As I write this essay, I am deep in the weeds of a college Shakespeare production. Though my title is “director,” I am more aptly the first witness to a volatile phenomenon. I wake from a short sleep each night thinking about concrete particulars of production: Did the sound tech miss the cue again? How many two-by-fours and cans of paint do I need? Are my students going to remember all those lines? What if Viola loses her voice? The work reaches a fever pitch, and then the lights dim, a breath, the show begins. Maybe they do miss their cues, or forget their lines, but each night they see something different in the text, in the plot, in each other. At the end of things, we take apart the set, turn out the lights, and go our ways. What I know I will treasure most is the unfolding of confidence in each student, the joy of collective creation, the bonds of friendship and trust that I laboured to make space for. These are the marvels that I will later recall to affirm my vocation as a teacher, an academic, and a director. But I have also spent weeks immersed in a finely crafted plot, and it is plot—the plot of a play, the plot of a life—that I wish to take up as my cue here.
In theatre, one becomes deeply conscious of the subtle changes in awareness, the new ideas, the building tensions, the choices that lead to the actions—what Aristotle called the praxis—of any given character in a play. Actions are the elemental units of the larger plot, and yet each one is significant in its own right. Actions are inspired by the myriad motivations and awarenesses of feeling, individual characters who bring memory, desire, affection, grief, pity, and hope to play in each choice. As deliberate choices, they represent the human dignity of each character. It is significant here that praxis is also a word Aristotle uses with great frequency in the Ethics. Actions are not just the events, deeds, or activities of a story or a life; they are the fundamental choices that together constitute the plot. To immerse oneself in a finely crafted plot, then, is to invite intimate encounters with the most distinguishing and sacred elements of human life—desire, will, perception, choice, action—and to allow them to unfold again and again. Any good play confronts its audience with action, in its most fundamental sense, and asks, with Viola in Twelfth Night, “What will become of this?”
Actions are not just the events, deeds, or activities of a story or a life; they are the fundamental choices that together constitute the plot.
Art, of course, imitates life here. In life, too, our innumerable desires and fears are what bring us to the point of deliberate actions. We are comforted by the thought that somehow, from some perspective, our choices come together to constitute a plot. But who is it that can see that plot? Can we imagine our lives from a large enough perspective to recognize the unfurling of generic conventions, perhaps even to resist them? Or, as the Greeks suggested, does such resistance inevitably lead to tragedy? Here I do not mean to fall into providentialism or rouse the ghost of fate. Rather, I want to take up the terms of literature—tragedy, comedy, plot—to reframe some of the difficulties and dignities of human choice, particularly the matter of vocational choice.
In an interview with Bill Moyers about her deeply wise book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Martha Nussbaum makes the compelling argument that day-to-day life is likely to lead any person who takes their values and commitments seriously to the point of tragedy. Like Agamemnon in Aeschylus’s tragedy, who must choose between the life of his daughter and the military mission he has received from the gods, a person who cares deeply about more than one thing will eventually come to a situation in which they cannot honour both of their commitments. This is where, Nussbaum says, “it looks like anything you do will be wrong, perhaps even terrible, in some way.” Such tragedy, she argues, happens only when we are trying to live well. To defend ourselves from the pain of choosing between incompatible loves (work and children, for example) by caring about one of them less is a kind of moral cowardice. Instead, she argues, we ought to care about things in a way that makes tragedy possible.
Nussbaum’s central insight—that we must avoid the temptation of simplifying solutions—is pivotal. And yet, even if we grant the moral depth of a life that refuses to oversimplify these recalcitrant circumstances and conflicting values, the “tragedy” here remains a matter of perspective. A conflict of values in which one cannot act without causing harm does indeed look like disaster. And yet human choices rarely occur within the hermetically sealed structure of a Greek tragic plot. Many an either/or will resolve into and or rather from a wider scope, though we rarely gain such a perspective without pain. To imagine that one sees the whole, that all the choices are laid out before us and we might make a wrong one, that the goods we desire are utterly irreconcilable with one another: that is tragic. And yet, viewed from another time, another perspective, the pieces fall together in accordance with an entirely different poetic. In Nussbaum’s own example, the sacrifice of Iphigenia is the tragic circumstance, but the Greeks had a tradition of rewriting that story from another perspective—in which Iphigenia disappears from the sacrificial altar and is divinely preserved by the gods.
