Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
What is the point – of Shakespeare, art in general, life itself? In Play in a Godless World, Catherine Bates dismantles those ‘cheerful narratives of progress’ which describe play ‘as a gradual ascent towards moral, social, and intellectual achievement’ (p. iii) in favour of a Nietzschean ‘free play’ that ‘does not lead anywhere – towards higher, better, more advanced, or more developed things’, but ‘is completely pointless and mindless, going nowhere and enjoyed purely for itself’ (p. iv). Esthetic idealization ‘flattered man with pleasingly god-like powers by allowing him to think he’d mastered and controlled the raw material of experience’ (p. 64). Repeatability, the determining factor, allows Freud’s little Ernst to master trauma and functions in Huizinga as ‘perhaps the thing which elevated play to the higher realms of art and culture’ (p. 171). Tragedy, the supreme achievement, ‘doesn’t simply repeat any experience but specifically repeats’ the ultimate unpleasure, ‘death’s crushing finality’ (p. 175). ‘Tragedy is fort! da! for grownups. Tragedy laughs in the face of death because a represented and repeatable death is a non-death’ (p. 176). Shakespeare performs a crucial role for Bates at the end, with four plays chosen to illustrate the metadramatic scepticism through which intimations of transcendence disintegrate into disenchantment.