On Shakespeare

Here are some miscellaneous thoughts from my Shakespeare class at Toccoa Falls College this past spring semester.


There is much more of theological relevance in Shakespeare than some people realize. They may miss it because it is never sectarian or in your face. But MacBeth is the most profound exploration of the compounding effects of unrepented sin outside the Bible. Hamlet dies because he chooses revenge over forgiveness or even justice, after missing Claudius’ profound meditation on the power of a repentance of which he is incapable; but he dies in a state of grace as signaled by his response to Laertes’ request “Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.” That is why the play can end with flights of angels singing him to his rest. Merchant of Venice is about the triumph of grace over law (though its climax is marred by the forced conversion of Shylock.) Etc., etc., etc. The bottom line is that carcely a single play can be fully understood without reference to Christian teaching familiar to Shakespeare’s audience, though lost to us.

"Alas, poor Yorick . . ."
“Alas, poor Yorick . . .”

Another example of Shakespeare’s theological wisdom:  If you’re an anti-Semite Racist you don’t write the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech for Shylock; if you’re a romantic about human nature you don’t show him as genuinely evil. Shakespeare’s greatness lies in the fact that he does both. In “The Merchant of Venice,” we see human nature in all its complexity, including the effects of prejudice. We see Shylock’s evil but also his humanity, and thus we are forced to realize that “There but for the grace of God go I.”

"Hath not a Jew eyes?"
“Hath not a Jew eyes?”

I’ve often  said that Lear and Othello are the darkest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, and they are. But I am more impressed with my latest reading that even in them something good comes from all the apparent suffering and futility, though it may be harder to see. At the end of Othello, Iago, who struts through the play serenely confident in his ability to manipulate anybody and get away with anything is caught and promised a severe punishment. After all the injustice that happens, justice is finally served. And after all his suffering, and only as a result of it, Lear gains self knowledge. Both these goods come at a terrible price, but the implication could be drawn that, at any price, they are worth it.

Lear and his daughters.  Cordelia, on the far right, is played by Alice Liddell--the Alice for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland!
Lear and his daughters. Cordelia, on the far right, is played by Alice Liddell–the Alice for whom Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland!

The older and (I hope) wiser I get, the more I tend to draw that inference. And I think that wisdom consists, not simply in drawing it, but in doing so while being sobered at the high price our fallen nature often exacts, and realizing that our task is to keep the price from being so high when we can, for ourselves and others. The only way ultimately to do that is to believe and proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that the Price has already been paid. Whether he went so far himself I do not know, but because he understood life and portrayed its heights and depths so accurately, Shakespeare seen through the lens of Scripture is a Schoolmaster who points me to Christ.

Othello, Iago, Desdemona.  Iago is already coming between them.
Othello, Iago, Desdemona. Iago is already coming between them.

For more of Dr. Williams’ ruminations on literature and life, visit the Lantern Hollow Bookstore!


9/11, Fantasy, and How We Deal With Evil

My theme this month is Instant Plot ideas, but I thought I’d deviate this week.  My post this week falls on September 11th, and I was thinking about how we struggle to cope with evil in this world.    What I believe shocks people most about the event that happened back in 2001 is the sheer villainy required for anyone to voluntarily cause the deaths of so many people.  We have our Hitlers and our Stalins of history, but it’s easy to put those in the past.  They are part of history.  This is still part of our present.

graveyardWhile not everyone ascribes to a set of beliefs in which there is a dichotomy of good and evil, instinctively, most of us still see it in the world.  We can’t help it.  It’s not enough to explain something away by pointing to psychological damage or confusion or perspective differences.  We continually confront evil in the world, even if some of us don’t want to call it that.

This connects, in my mind, to why so many of us write stories, particularly fantasy stories,  and why we are drawn to read them. Within many of those fantasy novels is the great struggle between evil, in some form, and heroism, flawed but irrepressible, and we do not tire of seeing our heroes win.  We read those stories and in some ways, they help us come to terms with what we see happening around us.

