Soul’s Infinitive: To be or not

Josephine Evetts-Secker
Whitby, North Yorkshire, England
Independent Group of Analytical Psychologists

Several case histories and Shakespeare plays sit on the margins of this exploration. But as soon as I use the word ‘case’, I am already entangled in my subject: it derives from Latin cadere, to fall; casus, the fallen, the befallen. My paper actually began with falling, a hoax falling. Long before I became an analyst, I was disturbed and bewildered each time I read King Lear, by that horrendous and yet redeeming action in which a son stage-manages his father’s faked suicide. Edgar’s aims are humane and loving; he agonizes about his actions and justifies them consciously: “Why I do trifle thus with his despair / Is done to cure it.” (4.6.34)1 After his father’s actual and ripe death, he claims that he had been his guide, “Led him, begged for him, saved him from despair”. (5.3.190) We are left to disentangle what was necessary for soul and what might be gratuitous therapy.

Let me first recall some of those ‘cases’ brought into my praxis recently, sad befallings over which I agonized. The anguish of an analysand whose loved relative nearly died in an accident and then nearly died after jumping from the bridge of a ship. And a young man who just evaded death, falling from the mast of a ship. The anger and grief of an analysand one of whose family successfully suicided, while another failed to end life after leaping from a bridge. The analysand was thereby forced to contact her own suffering; waking to feel, “Not another day. Not more.” And brief work with a woman, born illegitimately to a Catholic mother and adopted by Jewish parents who kept her alien faith from her new Jewish relatives, as “our secret”. She could not live because she could not find a community within which to live. She overdosed, and died, alone. A young and very sick woman, adopted at birth by parents with whom there was no attunement, who could not live because she could not be born: she died. A continually despairing woman, whose “why bother?” lethargy so often bordered on suicidal thought and frequently suicidal dreams. And a brave analysand, with a history of illnesses who came needing me to allow her to live or die. Could I accompany either befalling? A supervision case of an old man who desired to follow his wife into death, yet was resuscitated several times before he could accomplish it. Another supervision case of a man who killed himself after the suicide of his son. All of these individuals caught in what Virginia Woolf described as “that razor edge of balance between two opposing forces”. I will not deal further with these ‘cases’, these literal histories, but keep them on the margins as I explore a parallel, symbolic agon as potential therapeutic or individuation paradigm. In the pain and uncertainties in such work, I am challenged and oddly sustained by Shakespeare’s imagining of human lives.

King Lear is the unsparing tragedy “too huge for the stage” (A.C. Bradley), experienced both as nihilistic and redeeming in its working out of the lives of aged fathers who are forced to learn wisdom through unendurable suffering. Though we often hear protestations from analysands that their parents are too old to learn, Shakespeare demands of them the same ineluctable individuating experience as that asked of their middle-aged offspring! Imagine with me the scenario in which Gloucester casts out his loving son Edgar, having been duped by his bastard son Edmond into believing Edgar capable of parricide. Edgar goes underground, disguised as “poor Tom”, a mad beggar, and befriends his eyeless father. Gloucester has been blinded by King Lear’s two daughters and cast out with the words:

Go thrust him out at gates and let him smell
His way to Dover. (3.7.92)

Dover is the town at the very rim of England, on the edge of steep, white cliffs. It is here that the forces that will redeem Lear’s kingdom are rallying. All the energy of the play moves towards this shore. So we have the folly of a blind old man being led by a (supposed) madman. In Gloucester’s psychic geography, Dover is to be a place of personal, not political, deliverance. He questions his disguised son: “Know’st thou the way to Dover?” Such words often hang over our praxis. What do we know of the way to this Dover? Then the aged, blind man describes his goal.

There is a cliff whose high and bending head
Looks fearfully in the confined deep:
Bring me but to the brim of it …
… From that place
I shall no leading need. (4.1.76)

The terrible hoax develops as ‘poor Tom’ takes his unseeing father’s arm and leads him to an inner Dover. Unable to see the lie of the land, the father is deceived into thinking that they are ascending to the summit, which Edgar images for him:

Come on, sir, here’s the place. Stand still: how fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low. (4.6.11)

Edgar’s description culminates:

… I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong. …
Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of th’extreme verge. For all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright. (4.6.25)

After a brief prayer, Gloucester does leap, falling, he thinks, to his death, but perhaps fainting with the intensity of his anguish. When he revives, he believes that he did actually throw himself over the edge, and Edgar tries to persuade him that he has been saved by some miraculous intervention that is “above all strangeness”. But Gloucester feels cheated of his death and we are appalled by his son’s insistence, “Do but look up.” And yet, we are strangely convinced by his assertion that “thy life’s a miracle.” And this affects how we cope with Gloucester’s renewed acceptance of his benighted life.

… Henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough’ and die. (4.6.75)

He has been convinced by his son’s hoax that he was tempted to his suicide by the devil.

This agonizing scene has all the absurdity of a Becket play. At some readings, or performances, it feels like tragic farce; at others, a puzzling redemption. What disturbs me is the suspicion that sometimes we might play Edgar in our therapies. And more perplexing, that some times, if we do, we might do well! Do we, like Edgar, sometimes “play fool to sorrow”? Are we, like him, insufficient for the task and sometimes too ready with a trite psychological formula?

Gloucester’s new willingness to endure his life, perhaps to grow thereby, is not stable. He needs to plead with the gods from time to time, “Let not my worst spirit tempt me again/to die before you please.” He continues to be cast down: “No further … a man may rot even here.” (5.2.8) It is this despair that makes the young Edgar affirm that “Ripeness is all.” (5.2.11) In a tragedy so full of deaths and dyings, some “untimely”, some seemingly deserved, others feeling wholly unjust, this wisdom of ‘ripeness’ acts as a fulcrum. It is part of the “mystery of things” that Lear wants to “take upon” him in his final hours. (5.3.16)

In the play’s main action, a foolish king divides his kingdom so that he can retire,

To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburdened crawl toward death. (1.1.38)

A king who has to lose himself in order to find himself; who is stripped of all; who exchanges royal regalia for rags, his palace for a hovel in the forest; a man who has ever “but slenderly known himself”, who only begins to question, “Who is it that can tell me who I am” (1.4.217) when he is totally destitute. Like Gloucester’s destitution, Lear’s is needed for self-discovery. Lear leads his fool into the forest, where he retreats into madness rather than suicide. His madness Gloucester later envies as a defence against conscious suffering. Both old men, along with the ancient and loyal servant Kent, all insist that they are “too old to learn”. (2.2.125) Shakespeare’s ruthless vision is, like Hillman’s, that age and ageing have purpose; becoming is not finite.2 The growing edge always lies before us.

Lear wants careless and carefree life in old age; he wants to refuse the project of age. But he is forced by his own foolish actions into the wisdom of his own dying and subsequent renewal. Only when he has borne the refused burden of selfhood is he allowed to give in to his mortality. Both Gloucester and Lear finally die, rather than being killed. The “strings of life” in all the old men start “cracking”. But in the end, they die of ‘ripeness’. Gloucester’s lingering spirit proves too weak to support the immensity of revived life; at the reconciliation with his son Edgar, his “flawed heart … ‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, Burst smilingly.” (5.3.197) He dies because he has now reached his end. Similarly, after the reconciliation with his daughter Cordelia, Lear lives only to experience her death, and holding her in his arms, unbuttoning himself, he too gives up his life. At this final point, Edgar, still peddling hope, again exhorts the dying man, “Look up, my Lord.” But Kent rebukes him.

Vex not his ghost; O, let him pass. He hates him
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer. (5.3.313)

Is Kent’s a better therapy, whereby the king is allowed to pass? When he had first stirred from his madness, brought back to life, Lear had complained to those tending him, “You do me wrong to take me out o’the grave.” (4.7.45) But now he has accepted the inner compulsion to “take on” the “mystery of things”, and has ripened enough for death thereby. We are called, Shakespeare seems always to suggest, to enough life. After his miraculous deliverance from suicide, Gloucester had seen the importance of this. If we refuse the affliction, we refuse enough life.

We might forget, in all this, the very attraction of death in and of itself, not only as the means to end affliction. Adam Phillips writes compellingly about this, 3 reminding us of Freud’s assertion that if it is true “that everything living dies for internal reasons … becomes inorganic once again … then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death’ …” (Beyond the Pleasure Principle) He insists that “Freud is not merely saying that living creatures inevitably die; he is suggesting that death is an object of desire”, Hillman’s “thanatos within each soul’s life”.4 Perhaps we might speak of our “death work”. (Pontalis) “We struggle, rather naively, to survive”. Phillips continues,

but at the level of instinct, at some putatively more profound level, we are also trying to secure our own idiosyncratic death. There is a deep wish not exactly to survive – or indeed do any of the things that culture offers us to legitimate our lives – but to die our own way. (p. 80)

Is Hamlet involved in his own death-work in his universally-quoted self-questioning, “To be or not to be; that is the question.”? (3.1.56) Why is this lexically reductive probing so pervasively and universally known? Seemingly so translate-able into any language? To be or not to be: an infinitive, followed by a copulative conjunction, followed by a negation and the same infinitive repeated. We are taught in our first grammar lessons that the verb to be cannot take an object, but only a complement. But Shakespeare often threatens this law. In fact, this is always what he does at moments of heightened existential crisis.

