Characters and Relationships in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

 philadelphia-here-i-come-by-brien-friel

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

 

 

 

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Portrait of Irish playwright and dramatist Brian Friel by Donegal artist Stephen Bennett

 

 

 

 

 

The Theme of Communication in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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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

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The Theme of Escape in ‘Philadelphia Here I Come!’

 

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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 Philadelphia Here 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 which explores 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

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Shakespearean Tragedy Defined

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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.

 

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Macbeth: Order violated, order restored….

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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!

 

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Macbeth: From Centrality to Isolation

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When we first encounter Macbeth he is portrayed as the mighty general, the king’s enforcer-in-chief, while the play ends with his inevitable, lonely, solitary death following his doomed, albeit brave, defense of the indefensible. So, it can be said, that the major pattern of the play is Macbeth’s progressive movement from centrality to isolation.  This pattern encompasses the whole play and expresses an essential process in every tragedy: the hero must confront his destiny alone.  Macbeth’s role is that of a man who begins as the central and most admired figure of his society and ends by being totally isolated from it in his lonely fortress in Dunsinane.  His ultimate fate suggests that of a sacrificial victim.  Having caused havoc in society and broken the bonds of nature, he must be isolated and destroyed so that natural and social order can be restored again – for the time being at least!

The opening of the play focuses attention on Macbeth as the heroic object of everyone’s admiration, well earned since he is the saviour of his country.  The captain’s account of his exploits in Act I, ii and the King’s lavish praise in Act I, iv serve to establish his heroic stature and his unique status in society before his fall.  But the images used in these scenes to convey Macbeth’s prowess as a warrior have another, more disturbing, effect.  There is a frightening savagery in some of the more memorable ones: the sword ‘which smoked with bloody execution’; the bloody hero who ‘carved out his passage’ and ‘unseamed’ his enemy as if anxious to ‘bathe in reeking wounds/ Or memorise another Golgotha’ (I, ii 18-22).  These reiterated images suggest Macbeth’s natural capacity – perhaps even his relish – for destruction.  Our first picture of him as provided by the bleeding sergeant is a faithful anticipation of our last one.  The early image of the warrior carving up his enemy with a smoking sword is mirrored in the last one of the ‘dead butcher’ (V, vii, 98) whose severed head is carried on to the stage by Macduff.  Echoes and anticipations of this kind are found everywhere in Macbeth.

Before Duncan’s murder we find the two Macbeths taking the first decisive step which will isolate them from the process of normal living and break the bonds which bind them to human nature and society.  With deliberate formality, Lady Macbeth dedicates herself to the power of evil: ‘Come you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts….’ (I, v, 38).  Later, Macbeth makes a similar prayer: ‘Thou sure and firm-set earth,/ Hear not my steps…’ (II, i, 56).  His separation from God is implied in his ‘Wherefore could I not pronounce “Amen”?’ (II, ii, 30).

Duncan’s murder hastens the process of Macbeth’s isolation.  Malcolm and Donalbain flee him (II, iii, 119); Banquo suspects him (III, i, 3).  Even before Banquo’s murder and the social debacle of the Banquet Scene, we have a glimpse of Macbeth estranged from his natural companions: ‘How now, my Lord!  Why do you keep alone,/ Of sorriest fancies your companions making’ (III, ii, 8-9).

The Banquet Scene (III, iv) marks a decisive stage in his alienation from his subjects.  His gradual estrangement even from Lady Macbeth has already been suggested in his failure to let her share in his plan to murder Banquo.  After her supreme efforts in the Banquet Scene she dwindles from being his ‘dearest partner of greatness’ (I, v, 10) to a passive listless, weary listener.  The last time we see him alone with her, at the end of Act III, iv, the collapse of their relationship is pathetically apparent; this is further underlined in his response to the news of her death.  The final movement of Act III, iv  has compelling visual images of Macbeth’s  separation from his subjects, who leave his feast in hasty disorder.  This is not the only abandonment: in the final scene we learn that Fleance has escaped (20), that Macduff ‘denies his person at our great bidding’ (128) and that Macbeth can depend so little on the loyalty of his followers that he must ‘keep a servant fee’d’ in all their houses (131).