Yet here I want to resist the temptation to fly up too quickly to the cosmic perspective. If attempting to see and master the whole of the plot from within is a form of tragic thinking, then perhaps praxis is the perspective of comedy. To make a choice that preserves human being, dignity, community, joy, that accounts for as much as possible while also acknowledging finitude: this is the human comedy. In comedy, we recognize that the outcomes of our actions are unpredictable, and yet we act. Though we see only dimly, we make a choice and ask, “What will become of this?”
Viewed from the perspective of the human or the character, the particulars are all that we can access. And we choose how to respond in light of this limitation: we can resign ourselves to the machinations of others (a kind of despair), we can call it all vanity and assert a total freedom of choice and desire (a kind of cynicism), or we can gather enough sense to try to make good individual choices in the context of community (a kind of hope that we might also call prudence).
In the final weeks during which I have been mounting this production of Shakespeare’s deliciously plotted comedy Twelfth Night, I have also been making significant choices about my life and career. There is a kind of cosmic situational irony here. At each rehearsal we look again at the scripted conversations that Shakespeare composed. Each time the words are the same, but we find another shade of feeling, another motivation, another echo or prompt for another player. And yet each time the play arrives at the same ambivalent conclusion. The audience gets what they want: the girl gets the guy. And still the story is not a simple comedy crowned with a marriage or two (or three). Like life, it resists generic formulas. Unlike life, however, it unfolds in a few hours. Looking at the plot of a life from within, one can only ask, “What will become of this?” and then bide the time, hour by hour. Viewed from within, can a life have a plot or a genre?
Human choices rarely occur within the hermetically sealed structure of a Greek tragic plot.
In the past few weeks, the significant choices I have been making are about the shape of an academic working life, about vocation. Vocational choices, more than many others, confront us with our own longing for a bigger plot. Faced with a particular question (Which job should I accept? What training should I pursue?), we often filter our choices through projections about the shape our future might and “should” take within a given field. The clearer the conventions of the field, the easier our choices appear to become, and the more we feel as though we are taking the next step in a developing story that is—comfortingly—generically familiar and yet singular, because it is our own. My experiences of being on the academic job market have suggested that, for graduate students and early career scholars at least, there is a commonly recognized generic convention for the academic life: the marriage plot. There are ups and downs, conflicts, crises and misunderstandings, but in the end a match is made. You are “on the market” only until you catch a spouse willing to plight you their troth (perhaps even “until death do you part”). Perhaps, once a match happens, another story begins, but for now each decision must keep in mind the narrative drive, the unfolding plot.
The marriage plot promises closure: it props up the public peace, bends society toward a common weal. The marriage is the narrative triumph, the payoff of plot, and often the comedic story ends at the wedding. The reader gets what they wanted, but what of the character? What about the parts of life that extend past the wedding day? What if it’s a bad marriage? What if he’s unfaithful or a spendthrift? This is, of course, a set of questions that the great writers have asked with keen insight for ages. Jane Austen and George Eliot know that one must choose a marriage companion wisely and with a right balance of affection and prudence. Virginia Woolf understands that marriage is perhaps less interesting as a determiner of plot than communal interdependence, obligation, resignation, repetition. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night takes an even darker view of the marriage plot. It knows that what the audience wants is the reveal, the closure, the pairing up. But the closure it offers is much more complex: Malvolio wants revenge, the fool has doubled down on cynicism, and Olivia is married to a stranger. It’s hard to imagine this world resolving toward a much greater peace than where it began.
I suspect that the culture of my academic vocation might be tiring of its version of the marriage plot. The romance of landing the tenure-track job seems less like the fulfillment of comic potential and more like one part of a complex story of affections, obligations, and actions. I have long felt this to be the case and increasingly find that my peers take a similar view. And the limits of the master plot as a guide for vocational choice extend far beyond academia. When, in any particular life, the fantasies of the marriage plot begin to be replaced by realities, there is bound to be disorientation. As George Eliot writes in Middlemarch, “Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual.” But Eliot’s masterful re-examination of the marriage plot in Middlemarch has, I think, more to say to us about the plot of the vocational life too. Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea, possesses a good deal of wealth and intelligence, and she obsesses over the idea of putting those gifts to a meaningful purpose. Preoccupied with the idea of helping in a worthy cause, she marries an aging, self-absorbed scholar who lives in the realm of ideas and hardly attends to her at all. The marriage is disastrous, and the novel challenges the feeling of satisfaction or completeness in the conventional marriage plot.
