Trope and Allegory: Some Themes Common to Dante and Shakespeare [Francis Fergusson]

Dati bibliografici

Autore: Francis Fregusson

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 86

Anno: 1968

Pagine: 113-126

[This paper, here somewhat revised, though preserving its original quality for oral delivery, was read before the annual meeting of the Dante Society held at Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1968]

The observations I wish to offer you tonight, on themes common to Dante and Shakespeare, must be taken as a sample of unfinished business. The similarities between the two poets have been gradually dawning upon me for a number of years, as the result of reading them more or less together. I have talked over this topic more than once, with students in graduate seminars, and in the spring of 1967 with some amiable colleagues in the Gauss Seminars at Princeton. Last winter I gave a version of this talk at Yale. But I am still trying to think out the many parallels between Dante and Shakespeare, and so my remarks cannot be very complete, or finally convincing. Let us hope they may prove suggestive.
When Hamlet tells the players that the purpose of their art is “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature,” he refers to the play as we see it literally before us. When he adds, “to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image,” he indicates the trope, or moral meaning the action embodies; and when he adds “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,” he assumes the medieval faith that history, the actual events of our, or any time, does have a significant form because God speaks through it. Dante, in his Letter to Can Grande, explains that the Commedia is composed like Holy Scripture with a literal meaning—in his case, the fictive journey beyond the grave—which embodies the three significant dimensions of our life and action: trope, allegory, and anagoge. My general thesis this evening is that Dante and Shakespeare used essentially the same traditional vision of human life, to give order and meaning to their poetry, and similar principles of art, derived from the venerable habit of this four-fold allegory.
There are plenty ofobvious differences between Dante and Shakespeare, some of which I shall mention as we proceed. But they share that classical-Christian vision of the human condition which was composed of Aristotelian philosophy, Christian theology, and the heritage of ancient Biblical and Pagan literature made relevant to their time by allegorical interpretation. It is often said—after T. S. Eliot—that Dante had a philosophy while Shakespeare did not. It would be less misleading in both cases, I think, to speak of their “vision” of man, his society, his history, and his cosmos. When they looked at the sky they saw the same Ptolemaic order in the stars, combined with the same mythic figures of ancient lincage—the setting that Shakespeare's symbolic stage represented. When they looked at the human crawling between heaven and earth—as they saw him in the flesh or read about him in history and legend—they deciphered the meanings of his strange antics by placing them in the timeless context of Greek psychology and ethics, and also by analogy to the timeless and historic drama of Redemption, as summarized in the Christian Creed. That of course was the accepted “World Picture,” as Tillyard rightly called it—available to any poet of the time. But so far as I know only Dante, at the beginning of the Renaissance, and Shakespeare at the end, were able to use it in all its harmonious complexity, to mirror earthly life. Perhaps that is what Eliot had in mind when he rather portentously remarked: “Shakespeare and Dante divide the modern world between them; there is no third.”
I chose to call this talk “Trope and Allegory,” rather than “Moral and Religious Meanings” in the two poets, because I wanted to indicate similarities in their poem-making as well as in their visions. But I know it is hard to handle the medieval concepts of Letter, Trope, Allegory, and Anagoge with much clarity and assurance and I can only hope you will bear with me while I make the attempt.
The medieval jingle is often quoted as a brief indication of the four meanings traditionally discerned in Biblical narrative:

Littera gesta docet—the letter teaches what was done,
Quid credas, allegoria—what you must believe, the allegory,
Moralis, quid agas—the moral meaning (or “trope” as it was often called) what you should do,
Quo tendas, anagogia—where you should aim, the anagoge.

The literal meaning of the Biblical stories was, of course, what the ancient Hebrews did, and it was their actual doings that were supposed to contain moral and religious meanings for us. The literal meaning is thus basic in the scheme, and only by respecting it can we keep from going astray in our search for wider meanings. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “In Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the interpretations are founded on one, the literal.” William Whitaker, an Anglican divine contemporary with Shakespeare, was very critical of the Roman's facile allegorizing, but on this point he was in essential agreement with Aquinas:

We concede such things as allegory, anagoge and tropology in Scripture, but meanwhile we deny that there are many and various senses. We affirm that there is but one true, proper and genuine sense of Scripture, arising from the words rightly understood, which we call the literal: and we contend that allegories, tropologies and anagoges are not various senses, but various collections from one sense, or various applications and accommodations of that one meaning.

