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Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO

Marionet Teatro
Theatre about Science Conference
University of Coimbra, Portugal
November 25-27, 2021
Edwin Wong

Probability Theory, Moral Certainty, and Bayes’ Theorem in Shakespeare’s Othello

Thank you to the organizers for putting this wonderful event together and thank you everyone for coming. It’s great to be here. I’m Edwin Wong. I specialize in dramatic theory based on chance, uncertainty, and the impact of the highly improbable. My first book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, presents a new theory of tragedy where risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. The book launched The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its fourth year (risktheatre.com). Today, I’ve come all the way from Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, to talk about the intersection between theatre and probability theory in a play we all know and love: Shakespeare’s Othello.

Now, the first thing people ask when I say “theatre” and “probability theory” is: “How do you bring probability theory to theatre? How would you know the odds of something happening or not happening? —every event, even chance events, are purposefully written into the script by the playwright.” They ask: “Where is the probability in theatre?”

It’s there. Look at the language of probability in Othello. In Othello, Shakespeare talks of “proof,” “overt test,” “thin habit and poor likelihoods,” “modern seeming,” “probal [i.e. probable] to thinking,” “exsufflicate [i.e. improbable] and blown surmises,” “inference,” “prove it that the probation bear no hinge nor loop,” “I’ll have some proof,” “living reason,” “help to thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly,” “speaks against her with the other proofs,” and so on. The language of probability permeates the play.

The language of probability permeates Othello because, in this play, no one is as they seem. “I am not what I am,” right? Iago seems honest; he’s anything but. Othello seems a man for all seasons; he is, however, quite fragile. Desdemona seems unfaithful; she is, however, true. Emilia seems to have loose morals; she sticks to her morals, however, even when threatened with death. There’s a disjunction between seeming and being. Othello and Iago talk about it: “Men should be what they seem,” says Iago, “Or those that be not, would they might seem none.” Because seeming and being are at odds, you can guess what a person’s intentions are, but you may never know.

This brings us to the crux of the play: your best friend who you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in wars and who’s known for his honesty, is telling you your wife is getting it on with your lieutenant. You’re a little bit older, having “declined into the vale of years.” Your wife is young, as is your lieutenant. But, you love your wife very much and she seems constant. At the same time, you also trust your best friend. What do you do?

This is what Othello decides. If the allegations are true, he’ll kill Desdemona and Cassio. If they’re false, he’ll kill Iago. Someone will die. The problem is, how does he decide who dies? There’s no proof. Nor is proof forthcoming: Iago and Othello establish that Desdemona and Cassio, if they’re guilty, aren’t going to confess. And, because they’re subtle lovers, Othello’s not going to catch them in the act. In the real world, you could probably catch them, sooner or later. But that’s not the world of the play that Shakespeare’s created: in this play, there’s only seeming.

So, Othello will kill. Who he kills will be based on belief and probability. He can’t decide. But Iago helps him. He comes up with the test of the handkerchief. Now, the test of the handkerchief isn’t certain, but in the world of the play, nothing is certain; there’s only probability. Othello has given Desdemona a special handkerchief. Iago suggests that, if the handkerchief makes its way into Cassio’s hands, then Othello can take this as proof. Conversely, if Iago cannot demonstrate this, Othello can take this as proof Iago is lying. Lives hand in balance.

In their rush to dinner, Othello and Desdemona accidentally drop the handkerchief. Emilia, by chance, finds it, and, knowing that Iago is always asking about it, gives it to Iago. Iago plants the handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom where Cassio finds it and asks his ladyfriend Bianca to copy the design: the napkin is of an unusual provenance, “spotted with strawberries.” Bianca, however, thinking the handkerchief a gift from some new woman, gets jealous and squabbles with Cassio. Iago, meanwhile, has set things up so that Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief. Once he sees the handkerchief, he’s convinced: Cassio and Desdemona are getting it on.

