Colin McPherson’s play, The Weir, first opened in London on July 4th, 1997. It was supposed to run for four weeks but, due to demand, they decided to extend it to five weeks, then eight weeks, then nine weeks, and then finally because of its continuing popularity they moved the show into a larger theatre, the Duke of York’s, in St Martin’s Lane. And it continued to play there for the next two years. It is currently running at The Abbey Theatre from 26th November until January 14th.
The play began its lengthy gestation in the 1980s when in his mid-teens, Colin McPherson found himself going to visit his grandfather, Jack McPherson, regularly. The Sligo train from Connolly swept him from his adolescent angst in Dublin to an entirely different world where his grandfather lived alone, near Jamestown in Co. Leitrim. His grandfather’s little cottage was tucked away, down a dark winding boreen that ran alongside the River Shannon with its weir which gives the play its name. Beside the house was a fairy fort no one dared disturb.
In the evenings, grandfather and grandson would sit by the fire and Colin would be regaled by his grandfather with stories from his living memory: how a stooped man named McFadden had been cured of his ailment by the fairies; but when he returned again, asking for more favours, the fairies sent him away, twice as stooped over as he had been before.
He also told him how the house he grew up in had been built on a fairy road. And how knocking could sometimes be heard at the door in the dead of night. And how, as a boy, when the Civil War raged, he remembered a desperate man came to the door seeking refuge, but he was chased round the back of the house by other men who shot him out there.
The play itself opens as locals gather at the pub on a windy winter’s night. Local estate agent and hotelier Finbar (Peter Coonan) arrives with blow-in Valerie (an openly vulnerable Jolly Abraham) who has just recently arrived from Dublin. They settle into a storytelling session that turns darker and more personal as they take it in turn to share their experiences of their various brushes with the supernatural. At times ghostly and mesmerising, their tales draw Valerie into their world – but it is her story, when we finally get to it, which is the most gut-wrenching of all, stemming from the worst kind of tragedy.
The atmosphere is built through an utterly engrossing succession of monologues, in which each character is satisfyingly delineated. Brendan Coyle’s Jack sheds his cranky, contrary mask, while the brilliant Marty Rea conjures a wonderfully distinctive, quirky, but very believable Jim. Peter Cloonan peels away the bravura of Finbar to reveal his vulnerability. He apologises self-consciously as he feels he has revealed too much, giving the lie to the old stereotype of the brash non-talkative Irishman.
Fact, fiction, history, ghosts, religion, and hearsay are all woven together and for us who were lucky enough to be present at Caitríona McLoughlin’s production of the play in The Abbey Theatre, we were glad that Colin McPherson soaked it all up on those youthful excursions West. The play is a timely, glowing affirmation of the rural pub and its role as a sanctuary for wounded men – and women – at a time when that very institution is facing extinction. As the only woman present, Jolly Abraham’s Valerie is distinctive in more ways than one: as a blow-in, an American, and, for those present in the bar, their intended audience.
Caitríona McLaughlin directs with a finely balanced awareness of the comedy of McPherson’s script as well as the darker emotional moments, the necessary silences as well as the endless eyrie stories of fairies and ghosts and family loss, and the resulting deep trauma that ensues.
The production runs straight through for 100 minutes, but our attention is mostly focused on the actors throughout apart from the erratic and distracting musical score. Sarah Bacon’s authentically worn set sits at an angle on the right-hand side of the stage against a stormy sky lit by Jane Cox, whose subtle design also helps focus the formal storytelling set pieces. One small quibble: the Irish have given the world many iconic cultural nuggets including the traditional music session in the ‘local’ and so here the use of live music outside the pub provided by musicians Éamonn Cagney and Courtney Cullen is somewhat disconcerting and jars a little.
There are obvious parallels that can be detected between McPherson’s play and the earlier J. M. Synge classic The Playboy of the Western World. That play caused riots when first premiered in the Abbey Theatre on January 26th, 1907, nearly 115 years ago. The Weir has since created its own ripples and there are particular details within the play that firmly locates it in the 1990s, a time of great social and economic change in Ireland like its illustrious forerunner. However, the fact that we can accurately place it in a definitive timeline makes the universality of its themes even more penetrating. Ask anyone who has ever had a pint in Scanlan’s Bar in Knockaderry or in any rural pub in Ireland and they will agree with you, just as this production suggests: there is no better balm for loneliness than company.
Sadly, Jack McPherson never saw any of his grandson’s plays. He passed away before his grandson managed to get going as a writer, but something of those times he had spent with him in his lonely cottage in Leitrim had lodged somewhere in his subconscious. In this way, it may be that a play like The Weir comes through a writer rather than being intentionally composed. There is the sense that Colin McPherson heard it and wrote it down – and it works!
The Abbey stage has long been the place where such stories were told and present-day Abbey audiences should be very happy that we get to hear these stories commingling here with those riotous echoes from long ago.
This semi-autobiographical play by Brian Friel was first performed in the Abbey Theatre in 1990. In 1998 the play was adapted and turned into a very successful, award-winning film, directed by Pat O’Connor. The film competed in the Venice Film Festival of 1998. It won an Irish Film and Television Award for Best Actor in a Female Role for Brid Brennan. It was also nominated for 6 other awards, including the Irish Film and Television Award for Best Feature Film and the Best Actress Award for the American actress, Meryl Streep, who played the part of Kate.
Like many other of Friel’s works it is set in the fictional town of Ballybeg and tells the story of a family unit being torn apart by the many strong forces in society. It is a memory play told from the point of view of the adult Michael Evans, the narrator. He recounts the summer in his aunts’ cottage when he was seven years old.
This play is loosely based on the lives of Friel’s mother and aunts who lived in Ardara, a small town in the Glenties area of County Donegal. Set in the summer of 1936, the play depicts the late summer days when love briefly seems possible for five of the Mundy sisters (Maggie, Chris, Agnes, Rose, and Kate) and the family welcomes home the frail elder brother, Jack, who has returned from a life as a missionary in Africa. However, as the summer ends, the family foresees the sadness and economic privations under which they will suffer and all hope seems to fade.
The play takes place in early August, around the Festival of Lughnasa, the pagan Celtic harvest festival. The play describes a bitter harvest for the Mundy sisters, a time of reaping what has been sown.
In the play, the adult narrator, Michael Evans, recalls the summer of 1936 when as a small boy of seven, he lived with his mother Chris, and his four aunts – Kate, Maggie, Agnes and Rose – in the fictional village of Ballybeg, the setting for many of Friel’s finest plays. His uncle Jack, a missionary priest, had recently returned from Africa to live with them. He is suffering from the after effects of malaria and some other more mysterious mental ailment that has made him forgetful and frail.
The Mundy family are not well off. Kate, a teacher, is the only wage-earner. Agnes and Rose make a little money knitting gloves at home, a cottage industry at the time. Maggie and Rose look after the hens and household duties, as does Christina, Michael’s mother.
Michael’s abiding memories of that summer are of his Uncle Jack’s return to the family home, linked forever in his mind with hearing dance music on their first ever radio, and the two visits of his father, Gerry Evans. The play depicts the complexity of the relationships of the adults around him and the changes that came over their lives in that crucial summer, against a deeply traditional and rural backdrop.
The action of the play takes place in August, (the Irish word for August is Lughnasa – the ‘Lughnasa’ of the title), traditionally a time when the pagan Celtic god of the harvest, Lugh, was commemorated and celebrated. The play is divided into two acts, reflecting the two particular days that stand out in Michael’s memory. He narrates the action from an adult vantage point, and is, therefore, both part of and distanced from it. As the illegitimate son of Christina (Chris) Mundy and Gerry Evans he is both a source of joy and shame – all of the sisters have a great affection for him, but in the Ireland of the 1930s a child born to a couple who were not married was seen as a source of shame in the community.
Summary of Act 1
Act 1 depicts four of the sisters as they wait for their sister Kate to return home. They carry out their everyday tasks – knitting, ironing, making mash for the hens – and they talk in a light-hearted way about ordinary things, a broken mirror, lipstick, the erratic behaviour of the radio that they have nicknamed Marconi, after the famous inventor. Their relationships are affectionate, occasionally exasperated as in any family.
When Kate returns she brings news of the forthcoming Harvest Festival of Lughnasa that everyone in the town is preparing for. The excitement of that seems to unsettle the women. Against Kate’s better judgement they even consider going to the harvest dance, like most of their neighbours. Another unsettling moment is when they discuss Father Jack’s strange behaviour since he came home from Uganda. He has returned home to Ballybeg as he is suffering the after effects of malaria, but he also appears confused as to his own whereabouts. He cannot remember ordinary English words and makes constant references to pagan rituals he seems to have practiced while in Uganda.
Michael’s father, Gerry Evans makes one of his infrequent visits to see him and his mother Christina. Chris is still in love with him but it is clear that he, an irresponsible charmer, full of empty promises, has no intention of staying in Ballybeg with her and her son. By the end of Act 1 we learn that Gerry intends to go to Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. By the end of the Act we have also learned a great deal about the lives and personalities of the five sisters and also about their brother, Father Jack.
Summary of Act 2
Act 2 takes place in early September, three weeks later. Michael still waits for the bike his father, Gerry, has promised to buy him. Jack continues to speak of strange pagan rites. He seems to have no interest in Catholic rituals such as the Mass. This is now becoming a problem for the sisters in the village, especially for Kate as the schoolteacher.
Slowly but surely events begin to unfold and we hear that she will lose her job. Agnes and rose will also lose their jobs as home knitters, due to the opening of a knitting factory in the area. Gerry abandons Chris again, this time forever. Money is scarce in the household.
Michael then narrates what transpired in the following weeks. Rose and Agnes have to leave Ballybeg and go to London to find work. He tells us that they lose contact with the family and it is twenty-five years later when he tracks them down – Agnes is dead by then and Rose is dying in a hospital. Father Jack, who doesn’t resume his ministry as a Catholic priest as was expected, dies of a heart attack a year after the action of the play. Gerry Evans is wounded in Spain, but survives to form a new family in Wales. Chris spends the rest of her life working in the knitting factory, and hates it. Kate finally gets a job as a private tutor.
The play ends as it began, with Michael remembering what happened that summer, particularly the sights and sounds of his mother and his aunts dancing in the kitchen.
THE HISTORICAL AND POLITICAL SETTING OF THE PLAY
Dancing at Lughnasa captures a time and place where great changes are about to take place – both in the Mundy household and in the wider world where all is about to change forever with the ominous rumblings of war to be heard in many parts of Europe. The unspoken backdrop is Ireland and its emerging Republic which at the time was dominated by very strict social morality and the repressive influence of the Catholic Church. The play seems to suggest that this traditional rural society, dominated for so long by communal values, will be changed forever by the power of the radio.
From a twenty-first century vantage point giving the radio a name – Marconi – seems absurd, but it highlights the point that the radio will be like another presence in the play, giving people a window to what is going on in the outside world probably for the first time. It is interesting that the predominant political movement in Ireland in the previous quarter of a century before 1936 was that of Sinn Féin which translates as Ourselves Alone – Ireland could survive on its own, isolationism was a good thing. Ironically, a century later and our near neighbours have stolen our ideas with their obsession with Brexit.
It is significant that the tune to which the sisters dance so wildly to at the beginning of the play is the old Irish reel, The Mason’s Apron. Towards the end of the play, however, the tune that plays when Gerry dances with Chris and her sisters is Anything Goes, with its faintly shocking lyrics:
In olden times a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows
This may indicate that the old traditional moralities are also changing fast.
Michael, the narrator, tells us at the beginning of the play that he is remembering ‘that summer of 1936’ and the events that took place in Ballybeg. As a boy of seven at that time, he clearly had very little understanding of the historical and political context in which he lived. Throughout the play, however, Friel alludes to several specific events that took place in 1936 in both Ireland and Europe.
In Act 1, rose, one of the five Mundy sisters, sings,
‘Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Bring your own cup and saucer and a bun.
Mussolini will be there with his aeroplanes in the air
Will you come to Abyssinia will you come?
Shortly afterwards Maggie joins in with, ‘Will you vote for De Valera will you vote?’, to the same tune. They are both referring to highly topical issues at the time: the invasion of Abyssinia by the Italian Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, and the success of Eamon de Valera, leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in the Irish General Election of 1933. There was another General Election in the offing and this took place on 1 July 1937. A plebiscite on whether to approve the new Constitution of Ireland was held on the same day. This was a very significant event and it is interesting that here in Dancing at Lughnasa as in Philadelphia Here I Come the important date to remember is 1/1/1937. This was the day the new Irish Constitution came into effect and some critics suggest that Friel is here passing a harsh judgement on the Ireland that had emerged under that Constitution.
Many critics and scholars also suggest that Friel is here giving a barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day radio broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’.
Later in the play, Gerry Evans, Michael’s father, decides to join the International Brigade, a group of socialists who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. All these events point to the fact that in the world outside Ballybeg great change and upheaval is happening – the Mundy family can’t but be caught up in and affected by these great changes also.
However, the most important change, according to Friel, is the rise to power in Ireland of Eamon de Valera. De Valera’s celebrated view of Ireland as a predominantly rural society, peopled by frugal, contented people, clearly applies to the lifestyle of the five Mundy sisters – in fact, they are the very epitome of de Valera’s vision for the new Republic: comely maidens dancing at the crossroads or in their frugal kitchens.
The limited opportunities available to the five Mundy sisters was typical of Irish society in the 1930s. Conversation revolves around local gossip – who’s marrying who, the forthcoming harvest festival for the Festival of Lughnasa – and family issues; Father Jack’s strange behaviour since his return from Africa; the visit of Chris’s ex-lover Gerry Evans, the father of her child. Their activities are equally confined to looking after the hens, baking, knitting and ironing. They are barely making ends meet. Crucially, it is Kate who does the shopping. Their only source of entertainment is the radio, which fails to work more often than not.
From their conversations it is clear that the society of Ballybeg is small, not only literally but also metaphorically. Michael tells us that Ballybeg was proud of his uncle and his work in the Ugandan leprosy hospital. The local newspaper called him ‘our own leper priest’. As he says:
‘it gave us that little bit of status in the eyes of the parish. And it must have helped my aunts to bear the shame my mother brought on the household by having me – as it was called then – out of wedlock.’
The Influence of the Catholic Church
Religion had an enormous influence in 1930s Ireland. In 1932 the great Eucharistic Congress took place in Dublin and it is obvious that religion directly affects the lives of the characters in the play. To have a priest in the family, especially a missionary priest, was considered a great honour. It is Kate who expresses the most orthodox religious views for most of the play. Indeed, Friel deliberately juxtaposes those views with the paganism associated with the Lughnasa festival bubbling away beneath the surface. Early on Kate thinks it would be ‘sinful’ to give the name of the old pagan god, Lugh, to the new radio. Any talk of the ‘pagan practices’ that take place back in the hills during the Festival of Lughnasa are not to be heard in ‘a Christian home, a Catholic home’, which for her is the ultimate ideal. She reminds the others that ‘this is Father Jack’s home – we must never forget that – ever’.
Going to the harvest dance, as her sisters suggest, is for young people with ‘nothing in their heads but pleasure’. In Catholic morality of the day, the idea of ‘pleasure’ was associated in a negative way with sex. In the 1930s, attempts were made to prevent people going to what were called ‘pagan dances’. These rigid attitudes extended to anything that might encourage personal vanity or loose behaviour and we can see from the play that the Mundy sisters have only an ‘oul cracked thing’ of a mirror to see themselves in.
Although he does not appear directly in the play (and only fleetingly in the film version), the power of the parish priest to fire Kate from her job in the village school because her priest brother does not conform to religious expectations, is another measure of the desire of the Catholic Church authorities to exert control in society.
Friel returns to this theme many times in his plays. In Philadelphia Here I Come! for example, religion is represented through the figure of the Canon. It is clear that he is an inept and ineffective one-dimensional character. Gar satirises his ineptitude when he comes in one evening to play his usual game of cards with S. B.,
“Sure Canon what interest have you in money? Sure as long as you get to Tenerife for five weeks every winter, what interest have you in money?”.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, the Canon is seen as a very shallow man who is constantly being ridiculed by Gar Private. He is not a pastor, he waits until, ‘the rosary’s over and the kettle’s on.’ And, in the end, he proves to be as predictable and one-dimensional as S.B. Indeed, both men are cruelly caricatured by Friel and the priest, in particular, is seen as a sad figure without influence or a constructive role to play in modern society.
We can also sense what a blow it must have been to the Mundy household when Chris became an unmarried mother. De Valera and the Catholic Church at the time emphasised the role of marriage and the nuclear family – mother, father and ‘sturdy’ children – as a force for moral and political stability. This ideal was best expressed in De Valera’s radio broadcast to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day 1943 when he said:
The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars.
It is clear from the concern of the five Mundy sisters that they too value marriage and family. Circumstances have caused them all to be single. Only Chris has had sexual experience. Given their ages – from twenty-six to forty – it appears that they have lost their chances of finding suitable men to marry. But that does not mean that all desire for romance or sexual relationships has been crushed. In different ways, each of the women in the play reveals a longing for love that goes beyond their actual circumstances. Chris is still very much in love with Gerry Evans, the father of her child. His visits cause emotional havoc to all in the household but especially to Chris and her young son. He represents for all of them a different sort of life – there are hints that Agnes too is in love with him – even if Kate sees him as a sort of threat. In her jokes and songs such as ‘The Isle of Capri’, Maggie reveals a sentimental side to her tough exterior. Even Rose, described as ‘simple’, has a romantic interest in Danny Bradley, a married man. Later in the play she joins him in ‘the back hills’, although we do not find out what, if anything, happens between them. Even Kate, who is described as ‘a very proper woman’ and more negatively as a ‘self-righteous old bitch’, has had some hopes of attracting the attentions of Austin Morgan. However, we later learn that he goes and marries a ‘wee young thing from Carrickfad’.
Dolores Keane sings ‘Down by the Sally Gardens’ backed by the Irish Film Orchestra … and then the climactic dance of wild and free women.
The Dancing Metaphor
Throughout the play the metaphor of dancing is used to suggest romance, escape and sexual freedom. For a short while the sisters entertain ideas of going to the harvest dance as they used to in their youth. Kate, the authority figure in the family, makes it clear that this is out of the question, ‘do you want the whole countryside to be laughing at us? – women of our age? – mature women, dancing?’
Maggie has fond memories of going to dances with her friend Bernie O’Donnell, when she was sixteen and in love with Brian McGuinness, who later went to Australia. The relationship between Gerry Evans and Chris is also depicted very much in terms of dancing. And of course, the wild dance that the sisters engage in in their kitchen is a crucial moment in the play. It allows them to get in touch with their inner selves, the sensuous side of their nature that is held in check by the dominant social attitudes of the Ireland in which they live.
