LET’S IMAGINE a farcical version of the final scene of Romeo and Juliet. Remember, first, how it goes in Shakespeare’s play: Romeo thinks Juliet is dead, so he swallows poison. Juliet revives, sees Romeo dead, and kills herself with a dagger.
But what if, at this point, Romeo were to revive, see Juliet dead, figure out what has happened, and then kill himself again? At which point, Juliet could revive, see Romeo dead, figure out what has happened, and kill herself again. Then Romeo could again revive, et cetera. Over and over and over. Perhaps Friar Laurence has managed to reseal the crypt, and the two families never show up.
Part of the humor in such a scenario (for those of us who find such things funny) is the endless repetition of the “missed encounter” — the fact that Romeo and Juliet keep missing each other as they take turns reviving and “dying.” Of course, the reason why they kill themselves the first time around is that they “miss” each other in another sense, so much so that neither can bear to live without the other. What the farcical repetition underscores is that, throughout the play, Romeo and Juliet sustain their relationship by missing each other. Paul Kottman explains why in his fascinating new book, Love As Human Freedom.
As Kottman sees it, Romeo and Juliet repeatedly say farewell to each other not to protect Romeo from dangers external to their relationship, but to maintain their mutual independence. Only as separate individuals can they meet “the demands of mutuality.” When Juliet bids Romeo to be gone (“Hie hence, be gone, away!”) she effectively acts as the true agent of his banishment to Mantua. They are “breaking up” for the sake of making up. Like Stanley Cavell before him, Kottman takes “the real threat of divorce” to be “the condition of possibility for any happy marriage.” For a marriage to thrive, and not merely persist, a couple must be able to face genuine threats to their existence as a couple.
In support of this thesis, Kottman offers a novel reading of Othello — a play that Cavell takes to be a “comedy of remarriage” gone horribly wrong. According to Cavell, Othello doesn’t really believe the story that Iago tells him about Desdemona’s love for Cassio. Deep down, he knows that Desdemona is his true, faithful wife. The problem is that he’s unable to acknowledge her existence as an independent, desiring subject. This inability manifests itself as a type of skepticism. In genuine comedies of remarriage, skepticism is resolved through conversation, but Othello doesn’t know how to converse with Desdemona. Unable to cope with her separate existence, he kills her under the pretext of believing that she has given his handkerchief to Cassio.
Kottman reverses this line of reasoning. On his interpretation, Othello isn’t disturbed by Desdemona’s existence as a separate desiring subject. On the contrary, what he’s unable to tolerate is her submissiveness: her failure to assert her own independence. By striking her and accusing her of infidelity, Kottman argues, Othello is trying “to ‘get a rise’ out” of her, “testing her independence.” Like Juliet pushing Romeo out of bed and down the balcony, Othello wants to “break up” with Desdemona so that they will be able to reestablish their relationship on a more objectively equal basis. According to Kottman, the fact that he ends up killing her rather than making love to her in the final scene is due to the infuriating manner in which she meekly submits to his will instead of standing up to him.
Kottman isn’t saying that Desdemona “had it coming.” Like Cavell, he unequivocally blames Othello for his mistreatment of Desdemona, refusing to represent either Iago’s deception or Desdemona’s perplexity as mitigating factors. Instead of extenuating Othello’s guilt, Kottman contextualizes it.
Ever since antiquity, Kottman contends, there has been an ongoing struggle to make love-based marriages possible. Like Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona live in a world in which the possibility of love-based marriage is subjectively acknowledged but objectively lacking requisite institutional guarantees. Only by dying together do Romeo and Juliet “objectify” their love. In a strange way, the same is true of Othello and Desdemona. For much of the play, Kottman tells us, Othello is desperately trying to prove that Desdemona’s fidelity to him is based upon reciprocated love rather than upon his domination of her. When he ostensibly demands “ocular proof” of her infidelity, he is really demanding that she prove that she is free to commit an infidelity and only doesn’t do so because she truly, freely loves him. In the end, Kottman argues, Desdemona affirms her love for Othello in another way: namely, by implicitly giving Othello “the right to destroy her” when she dismisses Emilia and awaits Othello in bed. Neither Othello nor Desdemona can supply what they mutually need: an institutional setting in which a love-based marriage could stabilize itself.
Love As Human Freedom is about the long, ongoing historical process by which we have come to achieve the conditions necessary for love-based marriages (and similar relationships). Shakespeare’s amorous tragedies represent a crucial stage in this trajectory. Earlier stages Kottman finds reflected in literary representations of Adam and Eve, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Pyramus and Thisbe. For post-Shakespearean developments, he turns to love-torn characters in modern novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, April Wheeler (in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road), and Ennis del Mar (in Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”).
