Signifying Nothing

By Jonathan FarmerSeptember 16, 2014

Signifying Nothing

IT COMES LATE in the play, this claim that language is too late: “There would have been a time for such a word.” And with that, Macbeth launches into one of the most meaningful speeches about meaninglessness ever contrived.

The soliloquy betrays a remarkable disdain for its own materials, an urgent need to undo all that might merit saying, through speech. Macbeth does his work of de-meaning in metaphors, those connective acts of borrowed meaning. And those metaphors all come from realms that insist on connections: chronology, illumination, theater, storytelling. Their artfulness argues against the very things they say.

Macbeth has his reasons. Most immediately, his wife has committed suicide, fleeing a mind stripped of every meaning save one: the guilt that she and her husband cannot wash away. Rather than following her, erasing himself in turn, Macbeth attempts to erase the world.

Throughout the play, Macbeth aspires to silence (a silence that will be denied him: as soon as he finishes, a messenger arrives), but it’s a silence in which he’s had the last word. He has the confidence of the atheist who is angry with God. It is the confidence of the desperate, but it’s confidence all the same.


Confident: “with faith” or “with trust.”

Though faith (or trust) in what, the word doesn’t say.

Julia Kristeva begins Black Sun, her meditation on depression and art, “For those who are racked by melancholia, writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia.” The problem — her point — is that depression is incompatible with writing. More specifically, it’s incompatible with words. She equates depression with what she terms asymbolia, a state of affairs that encompasses “unbelieving in language” and, more precisely, an impression of “the signifier’s failure to insure a compensating way out of the states of withdrawal in which the subject takes refuge.”

Macbeth doesn’t suffer from this.


With faith, comes action — comes, at least, the possibility of action — a seamless sequencing of moments, each effect becoming a cause.

By contrast, Shakespeare’s Hamlet has a hard time with trust. In the play’s first scene — one that’s rife with rumor — Prince Hamlet’s one true friend meets Hamlet’s father (maybe), the murdered king (maybe, again).

As Stephen Greenblatt argues in Hamlet in Purgatory, in Shakespeare’s England, ghosts should not exist. And so, if Hamlet’s confidence in authority weren’t sufficiently compromised by the death of his father and his mother’s too-quick, too-easy embrace of the new king in town, he also has to make sense of the seemingly-straightforward instructions he gets from his maybe-father maybe-king. A man who, being dead, shouldn’t be showing himself to Protestant England’s untimely Danes. It’s worth noting that this figure, according to Horatio, has usurped not only the night but the form — the power — of the once-living king, something Hamlet Jr. has notably failed to do, though no one ever dares mention it.

It’s hard to say when Hamlet takes place. The mentions of Wittenberg suggest that we’re in Shakespeare’s present-day, Protestant country. But the story Shakespeare draws from is much older and belongs to that country’s Catholic past. Scholars find evidence of both religions in the play, and no one ever actually says which faith they hold. It’s tempting to say that the confusion is deliberate, another way Shakespeare involves his audience in the uncertain authority hovering over Hamlet throughout.


Kristeva’s explanation comforts me. There’s relief in finding something out there that corresponds — words that seem answerable to the silence into which I often descend. It’s even more of a relief because it is, itself, silent: static, private, manageable. Is it any wonder that poets often quote D.W. Winnicott? “It is a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found.”


Macbeth has his own unreliable messengers from the unlicensed beyond: the witches he believes imperfectly. Here, too, he batters at circumstance, murdering to bring about what they say would happen either way. Whether it actually would have, the play won’t tell us. But Macbeth’s attempt to act on his faithlessness turns out to be a very bad idea, in part because it demeans (and de-means) the approval that the prophecy might otherwise confer.

“To be thus is nothing,” he laments, finding that the monarchy he has taken has left him human and exposed. “But to be safely thus.” He doesn’t finish the thought. Instead, he drifts toward awareness of his “fruitless crown,” the feeling that he will now have to undo a prophecy (to Banquo: “Thou shalt get kings”) entwined with the promise that he would ascend to the throne.


Confiding is an act of trust — not only that someone will keep a secret but that she or he will understand your words, both what they mean and what they’re for.