Conflict in the Play
As already mentioned Friel juxtaposes in Dancing at Lughnasa the conflict between the repressive social and religious attitudes of Ireland in the 30s with an older, freer pre-Christian way of life. This pagan way of life was one of celebration, wild dances and rituals held in the ‘back hills’ far away from the influence of the Catholic Church. The Festival of Lughnasa traditions that Rose describes take place ‘up there in the back hills’, among people that Kate refers to as ‘savages’. There are numerous references to Lugh, the pagan god, to voodoo, to omens of good and bad luck, to the devilish faces that Michael has painted on his kites. Sweeney (the boy who was burnt in the festival bonfire) bears the same name as the legendary Sweeney who defied Christian authorities and was punished by being condemned to fly around like a bird for the rest of his life.
Father Jack embodies this conflict too. His experience as a missionary in Africa has caused him to lose his sense of what is appropriate in the context of Ballybeg. From an Irish cultural point of view, sending priests as missionaries to Africa was seen as benefitting the native Africans by teaching them and enabling them to participate in the rituals of the Catholic Church. But Father Jack no longer appears to believe that Christian ritual is superior to the rituals he observed in ‘pagan’ Africa. In fact, after his time spent as a missionary, he now sees Catholic rituals such as the Mass as synonymous with the sacrifice offered to ‘Obi, our Great Goddess of the Earth’. Rather amusingly, he fails to live up to his expected role as moral judge of Gerry Evans (‘Father Jack may have something to say to Mr. Evans’ says Kate at one point). Instead, he sees Michael as Chris’s ‘love-child’ and he asks her if she has any more ‘love-children’, and he pronounces that in Uganda ‘women are eager to have love-children’. He even suggests that if they were in Uganda he would be able to provide at least one husband for all of his sisters, ‘That’s our system and it works very well’.
Father Jack’s view of religion now corresponds more to the goings-on at the pagan festival of Lughnasa than it does to the norms of the Catholic Ireland, ‘the island of saints and scholars’. There is one telling statement he makes about the African people that seems to recognise the underlying truth of this. He declares, ‘In some respects they’re not unlike us’. It is clear, however, that his views would not be acceptable in the Ireland of the 30s to which he has returned. This is sadly borne out by his own forced return to Ireland and the treatment meted out to his sister Kate by the local parish priest.
Change in Society
The over-riding impression we get from the play, however, is that changes are taking place, the world is sliding towards war and the old certainties are losing ground. This is made even more evident with the return of Father Jack from Africa. This event suggests that the domestic world of the Mundy’s faces disruption from the outside. Father Jack brings with him from Uganda hints that Catholic ritual may not have universal appeal. His obvious respect for native Ugandan rituals gives us a reverse view of the traditional role of the missionary priest!
Gerry Evans also brings a sense of the changing world of Ireland when he talks of giving ballroom dancing lessons, or of gramophone sales in Dublin. When he decides to join the International Brigade in Spain, it is seen as part of a desire to experience the big bad world outside of Ireland. There is a suggestion that Ireland’s cultural landscape is beginning to change ever so slowly.
One of the clearest indications of change takes place when Agnes and Rose can no longer make their living from home knitting, due to the opening of the new knitting factory in Donegal Town. As the narrator says: ‘The Industrial Revolution had finally caught up with Ballybeg’. Their subsequent emigration was typical of the large-scale emigration from Ireland that took place in the first half of the twentieth century. As in Philadelphia Here I Come!, Ballybeg is depicted here as a backwater, a stagnant place of despair and routine. Escape through emigration is the only safety valve. Like many an Irish town in the late thirties, forties and fifties Ballybeg has maintained its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings! It is an example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would most certainly be ruined if those same young people stayed at home en masse.
Faraway hills are said to be greener but when Agnes and Rose leave they possessed little education, few skills, and in reality their opportunities in London were limited to menial cleaning jobs. Sad though this is, the narrator nevertheless suggests that they wanted ‘to get away’, to experience change and novelty, with all their challenges and disadvantages. Someone said once that the only people who welcome change are babies with wet nappies but there may be a positive side to change as countless numbers of Irish emigrants discovered as they made new prosperous lives for themselves in foreign lands.
Family is important to the Mundy sisters. Within the family there may be disappointment, resentment or anger, but they will always present a united and brave face to the outside world. Kate, in particular, insists that problems with Father Jack must be kept within the family, ‘not a word of this must go outside these walls’.
It is this family solidarity that causes them to unite in the face of the shame that Chris must have brought on them as an unmarried mother in a small town, baile beag, in 1930s Ireland. Throughout the play we see the genuine affection each of the aunts feels for Michael: Kate brings him presents, Maggie jokes with him, Rose even says, ‘I wish he was mine’. Clearly, he has never been made to feel unloved or unwanted. It almost seems as if any or all of them could have been his mother.
Similarly, their love and care for Father Jack outweighs any disappointment they may have felt at his ‘disgrace’. Kate’s surprising acceptance of his religious beliefs and her grief when he dies reveal that family feeling overcomes conventional morality. Each of the family members watches out for ‘simple’ and vulnerable Rose, as we see when she goes missing for an afternoon with Danny Bradley. When Kate is sacked from her teaching job, it is ‘Rosie’ she worries about most.
However, despite the obvious closeness and the obvious loneliness and lack of fulfilment that they all feel, they rarely speak about their intimate feelings. When Kate confides to Maggie that she feels ‘it’s all going to collapse’, for instance, Maggie declines to engage with her fears and simply says, ‘Nothing is about to collapse, Kate’.
Despite this, however, the family is capable of expressing negative feelings. Hurtful things can be said. Kate points out rather meanly to Agnes that neither she nor Rose made much money to contribute to the upkeep of the household. Agnes retorts that she and rose are like ‘two unpaid servants’ in the house. At another stage Agnes calls Kate ‘a damned self-righteous bitch’.
Ironically, the Mundy family of five sisters, one brother and their young nephew would not have corresponded to De Valera’s ideal nuclear family unit consisting of father, mother and their children of the time. Tragically, too, the family grouping will disintegrate, as Michael the narrator tells us:
Poverty and economic change force Agnes and Rose to emigrate to London to find work;
Father Jack will die within a year;
Chris settles for a job she hated, working in the knitting factory;
Gerry Evans will visit less and less, until his visits stop altogether;
Michael himself will leave. As he says, ‘In the selfish way of young men I was happy to escape’.
In many ways, then, it can be said that circumstances in the end have conspired to defeat the Mundy family.
CHARACTER ANALYSIS IN DANCING AT LUGHNASA
Kate is the mother-figure and matriarch in the Mundy household. She is the main bread-winner, respected in the community and the leader of the Mundy sisters. She is a very religious and puritanical woman. She has no time for ‘pagan’ ideas and is very prim and proper. She doesn’t agree that the radio should be given a name, and definitely not the name Lugh because of its pagan origins. She teaches in the local Primary School and would have been seen as a pillar of the community – especially in 1930s Ireland. She had been involved in the War of Independence and she is very firm in her Christian attitudes.
She is very concerned with the way the people in the community view her and her family. She would prefer the Mundys to be viewed as a decent family with a strong sense of dignity and strong religious faith. She is, therefore, embarrassed by Father Jack’s return from Africa and feels that he has brought some shame on the family following his exploits in Uganda. She has also been disappointed and hurt when Chris became pregnant outside of marriage and she does not want people to look down on the family. When it is suggested that the sisters go to the harvest dance she is horrified at first. She is very concerned about keeping up appearances and showing restraint both emotionally and socially.
Despite being part of a large family, Kate feels isolated and lonely in some way. Perhaps she feels that she has to shoulder the burden of looking after the family on her own. When the sisters dance together she dances alone. This highlights her loneliness and isolation as she deals with her feelings by herself.
At first Maggie seems to be the joker of the family. She is always ready with a song, dance or joke. However, on closer inspection we discover why she seems to be so bubbly. Whenever there are moments of tension, or the possibility of any conflict, Maggie intercedes with some humour to help diffuse the situation. In this way she keeps the peace and helps keep the family together because the family bond is very important to her. She is a very likeable character and of all the sisters she is least prone to sarcasm and attempts to hurt others. She is also generous spirited and kind and she adores young Michael.
Behind this apparent happy façade, however, Maggie is hiding deep unhappiness. At one point Kate describes her meeting in Ballybeg with an old friend of Maggie’s by the name of Bernie O’Donnell. It was Bernie O’Donnell who could attract the men that Maggie couldn’t when they were young. Bernie later left Ballybeg and made a new life for herself somewhere else. When Maggie hears this story from Kate she is quiet for once, which is very unlike her.
It is Maggie who is the first to start dancing in the climactic scene in Act 1. She initiates the dance because she feels angry and frustrated with her small, lonely life in Ballybeg. As described in the text her dance is ‘defiant’ as if she is trying to show life that it can throw anything at her and she will bounce back.
She is also a tower of strength for others when they need help. She is there for Kate when she breaks down over her fears of not being able to keep the family together. Maggie is possibly the most emotionally strong of the Mundy sisters, and she hides her secret pain much more effectively than the others.
Chris is a strong-willed character whose one great weakness is Gerry Evans. She cannot help but love him despite all his false and empty promises. Like all the Mundy sisters she fights off despair with humour and a defiant attitude. She tries very hard not to let anything get to her.
When Gerry arrived back for the first time in over a year she tries to resist his advances by refusing to engage him in conversation. He responds by dancing with her and she cannot resist the romance of this. She returns to the house a changed woman, full of life and happiness, having conveniently forgotten what an unreliable rogue Gerry is. She obviously craves romance in her life, otherwise she would not give in to Gerry in this way. There are moments when she thinks back silently on her dance with Gerry, and it is obvious from her happy reaction that it has had a profound effect on her.
Throughout the play, however, she seems to be very jealous and suspicious of Agnes. It becomes obvious to her that Gerry is also attracted to Agnes and visa versa, particularly after they both dance together. This enrages Chris who probably feels deep down that Gerry loves Agnes more than he loves her.
However, her main claim to fame – or infamy – in the play is the fact that she is Michael’s mother. He is obviously the apple of her eye and she is fiercely protective and proud of her son. We have to remember also of course that this story is being narrated to us by her son Michael as he remembers with nostalgia the events of that momentous summer of 1936.
Agnes is the most reserved and quiet of the five sisters, but she is also perhaps the strongest willed and the one with the greatest hidden reserves of strength. She tends to listen when the others banter and poke fun at each other. She is not the kind of person to start a conversation, yet despite her quiet and shy nature she is never afraid to stand up for herself or others. She becomes quite angry when Kate refuses to use Gerry Evans’s name when referring to him.
She is the first to suggest that they could all go to the harvest dance and she is the one who makes the most emotional plea when she says she wants to dance and feel alive while dancing. Despite being very quiet Agnes is not afraid at certain points in the play of revealing what her true emotions are. However, normally she tends to bottle up her emotions and say very little, but when she does let go what she says is usually of great importance. When she dances with her sisters in the famous kitchen scene she is very graceful and proud but also defiant at the same time.
Agnes is obviously very taken by Gerry Evans. When she dances with him she is as graceful as ever and she dances like a woman who has been dancing with this man all her life.
Ultimately, Agnes is fearless despite her quiet nature. She knows that when a crisis hits that hard decisions have to be made. This is most obviously shown in her decision to go to London with Rose. Of all the sisters, Agnes is the closest to Rose and she sees it as her life-long job to look after her sister.
Rose is very childish and innocent. At that time, she would have been referred to as being ‘a bit simple’. She is full of fun and life, but she is by no means a weak character who can be walked all over. She has intelligence when required and like a child who wants something she knows cunning ways and means of getting it!
The other sisters are very protective of her, especially her sister Agnes. They see her as the child of the family and it is their task to make sure she comes to no harm. She takes a fancy to Danny Bradley, a local rascal with a bad reputation. Despite her sisters’ insistence that she shouldn’t meet with him, rose concocts a plan to spend a day with him. The fact that she does this shows her cunning and determination and also shows how underestimated she is, even by her own sisters. Rose’s key character moment arrives when she defiantly stands up to Kate and is honest about her meeting with Danny Bradley. In this moment she appears most adult-like and willing to be independent.
She has no shame, unlike Kate who is obsessed with the family’s good name and status in the community. She is honest and pure and sees no harm in enjoying life. She is a warm and endearing character with many childlike traits, but ultimately she is depicted as a strong, independent woman.
Brian Friel uses both Rose and Agnes to represent a generation of young Irish women (and men) who were forced by limited opportunities, poverty and economic depression top leave their small towns and villages in rural Ireland to seek work in London and elsewhere during the 1930s.
Gerry Evans is feckless, weak and irresponsible. He is a scoundrel and a liar, but he manages to get away with it and gets by on his easy charm and a way with words. This allows him to worm his way back into Chris’s life. Gerry seems to be a drifter: unwilling or incapable of settling down, but later in the play we learn that he has been living a lie, and that he has another family in Wales.
Despite his flaws there is something likeable at times about Gerry. He can get away with almost anything. He is a child unwilling to take on real responsibility and merely puts on a show of enquiring about his son Michael’s well-being.
We also get the sense that Gerry is searching for something. He goes off to fight in the Spanish Civil War but is not sure why he made that decision. Gerry is also quite possibly in love with Agnes and he seems to have a problem asking after her when he is speaking to Chris.
He is a rogue who cannot be depended upon for anything. He is a restless character with a great ability to charm all those around him with his easy words and his dancing skills.
Father Jack has obviously suffered deeply, both physically and mentally, as a result of his time spent as a Catholic missionary priest among the leper colonies in Uganda. Despite his evident weaknesses and illnesses, we get a sense that he was once a great and determined man who deserved his reputation as a great missionary priest.
Father Jack is also quite unconventional. This part of his nature is slowly revealed in the play until we get the ultimate revelation that he almost discarded his own Catholic beliefs to become one with the natives at his mission. Unlike Kate he is tolerant of others beliefs, so much so that he took part in many tribal celebrations and rituals when he was in Uganda. He is a very non-judgemental man who accepts everyone for what they are.
He is a good man with everyone’s best interests at heart. He is a man of great humanity and strength and he quickly regains his physical strength after returning to his home in Ballybeg. He is not a man who feels shame and is quite happy about how his African experiences have changed him.
King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. It has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting. For us Irish, even the name Lear/Lir conjures up legendary tales from Irish mythology. The Children of Lir, for instance, is a tale from the early Christian period that mixes magical elements such as druidic wands and spells with a Christian message of faith bringing freedom from suffering. This is very similar to the underlying theme in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
We also need to be aware of the historical events taking place in England around 1605 when this play was written. Queen Elizabeth I had died in 1603 without a direct heir to the throne. She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, Scotland and Ireland – the first early version of the United Kingdom. Shakespeare’s company was known as The King’s Men and many of the plays were produced with a Royal Command Performance in mind. It is interesting that Macbeth – set in Scotland – was first performed in 1606 for the same monarch.
Even a casual reader of King Lear is bound to notice the frequency with which the gods are invoked or discussed by many of the characters in the play. More striking perhaps, is the great variety of distinct points of view on the gods and their dealings with men expressed from beginning to end of the play. Some of these are merely passing references, as, for example, Albany’s amazed reaction to Lear’s behaviour towards Goneril: ‘Now gods that we adore, whereof comes this?’. Others are obviously ironic or insincere, as when Edmund, in conversation with Gloucester, claims that he tried to dissuade Edgar from his murderous intent by telling him that ‘the revenging gods / Against parricides did all their thunders bend’; or when Regan invokes ‘the blest gods’ in response to Lear’s curses. But such casual references are rare enough: elsewhere, whenever the gods are mentioned, the tone is almost invariably serious, betraying the concern of the speakers with the nature and attributes of the ultimate Power, and their awareness of the problems of affirming cosmic justice in the face of the evil and suffering so rife in their universe.
Many commentators have remarked on the number of conflicting theories on the nature and disposition of the gods that are advanced by the different characters, sometimes indeed, by the same character, during the course of the play. Almost every major point of view is expressed. Gloucester in his despair sees men as the victims of a capricious and malevolent divinity: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods’. At other times, particularly after suffering has awakened his religious sense, he addresses heartfelt prayers to the ‘ever-gentle gods’ and speaks feelingly of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. Edgar pictures the gods as dispensers of a merely retributive justice:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
But his other, and more characteristic, religious utterances reveal a deep faith in supernatural goodness, and his view of the gods is best seen in his encouraging words to Gloucester after he has saved him from suicide:
Therefore, thou happy father,
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee.
The speeches of the other characters also help to enlarge and diversify the range of references about the gods. When Kent, who normally expresses faith in the just dealings of the heavenly powers, is momentarily overwhelmed by the apparent triumph of wickedness and injustice in the play and dismayed by the unnatural dealings of Lear’s daughters, he falls back on an astrological determinism, ‘It is the stars’, he cries, ‘the stars above us govern our conditions’. Edmund’s deity is a nature-goddess while Lear appeals to primitive magic when he disinherits Cordelia ‘by the sacred radiance of the sun / The mysteries of Hecate and the night’, and he calls on Nature, his ‘dear goddess’ to curse Goneril, as if he believes that the heavens are at the service of man’s evil whims. In his great speech on the heath (III, iv, 28ff), he implies that the wretched condition of the poor is an indictment of divine justice. By exposing himself to feel what naked wretches feel, and by sharing his superfluous goods among them, he hopes to ‘show the heavens more just’.
For many students of the play, Gloucester’s cry of despair, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods /They kill us for their sport.’, strikes the keynote of the play and sums up its spirit. There is indeed much in the play to justify this point of view. Time after time Shakespeare seems to underline the futility of looking to the heavenly powers for help, pity or the alleviation of suffering. He throws into the sharpest possible relief the bitter and ironic contrast between the seemingly justifiable aspirations of men, so often nourished by belief in divine goodness, and the apparent indifference and blindness of the gods to even their most urgent and insistent demands. Some of the juxtapositions contrived by Shakespeare seem to make a mockery of prayer and faith in providential justice. Lear invokes the heavens against the ingratitude of his daughters and begs them to make his cause their cause, to come down and take his part, but the heavens are silent and Regan adds to his misery by demanding that he dismiss half his train. His next prayer, ‘You see me here you gods, a poor old man’ is answered by the sound of the approaching storm, and soon after, the elements let fall their ‘horrible pleasure’ and join with his two evil daughters in punishing ‘a poor, infirm, weak and despised old man’.
Edgar on the heath thinks that ‘the worst returns to laughter’: he is immediately confronted with the bleeding face of his blinded father. Just before the battle he urges Gloucester to pray that the right may thrive, and assures him ‘If ever I return to you again I’ll bring you comfort’. He returns only to lead his father away; his prayers have not been answered: ‘King Lear hath lost, he and his daughter ta’en’. The most dreadful example is reserved for the last scene. Edmund has repented. He reveals his plan to have Cordelia murdered in prison, and Edgar hastens to save her life. Albany’s prayer, ‘the gods defend her’ is at once followed by the stark stage-direction: Enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms. By means of deliberate effects like these, the play seems to suggest that there is no basis for faith in heavenly justice or benevolence, that the Powers who control the universe are either hostile or indifferent to the good of man.
