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A Risk Theatre Reading of Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven Against Thebes, winner of the Dionysia in 467 BCE, separates the impulse of patriotism into its constituent ideologies, emotions, and behaviours. In Seven, the spark of patriotism is kindled by the opening flourish of bugle calls. When, through the pathetic fallacy, homeland becomes motherland, the spark becomes a flame. Then, calling the gods and the fervour of religion under its banner, the flame becomes a fire. Finally, by drawing a line between us and them, the fire becomes a blaze. Individuality is seared away, revealing the archetypes behind the human mask, the ancient compulsions that speak through the heraldic devices emblazoned on the warriors’ arms. Aeschylus, by dramatizing a city besieged, presents a perfect prism which refracts the intense blaze of patriotism into a scintillating rainbow of ideologies, emotions, and behaviours that, while touching every facet of the human experience, is bound together by the biological imperatives underlying human nature.

Although remembered today as the father of tragedy and the eldest of the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aeschylus was a soldier and a patriot. He fought in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, where a motley consortium of bickering city-states checked the Persian Empire. In 490 BCE, he distinguished himself in the hoplite ranks at Marathon, where his brother, Cynegirus, perished. He fought in 480 at Artemisium and Salamis, and at Plataea in 479 when freedom came to Greece (Herodotus 6.114).

In the second century CE, the travel writer Pausanias visited Athens. He was surprised to learn that Aeschylus’s patriotism took such pride of place that the poet neglected to recollect his other achievements on his epitaph:

Aeschylus, who had won such renown for his poetry and for his share in the naval battles before Artemisium and at Salamis, recorded at the prospect of death nothing else, and merely wrote his name, his father’s name, and the name of his city, and added that he had witnesses to his valor in the grove at Marathon and in the Persians who landed there. (1.14.5)

The Athenians, however, remembered him as a poet and a patriot. The fifth century had been the Athenian century, the century where backwoods Athens had risen against empire only to itself become empire. Towards the end of the century, however, Athens was fighting for survival, exhausted by plague, stasis, and the Peloponnesian War. In 405 bce, Aristophanes’s comedy Frogs was produced. The nostalgic play reflects on Athens’s heyday, when civic poets promoted civic virtues, taking the city from peak to peak. In its reflections, it intertwines Aeschylus’s poetry with his patriotism.

In Frogs—which is named after the chorus of frogs that inhabit the lake at the entrance to the underworld—all the great tragic poets are dead. The tragic poets were the ones who had inculcated the Athenians with a sense of virtue and responsibility by holding the reflecting mirror of Achilles, Patroclus, and the role models of myth before the youth. In the logic of Frogs, Athens could be saved if a poet-saviour could be brought back from the dead. Dionysus, the god of tragedy, goes to the underworld where he judges a poetic agon between the two leading candidates: Aeschylus and Euripides. He will bring the winner back to life. Though a comedy, the urgency for a saviour was real. Athens stood on the brink. If it seems strange to ask a poet to save the city, remember that then, the division of labour was less pronounced. If moderns lived like the ancients, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams would also be a field commander, four-star general Colin Powell would write Broadway hits, and playwright Caridad Svich would be Pope. Those were different times.

In their contest, Euripides’s ghost establishes the qualities that poets bring to the table. They offer “skill and good council” and “make people better members of their communities” (1009-10). Aeschylus responds with Seven:

EURIPIDES. And just how did you train them to be so noble?

DIONYSUS. Speak up, Aeschylus, and don’t be purposefully prideful and difficult.

AESCHYLUS. By composing a play chock-full of Ares.

DIONYSUS. Namely?

AESCHYLUS. My Seven Against Thebes; every single man who watched it was hot to be warlike. (1019-22)

When Frogs was produced, the real Euripides had been dead a year and Aeschylus fifty. Sixty-two years separated Seven from Frogs. Despite the recency bias in Euripides’s favour, Aeschylus prevails. In real life, however, Aeschylus was not coming back. Six months after Frogs, Athens fell. That, in the fantasy of Frogs, Aeschylus could be imagined as such a saviour, however, testifies to the enduring vision of nobility in Seven, a play which set fire to the flames of patriotism, the most patriotic of plays by the most patriotic of poets. In the character of Eteocles, Aeschylus gives us a patriot’s portrait of a patriot.

ETEOCLES’S STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS

Seven begins with Thebes, the city of seven gates, under siege. After an initial ranging of powers, the enemy mounts a final, all-in assault. In his war room atop the acropolis, Eteocles coordinates the defense. His is a master class in statecraft.

In his opening address to the Thebans, Eteocles delivers his vision of patriotism. Patriotism begins with a contradiction. While god is responsible for success, Eteocles himself is responsible for failure:

ETEOCLES. For if we win success, the God is the cause

but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,

throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,

a multitudinous swelling prelude

cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans. (4-8: Grene translation)

Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic defies logic. It appears lopsided because Eteocles is pursuing two strategies that, considered singly, are at odds, but, considered together, amplify one another. His first strategy is to motivate the Thebans by rousing their blind and irrational hopes. Hope, as Aeschylus notes in another play, is one of the sapiens’s two greatest possessions:

CHORUS. Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?

PROMETHEUS. I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.

CHORUS. What cure did you provide them with against that sickness?

PROMETHEUS. I placed in them blind hopes.

CHORUS. That was a great gift you gave men.

PROMETHEUS. Besides this, I gave them fire. (Prometheus Bound 249-54)

Though despair whispers the day is lost, blind hope never surrenders. What is more, by invoking “god” and “success” together, Eteocles amplifies blind hope with the sum of his compatriots’ faith, their religiosity, and all their beliefs in providence. This is no longer blind hope, but a seeing hope kindled by religious fervour. They are on the acropolis. They see the temples, monumental projections of power. The emotion of hope coupled with the human predisposition to belief is a winning combination.

If the gods take credit for success, it stands that they should take the blame for failure. Anthropologist James George Frazer records many such instances in The Golden Bough. In one example, during a six month drought, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker. They stripped him, reviled him, put him in irons, and threatened him with drowning and hanging (86). In another example, he records how the Chinese would alternately praise or censure their gods. Compliant gods were raised to a higher level of divinity by imperial decree. Recalcitrant gods, however, were deposed and stripped of the rank of deity (85). Eteocles, however, takes an asymmetric approach to the assignment of praise and blame. Why?

Eteocles recognizes that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Leaders who transfer risk are perceived by their constituents to lack skin in the game. Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad illustrates the shortcomings of a skinless leader. Although Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, he transfers the underlying blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys (19.87). “They made me do it,” he says. What a daft apology. So too, Agamemnon points the finger at Zeus when, facing mounting losses, he proposes to evacuate Troy. Though god was responsible for their setbacks, this is not something he can say. He is immediately rebuked by a junior commander, and to the resounding thorubus of his joint chiefs of staff (9.17-51). Unlike Agamemnon, Eteocles recognizes that leaders who wish to unify their peoples must bear responsibility. His second strategy, therefore, involves shouldering the blame.

By holding himself accountable, Eteocles aligns his interests with his constituents’ interests. He has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game finds that, the higher the personal cost of failure, the more one is incentivized to perform. Knowing that, if their ship of state goes down, Eteocles goes down with them, is a great reassurance to his constituents.[1] They expect that Eteocles, in saving his own skin, will save them all.

In the final examination, Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic, while lopsided, works in real life. It activates the emotion of hope, engages the mind’s predisposition to religious belief, and unifies leaders and constituents by giving leaders skin in the game. Patriotism is the mood of an animal under stress, the outpourings of a human nature for which reason is a last resort. Patriotism prefers blind hopes, fast heuristics, deep-seated beliefs, and other strategies predating novel reason.

In the second half of his state of the union address, Eteocles states the motherland doctrine. For a patriot, the concept of homeland is too small to fire hearts. It must be amplified by the pathetic fallacy. The pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities onto inanimate nature. By personifying the land into a motherland, Eteocles adds urgency to the defensive effort. They fight for mother earth, the original mother:

ETEOCLES. Help Earth your Mother.

She reared you, on her kindly surface, crawling

babies, welcomed all the trouble of your nurture,

reared you to live in her, to carry a shield

in her defense, loyally, against such needs as this. (16-20)

Filial devotion due a biological mother is transferred onto the home range. The land is alive, suckling its babes. Every Theban who has drank her milk is her debtor. By turning mother’s milk into an intoxicating wine, Eteocles takes kinship, the most fundamental of relationships for sapiens and other social animals, and appropriates it for homeland security.

Patriotism is one of the most dynamic and encompassing forces of the human mind. By vesting human hopes onto the gods, the quality of patriotism engages the human predisposition towards religious belief, itself a primal calling going back at least sixty-thousand years to the Neanderthals, who buried their dead in elaborate funerary rites (Rendu et al. 81-6). Likewise, by transforming the home range into the myth of the motherland, patriotism repurposes for its own objectives the behaviour of altruism and fundamental notions of kinship and family. Social organization, emotions, behaviours, cult, and mythology, however, are only the starting points of patriotism, which is so much more. There is still to consider in- and out-groups, the higher ideologies, self-sacrifice, and monumental art, of which Seven itself is a bright example.

Us and Them

In Seven, there are two sets of us and them, one inside the gates, one at the gates. The first set of us and them are represented by Eteocles and the defenders of Thebes, on the one hand, and the chorus, on the other hand. The second set of us and them are represented by the two sets of seven captains: one defending and the other besieging Thebes. Eteocles’s goal is to unify “us” inside the gates and destroy “them” outside the gates. After his opening speech, he encounters the first them: the chorus of Theban women. They are making their way to the temples on the acropolis.

The chorus are terrified. They have seen “the wave of warriors, with waving plumes,” the “Horse of the White Shield / well equipped, hastening upon our city,” and “the jagged rocks they hurl / upon our citizens” (89-90, 112, 299-300). They have heard trampling hoofs, whirring spears, and screeching axles bruiting impending rapine, rape, and ruin (84, 153, 155). They come to prostrate themselves:

CHORUS. Shall I kneel at the images of the Gods?

O Blessed Ones, throned in peace,

It is time to cling to your images.

We delay and wail too much. (96-9)

Frazzled, the chorus say their raggedy prayers. Some turn to Zeus. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says one, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” (118-9). “Cypris, who are our ancestress,” says another, “turn destruction away” (140-1). After addressing the deities individually, they address the divine collective:

CHORUS. O Gods all sufficient,

O Gods and Goddesses, Perfecters,

Protectors of our country’s forts,

do not betray this city, spear-won,

to a foreign-tongued enemy. (166-70)

As the chorus say their broken prayers, Eteocles falls on them, rebuking them with strong words. To Eteocles, the chorus are either with him or against him:

ETEOCLES. You insupportable creatures, I ask you,

is this the best, is this for the city’s safety,

is this enheartening for our beleaguered army,

to have you falling at the images

of the city’s gods crying and howling,

an object of hatred for all temperate souls? (181-6)

The chorus protest: they were afraid; they ran to the gods; their actions fall in line with custom (211-6). Eteocles and the chorus engage in a stichomythic, back and forth exchange:

CHORUS. I am afraid: the din at the gates grows louder.

ETEOCLES. Silence! Do not speak of this throughout the city.

CHORUS. O Blessed Band, do not betray this fort.

ETEOCLES. Damnation! Can you not endure in silence?

CHORUS. Fellow-citizen Gods, grant me not to be a slave.

ETEOCLES. It is you who enslave yourselves, and all the city. (249-54)

Many years later, the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, perhaps at too great a price, was looking for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 5.1.69). His is a negative prayer filled with self-doubt, spoken from the point of view of the damned. God spits it out. Eteocles’s quarrel with the chorus is precisely this: their prayers are negative prayers, spoken from the loser point of view. “Grant me not to be a slave” and “do not betray this city,” though prayers, lack skin in the game. Vanquishers have their prayers and the vanquished theirs. The chorus’ prayers are those of the vanquished.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one with skin in the game, one that partakes and has a share of victory. It begins by invoking the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths flowing with the blood of sacrificed sheep and slaughtered bulls, their altars adorned with the foe’s spoils (264-79). Although they need time to adjust, the chorus rejoin Eteocles’s in-group.

