It’s always fun to debate with Noah Millman. So let me do so now!

First of all, make sure you read Noah’s terrific post on wilderness and related matters. I think here Noah and I are just talking at different analytical levels. When he says that people live everywhere, including the wilderness, he is making a valid sociological and demographic point, and indeed the whole post is full of valid and worthwhile sociological and demographic reflections. But in my posts I was talking about our myths, our stories, and in our stories the wilderness is simply defined by the absence of humans from it. The wilderness is where humans don’t and can’t live, and we like to tell tales that prove that point: consider just two recent examples, 127 Hours and Grizzly Man. And in our stories, people who manage to survive in the wilderness usually do so only by becoming less human, indeed inhuman, as many of the tales of wild men demonstrate.

Albrecht Dürer’s wild men

So on the one hand we have sets of myths that distinguish between the human world and the wilderness; and on the other hand we have sets of myths that distinguish between the life of the city and the life of the countryside. Those are conceptually distinct. Perhaps we have only one myth of the suburbs — that suburban life is uniformly drab, conventional, and boring — because suburbs haven’t been around that long. For much of the history of human settlement, people walled themselves in and the dangerous world of enemies, animal and human, out: human culture had to achieve a certain degree of technological sophistication and political stability before it could accept a gradual transition from the densities of the city to the openness of the countryside. (And even today the American traveler in Europe will invariably be struck by how quickly that transition is made in many cities, especially smaller ones: riding out of a city on a train you can look down or away for a moment and miss the suburbs altogether.)

Now to the really interesting stuff, i.e., Noah’s report on a performance of Measure for Measure. Noah writes, “The Christian apologetic tradition in interpreting the play reads Vincentio as a kind of figure of divine providence, working behind the scenes to arrange a happy ending for the drama.” Well . . . that’s a Christian reading of the play — by which I mean “a reading that sees the play as being deeply concerned with Christian theology” — but it’s not the only one. There’s another theologically-alert way to approach “the old fantastical Duke of dark corners” that starts from the point that, to quote Noah again, “Like Hamlet and Prospero, Duke Vincentio is a theatrical director.”

The Duke, Hamlet, and Prospero are not just garden-variety directors: they are directors of morality plays that they themselves have written and in which they cast others. (They also play parts themselves, but not always willingly.) That is, all of them write scripts and press other people into playing parts that — so these directors insist, and sincerely too — are for those other people’s own spiritual edification. Prospero wants those who have wronged him to be frightened into repentance and submission; Hamlet wants his usurping stepfather to be forced to acknowledge his guilt in a public setting — “The play’s the thing / Wherein to catch the conscience of a king” — then later takes up the role of the morally eviscerating preacher to try to bring his mother to repentance — “You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you.” And the Duke . . . well, Noah’s description of the play indicates just complex and how theatrical a web he is trying to weave.

But none of these go quite the way the playwright-directors want them to go. Hamlet catches the king, but discovers that Claudius’s repentance makes it harder to justify murdering him, and then soon thereafter is interrupted in his interrogation of his mother by the return of his father’s ghost. While Prospero is creating a beautiful masque for his daughter and her beloved, he forgets the machinations of his enemies — who have not been intimidated into repentance by the shows he has put on for them, not even by the great tempest itself — and when he recalls their plans to murder him the masque crashes to a sudden close: Enter certain Reapers, properly habited: they join with the Nymphs in a graceful dance; towards the end whereof PROSPERO starts suddenly, and speaks; after which, to a strange, hollow, and confused noise, they heavily vanish. And as Noah points out, all of the Duke’s plans are going wildly awry until the situation is rescued by pure coincidence. (Maybe even not then, depending on how a given production stages Isabella’s response to his proposal of marriage. Since she is given no lines, we have to guess, though the most reasonable guess — that she is horrified and disgusted by his advances — is almost never dared. As far as I know John Barton, in his 1970 RSC production, was the first director not to have Isabella accept the proposal, though even he did not have her reject the Duke: all the actors exit, leaving Estelle Kohler’s Isabella alone on stage to ponder her options.)

Ian Richardson as Angelo and Estelle Kohler as Isabella in John Barton’s 1970 RSC production of Measure for Measure

If there is a sound theological reading of these characters and these actions, then, it is not the allegorical one that would have then seen as “God figures.” Rather, it seems to me, the better reading requires us to see in Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke the immense moral dangers that powerful and intelligent men confront because the very greatness of their abilities encourage them to play God, to manipulate other people, for their own good of course. It is a temptation only the exceptionally gifted face fully, because only the exceptionally gifted can persuade others to play the assigned parts. Though none of these Shakespearean characters is contemptible — there is much to admire in Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke alike — they endanger themselves and others precisely because of their eminence.

In an odd way they are reminiscent of Milton’s Satan, who comments about his own fall from greatness, “lifted up so high / I disdained subjection, and thought one step higher / Would set me highest.” Hamlet, Prospero, and the Duke come to think (though hardly consciously) that they are different in kind from those around them, and that the ordinary rules of human conduct don’t quite apply to them, can be suspended in a good cause. But that’s not true. They are in fact not gods. Two of them — Hamlet and Prospero — come to see this. I’m not sure the Duke does. At the end of Measure for Measure he seems quite pleased with himself. There might be a terrible crash in his future.