The idea of universal justice is most sharply challenged by the ending of this play. The wasteful deaths of Lear and Cordelia following their long exposure to suffering and torture inevitably make us wonder what conception of the universe caused Shakespeare to impose so ‘cheerless, dark and deadly’ an ending on a play which, in the Fourth Act, seemed to be heading to a reasonably happy ending True enough, Lear has sinned, but he is, in his own words, ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and the punishment he is made to undergo seems absurdly disproportionate to his original fault. It is not enough that he should humbly repent and willingly renounce the name and the trappings of a king for life in prison with Cordelia, that his pride should be broken and he is driven to madness but also during his last moments on earth he must endure the overwhelming sorrow of Cordelia’s death. This grim ending has horrified many critics. Samuel Johnson rebuked Shakespeare for having ‘suffered the virtue of Cordelia to perish in a just cause, contrary to our natural ideas of justice, and to the hope of the reader’. There are those who argue that the ending in King Lear destroys any basis for faith in a god or gods, and quenches the notion that in our universe the good thrive and the wicked will be eventually punished.
This pessimistic view of the Lear universe is not universally held. There are those who argue, that, far from being a bitter indictment of cosmic justice and of providence, the play offers a profoundly Christian comment on the dealings of providence with men – that it is, in fact, a Christian play about a pagan world. These critics point to the fact that the play’s attitude toward human suffering is, in fact, a Christian one. It has always been part of Christian teaching that man is perfected through suffering and the image of the Cross is central to this idea. Christians believe that any painful experience is good when it leads the sufferer, however unwillingly at first, along the path of righteousness and humility; that, in fact, suffering leads to redemption and enlightenment as is the case with Lear and Gloucester in the play.
The failure of ‘the gods’ to answer many of the prayers addressed to them throughout the course of the action has been interpreted by some critics as evidence that Shakespeare pictured the Lear universe as one in which the gods are indifferent to man’s needs. Here, however, it is possible to find the values of the play are very compatible with those of traditional Christianity. With regard to prayer, it seems to make the point, one which very few Christian scholars would disagree with, that prayers are sometimes answered as the suppliant wishes, but that it is often otherwise, that the answer can take a totally unexpected form, or that no direct answer may be forthcoming. At the end of the blinding scene (III, vii) the Third Servant prays for Gloucester: ‘Now Heaven help him’. His prayer is answered. Almost at once we see him reunited with Edgar, who saves him from despair and suicide and restores a measure of happiness to his tortured mind. On the other hand, when Lear prays that the vengeance of heaven may fall upon the head of Goneril, his demand recoils upon himself, and he becomes the victim of the elements during the storm. And there is no answer to Albany’s prayer that Cordelia’s life may be spared.
Edgar’s is perhaps the best expression of the general attitude of the play towards the gods. As R.B. Heilman points out, he consistently shows his faith in human justice, but he ‘does not presumptuously expect divinity to be a magical servant’. With regard to Lear’s pleadings, the same critic argues that in the scheme of things as Shakespeare has here conceived it, he can expect justice, but he cannot dictate terms. Samuel Johnson, dissatisfied as he was with Shakespeare’s decision to allow Cordelia to die in spite of the justice of her cause, nevertheless believed that the play convincingly exposed the self-destructive and abnormal nature of evil.
What the play seems to be saying to us concerning cosmic justice is not that ‘the gods’ wait for man to fall into the most trivial error in order to punish him, but that once man has wilfully embraced a wrong course of action, he is liable to set in motion a long train of disasters over which he has little control. There is also the notion that it is in the nature of evil to spread its influence far and with fearful rapidity, visiting both good and bad with misery and ruin, and that once the evil has been let loose man has no control over the consequences. Furthermore, the sufferers in the Lear universe cannot expect the gods to grant them or their fellows immunity from further suffering, as soon as they have repented, and it is part of the order of things in that universe that individual evil can never remain individual. The main point to be made about the idea of cosmic justice as seen in King Lear is that it is quite distinct from the poetic justice that so many critics seem to think that Shakespeare should have preserved. Poetic justice ensures that rewards and punishments are carefully distributed and bear as exact a relationship as possible to the nature of the deed. King Lear makes no attempt to establish such a relationship. It suggests, instead, that the notion of a purely retributive justice is one of mankind’s illusions, and that although evil may be ultimately self-destroying, being good and virtuous provide us with few guarantees or protection against evil in the world.
Nature and its Meaning in King Lear
Shakespeare often focuses on major philosophical issues in his tragedies. For example, the famous critic and scholar, Wilson Knight, declares that ‘the theme of Hamlet is death’. However, no Shakespearean play is so consistently devoted to a single central idea as King Lear is to the exploration of the meaning of the concept of ‘Nature’. The play explores the idea of human nature, the natural world, what is natural and unnatural, and the many references to monsters and monstrous deeds, and so on, are numerous and occur throughout the play.
The events of the play and the behaviour of most of the character’s underline Shakespeare’s preoccupation with the idea. Lear disowns his one loyal and loving daughter in favour of two who will turn savagely on him. Gloucester, with that deep irony so characteristic of almost every major statement of its kind in the play, calls the utterly treacherous Edmund his ‘loyal and natural boy’, and disowns his totally devoted son Edgar. Each parent severs the bond of nature with animal ferocity, then, with grim irony, invokes nature as a reason for doing so. Lear’s argument: Cordelia is a wretch whom nature is ashamed ‘Almost to acknowledge hers’; Gloucester’s: Edgar is ‘an unnatural, detested, brutish villain: Worse than brutish’.
Lear and Gloucester, in Shakespeare’s scheme of things, commit mortal sins against nature, and the rest of the play is mainly concerned with the awful revenge that nature will take on the two offenders, who act from brute instinct and in blindness. But Lear and Gloucester, however we may weigh their moral guilt, will each pay a price that bears little proportion to the admitted evil of their parallel actions.
Each will be largely cut off from the kindness, generosity and protection which human beings naturally afford each other. They will be forced to wander in a storm, one of the great Shakespearean symbols of disorder. They will learn the lessons of their folly through pain and suffering. Gloucester, paradoxically, must be blinded in order to see; Lear, paradoxically, must be driven to madness to achieve an understanding of himself and his acts.
The following are some examples of the many and varied aspects of the term ‘Nature’ as seen in the play:
Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man’s life is cheap as beasts. (II, iv, 265)
Here nature means the primitive condition of mankind before civilisation.
Thou has one daughter
Who redeems nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to (IV, vi, 210)
Here we have the idea of an originally innocent nature before the Fall of Adam and Eve which requires a redemption.
That nature, which contemns in the origin
Cannot be bordered certain in itself (IV, ii, 32)
Nature here is used to define the bond between child and parent. Goneril’s unnatural treatment of her father involves the breaking of this bond. Albany warns Goneril that in so doing she will, like a branch severed from a tree, ‘wither and come to deadly use’.
The characters in the play embody quite different conceptions of the meaning of nature. Cordelia represents an ideal: human kindness, the sense of a close kinship between human beings. Her sisters and Edmund see Nature as red in tooth and claw, and all men, irrespective of family ties, at war with others for personal advantage.
The Death of Lear
What is Lear’s state of mind at the moment of his death? The answer we give depends on whether we believe Shakespeare meant the play to close on a bleak and cheerless note or whether (if Lear is seen to die happy if deluded) that he intended the play to end on a more hopeful note. The crucial lines are these:
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips.
Look there, look there. (V, iii, 312-3)
A. C. Bradley, the great Shakespearean scholar, suggests that Lear dies of joy, believing Cordelia to be still alive. Bradley pointed out that when Lear was still in doubt as to whether she was alive or dead he declared:
She lives! If it be so
Its is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.
If, in other words, she was still alive, this would counterbalance for him all the miseries he had endured up to this. Bradley distinguished between what the reader must feel as he watches Lear’s pathetic deception and what the deluded Lear himself is experiencing:
To us, perhaps, the knowledge that he is deceived may have a culmination of pain, but if it brings only that, I believe we are false to Shakespeare, and it seems almost beyond question that any actor is false to the text who does not attempt to express in Lear’s last accents and gestures and look, an unbearable joy (Shakespearean Tragedy).
This analysis has often been criticised as being too sentimental, but it has two fairly strong supports. One is the fact that in Shakespeare’s source for the play, Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, Lear’s heart is described as being ‘stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort’. The other is that we are almost certainly intended to see Gloucester’s last moments as providing a parallel to Lear’s, all their other major experiences being parallel. And here is how Gloucester dies;
His flawed heart
Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly (V, iii, 196).
In recent times, strong voices have been raised against the view that joy is the keynote of Lear’s departure from this life. One point that should be borne in mind is that Lear’s illusion that Cordelia still lives recurs three of four times in the last scene:
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then, she lives….
Here there is a heart-breaking tension in Lear between an absolute knowledge that Cordelia is dead, and an absolute inability to accept it. When his test with the looking-glass fails, he snatches a feather and tries a second test:
This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt…
This effort, like the last one, fails. Then again he tries to prove that she is alive by putting his ear to her lips in the hope that she might be speaking:
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha,
What is’t thou sayest? Her voice was ever soft.
Gentle, and low – an excellent thing in woman …
He dies vainly seeking (or thinking he finds) life in her lips (‘Look there, look there’). What comfort can be extracted from the manner of his death? It might well be argued in response to Bradley that, given the cycle of despair, insanity and the illusion of hope, it hardly matters very much at what point of it Lear expires. One bleaker version is that of J. Stampfer, who argues that,
Gloucester died between extremes of joy and grief, at the knowledge that his son was miraculously preserved. Lear between extremes of illusion and truth, ecstasy and the blackest despair, at the knowledge that his daughter was needlessly butchered. Gloucester’s heart burst smilingly at his reunion with Edgar; Lear’s, we are driven to conclude, burst in the purest agony at his eternal separation from Cordelia (Shakespeare Survey, 1960, p.4).
Whatever the relative merits of the views expressed by Bradley and Stampfer, it is perhaps going too far to say that at the moment of Lear’s death, joy is in equal balance with grief. What is safe to say is that Lear’s heart breaks. The words of Kent make this clear (‘Break heart, I prithee break’). It is also clear that we are meant to see his death as the culmination of an ordeal of torment renewed beyond reasonable endurance. Again Kent is our authority:
Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him
That would upon the rack of this rough world
Stretch him out longer.
King Lear: The Spirit of the Play
When one tries to describe one’s overall impression of King Lear, its spirit, its overall mood, one can easily fall into the trap of imposing a pattern based on one’s own preferences and attitudes. Many critics have seen, and described, King Lear as the embodiment of utter despair, chaos and cynicism. Others see it as Shakespeare’s endorsement of love as the supreme and absolute human value. Both these extreme views fail to do justice to the range of issues so deeply touched on by Shakespeare in this tragedy.
The spirit of the play cannot be wholly pessimistic. At play’s end, Lear has been reconciled to Cordelia and Gloucester to Edgar. Evil, as represented by the wicked quartet, Edmund, Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, has prospered for a while, taken possession of the Lear universe, caused men to descend to sheer bestiality, but has, by the close, destroyed itself. But is it too much to say that good has enjoyed a corresponding triumph? The ‘good’ characters, Lear, Cordelia, Edgar, Gloucester, Kent, must suffer, and even when their sufferings seem no longer supportable suffer again until the two chief characters die in harrowing circumstances.
Where, then, do we look for an ‘optimistic’ note in King Lear? It is easy, after all, to define the pessimistic ones: the forces of suffering and evil have possessed the play so long, and have so steadily enjoyed their various triumphs, that it may seem false to the overall tone of the play to underline the less despairing indications that offer themselves, if even tentatively, and almost apologetically. It may be too much to claim that Lear’s reunion with Cordelia is the final seal on the salvation he has begun to achieve through suffering and deprivation. His real salvation is, perhaps, a more prosaic one: release at last from the torture of his life. The major theme of the play is what men must endure at the hands of those forces, inner and outer, which govern the courses of their lives. The play shows these forces as capable of almost continuous cruelty and torment. But it also sounds another note. The entire course of events in King Lear suggests that the forces of life perform another function. John Holloway, in his excellent study, puts the matter as follows:
To follow the master, to sustain the state, top bless one’s child, to succour the aged and one’s parents – the idea of being brought back to rectitude is what the play ends with. These are the things which it falls to living men to do; and if the play advances appositive, I think it is that when men turn away from how they should live there are forces in life which constrain them to return. If anything rules creation, it is (though only, as it were, by a hairsbreadth) simply rule itself. What order restores, is order. Men tangle their lives; life, at a price, is self-untangling at last (The Story of the Night).
Faced with the overwhelming depravity of the four chief villains, and the relative success of their schemes, it is easy to lose sight of the depth of human goodness and decency in King Lear. Kent and the Fool remain loyal to Lear to the end; Albany grows in moral stature as the plot develops; Edgar at times reaches heights of selfless perfection. Lear learns to recognise goodness and love for what they are, and his gratitude at this revelation is one of the more memorable things in the play. It is true that the lessons learned by Lear and Gloucester have involved a huge amount of suffering, and a terrible waste, a cosmic upheaval. But this in itself may be seen as offering grounds for optimism about man’s place in the overall scheme of things. That the forces of life and nature should so disarrange themselves to teach two old men how to live is powerful testimony to the fundamental worth of human beings. Lear recognises this. Even the Supreme Powers, he feels, witness the events in which he is the central figure with awe and reverence:
Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense …
As I pointed out earlier, King Lear is set in England – an England before history, a country of swirling mists and violent tempests where ancient gods hold sway. This new cinematic adaptation of the play places it at some unknown time in the future – although recent political events in Westminster suggest that the United Kingdom may not be united for much longer! Ironically, this was one of the major reasons why Shakespeare gave us the great tragedies – he was saying to his audience: ‘This is what happens when you mess with order – do not go there!’. Four hundred years later ……. the Bard is still relevant! Study well!
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read my ‘Single Text Study Notes on King Lear’ here.
Also, you might like to have a look at ‘Image Patterns in King Lear’ here.
These notes are an effort to give you some extra food for thought in your preparation for your Single Text question in June. The focus of your study should be on character, theme and image patterns. As far as Shakespeare was concerned the most important character in the play is Lear himself. We must keep this in mind when making our preparations. You will, in effect, have to talk about Lear and his relationships with all the other characters in the play. That is to say, you cannot discuss the character of Cordelia, or Gloucester, or Kent or the Fool without discussing their relationship to Lear.
You will also have to have some understanding of what is meant when we talk of Shakespearean Tragedy. You might like to read my short explanation of the term here.
Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies are set abroad – Hamlet in Denmark, Othello in Venice and Cyprus, Macbeth in Scotland, Coriolanus in Rome, etc. Some critics say that the reason for this ploy was because he was often dealing with very serious matters such as murder, even the murder of kings and queens. He didn’t want to be seen to be inciting people to rise up against his main benefactor, Queen Elizabeth or King James I. However, King Lear is set in England – an England of swirling mists and violent tempests, and it has been sometimes described as a Christian play with a pagan setting.
Interestingly, the underlying theme in King Lear, like the ongoing, excruciating Brexit saga, is of a United Kingdom being divided up to satisfy the egotistical whim of an ageing monarch. Fintan O’Toole, writing in an Irish Times opinion piece on Saturday 7th September, 2019 compares the Brexit goings-on in Westminster with the tragedy of King Lear. He says that recently ‘a little bit of King Lear was playing out in the House of Commons’ and that some of the scenes being acted out and relayed to us from Westminster and its environs even resembled some of the madness scenes in Lear:
The play, after all, is about the collapse of political authority in Britain, caused by nothing more than a caprice (a whim). It shows the potentially terrible consequences of political self-indulgence.
So, there you have positive proof if it was needed, that this Single Text you are studying this year is as relevant now as it was in 1605!
The Main Characters in King Lear
The best point about Shakespeare’s extraordinary achievement in presenting Lear is that made by Granville-Barker in his fine preface to the play:
For this massive fortress of pride which calls itself Lear, for any old man indeed of eighty or upwards, there could be no dramatic course but declension (to go downhill, to decline, to deteriorate). Who would ever think of developing, or expanding, a character from such overwhelming beginnings? Yet this is what Shakespeare does (in King Lear).
Lear indeed begins as an almost superhuman figure, marking out the map with the ponderous gestures of some god, and making his pronouncements with godlike authority and power:
Come not between the dragon and his wrath …
The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft …
Nothing: I have sworn; I am firm …
The most obvious feature of Lear’s character, and the dominant one from the beginning is his arrogance, which everybody agrees, has been nourished by a long career of absolute power. (You might, if you find yourself with a minute to spare, tune in to Sky News and their minute-by-minute coverage of Brexit at Westminster and see if you can identify any modern-day proponents of this self-same arrogance!). Like Boris, the slightest opposition makes Lear fly into a towering rage. Those who question his pettiest whim, or dispute his judgments, are exposed to incredible retaliation. It is not enough for Lear to banish Kent: he also threatens him with capital punishment. Not only does he withdraw his favour from Cordelia: he treats her as if he has never known her: she is now ‘new adopted to our hate’. These traits are still evident after he has abdicated and when he abandons himself to the ‘charity’ of Goneril and Regan. Indeed, if anything, his unpredictability and tempers worsen. He is remarkable at this stage for his impatience, his lack of self-control, his arrogance and mood swings. Even faithful followers like the Fool and Kent are treated very poorly; he threatens the Fool and makes little of Kent’s loyalty and faithfulness. Those who provoke his anger fare even worse. He strikes Goneril’s gentleman and insults Oswald. His curses on Goneril are fearsome. After Regan has disappointed him, he is seized by a terrible frenzy of passion which finds its outlet in a kind of madness.
Yet, even though we must always bear in mind that Lear is our tragic hero, no account that fails to point out these repellent aspects of his character can do justice to the portrait that Shakespeare wants to put before us. Some commentators are content to see him almost exclusively as a noble, suffering old man cruelly treated by his daughters. The other side of Lear is at least half the truth. Shakespeare goes to considerable rounds to underline his brutality, bitterness, fierceness, egotism, self-pity and fickleness. There is also the fact that he often tends to desire vengeance on all those (including his daughters) who injure or annoy him. It is interesting to notice that, early in the play, Shakespeare allows Goneril and Regan to comment on Lear’s hotheadedness, on the fact that ‘the best and soundest of his time hath been but rash’. They also feel that age has further weakened his already poor judgement and that his angry nature can break out in ‘inconstant starts’. This is the one instance (and the only one) where we see things from their point of view.