The exchange between Eteocles and the chorus illustrates how patriotism overwhelms reason. Patriotism is like the instinct that jumps back from the snake even before the higher mental processes establish the nature of the serpent threat. So too, the chorus’ initial position may have been innocuous, and Eteocles’s binary arguments fallacious. But first survival: there will be time for logic after, if they live. In crises, instinct comes before reason and morale before logic. Eteocles, by unifying the city, checks off another box on the patriot’s rulebook. But there is still another them: the barbarians at the gates.

Patriotism strips humans of their personality and individuality. Once patriotism separates a man from his multitudes, what is left behind is a type, a caricature, a sign and representation of the raw biological forces animating the man. In the sequence leading up to the play, Eteocles had sent a Messenger to spy on the Argive camp. The Messenger, having learned the identities of the seven attacking captains, returns. As he relays the information to Eteocles, he systematically deindividuates the foe until all that is left of the man is his shield device, the proud advertisement blazoned on his shield. Deindividuation is part and parcel of patriotism’s process.

Stripped of his humanity, a man becomes an abstract representation. Polyneices is become the idea of justice, advertising on his shield a woman identifying herself as Justice leading a man—ostensibly himself—home (642-9). Others expose their animality. Tydeus stands ready to strike like a serpent (381). In Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus, the madness of the chthonian powers, hateful to civilization and the bright gods, breaks out. One has the fire-breathing monster Typhon blazoned on his shield, the other the Sphinx (493, 541). Through their devices, the two captains are reduced into savage personifications of madness and unreason. Others become caricatures of blasphemy. At the third gate, Eteoclus carries a shield on which:

A man in armor mounts a ladder’s steps

to the enemy’s town to sack it. Loud

cries also this man in his written legend

“Ares himself shall not cast me from the tower.” (466-69)

Capaneus goes further. He will sack the city “with the Gods’ good will or ill” (425-9). Parthenopaeus vaunts that he will sack Thebes “in despite of Zeus” (532). In this deindividuated world of patriotism where the abstract symbolic device stands in for the person, even a blank shield is a sign. Amphiaraus’s lack of a shield device signifies how “He is best not at seeming to be such / but being so” (591-2).

Patriotism is frugal, and typology is a sort of mental frugality. One is never oneself, but a sign, a sign of justice, a sign of animality, a sign of darkness and evil. Shield devices, vaunts, and even names are signs. Parthenopaeus, whose name means “the maiden one,” represents war’s rite of passage where a boy becomes a killer (532-8). Once the crowd have become types, it is easier to categorize them into in- and out-groups, the former bent on multiplying its seed and the latter on destroying it. Binary mentalities are a survival heuristic, practiced not only by the sapiens, but also by their animal precursors from ant colonies to baboon troops. Patriotism is not such a new thing. Patriotism started long ago.

Patriotism also demands that the defending captains become types. One defender is a sentry “hostile to strangers” (“Echthroxenos;” 621). Patriotism has distilled Lasthenes into that one quality. It is sufficient. Such is also the fate of Melanippus and Polyphontes, who are reduced into their elemental qualities. The former hates “insolent words” and the latter is “a man of fiery spirit” (410, 447). Other defenders are likewise stripped down. In a roll call of sons, one defender is the “son of Astacus,” another “Creon’s son,” and a third the “son of Oenops” (408, 474, 505). By emphasizing genealogy, Eteocles gives his troops skin in the game: sons must equal fathers. When even skin in the game is insufficient, he gives them land in the game: two defenders—Melanippus and Megareus—are born from the race of sown men, the original founders of Thebes who sprang up autochthonous, from the soil itself. In becoming types, they put on the uniform of patriotism.

In the narrative of us and them, not only human reason, but human madness breaks out. The invaders, though Argives speaking a common language, are called “a foreign-tongued enemy” (170). The unreason of patriotism in bending the truth may be motivated by hidden biological prime movers. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons” (Wilson 92).

Patriotism may be, speculates biologist Edward O. Wilson, a behaviour encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the sapiens who exhibited such impulses to multiply. In this light, patriotism is a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands (82-92). Too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. Patriotism, like so many other all-too-human impulses, is on the spectrum. Lasthenes, with his Stone Age xenophobia, makes a good sentry. His value in peacetime, however, may be debatable. The limitation of biology is one of the issues with building a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

A Delivery Mechanism

Like a megaton bomb, the dramatic payload of Seven sits idle until Aeschylus devises an appropriate vehicle with which to target his audience. The outcome of Seven is part of myth. Myth is a great spoiler: the theatregoers know myth through and through. To make the theatregoers “hot to be warlike,” Aeschylus needed a powerful delivery system to sidestep the audience’s knowledge. In chance and the random element, Aeschylus found a far-shooting ballistic rocket whereby he could take an outcome, known to all the theatregoers, and explode it in the face of the play’s unsuspecting characters.

By making chance responsible for the fated outcome and by subjectively and objectively suppressing the odds of the fated outcome happening, Aeschylus brings myth to life. The audience, until the last second, sits in thrall, wondering how to reconcile what they know must happen with the contradictory data presented on stage. The greatness of drama lies in the dramatic sleight-of-hand in making the inevitable seem to have been impossible.

The fated outcome is that Eteocles and Polyneices will die by mutual fratricide. This is civil war. Polyneices returns to reclaim the throne. The play is structured so that the fated outcome takes place only if both brothers are assigned the seventh gate. Chance enters the play through the gate assignations. The seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—and the seven defending captains—one of whom is Eteocles—are all assigned their gates by lot.[2]

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event happening is the product of its constituent probabilities. The odds of rolling snake eyes, or two ones on a pair of six-sided dice are 1:36 (1:6 * 1:6). On that analogy, the likelihood of the fated outcome happening is 1:49, as each of the brothers has a 1:7 chance of being assigned the seventh gate. The probability, therefore, of the fated outcome happening is exceedingly low. In random simulations with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 48 out of 49 times the fated outcome will be averted.

Aeschylus begins his suppression of the fated outcome by dealing the captains their assignations by random lot. Though his audience lacked access to modern probability theory (which arose in the Italian Renaissance with the work of gambler-mathematician Gerolamo Cardano), they grasped the fundamental notion of intuitive probability.[3] Ancient Greek had a term eikos which denoted probability or likelihood in the modern sense (“Eikos”). “To succeed in many things, or many times, is difficult,” writes Aristotle, “for instance, to repeat the same throw ten thousand times with dice would be impossible, whereas to make it once or twice is comparatively easy” (On the Heavens 292a).

Aeschylus’s audience would have understood that, from the randomness built into the gate selection process, the fated outcome would have been implausible. That Aeschylus encourages his audience to think about probability can be seen in the play’s aleatory references. Hermes is invoked in his capacity as the god of lots who brings captains together for mortal combat (508).[4] Ares throws dice to single out the quick from the dead (414). Even specific throws are alluded to. “I will take six men, myself to make a seventh,” says Eteocles as he initiates the defense. “The number 6 + 1,” notes Roisman, “was considered an unlucky throw in the six sided dice” (22). Seven is a most probabilistic play, aleatory and ludic, a game of chance and a game of death.

Through the lottery device, Aeschylus begins to suppress the fated outcome. Then, in a wonderful marvelous masterstroke, he discounts the odds of the fated outcome from 48:1 against to 25,401,599:1 against. Never did the waters of artistic imagination rise so high as when he painted the inevitable as nigh impossible. To dam back possibility’s flood, he engineered an architectural marvel: the monumental shield scene.

The shield scene consists of seven matched speeches between Eteocles and the Messenger, each separated by an intervening prayer from the chorus. The Messenger has been collecting intelligence. He has seen the seven hostile captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations, has seen their shield devices, has heard their vaunts. He informs Eteocles of the threats. As the Messenger identifies each captain, Eteocles draws a lot to assign a defender. Having assigned the defender, he analyzes the tale of the tape.

In this peculiar battle, men do not fight. Because patriotism has reduced men into types and abstractions, it becomes a proxy battle where signs and representations clash. By examining the clash of representations, Eteocles can see whether the gods are on his side. Chance has brought the combatants together, but chance is not random. The casting of lots was a means of divination. Through the crack of chance, the gods reveal their will.

The tale of the tape at the first six gates favours Eteocles beyond any reasonable doubt. If the enemy has Typhon blazoned on his shield, he is, through a strange synchronicity, paired against a defender sporting the image of Zeus (511-20). In mythology, Zeus tamed Typhon. If the enemy is a blasphemer, he just happens to be paired against a defender “honoring the throne of Modesty” (409). If the enemy appears to be sprung from the race of giants, he is, against all odds, paired with a defender who has the “favor of Artemis / and of the other Gods” (449-50). As the giants fell, so too, in this new Gigantomachy, the gods will prevail.

In addition to the overwhelming objective indications of victory, every subjective indication also points away from the fated outcome: enemy morale is such that they have already sent home memorial tokens (49-50); the enemy’s sacrifices are unfavourable (379); infighting plagues the enemy ranks (382-4). While every Theban—from Eteocles to the soldiers, women, old men, and young boys stand united—the enemy stands divided. The certainty that the foe is doomed rises to a pitch when the Messenger announces that, at the sixth gate, the best of the Argives—the prophet-warrior Amphiaraus—lays into Polyneices, telling him that his leading a foreign army home is an abomination to the gods. What is more, Amphiaraus says that he expects to be struck dead, such is the sacrilege of their expedition (571-89).

At this moment, time stands still. The odds of the fated outcome were unlikely. The pairings at each of the gates portend victory. The enemy is divided. Eteocles basks in the moral certainty of victory. It is almost a foregone conclusion. The chorus capture the moment of jubilation. In the beginning of the shield scene, the chorus, although undergoing rehabilitation, were still singing the fall of Thebes. Their prayers at the initial gates talk of success, but also of dying friends, ravishment, and fear (420-2, 455-6, 565). In other words, negative prayers. At the sixth gate, however, they find their stride in a devastating triumphant prayer calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay” the foe (629-30). The halcyon moment, however, is brief. The Messenger proceeds to the seventh gate, telling Eteocles his brother awaits. Eteocles, having dispatched the other captains, suddenly realizes the gods call him to die.

What are the odds that Eteocles would be encouraged by six perfect pairings only to be cast down in the end? In other words, what are the odds that Melanippus confronts Tydeus at the first gate, Polyphontes confronts Capaneus at the second gate, and that all the pairings took place as they did up to Lasthenes confronting Amphiaraus at the sixth gate? According to the law of permutations, the formula for the number of unique arrangements possible with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial 7!  (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1) or 5040. Since there are seven attackers and defenders, to find out how many permutations exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. By suppressing the odds of the fated outcome to a nonce quantity, Aeschylus animates the myth. Never again in the millenniums afterwards, neither in Greece nor in the lands that practice the art of playwriting, has a playwright dared to dramatize a deed so explosively blowing apart the possible and the probable.

Though Aeschylus’s audience lacked a working theory of combinations and permutations, the Greeks did have a term sumplokē “intertwining, complication, or combination” to denote this sort of combinatorial analysis (“Sumplokē”). “Xenocrates asserted,” says Plutarch, “that the number of syllables which the letters will make in combinations is 1,002,000,000,000” (Moralia 733a). Plutarch also records that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, postulating the number of illnesses that arise from the different combinations of food and drink on the body, turned to a combinatorial analysis. Through an analogy, Chrysippus calculated that, from ten simple propositions (representing different foods and drink), over a million compound combinations (representing different ailments) were possible (732f). Chrysippus and Xenocrates’s attempts demonstrate that Aeschylus’s audience would have been able to infer the enormous range of possibilities in seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders. If their calculations are indicative, Aeschylus’s audience, if anything, would have grossly overestimated the possible permutations, making the play even more dramatic in its rebel probability.