Hamlet ends the first of his many soliloquys by silencing himself as people approach: “But break,” he instructs his heart, “for I must hold my tongue.” Earlier in the same scene, he makes his first appearance on stage without a word (more than 60 lines pass before, finally addressed, he speaks) and soon discovers that his one request (to leave) has been denied.

Hamlet is in large part a play about audiences and authority: who we listen to, who we talk to, what happens when we can’t do either in a spirit of trust. So many of its metaphors have to do with eyes and ears — both the actual murder of King Hamlet and its later reenactment involve poison being poured into his ear. So much, including the ghost, must be seen to be believed. There are so many spies and messengers, almost all of them bad. And, of course, Hamlet stages a play just to watch the king watching it in order to confirm that the ghost has told him the truth. Once Hamlet does know — once Claudius knows he knows — Claudius has to send him away.

When Hamlet finally does start speaking, he immediately engages in his own version of de-meaning. His is much more ripe than Macbeth’s, full of puns and willful misreadings. It seems that Hamlet is attempting to inflate the already vacuous speech of the corrupt court with the reality of its corruption. It’s at once amazing and unsatisfying. Hamlet seems to be accepting the adolescence that Claudius, a less-immediate heir to the monarchy, imposes by denying him the throne. He rejects Claudius’ authority but doesn’t claim his own, always keeping his meaning just beyond the possibility of rebuke.

There’s no real audience for this resistance — except, possibly, the actual audience of the play. He’s trying to keep his words from becoming actionable — to keep them just below the cusp of actual communication. If he does intend any action, it’s through provocation. He partly wants, I suspect, to make Claudius expose himself as the usurper of King Hamlet’s role (another of the play’s obsessions, another indication of its concern for audiences and communication). It’s all resistance, only resistance — like Macbeth, Hamlet is using words to limit what can be said — but it may also be a way of keeping the possibility of speaking alive, at least to himself, at least in the hope that someone else will speak for him.


Last year, in this magazine, Lisa L. Moore looked back on the poetry of the American women’s movement in the 1970s and 80s. The article had much to say about how a meaningful political poetry might come about. Part of what it says, I think, is that the first step is imagining that it could. We speak, write, hear, and read in code while imagining otherwise, and part of any art’s power comes from what we assume art’s for, as well as our ability to keep — both through the quality of the art and the vigor of its reception — that assumption aloft.

Consider, as another example, the Black Arts movement, which insisted (and demonstrated) that recognizably “black” language was artistically just as viable as apparently “white” language. In his afterword to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, Kevin Young writes:

Black Arts sought many things but above all a public poetry — one aware of its audience and even pitched at times toward a newfound audience that it was both meeting and making.

To put it a little differently: the poetry’s political value grew out of its ability to create a community of black writers and readers who believed that such a community was valuable.


In Macbeth and in Hamlet, when we are asked to think about language and theater we’re invited to be suspicious. Polonius is full of shit even when he’s right; his rightness is a tool to manipulate his audience, rather than something to share. Lady Macbeth submits her husband to an ongoing master class in acting — one that is so bullying and effective that Macbeth eventually decides to instruct her in the same terms. Hamlet, conducting his own acting class, tells his actors to hold a “mirror up to nature,” but he does so in the service of deceit. Indeed, he tells his mother, once they’ve achieved a measure of trust, that he is only “mad in craft.” Both speech and acting exert control over others. It’s a one-sided confidence. Lacking faith in others, these characters invest in their own ability to draw others away from the truth — away, that is, from themselves.


This is the part of depression that surprises me: the way it insists on its own meaning. Depression carries with it a sense of wrongness. It’s not a nothingness. True nothingness wouldn’t be troubling. It wouldn’t allow for anything separate from itself to be troubled. But depression focuses the mind on an absence, a loss of meaning that carries with it the sense that meaning should exist.

In May of last year, the web comic Hyperbole and a Half returned after almost a year and a half. The lengthy post, long- and anxiously awaited by fans who’d watched the site go silent in the wake of a post titled “Adventures in Depression,” was called “Depression Part Two.” If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s superb.