At the most critical moments where there is maximum paradox, Shakespeare ruthlessly holds us in a state of grammatical suspension. So when the dark Othello is steeling himself to kill his fair Desdemona, we hear him rehearsing inwardly:

Put out the light, then put out the light. (5.2.7)

Is this apparently simple prepositional verb, to “put out”, functioning here as an imperative, commanding himself to extinguish the candle he carries, or Desdemona’s light? Or is this working as some kind of bare infinitive, questioning the possibility of extinguished light? What might it be, to put out the light, simultaneously intending us to hear life?

Let us reflect on the grammar of the infinitive. This verbal form is perhaps the most open and potential. It hangs in suspense. Outside of tense-time, number or person, it is ascribed to no specific moment or actor or recipient of any action; neither one nor many are affected by the verbal possibility. The word ‘infinitive’ itself derives from Latin finire, to limit, to enclose within boundaries. In-finire, therefore, is to be without limit, not to be enclosed within restrictive bounds. The verbal infinitive, whether it be bare, or the to-form, is pure potential. “To be, or not to be”. We take away Hamlet’s necessary and individuating infinitude if we assume this deliberation only to be about the act of self-slaughter. But let me go to another dramatic crux where Shakespeare exploits the same infinitiveness.

In King Lear each of the old men, playing with non-being by refusing full being, is accompanied or led by a Fool and a mad beggar, each in disguise, and representing soul’s urge to fullness of life, one of the forces we need to make our ally in therapy. Adam Phillips also points out that “life is usually stronger than people’s love of it”5 Similarly, in Measure for Measure, Shakespeare has another soul-meddler doing therapy and politics in the commonwealth. How else can we respond to the Duke, going underground in his kingdom disguised as a holy Friar, a well-meaning Ego figure who to begin with perhaps knows less than he thinks about the reality of Self. If there is such a dynamic as the Ego-Self axis, then these dramas happen along its edge.

As Edgar tries to seduce his aged father into life, so the Dukeas- friar tries to persuade a young man to prepare for death. In case you do not know this plot: Claudio has got his betrothed with child under the reign of the puritanically precise Angelo, who has revived the death sentence for Claudio’s offence. Angelo takes the place of the Duke, while he puts his kingdom to rights from the underside. Claudio is visited in prison by the Duke/Friar who comes to make ready his soul for death, though the Friar subverts the wisdom of the ars moriendi in his defence of dying.

Be absolute for death: either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep. A breath thou art …

Hearing life made to seem like a living death, Claudio admits:

To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
And seeking death, find life. Let it come on. (3.1.43)

When Claudio’s sister visits, we witness her death-dealing virtue. If she surrenders her innocent body to the newly lusting Angelo, she could save her brother. That would be to give herself up to that “little death” that Elizabethans considered consummation to entail. She will not submit to this and she is far from infitinitude in her imperative “Yes, thou must die”. This follows her brother’s affirmation

… If I must die
I will encounter darkness as a bride
And hug it in my arms. (3.1.83)

Here heroic Ego deals with the mystery of death indicatively. Shakespeare uses the archetypal dynamics of grammar to serve soul. The indicative verbal mood opposes the suspensions of the infinitive. Indicare, to speak out, to proclaim clearly, specific with tense-time, person and number, and full of intention, will and consciousness. As brother and sister dialogue, being has fully intentional complement: “Be ready for thy death tomorrow,” Isabella persists. This is a far cry from “to be or not to be” which is bereft of complement to complete its assertion. But “death is a fearful thing”, Claudio begins to agonize. Indicativeness dissipates and Shakespeare again throws us into the incertitude of true soul country, succumbing to the imaginative space of the infinitive. Claudio comes home to his soul in the potent assonantal lines, spreading into eternity with the suspensions of anaphoric to-infinitives, both active and passive:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world: or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling, – ‘tis too horrible.
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death. (3.1.117ff)

This is core truth to warm human instinct, the full thrust of eros in competition with thanatos. Hear, feel that gathering energy of infinitiveness: to die, to go, to lie, to rot, to become, to bathe, to reside, to be imprisoned, to be blown, and the final climax, the infinitive of the verb to be with its aching complement, “to be worse than worst”. This is the human answer to the glib formulae of the Friar. This is the horror of human mortality that Ego has to integrate and transform into soul. The infinitive refuses closure: finire to finish, to reach the end, to die; hence infinire is to deny that limit and open up being to unknown and unimaginable possibility, whether that comes through life or death.

