Mere Philosophy with Finite and Infinite Games at Play in Shakespeare’s Drama

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention,

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

–The Chorus in Henry V

While sampling Simon Sinek’s recent book The Infinite Game, I began musing about the ways that Shakespeare intensifies the dramas of Henry V, Hamlet, and Othello by layering in life-after-death metaphysical and ethical issues that his characters face. 

Sinek’s introduction asserts that “acting with an infinite, long-term view is not easy,” but it does have its benefits. He’s referring to purposeful, thoughtful living and long-term flourishing, but I like the way his motif blends with my thoughts of Shakespeare, especially as I’m leading my students through another imaginative tour of duty with Othello and making occasional comments about Shakespeare’s use of the afterlife to intensify the mere philosophy connections that we can make with his drama.

(Side note: Sinek’s book draws its title and theme from popular religious scholar James P. Carse’s 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games, which I enjoyed reading many years ago, just before becoming teacher. )

For the sake of my reflection here, I identify finite gameplay with the secular dimension of life and infinite gameplay with the spiritual dimension of life. Thinking about these dimensions metaphysically and ethically has all sorts of implications for interpreting our lives and our literary readings.

In Henry V, young king Henry wisely uncovers a plot by three men who France has employed to assassinate him. Henry first asks them what punishment they think a rowdy drunkard deserves who had spoken ill of the king. The three men respond that the rowdy drunkard should be severely punished without leniency, not realizing that Henry is testing them for what measure of punishment he should administer for their deception and disloyalty. If that were all, one might conclude that Henry was merely wise about the finite game of justice. 

However, Shakespeare’s Henry V weaves in a dimension of infinite play as the men recognize the spiritual wisdom of Henry and are grateful that he admonishes them to get right with God in order to receive mercy in heaven. (The Kenneth Branagh production shows the men resisting arrest, but this departs from Shakespeare’s script as the director/actor attempts to show more physical action.) This notion of Henry as a King of the earth but a serving citizen of heaven simultaneously shows finite justice yet infinite mercy in a way that represents a two-kingdoms covenantal view of life. (If you’d like to really nerd out on this line of thought, read or listen to Christian theologian David VanDrunen to understand some relevant theological ethics.) 

For Shakespeare, weaving finite and infinite games in his tragedies can greatly complicate the moral dilemmas that his tragic heroes face. For Hamlet, the existence of heaven, hell, and purgatory as part of the infinite game of the play make it difficult for Hamlet to discern whether the ghost of his father, claiming to have been killed in his sleep and unprepared for heaven, claims that he’s been unjustly sent to a lower region of purgatory. He commissions Hamlet to avenge his death, claiming that Hamlet’s uncle had murdered him. 

Hamlet, already broken by grief over the loss of his beloved father and the hasty marriage of his creepy uncle to widowed mother, is left with a medieval CSI problem of not only discovering the cause of his father’s death but also trying to verify whether the apparent ghost of his father is not a demon in disguise who is trying to damage Hamlet’s prospects for the afterlife. 

Later in the play, Hamlet mistakenly thinks that Claudius is praying for forgiveness and holds back his vengeance. The audience painfully knows that it’s actually a perfect time for Hamlet to deliver justice to Claudius because he’s so unrepentant and lacking faith that much worse-than-purgatory would be his destination. 

Ironic afterlife considerations also emerge in Othello. Othello gets deceived by Iago into thinking that his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful. (Iago’s villainous psychological tactics make Claudius look like an amateur.) Othello becomes so enraged that Iago can easily convince Othello to strangle Desdemona in their marriage bed. Before Othello does so, he lovingly pleads with his wife to confess her alleged adulterous sin so that she will go to heaven after he executes her.

Readers and viewers of the play agonize as they realize that the danger of damnation is actually with Othello, due to his false impression of Desdemona’s guilt. Conversely, Desdemona is so loving and charitable that with her dying breath she will not claim in the presence of others that Othello has caused her death. Meanwhile, Iago lurks in the background delighting in the death and despair that he has caused through psychological trickery, often signaling his self-identification as a demonic character.

There are many other finite-infinite connections to be found in Shakespeare’s work, and I find some of his lasting greatness as reflective of exceptionally skillful uses of what I’ve come to call mere philosophy. Many of his plays get readers and viewers to think about how they want to live on (infinite play) as they engage in everyday decisions and responsibilities (finite play).

Ethically, such considerations can get us thinking about how shallow and empty YOLO approaches to life are. Even with our different worldviews and philosophies, good drama can get us thinking about YALO: You Also Live On. So, what will your legacy be?

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