The final movement of the play opens with news of growing opposition to Macbeth’s rule, and of intrigue and conspiracy against him.  Macduff has fled (IV, I, 140).  In Act V, Macbeth’s isolation is made explicit in reiterated images of abandonment and loneliness.  He articulates it in some of the greatest poetry of the play: ‘that which should accompany old age,/ As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,/ I must not look to have’ (V, iii, 24).  The Doctor would desert him if he could (V, iii, 61-2).  We are twice reminded that many of his soldiers have gone over to the enemy, first by himself (‘Were they not forced with those that should be ours,/ We might have met them dareful, beard to beard’ V, v, 5) and later by Malcolm (‘We have met with foes/ That strike beside us’ V, vii, 28).

There is an altogether appropriate image of his final isolation in his defiant ‘They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,/But bear-like I must fight the course’ (V, vii, 1).  In a 1962 Stratford production Eric Porter played Macbeth and, as J.R. Brown reports, ‘his death was that of a tired, angry, disarmed fighter: to make this clear he was killed on stage after he had been encircled by the entire army and had lost all his weapons’ (Shakespeare’s Plays in Performance, 1966, p. 185).  The transformation from leader to quarry is here complete.

 The pattern of Macbeth’s isolation, therefore, involves him in more than a progressive physical and mental detachment from other human beings.  He is an exile from the world of daylight, familiar with witches and with apparitions unseen by anybody else, making discoveries about his predicament which he can never share with others who have never dared, as he has, to plunge into darkness.

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Macbeth is a villain …. but….

 

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Our likely response to the central figure might be summed up in the formula: ‘Macbeth is a villain, an agent of evil, but….’  He commits monstrous deeds and yet we cannot see him as a monster.  On the one hand we are made to feel that his death is justified, and that his enemies triumph in a righteous cause; on the other we are forced to acknowledge that he never entirely loses our sympathy.  One general explanation for this sympathy is that we can understand such a character as Macbeth and pity him because he is doing on a large scale and with more appalling consequences for himself what we can at least imagine ourselves doing in a similar kind of situation.  It is interesting to study the methods used by Shakespeare in dealing with the major technical and artistic problems posed by the materials he has to handle in Macbeth.  Given that tragedy demands our sympathetic interest in the fortunes of the hero, how was Shakespeare to command our sympathy to the end of a play whose hero degenerates from a brave, noble warrior, highly sensitive to the prompting of conscience, into a disloyal, self-seeking killer his enemies see him as?

In the early scenes he is generously endowed with the attributes of a tragic hero.  He is a man who matters in his society, having authority, passions and abilities far greater than those around him, easily earning respect and admiration.  His good qualities are repeatedly underlined in the opening scenes.  What is emphasised most of all throughout Act 1 is how difficult it is to get him to come to terms with the evil he is contemplating.  Lady Macbeth deplores his essential goodness (‘What thou wouldst highly/ That wouldst  thou holily’ I, v, 18).  He hesitates, he agonises, he decides against the murder (‘Chance may crown me ….’ I, iii, 143).  He is conscious of the moral, as well as the political, consequences of killing Duncan (I, vii, 12).  This vacillation earns our sympathy.  Again he refuses to commit the crime (‘We will proceed no further in this business…’ I, vii, 31).  It requires all Lady Macbeth’s ingenuity, her eloquence, her jibes at his manliness (‘When you durst do it, then you were a man’ I, vii, 49) to make him proceed, and when he does, he is racked by guilt and terror (II, ii, 57-64).

If we approach Macbeth’s initial crime in terms of guilt and moral responsibility, we shall find that the play confuses and blurs the issues to some extent. Macbeth is made to seem the victim of ignorance and blindness.  He has had experience of many bloody executions in his career as a soldier; he cannot foresee the fatal effect on his character of murdering his way to the throne.  But two other factors tend even more strongly to confuse the moral issue.  The influence of the witches and their prophecies, however wilfully he misinterprets them, must inevitably appear to the spectator to mitigate his moral responsibility.  Almost any man, as Wayne Booth, the critic, has pointed out, ‘could be thrown off his moral balance by such supernatural confirmations’ (Shakespeare’s Tragic Villain).  The other morally confusing element is Lady Macbeth, one of whose functions in the scenes leading to the murder of Duncan is to distract her husband from weighting the moral issues involved by presenting the crime to him as a straightforward test of cowardice or courage.