It is important to bear in mind, however, that the entire tendency of the play is to cause the reader or spectator to discount Lear’s failings and to regard him with compassion, sympathy and understanding. One major factor in Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear is that all the characters we admire look on his situation from his point of view, and this is clearly what Shakespeare wants us to do also. He is, after all, the tragic hero and Shakespeare wants us to view Lear very much as a man ‘more sinned against than sinning’. In a way, Lear’s faults and failings are not the things we are invited to concentrate on. Shakespeare is concerned less with the personal weaknesses and shortcomings of his main character than with the monstrous insult offered by Goneril and Regan and their allies to some of the most sacred values of human beings: fatherhood, old age and kingship. The German critic Levin Schucking makes this essential point about this aspect of Shakespeare’s presentation of Lear as tragic hero:
Lear … appears like an old, gnarled, stubborn oak tree, vigorously resisting the tempest, unyielding, majestic, deep-rooted, upheld only by its own strength, and towering above all its fellows. His weakness may almost be said to be the necessary concomitants of his strong qualities. His vindictiveness appears to be the result of his strength; his savage maledictions seem due to his fiery temperament. He is meant to be seen as a sublime and truly noble figure.
Many critics and scholars have found the real heart of the play, its essential ‘meaning’, in Lear’s movement from pride, egotism and spiritual blindness to understanding, insight and love. This is often seen as a process of purification, by means of which, through suffering, Lear is led out of his severely limited vision into a proper recognition of the true values of life. Through the course of his misery, Lear achieves a degree of spiritual apprehension and insight which he never achieved in the years of his prosperity. At the outset, we see him as a proud and angry old man for whom love is merely an instrument of self-glorification. After he has felt humiliation and endured the fury of the storm he becomes increasingly aware of his own faults and of the needs and sufferings of others. In the great transitional scene on the heath, he shows kindness towards the Fool (‘Poor Fool and knave, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry for thee’), and he urges Kent and the Fool to go before him into the hovel. Before sleeping he will pray, and in his prayer, he thinks of the poor naked wretches of whose misery he has never before been sufficiently aware: ‘O, I have taken too little care of this’.
In Lear, religious feeling grows out of suffering and disappointment with worldly hopes; before he gains his soul, he must first lose the world. His final two speeches before he goes to prison are deeply religious. He renounces all power and earthly prosperity; he is contrite of heart; with Cordelia he will pray and meditate on heavenly things; he talks of blessing, forgiveness and sacrifices. His long and painful trial, far from giving one cause for doubting divine benevolence, may be interpreted in quite the opposite sense. A.C Bradley realised this, and in a celebrated passage, he argued that Lear owes his own spiritual awareness,
to those sufferings which make us doubt whether life was not simply evil, and men like the flies which wanton boys torture for their sport. Should we not be at least as near the truth if we called this play, The Redemption of King Lear, and declared that the business of the gods with him was neither to torment him, nor to teach him a noble anger, but to lead him to attain through apparently hopeless failure the very end and aim of life.
The main stages of Lear’s spiritual development can be charted as follows:
His efforts to practice self-control and patience
His repentance for his treatment of Cordelia
His speech on ‘true need’
His pity for the ‘poor naked wretches’
His recognition of the falseness of flattery and of the brutal nature of authority
His consideration for the Fool (‘In boy, go first’)
His ‘I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep’ in the hovel, in contrast to his earlier vehement cursing and crying for vengeance
His discovery of love and its true meaning
His new notion of happiness (‘Come let’s away to prison’) with Cordelia
His ‘conversion’ is not an altogether simple, straightforward process. Against the idea that he is converted during the course of the play from a proud, fierce egotist into a patient, suffering Christian martyr, one has to bear in mind his outbursts of anger, hatred and vindictiveness to the very end:
A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all ….
I killed the slave that was a hanging thee ….
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion ….
I would have made them skip ….
Similarly, his madness is not a straightforward process either. Madness is one of the central themes of the play. Lear’s madness is part of its paradoxical structure. What is most striking about Shakespeare’s presentation of this theme is that during his mad scenes, Lear’s lunacy is allowed co-exist with his deepest insights. The matter is well expressed by Edgar in the most powerful paradox of the play; ‘o matter and impertinency mixed / Reason in madness’ (IV, vi, 178). Like Gloucester’s blindness, Lear’s madness becomes a positive value. Because he is mad, Lear is set free from conventional restraints and limitations and can see the defects of society from a new perspective. He reaches a degree of understanding which he never achieved while he was sane. He now understands how flatterers obscured his view of reality; he understands the hypocrisy of society with regard to crimes of lust; he rails against the common treatment of criminals, and against his own long neglect of the poor and defenceless. He sees, too, that the human condition is inevitably tragic:
When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools …. IV, vi, 179
Lear is not the only character who exemplifies the play’s preoccupation with reason in madness. Shakespeare chooses a trinity of men to suggest that the greatest wisdom may belong to those whom the world may regard as either mad or useless. Lear is a doting old man even before he descends into madness; the Fool is unbalanced, and Edgar a pretended madman, an outcast beggar, an incompetent manager of worldly affairs. The comments and attitudes of these three embody most of the wisdom that the play has to offer on questions of life and living.
The following are the main stages in Lear’s madness, which is induced by a series of shocks:
The rebuff by Cordelia
The attack by Goneril, which makes him pretend not to know her and not to know himself
He begins to realise how he has wronged Cordelia
In Act I, Scene v, there is full recognition of his folly
At the end of Act I, he has his first serious premonition of insanity, ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven…’
The third great shock comes when he finds Kent in the stocks. This insult to his royal dignity causes the first physical symptoms of hysteria (hysterica passio: II, iv, 55).
The fourth great shock is his rejection by Regan. The storm is the projection on the macrocosm (the universe) of the tempest in the microcosm (the human mind) … ‘O, Fool, I shall go mad’.
He identifies with the storm … a sign that reason has been overthrown by passion.
He is on the verge of madness when he invokes the storm to destroy the seeds of matter … ‘My wits begin to turn’.
The appearance of Poor Tom drives him over the edge. Poor Tom is both a living embodiment of the ‘naked poverty’ and one who is, apparently, what Lear has feared to become. In acting out the madman’s role, Edgar brings on Lear’s madness. Exposure to the elements and physical exhaustion hinder his recovery from the shocks he has so far endured.
He is soon trying to identify himself with unaccommodated man by tearing off his clothes.
A. C. Bradley saw the real beginning of Lear’s madness in ‘Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?’ (II, iv, 49), which marks the dominance of a fixed idea or obsession.
The madness of the elements, the professional ‘madness’ of the Fool, the pretended madness of Edgar, the madness of the King – all exemplify the break-up of society and the break-up of the universe itself under the impact of ingratitude and treachery. Then Gloucester appears, almost mad with grief at his son’s treachery, and only Kent is wholly sane.
The ‘trial scene’ is the peak of Lear’s madness. He imagines he sees Goneril and Regan … ‘She kicked the poor King her father …’. Cordelia describes him at the peak of his madness (‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow weeds…’). The whole tableau marks a reversion to childhood.
Lear recovers his wits at the end of Act IV. His cure comes with sleep, music and Cordelia’s love … and finally with his confession and kneeling to her.
After his recovery, Lear never really returns to the world of time and space. Cordelia becomes his whole world, and he lives in a kingdom that she creates for him by her presence.
Cordelia can be misunderstood. She is not to be seen as a totally meek, saintly sufferer, or as a totally passive victim. In many ways, if you think about it, she is very like her father! She has inherited his pride and like him, she too can be obstinate and stubborn. She responds to his pride with her own pride at the beginning. There is one detail in the reconciliation scene which tells us much about her character. While her father is still asleep, she can address him eloquently, and in a way which leaves her love for him in no doubt. But when he is awake, she finds it difficult to express her love and can speak only in monosyllables. There is one main line of development in her character: by the end, pride, though still evident, is submerged in love.
Cordelia appears in only four of the twenty-six scenes and speaks only about a hundred lines. Her influence on the overall effect of the play is, however, out of all proportion to this small contribution. For many readers, not all of them sentimentalists, her very presence in the play goes far in the direction of counterbalancing the evil represented by her sisters and their allies. She can be eloquent enough at times, but her characteristic feature, emphasised more than once, is silence, or quiet, economical speech. Lear remembers her voice as having been ‘soft, gentle and low’. She herself recognises her inability to find words to express her deepest feelings:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth.
Her motto is ‘Love and be silent’. All she can manage by way of verbal reaction to Kent’s letter is the repetition of the name of ‘Father’, and then she goes off ‘to deal with grief alone’. Her reticence during the reconciliation scene is again characteristic (‘And so I am, I am … No cause, no cause …’). In fact, her only response to his final speech is one of tearful silence.
Kent wonders how Cordelia, Goneril and Regan could be the children of the same parents:
It is the stars,
The stars that govern us, govern our conditions;
Else one self mate and mate could not beget
Such different issues ….
There is, however, a sense in which Cordelia can be seen as embodying some aspects, good and bad, of Lear’s character. She is as R.B. Heilman remarks, the side of Lear capable of tenderness, love and insight, but she also embodies some, though not all, of his proneness to error. His rash abdication amounts to a refusal of responsibility, a fatal withdrawal from the world of action. But Cordelia’s refusal to co-operate in his childish scheme for the distribution of power also amounts to a withdrawal from responsibility. The combined withdrawal of Lear and Cordelia, through pride and self-will, allows power to pass into the hands of Goneril and Regan. As A.C. Bradley puts it, ‘at a moment where terrible issues join, Fate makes on her the one demand which she is unable to meet’.
In the thematic scheme of the play, she is an embodiment of a concept of Nature totally opposed to that represented by Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Gloucester. For her, the natural bond between father and daughter is central to human existence. Her absolute fidelity to this is her most obvious claim on our attention and admiration. Her sisters break all the natural bonds and pursue their egotistical ends with remorseless energy. She upholds the principles on which civilised life must ultimately depend. Her role in this regard is defined by the Gentleman:
Thou hast a daughter
Who redeems Nature from the general curse
Which twain have brought her to.
The meaning of these lines is that Cordelia, through her selfless clarity with regard to her erring father has corrected the gross imbalance in Nature which Goneril and Regan have brought about.
Goneril and Regan
Lear’s two wicked daughters cannot quite be classified together as indistinguishable partners in evil. They are distinguished in various significant ways. Goneril, the elder, is the more active of the two in the pursuit of crime. She commits murder and adultery and plots the murder of her husband. She appends her name to Edmund’s on the death-warrant for Lear and Cordelia. She has the more forceful character of the two, and as far as one can judge, fears nothing or nobody, either in this world or the next. She pays no heed to Lear’s curse and, significantly, she is the only one of the major characters who never mentions the gods. Her suicide following her exposure and the collapse of her schemes is undertaken without hesitation and without any sign of inner turmoil. On the other hand, Regan’s wickedness is not on as grand a scale as Goneril’s. She is more petty, she is meaner, and she is weaker in character. She resorts to telling a lie about Edmund’s intentions towards Gloucester, something Goneril would scorn doing. On the other hand, it is the ‘weaker’ Regan who becomes, in the end, the more violent in cruelty, turning even more savage than even Cornwall her husband. She jeers at the blinded Gloucester, telling him with relish that his son has betrayed him.
Perhaps the most important quality of mind that Goneril and Regan have in common is that they are rationalists and realists, totally unhampered by any moral sense or family feeling. Their aim in life is to satisfy their own desires. They are shrewd and practical and, within limits, most effective operators. What they lack above all is imagination. They have no time whatever for sentiment and fail to see why Lear should want to enjoy the outward symbols of status. They are prepared to use his old age as a justification for taking these away from him. In their logical scheme of things, old age has no use or function, and old men are superfluous nuisances.
Goneril, in particular, exhibits considerable cunning in bringing about Lear’s humiliation. Regan would prefer a more cautious approach; Goneril acts to bring trouble to a head and gets things over quickly and ruthlessly. She first tells Oswald that he and his fellows may adopt a ‘weary negligence’ in attending to Lear’s needs because she would ‘breed occasions’. She then complains to Lear, with much show of reason and in a righteous tone about the behaviour of his men. Regan’s dishonesty follows a similar pattern. She is mistress of the technique of guilt by association. When, for example, Gloucester comments on Edgar’s supposed treachery, she asks, ‘Was he not companion with the riotous knights / That tend upon my father’ (II, I, 96).
Lear touches on an essential feature of both his daughters when in his madness he wonders about Regan’s conduct: ‘Let them anatomize Regan, see what breeds about her heart. Is there any cause in Nature that makes these hard hearts?’ Hardness of heart is, of course, a mild term for what Goneril and Regan exhibit as they grow in power. When they hear of Gloucester’s defection, they react spontaneously with brutal directness:
Regan: Hang him instantly.
Goneril: Pluck out his eyes. (III,vii, 4)
It is appropriate that some of the more revolting images of the play are used in connection with the two, Goneril in particular. She is a kite, her ingratitude has a serpent’s tooth, she has a wolfish face; in her sharp-toothed unkindness, she is like a vulture attacking her father. Albany sees her as a gilded serpent; Gloucester says she has the fangs of a boar.
Both Goneril and Regan are efficient managers of the operations against their father and Gloucester. They prove effective in serving their own interests – up to a point. The turning point in their fortunes is reached when their strongest weapons – coolness and calculation – are destroyed by passion. When Goneril, seeing Edmund, gives him ‘strange oeilliads and most speaking looks’, she rouses Regan’s jealousy. The passion they both feel for Edmund cannot be controlled or manipulated in the same way that their other activities could. But even before this passion clouds their reason, they are beginning to lose control. This is evident in their dealings with Gloucester, where their wildness and loss of emotional balance contrast with their coolly efficient attitude to Lear. Their intense rivalry over Edmund causes them to behave rashly and even foolishly, to abandon the careful, pragmatic approach that ensured their worldly success up to now. As Granville-Barker observed, ‘Regan with a little law on her side, presumes on it, and Goneril poisons her, as she might a rat’. There is, of course, a fundamental irony in the fate of the two, particularly in the fact that children who could entertain no particle of feeling for their aged father who loved them should be destroyed by a consuming passion for an egotistical monster who cared nothing for either of them: ‘Which of them shall I take? Both? One? Or neither?’ (V, ii, 57).
Edgar is easily the most puzzling character in the play. There are those who suggest that he is not really a character at all, and that the name Edgar covers a sequence of roles rather than a stable personality. One can identify five different Edgars over the course of the play:
The simple-minded victim of Edmund’s scheming
The Bedlam Beggar
The chivalrous champion who takes on Edmund in single combat; and
The choric commentator on the action of the play
Those who wonder about Shakespeare’s intentions with regard to Edgar ask how one is to believe that the foolish, pitiful figure of the first few scenes can become the impressive, authoritative one who lends distinction to the closing scenes. The commonest explanation is to see the change in terms of the kind of moral development exhibited in other characters: Lear, Gloucester, Cordelia, Albany. Edgar, if he is to be seen as a single, consistent character, must then be understood as one who learns by experience, and by exposure to suffering, his own and that of others.
It is best, however, not to look too closely at Edgar’s ‘personality’, or the lack of it, but to emphasise his functions as a choric commentator and as the play’s wise philosopher. He embodies much of the religious feeling of the play, as can be seen from his numerous pronouncements on the relations of the gods with men. He has a deep and cheerful faith in the ultimate triumph of goodness, and in the benevolence of the Powers who govern man’s destiny on earth. He is the one who can see beyond temporary changes in human fortune to some grand design. His function with regard to Gloucester is to save him from despair. It is appropriate that he should be the one to provide the answer to Gloucester’s black indictment of the gods as no better than boys who kill flies for sport:
therefore, thou happy father
Think that the clearest gods, who make them honours
Of men’s impossibilities, have preserved thee ….
It is possible, at times, to find Edgar’s moral stance a bit chilling and stern. One comment that springs to mind in this regard is his verdict on his dead father, delivered to the dying Edmund:
The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us:
The dark place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes …
Moralising comes naturally to him, but he is, on the whole, a compassionate moralist, feeling deeply for his father (Act IV, Scene i), acting as his guide and tutor, and repaying evil with kindness and sympathy. Those who read King Lear as a Christian play with a pagan setting can point to Edgar’s behaviour, attitudes and comments. A striking instance is his treatment of the dying Edmund:
Let’s exchange charity
Little wonder that Granville Barker called Edgar ‘a very Christian gentleman’.
Edmund is one of the most imposing ‘personalities’ of the play. He is endowed by Shakespeare with singular force and energy. He has a distinctive point of view, a distinctive attitude to everybody and everything around him, and a highly individual mode of expression. He is perhaps the most evil of all of Shakespeare’s characters, quite amoral, devoted exclusively to his own interests, and prepared to destroy anything or anybody that might interfere with his plans. There is, however, a significant contrast between him and Lear’s evil daughters. Nobody has ever been able to come up with anything even moderately favourable to say on their behalf; in his case, on the other hand, one is compelled to acknowledge a certain superficial attractiveness, a range of interesting attitudes, a liveliness of mind, a real, if perverted, sense of humour, qualities which make it possible for one critic to call him the ‘wittiest and most attractive of villains’! His ‘wit’ is, of course, exercised at the expense of his ‘credulous father and brother noble’, the first a man of limited intellect to begin with, the second an incredibly naïve victim. His positive qualities include a considerable strength of will, an excellent presence, and enough charm and plausibility of manner to impress a variety of observers, including Goneril and Regan.
Our first view of him is as a rational, cynical observer of the follies and superstitions of other men, particularly Gloucester. He is very much the ‘modern’ man, with no time for traditional values or for the accepted view of things. He is an atheist. He denies any relationship between the ‘orbs from whom we do exist’ and his own destiny. He also refuses to accept the central notion of an organic universe, with all the bonds and relationships that this implies. He recognises no ties between himself and others, no obligations on his part. He thus rejects the scheme of values represented by Cordelia and Albany. The latter, in a famous comment, holds that a strong bond of natural sympathy binds human beings to each other, like twigs to the branches of a tree.
Edmund has no principles of any kind, nor does he pretend to have. He places no value on anybody else. The claims of blood-relationship, friendship or loyalty mean nothing to him. He looks on others either as the means of helping him to make his way in the world, or as hindrances to his advancement, and he acts accordingly (‘Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land’). His attitude to Goneril and Regan illustrates both his total heartlessness and his cynical humour:
To both these sisters have I sworn my love
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? One? Or neither?
He never allows himself to be distracted from his aims, his eventual one being the crown. He takes his chances as they come. He is master (like some in Westminster and Washington today) of the technique of plausible lying and this is most evident in his undoing of Edgar. Even as he betrays his own father to Cornwall he talks of loyalty!