Is Othello, jumping to this conclusion, being reasonable? The first great Othello critic, Thomas Rymer, found Othello’s actions laughable. He came up with a jingling couplet to express his distaste, saying: “Before the Jealousie be Tragical, the proof may be Mathematical.” Most people, I believe, would agree with Rymer and say: “Othello, what are you doing?!?”

Enter probability theory. In probability theory, there’s a tool called Bayes’ theorem. It’s used to calculate conditional probabilities. With it, you can revise probability estimates as new information comes to light. This is exactly what happens in Othello: new evidence—the handkerchief—comes to light that makes Othello revise his initial probability estimate. In Iago’s words, the napkin “speaks against her with the other proofs,” or the napkin “may help to thicken other proofs / That do demonstrate thinly.” How much does it thicken the other proofs? Let’s find out. We can throw some numbers figures into Bayes’ theorem, and it will tell us, in percent, how certain Othello is after he sees Cassio with the napkin.

We start off with what is called the prior probability. That is the initial probability before he receive new information. Now, before the test of the handkerchief, Othello says:

Othello. By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not,
I think that thou [meaning Iago] art just, and think thou are not.

It seems that he views the odds that he has been cuckolded as 50:50. His mind is evenly divided. So, we enter this into the formula.

Next, we need to come up with a probability value that represents the chance that Cassio has the handkerchief given that Othello has been cuckolded. The dialogue between Othello and Iago suggests that we should assign a high percentage to this figure, which, while not 100%, must approach 100%. Call it 90%. We enter this into the formula.

The final probability value we require is the chance that Cassio should have his handkerchief given that Othello has not been cuckolded. Although Iago suggests that lovers give away their tokens all the time, Othello’s reaction suggests he strongly disagrees. So, we can call the likelihood that Cassio has the napkin and nothing untoward has happened something low, in the order of magnitude of say 1%.

We plug all these values into Bayes’ theorem, and it gives us an answer: if Othello’s mind had been evenly divided on Desdemona’s guilt, once he sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand, he can be 98.9% certain that he has been cuckolded. So, it would appear, contrary to Rymer, that the “Jealousie was Tragical because the proof is Mathematical.” A certainty test of 98.9% is certainly high. Modern statisticians use a 5% certainty test to establish moral certainty, or, the threshold at which one has the right to act. Othello is well within this 5% range.

We can also play with the numbers to arrive at different results. Some might say, for example, that a 50% initial probability that he is a cuckold is way too low. Look, if your best friend—who is known for honesty—and your wife’s father himself is telling you to watch out, then the initial probability you are a cuckold is likelier closer to 80%. If this is the case, then, after the napkin test, the chances you are a cuckold go up from 98.9 to 99.7%. That’s equivalent to the three-sigma test that physicists, up to recently, use to confirm that their experiments are the real deal, and not an artifact of chance. 99.7% is quite confidence inspiring, and shows that Othello, after seeing the napkin, could be quite sure.

Of course, everyone says Othello was too rash. He should not have killed Desdemona. I get this. But then, should he have killed Iago? Remember, the play is set up so that he has to kill someone, whether Desdemona or Iago. This is where probability gets interesting. The question the play asks is: how high a degree of confidence must we have to act? Those who contend Othello achieved moral certainty also have to contend with the fact that he was wrong. Those who contend that Othello failed to achieve moral certainty have to wonder how today’s insurance, medical, and consumer safety industries—not to mention courts—often hang matter of life and death on less stringent significance tests.

The intersection between probability theory and theatre is one of the richest crossroads in research today. Not only can we talk about whether Othello should or shouldn’t have acted, we can compare Othello to, say Hamlet. Hamlet is told by the ghost that his uncle killed his dad. As Hamlet himself realizes, the ghost is much less trustworthy than a best friend. Next, just like in Othello, Hamlet stages the mousetrap, the play within the play, to determine, on a probabilistic basis, whether his uncle is guilty. Like the test of the napkin, Hamlet’s mousetrap isn’t perfect. But for some reason, we allow Hamlet to act. Why is that? These are all fascinating questions that arise when we examine theatre from the perspective of probability theory.