It is worth noting how Shakespeare mitigates some of the worst horrors which Macbeth’s career as a murderer must inevitably involve.  What he does at all the critical moments is to dampen as much as possible the unfavourable effects on our attitude to Macbeth of the various atrocities for which he is responsible.  For example, the murder of Duncan is not directly shown, nor is it narrated by any speaker sympathetic to the dead man.  No effort is made by Shakespeare to evoke sympathy for Duncan at Macbeth’s expense.  Instead of hearing the dying cries of the old man, we hear Macbeth’s heartfelt lament at what he has done: the crime is made significant for its effect on the conscience of the criminal, whose responses after the event inevitably evoke some pity for him.

What we see enacted before our eyes is obviously far more telling in its effect than anything we are merely told.  We know that Duncan is a good man: we are told of his generosity, while Macbeth pays tribute to his kingly virtues.  But Shakespeare’s Duncan is not a character who can engage our deepest feelings.  The presentation is such that we focus our attention on Macbeth’s tortured comments on the crime, not on the sufferings of its victim.  We cannot feel the same kind of emotion for Duncan as we can for the man who can heartily envy him in his death that ‘after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well’ (III, ii, 23).  Of course, the quality of the stage-presentation of Duncan can make a difference here.  A comment of Kenneth Tynan’s on the 1962 Stratford production makes this point clear: ‘With Duncan’, he reported, ‘the production makes a bloomer long sanctified by tradition.  Since the play is a study of regicide we ought to feel that the sin Macbeth commits is something vast and mortal, not petty and sneaking.  Ageing though he is, Duncan must have about him an air of magnificence, a quality capable of inspiring awe; only thus can we appreciate the magnitude of the crime.  It should be as if Lear were assassinated.  At Stratford we get the usual saintly old dotard.  How this custom grew up I can only explain in terms of money and prestige: no actor capable of playing Duncan properly would dream of playing so small a part’ (Tynan Right and Left, 1967, p. 116).

It is true that Banquo’s murder is shown on the stage, and that he is a more clearly realised character than Duncan is.  His death is noble and his last gesture unselfish.  But again, the adverse effects of all this on our sympathy for Macbeth are minimised by Shakespeare.  The murder is committed by hirelings, and Macbeth responds to it much as he did to Duncan’s murder: we see him suffer at great length in the Banquet Scene.  We are made to feel that he is paying his share in guilt and self-torture for what he has done, that as he realises, ‘we still have judgement here’ (I, vii, 8).

His acts become progressively more revolting to our moral sense.  It is obviously more difficult for Shakespeare to retain pity for him after the killing of Macduff’s family than it was in the other cases; the presentation of the victims here is sympathetic and detailed.  But Macbeth is nowhere near the scene of the deed, and Lady Macduff’s death is closely followed by the mental collapse of Lady Macbeth. Again as Macbeth anticipated, ‘Bloody instructions being taught, return/ To plague the inventor’ (I, vii, 9).  The essential point, then, about Shakespeare’s presentation of Macbeth’s worst acts is that the perpetrator’s sufferings are made to appear almost proportionate to his crimes, and much more vivid than anything his victims undergo.

One further element in Shakespeare’s presentation must be mentioned.  We see a large and significant part of the action of the play as it is filtered through Macbeth’s consciousness.  We are taken into his mind, we share his point of view.  The play is his tragedy, not that of Duncan or Banquo or Lady Macduff.  Shakespeare gives him the best poetry of the play, and in a poetic drama this is a fact of the highest importance.  In the light of such speeches as ‘My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf…’ (V, iii, 22). Or ‘She should have died hereafter…’ (V, v, 17), one cannot help feeling at times that the worthy enemies gathering to destroy him are uninteresting and insignificant.  Still, Shakespeare has taken some precautions to ensure that these enemies do not appear totally pallid, that they are not altogether overshadowed by his grand eloquence and heroic stance.  Malcolm’s stature has been enhanced by means of the English Scene (IV, iii).  He enters impressively to the beating of drums.  He is given the last word in the play: an impressive enough speech, which does something to counteract the effect of Macbeth’s last great speeches.