We are dealing not only with the fact of death, but with its archetypal realities, which encompass passage through the unknown to a new and endless possibility. Moving into the emergent. By some clever ruse in the plot, the young man, eager for life, is freed to marry his betrothed and fulfill the imperatives of life, to create new life. The drama ends sans death, except the convenient and unmourned death of a hardened criminal who dies “anyway”. It would seem that all’s well that ends well. Except that no one remains unchanged who has stood on the verges of death, most often a transcendent position.

I want to play the edge now, lexically, as Shakespeare does especially in the tragedies. King Lear plays consistently with this semantic set. Edge, brim, rim, brink, margin, border, verge, cliff and shore. That we should have so many synonyms for this phenomenon is in itself significant. It is a place, a position that occurs so often in nature, and therefore, inevitably, in psyche’s space. Apart from verge and margin, these are all strong Germanic monosyllables, all of which we find energized in the English Bible, especially the translations that Shakespeare would have used.

Verge derives from Latin, designating an area of jurisdiction. Within these verges, certain powers held sway. This devolved from the vergus, (originally the penis) then the rod that was held up at the head of processions. The verge thereby came to signify where that authority began or ended, a point at which. The Latin verb, vergere also suggested the descent of the sun to the horizon. All of these senses hover when we are in this psychic place. Margin was always peripheral space, originally adjacent to river or well; it was marked off and clear; it became the space between extreme edge and main body, of text or fabric, and expanded to suggest an amount, extra to what was necessary.

Edge relates to German ‘Ecke’, corner. But it was used originally to indicate the ‘cutting’ edge, as opposed to the blunt side of a sword or knife. The word proved so rich imaginally that it edged itself into numberless metaphoric usages. So we can move edgeways, implying obliqueness; we can edge our way, implying imperceptible movement; we can edge people on, as Edgar does with his father; if we have the edge, we are keenly effective. Crucial Biblical events happen on the edge of the wilderness, on the edge of hills, and children’s teeth are set on edge by the father’s offences.

The brink that was originally the edge of grassland, but soon implied extreme limit … perhaps the limit beyond which nothing couldgrow, and so, death. In Shakespeare’s day, brim carried special energy, somewhat lost for us, designating as it does most often merely the lip of a vessel. We have traces of its lost vividness in phrases like ‘brimfull’. Shakespeare speaks of “drowning the brim” with pleasure, but equally typical is talk of being “brought to the very brymme of desperacion” (1549) where’ brymme’ carries a sense of the grave itself. Rim began as a strip of land, a raised ridge; it came to suggest the ring around, even the rim of skin around the body.

Borders are also mainly indications of spatial territory … the Old Testament God constantly promised to “enlarge thy borders”. Special figures are brought “to the borders of the Sanctuary”, marking the beginning of sacred space. In our work we always take special note of what is happening at the borders of consciousness. And in dream geography, borders are crucial. Consider for example, a setting in which the dreamer is walking on the border between Israel and Italy, noting the similarity of the vegetation, the same smells of orange trees such as she had smelled in both countries. Borders usually imply two sides, and here what came with the smells of fruit trees indigenous to adjoining territories, was her need somehow to integrate Judeo- Christian and classical mythologies. Borders risked in King Lear are those between madness and sanity, the true and the false, and most critically, between living and dying.

We encounter these topographies in our work as analysands are pushed further into unknown places, individuating spaces. But they are specially met in the topography of despair, when “over the edge” feels like the only solution. So back to Edgar, meddling but well-meaning, to whom, despite his good sense and interfering hopefulness, Shakespeare gives that magnificent line, “Ripeness is all”, where the tragedy begs to be fulfilled, and grammar completes the indicative verb, is, with an unimaginable all. I want to end at that verge.

Despite the pagan setting of this play, Biblical echoes abound. When Edgar tries to convince Gloucester that it was the devil who made him jump, in accordance with traditional fear of suicide, we are of course reminded of Christ’s temptation.

