ABSTRACT

Shame is – unremarkably – historically variable. In classical and in much early modern tragedy the tragic hero is typically confronted with – at the very least – an ambivalence towards his own fate; whether it is less shameful to face up to shame and take arms against it, or to succumb to it – Hamlet’s predicament perhaps. 1 Of course, one would never expect tragic fate to be anything but ambivalent. The question is rather what kinds of ambivalence structure tragic experience in our modernity. 2 In taking arms against the prospect of shame, the traditionally tragic hero has to pay the ultimate price with his own life. In other words, shame in tragic literature has what might be described as a basic structure of insurmountability. This is not so with other dramatic forms, even if the level of the fault is severe. In Two Gentleman of Verona, Proteus betrays his best friend Valentine and pursues Valentine’s mistress, Sylvia, is then discovered in his betrayal, voices his own shame and guilt over the matter, and is promptly forgiven by all the injured parties. Tragic drama aside, there can be ways back from shame – at least in literature – and, indeed, successfully demonstrating one’s sense of shame can be one of them. And, of course, shame can hit different literary depths or strengths of intensity, and it can be ambivalent in differing ways – not all of which reach the levels of impossibility proper to traditional tragic discourse. Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 129 – which shall be the focus of our remarks here – is a good example of this variability, and perhaps even of a novel, “modern” experience of shame, not least because the experience described appears to be so intense: