Deception, or Shakespeare Takes the Discussions, Act II

Ashley Sanders continues her guest stint at BCC.

Act I here.

I said I would be talking about the relationship between conscience and self-deception, which is really a discussion about criticism and deception, since people with sharp consciences feel compelled to criticize in the name of truth. This is particularly true in religion—for our purposes, Mormonism—in which the subject of truth is paramount and people must criticize in order to preserve it. These critics are often hounded. They are told: lay off, be positive, drown critique in kindness. This poor kind of guidance led me to write posts on the importance of conscience, since it is clear that these directives ignore the very real task of judgment and belittle agency in favor of allegiance. But many advocates of conscience are similarly amiss. This crowd often equates integrity with questioning and conscience with critique, as if those things were secure and enough by themselves. They are right in the motives for critique, but they are often wrong in their method—more particularly, because of their confidence in their method.

Midsummer’s play-within-a-play takes both crowds to task, showing the exposure to deception in both. Interestingly, Shakespeare does not seem to suggest that the courtiers shouldn’t criticize the play; indeed, it seems they should. The tradesman’s play is an insult on every front: over-obvious, simplistic, and devoid of subtlety. The tradesmen, afraid that their audience will not understand their metaphors (that a man, for instance, will be dressed as a wall) or be disturbed by the frightening parts (a man dressed up as a lion) decide to write a prologue for every metaphor, ensuring that the audience will not miss any of the lessons they are designed to communicate.

Any Mormon who has attended church, Institute, or General Conference will find the tradesmen’s pedagogy too familiar: a criminal lack of subtlety, an abundant fear of ambiguity, a penchant for overwrought metaphors, and a generally low estimation of the audience’s capacity for discretion. In these instances, the play’s illusion is not real enough to outdo reality; by poorly mimicking life, it has nothing beyond it to offer. It is not moral: the illusion does not expand what we consider to be ‘real.’ Shakespeare’s courtiers sense the same things, and so they critique the play and call it poor.

If plays teach us anything, it is this: that obviousness is immoral. By trying to name everything, the tradesmen have defied the morality of fiction and also crossed the formidable Alan Badiou, who warns us that “Evil is the will to name at any price . . . the desire for Everything-to-be-said.” The desire of fiction, on the other hand, is to highlight “the unnamable,” which Badiou claims “frees the destructive capacity in all truth.” For a Mormon, these seem to be strange definitions of evil; after all, evil is stealing or lying or doing drugs! But it is precisely Mormons who most need this definition. We are a people whose sinfully easy notions of evil have motivated the crime of provincialism. Oddly, in desiring to name everything, our moral speeches and talks have propelled rather than prevented the destructive capacity of truth.

Shakespeare surely recognized this, and seems to defend his courtiers in their critique; after all, the play really is bad! And thank goodness for his permission, since criticism is both a responsibility and a right. But Shakespeare is obviously criticizing the courtiers just as much as, if not more than, the tradesmen. At least the tradesmen are sincere—bumbling, yes, but also earnest. Perhaps their uneducated earnestness is dangerous, but Shakespeare seems to consider it less dangerous than the courtier’s hypocrisy. After all, almost everyone watching the play has just finished acting like fools in the name of love; Puck’s spells had changed their reality, and their resulting limited perspective made them mad mis-interpreters, fawners, idiots. They should have learned something from love—perhaps their ability to be deceived?—but they didn’t. We are left appropriately wondering what kind of love they are in. Probably not much, if they can’t admit their own hypocrisy.