I stress the importance of the literal meaning—i.e., life or action prior to interpretation—in order to distinguish this kind of allegory from the kind C. S. Lewis studies in his Allegory of Love , which is essentially a matter of personifying such abstract concepts as Peace, War, the Virtues and the Vices. Lewis, you remember, finds it in Bunyan, the Roman de la Rose, Spenser, and many other places. He excludes Dante from his study of allegory explicitly, and Shakespeare by simple omission. In that he is correct, for though Dante and Shakespeare use personifications when it suits their immediate purpose—as well as icons, liturgical symbols, metaphorical pagan gods, and the like—their allegory essentially rises out of realistic character and dramatic movement. Their fictions are intended to reflect not our concepts, but the real world, in which God’s own meaning was supposed to be embodied, just as it was in the events recorded in Scripture.
Dante, in his letter to Can Grande, is explicit about his use of fourfold allegory in making the Commedia, and in the last forty or fifty years the best students of Dante have begun to show us just how the three meanings are contained in the literal story of the poetic journey. In hell, where the good of the intellect is lost, Dante expects us to get only the Letter: the sharp immediate experience without moral or religious meaning. In Purgatory, Virgil, with his classical reason, gradually enables the traveller and the reader to get the moral meaning of the characters and events we have been seeing: the “trope.” And at the top of the Mountain Beatrice comes in a pageant that “figures” Revelation—that is, the allegory, quid credas, which at once fulfills and transcends rational understanding. The Paradiso, of course, is devoted to the anagoge, the ultimate goal, quo tendas, the mystic vision of the glory of God.
Shakespeare never explained his methods as formally as Dante did in his prose works. And because his fictive scenes are all in this world, he has different metaphorical resources for imitating action, and he cannot explore the mystic vision of the ultimate goal as Dante does in the Paradiso. But in transforming the old stories he used into the plays we know he must have had, more or less consciously, the habit of allegory based on medieval religious realism. For he always recreates the dramatis personae, to make sure that they “mirror nature” truly; giving them (however wooden they may have been in his source) a verisimilitude which we still find convincing. And then, by means of the careful reforming of the plot, the comments of the characters, and other devices, he suggests moral and religious meanings which the authors of his sources had usually never dreamed of, but which are very like those Dante brings out between Hell and the Earthly Paradise.
The texts I have chosen to illustrate these notions are Canto XVI of the Purgatorio and Measure for Measure. They are useful for my purposes this evening because they mirror, or imitate, the same central and ineluctable motive: to grasp the true nature of government. They do not contain the greatest poetry of either author, but their intellectual focus, their search for rational understanding, makes them easier to discuss than richer works.
I start with Measure for Measure, a rather familiar play. You remember that Shakespeare started with the old story of the strict deputy left in charge of the city—Angelo, in the play—who in his efforts to enforce the letter of the law condemns young Claudio to death for getting Juliet with child before they were married; and of Isabella, Claudio's sister, who in pleading for her brother's life unintentionally wakens Angelo’s own lawless lust, and must then choose between yielding to him and sacrificing Claudio. As usual, Shakespeare makes the characters so believable that the sensational old tale seems to mirror nature itself. But at the same time, by means of the Duke, he makes us see, in the very course of the story, the tropological and allegorical (or moral and religious) dimensions of the effort to understand government. The Duke is, among other things, a figure of the playwright or actor-manager who (as Hamlet said) is responsible for the truth of his art, and by watching the Duke one may glimpse Shakespeare at work.