Shakespeare provides various subtle touches in his portrait of Edmund. As he advances in the world he becomes a snob. ‘If thou art noble’, he tells the masked Edgar, ‘I do forgive thee’. He finally exposes himself to ridicule and humiliation when he begins to regard himself as Albany’s equal, and tries to patronise him (‘Sir, you speak nobly’). Albany, however, is more than a match for him here, and puts him firmly in his place:
Sir, by your patience
I hold you but as a subject of this war
Not as a brother
Half-blooded fellow, yes …
Perhaps the ultimate sign of Edmund’s worthlessness as a human being is his belated gesture in attempting to save Lear and Cordelia, and his motives for the attempt. The significant point about the episode is that it is only after Goneril confesses to poisoning Regan and then commits suicide that Edmund, believing that he was loved, thinks of trying to save Lear and Cordelia:
Yet Edmund was beloved.
The one the other poisoned for my sake
And after slew herself …
I pant for life. Some good I mean to do
Despite of mine own nature … V, iii, 240
It is worth noticing that in the presence of the dead bodies of those he supposes loved him, he says nothing about them but thinks only of himself, and even at this late hour of his life enjoys the luxury of being ‘loved’ in so extreme and dramatic a fashion. There is a note of sentimental vanity and self-congratulation in his closing speech. It is also characteristic of him that he talks impressively about meaning to do good, and that his only real effort in this direction comes too late to be of any use. It may, perhaps, be idle speculation about his motives for wanting to save Lear and Cordelia. One suggestion is that he is moved by Edgar’s account of his father’s death. Another is that surrounded as he is at this point by ‘good’ characters, he takes on some of the qualities of his environment. Another way to see his action is that having lost everything he cared for (his own life and worldly position), he can perform his dramatic gesture to impress the onlookers, without any loss to himself, but without any real commitment either. There is also the possibility that we are to take Edgar’s last dramatic gesture as Shakespeare’s way of saying that even the most morally depraved can sometimes display unaccustomed virtue in certain circumstances.
One of Gloucester’s main functions in the play is as a parallel to Lear. Like Lear, he is betrayed by the child he loves, and supported by the one he unjustly rejects. His sufferings may be traced to human folly and injustice, and, like Lear’s, these sufferings purify his character and enlighten him. He dies a better man than he is when we first meet him. There are also parallels of character and temperament between the two: like Lear, Gloucester is credulous, hasty and affectionate. It must, of course, be remembered that Gloucester is built on a very much smaller scale than Lear. He has nothing of Lear’s tempestuous force and energy. He is the kind of man one might encounter anywhere in fiction or, indeed, in Westminster or Washington: sensual, careless of the moral code, easy-going, and easily prone to deceit. One aspect of his behaviour is difficult to credit: the ease with which he falls a victim of Edmund’s deception. Granville-Barker has suggested that no human being could be as gullible as Gloucester is here, but that Shakespeare asks us to allow him the fact of the deception, just as we have allowed him Lear’s partition of the kingdom. Such a starting-point, the dramatists ‘let’s pretend’, is essential to the process of getting the story going. In any case, Shakespeare also makes Gloucester a believer in astrology, ‘these late eclipses of the sun and moon’: if he can believe these things, we feel, he can believe anything.
There are strong indications that Gloucester is not a man of firm moral purpose. His flippant attitude to his ‘fault’ in begetting Edmund is a clear indication of this, as is the fact that the illegitimate Edmund is younger, not older, than Edgar. (Think about it!).
It is only when prosperous times change to bad, when multiple suffering strikes, that the ‘new’ Gloucester begins to emerge. He tries to fight against the facts of his predicament and of those nearest to him. Rather than be conscious of his ‘huge sorrows’, he would choose madness like Lear’s. His conversion from benevolent, helpless neutrality to tentative support for Lear is not exactly heroic. He does his best to ensure that his help for the king will not be noticed by the dangerous Cornwall. ‘If he asks for me’, he tells Edmund, ‘I am ill and gone to bed’. The irony here is that in confiding in Edmund he is ensuring not his own safety but his destruction, his blinding and casting out of doors.
The essential point to make about Gloucester is his transformation from a weak, erratic sensuality and a feeble-minded devotion to astrology into an impressive witness to the just dealings of Providence with men, and to the power of filial love. Like Lear, Gloucester attains a higher conception of himself and of man’s destiny through appalling suffering. He grows better through suffering which elicits from him a profoundly religious response. His astrological superstition is the nearest he gets to a sense of the supernatural until after he has endured torture and deprivation. His real transformation begins during the horrible scene in which he is blinded by Cornwall; the extremity of his suffering causes him to call on the gods for help: then he prays for Edgar and asks forgiveness for his own sins. Before he casts himself down to what he thinks will be his death, he kneels and prays to the ‘mighty gods’ and in their sight, he renounces the world. After he has been saved from death by Edgar his sense of heavenly goodness deepens. It is, paradoxically, through his own pain and sorrow and the misery of others that he is at last made aware of ‘the bounty and the benison of heaven’. It is surely worth remarking that after all he has suffered Shakespeare has him utter this prayer at the end:
You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me:
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.
It is necessary to distinguish between the character of the Fool and his role. There is really little enough that one can say about the personality of the Fool, or about his distinctive qualities; there is a good deal to be said about his function in the play, particularly in relation to Lear.
Shakespeare inherited the Fool from the drama of his predecessors – the court jester, the clown. His most obvious function was to entertain the vulgar members of the audience (‘the groundlings’) with his antics, songs, jokes, quibbles and dances. There is an element of this in the Lear Fool, who provides some lively entertainment. Those who write about the character of Lear’s Fool all point out his utter fidelity and loyalty to his master, in good times and in very bad ones. There is also his touching devotion to Cordelia, reflected in the words of the attendant Knight to Lear (‘Since my young lady’s going away into France, Sir, the Fool hath much pined away’).
There has been a good deal of debate on whether the Fool is sane, mad, pretending to be mad, or just half-witted. A.C. Bradley has an excellent comment on the matter, particularly in relation to the storm scenes, where the Fool’s role becomes vital. Bradley asks the question:
Are we to suppose that the insanity of the third character, the Fool, is a mere repetition of that of the beggar – that it, too, is a mere pretence?
He argues that the Fool lives in a logical world of his own, and does not observe the normal distinctions between sense and nonsense, what is the wise thing to do and the unwise. He is a being, in Bradley’s words,
… to whom a responsible and consistent course of action, even responsible use of language, is at the best of times difficult.
Therefore, a good summary of his mental state might be that he is ‘quick-witted though not whole-witted’.
In the overall scheme of the play, the Fool’s main task is to expose the folly of all those who are supposed to be fully sane and capable in a world of practical affairs from which he is, being a Fool, excluded. His relationship with Lear in the storm scenes is the real justification for his role. He is Lear’s conscience, his inner voice, which consistently cries out against Lear’s error and foolishness. He is also seen to be Lear’s tutor, giving his master many bitter lessons on the realities of life. When Lear, in Kent’s words, ‘falls to folly’, the Fool must rise to wisdom. There is continuous and subtle irony in the Fool’s remarks about folly, a keyword in the play, and in the contrast between these remarks and his own behaviour. On the one hand, he comments severely on the lack of practical wisdom shown by Kent in taking the side of Lear, whose cause is a lost one (‘If thou wouldst follow him, thou must needs wear my coxcomb’). Here, of course, he is arguing exactly as Goneril and Regan might: he sees folly as not watching one’s own interests. Again, when he finds Kent in the stocks, he lectures him on the folly of adhering to the losing side, and the wisdom of abandoning one’s loyalty when self-interest points to this course: ‘Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following it; but the great one that goes upward, let him draw thee after’. This, of course, is rich in irony: the Fool’s words here are mainly a parody of similar sentiments in the speeches of Goneril, Regan and Edmund. He will not take his own advice, nor will Kent. Both elect to turn their backs on ‘practical’, selfish wisdom, and instead, they choose unselfish, devoted folly:
But I will tarry; the Fool will stay
And let the wise man fly …
It is worth noticing that nearly all of the Fool’s numerous references to fools and folly are directed at Lear’s poor management of his own interests. The Fool is not concerned with worldly success or failure; he is much more concerned with the fact that Lear has acted out of a false sense of values, has failed to understand essentials, and, like many contemporary politicians in England at this time, has shown incredibly poor judgement in his dealings with the division of his kingdom and in his dealings with his daughters. It is the essential task of the Fool to set Lear thinking on the meaning of his actions, and to stimulate in him a re-appraisal of his attitudes.
Albany is another of those characters (Lear and Gloucester being the other great examples) who develop in moral stature during the course of the action. There are two distinct phases in his career in the play. In the early one, he is clearly under the sway of his strong-minded wife Goneril. Such, indeed, is her dominance that he is at first is unable to act independently of her will, however differently he may feel. He does not want to be cruel to Lear and is almost certainly telling the truth when he protests that he does not know the reason for Lear’s violent rage. On the other hand, there is a strong hint that he shows himself less than enthusiastic about Lear’s stay at his house; the Knight tells Lear that ‘the abatement of kindness’ appears in the Duke himself also and your daughter’.
When Lear does decide to leave, Albany makes a half-hearted stand against Goneril’s decision, only to be brushed aside contemptuously:
Albany: I cannot be so partial, Goneril,
To the great love I bear you ….
Goneril: Pray you, content …
A little later, Goneril gives her frank assessment of her husband’s character:
This milky gentleness and course of yours
Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon,
You are much more attax’d for want of wisdom
Than praised for harmless mildness …
Little wonder that she leaves him behind when she goes to seek Regan’s help. She regards him (and at this point in their relationship, not without cause) as an inoffensive, negative, dull spirited man, wanting to leave well alone. Indeed, this seems to be his motto:
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
However, the ‘new’ Albany who recoils in horror from what has been done to Gloucester is quite a different character from the earlier one. Granville-Barker makes a good point when he says that Albany is one of those, ‘who let their wrath gather beneath a placid surface till on a sudden it boils over, and if the cause of it lies deep they are never the same again’. Goneril makes herself intolerable to him and he determines to avenge Gloucester’s wrongs:
See thyself devil!
Proper deformity shows not in the fiend
So horrid as in woman … Gloucester I live
To thank thee for the love thou show’st the king,
And to revenge thine eyes….
Albany has by now cast aside his timidity and begun to exert a moral authority that justifies Oswald’s ‘never man so chang’d’. Goneril can no longer put him in his place; her heaped insults no longer cow him or even greatly impress him. He is far from ‘the milk livered man’ she still believes him to be; he answers her in something like her own kind of language; his hands ‘are apt enough to dislocate and tear / Thy flesh and bones’.
In the last moments of the play, he becomes a major force, a calm, noble presence presiding over the course of events. The landing of Cordelia’s French army places him in a dilemma: he must fight against her soldiers because they are invaders, but he is reluctant because Cordelia represents her father. Shakespeare, however, underplays the difficulty of giving Edmund the leading part in the action against Cordelia’s forces. Albany’s real strength of character emerges in his dealings with Edmund after the battle. He puts the adventurous upstart in his place (‘I hold you as a subject of this war / Not as a brother’). In the end, Shakespeare preserves Albany’s dignity and superiority by giving Edgar the task of disposing of Edmund.
Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.
Granville Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol 2. King Lear, Cymbeline, Julius Caesar. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors (P) Ltd, 2006.
Heilman, R.B., This Great Stage: Structure in King Lear. Louisiana State University. 1948.
Holloway, John. The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare’s Major Tragedies. Routledge: London and New York. 1961 (Reprinted 2005).
Murray, Patrick. King Lear in Inscapes published by The Educational Company of Ireland. 1980
Schucking, Levin L., Character Problems in Shakespeare’s Plays: A Guide to the Better Understanding of the Dramatist. First published by George G. Harrap in July 1922.
Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.
Stampfer, J., The Catharsis of King Lear’ in Shakespeare Survey 13, Cambridge, 1960
You might also like to read an analysis of Image Patterns in King Learhere.
You might also like to read ‘Some Central Themes in King Lear’ which touches on topics like The gods in King Lear, Nature in King Lear, The Death of Lear, etc…. here.
Shakespeare uses the character of Macduff largely as a foil to show the shortcomings of his tragic hero Macbeth. He is a man of great integrity yet he is portrayed as very one-dimensional in the play. He is also a man of ‘high degree’, a Thane and as such he represents a role of freely given allegiance and service to his King. He is without any vestige of personal ambition and is simply content to loyally serve Duncan, his King.
It is Macduff who is the first of the innocent bystanders to discover the fact that Duncan has been murdered. His reaction is one of horror at the sight of Duncan’s body and it conveys clearly his profound sense of the sacredness of majesty, of that ‘divinity that doth hedge a king.’ This emphasises for us the enormity of what has just happened and that the murder of a king is no ordinary crime. To Macduff, Duncan’s murder seems like the ‘great doom’s image’, it signals the end of the world as he had known it.
‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece! Most sacrilegious murder has broke ope The lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence The life o’ the building.’
We realise from the beginning that Macduff would never be capable of the equivocation that Macbeth has already begun the master following the death of Duncan. This sense of integrity and loyalty is further ratified when we learn that he will not make the journey to Scone to see Macbeth crowned. It is clear that he is already suspicious of the man who is going to succeed Duncan as king, and that he is not prepared to feign a loyalty he does not feel.
‘Well may you see things well done there… Lest our old robes sit easier than our new’.
An important aspect of Macduff’s role is now already becoming clear at this stage of the play: he is to be seen as the principled dissenter, too honest and too sincerely concerned with Scotland’s welfare to be capable of giving unquestioning allegiance to the new regime under Macbeth. Macduff’s moral courage and ‘manliness’ is shown in the fact that he takes a stance against Macbeth at a time when even Banquo has remained silent.
The next time we hear about Macduff in the play is when he goes to England to interview Malcolm who is Duncan’s son and rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. Lennox tells us in Act IV Scene i that ‘Macduff is fled to England’. He goes there to plead with Malcolm to return to Scotland and restore order and legitimate rule there. It is clearly evident that Macduff’s role has become much more significant in terms of the play’s plot. He is emerging as a pivotal character, a king-maker, in mobilising the forces for good against Macbeth’s corrupt rule. As Act IV progresses, we begin to realise that Macbeth is threatened by the existence of Macduff because he is a respected and mature figure among the Scottish Thanes. The issue of manliness is an important one here. Shakespeare seems to want us to understand, through the principled stance of Macduff, that a single brave man’s opposition can have an effect even in the face of the barefaced exercise of tyrannical power.
Macbeth, it is clear, is not surprised when the first apparition tells him ‘to beware Macduff’, and he comments ‘Thou has harped my fear aright.’ When he hears of Macduff’s flight to England, in an act of temper and fury, he decides to wipe out his enemy’s family as a proxy for Macduff himself. Thus, in a fit of insanely misdirected violence, Macbeth commits a crime against the innocent and uninvolved. In this act of gratuitous violence, he alienates the audience from himself as no other of his earlier crimes have done.
Macduff in deciding to go to England has had to choose between the safety of his family and the safety of his country. Thus Macduff, in being true to Scotland, seems, to his own wife, to be a traitor.
‘To leave his wife, his babes … in a place From whence himself does fly? He loves us not, he wants the natural touch.’
Later on, Macduff himself will exclaim with a bitter sense of guilt:
‘Sinful Macduff! They were all struck for thee.’
When we encounter Macduff in England in Act IV Scene iii we again see him in the role of practical patriot seeking to encourage Malcolm to take up arms against Macbeth:
‘Hold fast the mortal sword … Bestride our downfall’n birthdom.’
In this powerful scene Shakespeare also seems to use Macduff as a spokesperson for suffering Scotland:
‘Each new morn New widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows Strike heaven on the face… ‘
Macduff’s patriotism is severely tested by Malcolm. Despite the false catalogue of sins which Malcolm claims to have committed, Macduff is too honest and too principled a man to be able to take any more, ‘Fit to govern?’ he exclaims angrily and concludes ‘No, not to live.’ Turning away in misery and despair his thoughts turn towards Scotland:
‘O nation miserable, with an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?’
Once again, it has been made clear in the play that Macduff’s dominant quality is his blunt honesty. This man could never have hung about Macbeth’s court paying him ‘mouth honour’ as many have been doing up to now. The equivocation and hypocrisy associated with the world of evil would always have been alien to this man’s nature.
When he learns shortly after this about the death of his wife and all his children Macduff is shown at his most affectingly human and paradoxically also at his most manly. He cries out in agony:
‘All my pretty ones? O hell kite Did you say all? All? What all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop?’
When Malcolm tells him to ‘Dispute it like a man,’ he replies in a tone of quiet dignity and telling rebuke:
‘I shall do so But I must also feel it as a man I cannot but remember such things were That were most precious to me.’
Here, at this point, we cannot but recall Lady Macbeth’s words earlier and of her resolve to dash her baby’s brains out rather than be forsworn. Here, through Macduff, Shakespeare is reminding us that true manliness is not divorced from feelings or diminished by tears.
What follows is Macduff’s determination to bring Macbeth to justice:
‘Front to front Bring on this fiend of Scotland and myself Within my sword’s length; if he ‘scape Heaven forgive him too.’
Macduff is now aware of only one solemn religious duty which is the elimination of Macbeth. When he and Macbeth finally meet, it becomes obvious that we are intended to see Macduff as the instrument of divine retribution. His sense of duty is uppermost in his mind right up to the end:
‘If thou beest not slain and with no stroke of mine My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.’
The irony of Macbeth’s end is that he is killed by a man whose birth was rationally impossible; Macduff was from his mother’s womb ‘untimely ripp’d.’ Yet the man confronting Macbeth is undeniably real and undeniably ‘manly’. It is therefore appropriate that Macbeth would be ‘unmanned’ by what he has just heard:
‘It hath cowed my better part of man.’ Only now does he realise that the witches were truly ‘juggling fiends that palter with us in a double sense.’
Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff now becomes inevitable, as he himself and the audience are fully aware. It is appropriate that at the play’s conclusion it should be left to Macduff the unswerving and selfless patriot, the unassuming manly warrior, the man of absolute integrity to proclaim Malcolm as rightful king and announce at last that Scotland is liberated from tyranny:
‘The time is free.’
In the case of Macduff, Shakespeare has ensured that at every stage in the plot Macduff is credibly human. This was important in the context of this play’s emphasis on the terrifying and real power of evil. Shakespeare reminds us here through his depiction of Macduff that even when a country is enslaved to tyranny and subjected to a reign of terror, a single honest man by his refusal to compromise and by his principled and morally courageous dissent can be seen for what he is, and can certainly make a difference.
Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters. What first strikes us about the play is, perhaps, the dominance of the male characters. There are only three female characters in the play – Madge, Kate Doogan, and Lizzie Sweeney – and they take up only a small part of the plot. We could see this absence of women as an important aspect of the play – and of course, it is a failing which Friel rectified in later plays such as Dancing at Lughnasa. Here, however, it points, we could suggest, to the absence of even greater things – warmth, love, affection, tenderness, sincerity – and this is partly correct. Gar, we notice, is motherless. His only love affair has ended in failure. He looks to his father for affection only to be disappointed. Madge can only partly fulfil this need for affection which Gar so strongly expresses. Significantly one of the few uses of the word ‘love’ in the play is in a casual and incidental context, namely, in the letter Gar has written to his Aunt Lizzy accepting her invitation (p. 56). It would seem, therefore, that Friel is attempting to describe a world in which the ordinary affections that bring people closer together are absent.
