… As one studies the history of Western society, one discovers at one moment or another, and on every level of life, especially on the level of self-awareness, a deep fissure whose line marks the point of separation between a previous and now seemingly archaic era and what one might already call the modern world. The time “before” — that was when a conception of oneness, of unity, experienced as life, as presence, governed every relationship one could have with specific realities.
… But a day came when technology and science began to mark out — in what as a result became simply objects — features that could not be integrated into the structures of traditional meaning. The established order fell into fragmentation, the earth of signs and promises became nature once again, and life matter; the relation of the person to himself was all at once an enigma, and destiny a solitude.
… Hamlet is clearly, deeply, specifically the problematics of a consciousness awakening to a condition that was undreamt of and unimaginable only the day before: a world without structure, truths which henceforth are only partial, contradictory, in competition with one another — as many signs as one would wish, and quickly far too many, but nothing that will resemble a sacred order or meaning.
… The “readiness” he proposes is not reliance on the will of God as the guarantor of our efforts, the protector of our meaning, it is rather cessation of what the God of former times expected of us: the fearless and unflagging exercise of our judgment in the world He created, the discrimination between good and evil. In place of the discernment that tries to organize and provide, and does so through awareness of values, he substitutes the welcoming acceptance of things as they come along, however disorderly and contradictory they might be, and the acceptance of chance: from the perspective of this philosophy of pessimism, our acts seem as thoroughly devoid of a reason for being as the necessity that comes into play with them. Our condition is in non-meaning, nothingness, and it is just as well to realize it at moments that seem moments of action, when normally our naiveté is summoned. In a word, a single act still has some logic and is worthy of being carried out: and that is to take great pains to detach oneself from every illusion and to be ready to accept everything — everything, but first of all, and especially, death, the essence of all life — with irony and indifference.
… Is the “readiness” of Hamlet an Elizabethan equivalent of the Buddhist discipline, of the way in which the samurai, for instance, prepares himself — another swordsman at the end of another Middle Age — to accept the moment of death without a shadow of resistance? A way of recovering positivity and plenitude in the very heart of an empty world?
… Hamlet’s “readiness” is not the Oriental’s effort to go beyond the very idea of meaning, to attain to the plenitude of immediacy — the person who recognizes that he has no more importance than the fleeting blossoms of the cherry tree; no, it is rather the degree zero of a meaning, an order, still vividly recalled — the fundamental structures of which, though lost, are still considered desirable, and the need for which is still secretly acknowledged by that very complexity of consciousness in which all the language existing only for the purpose of hoping and organizing still remains in reserve for the possibility of some future miracle. The new relation to the self of this king without a kingdom is therefore not a peaceful one; it is not the great bright burst of laughter that tears apart ancient woe. What should be seen, on the contrary, is a sharpening of unvanquished suffering, its reduction to a single shrill note — almost inaudible and yet ever present — a form of irony not unlike that of which Kierkegaard will write, in which the moments of spiritedness or laughter are always chilled by nostalgia. Not the liberation, but the celibacy of the soul — taken on as a last sign, a challenge full of desire, offered to the God who has withdrawn from his Word.
… But let us not forget that it is in Lear, not more than five or six years later, that one sees clearly designated that “ripeness” which Shakespeare seems to have wanted to place against the “readiness” of the earlier work.
… Lear begins not with something rotten in the state, as was the case for Hamlet, but rather with a mysterious sickness in the soul, and in this case, with pride. Lear admires himself, prefers himself; he is interested in others only to the extent that they are interested in him, and thus he is blind to their own true being; he therefore does not truly love others, in spite of what he might think: and so the ground is laid for the catastrophic act that will refuse to recognize true value, that will deprive the righteous of their due, and that will spread disorder and sorrow everywhere and give the devil the chance he has been waiting for in the son born of adultery. Lear — even more than Gloucester whose only sins are sins of the flesh — has relived, has reactivated the original sin of men, and thus he represents, more than any other character in the play, our condition in its most radical form, which is imperfection, but also struggle, the will to self-mastery.
… It is in the modern era, the era of Hamlet, that the individual — separated from everything and from everybody, incapable of checking his solitude, and trying to remedy what is missing through the proliferation of the desires, his dreams, and his thoughts — will slowly assume that extraordinary prominence, the end point of which is Romanticism. In King Lear — as on the gothic fresco which is always more or less the danse macabre — no one has greater worth merely because of what sets him apart from others, however singular or extreme this difference might be.
… behind this character [Lear] who is remarkable, but whose uncommon sides are above all signs of the extent of the dangers that menace us — and the extent of the resources at our disposition as well — the true object of Shakespeare’s attention, the true presence that emerges and runs the risk of being overwhelmed, but triumphs in the end, is that life of the spirit to which Lear, and Edgar as well, and also to a certain extent Gloucester and even Albany all bear witness — what is designated by the word ripeness.
Ripeness, maturation, the acceptance of death as in Hamlet, but no longer in this case because death would be the sign, par excellence, of the indifference of the world, of the lack of meaning — no, rather because acceptance of death could be the occasion for rising to a truly inner understanding of the real laws governing being, for freeing oneself from illusion, from vain pursuits, for opening oneself to a conception of Presence which, mirrored in our fundamental acts, will guarantee a living place to the individual in the evidence of All. One can understand King Lear if one has learned to place this consideration in the foreground, if one has come to see that this is the thread that binds everything together, not only the young man with the old one whose soul is ravaged but intact, but with them the Fool, for instance, who represents in medieval thought the outermost edge of our uncertain condition, and this consideration must be seen to dominate even in a context in which the forces of night seem so powerful, in which the Christian promise has not as yet resounded — although its structures are already there, since it is Shakespeare who is writing; one can therefore sense in them an indication of change, a reason for hope. Ripeness emerges in Lear as a potentiality for everyone, as the existential starting point from which the protagonists of the tragedy of false appearances begin to be something more than mere shadows; and from the Fool to Lear, from Edgar to his father, from Cordelia, from Kent, from Gloucester to their sovereign, even from an obscure servant to his lord when the latter has his eyes plucked out, it is what gives the only real substance to human exchange which is otherwise reduced to concerns and desires that are only hypocrisy or illusion.
… Ripeness, readiness. … Consequently, the two irreducible attitudes. One, the quintessence of the world’s order, the unity of which one seems to breathe; the other, the reverse side of that order, when one no longer sees anything in the grayness of the passing days but the incomprehensible weave.
… Shakespeare has understood that, with this recognition, the function of poetry has changed as well: it will no longer be the simple formulation of an already obvious truth, already tested to the depths by others than the poet; rather it will have as task to remember to hope, to search by itself, to make manifest what is hidden beneath the impoverished forms of everyday thinking, beneath the dissociations and alienations imposed by science and culture — and thus it will be an intervention, the assumption of a neglected responsibility, that “reinvention” of which Rimbaud in turn will speak. Great thoughts that make for the endless richness of The Winter’s Tale, that play which is, in fact, solar, and which may be superimposed on Hamlet point by point — someday I would like to come back to this idea — like the developed photograph — zones of shadow becoming clear, the bright reality as opposed to its negative. The great vistas, also joyfully dreamt of in The Tempest — luminous double of King Lear. And grand opportunities, of course, for a resolute spirit, which explains, retrospectively, what has from the outset constituted the exceptional quality of the poetry of Shakespeare — first in the West to measure the extent of a disaster, and first also, and especially, to seek to remedy it.