The thrill of drama, is not, as Aristotle claimed, to bring about the probable outcome, but, is rather the opposite, to bring about the most improbable outcome, the one that is 25,401,599:1 against (Poetics 1451a; Wong 206-17). Here is no pity and fear, but rather wonder and awe, wonder at how, each time a pair of captains who are not the brothers goes to the gates, the fated outcome seems subjectively further away, but is objectively closer—although 25,401,600 permutations had been available at gate one, only four permutations remain at gate six—and awe for how Eteocles—like Caesar at the Capitol or Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton at the Nobel Prize ceremony—stood highest when closest to the fall.[5] As Aeschylus brings the hammer down on Eteocles, however, he also exalts him. The highest form of patriotism is self-sacrifice: it separates run-of-the-mill from purple-hearted patriots. Though Eteocles dies, in dying Aeschylus vouchsafes him patriotism’s crowning glory.

The Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy

In the closing decades of the fifth century, poetry, tragedy, and myth were under attack. “There is an ancient quarrel,” says Plato, drawing up the lines of battle, “between poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b). With the rise of rationalism, it was time for the old poets to make way for the new educators of Greece, the philosophers. The fallible heroes of the old myths would make way for Socrates, Plato’s new and improved hero. The time had come for the sword of reason to shine:

[Socrates speaking] And so, Glaucon, when you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely reason. (Republic 606e-607a, emphasis added)

As Plato mobilized philosophy, others, seeing a chance to make their mark, joined the assault. The historians, led by Thucydides, attacked the stories used by the tragedians as fake myth. While the poets “exaggerate the importance of their themes” and teach by using examples from the distant and unverifiable past, the historian would instruct by providing examples filtered through the rational apparatus of the historical method (1.21-22). Gods, oracles, and omens—so often the prime movers in tragedy—are replaced with the scientific apparatus of cause and effect, eyewitness testimony of what really happened, and the careful consideration, corroboration, and weighing of evidence. At the end of the fifth century, the winds of change were blowing wild.

Whenever myth engaged with the forces of rationalism, myth was driven back. In myth, the Trojan War was the greatest of wars. Thucydides examines it with the historical method (1.10). It emerges diminished. It may have well have been fought by village peoples. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Thucydides has Pericles, his new world hero, say that Homer is redundant (2.41). Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Ion, a professional reciter of poetry, considers himself an educator, educating his audience on health, war, and the many other themes sung by rhapsodes. Ion, however, runs into the hero-philosopher Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion. Using the Socratic method, Socrates deconstructs his expertise. It turns out that neither Ion nor the poets know anything. They have nothing to teach. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back.

Rationalism invaded the prerogative of poetry as the teacher of Greece, and poetry fell back. Rationalism pooh-poohed poetry’s fake myth, its tall tales and childish gods, and poetry fell back. Poetry had made too many concessions, was in a full retreat, smarting from the sword of reason. But it had one advantage. Poetry charges the thunders of the heart. It gives its admirers something to believe in, a proof. Rationalism here falls short. It may explain how we came to be, but not why we came to. It is silent on our ultimate purpose. Knowing this secret, Aristophanes mounted a powerful rearguard action in Frogs, calling on art and the author of Seven rather than the new rationalists to save the city.

The crowning moment of Seven, the moment that makes patriots “hot to be warlike,” is Eteocles’s reaction to learning that his brother is at the seventh gate. He is out of captains. He sees the writing on the wall. “I’ll go myself,” he says, “bring me my greaves” (673, 675). Though he realizes the gods call him to die, he wants for himself “no crying and no lamentation” (656). The chorus, knowing that neither brother can hope to emerge from the confrontation alive, reason with him, telling him to save himself:

CHORUS. Go not you, go not, to the seventh gate.

ETEOCLES. No words of yours will blunt my whetted purpose.

CHORUS. Yet even bad victory the Gods hold in honor.

ETEOCLES. No soldier may endure to hear such words.

CHORUS. Do you wish to reap as harvest a brother’s blood?

ETEOCLES. If Gods give ill, no man may shun their giving. (714-9)

In his final words, he tells the chorus that he feels the “whetted purpose” thundering in his heart. This is proof enough. He will fulfil his duty by making the highest sacrifice, the “admirable offering” gods and mortals alike will envy:

ETEOCLES. We are already past the care of Gods.

For them our death is the admirable offering.

Why then delay, fawning upon our doom? (703-5)

Patriotism gives patriots something that the logicians and rationalists never could: something greater than life to live and die for. Patriotism takes the raw biological basis of human nature, hidden from plain view by the mediating apparatus of consciousness, and codifies it in its strictures. It takes the primordial murmurings of tribalism and the irrational emotions of gentle altruism and hateful aggression, and unites them under a common banner. It then harnesses the myriad impulses which draw the sapiens into ever higher levels of social organization—from nomadic life to life in hamlets, cities, and megalopolises—to give the patriot something to believe in.

The patriot, with his tribalism, hears the murmuring song singing new syllogisms, singing of the beauty of kinsfolk and the ugliness of those who dwell beyond the gates. With these new syllogisms, the patriot lays down patriotism’s doctrine, beginning with in- and out-membership groups. To draw himself up to a higher perfection, the patriot takes the other, and turns the other into a sign and representation of all that he must, in his highest moment, overcome. In his fever, the patriot desires no mediocre other, but rather the highest type of other, the most gargantuan other against which he can assay his rising strength. He transforms the other into a bogeyman adorned with blasphemy, the dark images of the night, the eye of the full moon, the serpent’s hiss, and all the other trappings inimical to kin and civilization. Against this error of nature, the patriot girds his kin together in a tight embrace. To withstand such a powerful foe, the patriot himself enlists higher powers, builds shrines to the gods and talks of motherland and fatherland, talks of how the land and the folk are bound by ancient, inviolable, and reciprocal bonds.

Surrounded by powerful and holy monuments, spires reaching up into heaven like the arms of god, the patriot begins to see that he himself is part of the proof, is the son of a line of heroes in a patrilineal and matrilineal succession going back to the crack of time. He himself dissolves into a symbol and representation, the mortal instrument of an immortal purpose. Armed now with high ideology, the patriot now has proof of his goodness, of how his people were meant to persevere, the chosen ones tilling the chosen soil. Heeding the higher calling of country, god, and people, the patriot validates the desultory dross of life and drinks in the sense of belonging and purpose so foreign to the logicians and the rationalists who could only see the wisdom of the sapiens, but not the underlying biology firing the human fuse.

Now, eternally justified, the patriot is himself life’s proof. Having reached this exalted state, there is left but one act whereby he perfects life. To the rationalist who talked of virtue, there was no difference between virtue in theory and in practice. To the patriot, there is. Talk is cheap, insufficient skin. To die performing great heroic deeds is to have the highest skin in the game. It is the patriot’s finest hour, the hour of the affirmation of the highest existence.

In this curious battle, the outcome is exactly as Eteocles predicted. The city is saved. In fact, on the Theban side, there is only a single casualty. In the closing scene the Herald makes a proclamation:

HERALD. Our Lord Eteocles for his loyalty

it is determined to bury in the earth

that he so loved. Fighting its enemies

he found his death here. In the sight

of his ancestral shrines he is pure and blameless

and died where young men die right honorably. (1006-11)

In his burial, in the dirges and the wailing, it is accomplished. Eteocles’s sepulchres and monuments stand as inviolable proofs of his patriotic apotheosis. Though dead, he is born posthumously in Seven to light the way for all tomorrow’s standard-bearers. Patriotism, having enlisted human emotions and behaviours into its service, now calls out to one of the highest constructs of the human mind—art—to justify its eternal claim.

To rational minds, Seven dramatized the clash between the magic of the opposing shield devices. Eteocles, like a seer, interprets the combatants’ vaunts and shield devices. By the science of hermeneutics, he deciphers—and perhaps even manipulates—the hidden signs animating the cosmos. For these reasonable interpreters, Eteocles came close to mastering hermeneutics. To them, Seven is a tragedy of Eteocles’s discourtesy to the chorus and his hubris in thinking he could master the gates. To the interpreters, however, who feel the comprehensiveness of the human experience, for those whom not only the higher and evolved sensibilities, but also the lower and primal drives of the triune brain declare themselves, Seven dramatizes the myriad impulses which together constitute patriotism, hot to endure all time’s slings and arrows. To these other interpreters, Seven is a kaleidoscope of patriotism, reflecting all its changing patterns and colours, from its animal origins to its highest expressions in art, architecture, and culture. Gate by gate, Eteocles is stripped of his personality until, at the seventh gate, all his individual qualities have withdrawn behind patriotism’s mask. He is no longer man, but an incarnation of duty, the great intoxicated patriot, drunk on valour of the ages. Seven, in this more unified view, is a tragedy of the paradox of patriotism, the mystery of how one becomes greatest when one becomes nothing. We do not, perhaps, exist for our own sake, but for the sake of perpetuating the generations of leaves on the tree of life.

In this comprehensive view, patriotism is greater than either the philosophers or the mythographers have imagined. Patriotism is a human expression of the animal behaviour of territoriality, practised by each of the social animals from ants and hyenas to baboons and chimpanzees. As animals mark their home range in elaborate rituals, so too the sapiens mark their territories with doors, locks, gates, gatekeepers, walls, and banners in the sky. Patriotism in this last examination is a biological imperative, is the will to power driving natural selection. To ensure the survival of the species, it will mingle reason with unreason, self-preservation with self-sacrifice, and base ideologies with the highest of the arts and sciences. In the art of Seven, a patriot’s portrait of patriotism, the ancient calling calls out.

Seven reminds us that you can take the individual out of the country, but not the country out of the individual. Though part of our highest ideologies and mental constructs, patriotism is also felt in the blood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the legacy of Seven, where generations of youths, ardent for desperate glory, fulfilled biology’s gnarled imperative: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aeschylus. Aeschylus. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1959.

Apollodorus. The Library of Greek Mythology. Translated by Robin Hard, Oxford UP, 1997.

Aristophanes. Clouds, Wasps, Peace. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1998.

—. Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson, Loeb-Harvard UP, 2002.

Aristotle. On the Heavens. Translated by W. K. C. Guthrie, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1939.

Aristotle, et al. Poetics, On the Sublime, On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. H. Fyfe, and Doreen C. Innes, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1995.

Echthroxenos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Eikos.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Abridged ed., Macmillan, 1922.

Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt, revised by John M. Marincola, Penguin, 1996.

Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, Classical P of Wales, 2013, pp. 39- 80.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1951.

Kidd, Stephen. “Why Mathematical Probability Failed to Emerge from Ancient Gambling.” Apeiron, vol. 53, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-25.

Lowenstein, Roger. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.             2000. Random House, 2011.

Marlowe. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane, Penguin, 1969.

Pausanias. Description of Greece: Books 1-2. Translated by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb-Harvard UP,   1918.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997.

Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Edwin L. Minar, Jr., F. H. Sandbach, and W. C. Helmbold, vol. 9, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1961.

Rendu, William, et al. “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-        aux-Saints.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 81-6.

Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes.” L’antiquité        classique, vol. 59, 1990, pp. 17-36.

Sumplokē.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House,    2018.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1972.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. 25th anniversary ed., Harvard UP, 2004.

Wong, Edwin. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

[1] For examples of negative incentives, see Taleb 12-15..

[2] That the attackers draw lots to determine their gate assignations is confirmed by the Messenger (56-7, 377, 424, and 456-9). How Eteocles assigns the defenders’ assignations is unclear. When assigning the defenders, Eteocles uses the future tense three times (“I will station,” 408, 621, 672), the perfect tense two times (“he has been sent,” 448, 472), the aorist passive once (“he was chosen,” 505), and the present tense once (“here is the man,” 554). Previous conjectures that have arisen to explain the tenses fall into three broad categories: 1) Eteocles had decided all the assignations prior to meeting the Messenger, 2) Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, after hearing the Messenger’s reports, and 3) Eteocles decided some assignations before and some during his meeting with the Messenger. I follow Herrmann 58-62. In his bold conjecture, Herrmann argues that an important stage direction has been lost: each time the Messenger relays the assailant at the gate, Eteocles draws a lot to determine the defender. Not only does Herrmann’s conjecture solve the problem of the tenses (he can draw the lot and easily switch between tenses), it also adds dramatic vitality to the action.