I’ve always believed that theory should service practice. How can probability theory add to the performance of drama? I saw an Othello this year, a fast-paced one, big-budget production. But watching it, I felt some lines were missing. It turns out, after checking the text, parts of the text were missing: the beginning of act one, scene three where the sailor gives conflicting accounts of the size and heading of the attacking Turkish fleet. I learned later that this section is quite often omitted from performances. What a shame: the scene illustrates how, so often in the most critical affairs, though we want certainty, we must act based on probability. This moment sets the scene for the entire play: Othello too wants certainty, but must act on probability. By bringing science to the theatre, I offer a powerful reason for including this scene in future productions: this scene unlocks the play.

If you would like learn more about chance in theatre, pick up a copy of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected, published by Friesen in 2019. This talk is based on a new book chapter that came out a few months ago called: “Faces of Chance in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Othello’s Handkerchief and Macbeth’s Moving Grove.” It’s in a book called: Critical Insights: Othello, edited by Robert C. Evans and published by Salem Press. Follow me on Twitter @TheoryOfTragedy.

Thank you.

BAYES’ THEOREM

P(C) initial probability Othello is a cuckold 50%
P(~C) initial probability Othello is not a cuckold 50%
P(H C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is a cuckold 90%
P(H ∣ ~C) chance Cassio has the handkerchief if Othello is not a cuckold 1%

                                                               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}

– – –

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.

2021 CATR Canadian Association of Theatre Research Paper Proposal

Earlier this year, I had a chance to talk about my new theory of tragedy called “Risk Theatre” at the Canadian Association of Theatre Research (CATR) conference. Let’s see if risk theatre can make a second appearance at CATR next year. Here’s my 250 word proposal. If it’s accepted, it’ll end up as a 15 minute presentation. Fingers crossed!

Low-probability, High-consequence Events in Life and in Shakespeare’s Macbeth
If we look at theatre as a stage where low-probability, high-consequence events play out, it will help us understand today’s crisis. But this requires reimagining the way we interpret theatre. In life, when crises break out, they are often unforeseen and unpredictable. We have mental biases, however, that compel us to come up with simplistic explanations of how they could have been prevented. Our mental biases do not admit to the action of the random element. As a result of these biases, our sense of security is misplaced.
Interpreters of theatre, like the engineers and scientists who analyze what went wrong, have these same mental biases. They look at what went wrong and find simplistic explanations. “This character had hubris,” some say. “This one was too trusty,” others say. The play becomes a moral lesson. But what if dramatists were trying to say something else? What if they were dramatizing the effects of the unexpected?
I will demonstrate this idea by reading a play we all know—Shakespeare’s Macbeth—through the lens of probability. I will argue that Shakespeare creates a world in which Macbeth’s confidence is justified. The problem is not the plan, but rather the impact of the highly improbable. The play then ceases to be a moral lesson and becomes instead a warning that the improbable may impact us more than our biases allow us to believe. The art of tragedy, I argue, talks to us in times of crisis because it simulates the effect of unknown unknowns on the stage.
Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Drama Versus Novel – Macbeth and Moby-Dick

Each art specializes in expressing a facet of nature. Rhythm, for example, belongs to the musical arts. The painted arts, of course, can convey rhythm as well. Looking at Géricault’s Epsom Races, one cannot but hear the familiar three beat signature of racing horses:

Géricault, Epsom Races (Course D’Epsom)

But motion is properly the property of music. Colour belongs to the painted arts. Of course music can also have “colour” or “scene:” for example, Liszt’s tone-poems has scene and Davis’ “King of Blue” has colour.