There’s a beautiful and hilarious bit in there where the comic’s author, Allie Brosh, writes about the challenge of dealing with the people who wanted to help her. “It would be like having a bunch of dead fish,” she explains, “but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.”

Those sentences are, I think, an image of the asymbolia Kristeva describes. They’re also interestingly reminiscent of much in contemporary poetry. Which makes me wonder how much of our writing is an attempt to keep the possibility of communication alive, absent any correspondence between what people feel and what they imagine they can say — whether sometimes we’re just trying to hold the line.


If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

It’s not that Macbeth doesn’t want to kill the king. It’s just that he doesn’t want to be a person who has killed the king — the supposedly good king, the king who’s a guest at his house. He wants to be the good king, and, unwilling to admit that such a thing is impossible, he goes on wanting it.

Macbeth wants to arrive at a place beyond harm. It’s his fantasy of monarchy — an ironic one; he’s already shown just how possible it is to harm a king. With each next risk of exposure, he imagines that one more murder will seal up the threat. He has murdered sleep and murdered communication; he murders the one man, Banquo, whom he had taken into his trust. In murdering the king, he devalues the very kingship he’s willing to kill for, making it meaningless before he can make it his. He has even invited the audience gathered in the theater to wonder whether the words of the witches were true or simply another manipulation. As Banquo puts it, “to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths.”

Macbeth ends Act I by echoing the witches’ confusion of fair and foul for the second time (the first allusion comes in his very first words of the play):

             I am settled and bend up
Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.
Away, and mock the time with fairest show.
False face must hide what the false heart doth know.

Macbeth is schooling himself here with the same lesson in theatricality that Lady Macbeth will remind him of repeatedly throughout the course of the play. “Who dares receive it other,” she has just asked, “As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar / Upon his death?” After Duncan’s death, Malcolm and Donalbain realize, just as Hamlet does, that a roaring performance of grief is much more persuasive than grief’s actual, untheatrical, juddering course through the tangle of a life.


Doubt, we like to say, is essential to poetry. Having said it myself, I think I know what we mean: no bumper stickers, no greeting cards, no Thomas Kinkade paintings. No poems that run like an aqueduct rather than a river. No thinly superhuman elevations of the artist beyond the reaches of our mortal and muddled care. No art that arrives already foreclosed. No art whose designs on us override any possibility of our engagement. The artist as Claudius: no to that.

But I doubt that I’ve ever loved a poem that lacked confidence. Take for example, Frank Bidart. Bidart is a masterful poet of doubt, one whose writing assumes the importance of both poetry and doubt. Yet his almost-lifelong commitment to developing radical representations of the ways in which faith has failed him is only possible because he believes that writing about it can be valuable.


Two lines cut through a poem. One runs jaggedly across the page from the upper-left-hand corner to the lower-right — the poem’s almost-inevitable chronology of one word after another. The other line runs in some more mysterious way between writer and reader, often passing through revisions, personas, printings, evaluations, publications, readings, distribution, and purchases along the way. The poem arrives at such a distance, even if that distance is only that of one person handing a poem to another, that it would be impossible to pull the line taut like a string between two cans.

But as we follow the poem from upper-left to lower-right, we are reimagining that other, longer, stranger line. Our movement through the poem represents the unlikely way in which words pass over the physical and cognitive distance between two people, in spite of all that gets altered and lost along the way. And it takes some energy, some confidence, to make that representation vital enough to merit our care. As a reader, I want the poet to do me the honor of assuming I’m out there. I want her to do me the honor of assuming I might care — as well as the honor of working hard to make sure that I do.


My former professor, James McMichael, had a theory about puns. All jokes, he reasoned, require a victim. In the case of puns, that victim is the language itself — and the language, in this equation, exists by virtue of being heard. So the victim is the audience, and the only successful pun is the one that elicits a groan.

It worries me sometimes — not to the extent that it worries me, for instance, that bigotry persists and that it probably persists in me in ways I’m not aware of, but still, it worries me sometimes — that much of our writing about poetry insists on a need to disrupt language and the expectations woven into it. Such critical writing sometimes suggests disdain for an imagined audience at the same time that it courts a community of actual readers that’s already in on the joke, so to speak.