A mistake many people make, however, is to view these forays into fantasy as mere “escapism”, as if reading about a world that isn’t “real” makes it somehow irrelevant to real life. The flaw in this reasoning comes when we set up false contrasts between truth vs fiction or fantasy vs reality.  Fiction isn’t the opposite of truth because fiction can reveal truth through its story telling.  And good fantasy certainly isn’t the opposite of reality because it has the ability to use the fantastic elements of its worlds to reveal profound and powerful meaning in our world.  Now, to be fair, many of us do read in order to escape into another world, but we always return to our own and, if the book was good enough, we bring something back with us.

wall of stars washington dc
Here We Mark the Price of Freedom

Tolkien set the standard, but the stories came before him – stories with monsters and dragons and evil knights and wicked kings.  These forces of evil were not “real”, but they represented for their tellers and listeners a reality that was undeniable – Evil exists and we are fighting against it every day.

The most important truth and reality that we can draw from these fantasy villains, however, is that they are temporary forces and they are inevitably the losing side.  A good fantasy novel also  has heroes, and the heroes – at no small cost – are the ones who win in the end.

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten” ~ G.K. Chesterton

Now, I am generalizing fantasy novels in this post, since many have deviated from the traditional good vs evil to show less dramatically opposed characters or different scenarios, but I think that the idea is still there – rooted in the genre – and we still read it and write it quite often.  We want to create a believable, shiver-inducing evil because we  want to give our heroes something to defeat.  And through the telling of a “mere story”, we also want to show our readers that evil is a real force in our world, but not the force that wins out in the end, even when it seems like it must. Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe” of the fairy tale, and there is nothing quite so profound as that sudden turning point from darkness to hope.  It is difficult to cope with the existence of tragedies on any grand scale, and yet our stories include them regularly, because in a story we get to see the ending, and the ending is good.

That glimmer of a picture of how this world’s story will end is nothing if not encouraging.

Just a thought.

The Wrath of Nerds: How Bioware’s Writing Decisions Enraged the Internet

Hello everyone! It’s been a little while, but I’m back, alive and well. A few weeks ago I promised to have a post dealing with writing mistakes in the Mass Effect series, specifically pointing out issues with how the story comes to an end. Well, here it is, but with a big ‘ol asterisk that makes pretty much all of my argument conditional. But, I’ll get to that at the end.

Mass Effect 3: War of the Nerds

The internet has basically been on fire the last several weeks, burning in the wake of the nerdrage of thousands of Bioware fans scorned. The ending of their favorite series, Mass Effect, is generally considered to be absolutely awful.

I just got done analyzing Popbioethics.com’s article about how great Mass Effect is (links here), and then this whole thing exploded. What went wrong? Is there anything we can learn from this conflagration? I think so, although some of the issues are unique to the medium of video games. Check out this video for a summary of the issues (as with many videos on the internet, language warning)

This is a basic condensation of the hundreds of huge forum debates that have popped up. The other side often defends Bioware, saying that the upset fans are selfish and feel entitled to usurp the artist’s rendering and would only be satisfied if they made the ending themselves, or that they’re just whining because there’s no “Rainbows and Candycanes” ending where everyone lives happily ever after. Most video game journalists seem to have sided with the latter, defending Bioware’s vision as inviolate.

Now, I’ve just been recently studying Reader Response critical theory, and can definitely relate to the developer’s annoyance that the customer now seems to be demanding their own ending. I see  great value in authorial intent, and do not personally ascribe to the notion that every critical interpretation of a work is valid. However, with such a massive uproar, even if it was completely incomprehensible and inarticulate, there has to be some truth to it. This is not the case, however, as a majority of the debates going on have been surprisingly articulate, bringing in philosophical and literary arguments far beyond “yur ending suks chang it nao.” So, something obviously went wrong, but what?