Now what about prophecy? I guess this isn’t really a facet of nature, but a facet of the supernatural. But which art owns the rights to prophecy? Well, let’s put it to the test! There’s two similar prophecies in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. Here we have drama and novel trying to do the same thing.

Contestant #1 Drama (Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

In this scene, the witches call up apparitions who prophecy to Macbeth:

SECOND APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!

MACBETH. Had I three ears, I’d hear thee.

SECOND 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. THIRD APPARITION: a Child crown’d, 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.

THIRD APPARITION. Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care

Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:

Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be, until

Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill

Shall come against him. [Descends]

MACBETH. That will never be:

Who can impress the forest; bid the tree

Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!

Rebellion’s head, rise never, till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom.

Contestant #2 Novel (Melville’s Moby-Dick)

Ahab and all his boat’s crew seemed asleep but the Parsee; who crouching in the bow, sat watching the sharks, that spectrally played round the whale, and tapped the light cedar planks with their tails. A sound like the moaning in squadrons over Asphaltites of unforgiven ghosts of Gomorrah, ran shuddering through the air.

Started from his slumbers, Ahab, face to face, saw the Parsee; and hooped round by the gloom of the night they seemed the last men in a flooded world. “I have dreamed it again,” said he.

“Of the hearses? Have I not said, old man, that neither hearse nor coffin can be thine?”

“And who are hearsed that die on the sea?”

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

“Aye, aye! a strange sight that, Parsee:–a hearse and its plumes floating over the ocean with the waves for the pall-bearers. Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see.”

“Believe it or not, thou canst not die till it be seen, old man.”

“And what was that saying about thyself?”

“Though it come to the last, I shall still go before thee thy pilot.”

“And when thou art so gone before–if that ever befall-then ere I can follow, thou must still appear to me, to pilot me still?–Was it not so? Well, then, did I believe all ye say, oh my pilot! I have here two pledges that I shall yet slay Moby Dick and survive it.”

“Take another pledge, old man,” said the Parsee, as his eyes lighted up like fire-flies in the gloom–“Hemp only can kill thee.”

“The gallows, ye mean.–I am immortal then, on land and on sea,” cried Ahab, with a laugh of derision;–“Immortal on land and on sea!”

Both were silent again, as one man. The grey dawn came on, and the slumbering crew arose from the boat’s bottom, and ere noon the dead whale was brought to the ship.

Moby-Dick is narrative; Macbeth is dramatic. But which one does prophecy better? Both passages give me the chills because it’s quite obvious in both instances that the low-probability event that they laugh off is precisely what’s going to kill them.

Well, there’s more economy in drama. It takes Melville 362 words to convey what Shakespeare does in 201. Another dramatist might even have been able to do it in less. Shakespeare is known to be quite verbose (when you’re that good with words, why not?). Winner: dramatic art.

But, while drama is more frugal and to the point, there’s a third voice in the narrative version, the voice of the narrator. In Shakespeare, the witches and Macbeth converse: that’s it. In Melville, there is the main dialogue between Ahab and the Parsee, and the narrator adds the details of the shark’s tails and the description of the men’s silence after Fedallah prophecies. Of course, the director of the drama could invite the audience to see these supratextual details in the stage directions or the setting. Here I think that the writer is superior to the dramatist in that the writer has more control over the reader’s interpretation. The dramatist is at the mercy of the director. So, while it’s not the case that narrative art is richer, but it is the case that narrative art retains greater control of the artistic product. Winner: narrative art.

What about from the viewpoint of suspense? It’s patently obvious that Ahab is going to be seeing dual hearses that someone is going to bid the tree unfix his earthbound root. What both Shakespeare and Melville are doing is setting up their audience’s expectations by saying: “Stay tuned, just wait to see how I pull this off!” From the perspective of suspense, the narrative and dramatic arts come to a draw. But I’ll have to give this one to the dramatic arts because, Melville, to make the scene more “dramatic” borrows from drama: the exchange between Fedallah and Ahab is recited verbatim and could be part of a play.

