I recently read Will in the World, in which Stephen Greenblatt makes the argument that Shakespeare’s major literary breakthrough came while writing Hamlet. In that play, Shakespeare started a tradition, continued in Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, of cutting out the rationale for characters’ actions.
As Greenblatt explains,
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.
As proof of this, he talks about the sources Shakespeare used for these plays. In the original Hamlet saga, Hamlet’s father is killed at an early age and Hamlet feigns madness all during his youth as a way to seem harmless until the day he can kill the king and assume the throne.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he is already of age when the murder happens. The original reason for Hamlet’s madness doesn’t hold. In fact, it makes him more suspicious. Hamlet spends most of the play analyzing his odd behavior and inaction, rather than having a clear purpose as the original Hamlet did.
In Macbeth, you have what would seem to be a straighforward rationale for murdering the king: to gain the crown. But Shakespeare muddles the picture by having Macbeth himself be exceedingly surprised by his murderous inclinations and introducing the odd device of the witches. It’s not clear whether they are cause or retroactive effect of Macbeth’s actions.
In Othello, Iagno blatently and forcefully never provides a reason. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” In the original source, his motive was clear: he lusted for Desdemona and aimed to kill those she preferred.
King Lear starts with Lear already settling on a fair distribution of his land. He then establishes a test among them to see which loves him more, resting the land distribution on that. In the source, Leir set the test in order to change the eldest daughter’s mind about which suitor to marry. No such reasoning is present in Shakespeare’s Lear.
I find a striking parallel between Shakespeare’s excision of clear motive to create a more complicated character and the modernist movement’s stream of consciousness technique employed in books like Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway. For me, one of SoC‘s defining characteristics is precisely lack of motivation provided by narrative plot. Rather, a character just does what he or she does and the reader is left to fill in the blanks.
For example, a character might receive a letter whose contents refer to events that the reader doesn’t know. Or a character may just think or do something that the reader doesn’t understand because there is no narrative context in which to understand it. People don’t actually mentally run through all the backstory for their actions, and SoC captures some of that.
Anyway, that’s my big insight. Shakespeare was ahead of his time, and some of his enduring popularity is a result of this intrigue-inducing opacity also present in modernist works. Thus his works resemble not so much simple morality plays but analyses of inner turmoil via a character’s outer actions and speech.