Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Interrupted Games: Pascal, Hamlet, Probability

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Interrupted Games: Pascal, Hamlet, Probability

Article excerpt

   You would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the    heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note    to my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this    little organ. Yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood! Do you think    I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument    you will, though you fret me you cannot play upon me. (1)     Inconstancy We think playing upon man is like playing upon an    ordinary organ. It is indeed an organ, but strange, shifting, and    changeable. Those who only know how to play an ordinary    organ would never be in tune on this one. You have to know    where the keys are. (2) 

In all likelihood William Shakespeare and Blaise Pascal never read each other's work. That Shakespeare (who died in 1616) never encountered Pascal (who was born in 1623) is an unexceptional claim--except that the resonances between Hamlet and the Pensees in particular often trigger the uncanny feeling that the earlier text has anticipated--in a sense, has already read--the latter. In the other direction, I have not uncovered any evidence of Pascal's engagement with Shakespeare either. Nevertheless, his proximity to the playwright is often startling. Witness the epigraphs above, which share not just an insight into the mystery of what moves human beings but how they deploy the musical metaphor to capture the human condition.

No doubt, likening man to a musical instrument was commonplace. Perhaps, too, the intersection owes something to an antecedent figure who looms large for both authors: Michel de Montaigne. In "An Apologie of Raymond Sebond," his most searching essay into the conditions of knowledge, Montaigne takes up a familiar, related motif when he considers music's power to force the senses into receiving impressions that reason "knoweth and judgeth to be false": "[t]here is no heart so demisse [that is, effeminate], but the rattling sound of a drum ... will arouse and inflame; nor no mind so harsh and sterne, but the sweetness and harmony of musicke will move and tickle...." (3) If indeed Shakespeare and Pascal respond to Montaigne's prodding, their innovation is to turn the assertion of music's effect upon man into a metaphor for man himself, making him the "organ" upon which the social world plays. And yet, they nonetheless cleave to the Apologie's central claim regarding the dubiety of all knowledge, redirecting scepticism with especial force to the question of who or what one is. They thereby echo what Montaigne's essays cumulatively express: the changeability, the sheer strangeness, the ultimate unknowability of the self who is their subject.

Such a conjunction leads to the very question with which Hamlet opens: "Who's there?" As Maynard Mack recognized, "Hamlet's world is preeminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions, anguished, meditative, alarmed." The simplicity of the initiating query, when voiced by a sentry, is immediately undermined, setting into motion an uncertainty that only amplifies over the play's duration.

Barnardo Who's there?

Francisco Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself!

Barnardo Long live the King.

Franciso Barnardo?

Barnardo He.

Francisco You come most carefully upon your hour. (1.1.1-4)

At this witching hour of midnight, the sentries on the rampart are twitchy, unable to rely on the confirmation of who is who that ritual and the senses ought to bring. The mixing up of roles underscores this uncertainty: Francisco's insistence on Barnardo's "unfold[ing]" himself responds to the fact that the wrong sentry has asked the question, usurping a place--and an identity--that is not his. Barnardo's demand belongs, Mack continues, among those interrogations, "innocent at first glance," that "are subsequently seen to have reached beyond their contexts ... to point towards some pervasive inscrutability in Hamlet's world as a whole. …

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