So, we have established that female characters are missing from this play and so too are the human qualities they represent. But a close reading of the text reveals that women seem often to be hovering in the background. They appear as topics of conversation on more than one occasion. Some of these occasions are slight, although others are more important. At different instances in the play, Gar thinks of ‘the gorgeous American women’ he will meet in Philadelphia. In more serious moods, however, he questions Madge about his mother, and he recalls in detail his ‘love-affair’ with Katie Doogan. Each of these occasions is accompanied by a sense of loss. The Canon also – the epitome of the single male – is a totally emotionless character. When ‘the boys’ come in to visit Gar, the conversation soon turns round to women. Ned relates a story of a rather crude sexual adventure, and the boys all join in and laugh. However, Private gives the true version of Ned’s story. After that, Ned’s comments about ‘picking up a couple of women’ at the dance sound hollow and even pathetic.
With these points in mind, we can now consider Gar’s character in more detail. Gar is the protagonist of the play and the entire action revolves around him. At the start, we get a sense of his enthusiasm and his youth. He looks forward to his departure with a keen sense of delight. His old life is over, and he looks on his release from his father’s shop as an escape. Typically, he thinks of America in extravagant terms: the cities, the women, the affluence, the tremendous opportunities. These are the things he wants to experience. But they are also the things he has no real affection for. When Private makes his first entrance (p. 17), little episodes from the past begin to crop up in the play, past events which begin to dim Gar’s bright future. As he thinks of his life in Ballybeg, Gar says with relief, ‘It’s all over’ (p. 17). To this Private adds, ‘And it’s all about to begin’. This simple sentence, Private’s first statement in the play, is truer than it first appears. For Gar, everything does begin again, and before the play is over he relives many important episodes in his life. From this point, the play goes on to describe his mother’s death, then the episode with Katie Doogan. Later he will remember his childish affection for his father, the day they spent in the blue boat, as well as the nights and days he spent with ‘the boys’.
As all these memories come back to Gar his enthusiasm for America begins to wane. When he feels hurt or threatened his principal defence is to pass it off with a laugh. During the tea-time episode, while he sits with his father in silence, Private moves about the stage with comments directed at S.B.: ‘O God! Priceless! Beautiful! Delightful! Isn’t he a scream!’ We see the same sort of behaviour during the game of draughts, and when ‘the boys’ come to visit. On other occasions, however, Gar’s enthusiasm deserts him. He feels humiliated, alone, threatened, unable to laugh at his situation or to deflate it with humorous comments. There are numerous instances of this in the play.
For example, towards the end of Episode Two, after the scene with Katie Doogan, Gar is feeling upset and confused. Her cosy description of family life – ‘Mammy and Daddy. They’re all at home tonight’. – is strangely disturbing to Gar who has no experience of these things. As is usual for Gar he tries to hide his feelings, to laugh and to whistle. His mind races over the day’s happenings and we get a confused speech from Private describing a mixture of past, present and future events. He tries to console Gar that his situation ‘isn’t as bad as that …. Isn’t as bad as that’. Then suddenly Gar’s mind turns back to S.B. and we get a poignant climax to the speech just before the curtain drops, ‘….say something! Say something, father!’
For the rest of the play, Gar struggles to regain his composure. In the rosary scene he diverts his attention by thinking of ‘those Yankee women’ and of girls with exotic names, ‘Karin and Tamara’ (p. 88). But memories from the past keep crowding into his mind. He remembers, ‘that wintry morning in Bailtefree and the three days in Bundoran….’ He also recalls his most precious memory, the day he spent fishing with his father on the lake, ‘and you were happy too, you began to sing….’
Music and song are important aspects of Gar’s world, indeed of the play in general. The play’s title comes from the words of a song, and music and singing are introduced on several occasions in the play. These musical interludes have several functions. In the first place, they add realism to the action and are an important bridge between the characters and the audience. Secondly, they suggest the contrast that exists within Private and Public. While Public’s affection is for Mendelssohn and for softer Irish ballads, Private prefers ceili music and coarser Irish songs. Thirdly, musical interludes serve to recall past events to Gar’s mind, events that he had hidden away in his memory but which music and song evoke again. One particular touching example of this is the evocative ballad, ‘All round my hat I’ll wear a green coloured ribbon O…’. Gar recalls this song with tremendous affection. His father sang it at the end of their fishing trip on the lake. For Gar, it symbolises the happiness of that day so long ago. At the end of the play, he shyly approaches his father about this song, feeling sure that it would rekindle his memories also. As usual, however, Gar’s efforts end in disappointment, ‘All round my hat? No, I don’t think I ever knew that one….’.
One important aspect of Gar’s personality is seen in his relationship with the other characters in the play, particularly his father. He criticises and parodies his father’s behaviour, and makes him the subject of humorous comments. But he still feels a strong bond of affection for him. It is necessary that Friel should depict Gar in this way. If Gar rejected his father outright, his friends, and his past life in Ballybeg, then much of the drama would be lost. The success of the play comes from the tension in Gar’s feelings towards his father, his friends and his past life. Thus, he can laugh at his father, make fun of him verbally, but he can never reject him. Gar calls him ‘Screwballs’, and that, if anything, is certainly a term of abuse. But he also refers to him affectionately as ‘father’ on numerous occasions in the play. All the efforts at reconciliation are made by Gar. When he is rejected, we find him using words like, ‘It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter. Forget it’ (p105). W might reasonably expect that this rejection might lead to a complete loss of affection on Gar’s part. But in fact, it never does. Right up to the end of the play we never lose our esteem for him. Even in the last lines, we find him expressing his concern to Madge about his father’s welfare:’….you’d led me know if – if he got sick or anything?’
This very human side to Gar’s character is seen also in his relationship with other people in the play. When Master Boyle enters, for example, Gar thinks: ‘God, but he’s a sorry wreck too, arrogant and pathetic’ (p.44). In spite of this, however, he proceeds to treat Master Boyle with tremendous courtesy and respect. The Master is in trouble with the Canon, but Gar affectionately takes his side (‘Sure everyone knows the kind of the Canon, Master’ (p.44). He also accepts the present of his poems and helps him out with the loan of some money. Finally, he agrees to send the Master the names of newspapers and magazines where his poems might get published.
We get an extended look at this aspect of Gar’s character in his dealings with Madge throughout the play. We notice, for example, that he never once criticises her in any way. Neither does he treat her as a figure of fun as he does his father and Canon 0’Byrne. His behaviour towards her is always good-natured and affectionate. When she tells him the news about her niece’s new baby, Gar is delighted for her sake. In Episode One we get a long speech in which Gar’s affection for Madge is clearly expressed. Private addresses Gar with the following words: ‘And now what are you sad about? Just because she lives for those Mulhern children, and gives them whatever few half-pence she has. Madge, Madge, I think I love you more than any of them. Give me a piece of your courage, Madge’ (p.38). The final scene of Episode Three provides a touching conclusion to Gar’s affection for Madge in the play. As usual Gar’s feelings are hidden under his casual, indifferent comments, just as Madge’s true feelings are camouflaged by her gruffness. But Gar watches her attentively in a way that he will remember for the rest of his life: ‘Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture, every little peculiarity: keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you’ll run over and over again..’(p.110).
In the scene with ‘the boys’ Gar’s polite, submissive character is again shown quite clearly. At the beginning of this scene, Gar is flattered that ‘the boys’ have come to see him: ‘They were on their way when I ran into them’ (p.69), he says, happily. Soon Ned, the loudest and most boorish member of the group, dominates the conversation. He belches, slaps his knees, talks in a loud aggressive manner. His behaviour to Gar is somewhat uncivil, and at one point he turns on him gruffly: ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ (p.70.). Yet Gar tries to raise our esteem for his friends by saying: ‘The boys….They weren’t always like this, were they? There was a hell of a lot of laughing, wasn’t there?’ (p.71). In particular, Gar is polite and civil in his comments on Ned. When Private tells the true version of Ned’s story (p. 73), he does so without verbal censure or abuse. Indeed whatever element of criticism there is in this speech, it is directed at Gar himself as well as at ‘the boys’. In the end, he accepts and is impressed with Ned’s present (‘the broad leather belt with the huge brass buckle’). In the speech that concludes this scene, Gar thinks of his friend in amiable terms (‘Joe and Tom and big, thick, generous Ned..’). His memory of them is ‘distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious, gold..’ (p.79).
There are two scenes in the play, which describe Gar’s relationship with Katie Doogan. Each of these scenes is completely different to the other. In the first (pp. 27-32), Gar thinks of Katie with tenderness and blames himself for the failure of their relationship. As he looks at her picture, all the details of their courtship come back to his memory. Some of the few manifest displays of affection in the play are shown in this scene. Gar thinks of Katie as ‘gentle and frail and silly’. Here they make plans for their future, the money they will have to live on, the number of children they will have. There is a lot of tender kissing and cuddling as they discuss and exchange ideas. But the scene suddenly changes its tone when Gar goes to visit Katie’s father. This is apparently Gar’s first experience of upper-class society and he feels self-conscious and ill-at-ease. Surveying the affluence of Katie’s house, Gar’s plans for her future suddenly seem pathetic. Even before he hears about Francis King, the rich medical student, Gar’s confidence is deflated and he is suddenly stuck for words. Friel is obviously making an important social comment at this point. Senator Doogan welcomes Gar quite courteously, but he doesn’t want Gar to marry Katie. Though Gar and Katie have tremendous affection for one another, a strong class barrier separates them. It is the prerogative of the rich to manipulate their sons’ and daughters’ lives, and that is what happens here. Marriages are arranged with a view to money and status; emotional issues are irrelevant. In such circumstances, Gar’s relationship with Katie was a failure from the beginning.
Katie’s second entrance in the play in Episode Two and here Gar’s behaviour is in complete contrast to their first appearance together. Kate has since married Francis King, ‘the king of the fairies’, just as her father had planned. Gar’s conversation at this point revolves around references to money. He tells Katie how he hopes to study medicine, to make a lot of money, to come home when he has made his first million. All of this is a cover-up, a pretence, as the comments of Private make clear. Gar suddenly gets loud and aggressive. His words and his behaviour are in complete contrast to his tender exchanges with Katie in Episode One. The division between them is now complete. Yet the tragedy of the situation is that he still has some feelings for her, despite his outward behaviour. When he leaves, he is in a state of confusion. He repeats her name and thinks about what might have been (‘seven boys and seven girls – and our daughters will be all gentle and frail and silly like you…Kate… Sweet Katie Doogan…my darling Kathy Doogan’) (p. 82).
Throughout the play, Gar’s feelings are a mixture of jubilation and misery. By subjecting him to these conflicting emotions, Friel ensures that Gar retains the audience’s attention and sympathy. In the play, Gar’s character is drawn in a very human and believable manner. He is a typical, exuberant youth, prepared to take risks, unwilling to let life’s opportunities pass him by. But there is also a deeply emotional side to his character. He feels the need for affection, recognition and sympathy. His character is far from perfect, as his aggressive treatment of Katie makes clear, but his relationship with others is always courteous and affable. Katie reminds him of his past, of what might have been, and he is bitter for this reason. She is also wealthy and established in life, while he is forced by circumstances to emigrate.
The emigration theme was a popular one in Irish literature before Friel returned to it again in Philadelphia, Here I Come! He gives this theme tremendous emotional interest. Gar’s reasons for emigrating have only partly to do with financial matters. When he speaks of money or affluence his words are hollow. So too are his numerous references to ‘the American women’. Somehow, the image of Gar as a wealthy paramour – ‘as American as the Americans themselves’ – does not seem to fit his character as it is presented to us in the play. His outward statements and behaviour are often belied by his inward feelings. In his aggressive conversation with Katie, for example, he utters the following words: ‘All this bloody yap about father and son and all this sentimental rubbish about “homeland” and “birthplace” – yap! Bloody yap! Impermanence – anonymity – that’s what I’m looking for; a vast restless place that doesn’t give a damn about the past’ (p. 81).
Gar’s words here are in complete contrast to his own personal outlook in the play. On this statement, he is actually describing the things he cares about most, while apparently rejecting them. If we look at individual items in Gar’s statement we see how this is true. This ‘bloody yap about father and son’: yet he spends the greater part of the play trying to communicate with S.B., and his childhood memories of his father are all precious ones. Gar says he wants a place ‘that doesn’t give a damn about the past’: yet in the play, we see that the past is still very much alive for him and he carefully reconsiders it at different moments. He rejects ‘homeland’ and ‘birthplace’ as meaningless sentimental words: yet he listens attentively to Madge’s account of his own birth, and on one occasion he gives a poignant description of Ballybeg, ‘watching the lights go out over the village…’ (p. 78). Similarly, Gar’s quest for ‘impermanence’ and ‘anonymity’ (Master Boyle’s words) is totally belied by his character in the play. What he wants, in fact, is the exact opposite to these words: a permanent home, an individual identity, to be wanted and cared for. In particular, he needs to feel that he is his father’s son.
We get an interesting glimpse of Gar’s need for affection in the ‘returned emigrants’ scene in Episode Two. Outwardly Gar rejects these people. They are wealthy, vulgar and loud. But what he responds to is their offer of affection, in particular, Lizzie’s gushing exuberant words: ‘My son, Gar, Gar, Gar….’ (p. 64). Private points to this occasion as the real beginning of Gar’s wish to emigrate: ‘and this was your mother’s sister, remember. And that’s how you were got!’ But we also feel that Lizzie Sweeney will be a poor substitute for the affection that Gar needs. While S.B. shows too little emotion, Lizzie shows too much, and both are disconcerting to Gar. He is put off by her mawkish kisses and her constant groping and touching. Her physical appearance is also slightly repulsive to him. She is small, overweight, and heavily made-up. She is also slightly tipsy and incoherent. Yet her display of affection for Gar is better than no affection at all and he accepts (though with certain reservations) her invitation to go to America.
His decision, however, is not irreversible. One feels that if S.B. responded to Gar’s tentative efforts at communicating, the latter would reverse his decision, and the play would end differently. As it is, however, the play avoids this happy resolution. There is no easy reconciliation between father and son. Gar, the play’s hero and victim, remains in a state of confusion to the end. Public, Private and S.B. take up the greatest part of the play. All the important focus is centred on them, and other characters, by contrast, are less significant. Madge occupies a position between the major characters on the one hand (Public, Private, S.B.) and the minor ones on the other hand (Canon, Master, ‘the boys’). In Madge, Friel presents a portrait of a typical good-natured housekeeper. She is hard-working, sometimes surly and often taken for granted. She is also given her own distinctive voice. Her characteristic manner of expression is through short, curt, orders. We notice this on her first entrance in the play (‘Gar! Your tea!…..Ah! will you leave me alone….Let me get on with my work!’). She is constantly organising the male characters, fussing over them, yet often reprimanding them with sharp remarks. Canon O’Byrne is obviously impressed with Madge’s witty comments (‘She’s a sharp one, Madge’). Her function in the play is to be much more than a simple housekeeper, preparing meals, and the like. She is also an independent voice; she stands back and assesses the principal statements and actions. Often when the male characters are getting carried away in their conversations (as, for example, the rather loud conversation between Gar and ‘the boys’), Madge’s presence serves to dampen their enthusiasm slightly with her short, sarcastic interjections. On other occasions, her statements point to even larger issues in the play. In Episode One, for example, as Gar and his father sit together in total silence, Madge enters and says with cutting irony: ‘A body wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with you two’.
Madge is gruff and somewhat domineering but there is also a delicately human side to her. She has an obvious affection for Gar, while he, is kind and gentle with her. He confides in her, asks her questions about the past, particularly about his mother. She is obviously saddened by Gar’s decision to leave for Philadelphia, but she puts a brave face on it and keeps her feelings hidden. Close attention to the play shows how Friel balances Madge’s roughness with her more gentle characteristics. Apart from her conversations with Gar, there are two other occasions in the play where we get a glimpse of the human side of Madge. In Episode Two, after the second entrance of S.B. in the play, Madge watches his predictable movements with indifference. Then suddenly, ‘on the point of tears’, she accuses him: ‘You sit there night after night, year after year reading that oul paper and not a tooth in your head! If you had any decency in you at all you would keep them plates in while there’s a lady in your presence’ (p. 67). This outburst comes as a surprise to S.B. and to the audience also. S.B. looks on Madge in simple, functional terms. She is his housekeeper and nothing more. But Madge articulates the need for recognition and human contact, which the play presents so forcefully, here. Even she has a human side to her that needs to be recognised.
The second occasion in the play when we see Madge in a similar light is in Episode One when she announces to Gar ‘with shy delight’ that her niece Nelly ‘had a baby this morning…and they’re going to call this one Madge’ (p. 37). She is obviously elated at this simple gesture of recognition. But later in the play, her happiness turns to disappointment. In Episode Three she returns from her visit to Nelly’s. She is very weary and upset. Even S.B., who is generally not sensitive to other people’s feelings, senses that something is the matter. ‘There’s nothing wrong is there?’ he asks. Hesitantly Madge tells him, ‘They’re going to call it Brigid’. There are many occasions in the play where Friel is a master of understatement, and this is certainly one of them. He does not exaggerate Madge’s disappointment here. But by giving it a quick fleeting mention he nevertheless draws attention to it in quite an important way. Even gruff ageing housekeepers like Madge, he suggests, are subject to human emotions also.
Postscript: Reflecting on my first sentence in this essay a thought struck me. The sentence reads, ‘Since Gar is the central character in this play it is important to consider his character in relation to the other characters’, Brian Friel is very innovative in his presentation of Gar’s story and he uses the Public and Private voices of the central character in much the same way as Shakespeare used the soliloquy in his great plays. So, the audience is given the added advantage of being able to hear the inner voice of Gar – his alter ego – giving us an added insight into this repressed individual. However, the thought that struck me was: what if SB was given the same facility?
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!‘here
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come! here
Joe Dowling, who directed productions of ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ at the Abbey and Gaeity Theatres has said that the play deals primarily, ‘with the failure of people to communicate with each other on an intimate level. It also makes us examine the nature of Irish society dominated by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster’. Gar is being forced to leave Ballybeg because Ballybeg (and Ireland) has failed him and his generation. However, Friel is too subtle to allow us to imagine that the world Gar is about to enter in Philadelphia will be any better.