Of course I say this because I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work and not the work of the Muse of narrative art.

Othello (Iago?) – Shakespeare

I’ve always referred to Othello by Shakespeare as Iago because Iago dominates Othello. Iago drives the action; Othello is like a piece of driftwood, although he gets one of the best lines (as he breaks up a fight): ‘Keep up you bright swords, for the dew will rust them’. But the problem of the play is deeper than the title. Iago is the problem. Why is he such an asshole?

Now, I’m offering a reward to anyone who can convince me why Iago is such an asshole. It’s a question that’s eluded generations of theatregoers. Othello is my least favourite Shakespeare tragedy because I can’t figure it out. Coleridge ascribed Iago’s bad nature to ‘motiveless malignity’. While that has a nice jingle, it doesn’t explain much. Other Shakespeare villains at least have convincing explanations why they’re bad. Take Macbeth: he’s tempted by the crown. But what’s Iago tempted by? I’m not sure. The closest Shakespeare villain that’s bad just for the sake of being bad is Richard III. But at least he has some motivation: he’s getting back at nature for being born deformed (that’s the motive Shakespeare gives him).

Bad Iago

How is Iago an asshole? His wife, Emilia, seems like a nice lady. This is how he addresses her:

Iago (to Cassio): Sir, would she [Emilia] give you so much of her lips

As of her tongue she oft bestows on me,

You’ll have enough.

Desdemona: Alas, she has no speech.

Iago: In faith, too much;

I find it still, when I have list to sleep:

Marry, before your ladyship, I grant,

She puts her tongue a little in her heart,

And chides with thinking.

Emilia: You have little use to say so.

Iago: 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.

Here’s another one:

Emilia: I have a thing for you.

Iago: A thing for me!–it is a common thing–

I’ll leave it up to your capable imagination what a ‘common thing’ is. Hint: Emilia’s reaction is ‘Ha!’ and I don’t think she’s amused!

What else does ‘Honest Iago’ do? Well, he leads Roderigo on. Roderigo has a crush on Othello’s wife, Desdemona. Iago promises him access to Desdemona and takes all his money and jewels. Basically he bankrupts him for the fun of it. He has no intention on going through with his promises.

Iago gets Cassio drunk, with the result that he loses his job. He also stirs the pot between Roderigo and Cassio, hoping that one will kill the other. He gets Othello all jealous so that he suspects Desdemona of infidelity. When he succeeds at this, he urges Othello to kill Desdemona. Desdemona had never done him injury, and is his wife’s best girlfriend.

Basically Iago screws everyone over that he can.

Iago’s Motives

Shakespeare doesn’t leave Iago entirely without motivations. Iago complains that he was passed over for a promotion. He wanted to be lieutenant but Cassio got that position. But as Othello’s ancient, he’s second in command. He also believes that Othello has slept with his wife. But he doesn’t give a reason. And there’s nothing in the play between Othello and Emilia that would suggest anything inappropriate has taken place. Then at other times, he says that he enjoys playing the asshole just for the fun of it.

Despite his insidious actions, none of the other characters can see through him. As the play’s reader, I find that frustrating: usually someone suspects something. Everyone calls him ‘Honest Iago’ and trusts him with all their secret concerns. That’s how he can get up to such great mischief: he knows everyone’s secret wishes and desires.

His motivations, to me, are unconvincing. He has motivations. But it’s like meeting someone who’s late for a meeting. If they have one excuse, it might just be real. If they have a bunch of excuses, they’re full of it. Iago, with his many excuses, seems like he’s full of it. But that leaves the question: why is he such an asshole.

The characters don’t seem to know either. When everyone’s dead in the end, and they question Iago as to his motives, this is what he says:

Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word.

