Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve a recurring movement or transformation, which I will describe in terms that are broadly metaphysical and mostly instinctive. Backing them up, explaining them, might happen in some later posts. For now, I’ll set out the nature of the shift. The transformation happens in the plays when the superfluous is recognized to be irreplaceable. Or rather, that recognition happens in the plays sometimes and is made possible by the plays more often.
That shift from the “superfluous” to the “irreplaceable” involves a shift not only of status and value, but of the terms by which status and value are considered. What is superfluous is opposed to need and necessity; what is irreplaceable is opposed to the same, but conditions “necessity and need” differently from “superfluous.” In other words, the shift is both from a negative to a positive relationship towards necessity, but also from one conception of necessity to another conception of necessity. What is “superfluous” stands outside of a design and purpose which are themselves considered necessary, and it suggests that other objects and elements are intrinsic to that design and purpose. What is “replaceable” stands within a design and purpose, but suggests that other objects and elements would serve it just as well. The shift from “superfluous” to “irreplaceable” is twofold: it moves something within the boundaries of a design and purpose, and also suggests that within those boundaries nothing else could fill the same place. If the design or purpose is to be what it is, then that irreplaceable element must remain in place. But something else has shifted here too. We might have imagined a situation in which an element is said to be irreplaceable but not necessary—but really what is being effected with such a statement is a redefinition of a whole. If something is irreplaceable but not necessary, it is a part of one whole that has itself been deemed unnecessary, as opposed to another whole that is, and of which it is not a part. The word “irreplaceable” suggests therefore only holds a part in relation to the whole; it does not make an ultimate determination of the necessity of the whole.
The touchstone for such a shift in the plays is King Lear, where the phrase “reason not the need” is all at once pathetically inadequate to the circumstances, foolishly selfish, and wisely unworldly. In that play, where the waste is so great, where so much has been made superfluous, there is redemption in the “in the cage” speech when Cordelia is fully recognized as irreplaceable in Lear’s life, whatever shape or purpose that life might, at that moment lack; anxiety over that broader purpose has been dispelled, at least temporarily, before the drums of the nation’s fate resound at the close (but who in an audience is interested in those?). Something similar happens in Hamlet’s closing moments, not when he reflects on the providence in a sparrow’s fall (he proffers it as a matter of faith, but not a faith that he is desperate to sustain, because it is not really relevant any more whether such a larger necessary design of the universe exists), but in the touching folly of his decision to duel Laertes, and his moving appeal of friendship to Horatio.
It is there also in the earlier plays, the comedies and tragedies alike. Richard III’s entire being is turned on making everyone serve the “use” of the moment, the perpetual “now” that he sounds at the start of the play and in which he lives; he perverts the terms by which people value one another. Everyone around him mourns; everyone else judges retroactively what they’ve lost or been or felt or done, even when many have done and been terrible things. Now that they are superfluous to the nation, to power, to their own former ambitions, they appeal to, and make out to discover, what was irreplaceable in their lives. In Twelfth Night, the contingency of design, the turn of accident, closes not with a sense that everything needed to have happened as it did, or even that all involved were necessary in any absolute terms—its happiness is the sense that, for the end that has been achieved, the happy closure that they have found by accident and luck, they are all, even the most seemingly replaceable twins, irreplaceable. That such closure was decided by luck casts a shadow over the ending; the gusts of a storm play beyond Feste’s last song, a chill of the nihilism of Lear’s storm in which there is no appeal to, or hope for, any understanding of a necessity or purpose to the world and existence that can ground or establish the necessity and purpose of a single life.
The late Romances do not worry over that, though; they permit no loss because nothing is replaceable, without implying that the design of which they are a part carries any necessity at all. Their reliance on magic, on miracle, on unlikely chance, in their contingent designs and schemes, they may be thought either to have accepted the necessity of the larger whole on trust, or else to have decided to abandon the worry at all, to seek instead to effect only the transformation to what is irreplaceable, without worrying at all over the necessity of the whole to which the elements belong.