Through the play also, Shakespeare uses choric scenes to provide those hostile to Macbeth with the opportunity to comment on his misdeeds.  Such scenes provide the audience with a perspective, apart from Macbeth’s own, through which to view the action.  In Act III, vi, for example, Lennox comments ironically on Macbeth’s behaviour, while the anonymous Lord contrasts the tyranny of his reign with the freedom enjoyed in England under the ‘holy king’ Edward.  It must be admitted, therefore, that Shakespeare performs a very delicate balancing act in his presentation of Macbeth.

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Macbeth: A Truly Aware Tragic Hero?

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A summary of what happens in Macbeth could make the play look like an exciting crime story, but it is what happens within the hero, the development of his understanding of himself and his plight, and his sharing of this with the audience, that lifts it to a higher plane.

When the unexpected results of his actions emerge, the tragic hero questions what has happened to him, and through this questioning learns the vital truth about himself.  This brings him around to facing his destiny and completing it by his death. It is through this recognition that he reaches his tragic vision.  His error was committed in blindness; recognition involves the intrusion of the light, the acknowledgement of the blindness.  Recognition is not simply his knowledge of what has happened to him (in Macbeth’s case that he has been duped by the witches; he recognises his folly in having trusted them), but the new awareness of the unalterably fixed pattern of the miserable life he has created for himself through his deeds, accompanied by a deep sense of loss at the thought of what he has sacrificed and forsaken.  These elements are present in Macbeth’s infinitely poignant soliloquy in Act V:

          I have liv’d long enough: my way of life

          Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;

          And that which should accompany old age,

          As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,

          I must not look to have; but in their stead,

          Curses not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath

          Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

                                 V, iii, 22

Macbeth arrives at the recognition of having irrecoverably lost, through his own blind deed, the things on which his happiness on earth depended.  He discovers that he cannot arrest the process he has set in motion, and gains an insight into the workings of evil. He realises that evil isolates: his deeds have cut him off from all he treasures.  He is alone in a hell of despair, and is aware of the futility of all he has planned.  It is the fate of the tragic hero to be finally isolated from the ways of ordinary men, but it is in his isolation that he grows in stature and self-awareness, and consequently in the estimation of the audience, that he faces up to his destiny and confronts it.  For Macbeth, this means dying valiantly in battle (V, iii, 32; V, v, 52) rather than taking his own life (V, vii, 30) or running away (V, vii, 1), or being taken prisoner (V, vii, 56).  Those who like to moralise the tragic ending will find in his fate a striking illustration of the saying that ‘all they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword’ (Matthew, Ch. 26: verse 22); it is a fate ironically anticipated by him very early in the play: ‘This even-handed justice/ Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice/ To our own lips’ (I, vii, 10).

There are various degrees of recognition in tragedy.  In some (like Othello), recognition is minimal: Othello knows what he has done and what he has lost, but learns little or nothing about himself.  In Macbeth, at the end, the hero’s recognition is considerable, but still far from complete.  He remains puzzled and baffled to the last, failing to grasp the how and why of his fate.

In his case it is interesting to notice that partial recognition comes early in the play, that disillusion sets in long before his fortunes fail: in fact it sets in when he is at the height of his worldly success.  Even before he has murdered Banquo, he can face the unthinkable prospect of having damned his soul (‘mine eternal jewel/ Given to the common enemy of man’ III, i. 67). Earlier still, his sense of what he has done to himself as well as to Duncan is expressed in the richly suggestive, ‘To know my deed twere best not to know myself’ (II, ii, 72).  But if he does sense early on what is happening to him as a result of what he has done, he does not really know what kind of future is in store for him until the point at which he realises that it is as easy for him to go forward in crime as to go back.  The recognition that he cannot control the processes he has set in motion, or alter the course he has set for himself is a tragic one: ‘I am in blood/ Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more/ Returning were as tedious as go o’er’ (III, iv, 136).

But the exact moment when Macbeth realises he is doomed is when Macduff relates that he was ‘from his mother’s womb untimely ta’en (V, vii, 44).  He has expressed an earlier, partial, recognition of his fate at the news that Birnam Wood is moving towards Dunsinane (‘I pull in resolution, and begin/ To doubt the equivocation of the fiend’ (V, v, 42).

It is the quality of his response to his destiny and the manner in which he confronts it that determines his essential worth as a tragic hero and that gives him his ultimate tragic status.  The physical death of the tragic hero is a final symbol of his recognition: of the death of his former blind and ignorant self.  Our tragic hero has paid a chilling and costly price for self-awareness.