Inconsistency Killed the Fanbase

beowulf and the dragon painting
The hero against the dragon, an archetypal symbol of evil and power

Making three books, three movies, or three video games with a consistant quality is hard. It is very common for series to very rapidly decline after an initial spurt of brilliance, often shrinking into obscurity as time and sequals carry on and on. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve come to accept it. I believe that this sometimes happens because the writers don’t really have a plan of finally ending things, and so have no actual back end to their narrative. Not so with Mass Effect, however. This series has always been a three-parter, and has such an elaborately crafted world and plot, with numerous sub-plots and arcs that it could not have even begun without extraordinary planning. But one important element that must always remain consistent in any work is tone. You can’t have a satisfying story that fluctuates dramatically from being serious to silly, sullen to whimsical, or tragic to comedic. The problem is that every step of the way, you are setting up expectations for the reader. If they picked up a book because they wanted to hear about the sad love story of Romeo and Juliet, they would be justifiably upset if they got Much Ado About Nothing instead, halfway through, only to snap back to tragedy in the end with everyone suddenly offing themselves with daggers and/or poison.

This strikes on what I believe is the main catalyst of dissatisfaction that fans have for the Mass Effect series: they expected one thing, and got something else entirely. One part of this was the marketing around the game stated explicitly that it would not end in an A/B/C choice, but it did anyway, but another issue (and I believe this is the core one from a writer’s perspective) is that in the end, players expected an epic, but got a tragedy without the necessary closure for a satisfying tragic ending.

Epic stories revolve around the actions of a larger than life hero of vast importance, struggling against great odds to finally achieve victory, often at great cost. We see this in many classic examples:

  • The Illiad, with the Argives’ victory over Troy at the expense of the deaths of many great and worthy men on both sides, and there is a great sense of loss in the ending with Hektor’s funeral
  • The Odyssey, with Odysseus’ final return to his homeland, only to find it in shambles and his wife in great despair and danger. He regains his throne, but there is still much lost, time having eaten away at the land and at Odysseus himself, and none of it can ever be regained.
  • Beowulf, who comes to the land and saves it from the terrors of the monster Grendel and the dragon, becomes king and rules in victory. However, 50 years later, another dragon emerges, and while Beowulf finally slays it with the aid of Wiglaf, he dies from the wounds.

You may have noticed a pattern here: none of these are “Rainbows and Candycanes” endings. But they feel complete. There is great power in the story of a hero who risks everything for a worthy cause, and even if he falls, the greatness of his valor makes the sacrifice worth it.

plot hole normandy
Yep. That's a plothole alright.

I believe this is what players of Mass Effect were expecting. In some ways, this is what happens. No matter which ending is chosen, the great problem of the future of the galaxy is more or less solved. However, the solution creates more problems than the original threat. Even if there are nolonger giant space robots trying to wipe out all sentient organic life, now all of the vast fleets of the unified galactic races are stranded lightyears away from their homes, which would most likely result in a frantic, fatalistic free-for-all to wipe out everyone else so that you can preserve your own race. The fates of every character we care about is unknown, and unknowable. So, even though the hero gained a technical victory, dying in the process, it doesn’t appear that there was any meaning in it after all.

This is similar to the tone in the ending of many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the easiest example which comes to my mind being Romeo and Juliet. The two lovers die essentially because of a miscommunication and misunderstanding, and everyone mourns and learns from their story. But that’s the key, isn’t it? Their deaths had meaning because it forced the mourners to reflect on their own lives and motivations, and their own part in the tragedy.

This is catharsis at work, the purging of emotional tension that comes at the end of a tragic story. The fear and tension are resolved because Romeo and Juliet are finally, irrevocably dead, which is still sad, but the sadness has meaning because their deaths have meaning. We can leave the story feeling that the turmoil has settled, and even though the resolution of the plot was sad, the release of the tensions and the stress feels complete, and there’s nothing left bottled up from the climactic events of the story.

This is where Mass Effect slips up. It suddenly shifts from an epic story to a tragic one because of the unquestionably terrible fates of all of the characters, but lacks the catharsis moment, the point in which that tension is resolved, and the audience feels that it can move on without any baggage left unattended.

How do we avoid the nerdrage!?

If this is truly the core reason for the nerdrage on the internet surrounding Mass Effect’s ending, then it stands to reason that unless you want your fans grabbing the pitchforks, you should be darn sure you don’t change your tone without filling in the necessary elements. A story full of meaning can be rendered meaningless by an empty ending, and people don’t like feeling as if they’ve been tricked into investing into a meaningless story. Writer beware!


