the social center; however "with the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic revolution" (15) this occupation becomes economically entrenched: "The desire that was formerly restrained by ritual sacrifice now becomes a reality of human praxis" (15). This appropriation of the center has consequences for human resentment. It develops into: "a mature form of resentment that is no longer abstractly directed at an inaccessible sacred centre but at the centre's real human occupant" (16). Over the course of the ensuing five chapters, van Oort demonstrates the interpretative potential of this theory for Shakespearean tragedy.
Van Oort wisely begins his study of Shakespeare's tragedies with Julius Caesar, the play in which an economy of resentment is most clearly visible. This chapter includes a compelling interpretation of Cassius as a quasi-allegorical figure, an embodiment of envy. Cassius "personif[ies] a sentiment we all experience but rarely acknowledge as our own" (29). During the temptation of Brutus, Cassius paints a self-serving and uncharitable picture of Caesar, which typifies "the periphery's resentful representation of the centre" (31). [End Page 297]
The book's treatment of Hamlet is similarly effective. Hamlet's petulance and anxiety fits nicely into van Oort's anthropological framework. Following G. Wilson Knight, van Oort offers up a sympathetic assessment of Claudius as a more-than-capable king, suggesting his introductory speech is "a model of tact and imagination" (61). Though not entirely persuasive, this reading is still provocative, and it highlights the degree to which Hamlet's assessment of Claudius's various defects is rooted more in the prince's jealousy than in principled judgment. Moreover, van Oort illustrates in this chapter how the audience can be drawn in to tragedy's representational dynamics. Hamlet's enduring appeal in this analysis is based on our desire to partake in the feeling of resentment. Hamlet's sense of "moral indignation" (68), no matter how misplaced or self-serving, is intoxicating to us.
On Othello, van Oort echoes A. C. Bradley and finds Iago "to be rather like you and me—a thoroughly bourgeois and insignificant individual" (99). His frustration at being passed over for a job indicates the "utterly mundane or ordinary nature of Iago's resentment" (100). Notably, in this chapter van Oort advocates for a developmental logic in Shakespeare's exploration of tragic resentment. From Brutus, to Hamlet, to Iago, van Oort perceives an increasingly ironic attachment to the sacred center (101). While Brutus's attempt to usurp...