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To Wrap Or Not To Wrap
A late night decision
No column at The Week this week, and today has been a busy one, so I’m going to keep this short and sweet.
The Folio of This World
That’s the title of the book about Shakespeare and the Hebrew Bible that I keep saying I’m writing, but in fact what I wind up writing is individual articles that I hope will one day metamorphose into a book. The latest of these is about Hamlet and Ecclesiastes, comparing their respective versions of fatalism and melancholy.
If I am perfectly honest, I think the essay has more to say about Ecclesiastes than about Hamlet, and the heart of the argument about the former is probably here:
[Rashi’s] commentary suggests that King Solomon foresaw the division of the kingdom under his son Rehoboam and that this was the source of Kohelet’s despair. It’s a notion that can be used to bring many of the book’s apparent contradictions into sudden focus. Why, for example, is Kohelet so persistently concerned with the possibility that someone unworthy will enjoy his wealth? With the possibility that his heirs will be fools? One verse can stand for many others (here in the modern JPS translation):
For sometimes a person whose fortune was made with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must hand it on to the portion of somebody who did not toil for it. That too is futile [hevel], and a grave evil. (Eccles. 2:21)
Now imagine Kohelet/Solomon realizing that his heir would almost certainly squander what he had labored so hard for—and not only that, but his own “wisdom” had led him to kill Adonijah to secure a kingdom that might last only a generation. Is it any wonder that such a man would despair?
Furthermore, who is Kohelet speaking to throughout the book? Wisdom literature was conventionally addressed to young men of promise. Polonius’s speech to Laertes is an excellent example of the genre, full of wise advice on how properly to “seem” to get along in society (before ultimately contradicting itself with an admonition to be true to oneself above all). For much of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet seems to be talking to himself, brooding on the futility of his own search for wisdom and his efforts in the world. Yet when he breaks from this mode and actually gives advice, his imagined audience seems to be one of those youths—one who requires a particularly chiding form of wisdom. If we identify Kohelet with Solomon, we can readily imagine who his audience is. “Be not rash with thy mouth, nor let thine heart be hasty to utter a thing before God” (Eccles. 5:1) and “Better it is to hear the rebuke of a wise man, than that a man should hear the song of fools” (Eccles. 7:2 in the Geneva edition) are apt barbs to sling at Rehoboam.
From this perspective, the book suddenly ceases to be formless and self-contradictory and takes on literary shape. It begins in despair at the futility of any effort to acquire wisdom or leave a legacy, since one’s foolish heirs will squander it, and anyway, you won’t be around to enjoy it if they don’t. It proceeds to a bitter kind of wisdom that warns those heirs not only against their folly but against ambitions of all kinds, even against the joys of life, contradicting the lesson the speaker seemed to take from his own life misspent (as he sees it) in ambitious toil. Finally, it concludes with an empathetic reconciliation with the need to live and enjoy one’s lot in life—even if one is a wastrel fool like Rehoboam—before the inevitable bodily and societal decay. That decay is hauntingly described in the poetry of chapter 12, “When the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders shall cease, because they are few, and they wax dark that look out by the windows” (Eccles. 12:3).
But I really do encourage you to read the whole thing.
Ultimately, my hope is for this to be the basis of a chapter in the book, along with a series of other chapters juxtaposing different biblical texts with different plays or portions thereof. This is the fifth article of this sort that I’ve written; the others are:
“Whence Comes Legitimacy,” an interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Henriad” (the plays from Richard II through Henry V), as a commentary on or revision of the story of the founding of the Israelite monarchy as recounted in I and II Samuel (and a bit of I Kings), framed within a political context of the nature and source of political legitimacy.
“Upon Such Sacrifices,” a comparison of King Lear’s love test with God’s love test of Abraham (and Isaac) in the akedah, and a discussion of how both stories have been multiply revised, and what that says about the impossibility of either satisfying or abandoning the demand at the heart of both, for infinite filial love.
“Hidden Faces and Dark Corners,” a reading of Measure for Measure in light of The Book of Esther, and vice versa, both stories that appear to depict a world abandoned by divine providence that are interpreted to be evidence of the endurance of precisely that providence.
“Sitting With Shylock on Yom Kippur,” an investigation of Shakespeare’s great Jewish villain and an attempt to kasher the play he usurps by reference to the prophet, Jonah.
Three pieces here on Substack this week, notwithstanding the Sukkot holiday:
“Tabarnak! It’s Almost Sukkot”, a collection of previously-published pieces about that holiday, why I love it so, and what it means.
“We Hold These Truths to be Subject to Revision,” a meditation on bowdlerization and the refusal to acknowledge the reality of change.
“The Merry Wives of Le Petite Senegal,” a review of the latest Shakespeare production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, which I should clearly have titled, “Comin to America.” L’esprit d’escalier strikes again.
The World Elsewhere
Everyone is talking about Robert Kagan’s piece about the continued threat from Trump, but I can’t figure out why; it feels very much like a compendium of things we already know, and it has very little to offer by way of solutions. That doesn’t make it wrong, but it makes me much less interested in it than I probably ought to be.
So for my money, the piece I think bears the most thought is my colleague Sam Goldman’s column about how the United States is more like other countries in North or South America than likely European countries. There are obvious objections that may be drawn, but it would hardly be worth grappling with if that weren’t the case. This is one to build on, with qualifiers, rather than tear down. I expect I’ll be writing about it in one form or another for many years to come.