Obviously, we want our poems to disrupt us, surprise us, change us, even. And some of the poetry that has come from those theories is invaluable; some of it I learn from and love. But that rhetoric sometimes seems to dream of a poem that, in the name of doubt, moves beyond a confident reaching out toward an audience to an overconfident, condescending correction of one’s audience through language that sounds one-sided and overconfident, utopian — dystopian, almost.


It intrigues me that Shakespeare went to his audiences, the audiences that he depended on for his livelihood, audiences that could have even included the queen or king, with so much concern about the relationship between speakers and audiences, about authority in both senses of the word. He went to them with so many metaphors, presenting acting as deceit, theater as meaningless, ears as corruptible, language as manipulation, faces as falsehoods. Shakespeare even went so far as to present the very words (how often in Macbeth must a character insist that someone is worthy of the title or adjective he just used for that person?) as unreliable, in need of more and more words.

It intrigues me that he did this in the most generous writing imaginable: plays that are implausibly rich with action, ideas, characters, invention, allusion, and humor. These plays reach out so abundantly to the very audiences they’re warning about the relationship between anyone who speaks or acts and anyone who listens or sees. And it intrigues me, too, that more than 400 years later, almost halfway through the standard life span of a language’s continuity, the confidence of that reaching out continues to prove its own validity.


On a basic level, Hamlet does have what one might call faith. He’s not an atheist. He takes for granted that, if he kills himself, he’ll go to hell. He wishes that “the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” an assertion that gets him about as close to prayer as anyone does in the play. But he later describes the world as “an unweeded garden,” an image of neglect that diverges slightly, but tellingly, from Macbeth’s much angrier suggestion of divine idiocy.

As in Macbeth, the king’s killer tries to pray. And as in Macbeth, he fails. Hamlet, watching, believes that his uncle’s prayer has power. He refrains from killing Claudius at that moment, because he assumes that Claudius is praying. He defers in the hope of later taking him “full of bread,” just as his father was killed. But we get no indication that Hamlet considers prayer himself. The divine audience seems unavailable or inappropriate for his needs. Instead, he seeks his absent father, now a ghost.

He so wants to hear from his father that he is willing to follow his ghostly shade even if the apparition is, in fact, a demon leading him into hell. Meanwhile, among those he can summon, he finds no audience of real value. Hamlet speaks honestly (and, at first, clumsily, as if unused to it) only when alone or with people whose lack of royal standing makes them seem inconsequential to him. And for all the ways in which he mocks power and authority, Hamlet will not let his lessers forget that he is still a prince deserving of the ceremony and respect (and the words: “my lord”) that entails. There is an audience for Hamlet, but it’s typically not the one he wants.


I’ve been writing criticism for a while now, and I still struggle with the role. To say that a poem or book is “bad” is essentially to say it has no true value. And value, as far as I can tell, is really just the result of someone potentially valuing a thing. To say something is bad, I would have to first imagine all its possible uses, all of the different moments in all of the different lives and minds in which that book or poem might appear. It feels a little bit like proving a negative. I worry about the person I might be erasing with the judgment.

We do not know ourselves, not completely. We do not know each other. And yet we feel some need to move towards each other, however imperfectly, if not through knowledge then through the hope of knowledge, the nervous hope of being known. We approach each other through kindness, literally — through recognizing the possibility of kinship, of being the same kind (which does not mean being the same). We reach out in our imperfection towards others who are imperfect, too. We reach out indirectly, offering the hope of pleasure, meaning, offering gifts of our making, things we made for the pleasure of making and the hope of making something good. And, of course, we fail. As audiences, as authors, and as people, we fail.