As I said before, all of this is somewhat conditional now, because of the below video. If this theory about Mass Effect is right, then basically everything I just said above is false, all of the plot holes I didn’t address were intentional, and a whole lot of people will be eating crow pretty soon. Check it out, but be warned- severe spoilers! If you haven’t played the game, don’t worry- if this turns out to be true, you better believe I’ll be writing a post about it!

The emotional response to literature: an explanation of ecstasy and katharsis

So…I have long wondered what makes good literature good.  I know that this question is partially answered solely through the bias of taste; however, I know that there are some books, some stories, that seem to transcend not only time and cultures, but even what someone would typically like or dislike.  During my time studying and reading, I explored the nature of the emotional responses we have to good literature.  Aristotle was the first to look into this phenomenon.  He called it katharsis. Later, other writers, philosophers, and orators would come up with their own postulations about it.  So…here for your reading pleasure is a little treatise on the concept of ecstasy and katharsis as it relates to knowing and understanding good literature.

“For the effect of elevated language is not to persuade the hearers, but to amaze them… The extent to which we can be persuaded is usually under our own control, both these sublime passages exert an irresistible force and mastery, and get the upper hand with every hearer”(Longinus 114).  

Aristotle was the first to give credence to emotional response in literature.  He called the emotional experience katharsis—a release of pent up emotions, mainly pity and fear. Aristotle’s katharsis is experienced primarily through tragedy.  For Longinus the experience is something different, something that requires higher emotions.  It goes beyond merely purging the soul; it transports the soul.  The ecstasy that Longinus writes about any sublime passage can transport the hearer there. When making the distinction between the two types of emotional sublimity, ecstasy and katharsis, there are more similarities then differences.  As T. R. Henn suggests, “both the katharsis and the ekstasis may be regarded as two different manifestations of the same phenomenon, capable of existing separately or combined” (135).

Ekstasis, or as we have incorporated it into the vernacular, ecstasy, is the notion of transport that Longinus says elevated language will cause. Other translations connect ecstasy to the concept of amazement as can be seen in the first quote.  Immense pleasure or amazement is received in hearing excellence.  This sort of pleasure is not something the author can persuade us to experience.  It “is stronger than persuasion or the incidental pleasure attended on persuasion, for the audience is powerless to resist έκστασις (ecstasis).” (Olson 232).  Just as Aristotle’s audience attending a tragedy could not resist experiencing katharsis. The hearers are more then persuaded, it is an involuntary response the tragedy. It is a universal response.

Longinus says “by some innate power the true sublime uplifts our souls; we are filled with the proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy” (120). This strictly emotional response ties the author to the hearer as they share in the wondrous transport of the same experience.  This oneness starts with the author, during his writing process, when he is transported by the sheer greatness of the content.   Longinus uses the example of Euripides: “would you not say that the soul of the poet goes into the chariot with the boy, sharing his danger and joining the horses in their flight? For he could never have visualized such things had he not been swept along, keeping pace with those celestial bodies” (134). This same rapturous transport that takes the author into the heavenly realms is the transport that the hearer experiences later when the passage is preformed or spoken. Macksey explains this duel transport:

It is Euripides’ terrifying image of the Furies, whom the poet has ‘seen’ and ‘almost compelled his audience, was well, to see,’ that allows Longinus to make an important shift from a mimetic motion of the image (a ‘picture’ vividly presented for inspection) to an emotive response to the fabulous that is communicated from the rapt poet to his audience (920).

This culminating emotional experience is what Longinus considers to be the greatest pleasure. And it should be noted that Longinus is using tragedies as his examples.  Longinus’s ecstasy is the katharsis Aristotle lauds at the end of a tragedy, so the pleasure of the shared rapture follows the hearer beyond the final acts.

Part of what makes ecstasy so wondrous is that it is unexpected.  Like a thunderbolt “a well-timed stroke of sublimity scatters everything before it” (Longinus 114).   The anticipation for what comes next is like a suspense thriller without the cheap gimmicks. Though the sublime passages are unexpected to the hearer or even perhaps to the author, they are not without purpose.  Sublimity is not random or pointless.  It must articulate and enhance the overall story for the amazement to truly take affect.   Aristotle comments, “even chance events are found most astonishing when they appear to have happened as if for a purpose—as, for example, the statue of Mitys in Argos killed the man who was responsible for Mitys’s death by falling on top of him as he was looking at it.” (Aristotle 6.1).  An example of poetic justice or is it simply sublime?   Longinus would say yes to both.  But Longinus would find fault with those who merely fling around high sounding words and images to no effect.   He cautions, “we must take into account the place, the manner, the circumstance, and the motive”  of how something is written and delivered (Longinus 137). Timing is essential to making a passage simply words or making it an experience.