[3] On why the ancients failed to develop a theory of probability, see Kidd 1-25. Kidd argues convincingly that probability theory failed to develop because ancient games of chance involved communal probabilities: probability theory does not grant the ancient gambler any advantage. Only when games of chance individualized risk did the first mathematician-gamblers begin exploring probability in earnest.

[4] On Hermes as the god of lots, see Apollodorus 3.10.2 and Aristophanes, Peace 364-6.

[5] Scholes and Merton received their Nobel Prizes as their hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, began its collapse. Its fall triggered one of the largest financial meltdowns of the modern era. See Lowenstein 96-120.


This is one in a series of risk theatre readings. Others are available: MacbethOthello, and All My Sons. Thanks for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Playwrights explore chance in its many guises. To create a play, playwrights collide want, will, and intention with accident, chance, and fortune. In the no-man’s land between accident and intention, drama arises. Where accident intensifies the protagonist’s will, comedy results. Where accident eclipses the protagonist’s will, tragedy results. Chance is a playwright’s plaything because uncertainty, being unknown, is inherently dramatic.

In the tragedy Othello, Shakespeare explores chance by asking: “How high a degree of probability must one attain to have a sufficient basis for judgment?” Shakespeare sets the backdrop by crafting characters who are not what they seem. Their actions, reputations, and speech belie their being. When seeming and being are at odds, certainty goes out the window. Only the uncertain parts and probable fragments are left behind. In this world, there is no knowing, only thinking:

IAGO. My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO. I think thou dost. (3.3.119-20, emphasis added)

The play follows Othello as he pieces together broken probabilities, looking for the chance event so convincing that it rules out every doubt. He looks for a tattered proof known as moral certainty.

Je Est Un Autre or “I is Another”

Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens,
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives in . . .
Your beds! (2.1.109-13)

“Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none” (3.3.129-30). But that is not the case here. By cleaving apart seeming and being, Shakespeare creates a setting to explore chance. In Othello—to take poet Arthur Rimbaud’s memorable idea, Je est un autre (“I is another”)—each character is also “another.” Appearances deceive. When characters seem to be such, but are, in reality, another, understanding and certainty become best guesses. By cleaving seeming and being, Shakespeare takes the audience into a world of probability, a world where there is a chance of being correct and a chance of being incorrect. In this indeterminate world, characters weigh probabilities, form plans “probal to thinking” (2.3.333), and search for moral certainty, the probability that is so high that, even though uncertain, is called by the name of certainty. The tragedy is that even moral certainty is less than certain. Like bells in the parlours or men who might seem none, moral certainty only seems to be the real thing.

Iago seems honest. His epithet is “Honest Iago.” “Honest Iago,” says Othello, “My Desdemona I must leave to thee” (1.3.295-6). Roderigo entrusts him with his wealth and fastens each hope to him (1.3.363-80). Desdemona confides in him (3.4.133-41). “I never knew,” says Cassio, “A Florentine more kind and honest” (3.1.40-1). Iago’s seeming, however, belies his being. “I am not what I am,” he says, “but seeming so” (1.1.59 and 64).

Desdemona seems dishonest. “I do beguile,” she says, “The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.122-3). “Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see,” warns her father Brabantio, “She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.293-4). “Swear thou art honest,” demands Othello, “Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell” (4.2.39-40). Her seeming, however, belies her being. She is a true heart.

Emilia seems bawdy. “She’s a simple bawd,” says Othello (4.2.20). In between Cassio’s kiss and his suspicions of her infidelity, Iago remarks her services are for the common use:

EMILIA. I have a thing for you.

IAGO. You have a thing for me? it is a common thing—

EMILIA. Ha? (3.3.305-7)

Though seen as a bawd who would sell great vice for a small price, she ends up buying virtue at the cost of her own life, at the last standing between Iago’s maleficence, Othello’s rage, and Desdemona’s helplessness, exposing the wickedness of both her husband and Othello. Not even Othello’s sword can silence her virtue:

EMILIA. Thou hast done a deed [He threatens her with his sword.]
—I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known
Though I lost twenty lives. Help, help, ho, help! (5.2.160-2)

Her surface appearances belie her core values. By judging her by her surface appearances, Iago, who knew her best, seals his doom.

Othello seems a man for all seasons. The assembled Venetian senate regales him as “all-in-all sufficient,” “a nature whom passion could not shake,” and one whose virtue lay beyond “the shot of accident” (4.1.264-8). He is of such steadfast repute that, when Emilia inquires whether he is jealous, Desdemona replies: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (3.4.30-1). His seeming, however, belies his being. In reality, he proves insufficient, full of passion, and most susceptible to accident and chance.

So too, in the play’s macrocosm, the invading Turkish fleet seems sometimes smaller, sometimes larger. And, whether larger or smaller, sometimes it seems to bend for Rhodes, and sometimes for Cyprus. Its size and trajectory belie its intentions (1.3.1-45). Though the senate would rather act on certain, rather than probable intelligence, because the enemy projects a false gaze more full of seeming than being, the senate must act on probabilities. So too, Othello, Roderigo, Desdemona, and the other characters looking on at the grand pageant must hazard the probability of being caught on the wrong side of seeming and being.

In this play populated by topsy-turvy Je est un autre types, Iago presses the confusion forwards. Iago is an obsequious go-getter. His primary weapon is dissimulation. To enrichen himself, he plays panderer to Roderigo, though he panders nothing. To rise up the chain of command, he devises a way to cashier Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant. He will persuade Othello that Cassio cuckolds him. To this end, he employs a series of strategies. When convenient, he spreads rumours that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s younger wife. He starts with Roderigo:

IAGO. Lechery, by this hand: an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together. Villainous thoughts, Roderigo: when these mutualities so marshal the way, hard at hand comes the master and main exercise, th’incorporate conclusion. (2.1.255-61)

and then moves to Othello:

IAGO. I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs—one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’ (3.3.416-28)

If there is a kernel of truth Iago can explode into reckless speculation, he will do so:

IAGO. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seemed to shake, and fear your looks,
She loved them most.

OTHELLO.                     And so she did.

IAGO.                                                   Why, go to, then:
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up, close as oak—
He thought ‘twas witchcraft. But I am much to blame,
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

OTHELLO. I am bound to thee for ever. (3.3.209-17)

When all else fails, Iago practices psychological warfare. Through insinuation, he gets Othello to convince himself. Conclusions drawn when one convinces oneself root more firmly than persuaded proofs:

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
Know of your love?

OTHELLO.                    He did, from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.

OTHELLO.        Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

OTHELLO. O, yes, and went between us very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
What dost thou think?

IAGO. Think, my lord?

OTHELLO. Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.94-111)

Despite the rumours, speculations, and insinuations, Othello sees, or believes he sees, Desdemona’s true heart:

OTHELLO. What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?
I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me,
I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio’s kisses on her lips. (3.3.341-4)

Beginning to suspect foul play, he retains enough good sense to demand proof from Iago, telling Iago to provide proof, or his life:

OTHELLO. Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof, [Catching hold of him]
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath! (3.3.362-6)

Nothing improper has transpired, and, as a result, Iago has no proof, cannot come up with a proof. He reaches an aporia. But, in a twist of fate, chance provides Iago proof.

A Handkerchief, Spotted with Strawberries

Desdemona has on her person a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. It is of an unusual provenance. Artifact like, it was sewn by an ancient sibyl during moments of inspiration. Hallowed worms spun its threads and maiden’s hearts stained its cloth. It was given to Othello’s mother to charm his father, and damnation to her if she lost it. She, however, saw it in her safekeeping until she died, at which time she gave it to her son. He, in turn, gave the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries to Desdemona (3.4.57-77).

Halfway through the play, Desdemona takes out the kerchief to wrap Othello’s head. He has a headache. It falls off. In their haste to meet dinner guests, they forget the napkin. Emilia, having been asked by her husband many times to steal it, chances upon it. She gives it to Iago, unaware of why he should want it (3.3.288-332). Through the accident of the dropped napkin, Iago has an opportunity to bolster his flagging argument.

Once he has the handkerchief, Iago can produce the wicked proofs required by Othello. He begins by planting the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom. Next, he tells Othello he has seen Cassio wiping his beard with it. This, in turn, prompts Othello to ask Desdemona for the napkin. She cannot produce it, and, fatally misjudging the gravity of the situation, asks Othello to reinstate Cassio. This drives Othello into a huff, who finds it incredulous that Desdemona not only has the appetite for another man, but also has the appetite to demand from him his favour.

At this point, Othello is getting a bit run down. His epileptic attack as he visualizes the intertwined lovers is a physical analogue of his broken internal state. Even now, however, standing in his mellow-fading glory like a black Caesar, he demands proofs. As he recovers from the epileptic attack, Iago provides verbal and ocular proofs, one by cunning, and the other by another stroke of chance.

Iago arranges for Othello to overhear his conversation with Cassio. While getting Othello to believe he is questioning Cassio about Desdemona, he actually asks Cassio about Bianca, a strumpet overfond of Cassio. In hearing Cassio tell Iago of his extracurricular activities with Bianca, Othello believes Cassio refers to Desdemona. Then, in a second twist, as Othello eavesdrops, Bianca comes out of nowhere to rebuke Cassio. Cassio had found the handkerchief in his chamber, and, appreciating the design, had asked Bianca to make a copy. Bianca agreed, but, on second thought, believing the handkerchief to be a gift from a rival, now finds it beneath her dignity to do any such thing. That Bianca appears at this moment surprises Iago, who had planned many things, but not this godsend. When she rebukes Cassio, Othello draws the conclusion that, first of all, Desdemona was in Cassio’s chamber, and, second of all, Desdemona has given Cassio the handkerchief as a token of her affection. Though Bianca does not mention Desdemona, it is a short leap for Othello, a general accustomed to making snap judgements on the field of battle, to conclude that Cassio’s hobby-horse is none other than Desdemona:

BIANCA. Let the devil and his dam haunt you! What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it—I must take out the work! A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber and know not who left it there! This is some minx’s token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse; wheresoever you had it, I’ll take out no work on’t!

CASSIO. How now, my sweet Bianca, how now, how now?

OTHELLO. By heaven, that should be my handkerchief! (4.1.147-56)

Who else but Desdemona could have left the napkin there? The scene with Bianca and Cassio convinces Othello. He resolves to kill them both. He has proof. Or so he thinks.

If Emilia had—as Iago requested—stolen the napkin, the tragedy would have taken on a more ominous tone: the sound of good and evil clashing. But that is not what happens. The sound of good and evil clashing is dull. Emilia, rather, finds the napkin by chance. Chance is more interesting. That she finds it by chance leaves the audience with a sense of wonder and awe: wonder at how impartial chance should have become Iago’s partisan and awe over the extraordinary consequences that follow.

At one moment chance saves, sending a storm to drown the Turkish fleet. But in the next moment, chance casts down, putting the napkin into the wrong hands. Chance’s fantastic nature makes it a wonderful dramatic pivot. Othello himself, a crack storyteller, engages chance to woo Desdemona by telling her the stories of “battles, sieges, fortunes,” “most disastrous chances,” and of “moving accidents by flood and field” (1.3.131-6). These accidents he lives to tell, but the tale of the dropped napkin another will tell.

Chance fascinates because every eventuality lays within its grasp, given enough time. But even given its myriad combinations and permutations, some eventualities are more probable, some, less so, and others implausible unto impossible. This feature of chance—that some probabilities are more likely and others less so—allows Othello to draw fatal proofs.

Five Sigma Events, Significance Tests, Moral Certainty, and Iago’s Gambit

In the character Othello, Shakespeare has created a sceptic to rival Sextus Empiricus. For Othello, it was not enough that Iago was the most honest of Venetians. Nor was it enough that Iago had stood shoulder to shoulder with him, comrades-in-arms on the front lines. It was not even enough that Desdemona’s own father warned him to be wary. Othello, after all, had heard the wise Duke rebuking Brabantio for acting on circumstantial evidence:

DUKE. To vouch this is no proof,
Without more certain and more overt test
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him. (1.3.107-10)

Othello will not be a brash Brabantio. He will demand a certain and more overt test:

OTHELLO. Make me to see’t, or at the least so prove it
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life! (3.3.367-9)

Now Iago is in a jam. Othello demands proof, or his life. Iago cannot make Othello see it, as there is nothing to see. Othello himself, likewise, is in a jam. He must judge a covert crime, and, having judged, kill. He can count on neither Desdemona nor Cassio to fess up: unchaste eyes must never name the things unchaste hearts cannot do without. When Iago proposes the test of the napkin, however, Othello has a path forward:

IAGO. But if I give my wife a handkerchief—

OTHELLO. What then?

