Deception, or Shakespeare Takes the Discussions, Act IV

Ashley Sanders continues her guest stint at BCC.

Read Act I here, Act II here, and Act III here.

But how does love help us to avoid deception? Specifically, how is religion’s commandment of love the physic for a quarantined perspective? Surely it isn’t just a flowers-and-bunny’s setup; there must be something in the nature of love that confronts the problem of knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Shakespeare respects fiction’s moral ambiguity and leaves things nice and complicated. Though he might be advocating for love as deception’s anecdote, his play’s curtain falls on still-deceived lovers—the same lovers who criticize the tradesmen’s play. These lovers—Helena and Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander—still suffer from love’s delusions but don’t even see themselves as deluded. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should discard love. In fact, a careful viewing of the play (say, for the second time in two nights?) should show us precisely what kind of love to discard. I said earlier that the courtiers loved each other, and were thereby deluded. It is more correct to say, however, the courtiers loved themselves first and were therefore deluded again in romance. Similarly, in the paragraph about religion, I said that God-love led to dangers; I think it is more true that self-love used God to commit a sin against knowledge. Shakespeare’s lovers are deluded before Puck ever hexes them; they are deluded because their love for each other is really a runaway love of self. After Puck hexes them, their love get criss-crossed, and its purposeless seems absurd; it is easy to compare it to irrational faith and God-worship: groundless, reasonless, and persisting despite all reasons to the contrary. In truth, though, it is no more absurd then self-love masquerading as romance (falling-into-self confused for falling-in-love) or hypocrisy posing as worship.

In the end, everyone gets the dreamboat and they all float away on happily-ever-after. But the predicament is unsolved and the lovers—as made obvious when they mock the tradesmen’s play—are still deceived hypocrites. What the lovers never accomplish is a religious kind of love, which is precisely the kind of love that cures self-deception. And religious love does not only cure the deception of romance, but also of criticism.

Loving religiously requires loving a third party as much or much more than one loves oneself, to see God as an audience who knows more and to see ourselves as actors pursuing an illusion to become, oddly, more authentic. It is surprising how much this love resembles the lessons of theatre and fiction:

First, any religious person must reckon with the problem of illusion and metaphor; one must ask what is real and if one has been convinced enough by words to learn a new perspective. Have the words been true and subtle enough that they outdo the perspective of immediacy? Is the fiction of scripture both impassioned and restrained enough to offer the truth without naming the unnamable? Is the illusion real enough to make one true? If the answer is yes, one agrees to love. If it isn’t, one must determine how to supplement love with criticism and criticism with love.

Second, a religious person is always acutely aware of audience. Prayer, for instance, is nothing less than a monologue to the invisible, a plea to be narrated by a poet who knows more perspectives than one’s own. To pray is, quite metaphorically, to break down the famed fourth wall and admit once and perpetually that knowing is always part of a more-knowing, a God-audience with great perspective. To speak a monologue, in prayer or in play, is to realize that there is something out there to speak to—something that needs our explanation. That is religion and theatre’s great starting place.

Third, a religious person recognizes that there is someone—some God, some fairy, some magic—behind the rationality and knowledge she supposes to have earned. When Demetrius falls for Helena, for instance, he probably believes he is deciding to do so for good reason. He probably even believes he is rational. He isn’t; his experiences are simply flush with his knowledge. The audience knows his rationality is actually Puck’s mischief. But the real lesson, and the one known by the devout, is that truth and reality are functions of mood, and that mood—while possible to regulate—is not possible to choose. Mood is a room with small truths inside it, walls and hallways to other rooms.

But more than anything, religious love cures deception by requiring us to love God more than we love ourselves and others, or more precisely, to love ourselves and others by loving God. I said love would cure deception, but I don’t mean it will get rid of it. Love cures us of deception by making us notice it, by insisting that it will never go away. The commandment to love God, then (or, theatrically, to love our audience), is a clue to solving the problem of knowledge. It is trying to tell us that we will never escape perspective. Consequently, it is trying to teach us that conscience will never be enough. Conscience is only reliable when its sense of duty matches actual obligations. If conscience relies only on itself, we might think that we are true (that our sense of duty matches with our real obligations) when we are actually solipsistic—when our experiences are merely flush with what we count as real. The commandment to love is the great commandment of non-alignment: it requires us to love something that isn’t ourselves so that we cannot be deceived by the solipsism of conscience.

We must love a God that is different enough than we are—who loves people we don’t love, who asks for things we cannot give, who stays when we wish he’d go—in order to reckon with perspective. In the process (and in the attendant process of loving other people) we learn our power to deceive ourselves. We learn that our perspective must be constantly amended by the perspective of others, and that our consciences must be the result of that loving confusion.

Last act next time…

Read Act V here.


  1. Thomas Parkin says:

    Some very quick thoughts:

    In a previous post, you quoted a philosopher / theorist, as – sorry for the misquote, I’m not taking time to go back and look and it does deserve that – saying that evil is the desire that everything be named. I’m not sure where I should follow this to. It seems to indicate that a kind of fixity, especially fixity of thought, is the primary characteristic of evil. I think that fixity of thought, especially of a sohpisticated thinking, is indicative of evil – I’m not nearly so sure that it is at the heart of evil. Another person might find hatred at the heart of evil. I’m not sure that we are qualified to say what the essential characteristc of evil is, other than it is evil. All our other observations may simply be looking at symptoms.

    (I’ve defined evil, for myself, tentatively, like this: whatever tends to prohibit or imperil the fullest expression of a person or people tends to be evil; whatever tends to encourage or enable a person or people to their fullest expression tends to be good. I now see that is close…)

    I strongly prefer the word “charity” to “religious love.” Mostly because I find that most religious love also tends to delusions. If I get a sec, I’ll quote at length from Carl Jung very perceptively critiquing the idea of agape. For instance.

    Finally, Iris Murdoch – as good a philosopher as we’ve had on goodness – said of love: “Love is the very difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” I’m not sure – but I do know that there are moments in which I feel deep love, especially children, in which I seem to see the wonderful reality of them, as something full of value completely independent of self-interest, and that in that love there is a difficult to express but very important form of knowledge.



  2. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve just come back to this after an hour+ of youtube … (I do love Journey, yes I do. And I also love Arcade Fire) there are just so many directions you could legitimately go and not threadjack your posts, Ashley. I may try a couple more later … trying to squeeze more than, berry interesting but quite beyond me. :)


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