 

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Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet

 

 

 

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Those who have commented on the structure of Hamlet have all made the point that it is a play of contrasting situations, rather like a system of mirrors, in which the same problem is in turn reflected from different points of view.  We are meant to examine the differing approaches of individual characters and Shakespeare assumes we can distinguish which one acts honourably and which one is immoral!  In this play three sons have lost their fathers; Hamlet and Ophelia are afflicted with differing kinds of madness, feigned and real.  The idea of vengeance is seen from several angles; Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras have similar missions which they fulfil in differing ways.  Claudius and Polonius conduct parallel investigations into the cause of Hamlet’s behaviour; there are several variations on the son-father theme.  Characters move towards their objects by various kinds of indirection (and ‘by indirection find direction out’).  So, therefore, Polonius uses Reynaldo to find the truth about Laertes; Claudius acts through such intermediaries as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Polonius uses Ophelia to sound out Hamlet.

 THE AVENGERS

It can easily be forgotten that Hamlet is not the only avenger in this revenge tragedy.  Laertes, Fortinbras and Pyrrhus all have wrongs to avenge: Laertes the deaths of his father and sister; Fortinbras the death of his father at the hand’s of Hamlet’s father and the loss of Norwegian territory to Denmark, and Pyrrhus the death of his father at the hands of Priam.   The common theme, as Claudius says in another context, is ‘death of fathers’.  Shakespeare presents all three avengers in sharp contrast to Hamlet, and their predicaments echo his.  The Dido play reminds him of his own situation.  Hecuba weeping profoundly for her slain husband Priam must inevitably invite comparison and contrast with Gertrude, who, ‘all tears’, followed King Hamlet’s body, but dried her tears all too soon and married Claudius.

 PYRRHUS THE AVENGER

Pyrrhus, the ‘hellish’ avenger who slays Priam, is presented as an evil man, ‘dread and black’, steeped ‘in the blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons’.  He is ‘a painted tyrant’, who enjoys ‘mincing with his sword’ the limbs of Priam.  Pyrrhus kills an old man, the ‘reverend Priam’, in a dubious act of vengeance.  The contrast between him and Hamlet is plain.  Hamlet finds it difficult to kill the man who has secretly murdered his father and destroyed his mother’s honour.  There is even a circumstantial parallel between Pyrrhus as avenger and Hamlet as would-be-avenger.  Pyrrhus suspends his sword momentarily over his victim, and ‘like a neutral to his will and matter’, does nothing, but soon, ‘aroused vengeance sets him new awork’.  Hamlet stands behind the kneeling Claudius in the Prayer Scene, but unlike Pyrrhus, leaves his sword unused.  Morally, Hamlet emerges with credit from this contrast with Pyrrhus.

FORTINBRAS AS AVENGER

The contrast between Hamlet and the other avenger, Fortinbras, is not as sharp, at least on the surface.  Hamlet praises Fortinbras as ‘a delicate and tender prince’, and even names him as his successor.  In one of his soliloquies, he invokes the decisive action of Fortinbras as a reproach to his own inaction, and uses his activities to illustrate a general principle of which he approves, and which he himself would like to embody:

                        Rightly to be great

                        Is not to stir without great argument

                        But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

                        When honour’s at the stake

(IV, iv, 53)

The Hamlet-Fortinbras contrast is, however, an ambivalent one.  In the earliest references to him, Fortinbras appears as a reckless adventurer at the head of a band of brigands, having ‘shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes’  (I, i, 98).  His war with Poland is one of aggression, Hamlet’s comments to the captain show his disgust at the adventure; he sees the Polish was as a disease, ‘the imposthume of much wealth and peace / That inward breaks’ (IV, iv, 26).   In the light of this, the praise he accords Fortinbras in the soliloquy (a ‘spirit with divine ambition puff’d’) is, to say the least, ambiguous.  Fortinbras, to judge from his activities, may be puffed up with ambition and dreams of honour, but unlike Hamlet, he pays very little attention to the injustice or otherwise of his cause.  What Hamlet clearly admires in Fortinbras is his absolute dedication to his role.  His motives for action, and the nature of the action itself, are another matter.  In these, he cannot stand comparison with Hamlet, whose developed awareness of ethical issues is a major feature of his character.