Aristotle wrote that, “poets use astonishment to achieve their chosen aims; this is tragic and agreeable” (Aristotle 8.8).   Aristotle is writing primarily with concern for how a tragedy is written and delivered. He saw a difference in the use of astonishment in tragedy and epic.  As is noted in the following passage:

While it is true that astonishment is an effect which should be sought in tragedy, the irrational (which is the most important source of astonishment) is more feasible in epic, because one is not looking at the agent.  The pursuit of Hector would seem preposterous on stage, with the others standing by and taking no part in the pursuit while Achilles shakes his head to restrain them; but in epic it escapes notice (Aristotle 10.5)

While Aristotle makes a distinction concerning tragedy and epic, Longinus separates the poet from the orator.  But the idea is essentially the same – the visual, tragedy and orator, versus the auditory, the epic and the poet.  It is important in understanding how the audience can and will respond to something that is seen versus something that is heard.  Longinus makes his strongest argument for this when talking abut visualization.  Visualization or phantasia “means one thing with the orators and another with poets—that in poetry its aim is to astonish, in oratory to produce vividness of description, though indeed both seek to stir the emotions” (Longinus 133).  It must be clarified that phantasia (that is visualization) is not to be confused with spectacle.  Spectacle is uncouth. For example, no one should see Medea kill her children on the stage.  Such an act would be obscene.  It would not invoke pity or fear, but true horror.  The benefits of katharsis could not take place with a horrified, traumatized audience.  Although Aristotle admitted that spectacle could be attractive, it “is very inartistic and is least germane to the art of poetry. For the effect of tragedy is not dependent on performance and actors” (Aristotle 4.4).   A poet should not try to engage in the spectacle in his writing.  He needs to stay above it.

Longinus maintains that poets use exaggeration and fabulous expressions to achieve their visualization but “the finest feature of visualization in oratory is always its adherence to reality and truth” (Longinus 134).   Mats Malm in his article “On the Technique of the Sublime” puts it this way, “The poetical use (of phantasia) leads to astonishment, while the rhetorical use leads to clarity” (4).  Clarity and enlightenment are the goals of the orator; however, he can still use the astonishing effects of visualization to do so.  Longinus uses Demosthenes as his example of this collaboration between the truth of events and the astonishing use of visualization to transport the hearers.  It is the hearer’s natural tendency to latch onto the effects of visualization.  When the orator “has at one and the same time developed an argument and visualized events, and his conception has therefore transcended the bounds of mere persuasion” (Longinus 135).  The hearer will have no choice, but to be seized upon “the astonishing effect of the visualization”; thus, leaving the argument “blow the surface of the accompanying brilliance” (Longinus 135).   In other words, “this (phantasia) is a most potent rhetorical device for exploiting the emotions of the audience” (Malm 4). It is not that the argument is lost but that the hearer is so amazed by the grand conceptions and word pictures; they are beyond being swayed by the argument.  The brilliance of the passage carries them.

Ecstasy is a key element to experiencing a great passage. This is not to say that transport is all about pleasure and gratification. Longinus understands that in some instances, namely tragedies, it is about fear and pity.  Henn clarifies this saying “‘ecstasy’ will be the product of an infinitely complex blend of the ‘pleasure’ and ‘instruction’ aspects” (Henn 137).  Ecstasy has the same capacity as katharsis to instruct the hearer.  It is not just enough to feel the transport or purge; “pleasure [is] derived from instruction, the philosophical aspect of poetry, and, possibly, pure pleasure as well” (Henn 137).  Aristotle places instruction over pleasure due to his emphasis on plot structure.  Tragedy is plot not character; therefore, the katharsis is the product of the structure.  The hearer is to learn through the actions and consequences of the tragedy for katharsis to take place.  Longinus having a vaster pool of literature to discern from is not concerned with type (i.e., tragedy) as he is with style. For him “the sublime is not a type of style at all, it is an effect…and its overwhelming impact can be gained from styles ranging from the grandeur of Homer and Plato to a vivid colloquialism or the simple words of Moses in Genesis” ( Innes 273).  The effect is not limited to tragedy, as Aristotle may suggest.  It encompasses the whole scope of literature.

