Blog Post

Shakespeare and the social network

I was intrigued by this (abstract) mathematical analysis of structural balance in social groups because I was teaching Richard II all week, and thinking about my favorite book on Shakespeare, Richard Decker's Anatomy of the Screenplay. Decker's film-writing manual only mentions Shakespeare once, iirc, but his account of the structure of American movies is subtle, extensive, and exquisitely apt for analyzing the structure of Shakespeare's plays. (Here's the full pdf).

Decker notes that the basic structure of every scene is a focus on two people who want something from each other, while attempting to withhold what the other wants.  Every scene tends to have a winner and a loser, though sometimes we may be deceived about which is which.

But what do people want from each other?  In Richard II, the range of possible desire is vast, but the play is about how that vast range finally reduces to almost nothing, to a tweet-sized summary of human life: "I live with bread like you, feel want / Taste grief, need friends.  Subjected thus, / How can you say to me I am a king?" Notice that the lines about human reduction are themselves reduced to tetrameter (the first two lines of this quotation).  "Want" in this quotation looks towards the "crushing penury" that Richard will describe later, but it's less significant than the need for friends he expresses here.  So what do people want from each other?  They want to be with their friends, and to keep their enemies away.

This is a particularly good thing to represent on the Shakespearean stage: the reduction of life to a poor player strutting and fretting and exiting.  Richard knows that the circle of real friendship is always small (and Henry is assiduously working to reduce it).  A stage is always large enough to contain it.

It's a good thing to represent for another reason. There are no mechanical ways of showing that a scene has ended in Shakespeare -- no curtains falling, no lights fading.  No extrinsic device can show that a new scene has started, that it is taking place not only later but also somewhere else.  The Elizabethan solution to the anti-Aristotlean problem of multiple settings is elegant: when one group exists the stage, no one from that group returns at the beginning of the next scene.  The audience registers that a scene has ended because the stage is empty for a moment, and then a group of people every one of whom had been absent from the end of the previous scene comes in.

This technique or convention is more than a technique or convention: it relies on the way we connect social groups with places.  Georg Simmel aptly and beautifully remarks that "spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations."

Human relations occur within a social circle, and in Shakespeare there are several such circles, which appear in alternation.  They appear on stage and so represent themselves spatially; they interact and coalesce and dehisce and reconglomerate into new groups.  This is what Shakespeare is always showing in his plays, of every genre.

The article on structural balance that I cited describes mathematically how, under a wide variety of plausible conditions, almost all social networks will gravitate towards one of two states: two groups in conflict, or one coherent group.  Nothing remains steady, of course, and further conflicts arise out of every resolution, within the group or groups that have formed themselves. Structural balance is an old idea in sociology; while this article gives a mathematical model for how it forms, what the model describes is fairly intuitive.  The reason I bring it up here is that it provides a useful and pithy vocabulary for how groups interact and what individuals in each group want from each other and also from individuals in the other group.

What people want from each other in Shakespeare is either friendship (cf. The Merchant of Venice: "I would be friends with you") or power (cf. the same play and same quotation from Shylock).

The general rule in Shakespeare is that those on the rise seek power; those falling seek friendship.  We, of course, prefer those who seek friendship, and Shakespeare uses that preference equally in tragedy and in comedy (and in the individual history's tropisms towards one or the other).

But the two are related, as Richard II makes especially clear.  Because every scene in that play is about characters seeking to "make a divorce betwixt" the members of the enemy group.  (This is what the article models: the causes and results of such pressure to shift alliances.)  Richard and Henry are the antagonists, of course.  The fascination in the play is in watching how each tries to define the group he establishes around himself, while attempting to interfere with or dissolve the other group. Power and friendship are both about drawing magic social circles.  You can trace the progress of the play by observing the different circles that define and initiate the sequence of scenes.

Henry's version of power is not to say that he is subjected by the need for friends, but to ask out loud, "Have I no friend to rid me of this living fear?"  But the friend who murders Richard upon this hint is banished for doing so -- Henry ends by saying "I hate the murderer, love him murderéd."  Take that line seriously.  Henry has just said, explaining the exile of the murderer, who protests that he did if for Henry: "They love not poison that do poison need."  There's that language of need again.  Richard had said "I... need friends."  Henry needs poison.  But he doesn't love what he needs.  So when he says "I love him murderéd," he doesn't mean: I love the fact that he's been murdered, but, Now that he is dead I can love him.

Richard and Henry's relationship is one in which power has trumped friendship until the end.  But Henry is Richard's last friend (it's a sort of Stockholm Syndrome play) -- his deepest and most intimate friend in the end, his last companion in tragedy.  He's already said to the Queen (from whose love Henry separates him): "I am sworn brother, sweet, / To grim necessity, and he and I /Will keep a league till death." (Milton's Satan must be remembering this speech in the scene in which he makes what Empson calls his "eerie offer of all he has" to Adam and Eve: "league with you I seek  / And mutual amity, so strait, so close / That I with you must dwell or you with me / Henceforth.")  These are his last friends: Henry and Ananke, but they are friends.  Henry does love him, does repay his love, and there is truth and not only Machievellian carefulness in Henry's earlier line: "So far be mine, my most redoubted lord, / As my true service shall deserve your love."

So the way to apply Decker to Shakespeare, to tragedy at any rate, is to see that what characters want from each other is for them to join or dissolve the social groups they belong to.  In comedy the dissolution doesn't go all the way (though it comes close with scapegoat figures, Malvolio pre-eminently).  In tragedy it does.  We get to "unaccommodated man" (Lear) , the human group reduced to the bare particular individual.  Think again of Gloucester's haunting speech in Lear, his speech about being haunted.

I' the last night's storm I such a fellow saw;
Which made me think a man a worm: my son
Came then into my mind; and yet my mind
Was then scarce friends with him: I have heard more since.

His mind now be friends with his son: there's at least that. ("That engulfing since" is here too; "I have heard more" about the child's love: this is what Lear has persistently wanted and will want.  More is one of the most crucial words in the play.  For another post, perhaps.)

In Richard II these issues culminate in the looking-glass scene.  Richard rejects his last friends (so he thinks) by breaking the "flattering glass."  As Henry as wished it, he has even disparted from his own image.  He is left with nothing.  But it is also in this scene that Henry shows himself most kind to Richard -- "Name it, fair cousin" -- despite Richard's rejection of that kindness.

The only way that the OTP, the one true friendship, can triumph over the competition to define one's own group and that of one's opposition, is with the tragic dissolution of even the singleton group of one's own self, let alone the OTT (the royal we, England, you) that would be a field for the exercise of power:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, 'Come, little ones,' and then again,
'It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle's eye.'
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune's slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king'd again: and by and by
Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.

 

The thoughts group, regroup, fall apart, but find ease in the idea that they still belong to a group: the group of those who are equally misfortunate, "the community of those who have no community," as Bataille put it.  That's the final group in Shakespearean tragedy, and what achieves resolution, what makes it possible for tragedy to give pleasure, is that this final community is one where power having evanesced what's left is friendship.  No tragic hero dies friendless in Shakespeare.  Richard has Henry; Hamlet has Horatio and Laertes; Lear has Kent and the Fool and Cordelia; Othello has Desdemona; Antony and Cleopatra have each other; Romeo and Juliet have each other; Macbeth, very strangely, has Macduff, and even more he finally has himself.

People want a lot of things from others in Shakespeare, but when the last group dissolves, and with it their power to try to take what they want, what they are left with is the strange and deep friendship which makes the tragic tragic.  Like all friendship, it has a tragic cast, and like all friendship it gives pleasure. 

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).