 LAERTES AS AVENGER

Laertes is the most obvious foil to Hamlet, and this is made explicit by hamlet himself when he tells Horatio that ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’, and again, just before the fencing match, ‘I’ll be your foil, Laertes’ (V, ii, 247).  Like hamlet, Laertes has every motive for revenge.  But there the resemblance ends.  When Laertes hears of this father’s death, he quickly raises a rebellion against Claudius.  Moral considerations do not trouble him, as they do Hamlet; he is prepared to cast the moral law aside: ‘To hell, allegiance!  Vows to the blackest devil / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit’ (IV, v, 117).  When Claudius asks him how far he would go to show himself a true son  of his father, he answers ‘To cut his throat in the church’ (IV, vii, 127), which is Shakespeare’s comment on Hamlet’s failure to do the same to Claudius when he finds him at prayer.  The King points to another contrast between  Hamlet and Laertes when, proposing the use of an unbated foil, he feels that Hamlet, being ‘Most generous and free from all contriving / Will not peruse the foils’ (IV, vii, 136)  the full force of Laertes’ moral degeneracy becomes evident in his plan to kill Hamlet by stealth, and in his revelation that he has procured poison in case he might find use for it: ‘And for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword / I bought an unction of a mountebank’ (IV, vii, 141).

The function of Laertes in the play seems clear from all of this.  Shakespeare uses him to show the character of the classic avenger of primitive revenge tragedy, an avenger of the kind that Hamlet, by nature, is unable to be.  The audience must be glad that Hamlet is strongly differentiated from the coarse-grained, unreflective, shallow Laertes.  When critics castigate Hamlet for not proceeding more quickly against Claudius, they can scarcely wish him to duplicate the attitudes and proceedings of Laertes, whose moral depravity throws Hamlet’s scrupulousness into welcome relief.

 SUMMARY

The three avengers then, Pyrrhus, Fortinbras and Laertes, are all foils to Hamlet.  All have lost their fathers, all of them have motives for revenge, though none as powerful as Hamlet has.  In spite of this, all three proceed with their task undeterred by moral qualms.  Hamlet is constantly troubled by doubts and hesitations.  Hamlet pays generous tribute to Fortinbras and the ‘very noble youth’ Laertes, tributes which are not really deserved; and which highlight Hamlet’s own generous nature.

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HORATIO AS A FOIL TO HAMLET

Horatio is also used as a foil to Hamlet.  The most interesting thing about Horatio is not his character as we observe it in the play (he is a vague, shadowy, contradictory figure for much of it) but the noble tribute paid to him by Hamlet.  In this tribute he is the stoical man par excellence, ‘a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards / Hast taken with equal thanks’ (III, ii, 65).  The part of the tribute most relevant to Hamlet’s own situation seems to be the following lines:

                                    and blest are those

                        Whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled

                        That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger

                        To sound what stop she please.  Give me that man

                        That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him

                        In my heart’s core…..                                                   (III, ii, 66)

This, presumably, is to be read as a comment on Hamlet’s own unstable temperament and conduct, his intense frustration, melancholy, despair and liability to sudden anger and rash action.  He is, what Horatio is not, ‘passion’s slave’.  The contrast between Horatio, who can bear the buffets and rewards of fortune with equal thanks and self-control, and Hamlet, who is shaken to the core by circumstances and by the new career as avenger which is thrust on him, is extreme.

 CLAUDIUS AS FOIL TO HAMLET

Claudius is also part of the large pattern of contrasts and oppositions involving hamlet and other characters in the play.  Hamlet recognises his uncle as a formidable antagonist, finding satisfaction in the thought of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being caught in the great conflict between Claudius and himself:

                                    Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

                                    Between the pass and fell incensed points

                                    Of mighty opposites…. (V, ii, 60).

The contrast between Hamlet’s agonised indecision and the efficient, swift plotting of Claudius scarcely needs underlining.  Hamlet is, as the king recognises, ‘most generous, and free from all contriving’  (IV, vii, 135).  Claudius himself is an expert contriver.  But in Hamlet, the hidden forces shaping the course of things do not ultimately favour the shrewd contrivers.  Instead these contrivers (Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes) are themselves victims of their own contrivances, their ‘purposes mistook, fallen on the inventors’ heads’ (V, ii, 388).  And Hamlet, who contrives nothing against Claudius except the Play Within The Play, has the opportunity for vengeance unwittingly provided for him by Claudius, whose deep plots overreach themselves!