In Stephen Booth’s seminal 1969 essay “On the Value of Hamlet,” Booth calls Hamlet “the tragedy of an audience that can’t make up its mind.” I’m wondering if we can’t go even further. Perhaps we can see the challenge of understanding Hamlet’s inaction as an indication of Shakespeare’s imaginative and inviting sympathy with an audience that must, when the play is over, act and live in a society of rapidly shifting and mutually exclusive authorities. Seen from this perspective, the play becomes his attempt to, among other things, offer something of value to people trying to navigate a world in which authority has unsavory designs on its audience and many audiences seem unworthy of the trust that anyone’s words require. I wonder if that isn’t the real key to understanding Hamlet’s famous delay, or, at least, understanding our fascination with it. It reflects both our unfulfilled fantasy of cutting through everything to the no-doubt flattering truth, and our reality of being clumsy, uncertain, and stuck.

That Shakespeare, living in the same situation, went on to write Hamlet — a confident telling of a world where confidence has broken down — may not help much for those of us with no hope of ascending into the ranks of the world’s great writers. But in as much as the desire to be loved or accepted or even simply to be heard will inevitably include a desire to be and do better, it seems like a useful model nonetheless.


Admittedly, my response to Booth isn’t very far from Booth; it’s mostly just a shift of emphasis. Here he is in another stunning passage:

Hamlet refuses to cradle its audience’s mind in a closed generic framework, or otherwise limit the ideological context of its actions. In Hamlet the mind is cradled in nothing more than the fabric of the play. The superior strength and value of that fabric is in the sense it gives that it is unlimited in its range, and that its audience is not only sufficient to comprehend but is in the act of achieving total comprehension of all the perceptions to which its mind can open. The source of the strength is in a rhetorical economy that allows the audience to perform both of the basic actions of the mind upon almost every conjunction of elements in the course of the play: it perceives strong likeness, and it perceives strong difference. Every intellectual conjunction is also a disjunction, and any two things that pull apart contain qualities that are simultaneously the means of uniting them.


As I get ready to conclude this essay, my confidence wanes again. Needing to justify all these words, I keep going back and worrying over earlier passages, adding new ones, trying to buttress the essay against judgment, trying to plug any possible leaks. After the pleasure of writing these thousands of words, I want to go silent. I want, very strongly, to hide. I want someone to come find this essay and approve — to offer proof of my validity — without my having to first stand behind it, without my having to hand it to someone and say I think this is worth your time.

I keep coming across research that suggests the value of our illusions, including this and this and this. These studies make me nervous, in part because they often seem to have designs on us — looking for ways to get more production out of our pre-appraised time. But, of course, we almost alwayshave designs of some sort on each other. To imagine otherwise is just to construct another (admittedly comforting) illusion. And that’s the other worry for me: how do we meet each other meaningfully in a world where we know that the truth won’t always set us free?

More to the point, how do we speak, write, and respond to each other both in confidence and in the knowledge of our frailty? There is some knowledge that we must insist on — knowledge of harm, of bigotry, cruelty, torture, injustice, devastation, neglect. There are ways in which the circle of kindness remains too small, ways in which we fail to attend to and even exploit the frailty of others near and far. And yet the people I have met who manage to do the most about these very problems seem to me to be extremely optimistic — overly optimistic, I believe. So who am I, who does so much less, to insist on what I see as the truth?

I do believe that kindness begets kindness. I also believe in the value of seeing and creating complexity, in the kind of perception and conversation that requires distinction to connect, though maybe this is just another of my own cherished illusions. I imagine that both values can be held simultaneously — and, yes, confidently. This occurs not through any stable set of aesthetic values but through an ongoing recognition of both our shifting identities and our ongoing vulnerability, our hope for improvement and our continuing, shared, reality of failure. And I believe — I have faith — that continuing to engage in that process honestly and caringly (and, of course — of course —with room for disagreement) creates the potential for richer, more inclusive communication.

Just as religious faith requires sacrifice and encompasses doubt, the confiding of any literary endeavor requires us to admit to and embrace the difficult rhyming of unlikeness through the vulnerability that life (meaningful life, honest life) requires of us. It forces us to say to a stranger who is not present, Here. This is for you. I’ve done the best that I can. And to say it with the confidence required to make it true.


Jonathan Farmer is the poetry critic for the Slate Book Review.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Farmer is the author of That Peculiar Affirmative: On the Social Life of Poems and the poetry editor and editor in chief of At Length. He teaches middle and high school English, and he lives in Durham, North Carolina.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!