One of Brian Friel’s most important and most visited themes is that of communication. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘non-verbal communication’ and whether we are watching the referee demonstrate that he wants the TMO to view an incident at a rugby match or whether we empathise with Patrick Kavanagh as he visualises the ‘wink and elbow language of delight’ in Billy Brennan’s Barn, we can see its value. Friel, however, introduces us to a wholly different type of communication in his plays, and especially here in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’. This type of communication, almost exclusively Irish in origin, is what I would call ‘verbal non-communication’!
There are many striking examples of this throughout the play, probably best encapsulated by S.B. in such phrases as ‘Sure, you know I never take a second cup’ during his unchanging evening routine and also ‘Did you set the rat traps?’ or ‘How many coils of barbed-wire came in on the mail-van this evening?’. There are also many examples, as Gar Private reaches sensory overload, when he regresses and recites a rather quaint and obscure mantra which he obviously learnt in school during English class!: “It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France, then the Dauphiness, at Versailles”. This oft-repeated phrase has no context or meaning within the play as a whole and its only function is as a perfect example of verbal non-communication!
The principal theme in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’ is, therefore, the breakdown of communication between Gar and his father, S.B.O’Donnell. This theme is the centre around which the entire play revolves. At times it is presented very directly and forcefully. On other occasions, it is hinted at indirectly and very subtly. In all cases, however, it is the principal focus of attention in the play.
The communication theme is presented very dramatically in the description of Gar’s relationship with his father. In Episode One, we saw the following exchange of dialogue between Gar and Madge:
MADGE: He said nothing since I suppose?
PUBLIC: Not a word.
PRIVATE: The bugger.
MADGE: But he hasn’t paid you your week’s wages?
PUBLIC: £3.15S – that’ll carry me far.
MADGE: He’ll have something to say then, you’ll see and maybe he’ll slip you a couple of extra pounds.
PUBLIC: Whether he says goodbye to me or not, or whether he slips me a few miserable quid or not, it’s a matter of total indifference to me, Madge.
In this short dialogue, certain essential items of information are communicated to the audience. S.B. has not yet appeared in the play, so it is necessary that we get some preliminary description of his character. The picture that emerges here is of a person that is cold, uncommunicative, and slightly (!) miserly. Also, we get the first indication of the conflict between Gar’s outward behaviour and inward thoughts. While outwardly Gar pretends that his father’s lack of communication is a ‘matter of total indifference’ to him, his inward comments express anger and bitterness. Madge arouses Gar’s expectations, and those of the audience as well, when she says, ‘He’ll have something to say….you’ll see’. This is precisely the climax to which the whole play is directed. The audience’s attention is engaged from the outset.
This theme becomes more obvious as the play progresses. Its first emphatic expression is during the tea-time routine – a perfect example of what we have referred to earlier as verbal non-communication. S.B. enters from the shop and goes through his nightly routine. He hangs up the shop keys, he looks at his pocket watch and checks its time with the clock on the wall, he takes off his apron, folds it carefully and leaves it on the back of his chair. Then he sits down to eat. During all these ponderous jobs Private keeps up an endless chatter. As the meal commences Private says, ‘ Now for a little free conversation’ (p 39.). The tone of this is ironic, but with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm. What we get is not, ‘a little free conversation’ at all, but precisely the opposite. S.B. converses sporadically on boring impersonal topics. He directs no personal remarks at Gar, nothing whatever that is even slightly intimate – this on the night before he leaves for Philadelphia, possibly forever. As the scene continues all trace of humour fades from Private’s voice, and he makes a direct plea for communication (‘So tonight d’you know what I want you to do? I want you to make one unpredictable remark…Go on Say it! Say it! Say it!). This scene gives the first prolonged description of Gar and S.B. together. What should be an occasion for communication and contact becomes, in fact, a series of embarrassing moments. In this scene and elsewhere in the play Friel uses stage silence very skilfully. This use of silence, of intermittent conversation only, is somewhat missed in reading the play, but it would be an important ingredient in the play’s performance. During a performance, we would notice how the tea-time scene is punctuated by long silences – silences that are filled by Private’s comments or by the tick of the clock in the background. This would serve to underscore the communication theme in a dramatic way by drawing attention to the large gaps in the tea-time conversation. It also explains Madge’s ironic comments to S.B. and Gar, ‘The chatting in this place would deafen a body. Won’t the house be quiet soon enough – long enough?’ (P. 41).
The first of Gar’s attempts to bridge the gap between himself and his father is made in this scene, though in a slight and hesitant way. It also meets with the usual rejection from S.B. After a slight contention about money Gar tries to extend a hand of friendship to his father by offering him more tea. This meets with the following, predictable, remark: ‘Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p. 41). Gar accepts this rejection and thinks, ‘You can’t teach new tricks to an old dog’. Following this, Private launches into a long speech that is full of obvious humour, but which has an important serious core: ’Let me communicate with someone… communicate.. pour out your pent-up feelings into a sympathetic ear. So all I ask for the moment is that you listen – just listen to me…’ (p. 43). By means of such comments as these, Friel keeps the theme of communication to the forefront of our attention.
We next see S.B. and Gar together at the start of Episode Three, during the rosary sequence, and the game of draughts that follow it. There is an interesting juxtaposition of past and future events in this scene. As the rosary is being said Gar’s mind wanders. He thinks of the future in America, and characteristically, his ideas are all exaggerated and somewhat unreal: ‘Swaggering down 56th Street… with this big blonde nuzzling up to you. You’d need to be careful out there boy; some of those Yankee women are dynamite…’ (p.87-8). The reverie continues with statements comparable to this. Things of this sort are, however, remote from Gar’s experience and for this reason they fail to engage his feelings. The real interest of Private’s speech here, is his surmising on a life in America without intimacy or friendship: ‘But you’ll never marry; never; bachelor’s written all over you. Fated to be alone, a man without intimates; something of an enigma’ (p.88).
From here, Gar’s mind wanders back to previous incidents in the past, and his feelings are engaged more fully. In this part of the speech, Gar’s boyhood affection for this father is the centre of interest: ‘Do you ever dream of the past, Screwballs, of that wintry morning in Bailtefree, and the three days in Bundoran? ‘ (p. 89). Gar goes on to give the first of many descriptions in the play of the fishing trip with S.B. He doesn’t, he admits, remembers every detail, ‘but some things are as vivid as can be’. This occasion recalls to Gar’s mind the former sympathy between himself and his father, which is described in highly emotive terms: ‘between us at that moment there was this great happiness, this great joy – you must have felt it too – it was so much richer than a content – it was a great, great happiness, and active, bubbling joy…’ (p. 80-90).
Following this magnificent speech, one of the most poetic in the play, Gar decides to force the issued by asking S.B. if he remembers this fishing trip also. He adopts his usual nonchalant tone as if the matter was one of indifference to him, when in fact, it’s his most precious memory: ‘‘Whatever happened to that aul boat on Lough na Cloc Cor… an old blue thing – do you remember it? (p.9). This hesitant attempt at communication is interrupted by the Canon’s entrance. During the draughts game, Gar slips into the background. Only one passing comment is directed at him (‘It’s getting near your time, Gareth’). Here again, Friel makes use of silence to underline the communication theme. Apart from the chatter of Private, the Canon and S.B. sit in almost total silence making only sporadic, predictable remarks about insignificant topics. Private, meanwhile, hovers in the background commenting on the scene from his usual witty perspective. But always in his speeches, there is an explicit earnestness that points to wider issues: ‘there’s an affinity between me and Screwballs that no one, literally, no one could understand…….’ (p.96). As the Canon and S.B. sit motionless and in silence, oblivious to Gar’s presence, Private relates again the story of the fishing trip. As often in the play, music excites Gar’s memory, reminding him of previous occasions, so also in the touching speech that ends this scene: ‘Listen! Listen! Listen! D’you hear it? D’you know what the music says? It says that once upon a time, a boy and his father sat in a blue boat on a lake on an afternoon in May, and on that afternoon a great beauty happened, a beauty that has haunted the boy ever since..’ (p.98). For Gar, time is slowly running out. He has patiently, waited for S.B. to make some sort of gesture towards him, some small demonstration of affection. But as the play moves into its final scenes, the lack of communication is still firmly established.
In the last episode of the play Gar makes one final effort to reach out to his father. Throughout the play, their spoken comments to each other have been impersonal and superficial. Now, in ‘the small hours of the morning’, Gar takes up the issue of the fishing trip in a final attempt to provoke a reaction. Gar and S.B. are surprised and slightly embarrassed to be in each other’s company. At the start, their conversation falls back onto the usual impersonal topics. They talk about fencing posts, plug tobacco, tinker’s cans, ‘cookers and ranges and things’. All personal issues are carefully avoided. Also, we notice the same irritable behaviour on S.B.’s part. When Gar asked him will he have more tea, S.B. gives his typical response: ’Sure you know I never take a second cup’ (p.101). Yet there is some slight hint of affection in S.B. at this point. Here, as so often in the play, Friel is a master of understatement, and in this scene, his description of S.B. is delicately and skilfully drawn. S.B. is unable to sleep, and though we are never told why, the implication is that he is disturbed by Gar’s departure. He awkwardly tells Gar the day’s weather forecast and he has at least enough interest in his welfare to advise him to ‘sit at the back’ of the plane, in case there was ‘an accident or anything’. Gar notices the slight affection suggested by these remarks and he tries once again to introduce the subject of the fishing trip and the blue boat. For a short space, their conversation takes on a new dimension. Gar describes his memories with growing enthusiasm and S.B. listens attentively. Then comes the final important question, and the inevitable let-down: ‘D’you remember?… No.. No.., then, I don’t.. ‘(p.105). Here Friel raises our hopes slightly so that he can demolish them again. This is the final appearance together of Gar and his father in the play. The same communication problems, the same misunderstandings are apparent up to the end.
Throughout the play, S.B. is depicted as a cold, uncommunicative character. This is the picture that emerges from his initial entrance, and this picture of him lasts throughout the play. Lizzy Sweeney’s comments in Episode Two contain brief but appropriate reference to S.B.: ‘That was the kind of us Gallagher girls wasn’t it…either laughing or crying….you know, sorta silly and impetuous, shooting our big mouths off, talking too much, not like the O’Donnell’s – you know – kinda cold…’ (p. 64). But before the end of the play, Friel gives one last look at S.B. which shows him up in a different perspective, and which arouses the audience’s sympathy for him in a way that was not done in the rest of the play. Indeed, S.B.’s comments in his conversation with Madge are all the more pathetic because they are unexpected.
In this final scene (pp. 106 – 108) S.B. is shown to be very human. Because of Gar’s departure, he will have a lot more work to do himself, but he insists that he’ll ‘manage rightly’. Suddenly we see the extra chores which Gar had to do (p. 16) in a different perspective. In Gar’s absence, a lot more responsibility falls on S.B.’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t go against Gar’s wishes by asking him to stay. There is also a slight hint that S.B.’s business is going into decline, ‘It’s not like in the old days when the whole countryside did with me; I needed the help then, but it’s different now…’ (p. 107). In this matter also S.B. looks to Madge for reassurance, ‘I’ll manage by myself now. Eh? I’ll manage fine, eh?’
The most striking reversal of sympathy for S.B. comes about through the description he gives of Gar’s first day at school. S.B.’s memories of this event are as sharp in focus as Gar’s remembrance of the fishing –trip. S.B. describes how he and Gar went ‘hand in hand’ to school, ‘as happy as larks, and him dancing and chatting beside me…’ (p. 107). Their easy spontaneous communication in this scene from the past is in sharp contrast to their predicament in the play as a whole: ‘You wouldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the chatting he used to go through…’. S.B. is aware of the sad decline in their relationship, but he places all the blame on his own side: ’Maybe, Madge, maybe it’s because I could have been his grandfather, eh?….I was too old….’. S.B.’s last words in the play again refer to Gar, in another image of happier days: ‘In the wee sailor suit – all the chatting he used to go through…’ Both Gar and S.B., so unlike in many ways, have one common characteristic: they both hold memories of the past and of each other, but unfortunately they are different ones. The contrast in the play is not between depth of feeling on the one hand and absence of feeling on the other. Communication is the real problem in this play, namely the channels through which personal feelings are expressed. Gar wrongly assumes that S.B.’s failure to remember the fishing trip suggests a lack of feeling or affection. In fact, S.B. has his own private memories that Gar knows nothing of. The tragedy of the play is that they are unable to communicate these memories to one another.
The communication theme of the play is principally expressed through the relationship of Gar and his father. But it is also seen in the presentation of other episodes and characters. A close look at the language of the play reveals an interesting feature of Friel’s use of dialogue. Conversation is difficult for the play’s characters. Communication of personal feelings is almost totally impossible. The most prolonged dialogue in the play is that between Gar and his private self. Dialogue with other people is much more difficult to achieve. In fact, what Friel presents us with in the play is not really dialogue at all, but a series of monologues. Characters who start talking to each other usually end up talking to, or about, themselves, and what they say is usually untrue. We can see examples of this interesting technique on two important occasions in the play.
The first of these is in the scene with Master Boyle. Ostensibly, the Master has called to pay his farewell to Gar. But after a brief mention of Gar’s departure, ‘Tomorrow morning, isn’t it?’ (p. 44), Boyle’s conversation is completely given over to matters concerning himself. He talks about his controversy with the Canon, about his poems and his own possible emigration to America. He is also slightly formal and ill-at-ease, though we detect that unspoken feelings lurk just below the surface. The problem of self-expression, so dominant throughout the play, is evident here also. After a very awkward handshake and quick embrace, Boyle makes a hasty exit from the stage.
We notice a comparable use of dialogue and self-expression in ‘The Boys’ scene. Here again what we get is not so much a dialogue but a series of short monologues punctuated by silence. Gar’s friends speak loudly and enthusiastically about insignificant matters. They relate stories and episodes (mostly untrue) in which the principal characters are themselves. When they are not engaged in these personal monologues, embarrassing silences develop, which they desperately try to fill by even louder and more exaggerated accounts of their adventures. These silences occur ‘like regular cadences’, and to defeat them, someone always introduces a fresh theme. However, when the time comes to say good-bye to Gar, they are all pathetically stuck for words. Tom leaves without any word of good-bye at all, whereas Ned’s farewell is embarrassed and awkward. He stands casually at the door and says, ‘So long, Gar’ (p. 75). He then throws his parting gift – the belt with the big brass buckle – across the room to Gar. Despite all the loud talk about his exploits, Ned is incompetent when it comes to real displays of affection. Here again, the problem is not that he feels no affection for Gar, but that he is unable to communicate it properly. Joe, the youngest member of the group, makes the only sort of proper farewell to Gar. When the others have left, Joe stays behind as a gesture of his friendship. But even his final words to Gar are casual and superficial: ‘Send us a card, Gar, Sometime, Eh?…..Lucky bloody man….so long….’ (pp. 77-78).
The communication theme can also be seen in the episode describing Gar’s visit to Senator Doogan. Here the theme is placed in a slightly wider context. The scene in Doogan’s house describes not only the breakdown in communication between individuals but also between different social classes. (Is this similar to Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘thick-tongued mumble’ in his poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’?). The conversation with Senator Doogan is presented as a monologue. Doogan wanders on about his personal successes and his important family connections. He also wants the same successes and connections for Katie. Consequently, Gar is excluded from this upper-class world.
The most extended ‘monologue’ in the play, however, is Lizzy Sweeney’s prolonged description of the events that brought about Gar’s decision to emigrate. Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation. She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought. She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance. While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly. Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence.
What makes Gar O’Donnell’s situation so tragic then is not so much that he is so publicly inarticulate towards his father but that he fails to allow for a similar complexity in his father! All the lines uttered by Private on Gar’s behalf might just as easily have been said on behalf of his father. As Declan Kiberd has said, ‘Language is what comes between Gar and his freedom of expression – his education has left him fluent but not articulate and so his skill with words is greatly in excess of his emotional development’.
Friel’s concern with communication is, therefore, central to this play. Gar has this crazy notion that language and talking and dreaming about something is the equivalent to living life. On the one hand, Friel presents us with characters who speak too much, and on the other hand with those who speak too little. Gar’s mistake is that he foolishly equates emotion with its expression: if a feeling isn’t stated by his father, he won’t believe it’s there at all. This has impeded their relationship and so genuine communication is virtually impossible and the end result is tragic. The final words of both Gar and S. B. – “I don’t know” – captures their shared bewilderment and the sad fact that it is precisely this bewilderment that both connects and separates them.
You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!'”here
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Escape in Philadelphia Here I Come!‘here
One of the most frequently recurring themes in Anglo-Irish literature is the flight or escape from a harsh environment. The linked themes of escape, exile and emigration are frequently found in drama, prose and poetry. One of its well-known representations is Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, who chooses exile from his native land because he cannot come to terms with the authorities that hold its people in their grip. So, Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’ In Philadelphia Here I Come!,Friel also explores the nature of Irish society fifty years after Joyce’s novel was written. This society is still governed by the church, the politician and the schoolmaster. The society that Gar is leaving has failed him and his generation. The question is will things be any better for Gar when he moves to Philadelphia?
Similarly, in an article in The Irish Times in the 1970’s local poet Michael Hartnett turns his hand to social commentary when he stated that Newcastle West in County Limerick,
‘is an Irish town that is not dying. It has kept its economic stability at a terrible price, the constant exportation of human beings. It is the example of a town that is alive because the young leave, a town that would certainly be ruined if those people born in the 30’s and 40’s had stayed at home en masse.
In Philadelphia Here I Come!, Brian Friel gives another particular instance of the ‘flight from the land’ theme in the story of Gar O’Donnell’s proposed emigration to America. Here, Friel shows his awareness of an older, oral tradition. Emigration is the subject of a vast number of Irish songs and ballads. It is particularly close to the Irish spirit, having been forced on us by the circumstances of our history. In this oral tradition, emigration is always viewed ambiguously. On the one hand, it offers escape from a hopeless environment, promising new opportunities that were unavailable at home. But on the other hand, it is also viewed with nostalgia and sadness, as the emigrant says his last farewell to his home, his family and his friends. It is this double aspect that makes emigration a suitable subject for drama and which Friel exploits with such effect in Philadelphia Here I Come!
However, Friel is also making a political point here. Many see the play as a covert criticism of De Valera’s vision of a self-sufficient Ireland of cosy homesteads and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. S.B and Máire marry on New Year’s Day 1937, the very day that De Valera’s new Irish Constitution comes into effect. Twenty-five years or so later and the product of that marriage, Gar O’Donnell, is packing his suitcase to head for Philadelphia in the morning.