IAGO. Why, then ’tis hers, my lord, and being hers
She may, I think, bestow’t on any man.

OTHELLO. She is protectress of her honour too:
May she give that ? (4.1.10-5)

In Iago’s gambit, the napkin will stand in for her honour. Since Desdemona is honourable, the likelihood that she gives away the token of her honour is low. Because it would be an outlier event to see the napkin in the hands of another man, if it is seen, the likelihood is high that the observation is significant. The test of the napkin—coupled with both Iago and Brabantio’s warnings—may constitute, therefore, a sort of proof that, while not absolute, demonstrates infidelity beyond a reasonable doubt. This probabilistic proof that “the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” is the best proof available in the indeterminate world of the play. The idea that random chance may—or may not—engender absolute truth is the powerful idea Shakespeare plays with.

Though it was not until 1668 that philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz formally associated probability with certainty by arguing that, given a sufficient probability, a degree of moral certainty could be achieved, it is clear that Shakespeare was already thinking along these lines in the opening years of the seventeenth century. Probability is in the air. Mathematician Jacob Bernoulli in the late seventeenth century would quantify these thresholds: something possessing 1/1000 a fraction of certainty (0.1%) would be morally impossible, whereas something possessing 999/1000 a portion of certainty (99.9%) would be morally certainty. The standard is flexible. Modern statisticians use anywhere from one to five percent significance tests to establish certainty. Different fields likewise require different levels of certainty. When physicists used a sensitivity of three sigma to validate discoveries (corresponding to a 99.7% chance that the result is real and not by the action of chance), they found that, because their work involved a multitude of data points, they would arrive at many discoveries which would be later proved spurious. Accordingly, when searching for the Higgs boson, they adapted a five sigma threshold. This threshold translates to a 99.99994% confidence level: the chance that the discovery is an anomaly is roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Even with a five sigma sensitivity, however, the chance that the observation is a fluke and not the real thing remains. Moral certainty is a subjective and pragmatic standard. Too low a threshold results in false discoveries and too high a threshold results in no discoveries. The question is: does Othello achieve moral certainty and, if so, to what degree?

The first great critic of Othello, Thomas Rymer, found the proof of the handkerchief so implausible as to be risible. To Rymer, Othello was acting without any kind of certainty, let alone moral certainty. In 1693, he voiced his misgivings in a jingling couplet: “Before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Everyone knows that Michael Cassio is the great arithmetician of the play, not Othello. Perhaps Othello had miscalculated the odds?

What Iago wants is for Othello to assemble all the information—the warning from Brabantio, the accusations from Iago, Cassio’s frequent associations with Desdemona, Desdemona’s importuning, and so on—so that the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs” (3.3.444, emphasis added). Probability theory in the time of Shakespeare and Rymer was in its infancy. That is not to say, however, that Othello could not intuit conditional odds: that is, in effect, what he does. So too, without formal probability theory, Iago well knows that many less plausible proofs may add up into one great proof, saying: “This may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly” (3.3.432-3).

The formal calculation of conditional probabilities lay in the future. That future arrived in 1763 when Bayes’ theorem was posthumously published. Thomas Bayes was a mathematician and Presbyterian minister. His contribution to probability theory was a formula to calculate conditional probabilities, a way to revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Iago’s hypothesis that many lesser proofs constitute one great proof. With Bayes’ theorem, it is possible to test Rymer’s couplet, to see whether Othello’s proof be mathematical, and, if so, to what extent.

To determine the posterior probability—that is to say, the revised probability that Othello has been cuckolded after the test of the napkin—we require four probability values. The first two values are P(C), the initial or prior probability that he has been cuckolded, and P(~C), the initial or prior probability that he has not been cuckolded. Before Iago’s gambit, Othello’s opinion on whether he has been cuckolded appears evenly divided:

OTHELLO. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. (3.386-8)

Given what he says, we can assign a value of 0.50 (with 0 representing an impossibility and 1 representing a certainty) to P(C)and a similar value, 0.50, to P(~C). The odds he has been cuckolded are 50:50.

The third probability value is P(H C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue suggests Othello believes that, next to catching the lovers in the act, the test of the handkerchief is a great proof. The value of P(H C), while not 1 (which is an absolute certainty), must approach 1: perhaps 0.90, representing a 90% chance, is reasonable.

The final probability value is P(H ∣ ~C), and it represents the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests true hearts give away telltale tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. As a result, the likelihood of P(H ∣ ~C) is quite low, having an order of magnitude of 0.01, or a 1% chance.

Here is what Bayes’ theorem looks like when solving for P(C H) or the posterior probability that Othello is a cuckold, should he see his napkin with Cassio. The formula takes into account his initial, or prior belief, and revises it to take into account the test of the napkin:

                                                               P(H ∣ C)
P(C H) = P(C) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {P(H ∣ C) * P(C)} + {P(H ∣ ~C) * P(~C)}

Putting it all together yields this result:

                                                               0.90
0.989 = (0.50) * _____________________________________________________________

                                          {0.90 * 0.50} + {0.01 * 0.50}

Othello can be now 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. While this falls short of the five sigma standard (99.99994%) used in high energy physics, its significance falls within the one to five percent tests used by modern statisticians. The napkin brings him to a point of moral certainty, the degree of probability one must attain to act. The jealousy was tragical because the proof was mathematical.

Is Othello correct to believe that he has caught the lovers in his mousetrap? That, I think, is the question Shakespeare invites us to ask. The answer—like many answers in the great plays—is fluid. Some may argue that P(H ∣ ~C)—the odds that Desdemona gives away the napkin and is true—is too low at 1%. People with the truest hearts, may, some of the time, give away treasured tokens as though trifles. Changing P(H ∣ ~C) from 0.01 to 0.10 (from 1% to 10%) would decrease Othello’s confidence level from 98.9% to 90%. There is now a 10% probability that what he sees is a pageant of chance rather than a proof of infidelity. Others, however, would argue that starting from a 50% prior probability of being a cuckold is egregiously low. Given the constant goings-on between Cassio and Desdemona as well as warnings from both Desdemona’s father himself and the most honest person in the room, Othello’s initial belief, or the prior probability P(C), that he has been cuckolded should be much higher, perhaps closer to 80%. Now, even with P(H ∣ ~C) at 0.10, Othello can still be 97.3% certain he is a cuckold. If P(H ∣ ~C) stays at the original 0.01 and the prior probability Othello is cuckold rises from 50% to 80%, the posterior probability of being a cuckold after a positive napkin test rises to a confidence-inspiring 99.7%, equivalent to the three sigma threshold used by physicists until rather recently.

By cleaving seeming and being in twain, Shakespeare invites the audience to explore probability and its ramifications. Would different ages, ethnicities, and sexes input different values into Bayes’ theorem? How high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty must also contend that, in the final examination, he was wrong. Those who contend Othello failed to achieve moral certainty would do well to wonder how yesterday and today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matters of life and death on less stringent significance tests. Othello makes us wonder: should graver actions demand higher levels of certainty? Not only that, it also makes us wonder if our interpretations of Othello reveal something about ourselves. Do we allow Othello to judge after receiving a tip from an honest source and catching the culprit in the mousetrap? And would these same people who say no to Othello allow Hamlet to judge after receiving a tip from a possibly dishonest (and diabolical) source and catching the culprit in another sort of a mousetrap?

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is the one of the richest crossroads in interpretation today. Through a twist of chance, Shakespeare takes Othello from good to great: since chance is indeterminate, interpreters of the play will forever debate whether Othello achieves moral certainty, and to what degree. Othello makes us think on the role of chance in theatre and in life.

Whether Heads of Tails, Chance always Prevails

In this essay, I have argued that chance and probability form a basis of interpretation. In Othello, Shakespeare represents chance in the form of a handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. The action pivots around the errant handkerchief because its journey gives Othello the proof that Iago could not provide. Chance supplies the proof because it is made up of probabilities, some common, some uncommon, and others so uncommon as to stand outside the prospect of belief. For Othello, it stood outside the prospect of belief that the handkerchief could have went from Desdemona, to Cassio, and then to Bianca, unless Desdemona were untrue. To Othello, Iago’s extraordinary claim required extraordinary evidence, and, through chance, he witnessed an extraordinary proof. Whether or not this proof achieves a point of moral certainty, however, will be a point of debate forever, as chance is, in the last examination, subject to uncertainty. Othello, read through the lens of chance, makes for great reading for pollsters, jurors, insurers, high energy physicists, ethicists, medical researchers, and anyone else corroborating theories based on many observations: there is always a risk that what appears certain is only a statistical anomaly that has the seeming of truth.

From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk. And what better for today’s days of risk than to look at tragedy as a theatre of risk? When life gives you lemons, make all of theatre a theatre of risk and you will see not only the play, but all of life, through new eyes. “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate? ’Tis not so now,” says the one who has seen the power of chance in all its guises, sometimes raising up, and other times casting down (Othello 5.2.262-3).

In Othello, Shakespeare has drawn a moving portrait of the empire of chance in its limitless power. When want, will, and intention collide with accident, chance, and fortune, no matter how strong want, will, and intention are and how unlikely accident, chance, and fortune were, chance finds a way. Some thought that the gods were fate. Others thought that politics or character was fate. But, really, chance is the rebel fate. Certain proof of this lies in the great mystery of tragedy, the mystery of how, whether heads or tails, chance always prevails.

_ _ _

If you have enjoyed this reading of Othello, here is a link to a reading of Macbeth from the perspective of chance. Those interested in the role of chance in ancient drama may want to click here. These “risk theatre” readings are derived from arguments in my book presenting a new theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Ask your local library to carry a copy! Risk theatre is more than theory. It is also the basis of the largest playwriting competition in the world for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year. The competition brings together playwrights, writers, dramaturgs, directors, actors, and audiences to explore the many guises of chance and uncertainty. Click here for more info on the competition. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me, I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work
sine memoria nihil

A Risk Theatre Reading of Shakespeare’s MACBETH

The true star of Macbeth is the low-probability, high-consequence event. And the true story of Macbeth is the hero’s reaction to it. In this tragedy, a man is transformed by a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, in the beginning raised up by chance, and, in the end, cast down by the same power he hoped to harness. Macbeth is the story of how low-probability, high-consequence events encouraged a man to wager all-in, thinking that he was bound for glory, and of how the random element fooled him.

For the dreamers who believe that low-probability, high-consequence events could be tamed through progress, the play warns of evil’s allure and the follies of ambition and confidence. For others, whose powers of recognition are clearer, and who perceive the random element working at each existential juncture in life and in history, the hypotheses of other-worldly powers, ambition, and confidence were redundant. To them, Macbeth tells an all-too-human story of how, because of our innate predilection to scorn chance, having always satisfied our intellectual biases by seeking any other explanation than one which involved the random element, we thought ourselves lords of chance and became, instead, the fools of chance.

The definition of a low-probability, high-consequence event is one in which, before it happens, is considered improbable. Sometimes the possibility it can even happen cannot be imagined, such is its remoteness. Examples include the Gutenberg Press, the rise of the personal computer, or the Gunpowder Plot. We can know that a low-probability, high-consequence action has occurred by watching the reactions. Sometimes, it prompts the one who has seen it to alert others. “From the spring,” says the dying Captain, “whence comfort seemed to come / Discomfort swells: mark, King of Scotland, mark” (1.2.27-8). Other times it elicits disbelief. “Nothing is,” says Macbeth, “but what is not” (1.3.144). Sometimes, one takes one’s own life: this was the case of the “farmer that hanged / himself on th’expectation of plenty” (2.3.4-5). Having bet all-in on a bumper crop, when waylaid by the low-probability event, out of rent, out of food, and out of luck, he hangs himself. The danger these events present is that, though they were impossible to predict beforehand, after they happen, we retrospectively invent simplistic explanations of how they arose. In doing so, our sense of comfort is misguided, as we fail to give chance its due. This danger extends to the criticism of Macbeth.