Then was Jesus led away of the spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted of the devil. When he had fasted forty days and forty nights … the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him: if thou be the son of God, cast thyself down. For it is written, he shall give his angels charge over thee, and with their hands they shall hold thee up, that thou dash not thy foot against a stone. And Jesus said to him, It is written also, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (tr. Tyndale, Matt. 4:6)

This temptation to cast oneself down would seem to have archetypal roots. My office is a stone’s throw from a high iron bridge from which many continue to hurl themselves, despite the new guard rails. And an easy ride to the Flambrough Head cliffs, site of many a casting-down. Why did so many in the two New York towers prefer to jump to certain death rather than burn to death? What is it about falling, about jumping, that is so compelling – seductive even? And why are we so attracted today by such dangerous pleasures as bungee-jumping or sky diving? These do not feel Icarus-driven.

However bewildered I remain by Edgar’s crass hoax, it moves me deeply, and often within analysis I am drawn to that same place of astonishment when I share the survival of analysands who have been in the aching valley of death’s soul-making for months. Or years. When my only response is to cry out with Edgar, “Thy life’s a miracle”, and it suddenly feels that there is something learned from the healing fiction of falling to death that asserts a value beyond measure or meaning itself. That is where Shakespeare nudges me through this episode.

We are all familiar with Jung’s appraisal of the ultimate value of meaning. It is a lynch pin of his psychotherapeutic insight. But we have perhaps grown a bit too familiar with such claims as that “the lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness”, (8. 815) and we may need to re-discover a sharper edge.6 Edgar’s assertion challenges the primacy, perhaps a glib overloading, that we have assigned to meaning as an end in itself. As for example Jung’s claim that “it is only meaning that liberates”. (11.496) We acknowledge that our intellect is “hungry for meaning”, and we cannot doubt that sense of well-being that accompanies finding a meaning in and for our lives. And we carry a surfeit of meanings, “attributed meaning” Phillips would say, enforced by those who have shaped our thought.7

But there is something deeper that perhaps we can only experience when meaning systems break down. All religious mystics would concur: there is something beyond God-as-meaning only. Jung deepens even his own evaluations of meaning when he admits, “perhaps art has no ‘meaning’, at least not as we understand meaning. Perhaps it is like nature, which simply is and ‘means’ nothing beyond that.” (15.121) We suspect that “meaning requires accomplices”8 and we can be especially complicit in a system of meaning that Jung never intended. When Edgar stumbles himself on this mystery, after witnessing and trying to nurse his father’s despair, he perhaps touches on such a beyond. “Thy life’s a miracle!” challenges more than he can reduce to his wisdoms. Life itself is the source of wonder, and that wonder we sometimes have to carry for our analysands until they can lay hold of it. These are the words that have come unbidden, strangely unknown till that moment, when soul stirs in praxis. Is Edgar’s seemingly cruel charade paradoxically and simultaneously the “healing fiction, the meaning that quickens” (11.498) which Jung makes clear is not a meaning system already in existence. Is it closer to his probings when he says,

The nature of the psyche reaches into obscurities far beyond the scope of our understanding. It contains as many riddles as the universe with its galactic systems, before whose majestic configurations only a mind lacking in imagination can fail to admit its own insufficiency. (8.815)

Shakespeare rarely gives his wisest words to his wisest characters, but to fools and bunglers and interferers: Edgar, the Duke, even Polonius. In the “sleights of consciousness”9 that happen to and in me in my work, I desire to collude with that miracle that can integrate affliction and perhaps accomplish richness of life itself, claimed at the “extreme verge” of our own Dover-cliffs. I resist giving Freud the last word here, but he speaks wisely when he speaks of transforming neurotic misery into the true suffering of mortality. Shakespeare says it more remarkably when Lear can finally submit to life with the words:

Thou must be patient; We came crying hither. (4.6.174)


  • 1 All quotations from the Arden editions of Shakespeare’s plays. Act, scene and line numbers are given.
  • 2 James Hillman, The Force of Character and the Lasting Life (New York, Random House, 1999).
  • 3 Adam Phillips, Darwin’s Worms (Faber & Faber, 1999) p. 80.
  • 4 James Hillman, Suicide and the Soul (Dallas: Spring publications, 1964) See the “Postscript of Afterthoughts” following this edition.
  • 5 Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts (London: Faber & Faber, 1995) p. 51.
  • 6 All quotations from Jung are from The Collected Works (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960) Volume and paragraph will be given after the quotation.
  • 7 Terrors and Experts, p. 44.
  • 8 Ibid. p. 12.

Additional Reference

  • Christopher Hauke, Jung and the Postmodern: The Interpretation of Realities. (London: Routledge, 2000).