Monday, September 3, 2012

No Brother’s Keeper

If you read enough Shakespeare, you start to get the impression that the guy had a real problem with his brother. I’ve mentioned the unpleasantness between brothers Edgar and Edmund in King Lear. See “Acting, not Faking” post. And in Hamlet, we learn that Hamlet, Sr.’s younger brother, Claudius, poisoned the king while he was napping in the garden and then promptly married his brother’s distraught widow. In The Tempest, Prospero has been stuck on a desert island for about 14 years thanks to the evil machinations of his brother, Antonio. Antonio usurped Prospero’s dukedom, and the whole play is about Prospero creating the conditions such that he could exact revenge on his brother, but decides not to: “You, brother mine, that entertain'd ambition,/ Expell'd remorse and nature; …/Would here have kill'd your king; I do forgive thee,/ Unnatural though thou art.” (V.1).

Moreover, As You Like It—well, that play involves two sets of feuding brothers. The female lead, Rosalind, is the daughter of banished “Duke Senior,” who has been run out of a job and driven into exile in the forest by his brother, “Duke Frederick;” and the male lead, Orlando, is the wronged younger brother of Oliver, who inherited their father’s fortune and was entrusted to use some of it to provide for Orlando’s education. But instead of spending a dime on Orlando, Oliver has ensured only that the guy wanders around in rags feeling very self-conscious about his ignorance:

Besides this nothing that he so plentifully gives me, the something that nature gave me his countenance seems to take from me: he lets me feed with his hinds, bars me the place of a brother, and, as much as in him lies, mines my gentility with my education.

As You Like It actually begins with a big dust-up between Orlando and big brother Oliver:

Now, sir! what make you here?

Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing.

What mar you then, sir?

Marry, sir, I am helping you to mar that which God
made, a poor unworthy brother of yours, with idleness.

Marry, sir, be better employed, and be naught awhile.

Shall I keep your hogs and eat husks with them?
What prodigal portion have I spent, that I should
come to such penury?

Shortly, Orlando and brother Oliver are going at each other physically and have to be pulled apart by an old family servant. Oliver then tells his brother and the servant, who merely intervened to prevent bloodshed, to get packing. Not exactly a portrait of fraternal love.

William Shakespeare from Stratford-on-Avon did have some brothers (and sisters, too). Three brothers, to be precise. Will was the eldest; but the others died before he did. Nothing in the little we know about these brothers suggested that they had some blood feud with Big Bro that might explain Shakespeare’s obsession with brother discord. For one thing, Will was out of the house by age 18 after his scandalous marriage to a much older woman who was already “with child” at the time.  And the rest of what we know about the brothers, thanks to christening and burial records, doesn’t suggest much fodder for high family drama:

Age at Death
Professional Life
World’s greatest writer
Worked with Dad as a glover’s apprentice, then became a haberdasher
No education or record suggesting he did much of anything
No education, but went to London to try to make it as an actor where he died, probably of the plague; brother William may or may not have helped him out professionally and may or may not have paid for the funeral

 So, assuming, arguendo, that the William Shakespeare from Stratford is indeed the person who wrote all those plays, I’d like to propose that it is more profitable to see the feuding-brothers motif in his plays as a metaphor for a larger phenomenon than as an obsession arising from the playwright’s biography. That larger phenomenon is kind of like what Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.” Freud describes the concept in Civilization and Its Discontents; but, basically, the idea is that people who are very close—in terms of territory or culture—are often engaged in constant feuds. These feuds arise from fixating on a small, but critical difference that distinguishes the two groups. The difference may be something like religion when virtually everything else--food, language, history--is the same. Freud saw this tendency to fixate on our brother's one, salient difference as a way that humans vent some of their nastiest aggressive impulses to achieve greater cohesion within a circumscribed tribe. Those described as “other”—who are actually very similar—become the target of a community’s hostility such that the community can maybe achieve some equilibrium. It doesn’t really work, though, because, as Freud explains, humans keep finding more and more minor differences to feud about.

Recently, an example of this “narcissism of minor differences”—a kind of brother v. brother feud—seems to have erupted in the most elite judicial circle. I am referring to some rather public indications that the renowned Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit, conservative jurist and admired writer, has been taking aim at Justice Antonin Scalia of the SCOTUS, conservative jurist and admired writer. The latest manifestation of this brother feud is Posner’s scathing review of Scalia’s pricey new book, co-authored with Bryan Garner. The book, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, purports to offer lawyers a systematic way to make better textual arguments, whether the text be a constitutional, statutory, or contractual provision. To dispel any ambiguity regarding Posner’s view of this new book, Posner styles his review “The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia.” This feud is well worth following. Posner’s review, a great read in its own right, is available at:,0 

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