[The following passage is from George Santayana, by Newton P. Stallknecht, 1971.]
The fact that Shakespeare, unlike Sophocles or Dante, does not offer us a vision of the best to be enjoyed, so to speak, in its own right need not keep us from recognizing the moral significance of many passages and incidents in his plays. The nihilism of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is not to be condemned, as T. S. Eliot once supposed, as a statement of an inferior or truncated philosophy. Taken in context, this passage may be seen magnificently to epitomize the state of mind and the view of life that Macbeth at the end of his career cannot escape, a fact which he, being still something of a hero and thus unable wholly to deceive himself, remains capable of grasping. Read in this way, the speech is a noble one and its connotations within the structure of the play are by no means nihilistic. Macbeth’s cry of despair tells us more of “moral evil and of good” than most poets—and most philosophers—ever succeed in doing. As a moralist, Santayana cannot help but admire, and even participate in, the many human perspectives that Shakespeare sets before us. To be sure, his many insights are not subordinated to any central or overarching ideal, expressed either as concept or symbol. Nor is any supernatural support recognized or invoked. Again and again, Shakespeare penetrates and evaluates the manifold complexities of human motivation, of human actions, their character and consequences, without trying to reduce his concrete pluriverse to an ordered cosmos. Tragedy and comedy may be found on every hand but there is no inclusive world drama or divine comedy. Santayana was well aware that our modern world is not a cosmos and that the poet must be, in Stevens’ phrase, a “connoisseur of chaos.” Although he is privileged in his own life and work to resist the pressure of what he may call “absolute” fact, he must not overlook its presence or seek wholly to triumph over it.
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