For Kottman, love is not a natural phenomenon — it is a social accomplishment. Specifically, it is a form of “sense-making,” one so “fundamental” that the history of love coincides with the history of (human) sense-making. What Love As Human Freedom offers is nothing less than a Hegelian-style “Phenomenology of Spirit” in which Hegel’s “shapes of spirit” are replaced by shapes of love. Just as Hegel reconstructs the dialectical process by which spirit confronts and resolves its own self-generated contradictions, so Kottman seeks to “track” “love’s sense-making efforts,” including the ways it has responded to internally generated “threats.”
As Kottman emphasizes, his project is not simply historical, let alone historicist (in the sense in which this term has been used in the humanities to refer to micro-historical explanations of cultural phenomena). Neither is it anthropological, though Kottman’s extensive notes frequently refer to anthropological studies that deal with related topics from different angles. It is, instead, a rational reconstruction of how we have come to think about love in the ways we do today. Though he draws primarily on works of literature, Kottman characterizes his approach as “transcendental” on the grounds that it treats sense-making as a unique domain that cannot be explanatorily reduced to anything more fundamental.
This approach poses methodological challenges. Throughout the book, Kottman speculates about what “must have puzzled our ancestors,” what “must have eluded the direct apprehension of our ancestors,” what “our ancestors must have noticed,” et cetera. Altogether, there are more than a couple of dozen of these “must haves.” They derive their intuitive plausibility from the way “we” see things today. As Kottman acknowledges, the scope of this “we” is limited to “certain parts of the world.” Like Hegel, he distinguishes practices that have had limited historical significance (such as same-sex love among the ancient Greeks) from practices with a lasting claim to universal validity (such as Socrates’s characterization of Eros in Plato’s Symposium). Such distinctions are both contestable and revisable, which is why there will always be competing accounts of what “must have” been the path traversed by our ancestors.
Despite these difficulties, Kottman provides a brilliant, speculative account of the problems that had to be solved — and that are still being solved — in order for love to acquire its contemporary significance. The story that he tells in rich detail succeeds in making sense of love’s sense-making power. It is “an account that does some actual sense-making, not just a ‘one damn thing after another’ account.”
A “one damn thing after another” account would be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Kottman doesn’t discuss Macbeth in this book (he does elsewhere), but his analysis of love-based marriage raises an interesting question about what question Macbeth is trying to answer when he reflects on the death of Lady Macbeth. Looking back on their shared history, all he can see is one damnable thing after another (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…”). But what question is he trying to answer?
According to Kottman, the retrospective question “Was it worth it?” not only can, but must, be posed whenever we seek to “assess” “love’s achievements and explanatory power.” This question cannot be sensibly posed when we find ourselves in a horrible situation that explains nothing. Instead, we can only engage in “tragic deliberation,” the one remaining question being, “What now?”
Given the horribleness of the situation in which Macbeth finds himself, he would seem to be in this second predicament. Yet he isn’t engaged in tragic deliberation about what to do next, at least for a moment. Instead, he seems to be answering the “Was it worth it?” question in the negative. He seems to be saying, “No, it wasn’t worth it. We staked our love on a shared undertaking for which we held either responsible, but it ended in disaster.”
But a closer look suggests that Macbeth isn’t doing that at all. Instead of assessing the specific project that he and Lady Macbeth jointly undertook — to kill Duncan, become king and queen, and produce male heirs whose line would extend to the crack of doom (or the last syllable of recorded time) — he is avoiding such an assessment on the questionable grounds that the details don’t matter since anything they would have done together would have lighted their way to dusty death and so signified nothing. From this perspective, Macbeth could sensibly ask himself the question “Was it worth it?” but he’s afraid to do so, in the same way that he’s afraid to confront the ghost of Banquo.
The alternative possibility suggested by Kottman is that there’s just no way for Macbeth to make sense of his and Lady Macbeth’s crimes. There’s nothing they or anyone else could say that would give their crimes meaning. As Macduff says when he meets Macbeth on the battlefield, “I have no words, / My voice is in my sword.” (Note the brilliant anagrammatic shift of “words” into “sword.”)
Whether we take Macbeth to be avoiding an assessment or to be facing an unassessable situation, his discernment of sheer senselessness or “signifyinglessness” registers the cost of a world without love. Yet Macbeth doesn’t kill himself. Undaunted, he “will try the last” against Macduff. By contrast, neither Romeo nor Juliet can bear to live without the other. This fact must be revealed to the world at large, which is why the conclusion of Shakespeare’s play is far superior to the farcical version that I sacrilegiously proposed above. Romeo and Juliet must die, period, and not be left to linger in the limbo of what Hegel calls the “bad infinite.” Compare Caesar’s “Cowards die many times before their deaths, / The valiant never taste of death but once.”
Through the definitive deaths of his star-crossed lovers, Shakespeare discloses — by a kind of via negativa — what it might be like to live in a world with love. Paul Kottman has helped us to appreciate this Shakespearean ideal and to take stock of the challenges we continue to face in achieving it.