And so: If audiences teach us anything, it is that we are always part of one and always being watched by one. Criticizing the one we are watching is fine if we accept being criticized by the one watching us. If the tradesmen’s sin was naming at any price, the courtiers have their own version: they will to criticize at any price and the desire for Everything-to-be-scanned. Everything, that is, except themselves. And so the courtiers, too, commit a crime against the morality of fiction. They forget that they are characters rather than narrators, and that their perspective is always being out-perspectived somewhere else by someone else. Their attempts to narrate from the limits of their perspective constricts their criticism and makes it suspect. They avoid simplistic and overwrought truth, but they also suppress the unnamable until it no longer names them. They cannot be convicted—not by others, and certainly not by themselves—and so they have lost their moral power to judge. Even Bottom, the tradesmen’s swaggering anti-savant, knows two things the courtiers don’t. First, he knows he is an actor and he tries (albeit too hard!) to convince people he is something he is not. Second, he knows he can’t name everything: he tried to explain his experience as a donkey and failed. The courtiers, on the other hand, don’t even know they’re something they think they aren’t, and they cannot even remember their visions (delusions) long enough to think twice about the supremacy of their opinions. The courtiers have no memory and no sense of audience: they do not remember making the mistakes they criticize and they do not feel exposed to a wider perspective. In other words, they are deceived. They are unreliable critics.

To be continued…

Act III here.


  1. Very well said, Ashley. Judging righteously must include being open to judgment. Honest seekers of truth seek to be changed by that truth.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Ashley, you sound like one of those people who like to turn around in the darkened theater to look at the rest of the audience. If so, you’re in good company (see, e.g., 1:48 in this clip).

    In other words, observation is an act of participation, whether we like it or not.

    I should probably also note that the clip I link to earns Amelie its R-rating at about 3:00 or so, so don’t get too caught up in it at work.

  3. Thomas Parkin says:

    Wow, Ashley. So much here to chew on what I thought was pretty well tread ground for me.

    Thanks. Looking forward to act III …


  4. Ashley, I am so thoroughly enjoying this- and yes, as Thomas Parkin says above me- Looking forward to Act III.

    Lots to think about…

  5. Wonderful thoughts, Ashley!

  6. Such an interesting post on a large group blog.

  7. austin s says:

    Interesting, I just wrote a paper on The Merchant of Venice arguing that Shakespeare was condemning the hypocritical actions of the Christians (showing little if any mercy to Shylock, especially right after saying how important it would be for Shylock to give mercy to Antonio) more than the sincere hate and greed of Shylock. I agree that Shakespeare is not a fan of pretense. Also looking forward to the rest (I like to digest it act by act here rather than all at once on your blog). Thanks for all your great thoughts, I especially like the Shakespeare-Mormon tie-in.

  8. But, Ashley… if we know that sex and smoking are sins then we can check them off the list of “don’t dos” and do pretty much anything else. Not doing anything Jesus wouldn’t do is seriously, way totally hard.

  9. #8 – What if “what Jesus wouldn’t do” is way different than most of us imagine? What if what Ashley is discussing forces us to re-examine our assumptions (many that have descended through a cultural prism that we classify as corrupted over time) about what His “mortal perfection” means? I agree it still is very hard and unattainable all at once, but even the Bible says he grew from grace to grace and in favor with God and man. Why do we suppose we need to short-circuit the process of growth He experienced and be now what He was only at the end?

    I think we buy into the incorrect traditions of our fathers too much with regard to many topics, and how we view “what Jesus wouldn’t do” is one of them. There is something profoundly disturbing about the idea that “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” – and it is related directly to Eve’s comment about false happiness and totally unrealistic expectations.

  10. “Eve’s comments from Ashley’s Act I”

  11. Is the next Ashley installment tomorrow? I’m on pins and needles. This is fun stuff.

    And Ray, are you saying the little Lord Jesus cried? Next your going to say that as a child he got vexed if the game went wrong. Shaky ground, mister.

  12. Just wondering why He wasn’t accepted in His own home town as the Messiah. Maybe they looked forward to “their Messiah” through the same type of lens we use to look backward at “our Savior and Redeemer”. Maybe there’s a reason we have essentially no record of His life until after the beginning of His ministry. Maybe we need more answers; maybe we need more questions.

    Just wondering. I really don’t know.

  13. Ray, tongue in cheek, baby. But you may be on to something. I doubt anyone was expecting the Messiah to be a “real” person. Especially a real child who grew line upon line.

    I’ve had a rough day of being misinterpreted elsewhere, so I think I’ll call it a night. Catch ya on the flip side.

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