I went through a whole play just to hear a character tell me that he won’t say what the whole play was about! Frustrating! So, if anyone knows Iago’s secret, let me know!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I have real motives for Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Tragic Epochs

Flowerings of Tragedy

Tragedy is one of those arts which comes and goes. This post takes a look at tragic epochs of the past–that is to say, periods in which the art form of tragedy flourished–to see if they share some sort of common denominator. Some art forms have an unbroken lineage. Take sculpture or painting. One would be hard pressed to find a period in which these activities were not going on. The practise of other art forms such as history, philosophy, and comedy appear to be relatively continuous as well. Take philosophy, for example. From its beginnings in the 6th century BC, you had Thales and Heraclitus. The 5th century saw Socrates and Plato. The 4th Aristotle. The 3rd Zeno and Epicurus. Carneades in the 2nd. Lucretius and Cicero in the 1st. Seneca on the other side of the 1st. And so on. Tragedy is completely different. Tragic epochs seem to flower into a lush bloom and then die out just as fast.

Tragic Epochs

The list starts with the big three in the 5th century BC: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Although tragedies continued after the 5th century, it’s not until the 1st century AD that they really come back with Seneca. Around the time of Seneca the emperor Augustus and the orator Maternus also worked on tragedies, though they do not survive. If that gap of almost 500 years seems long, the next of the tragic epochs doesn’t dawn until 16th century Elizabethan England. Here you had luminaries such as Kyd, Webster, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson. Again, probably a 50 or so year flowering. In the 17th century across the Channel France could boast Corneille and Racine, who provided a temporary home for the spirit of tragedy. The next of the tragic epochs is not until the late 18th century in Germany (who actually thought they were Greeks with Classicism in full swing): Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and others. From there, the torch goes north to the Scandinavian countries in the 19th century with Ibsen and Strindberg. And in the 20th, it’s been the American century with the likes of O’Neill and Miller.

That’s seven tragic epochs in the last 1500 or so years.

The End of Tragic Epochs

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, once mused on the death of tragedy. It had occurred to him as well that tragedy flowers just as quickly as it dies. His thought was that the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides had written so many that there was little left to say. Goethe was thinking more about 5th century Athens than the whole history of tragedy up to his day, though. I like this explanation. Although only thirty of so tragedies by the big three survive to this day, they had actually written hundred. At the City Dionysia each year, three dramatists would be expected to produce three plays each. Tragedy usually takes its stories from myth, so there’s only so many ways you can spin the stories. Think of Hollywood and how it ‘reboots’ movie franchises. Right now at the theatres they.re playing Terminator Genisys. There’s only so many ways you can spin the story of a time travelling robot who says, ‘I’ll be back’. But yes, I probably will rent this when the library gets it…

Goethe’s explanation works for 5th century Athens. But what about Elizabethan or Jacobean England?–there they were not limited to myth. They could use history (e.g. Macbeth) or legend (e.g. King Lear) as well. To answer that, let’s go and see how tragic epochs begin.

The Birth of Tragic Epochs

Now to find a common theme in the tragic epochs. Empire perhaps? 5th century century saw the rise and fall of the Athenian Empire. Seneca was writing in imperial Rome. Elizabethan England saw the arms race with Spain end with the destruction of the Spanish Armada. France was busy colonizing the New World during the time French Classical drama was being written. Germany during the time of Schiller and Goethe, while not a military powerhouse (too fragmented and Napoleon too powerful riding around in his red cape), was a cultural powerhouse boasting the likes of Kant, Hegel, Beethoven and others. The thesis does not work very well for Ibsen and Strindberg though. But it does for Miller and O’Neill, who were writing in the ‘American Century’.