Eliot’s greater wisdom, throughout the novel, is to resist rendering the failed marriage plot as a simple tragedy. Instead, Middlemarch carries out a long reorientation toward the smaller, but equally significant, shifts in feeling, affection, and understanding of ordinary life. “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life,” she writes, “it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Our desperation to understand the larger shape of the plot from within is, I suspect, a significant contributor to our “stupidity.” We must reorient.
Life unfolds for each of us not as plot but as praxis, and our understanding of vocation must take this into account. Though resigning our attachment to the larger plot may feel like a loss, we can receive it as a gift: an invitation to focus on formation, to develop a keener vision for ordinary life, recognizing that the larger plot isn’t seeable. For me, giving up the plot has helped me name one thing that vocation isn’t: it isn’t a generic narrative in which I am instrumental. Instead, it unfolds from within, with each choice made (one hopes) with prudence, care, affection, joy, and dignity. For the subjects of the human comedy, each action opens another opportunity for marvels, and the same principle applies to our vocational narratives.
Our desperation to understand the larger shape of the plot from within is, I suspect, a significant contributor to our “stupidity.” We must reorient.
Vocation requires us to think on a different and paradoxical timeline, one that is both cosmic and minute. In the moment our decisions are always particular and fragmented. But on a larger scale, thinking about our individual vocations from a divine perspective allows for apocalyptic thinking: the dry bones rattle together and rise in the end; the fragments will be knit together finally. Time will reveal all, and what that larger sense makes possible in the present is patience. Though the larger project of higher education might be shifting, and its generic conventions coming into question, the ordinary human lives of those within my field remain as infinitely varied and meaningful as they have ever been. Perhaps the crumbling of the academic marriage plot might even allow the significance of the smaller choices to come into even greater clarity. And mine is not the only field in the midst of a genre crisis: many a market, from technology to medicine to care, shows signs of a shifting master plot. Retirement is not a right. Most workers expect to shift careers several times within their adult life. And as our work shifts from office to home and back again, we are recognizing that life and work don’t fit tidily into categories of plot and subplot.
What this moment of disruption implies is that we all have an opportunity to rethink our generic expectations about vocation, and (as aware as I am of the cynical notes at the end of Twelfth Night) I think that the volatile unfolding of a Shakespearean comedy might offer a truer reflection of the human situation than the familiar plots of romance and tragedy. Comedy recognizes that the “plots” we foresee for ourselves are often painfully and pitifully constrained. Shakespeare’s Viola knows that tragedy is a possible outcome of her situation, that her entangled circumstances are too hard to untie. And yet, unlike the subjects of tragedy, Viola casts herself into the future while simply doing her best to live well toward those around her. She does not try to break the Gordian knot or force her story toward a coherent plot. In the event, Shakespeare offers a marvel: the knot dissolves. The circumstances and actions that, in Viola’s words, “cohere and jump” to make a comedy are rarely rational or predictable—they are the outcomes of desire and chance. And yet those comic events are as real as the circumstances that once seemed insoluble. The wisdom of comedy lies in its ability to puncture our illusions about the master plot and instead orient us toward praxis, toward the actions we take in community, which inevitably unfold in ways we cannot anticipate.
In a life significantly shaped by fortune, by the actions of others and the circumstances of the time, the wisdom of comedy teaches us not to be precipitous or presumptuous but to wait out the long plot while we attend to the dignity of the immediate. As Viola declares at the end of her most well-recognized monologue, time must untangle the knots that are too hard for us to untie. I do not know how the plot of my academic life will unfold in the long run, but one thing that is clear is that the genre of a life is rarely revealed on the scale of the tragic or comic, but rather on the level of praxis, through the daily choices that form an individual’s perceptions and loves. The next time I am faced with a vocational choice, I hope I will remember what Shakespeare taught me this semester: the time has come to stop trying to avoid tragedy and to become instead the patient subject of comedy.