I gave blood earlier this week. Don’t worry – I’m not about to go all Titus Andronicus on you and mention all the times Shakespeare talks about blood – life is too short and I tend to get light-headed just looking at my own donation*. I was just lying there, musing on how odd it was to, you know, undergo pain and some prolonged discomfort to help strangers. How great altruism is**. And how profoundly undramatic it is.
I can think of very few cases of generosity or selflessness in Shakespeare (just like, when I was looking, I could find very few examples of kindness). Drama of any kind cannot run on characters who seek to minimise conflict – for obvious reasons. So when it does come up it is a rare gift to be cherished.
There is Isabella’s intervention on behalf of her brother in Measure for Measure, which only leads to her near-rape – and a possible marriage with a very odd duke. It is perhaps the more remarkable since the offence he has committed goes so against the grain of what she believes.
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.
As Cesario, Viola goes willingly to woo Olivia for Orsino, even though she’d rather she wasn’t successful. And of course, the fact that she isn’t successful is the lynchpin of the main plot of Twelfth Night, and much of the comedy.
For such as we are made of, such we be.
How will this fadge? My master loves her dearly,
And I, poor monster, fond as much on him;
And she, mistaken, seems to dote on me.
What will become of this? As I am man,
My state is desperate for my master’s love;
As I am woman- now alas the day!-
What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I;
It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie!
By contrast, Desdemona’s pleadings on Cassio’s behalf take us deeper into the mire of jealousy and tragedy. Indeed, without Desdemona’s heart and altruism Iago would have had nothing with which to work on Othello***…
For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
I don’t count the King of France marrying Cordelia as altruistic – lovely gesture though it is – since he got a lovely wife out of the bargain. But Kent’s crying out on behalf of the innocent lady – even when warned of the likely consequence – must surely count.
Kent: Answer my life my judgment,
Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,
Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.
Lear. Kent, on thy life, no more!
Kent. My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thine enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.
Lear. Out of my sight!
Benedick also (eventually) proves himself willing to speak out for an innocent lady – and sacrifice his friendship with Claudio and the Prince for Beatrice.
Benedick. Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.
Beatrice. Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.
Benedick. Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wrong’d Hero?
Beatrice. Yea, as sure is I have a thought or a soul.
Benedick. Enough, I am engag’d, I will challenge him. I will kiss your hand, and so I leave you. By this hand, Claudio shall render me a dear account. As you hear of me, so think of me. Go comfort your cousin. I must say she is dead-and so farewell.
Well, maybe that’s all the altruism we need.
* No, I am not really looking forward to Titus Andronicus. Here’s hoping for a nice abstract production in the next eight years. Or one with aliens. I could totally cope with Spock-style green blood.
** And yes, you should sign up for blood donation if you can.
*** Except for that damned handkerchief…