In Macbeth, the action pivots around four low-probability, high-consequence events. The first is when, contrary to expectation, Macbeth becomes Thane of Cawdor. The second is when, against all hope, he becomes king. The third is when Birnam Wood, impossibly, comes to Dunsinane Hill. The last is when, beyond nature’s permutations, he meets a man not of woman born. That each of these events will happen is foreshadowed by the Witches—Shakespeare’s agents of improbability—to Macbeth, who, in turn, rejects each as being out of hand. By dramatizing the path from prediction to rejection to fulfillment, Shakespeare makes probability the play’s true theme: what happens when more things happen than what we thought would happen happens?

To most people, the Witches are not agents of improbability, but rather supernatural agents. Like the oracles of old in Greek tragedies, the Witches would prophecy to Macbeth his fate, fate being the antinomy of chance and probability. But, the funny thing is, to dramatize fate—to bring fate onto the stage—fate had to be cast into the play as a random event that takes place against all odds. That such an event could have taken place against overwhelming odds is then attributed back onto the powerful action of fate. The feeling of surprise that a miracle has occurred is the proof that fate exists. But really, there was no fate, only the fulfilment of a low-probability, high-consequence event that the audience appreciates to represent fate. Fate in tragedy is a literary artifact, is probability dressed up as fate. In this way, Macbeth, by exploring fate, became a venue to explore the impact of the highly improbable. Wherever there is fate, there is also chance: the way fate manifests itself in literature is by overcoming the random element. At last, fate and chance are synonymous, two sides of the same coin.

Macbeth begins with Scotland in alarm. The first crisis sees the rebel Macdonald leading Irish soldiers into Forres. King Duncan sends in Macbeth and Banquo. But, in the act of dispatching Macdonald, a second crisis strikes. Seeing Scotland convulsed by civil war, Sweno, Norway’s king, seizes the moment. He allies with another Scottish rebel, the Thane of Cawdor. With covert support from the thane and fresh Norwegian troops, they open a second front at Fife. Macbeth and Banquo remobilize to win the day. The opening action sets the scene for the first two of the four low-probability, high-consequence events.

After the battle, Macbeth and Banquo, on the road to Forres, encounter the Witches:

Macbeth. Speak, if you can: what are you?

1 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.

2 Witch. All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor.

3 Witch. All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.47-50)

The first Witch accosts Macbeth by name and title. This draws his attention: when his father died, he had become Thane of Glamis. The second Witch teases him with a present tense pronouncement, calling him Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth finds this both disturbing and unlikely. The news that Duncan has executed the traitor and given his title to Macbeth is still in transit. Then, the third Witch goes in hook, line, and sinker, hailing Macbeth as tomorrow’s king. Macbeth finds this impossible:

Macbeth. Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.
By Finel’s death, I know I am Thane of Glamis,
But how of Cawdor? The Thane of Cawdor lives
A prosperous gentleman: and to be king
Stands not within the prospect of belief,
No more than to be Cawdor. Say from whence
You owe this strange intelligence, or why
Upon this blasted heath you stop our way
With such prophetic greeting? Speak, I charge you. (1.3.70-8)

The Witches vanish. At that moment, Angus and Ross enter. Acting as though the mouthpiece of chance, Ross hails Macbeth the Thane of Cawdor:

Angus. We are sent
To give thee from our royal master thanks,
Only to herald thee into his sight
Not pay thee.

Ross. And for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee Thane of Cawdor:
In which addition, hail most worthy thane,
For it is thine.

Banquo. What, can the devil speak true?

Macbeth. The Thane of Cawdor lives. Why do you dress me
In borrowed robes?

Angus. Who was the Thane lives yet,
But under heavy judgement bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.
Whether he was combined with those of Norway,
Or did line the rebel with hidden help
And vantage, or that with both he laboured
In his country’s wrack, I know not,
But treasons capital, confessed and proved,
Have overthrown him. (1.3.101-118)

Macbeth’s surprise—“Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?”—relays to the audience the improbability of what is happening. Banquo too, stunned, says: “What, can devil speak true?” a little too loud.

As the true star of the show, not only do low-probability events change our perceptions of how many things there are in heaven and earth, they also change the plot’s trajectory. Macbeth, previously fighting traitors, turns traitor. With the low-probability event, Shakespeare boldly pivots the trajectory of the play. The imperial theme begins.

Shakespeare’s Swans

Part of the good interpreter’s task is to sound out yesterday’s iambs on today’s instruments. For yesterday’s plays to jingle and jangle to modern ears, new approaches are required, approaches which resonate with today’s preoccupations. Today, there is a preoccupation with low-probability, high-consequence events: 9/11, the Great Recession, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Deepwater Horizon, and other events give us reason to reflect on how nothing is impossible, once it happens. In the last decade, a new term has arisen to describe these events: today, we call them “black swans.”

The term “black swan” comes from Roman antiquity, and its journey to the present day has been itself swan buffeted. In the beginning, it meant something entirely different. The Roman poet Juvenal coined the term in the Satires where he likened a wife, perfect in all her virtues, to “a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan (6.165).” Since it was believed that the perfect wife does not exist, the black swan became a byword for the impossible. This was the term’s first meaning.

In 1697, European explorers sighted black swans off the coast of Australia. With one sighting, the improbable overcame the probable and a belief system—that all swans are white—fell. As a result, the term was orphaned. In 1843, however, John Stuart Mill reinvented it. In A System of Logic, Mill transformed the term from an expression of impossibility (which it could no longer denote) into a visual representation of the power of the unexpected. In Mill, the black swan is the empiricists’ bogeyman. It symbolizes the philosophers’ horror of how one observation can wreck any number of inferences based on any number of observations made over any immemorial period of time. In philosophical circles, the black swan came to symbolize the danger of formulating general principles from particular observations, otherwise known as the problem of induction. Another swan event, however,  was required for the term to enter the public consciousness.

In 2007, mathematician, options trader, and philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb released The Black Swan. He argued that Wall Street’s risk management models, far from containing risk, exacerbated risk and endangered the financial system. Being rooted in the idea of past as prologue, these models gave traders false assurances that they could wager all-in: every swan will be white and events progress forwards, inexorably, quiescently, in a predictable steady state. But, if time were a punctuated equilibrium and arrived in fits and starts like ketchup out a glass bottle, full of revolution, a world of hurt awaits. Taking the cue from Mill, Taleb called these unforeseen, unexpected, and catastrophic events black swans. Mainstream financial pundits, busy riding the boom, disregarded Taleb, whom they regarded as an eccentric voice crying out in the wilderness. But, without warning, the Great Recession broke out in 2008 to break each one of the world’s oldest and most decorated financial institutions. The timing of Taleb’s book—having come out the previous year— seemed prescient.

Though experts disavowed that such a catastrophe could be ascribed to as fleeting a notion as chance, Taleb’s ideas were backed by a badass image (a sinister swan) and hardcore math (attacking the venerable bell curve). When the media suggested that the Great Recession could be understood as a swan event, a low-probability, high-consequence event precipitated by, of all things, chance, a firestorm of controversy ensued. It was at this time that the term “black swan” to denote the impact of the highly improbable entered the popular consciousness.

Before there was Taleb, there was Shakespeare. Only Macbeth was not taken as a warning of the highly improbable, but rather, a warning of the dangers of confidence, ambition, and evil. Perhaps that was because people did not associate Shakespeare with probability theory, which, having been recently founded in the sixteenth century, was still in its infancy. Shakespeare, however, grasped with his playwright’s intuition the inordinate impact the highly improbable. Consider his use of the improbable elsewhere to generate fantastic outcomes: Desdemona, in Othello, dropping the handkerchief, spotted with strawberries or the letter-carrier, in Romeo and Juliet, being caught in the wrong house at the wrong time. Hamlet’s injunction to Horatio—“There are more things in heaven and earth, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—also warns of the impact of the highly improbable (Hamlet 1.5.167-8). Shakespeare’s tragedies are full of curious improbabilities and now, when they are all the rage, is the time to talk about Shakespeare’s swans.

The Imperial Theme

Shakespeare’s understanding of the highly improbable and its dramatic applications can be illustrated through Macbeth’s interaction with Angus and Ross. Macbeth’s question: “Why do you dress me / In borrowed robes?” is spoken from the viewpoint of his initial reality. In this reality, Duncan is his cousin and king. He will lay his life on the line fighting foreign kings and native rebels to defend this reality. In this reality, all swans are white. But the moment Angus and Ross confirm the second Witch’s pronouncement, Macbeth sights the black swan. A new reality opens, one in which he is king. It is the improbable that draws him to the existential fulcrum. In this reality, having seen the swan, he knows the impossible is possible. The plot pivots into the imperial theme.

Finding himself, unexpectedly, Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth muses: “Glamis and Thane of Cawdor: / The greatest is behind” (1.3.118-9). The greatest that lies behind is to be king. Not only have the Witches prophesied thus, Ross, in his fruitfully ambiguous phrase that the new thaneship is “an earnest of greater honour,” intimates that Macbeth could be named heir apparent, a declaration consonant with the system of tanistry used in medieval Scotland where the crown, not yet bound by primogeniture, would revolve between collateral branches of the leading families.

Why would the greatest lie behind? We perceive the past, not the future, as that which lies behind. “Leave the past behind,” we say. We perceive the future as that which lies ahead. “Look to the future,” we say. The future is something we see approaching. Our expressions reflect our biases. Since we fear uncertainty, we disarm it by putting it in plain view. To highlight the role of the unexpected, Shakespeare turns convention on its head by placing the future behind, rather than before Macbeth. The future now steals up to Macbeth with the result that, when it catches him, it takes him by surprise. The image highlights the elusiveness of chance: not only does it lie in the future, sometimes we cannot even see it coming.

The improbable event has so unseated Macbeth that he allows himself to consider murder. But the thought of murder is so abhorrent to his previous beliefs that his hair stands on end and his heart knocks against his chest (1.3.137-44). His last recourse to preserve his previous reality is, ironically, to trust chance: “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.146.7). As soon as he considers it, however, Duncan names his son heir. Crushed by having the prospect of the crown presented and ripped away, Macbeth moves further towards murder with his “Stars, hide your fires” soliloquy (1.4.50). Within a day, Duncan will be dead, clearing the path for Macbeth to be invested at Scone. The imperial theme is complete.

The Engine of Suspense

After the first two swan events take place, two remain: Birnam Wood and the man not of woman born. When Macbeth faces his first setbacks, he seeks a fresh start and goes back to where it all began. He will seek the Witches. All they presaged has come to pass. They said he is Thane of Cawdor, and it was confirmed. They said he will be king, and he became king. They said Fleance would found the Stuart line, and Fleance proved hard to kill.

To show Macbeth the path forward, the Witches conjure three Apparitions. The first Apparition tells Macbeth to beware Macduff. Even without the Apparition, Macbeth knew Macduff would be trouble: Macduff had declined to attend both the coronation and the state dinner. The second and third Apparitions prove more helpful, setting in motion the last two low-probability, high-consequence events:

2 Apparition. Be bloody, bold and resolute: laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends.

Macbeth. Then live, Macduff: what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure,
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies
And sleep in spite of thunder. Thunder

[Enter] : a child crowned, with a tree in his hand.

What is this,
That rises like the issue of a king
And wears upon his baby-brow the round
And top of sovereignty?

All.                               Listen, but speak not to’t.

3 Apparition. Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are.
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him. Descend[s].