So far, the argument seems to suggest that tragedy is involved with the study of power. Kings and queens have traditionally been the subject of tragedy. Common people are more generally found in comedy. Another thing about this period is that people were generally doing well. This suggests that tragedy flourishes when people are flourishing: the ability to stomach tragedy is a sort of luxury. When tragedy is too close, it is not welcome: Phrynicus staged the tragedy The Fall of Miletus shortly after the Persians sacked the allied city in 494 BC. He was fined for reminding the Athenians of their sorrows. More recently, films which had or were perceived to contain elements too close for comfort after the 9/11 attacks were either delayed or modified. You can write a tragedy about the Black Plague, but not during the Black Plague.

Because tragedy is about choice and paying the price (hence the title of my book will be Paying Melpomene’s Price), tragedy can also be an exploration of the consequences of action during times of upheaval. Sophocles’ Antigone can be interpreted as an exploration of the rights of the state versus the rights of the individual and the price the protagonists pay to make their point. When Anouilh produced his Antigone in occupied France during WWII, his treatment of choice and the horrible consequences of paying the price for choosing were such that both the Nazis and the Free French enthusiastically applauded the performance: the Nazis for Creon and the Free French for Antigone.

As a starting point then, perhaps this can be said of the tragic epochs. Tragedy requires a certain minimum standard of living to happen. Generally, things have to be going well (lots of exceptions such as Anouilh). Things have to be going so well that power can become concentrated somehow in such a way that the protagonist has to make a decision that involves some kind of sacrifice. It’s not the sort of decision that a serf can make, because a serf doesn’t have enough to sacrifice. The decision has to have some kind of contemporary significance. So, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House couldn’t be written in a patriarchy. It had to wait for a time of great social change. So here we have it: power, high standard of living, and societal sea change. These are the preconditions of tragic epochs. Agree or disagree?

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I am always Doing Melpomene’s Work, even under the sweltering noonday sun when I would rather be doing siesta.

Macbeth Review (Shakespeare by the Sea July 17, 2014)

Do you prefer Springsteen.s Nevada to Born in the USA? How about dining?-mom and pop or Michelin all-star restaurants? Do you prefer baroque and rococo furniture or the Eames aesthetic? If you had said ‘Nevada’ or ‘hole in the wall restaurant’, or ‘Eames’, then the Victoria.s Shakespeare by the Sea production of Macbeth is just your ticket.

Both Nevada and Born in the USA are great albums. But, of the two, Nevada is the more honest album.  Honest in the sense that it.s a guy with his guitar recording on a four track in the garage. Just vocals and guitar. No E Street Band or million dollar studio to hide behind. The same with the mom and pop restaurant. It.s honest because the focus isn.t on the linen, the service, the water feature, or the Picasso hanging beside you. The focus is on the food. It.s the same with Eames furniture. The focus is on functionality. If it.s stylish, it.s not because of the acanthus leaf carved into the armrest or the barley twist leg. It.s stylish because there.s beauty in honest design.

The Shakespeare by the Sea Macbeth is about honesty. Honest in the sense that Nevada is honest or Skinnytato Restaurant on Johnson Street is honest. When I called to reserve a ticket a few hours before the performance (turns out it was a good idea) the director took the call. No Ticketmaster. I would later see that, in addition to being director and manning the phones, Robert Light was also impresario, usher, and stagehand. Lighting consists of daylight. Heating is provided but the sun and ventilation by the wind. Shelter is provided by a 25’x40′ tent which covers the stage and the audience. A green painted plywood box raises the stage half a foot off the ground. There are five exits and entrances. One at each corner of the tent. The main door where one enters the tent (directly looking onto the stage) is the fifth entrance. Being set up on Clover Point Bluff, the tent is oriented towards the south. That is, the backdrop of the stage is the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Except for the exits and entrances, the tent is enclosed all around. Behind the stage is a window through which the strait is visible. But not an infinite or ‘floor to ceiling’ opening: the wooden stage extends about three feet up on the rear before the window starts. This is good, as it provides the stage with a boundary. Actually, the window can function asa sixth exit, but only the transgressional Porter character seems to be able to make use of it. The spartan simplicity forces the attention to the action. Like Duncan says, here the air is good.