Lawless and incertain verse

Posted by – November 18, 2008

This is a repost of an earlier Finnish entry.

A Shakespeare question came up recently regarding the following:

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!

(from Measure for Measure)

The question concerns the interpretation of the last two lines (I kept the rest to give some context). What is the subject of imagine in the last line? At first glance it would appear to be those from the penultimate one, but if so, what were the things thought lawless and incertain? And if imagine is just an exhortation to the reader, what does the penultimate line mean? Some suggestions:

-how lawless and incertain to imagine one’s own future to be “worse than worst” of those in the aforementioned scenario; imagine the howls of those who end up in Hell

-it is too horrible to endure even worse than the imaginings of those of lawless and incertain thought which manifest themselves as howling

-it would be too horrible to imagine the howling of those who, when they lived, were of lawless and incertain thought

-to suffer worse than those who according to people’s lawless and incertain thoughts howl in Hell; something altogether too horrible

The last is perhaps closest to the mark. The picture becomes clearer if you replace “thought” with “thoughts”. I guess it was possible to contract like that in Shakespeare’s time, the expansion being “lawless thought and incertain thought”.

3 Comments on Lawless and incertain verse

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  1. I for one believe that the last of your four alternative readings is the intended one. But at the same time I think that it is in a sense synonymous with the first of the four.

    Regarding “thought” versus “thoughts”: you neglected that “thought” is also a synonym for “thinking”, in which usage it takes on the nature of a mass noun (such as “water” or “candy”). We can speak of “Wittgenstein’s thought”, meaning the sum of Wittgenstein’s thoughts.

    And regarding “lawless” and “incertain”: I think they both mean something like “disjointed”, with perhaps just a whiff of “speculative” thrown in with “incertain”. Thoughts that are not subject to the normal “laws” of rational thinking because of the very horror they induce, which will make anyone thinking them precipitate and panicky and so ensure that they continue to remain beyond the reach of such “laws”, hence “incertain”.


  2. Incestuous Jihad says:

    A Shakespearean I know likened this passage to Hamlet’s infamous soliloquy. As I’ve written before, I think the last two lines mean something like “or to be worse than the worst of those people imagined by wild and crazy thoughts to howl in hell: ’tis too horrible.” The ending has a nice ambiguity: maybe it’s too horrible to imagine being worse than the worst of those howling in hell; or maybe the worst spend their time in hell howling “’tis too horrible.” I think the personification of thought as lawless and incertain helps “thought” to agree with “imagine.” Too figures, lawless thought and incertain thought, imagine howling.


  3. Incestuous Jihad says:

    Eh, I meant “two” figures at the end.