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Polonius and his family in Hamlet

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POLONIUS

There must be a strong temptation for actors to play Polonius as a foolish old man, the comic victim of Hamlet’s sharp wit, even as a buffoon.  Samuel Johnson’s account of the character is worth repeating for its emphasis on some important features:

‘Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident in his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage.  His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.  Such a man is positive and confident, because be knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak.  Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application… while he depends upon his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train.  The, idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius’.

There is no doubt that the aspects of the character to which Johnson draws attention can be illustrated from the play.  Hamlet sees him as Johnson does, as one of ‘those tedious old fools’, and ‘that great baby……not yet out of his swaddling clothes’.  There are, too, the longwindedness, the impressive openings that meander into fatuity, and sometimes jolt into embarrassing frankness, as in the business of communicating his diagnosis of Hamlet’s madness’ (11,ii,92-165).  He wins easy laughs, sees himself as something of a sage, if an absentminded one.  He himself reminds us of another of his powers, that of detection: ‘I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / within the centre’ (11,ii,158).  He gets three character testimonials in the course of the play.  One is solicited, and is from Claudius, who describes him as ‘a man faithful and honourable’.  Two are unsolicited.  Claudius declares that the throne of Denmark is at his command, and Gertrude calls him ‘the unseen good old man’ after his death.  This epitaph contrasts oddly with Hamlets reference to the ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’, who was in life ‘a foolish prating knave’.

Johnson’s account is accurate enough as far as it goes, but neither his nor many of the other popular interpretations of the character do justice to the darker and more sinister sides of his personality.  What is attractive about Polonius belongs to the outward man, who can claim a certain indulgence for his foibles.  But beneath the mask lurks a treacherous plotter, with a gravely retarded moral sense.  He trusts his children so little that he sets spies on them, and he dies as a spy in the Queen’s bedroom.  He cannot see his fellow-human beings as other than puppets, and has no respect for privacy.  He forces Ophelia against her better interests to act in his nasty drama involving Hamlet, and manipulates her like a doll: ‘Ophelia, walk you here…read on the book’.  He pries into other people’s lives without apology or embarrassment.  He can sacrifice his daughter’s feelings and her reputation to his own limited, self-centred concerns, and his choice of words to describe his procedures underlines their, and his, nastiness: ‘At such a time. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ (11,ii, 165).  He cynically misunderstands Hamlet’s attention to Ophelia, and debases the office of Chancellor by converting it to a spying agency.  His insensitive intrusion into the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship shows his blindness to the intense feeling that many underline such relationships, as well as his lack of respect for the privacy that should surround them. He will have Gertrude provoke Hamlet to a violent outburst: ‘Let his Queen-mother all alone entreat him / To show his grief; let her be round with him’.  He even takes a perverse delight in anticipating what he feels will be almost an entertaining spectacle for him, but his final instructions to Gertrude, in which he urges her to be ‘round’ with Hamlet, shows no understanding of the kind of response such behaviour on her part will arouse.  It is ironical that he should meet his death in a production staged by himself, and with himself as director.  We remember his earlier lines:

I did enact Julius Caesar.  I was killed i ‘the Capitol.

Brutus kill’d me…(111,ii,101)

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LAERTES

Laertes functions as a foil to Hamlet. He is a conventional revenge hero, and consequently represents a standard of measurement for Hamlet.  Like his father, he is given to conventional moralising, giving Ophelia some serious and misleading advice on her relationship with Hamlet, just as Polonius will do.  Her quiet response anticipates the course his life will take. He is one of those who can show others the right way, but who will not follow it himself, who ‘recks not his own rede’. On his return to Denmark after his father’s death, his decisive action contrasts with Hamlet’s indecision.  He has enough courage to face Claudius alone, but his words are those of a melodramatic villain rather than of a wronged son and brother:

 To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!

 Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!

 I dare damnation…(IV,v,117))

Worse is to follow.  Laertes forgets all the edifying moral principles he so freely shared with Ophelia when he expresses a willingness to cut Hamlet’s throat ‘in the church’.  Even more damaging is the fact that he has come to Denmark with the means of practising treachery on an enemy (‘I bought an unction of a mountebank).  He is able to add a poisoned weapon to Claudius’ plan to use an unbated foil.  Hamlet can be emotionally unstable, but is not morally unstable; Laertes is emotionally stable enough, but morally quite unstable.  His interview with Claudius brings one’s mind back to the advice tendered to him by Polonius:

This above all – to thine own self be true

And it must follow, as the night the day

 Thou canst not then be false to any man…1,iii,77).

