Cassius Seldom Smiles
The end of term is when the work really begins. The seminars, lectures, office hours (and preparation for all of the above), which claim more than their fair share of term-time energy, are suspended, and I can now relish some quality time with my PhD thesis. The major pitfall of this joyful holiday activity is ‘thesis face’. Whilst I am teaching I have an upsettingly mobile face: I smile, I grimace, and for very little reason at all, I quite often blow out my cheeks like a puffer fish. What I am thinking, and especially what I shouldn’t be thinking, is written, as they say, all over my face. In term time my eyebrows get more action than all the unbotoxed British actors put together and I blush at the drop of a hat. Seeing someone you know every five seconds gives you a rather cheerful look, as your cheeks get a constant work-out, smiling and chirruping the odd banal greeting. Without all these niceties and their related muscular activities, my expression quickly solidifies into thesis face.
Thesis face is totally immobile and rather grim, as if roughly hewn from a block of ice. It is the sort of face that makes jovial old men say “cheer up, it might never happen” before retreating cautiously, wishing they hadn’t spoken. It’s not that I don’t enjoy working on my thesis, in fact I find it very exciting. The difference is, I do it alone. In the holidays I often work at my desk at home, and as I live alone, that means seeing no one. I enjoy this too, but it does mean that the old face gets very little exercise. There’s no reason to smile, laugh, frown, look sympathetic, interested, amused, or profoundly disdainful (although I sometimes do this one for my dishes). After only a few days of holiday, thesis face sets in. Last week I popped out to post some Christmas cards. I bounded across the crisply cold and deserted campus, a wodge of cards in hand, and full of festive joy. Little did I know, I was also sporting my thesis face. As I gambol towards the postbox, a postman is there finishing emptying out the letters. I ask if I can put my cards into his sack and he agrees, taking them with a smile. As I hand them over, I feel happy and grateful. ‘What a nice man,’ is what I’m thinking. Then I realise that I am glaring at the postman. I have totally forgotten to smile back. In term time my embarrassment would be blushing all over my face, but of course in term time I would smile by reflex. I quickly bared my teeth at the postman, thanked him, and hurried away: the unblushing thesis face smile is even more sinister than the thesis face.
Theses aside, we’ve all had moments when the right emotion hasn’t quite reached our faces. This can be a particular problem at Christmas when you receive a wonderful, thoughtful gift, and you are delighted, but the fact that you are being watched by the expectant giver causes absolute facial failure, and you look disappointed. We’ve all been there. We are all told that it’s the thought that counts, and the inside matters more than what’s outside, but sometimes that’s just not the case. Often, when interacting with others, you have to show what is happening on the inside, on the outside. One of the ways in which Shakespeare puts the inside on the outside is through soliloquys and asides. Emotions are signified and shared by outward shows. A Queen’s pleasure is signified by a smile, while a man’s displeasure by a frown (Henry VI, Part III, III.3), and the ready emotions described by Rosalind are manifest women’s faces, they are “full of tears, full of smiles; for every / passion something” (As You Like It, III.2). Of course, the ability to show or signify emotion is important on the stage, but the early modern relationship between the inside and the outside went beyond this. In the world of Shakespeare, there is also a moral dimension to this relationship. Simply put, those whose outside matches their inside are good, and those who can conceal emotion are often not so good. Cordelia (the virtuous daughter in King Lear) is praised for her unconscious and unhindered expression of emotion, as she receives news of her father with both tears and smiles. Cordelia’s emotions are likened to an organic phenomenon: “You have seen / Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears / Were like a better way” (IV.3). Cordelia’s outpouring of emotion is natural and virtuous. In contrast, in Julius Caesar, Cassius is considered suspicious due to the fact that he rarely shows his emotions. “Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort / As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit / That could be moved to smile at any thing” (I.2). The fact that Cassius not only conceals his emotions, but attempts, unlike Cordelia, to supress them, shows he’s bad news. It turns out Cassius is such bad news that he ends up stabbing Caesar. Of course, there also comes a time in everybody’s life when he or she realises that “a man may smile and smile and be a villain” (Hamlet I.5). Über villain Richard of Gloucester gleefully describes his ability to counterfeit emotion.
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions (Henry VI, Part III, III.2).
At this point you are probably asking: but what about Hamlet? Yes, Hamlet makes this discussion interesting. After the death of his father the prince publically insists that his outward expressions of grief are matched by profound inner feeling.
Seems, madam, Nay, it is. I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc'd breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
'That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show-
These but the trappings and the suits of woe (I.2).
Many who watch or read Hamlet wonder what this assertion is all about. Why does he feel the need to impress upon his mother, King Claudius, and the court that his outward performance is rooted in genuine internal emotion? Is Hamlet implying that the outward expressions of grief from others (such as Claudius’ one dropping eye) have been less than genuine? Or is he, as Freudian literary critics have suggested, making this forceful statement to compensate for the fact that he is not in fact experiencing the sensations of loss that he thinks are appropriate for his situation. Perhaps he does not “have that within which passeth show”. Later in the play, in a soliloquy, Hamlet expresses his distress at his lack of appropriate response to what has happened to his father. After meeting the actors he sees their ability to pour out emotion and wonders why he cannot do the same.
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That, from her working, all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears (II.2).
Hamlet understands the player’s tears as coming directly from the “working” of his “soul”, not the seeming that he has condemned earlier in the play. The outward manifestation of tears is the product of an inward impulse that the player’s “dream of passion” has produced. Critics have used this passage to add weight to the argument that Hamlet’s problem is that he doesn’t have the inward emotion he has insisted upon. In fact what Hamlet berates himself for in this passage is a failure to produce outward displays of passion that would “amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears”. Hamlet is struggling with problems familiar to many who have suffered bereavement as he attempts to reconcile his actual responses with imagined appropriate responses, whilst striving to make what is inside manifest on the outside. Hamlet has identified his uncle as a villain because he seems and schemes, yet the prince finds himself doing both of the above. Whilst Hamlet’s insides are a complicated business, the play is concerned with the importance of making the outside match the inside, and anxiety about a failure to do so.
Today we have the advantage on poor old Hamlet, in that our society makes less of a moral judgement about a mismatch between the interior and the exterior, yet we do live in a culture in which the unfettered outpouring of emotion is now quite fashionable. I wonder whether Cordelia would have bandied her virtuously authentic feelings all over social media? #sharperthanaserpentstooth! Sometimes the ability to conceal emotions is a very good thing. When a job needs doing, or a someone else’s feelings are at stake, then preventing your emotions from gushing forth like rain from a cloud doesn’t make you a shifty potential murderer, like Cassius. The ability to “cry 'Content' to that which grieves [your] heart” is an undeniable life skill, not evidence of villainy. We cannot read minds, and sometimes it is very important to show emotion. Thesis face is unacceptable, not because it is a failure to match “that within which passeth show”, but because it fails to show anything! In the run up to Christmas I will make every effort to remobilise my face before visiting family, and do the appropriate facial exercises to produce festive joy, gratitude, and mirth.