The escape theme is emphatically present in the play right from the start. The first Episode begins in an optimistic mood as Gar considers his departure on the next morning. Life in Ballybeg is monotonous and offers little scope for his ambitions. America is considered to be the land of opportunity, where ambitions are fulfilled and fortunes are made. The thrust of this opening Episode is entirely towards release, freedom, escape: ‘Think ….up in that big bugger of a jet, with its snout belching smoke over Ireland…’ (p. 17). S. B. makes a brief entrance at this point in the play, and through him Friel expresses the type of life Gar wishes to escape from. S. B. is elderly and somewhat out of place in the modern world. So too is the business he owns. Gar emphatically rejects S.B.’s old-fashioned world. He speaks on numerous occasions of the weariness and boredom of weighing up sacks of flour and sugar, cleaning and salting fish, unloading barbed wire and sacks of spuds. To all of these unpleasant chores, he contrasts the broader horizons offered by American life. Initially, at least, he is in no doubt about the wisdom of his decision to emigrate.
Other events in the play serve to strengthen this decision even further. The characters of the play are seen by Gar as a somewhat pathetic group. As he sees it, they are all the victims of the restrictions imposed on them by their lives in Ballybeg. Gar wishes to escape to America before he too becomes like them. This emerges quite clearly in his conversation with Katie Doogan in Episode Two. Indeed in this conversation, the escape theme is most pronounced. Earlier in the play, Gar rejects Ireland in his reference to it as, ‘the land of the curlews and the snipe, the Aran sweater and the Irish Sweepstakes’ (p. 18-19). In his conversation with Katie his rejection is more emphatic, ‘I hate the place, and every stone, and every rock, and every piece of heather around it…’ (p. 81). (This is reminiscent of Kavanagh’s outburst in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, ‘I am king of banks and stones and every blooming thing’). On this occasion, it is principally the people of Ballybeg who lead him to this outburst. For example, Gar is impressed with Master Boyle’s visit; he is also impressed by the visit of ‘the boys’ later in the play. But on both these occasions, there is a common element to Gar’s reaction. He is not blinded to the failings of ‘the boys’ or of Master Boyle. The latter in particular has sacrificed his ideals for a life of quiet boredom in Ballybeg. Like Gar, he once had the opportunity to emigrate, but unlike Gar, he was unwilling to take it. There is a marked feeling of regret in Boyle’s conversation with Gar, a sense of having let life’s possibilities slip by. Boyle’s character is pathetically drawn. He is an isolated figure, unhappy with his situation, a lonesome bachelor, and a secret drinker. He is determined to escape from the environment that produces such characters as Master Boyle.
Indeed, it must be said that the escape theme is inextricably linked to the theme of escapist fantasy used by Friel in this and other plays in his oeuvre. At the root of this escapist fantasy lies a deep-seated dissatisfaction within every character with themselves and their environment. Gar has not attained a sufficient identity for himself in Ballybeg. Pulled towards the future and yet drawn backwards towards a sentimental vision of the past, he seeks to escape by running away to Philadelphia, which represents the solution to all his problems.
Ironically, as the play unfolds and we begin to glean insights into his character, we realise that escape will only intensify rather than solve any of his problems. He condemns Ballybeg for the very things which will solve his problems, love, affection, identity and warmth. Gar is no better at the conclusion of the play. Escape to Philadelphia, as Madge tells us, will solve nothing.
Master Boyle also compensates for his failure as a schoolteacher by dreaming up challenging professional situations in Boston. He tells Gar he has been offered a ‘big post’ in a ‘reputable university’ in Boston. Unable to face the reality of his own alcoholism he hides behind imaginative dreams of another world and unrealistic achievements.
The boys also indulge in this escapist fantasy. They come to say farewell to Gar on the night before he departs yet they spend their time indulging in monologues about themselves and their imagined exploits. Life in Ballybeg is more bearable when it is relieved by fantasy and escapism. Rather than admit their own inadequacies they hide behind bravado and loud talk. The visit of ‘the boys’ also confirms Gar in his decision to escape from Ballybeg. Superficially at least, ‘the boys’ and Master Boyle have little in common. They make a noisy entrance, speak loudly and with arrogance, whereas Master Boyle is quiet and soft-spoken. But Gar is aware of the characteristics shared by each of them. They are all ‘lost souls’. The future, which faces ‘the boys’, is as dim as that which has faced Master Boyle. They speak enthusiastically about themselves and their situation, but to Gar these words sound hollow. In the end he is forced to admit that they are ‘ignorant bloody louts’ who cover the meaninglessness of their situation with pretence and lies. Significantly, in his speech with Katie, Gar groups ‘the boys’ with Master Boyle, S.B., and Canon O’Byrne: they are all pathetic figures. They all confirm his decision to emigrate.
The escape theme in PhiladelphiaHere I Come! is not a simple one, however. To create a sense of drama Friel explores the theme from a contrary point of view. Friel uses the same technique as Kavanagh in ‘Stony Grey Soil’, a poem in which the escape theme is also evident. Kavanagh enumerates the aspects of his life in Monaghan, which led to his decision to leave. But he also provides a contrary statement at the end of the poem. In spite of all the hardships, which have been inflicted on him, he still feels some affection for Monaghan. The same feeling of affection is evident in Philadelphia Here I Come!, in spite even of Gar’s emphatic statements of rejection. As the play opens Gar is confirmed in his decision. But as the action progresses he is subjected to numerous situations, which remind him of the more pleasant aspects of Ballybeg and its people. As these situations continue to arise in the play, the desire to escape is made more complicated, and even meaningless. In the play, a definite bond of affection unites the characters, which is all the more touching because it is left unspoken. Gar’s relationship with Master Boyle, ‘the boys’, and S.B. is characterised by rejection. They have all, in part, contributed to his desire to escape. But his relationship with them also contains traces of affection. He is moved by the visits of Master Boyle and ‘the boys’ and is in a distressed state when they leave. His affection for S.B. is secretly expressed by Private throughout the play and is openly articulated to Madge at the end (p. 109). But in particular, his relationship with Katie Doogan represents a part of his life he is sorry to leave behind. As is usual with Gar, he speaks casually and with forced nonchalance. But his decision to emigrate, to become ‘100 per cent American’ (p. 82), is complicated by the affection he still feels for the ordinary mundane life of Ballybeg. In this way the escape theme is fully dramatised by Friel. Gar’s need to escape, coupled with the affection he feels for the people he is leaving, constitutes one of the effective conflicts of the play. Indeed, the ending is very inconclusive and we are left to wonder as we leave the theatre: well, did he ever leave or did he continue to live a life of futility fuelled by fantasy?
Private: God, Boy, why do you have to leave? Why? Why?
Public: I don’t know. I – I – I don’t know.
There is also a double-dimension to all Friel’s work. He tends to illustrate the same theme from different points of view – Gar leaving for Philadelphia and Lizzie who has come home. Like other characters in the play, Lizzie is garrulous and she is also the centre of her own conversation. She wanders through her story about her past life, speaking incoherently, and often losing her train of thought. She is also irritated when someone interrupts her, and even casual interjections cause her annoyance. While she speaks, the other characters sit quietly. Eventually, she breaks down, starts to cry, and stumbles into silence giving us a perfect cameo of the reality behind many a ‘returned Yank’. and a rather stark reality check for Gar as he prepares to leave. Friel returned to this theme later in The Loves of Cass McGuire whichexplores the psychology of Cass as she returns from her emigration and exile. Gripping, often humorous, but steeped in compassion, Friel scripts a rich and complex portrait of a marginalised emigrant returning home. We can all easily empathise with Cass’s dilemma. She has returned to a world she cannot recognise and the play explores the difficulties she has in coming to terms with a life not as she imagined and the exclusions society now imposes upon her. Whereas, Philadelphia Here I Come! dealt with Gar’s physical act of emigration, The Loves of Cass McGuire deals with the psychology of returning and this marks it out as a very relevant work – indeed, it can be said of Cass, like many a returning exile, she comes back to a home that does not exist except in her fantasy.
So, we can see that the linked themes of escape, exile and emigration (and eventual return) are as relevant today as ever. Friel’s plays are at times caustic commentary on successive governments for their failures to provide for the people in their care. As Michael Hartnett also suggested in the 70’s we have been able to maintain our economic stability at a terrible price: ‘the constant exportation of human beings’.
Philadelphia Here I Come!, therefore, contains considerable political and psychological insights. Gar is a kind of ‘split-personality’ and we sense that he will have great difficulty coping with this schizophrenia wherever he ends up. He can escape from Ballybeg, from the small-town people who annoy him, but he can never be free from his own inner voice, constantly exploring, questioning, and rebuking.
Author’s Note: My favourite production of this play was by the Ardagh Drama Group in County Limerick, which was staged some time in the 1990’s. It featured a superb tour de force of a performance by Jim Liston as Gar Private. He was ably supported by sterling performances from Garry McMahon as SB, Margaret Enright as Madge, Senator Doogan was played by Sonny Crowley (RIP), Rory O’Donnell (RIP) was Lizzie’s browbeaten husband, Master Boyle was played by Tom Madigan and ‘the boys’ were superbly marshalled by Mike O’Flynn.
You might also like to read ‘The Theme of Communication in Philadelphia Here I Come!’ here
You might also like to read “Characters and Relationships in Philadelphia Here I Come!” here
Modern definitions of the word tragedy don’t help when trying to explain the niceties of Shakespearean tragedy. Our sensationalist news channels such as Sky and CNN are very quick to bring us the latest tragedy; a passenger jet crashes with the loss of all on board; a bridge collapses causing mayhem for home-bound commuters; a school is in lock-down after a young student kills his teacher and many of his fellow students before turning his gun on himself. Our modern definition of ‘tragedy’, therefore, is usually synonymous with the word ‘disaster’; or an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress, such as a serious accident, crime, or natural catastrophe.
These modern definitions do not help us greatly when trying to describe the action in one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The good news is that Shakespeare is clearly following a template, one laid down centuries earlier by Aristotle and others – in fact, it can be said that he invented the sequel! So, therefore, if you have studied one tragedy well, you have a huge advantage when you come to study the next one! However, the sad news for all you aspiring young actors is that all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are men and secondly, if you happen to be playing the title role in one of these tragedies, then universally you will meet a rather gruesome end.
Shakespeare, the consummate businessman, tended to rotate his dramas, so he knew the audience could only take so much comedy, or history or tragedy in any one season. As opposed to his Comedies or Histories, his Tragedies always dealt with tragic events and always had an unhappy ending i.e. the tragic hero dies.
Spoiler Alert! Sometimes, however, Shakespeare’s genius is evident as in Macbeth when the tragic hero suffers a gruesome beheading at the end (sad ending!) but the audience leave the theatre with the knowledge that order has been restored in the kingdom and so Scotland has been rescued from a murderous tyrant (happy ending!).
So, to summarise, no one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition, but the conventions of tragedy require certain tragic elements. Aristotle considered tragedy to be ‘the fall of princes’. Macbeth falls into this category: he is a thane and he becomes king. Generally, in Shakespearean Tragedy, the tragic hero sets out on a course of action but because of a flaw in his character evil enters and is the cause of the catastrophe. Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.
The notion of the tragic hero is also problematic. It seems, at face value, to be a paradoxical term, an oxymoron like Groucho Marx’s famous ‘military intelligence’. Our dramas today, in our cinemas, in particular, give us loads of suited heroes from Spiderman, to Superman, to Batman and these modern heroes always win. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, always die!
Shakespeare’s tragic heroes all possess definite characteristics and hopefully, the extreme sexism of the following statements will be understood by members of my female audience! After all, we have to realise that Shakespeare was writing in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s so, inevitably, his tragic hero is always a man of exceptional nature, a great man such as a King or a great General or a Prince, with a more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions and a more splendid imagination than mere ordinary mortals. He is a sensitive being with a spiritual bias. He has a divided soul, he is torn by an internal struggle. However, this tragic hero has some weakness, some fatal flaw that contributes to his downfall. Aristotle called this internal weakness of the hero the ‘hamartia’, the tragic flaw, an essential element in tragedy. Macbeth’s tragic flaw is his ambition. He succumbs to this powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it. His ambition pushes him into a sequence of action which inevitably leads to his death. Macbeth attempts the impossible, to usurp the lawful king, and because the means he employs are evil and against the natural law, the inevitable consequences of his actions work themselves out and the result is tragedy.
Aristotle’s criterion for good tragedy was that the members of the audience should experience ‘catharsis’, that is, pity and terror for the tragic hero. The sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, and the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.
Therefore, Shakespeare, in Macbeth, does a wonderful balancing act between the audience having sympathy for Macbeth while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph in the end and order must be restored to the kingdom.
It is impossible to read Macbeth without being impressed by its repeated emphasis on the prevalence of evil forces in the world. From the very start of the play an atmosphere of unnatural wickedness is established by the scene which opens with the stage direction Thunder and Lightening. Enter Three Witches and ends with the reversal of values implied in ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair/ Hover through the fog and filthy air’. In Macbeth, Shakespeare suggests a symbolic correspondence between three kinds of order:
Order within the universe,
Order within the commonwealth,
Order within the human being.
The disruption of good order in the kingdom is paralleled by the disruption of nature, represented by the storm and the other portents on the night of Duncan’s murder, as well as by the appearance of the witches and of Banquo’s ghost; it has a further parallel in Lady Macbeth’s mental disintegration. The savvy Elizabethan audiences were only too aware that portents of evil and evidence of disorder in one area were often mirrored by even greater disorders elsewhere. The themes of unnatural doings, chaos in the natural world and universal disease are constantly suggested in the more memorable images. Little wonder then that critics, when they come to talk about the impression created by the play, conclude that in none of the tragedies, with the possible exception of Lear, is evil presented so forcibly. Macbeth has been described as Shakespeare’s ‘most profound and mature vision of evil’, ‘a wrestling of destruction with creation’, ‘a statement of evil’, and so forth.
If any one point is insistently made by the imagery it is that Macbeth’s revolt against lawful authority involves much more than the murder of a king and the usurpation of his throne. The initial crime is a huge symbolic gesture. It releases forces of universal disorder. John Holloway talks of Macbeth’s career as one ‘of revolt against everything in the world’ (The Story of the Night, 1961, p.61). Once the first evil step has been taken there is no turning back: men and nature are caught up in a process which causes havoc everywhere until the evil forces have played themselves out. Images of disease and unnatural happenings give concrete expression to the major themes. The thought of his plan makes Macbeth’s heart knock at his ribs ‘against the use of nature’ (I, iii, 137); the dead Duncan looks like ‘a breach in nature’ (i.e. as if nature had been wounded by his death in II, iii, 95). Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking is described as a ‘great perturbation in nature’ (V, I, 9). The murder of Duncan (‘the Lord’s anointed temple’ II, iii, 50) is explicitly and repeatedly presented as a monstrous violation of the natural order; it is committed when ‘nature seems dead’ (II, I, 50); in preparation for it Lady Macbeth invokes the aid of those murdering ministers who ‘wait on nature’s mischief’ (i.e. assist the malignant forces in nature and accompanying natural disasters: I, v, 48). The association between Macbeth’s crime and disruption in nature is further emphasised in the comment on the odd behaviour of the elements following Duncan’s murder: ‘Tis unnatural/ Even like the deed that’s done’ (II, iv, 10). The same kind of association between evil deeds and disorder within the individual is implied in the Doctor’s comment on Lady Macbeth’s sickness: ‘unnatural deeds/ Do breed unnatural troubles’ (V, I, 72).
The effects on his country and its people of Macbeth’s identification with evil are suggested in a series of disease images, which appear with particular frequency in the last Act. The point made by these images is that Scotland is sick, and the cause of her disease is Macbeth’s criminal career. Health and disease are symbolically related to moral good and evil. Macbeth’s speech to the Doctor is an extended disease metaphor:
If thou couldst, doctor, sound
The sickness of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health….
What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug
Would scour these English hence?
V, v, 50
It is in relation to this kind of speech that the descriptions of the King’s Evil (IV, iii, 141 – 159) takes on its true importance. At the hands of the good English king, diseased souls ‘presently amend’ (IV, iii, 138). At Macbeth’s hands, ‘good men’s lives/ Expire before flowers in their caps,/ Dying or ere they sicken’ (IV, iii, 164). Macbeth’s cause is ‘distemper’d’ (V, ii, 15). Malcolm is to be the physician who will heal Scotland: ‘Sovereign’ as used by Lennox means both ‘royal’ and ‘powerfully medicinal’:
Caithness: Meet we the medicine of the sickly weal,
And with him pour we, in our country’s purge,
Each drop of us.
Lennox: Or so much as it needs,
To dew the sovereign flower and drown the weeds.
V, ii, 26
The play depicts the restoration of order as well as its violation. A whole society is disordered and sickly (‘Bleed, bleed poor country!’ Iv, iii, 32), and the order of nature has been disrupted. Macbeth’s famous catalogue of dogs (III, I, 91) emphasises the idea of a proper order among animals as well as men; it is a fine stroke of irony on Shakespeare’s part to make the prime enemy of order concede its propriety. The third movement of the play (which belongs to Malcolm and Macduff in the way that the first did to Duncan and the second to Banquo), shows violated nature preparing itself to put an end to the unnatural disintegration set in train by Macbeth’s acts, the process by which ‘the treasure/ Of nature’s germens tumble all together,/ Even till destruction sicken’ (IV, I, 58). As Macbeth’s power begins to wane, supernatural aid is invoked on behalf of those who would restore the beneficent order of nature (‘the Powers above/ Put on their instruments…’ IV, iii, 231). The movement of Birnam Wood towards Dunsinane (V, iv, 4) is a vivid emblem of the reassertion of the natural order, ‘a dumbshow of nature overturning anti-nature at the climax of the play’ (John Holloway, op. cit., p.65).
It needs to be emphasised that while Shakespeare makes extensive use of religious, even specifically Christian images and ideas throughout Macbeth (see particularly Iv, iii), this does not mean that the play reaches ‘optimistic’ conclusions about its themes, or that it was written to suggest the superiority of a Christian view of life and action. We should restrain any tendency we may feel to treat the major characters as diagrammatic illustrations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tendencies. Shakespeare poses too many unanswered questions for us to be able to regard Macbeth as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil; like all genuine tragedies, it maintains a balance of vision. An element of painful mystery remains even after the fragile triumph of the official forces of good order. This is well described by Robert Ornstein:
‘If the anguish of the damned sounds musically in the ears of the saved, then there is comfort here for some; otherwise Macbeth is the most unpleasant of the tragedies. Though order is restored at the close, though evil is purged and Macbeth receives the gift of oblivion, there is no sense of repose or reconciliation in its final scenes’ (The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, 1960).
Order is restored, as Ornstein points out; a ‘good’ regime is to replace an evil one, but what we have seen happen in Macbeth leaves us with the feeling that destructive forces can just as easily erupt again, and with similar consequences. It is difficult to see the closing ‘restoration’ as anything more than provisional. The final speeches of the ‘good’ characters, with their promises of better things to come lack the emotional weight necessary to dispel the gloomy visions conjured up by the Macbeths and their allies. In the Irish political context, this is, in fact, akin to Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, The Greens, etc., telling us they will right all the wrongs of the previous Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats administration. We all know by now from bitter experience that these election promises are often made to sound very hollow in time!