The Duke names the basic motive of the play in his first speech: “Of government the properties to unfold” (1, 1). Thesituation he creates when he leaves the Puritanical Angelo in charge of corrupt, easy-going old Vienna forces everyone in town to share that motive, each in his own way: i.e., to consider the properties of government. For when Angelo tries to enforce the letter of the law against adultery, citizens of all kinds and classes are affected, and find themselves debating “the nature of our people, / Our city's institutions, and the terms / For common justice,” as the Duke puts it. At one end of the human spectrum we see the agile dialectic of Angelo and Isabella; at the other, Mistress Overdone's humble hope that her cat-houses may obtain “justice” under the new regime.
Young Claudio, who got Julietta with child before he could arrange to marry her, becomes the central problem of government when Angelo, blindly applying the letter of the law, condemns him to death. Claudio is the perfect example of “the nature of our people” prior to any moral or religious guidance: he moves only as his honest feeling of the moment dictates. So he and Julietta must have done when they heedlessly took their ‘most mutual entertainment”; and when he is arrested he responds equally wholeheartedly to the new (and dismaying) situation: “Our natures do pursue,” he cries, “like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die” (1, 2). In prison we see him humbly thanking the Duke-Friar for his sermon in praise of death, but then, when he imagines death with sensuous immediacy—“To lie in cold obstruction and to rot'’—he, quite naturally, shrinks away in fright. When his sister Isabella calls him a coward for hesitating to die for her virginity, Claudio replies: “Why give you me this shame? . . . If I must die / I will encounter darkness as a bride / And hug it in mine arms” (1, 1). That's just what he would do: he would die in a passionate gesture, though neither reason nor faith would avail to make him take that, or any consistent course. Unregenerate Claudio makes a particularly attractive instance of the basic problem of governing humanity, as this tradition saw it.
It is Angelo and Isabella who conduct the most ambitious debates on the properties of government è propos of poor Claudio. Angelo argues for the absolute rule of reason and the law, Isabella for that mode of love—Mercy, or Charity—which, in her recently-learned theology, is placed above rational justice. Their dialectic is good mental exercise, like Bernard Shaw's games of wit and logic, but it is the cynical Lucio who stages the match, and he does not take either Angelo’s rationality or Isabella's charity very seriously. Through his disillusioned eyes we begin to see the contest as largely a matter of words, and to suspect that neither champion senses the actual human problem very directly, either in Claudio or in him- or herself. That is why Angelo can shift so quickly from law to lust, as Lucio foresaw he would—“writing good angel on the devil’s horn”—and why Isabella can hysterically value her virginity above her brother’s very life until the events of the play have made her realize the human condition more realistically.
The Duke, in his plan of unfolding the properties of government, does not rely on verbal exposition, however logical, but on the practical experiment he set up when he left Angelo in charge. So he watches unseen the futile debates, and then Angelos hidden purposes take their sinister course. Shortly before he intervenes, to avert tragedy and reveal the results of his experiment, the Duke describes the scene in Vienna in these pregnant paradoxes:

