Here’s a novel use of Shakespeare: use the Bard to interpret the words and uncover the confession of a possible murderer.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker is intrigued by the enigmatic statement by Robert Durst that everyone is talking about. The HBO documentary The Jinx overheard the suspected murderer saying something that Gopnik describes as “two parts Shakespeare to one part Samuel Beckett.”
As you probably know, Durst is suspected of having committed three murders, although he was found innocent (on grounds of self defense) after he killed and cut up his next door neighbor. A hot mic, however, picked up the following monologue while he was going to the bathroom:
There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.
Gopnik observes that the words have
inspired an entire vein of interpretation. Some are exculpatory, or try to be: perhaps he was imagining others saying these things about him, rather than saying them about himself. But, more often, his guilt has been assumed, and its mechanism explored. “In art, illumination comes in many guises: the soaring strings, the poetic monologue, the soul bared suddenly in a glance,” one interpreter wrote in the Los Angeles Times, adding that Durst “creates a deeply disturbing prose poem to the human drama, culminating in what sounds eerily like the call and response of good and evil.”
Gopnik leans towards a guilty interpretation given that the words resemble the soliloquies of Shakespeare villains like Edmund in King Lear and Iago in Othello. Each is an evil man who
speaks out loud of his own capacity for evil, and then assures us that there’s nothing really shocking there. It’s just the burping.
We’d all prefer it, Gopnik notes, if we just had Durst’s final two sentences, delivered unambiguously:
What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.
Shakespeare’s villains, however, don’t give in so easily to the existing moral order. They soliloquize not to confess but to justify their actions. Gopnik explain that
the keynote in Shakespeare’s villains’ self-directed speeches isn’t ambivalence or tormented self-recognition but complacency. It is the “of course” that electrifies our conscience. Iago does not say, “Heaven forgive me for wronging this innocent couple,” nor that he is heavy with envy and jealousy…Instead, he says:
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end:
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
In other words, God knows why I’m doing this (in every sense), but then, I am not what I am. “Nobody tells the whole truth,” is the way that Durst put it. And I shall enmesh them all, because I sort of can. It is a struggle not for self-explanation but for self-justification: I’m sorry this is happening but, really, they drove me to it. Or, I might as well. Not to have done it, well, that would have been ridiculous.
Gopnik observes that Iago never feels remorse and continues to justify himself to the end. Edmund does ultimately repent, but in his famous “stand up for bastards” speech, he just shrugs off the law:
Even Edmund in “Lear,” a jealous brother like Durst, about to destroy two families and a kingdom, embraces his nature and shrugs at that “curiosity of nations,” the law. What the villain always knows, ultimately, is not why but why not.
Gopnik makes another couple of interesting points. While Edmund, Iago and (if he is guilty of murder) Durst are all psychopaths, their self-justifying is something that we all do to an extent: we all find ways to rationalize our questionable acts. This may be why we may experience a thrill of recognition in Iago and Edmund’s soliloquies. Shakespeare understood well that
no one looks in the mirror in the morning and thinks, I’m a bad guy. Rather, we say: They shouldn’t have let me. I felt terrible for her when I killed her. What else could I do? If only it hadn’t come to this.
Gopnik makes one other point that I find fascinating, even if I’m not entirely sure that he and those he quotes are correct. Moral consciousness, he says, was an invention of Shakespeare’s time. We can see this through the evolution of drama, which moved from the good and bad angels of Medieval passion plays to Renaissance soliloquies. (Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus veers between the two.)
Shakespeare’s advance, as Gopnik sees it, was to show how problematic this interior voice could be. The soliloquy may be “the sound of that self keeping score,” but even the best of us tilt the field in our favor. This goes for good as well as bad. As Reinhold Niebuhr noted, “No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint.”
And so, returning to Durst’s speech, what most stands out for Gopnik is the “of course.” For all his rationalizing and self-justifying, deep down Durst knows the score. Which is to say that he, like Iago and Edmund and all of us, hears the good angel:
The evil little monologue has its hold on us because it reminds us that, in life, everyone has a hot mic on—the ancients called it the soul, we still call it a conscience. (In contemporary life, soul or conscience most often gets forced out by technology, as with the undeleted tweet or e-mail.) Over the noise of our own animal functions, we basically know the score. Of course.