Macbeth.                       That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements, good.
Rebellious dead, rise never till the Wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time, and mortal custom. (4.1.78-99)

Like the prospects of becoming thane and king, Macbeth finds the likelihood of either eventuality so low as to approach nil. His courage swells with apodictic certainty:

Macbeth. Bring me no more reports, let them fly all;
Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane,
I cannot taint with fear. What’s the boy Malcolm?
Was he not born of woman? (5.3.1-4)

Exactly as Hecate predicts, Macbeth, consumed by certainty, begins reciting the Apparitions’ words like a novel mantra:

Hecate. He shall spurn fate, scorn death, and bear
His hopes ’bove wisdom, grace and fear;
And you all know, security
Is mortals’ chiefest enemy. (3.5.30-4)

He repeats it to the Doctor: “I will not be afraid of death and bane,” he says, “Till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane” (5.3.59-60). “Thou wast born of woman,” he says, gloating over Young Siward’s corpse (5.7.12). He becomes another of chance’s fools.

In addition to all the functions mentioned earlier—driving the action forwards, exploding and reshaping worldviews, and pivoting the plot—black swan events also fire drama’s engine of suspense. They are part of a metatheatrical game played between dramatists and audiences.

A funny thing is that low-probability events, while low-probability to the characters (who are invariably blindsided by them), are, from the audience’s perspective, high-probability events. When the second Apparition tells Macbeth that “none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth,” Macbeth understands that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of the opposing belief. They understand that a man not of woman born will certainly strike Macbeth down.

Similarly, when the third Apparition tells Macbeth that “until / Great Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill /Shall come against him,” Macbeth understand that, chances are, it will not happen. The audience, however, is of another belief. They understand that, like a Houdini or a David Copperfield—Shakespeare will wow them by pulling off the impossible in plain sight. The moment the Apparitions speak, the theatregoers start trying to figure out how Shakespeare will accomplish the impossible. On the one hand, the playwright telegraphs cues to the audience, and, on the other hand, the audience tries to figure out these cues. This metatheatrical game between playwrights and audiences is drama’s engine of suspense. With a few cues, the dramatist stokes the fires of a thousand imaginations.

When the Apparition tells Macbeth that he will never be vanquished until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Shakespeare is telegraphing to the theatregoers that it will happen. Since it is not immediately obvious how Shakespeare can accomplish this, the theatregoers try to figure it out. As they try to figure it out, they feel the thrill of suspense. “Am I on the right track?” thinks one. “This is how he will do it,” thinks another. In these thoughts is the magic of suspense, and its magic increases with improbability. To bring about a probable event only requires the skills of a probable dramatist. To bring about the improbable event requires the skills of a most improbable dramatist. In this way, when Macbeth responds to the Apparition by saying, incredulous: “That will never be,” the audience understands it two ways. On the one hand, Macbeth is saying that it cannot happen. On the other hand, it is Shakespeare saying to the audience through Macbeth: “If I pull this off, you will admit I am a dramatist of the most improbable skill.” And so, this game of suspense between dramatist and audience plays out.

As the endgame approaches, Malcolm closes on Inverness with the English forces to revenge his father. Shakespeare has a chance to locate the action. The English, being unfamiliar with the terrain, request a bearing:

Siward. What wood is this before us?

Menteith.                                  The Wood of Birnam.

Malcolm. Let every soldier hew him down a bough
And bear’t before him; thereby shall we shadow
The number of our host, and make discovery
Err in report of us. (5.4.4-7)

In the cat and mouse game of suspense, this is the moment the audience has been anticipating. Shakespeare satisfies the audience in the following scene where the Messenger arrives, breathless:

Macbeth. Thou com’st to use thy tongue: thy story, quickly.

Messenger. Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do’t.

Macbeth.                       Well, say, sir.

Messenger. As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I looked toward Birnam, and anon methought
The wood began to move.

Macbeth.                       Liar and slave.

Messenger. Let me endure your wrath, if’t be not so.
Within this three mile may you see it coming.
I say, a moving grove. (5.5.28-37)

From two scenes earlier, they know that ten thousand march on Inverness. In any other play, the Messenger would have simply reported that troops approach under camouflage. In this play, however, Shakespeare plays up the improbability of the commonest of tactics to place the audience in check. He has brought Birnam Wood to Dunsinane Hill.

Though the improbable has, once again, happened, Shakespeare reminds the audience through Macbeth that their game is not done. The man not of woman born still lurks, undiscovered:

Macbeth. They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course. What’s he
That was not born of woman? Such a one
Am I to fear, or none. (5.7.11-14)

The probable, most of the time, prevails over the improbable. The improbable, however, has one decisive advantage. The probable can occur many times, and that is all that it can be: probable. The improbable, however, only needs to happen once. So it was with the black swan and so it is with Macbeth. As the end approaches, Macduff finds Macbeth:

Macduff.                      Turn, hell-hound, turn.

Macbeth. Of all men else I have avoided thee.
But get back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already.

Macduff.                      I have no words.
My voice is in my sword, thou bloodier villain
Than terms can give thee out. Fight. Alarum.

Macbeth.                       Thou losest labour;
As easy mayst thou the intrenchant air
With thy keen sword impress, as make me bleed.
Let fall thy blade on vulnerable crests;
I bear a charmed life, which must not yield
To one of woman born.

Macduff.                      Despair thy charm,
And let the angel whom thou still hast served
Tell thee, Macduff was from his mother’s womb
Untimely ripped. (5.8.3-16)

Checkmate. The improbable man is the man born from caesarean section. The suspense, building since the second sabbath, resolves. The audience feels entertained, having seen how Shakespeare brings to pass the highly improbable, and many times.

Tragedy is a compact between dramatist and playwright. Its structure consists of a series of low-probability, high-consequence events, foreshadowed and fulfilled. Tragedy showcases the playwright’s ingenuity in bringing about the highly improbable. Minor feats of improbability for minor playwrights and major feats of improbability for major playwrights. Such a reading interests us, who are today most interested in finding new ways to explore the unexpected, as more and more, we see that in life as in tragedy, the more improbable it is, the harder it hits.

Not Intended Consequences, but Unintended Consequences

Tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events to remind us how good actions can have bad consequences. Unintended consequences arise when the swan event happens because the world has been changed: though no one knows what to do, everyone must act quickly. When Sweno and the Thane of Cawdor see Macdonald revolting, they must act at once, risking all: there is a tide in the affairs of men. This all-in risk, in turn, further antagonizes the unintended consequences: the greater the risk, the further the risk taker’s resources are stretched beyond what the risk taker can cover. The risk taker stands naked in the rain. Actions made in the new world, made in haste and multiplied by risk, tend towards unintended consequences.

Macbeth’s quest for the crown is set against the backdrop of all the failed attempts on the crown. Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor dared, and lost their lives. Sweno dared, and was out ten thousand dollars. The opening action establishes that, in the world of this play, the highest risk enterprise is to reach for the crown. Despite the risks, however, the play also establishes Macbeth’s competency to fulfil the task. He was the one who thwarted the ingrates and upstarts, who, by all accounts, had been within a hair’s breadth. If they had been close, Macbeth, who was by far greater than them, could entertain higher hopes. Duncan, an armchair king, hardly stands in his way. From the outset, to kill a king is, paradoxically, presented as both the riskiest and the most assured task: riskiest because the others had failed and most assured because Macbeth is like no other. The deed needs to be fraught with risk to cement Macbeth’s daring. But the deed also needs to be most assured so that when the unintended consequences occur, the audience is surprised. This is the pleasure of tragedy.

Having seen what happened to Macdonald and the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth knows the risk of “Vaulting ambition, which o’er-leaps itself, / And falls on th’other” (1.7.27-8). In awe of risk, he changes his mind, telling Lady Macbeth they will go no further. “I dare do all that may become a man, he says, “Who dares do more is none” (1.7.38-9). Despite his ample resources and insider knowledge, Macbeth remains circumspect. He refuses to act unless every question mark is removed.

At this point, Lady Macbeth offers the failsafe of failsafes. In addition to the assurances they already possess, she proposes to frame Duncan’s chamberlains for the murder. She will ply them with wine so that they can access Duncan. Once murdered, she will smear them with royal blood and set their weapons—now the instruments of murder—next to them. Everyone will be in a deep sleep after the long day. When the murder is discovered, Macbeth will, in a fit of rage, murder the chamberlains. The truth will die with them. None will know. Her plan, being foolproof, convinces Macbeth. Every question mark disappears. “I am settled, “ he says, “and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat” (2.1.80-1).

They put the plan into action. As expected, it works perfectly. Macbeth become king. Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain flee, drawing suspicion of murder on themselves. No one knows better. The play shows them controlling, taming, and mitigating the foreseen risks. But then play turns to the unseen risks in the unintended consequences of their actions, cascading one after another in a beautiful sequence of mischance.

Macbeth had wanted to become king. But he cannot become the type of king he had expected. The best he can do is to become a tyrant, a degraded form of a king. This is the first of the unintended consequences. Now he begins consorting with murderers. Friends must die, and Fleance too. But when he marks them with death, further unintended consequences result. To be sure, ghosts can be found in Shakespeare’s other plays. In the world of this play, however, ghosts are like Juvenal’s black swans: they do not exist. Now, for the first time, the undead rise:

Macbeth. Blood hath been shed ere now, i’th’olden time,
Ere humane statute purged the gentle weal;
Ay, and since too, murders have been performed
Too terrible for the ear. The times have been
That when the brains were out, the man would die,
And there an end. But now they rise again
With twenty mortal murders on their crowns,
And push us from our stools. This is more strange
Than such a murder is. (3.4.73-81)

Macbeth, too, could not have foreseen how Lady Macbeth, entrenched within her iron will, would crack under pressure. Nor could he have foreseen that the moment he masters stoicism, hardening himself to all perils, is the moment Seyton breaks the news:

Macbeth. I have supped full of horrors;
Direness familiar to my slaughterous thoughts
Cannot once start me. Wherefore was that cry?

Seyton. The Queen, my lord, is dead. (5.5.13-6)

Lady Macbeth, too, generates unintended consequences. She had wanted to become queen. But she can only be a posthumous queen, a degraded form of queen: Seyton, as she dies, first addresses her thus.

How did Macbeth fall, Macbeth who removed every last question mark? Some say he fell because of overconfidence. If you believe he was overconfident, ask yourself if Shakespeare could have done any more than what he did to justify Macbeth’s confidence. He gave Macbeth the competence. He gave him insider knowledge. He gave him the best-laid plan. Why should Macbeth not have been confident? His confidence is grounded. He was confident, but did not fall as a result of confidence.

Others say Macbeth fell through uxoriousness. He should not have listened to Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, however, had the foolproof plan. Her plan is shown to be successful. The suspicion of the murder falls on Malcolm and Donalbain. He was swayed by Lady Macbeth, but did not fall through uxoriousness.

Then, there are those who say he fell because of his ambition. The world of the play, however, encourages ambition. The throne is ready for a shaking. Macdonald, the Thane of Cawdor, and Sweno all sense a changing of the guard. Later Banquo—and perhaps Donalbain—entertain their own imperial themes. The king is a poor judge of character, easily deceived, and cannot take it to the field. God had already deserted him: he can only send his wounded to the surgeons, other kings heal their subjects by a divine touch. Macbeth was ambitious, but his ambition was justified.

If not confidence, uxoriousness, or ambition, why did he fall? I think he fell through chance, the unexpected, more things happening than what he thought would happen, black swans, uncertainty, unknown unknowns, and low-probability, high-consequence events, the effects of all of which were compounded by risk. While indiscriminate evil cannot explain why Malcolm should ask the troops to cut down the boughs of Birnam Wood, chance multiplied by risk can. By chance, Macbeth meets a man not of woman born. By risk, he dies. Had he not put so much on the line by killing Macduff’s wife, babes, and lord, the encounter may have been less grievous.

Chance and the unexpected appear to the mind as a gap in nature, as a vacuum where there should have been knowledge. The intellect is poorly designed to comprehend the dark night of chance: though the math to comprehend chance was available from antiquity, it was not until the Italian Renaissance that probability theory laid down its footings. The intellect strives at all times to prove that everything happens for a reason. Thought finds a world where the random element runs amok false and impenetrable. Thought abhors empty space, rails against wild things.