... there is so great a fever on goodness, that the dissolution of it must cure it: novelty is only in request… there is scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure; but security enough to make fellowships accurst… This news is old enough, yet it is everyday’s news. (III, 2)

Such is the scene as we literally see it: the “world” of Vienna, where no truth, whether that of reason or that of faith, avails to govern society —or any human fellowship—in the right way. It is time for the Duke to bring out the truth, which is hidden or lost, and to show the Viennese where virtue lies, and what “the form and pressure” of their dark time really means.
Act V, you remember, is a complete playlet devised by the Duke to unveil Angelo’s regime, and then, first by his judgment of Angelo, and then by his Mercy, to bring out the tropological, and then the allegorical meaning of Angelo’s false government. His playlet begins as a pro forma report on Angelo’s stewardship, but as soon as Isabella and Mariana begin to accuse him, it becomes a full courtroom drama. Angelo’s actual purposes are dug out from a tangle of disguises, lies, fears, and vanities; and so the mirror of the Duke's little courtroom drama, like that of Hamlet's “mousetrap” play, catches Angelo’s motive as it has actually been: “I see your Grace, like power divine,” Angelo cries, “hath looked upon my passes” (V, I). Reason has done what it can with the evidence so far available, and the moral meaning—the trope—scems to be clear. The Duke applies the rational rule of an eye for an eye, and sentences Angelo to death. But one all-important fact is known only to the Duke, namely, that he had mercifully prevented Angelo from effecting his purpose, by saving Claudio. In the dénouement he lets this fact come to light, and then, when Mariana and Isabella (who has publicly accepted the shame of adultery) intercede, beyond all reason, for Angelo, he pardons him. So, as the true ruler of Vienna, the ‘figure of God,” the Duke acts out Divine Mercy which, according to the Creed, we must believe, in order to be saved in spite of our deserts. The moral meaning of Angelo’s government was revealed truly by reason, but faith (which does not contradict reason) is required to sce it in a deeper way. With the aid of the proper faith we see that, behind the bloody cockpit where reason tries to see its way, Providence, the grace of God in several forms, moves unseen. And we must understand that: the allegoria, quid credas, if we are to grasp “the properties of government.”
The Duke's little play is much more intricately composed than I can hope to show, because the Duke, having been conceived by Shakespeare in the medieval allegorical style, is a “figure” of so many different things. If he were a personification of an abstraction he would “mean” only that, but because he is conceived as a real, individual man, he may be analogous to many other real beings. He is clearly a “figure” of the playwright who devised the plot which brings out the trope and the allegory; he is probably also meant to be taken, flatteringly, as a “figure”’ of James I, who was proud of his theology and himself instructed his son in the properties of government in the Basilikon Doron. In Vienna, as the rightful Duke, he is a figure of God, like the rightful rulers in all of Shakespeare's English History plays and in the tragedies of Hamlet, Macbeth and Lear, and so he can serve as symbolic link between the small drama of his time and place and the cosmic drama of redemption. And so on. The suggestiveness of such relationships is inexhaustible, but meanwhile, as Aquinas and Whitaker pointed out, no hopeless confusion need result, for all interpretations are founded on one, the literal. We can always return to that when our meditations on meaning get out of hand.
I turn now to the Dantesque analogue of Measure for Measure, Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, where the traveler beyond the grave, and the reader who accompanies him, first get some light on the properties of government. Eliot said that one canto of the Commedia corresponds to a whole play of Shakespeare's, and it is true that each canto, like each play, imitates one action in a number of analogous figures. But in 140 lines or so Dante cannot present nearly so rich a human context, so many analogous motives, as Shakespeare can in a play. Moreover, a canto of the Commedia, though it has its own unity, and a kind of completeness, is also part of the whole huge narrative sequence, and could only be understood fully with reference to the whole. Dante’s treatment of the motive he shares with Shakespeare—to discover, through the actual confusion of society in a dark time, the true properties of government—is thus necessarily less complete and less widely developed than Shakespeare's. But let us see how close the analogies are, nevertheless.
By the middle of the Purgatorio Dante has left the hopelessly unintelligible darkness of hell far behind, and begun to see human conduct in the light of Virgil’s classical reason. In Canto XV, after climbing out of the painful terrace where Envy is repented, he and Virgil share some disturbing premonitions of Heaven, in the form of inspired day-dreams of life as it might be if it were governed by love and understanding. As that canto ends, and Canto XVI begins, the mountain path enters a thick cloud, dark as Hell, we are told—buio d'inferno; and we learn that here the “knot of anger” is being loosened by repentance. The blinding, acrid smog serves, by the Grace of God (and Dante’s mimetic art), to represent truly the state of the angry soul, i.e., deprived of objective vision, but with its rational faculties intact. The spirits in that darkness are resuffering their blindness in order to get rid of it, and Dante, analogously, enters the smoke in order to get past it and continue his upward journey. As soon as he meets the spirit of Marco Lombardo and starts to compare notes with him, we realize that the smoke is also analogous to the spiritual darkness of Italy, which had frustrated and angered both Marco and Dante: “Lo mondo è cieco,” says Marco brusquely, ‘e tu vien ben da lui” (v. 66).
The remembered darkness of Italy corresponds to the initial darkness of Vienna in Measure for Measure, and is the occasion for Marco's discourses on government. Marco guides Dante through the smog until light glimmers ahead, and he guides him through his intellectual frustrations by expounding those properties of government which had been lost to sight in their country. “Le leggi son,’ he says, ‘“ma chi pon mano ad esse?’—the exact dilemma which made Shakespeare's Duke of Vienna start on his pedagogical project.
Marco puts the basic problem of governing the human order in his famous image of the anima semplicetta, the guileless soul as it first meets the bewildering world:

Esce di mano a lui, che la vagheggia
prima che sia, a guisa di fanciulla
che piangendo e ridendo pargoleggia,

l’anima semplicetta, che sa nulla,
salvo che, mossa da lieto fattore,
volentier torna a ciò che la trastulla.

Di picciol bene in pria sente sapore;
quivi s'inganna, e retro ad esso corre,
se guida o fren non torce suo amore.

Onde convenne legge per fren porre;
convenne rege aver, che discernesse
della vera cittade almen la torre.
(Purg. XVI, 85-96)

This little creature corresponds to the guileless Claudio, the central problem in Vienna, who heedlessly pursues what delights him, and falls afoul of a ruler who emphatically does not see the tower of the true city.
The image of the love-driven psyche seeking its satisfaction like other living things in the common world of experience, is the basis of that Aristotelian psychology, ethics and political theory, upon which both Dante and Shakespeare were nurtured. In the next two cantos Virgil returns to it, to complete for Dante his picture of conduct in the light of reason. He says, in Canto XVIII:

L’animo, ch’ è creato ad amar presto,
ad ogni cosa è mobile che piace,
tosto che dal piacere in atto è desto.

Vostra apprensiva da esser verace
tragge intenzione, e dentro a voi la spiega,
sì che l'animo ad essa volger face.

E se, rivolto, in ver di lei si piega,
quel piegare è amor, quello è natura
che per piacer di nuovo in voi si lega.

Poi come il foco movesi in altura,
per la sua forma, ch’ è nata a salire
là dove più in sua materia dura:

così l’animo preso entra in disire,
ch’è moto spiritale, e mai non posa
fin che la cosa amata il fa gioire.

Or ti puote apparer quant’ è nascosa
la veritade alla gente, ch’ avvera
ciascuno amore in sè laudabil cosa;

però che forse appar la sua matera
sempr'esser buona; ma non ciascun segno
è buono, ancor che buona sia la cera.
(vv. 19-39)