Even though capacity to write inspired emotion and grand concepts is largely innate, Longinus believes that the ability can be fostered through technique. Longinus gives several examples of different techniques such as figure of speech and metaphors that effect how emotion influences the hearers.  With the former, he discuses how figures of speech are best when they are not obvious. Emotions used by the orator are a “wonderfully helpful antidote against suspicion that attends the use of figures.  The cunning artifice remains out of sight, surrounded by the brilliance of beauty and sublimity, and all suspicion is put to flight” (Longinus 138).  This concealment is not to say that the orator is trying to be crafty and deceive his hearers.  It is that the image the orator conjures is so magnificent that the use of the figure of speech is over-looked by the hearers.  With the use of metaphors the concept is much the same. A “timely expression of violent emotions, together with true sublimity, is the appropriate antidote for the number and boldness of metaphors” (Longinus 150).  As before, he warns against the overuse of such figures and metaphors when attempting to achieve the sublime.   He likens those writers who get carried away to drunkards, who make “outbursts of emotion which are not relevant to the matter in hand, but are wholly personal, and hence tedious (Longinus 117).

There has been some difficulty in understanding this emotion of transport.  Longinus’ understanding of emotion in the sublime was two-fold: it was part of the process of sublimity and a product. The process more important for the writer must reach sublimity firt. The writer of the sublime commands “the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion” (Longinus 121).  However, excessive emotion is discouraged. One can be over zealous.  Longinus berates this in his list of faults, “a third type of fault is impassioned writing which Theodorus called the ‘pseudo-bacchanalian’. This is misplaced or hollow emotion where none is called for or immoderate passion where restraint is what is needed” (117).  Just as the effect of sublimity cannot be forced, so the art of the sublime cannot be forced out of the author. One cannot force sublimity by merely getting emotional. Not all sublime literature has emotion. He also cautions that not all emotions are sublime. Notably he considered pity, grief, and fear to be common, the very qualities which Aristotle held in high esteem. Though Longinus did not particularly care for such emotions like fear or pity, he at least understood their importance to transport.  Longinus also advises that the best eulogist should lack emotion that is to say they do not let the emotion of their task overwhelm them and thus, negatively affect their hearers (Longinus 122).

Sublime literature produces ecstasy, and the sublime writer will know how to do it. Sublimity is not confined to epic, tragedy, or oratory. Longinus has made the style irrelevant. Nor is katharsis as an emotional experience tied solely to tragedy.   There is ecstasy, the transport of all sublime literature.  Longinus was amazed at how Homer could astound in his day; Homer still amazes us today.  We experience the transport that Longinus describes, as he read Homer, even as we read Homer.  Transcending time, Homer takes all to the battlefields outside the city of Troy.  We are not persuaded to transport; we are taken by the shear power of sublimity.

Work Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Malcolm Heath.New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

Henn, T. R. Longinus and English Criticism.Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1934.

Innes, D. C. “Longinus and Caecilius: Models of the Sublime.” Myemosyne 55.3 (2002): 259-284. JStore. Web.24 August 2009.

Longinus, “On the Sublime.” Classical Literary Criticism. Trans. Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch.  Penguin Books,New York: 2000. 113-166.

Macksey, Richard. “Longinus Reconsidered.” MLN 108.5 (1993): 913-934. JSTore. Web. 26 August 2009.

Malm, Mats. “On the Technique of the Sublime.” Comparative Literature, 53.1(Winter 2000): 1-10. JStore. Web.26 August 2009.

Olson, Elder. “The Argument of Longinus’ “On the Sublime”.” Modern Philosophy, 39.3 (1942): 225-258. JStore. Web.24 August 2009.