When the world confronts timid natures with accident and uncertainty, they feel pity and fear. Pity for the tolling of the bell and fear that they too are exposed. These natures, who needed to reassure themselves from chance, sought to contain it, some by devising simplistic explanations (overconfidence, uxoriousness, ambition, etc.,) and others by devising complex metaphysics (the forces of darkness and evil). With these objectively questionable and subjectively comforting explanations, they allayed their fears, saying to one another: “Be more modest in your ambitions,” “Do good,” and other like refrains, thinking that with a change in behavior, next time they could stop Birnam Wood. Their explanations are from the point of view that the mischance of men’s ambitions are caused by man, and not by chance.

When the world, however, confronts more ambitious and confident natures with accident and uncertainty, far from pity and fear, they feel wonder and awe, wonder at how an individual, so full of fire and the seed of greatness, could be struck down by chance, and awe for the smallness of man in the boundlessness of randomness. They see that the killing risks are not the risks they see, but the ones that cannot be seen until after. They see that greatness is not without risk, and that there is a price to live dangerously. These fiery natures Macbeth marshals forwards, into the unknown, into risk, into the dark night of thought, as though saying to them: “Friend, dare to live dangerously, and you too shall die. Why the fuss? I also died, who was better by far than you.”

To these souls on fire, the highest honour is to join Macbeth and the pageant of tragic heroes who, having climbed past every ladder, found a way to climb on top of their heads, ever higher, higher than Ida’s peaks and Icarus’ flight. For them, to live is to dare. But it may be that there are other readings, and that there are as many truths to Macbeth as there are hearts, some circumspect, some like fire, some obsequious, some firing out their chests like cannons, some lily-livered, some cold as iron, hard as rock.

Littlewood’s Law

Some find the concatenation of low-probability, high-consequence events in Macbeth beyond belief. How could one individual become thane, then king, fall into tyranny, lose his lady to madness, see the wood come up the hill, and then meet a man not of woman born? That this too is part of an all-too-human heuristic that shuns chance and uncertainty can be demonstrated through Littlewood’s Law.

J. E. Littlewood, a twentieth century Cambridge mathematician, believed that exceedingly improbable events happen more often than we anticipate. To demonstrate his hypothesis, he devised a thought experiment. First, he called these unanticipated events miracles. Next, he defined miracles as events a million to one against. Through the observation that we experience many events each day, he demonstrated that we encounter the highly improbable monthly:

Littlewood’s Law of Miracles states that in the course of any normal person’s life, miracles happen at a rate of roughly one per month. The proof of the law is simple. During the time that we are awake and actively engaged in living our lives, roughly for eight hours each day, we see and hear things happening at a rate of about one per second. So the total number of events that happen to us is about thirty-thousand per day, or about a million per month. With few exceptions, these events are not miracles because they are insignificant. The chance of a miracle is about one per million events. Therefore we should expect one miracle to happen, on the average, every month.

In life, it is thought that we experience a handful of defining moments, moments full of miracle and wonder such as comings of age, marriage, and convalescence. The implication of Littlewood’s Law, however, is that these existential fulcra whereon life hangs in balance happen more often than we anticipate. Life, far from being a steady state with gradual change, is in a constant state of revolution. The moments of respite are as infrequent as the major upheavals are frequent. In this probabilistic existence, we find ourselves often standing, like Macbeth, outside the safety of circumscribed beliefs.

Macbeth, in dramatizing the crossroad between probability and life, not only illustrates that more things can happen than what we think will happen, but also that these more things happen more frequently than we allow. These strange concatenations of events in the play may be more emblematic of life than critics have allowed. Even in a world of pure good, and one in which the drives of ambition and confidence are constantly held in check, we should expect to see a Birnam Wood event, by chance alone, on the average, every month.

The Old Master

Part of the reason so few have based their readings of Macbeth around low-probability, high-consequence events is that such readings are inherently paradoxical. The low-probability event is only improbable to Macbeth. To the audience, it is a high-probability event. This paradox drives critics to look elsewhere for the play’s keys. Many have done exactly this, basing their reading around ambition, hubris, error, uxoriousness, or the insidious action of evil. It need not be so, as the paradox is easily resolved: it exists to generate suspense. Another reason, however, why so few have tried this reading is that it flies in the face of the old master, Aristotle.

Just as the intellect abjures the role of chance as a causal factor in life, it is perhaps fitting that the greatest of intellects would abjure the role of chance from the construction of the best of plots. Aristotle declares in the Poetics that tragedy dramatizes the sorts of thing that could happen. Tragedy deals with probable events:

It is also evident from what has been said that it is not the poet’s function to relate actual events, but the kindsof things that might occur and are possible in terms of probability or necessity. (1451a)

Not only should tragedy deal with the probable, he goes on to say that chance events, being signs of inferior plot construction, are to be avoided (1454a-b). The net effect of his condoning the probable and condemning the improbable was to preclude chance and the highly improbable from the discussion of tragedy. It is a shame.

Aristotle had reasons for banishing the improbable. He was trying to rehabilitate tragedy. His teacher, Plato, had found tragedy to be degenerate and unceremoniously banned it from his ideal city-state (Laws 817a-e, Republic 607b). To rehabilitate tragedy, Aristotle gave it a social function. To Aristotle, theatregoers seeing the consequences of characters’ actions onstage would better understand the consequences of their own actions offstage. For this stage to street transference to work, however, actions had to be repeatable. For actions to be repeatable, they had to be probable. If a flaw onstage would lead to a similar fall offstage, nine or ten times out of ten, then tragedy could fulfil its social function.

In rehabilitating tragedy, Aristotle turned tragedy into a distant early warning of poor character. For the next two thousand years we would talk about how irascibility led to the fall. The fall was precipitated by confidence, stubbornness, ambition, and other behavioral factors that the agent could change, and by changing, escape tragedy. By neutering the improbable, Aristotle rehabilitated tragedy.

Aristotle has ruled the roost for two thousand years. In new millenniums, however, we seek new truths. In this age of the unexpected, we seek and find, through Macbeth, a new truth for tragedy that speaks to the pervasiveness of the random element. From its dramatization of black swans, Macbeth gains its overwhelming impetus. By affirming how the unthinkable happens again and again, Macbeth touches all the themes of our day. What is more, tragedy is once more dangerous. When it is dangerous, it is exciting and fit entertainment for the highest natures.

The Great Race

In this reading of Macbeth, I have shown how the action pivots around the fulcrum of the low-probability, high-consequence event. By the advantage conferred by this force multiplying machine, with the lightest touch the dramatist can provoke characters to abandon belief systems and risk certain comfort on uncertain hopes. Risk unbound, in turn, leaves characters susceptible to the unintended consequences of their actions: the more risk they assume, the more susceptible they become to each tremor. All the meanwhile, the dramatist plays a metatheatrical game with the audience, creating suspense by dangling before the audience the prospect that he will bring about an event so rare and wild that any lesser dramatist would cringe at the attempt. From the page to the stage, tragedy is a theatre of risk.

This concludes my study of probability in Macbeth. I needed to write this, because, to me, this play was like a great race in which runners would compete, and, in the course of the running, they would run across banana peels. Some of them they would see, and jump over in great leaps. Some of them they would not see, or see too late, and slip. The runner, who led by an overwhelming margin in the final stretch, slips by accident and is unable to cross the line. This same runner, while jockeying for position earlier, had also pushed last year’s winner into the ditch.

Now, listening to the commentators, I was surprised because they would never declare these falls as accidents. Instead they would say that this runner slipped because he ran too ambitiously or that that runner slipped because he ran with too much gusto. As for the frontrunner who never crosses, this, according to them, was to show that cheaters never prosper. If you saw the play as I do, would you not yourself have needed to say this, that it was not error, hubris, confidence, or justice that causes the fall, but that the fall results from something much simpler, namely that, in a course full of banana peels, more things may happen than what we think will happen?

This reading is based on my new theory of tragedy, which is laid out in my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The book has launched the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, now in its third year. Thank you for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

It’s Conferencing Time – Taking Risk Theatre on the Road

This isn’t the first time risk theatre has been on the road. Enthusiastic audiences have heard about this new theory of tragedy at the University of Calgary, the Society of Classical Studies AGM, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and the University of Victoria. This last year though, with the publication of the book, my day job (yes, I have a full time day job), and the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, I haven’t had a chance to take risk theatre on the road. Now that things are settling down, it’s time to go in itinere, as they say in Latin.

I’ve lined up an October 29 lecture at Okanagan College. A talk on tragedy is perfect for Halloween. Thank you Terry Scarborough for the invitation! And another opportunity popped into my inbox to speak at a conference in Austin, Texas next year. What a dream, a trip to the Lone Star State! The organizers wanted a 800 word abstract, and I’m sure the competition will be tough to get into this prestigious conference. The text of my proposal is included below for your reading pleasure. Will it be good enough? “New theory of tragedy” for the headline–you’d think that would get some attention. Doesn’t everyone want a new theory of tragedy? Fingers crossed!

PS I have a pet peeve. Although Seven against Thebes is probably more correct (prepositions are not capitalized), it just looks wrong. And what is worse, ugly. Any right minded person with a sense of aesthetics–to me at least–would write it Seven Against Thebes.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a

New Theory of Tragedy

In Euripides’ Bacchae, the worst-case scenario happens to Pentheus if the stranger spreading a seditious cult happens to be a god, and not a hobo. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the worst-case scenario happens to Macbeth if his opponent happens to be not born of woman. In Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the worst-case scenario happens to Loman if he discovers that his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. In Sophocles’ Oedipus rex, the worst-case scenario happens to Oedipus if he finds out that he is the regicide. What were the odds of the worst-case scenario happening in each of these cases? Although the odds appear to be a longshot, they are impossible to quantify. In the tragic canon, there is one play—and one play only—where it is possible to quantify and demonstrate the odds of everything that does happen and does not happen. This fascinating play is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

In Aeschylus’ Seven, seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. Seven defending captains—one of whom is Polyneices’ brother Eteocles—defend Thebes’ seven gates. The worst-case scenario takes place if brother confronts brother at the seventh gate: brother will kill brother, kindred blood will be shed, and, in addition to the normal hazards of warfare, miasma results and the Furies will be unleashed. Because the captains are assigned their gates by a random, lottery process (Hermann, 2013), it is possible to precisely quantify the odds of the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario odds are 1:49. Conversely, the odds that the worst-case scenario does not happen are 48:49. The worst-case scenario is therefore an unexpected, low-probability outcome with odds 48 to 49 against. Most of the time, Polyneices will not encounter Eteocles at the seventh gate. Because the peculiar structure in Seven (seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates) allows us to work out all the permutations and combinations of the captains at the gates, we can determine the odds of the worst-case scenario. And, because we can determine the extent to which Aeschylus paradoxically brings about the fated event seemingly against all odds, we can quantitatively verify what we had suspected from watching Bacchae, Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, Oedipus rex, and other tragedies, and that is that unexpected and unanticipated low-probability events happen with alarming frequency in tragedy. What is more, these low-probability events carry the highest consequences. Heroes’ best-laid plans are often dashed because of such events and all is lost.

The observation that low-probability events (low-probability from the point of view of the characters who do not see them coming) can have high-consequences leads to an interesting conjecture: what if tragedy is a theatre of risk, a stage where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action? In other words, the mystique of tragedy is not so much wrapped around motivations and nobility and flaws but around a hero who, by taking on too much risk, triggers exceedingly low-probability, high-consequence events?

My paper will close by exploring, as a point of further thought, how tragedy can be thought of as “risk theatre” and how risk theatre can be the basis of a bold new 21stcentury theory of tragedy, one which resonates with modern preoccupations with chance, uncertainty, and probability. Risk theater asks, “What if something happens that we did not think would happen?” and understands that tragedy dramatizes the limitations of intention against the vastness of the possible. Tragedy, in this view, is an exercise in risk management: by dramatizing risk, audiences emerge from the theatre with a higher sensibility of unintended consequences. By understanding this, ancient tragedy can powerfully speak to modern audiences who see scientists, engineers, and policy-makers gamble with the future of the world: it might happen the way they think it will happen, but, then again, more can happen than what their models project. With our technological, financial, and military wherewithal, we have a moral imperative to better understand risk, and the best way to examine risk is through tragedy.

Bibliography

Hermann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’s Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” In Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, 39-80. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013.