That is the infinitely variegated “action” of which, according to Aristotle, life consists, and which poetry imitates: the nature which Hamlet says the theatre art mirrors, together with the moral and religious meaning it contains.
But to return to Canto XVI, Marco is answering Dante’s angry question, whether man or fate is responsible for the chaos of Italian society. “Man,” says Marco, because he has reason and the free moral will. It is the blindness or corruption of the rulers, not human nature in general, which is responsible for the state of Italy. In the tradition of Pilato and Aristotle he then proceeds from ethics to political theory, leading Dante, by his dialectic, from the myopic either-or question to a more inclusive view, and arguing against the absoluteness of the rulers of state and church, who demand totalitarian control. The course of Marco's thought, from the arrogant, myopic impasses of both logic and policy, to a more objective, many-sided vision of human government, has many analogies in both style and content to the dramatic course of Measure for Measure, from Angelo’s impatient, black-andwhite, abstractly-logical diagnosis, to the Duke”s patient, realistic and charitable view. But in Canto xvi we find no Duke: no ruler with the power to realize true government, no “figure” of God in Italy to act out the Allegoria, and place human government in the perspective of faith. Marco's vision, true though it is, and confirmed by classical reason, is therefore disembodied in that darkness, and Dante the traveller must be content, at that point of his journey, with a merely theoretical solution of his agonizing problem.
The best way to understand this important difference between Canto XVI and Measure for Measure is to re-read the De Monarchia, where Dante explains at length what is only alluded to here. Mankind could reach the goal of all human government—“the blessedness of this life… which is figured in the terrestrial paradise… by the teachings of Philosophy, following them by acting in accordance with the moral and intellectual virtues” (De Mon. 1, xvi). We could—but in fact we do not, unless we have a ruler, sanctioned by the will of God as history reveals it; sustained by the faith of his subjects, and endowed with a vision of “the true city.” History, Dante tells us, when read in the proper faith, shows that Virgil’s Rome, ‘che il buon mondo feo,” was divinely designated to rule, and the Empire of his own time should be recognized as Rome's heir. Dante even believed, for about three intense years, that the young Emperor Henry var had been sent by God to rule Christendom; and when Henry died he found no one on whom to pin his faith. This part of the Purgatorio reflects Dante’s experience in the middle of his own life, where only the ghostly voices of pagan philosophy persuaded him of the possibility of true government, as Marco and Virgil do here. But they provide only what reason can find: the trope; moral philosophy. The Allegoria, the faith needed both to complete the picture of government and to realize (or incarnate) it in our time, is represented in Canto xvi only by the singing of the spirits that Dante hears in the darkness and by the inarticulate drive that is carrying him onward. Not until the following day will the traveller begin to see figures of the true ruler in history, and the theme is not finally completed until the Paradiso.
Shakespeare was more fortunate than Dante in this respect. He inherited not only the classical and Christian, rational and religious theory of monarchy which the De Monarchia so clearly sets forth, but also the Tudor monarchy itself, which (in the faith of Englishmen) was the actual preordained “figure” on earth of “God’s majesty.” You will remember that Professor Tillyards has shown how the Chroniclers, reading English history in the same faith as Dante had brought to Roman history, fashioned the “Tudor Epic,” as Tillyard called it, and so prepared the way for Shakespeare's history plays. Measure for Measure is of course not a history play—the intervention of the Duke-playwright lifts the city out of history—but it too depends upon the publicly-acceptable ‘figure’ of the monarch which Dante so desperately lacked.
Such obvious differences between Dante’s situation in fourteenthcentury Italy at the visionary beginning of the Renaissance, and Shakespeare’s in seventeenth-century England where that vision had been embodied, account for the dissimilarities between the poets that we've noticed: their publicly available resources, and therefore their poetic tactics, were not identical. But with that in mind the similarity between the two texts is, I think, still more striking. Their visions of the “properties of government” are essentially the same, and so are the principles, at least, of their realistic-allegorical dramaturgy.
The “properties of government” is, however, only one of many themes common to Dante and Shakespeare, and to present it alone is misleading. The vision underlying the marvelous breadth and variety of Shakespeare's whole theatre is analogous to the order of the whole Commedia—but that, obviously, is too great a matter to discuss here at this moment.
But before I finish I wish to call your attention very briefly to two other themes which are as basic in both poets as “the properties of government,” namely, Romantic love and its lethal counterpart, treachery.
Everyone in this gathering knows that the love which Beatrice first revealed to Dante proved to be a clue, a growing light, through all his life and work thereafter. He himself summarizes this basic theme in his autobiographical testimony in Paradiso XXVI. But the importance of this same theme in Shakespeare's work, and its striking analogies to Dante's treatment of it, have for some reason been little noticed. In all of Shakespeare's Romantic comedies, and in the so-called “Romances” he wrote at the end of his life, the beloved woman has a symbolic or ‘‘figural’’ significance closely analogous to Beatrice's significance to Dante. When Shakespeare's young lovers learn to ‘read’ the meaning of their mistress’s beauty correctly, they are rewarded (like Dante at the top of the Purgatorial Mountain) with visions of the Golden Age and/or Eden, which, as Dante tells us, is a “figure’’ of earthly felicity. But when the lover fails to learn the moral and religious meaning of his lady’s beauty, but merely obeys it literally, reading only “by rote,” as the Friar tells Romeo he does—then the total commitment of Romantic love leads to death: “Amor condusse noi ad una morte.” It is very obvious that the experience of Romeo and Juliet is the same as that of Paolo and Francesca. But to explain properly how the two poets see its significance in the same way—going as it were through the conventions of “Romance” to the perennial human experience, and then interpreting that within the scheme of trope and allegory—would take a very long time.
The two poets also see treachery in the same way: as the most deathly action of all, because, by destroying trust, it freezes the movement of love near its source. This dark theme runs through the works of both poets in many forms: Macbeth and Ugolino, whose treacherous acts are explicitly defined in the same theological terms, are only the ultimate pictures of the terror and misery that treachery brings. But my time is up and I must be content merely to allude to that great theme.
In 1910 when Ezra Pound was making his earliest explorations of our ancient poetic tradition, he wrote, “Our knowledge of Dante and Shakespeare interacts.”’ That is really what I have been trying to say— I fear at too great length—this evening.

Date: 2021-12-25