In the event, he proves totally untrue to any decent conception he may have of himself.  The king has little difficulty in exploiting his weak moral sense.  He employs flattery, a false show of sympathy, a clever challenge to pride, ‘what  would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father’s son / More than in words’.  Laertes is blackmailed into a treacherous partnership with Claudius, which he lacks the moral strength to break.  His shallowness is underlined when, before the fencing-match, he repents too late and only when his own life is ebbing away.  He does, however, make sure that Claudius is trapped (‘The king, the king’s to blame’).

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OPHELIA

Character-studies of Ophelia are liable to sound rather tame, and can easily lapse into sentimentality.  There is a pathetic beauty about her death, and a charming innocence about her activities during life.  She is, as her father says, ‘a green girl’, childlike, inexperienced, frightened by Hamlet’s odd behaviour, totally obedient to her father.  She is, of course, one of the classic examples of the innocent sufferer in tragedy, the pathetic victim of a process set in motion by forces beyond her control and over whose course she has no influence.  She pays the penalty for the crimes of others.  In many tragedies there is an appalling disproportion between the offences committed by the participants and the sufferings they endure.  In Ophelia’s case one might go even further, since she is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence.  In the case of Polonius and Laertes there is at least the satisfaction of being able to rationalise their deaths as the outcome of crime or rashness. Laertes sees some justice in his fate, and Hamlet finds an absurd appropriateness in that of Polonius.  But no such ‘meaning’ can be extracted from what happens to Ophelia.

For a long time critics could find little enough meaning in Hamlet’s treatment of her in the ‘nunnery scene’ (111,I,90-150).  There is, of course, the obvious general point that Gertrude’s sin has had a profound effect on Hamlet’s attitude to all women (‘Frailty thy name is woman’) and that his disgust at his mother taints his mind against even the innocent Ophelia.  Elements of this are present in the scene (‘I say we will have no more marriage; those that are married already, all but one shall live…’).  In one of the most influential observations on the play, Dover Wilson, the renowned Shakespearean scholar, argued that at 11,ii,160, Hamlet overhears the King and Polonius as they plan the encounter between Ophelia and himself, and that his anger against Ophelia is largely inspired by his view of her in the role of fellow-conspirator with Claudius and Polonius against him.  This suggestion would also help to make some sense of Hamlet’s odd and insulting exchanges with Polonius in 11,ii 174 beginning ‘Excellent well, you are a fishmonger’ (a slang term for our word pimp) which otherwise seems inexplicable, at least in this contest.  If Shakespeare did not really arrange matters as Dover Wilson thinks he did, then perhaps he ought to have!

However, as we have discussed in class, an alternative theory is that yes he is aware that she is being used by ‘the lawful espials’ in the court and he wants to save her further hurt and so pushes her away for her own safety.  However, like many other of his plans, this one does not work either!

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Sample Answer:

 ‘Ophelia is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence’  Discuss.

Ophelia is isolated in a man’s world.  She is used in many conspiracies against Hamlet.  She is not cherished for herself, except when she is grieved over:

I lov’d Ophelia.  Forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum.

Laertes and Polonius forbid her to develop a relationship with Hamlet because of their resentment towards him.  Laertes suggests to his sister that her marriage to Hamlet would endanger the Danish state:

For on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state.

What is a sensitive young woman to make of this?  Yet Gertrude declares at Ophelia’s funeral:

            I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.

Laertes gets it wrong.  But what effect does this interference have on the emotional state of a young woman who ‘sucked the honey of his music vows’?  After all it turns out that Hamlet has treated her sweetly and showered gifts on her with ‘words of so sweet breath compos’d, as made the things more rich.’

Laertes imputes motives of lust to Hamlet even though he is just back from his studies at the famous reformation university of Wittenberg and has shown a profound sincerity of grief for his father:

A toy in blood; a violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent.

Her brother teaches her to distrust Hamlet’s advances and fear love:

 Your chaste treasure open to his unmaster’d importunity.

 Fear it, Ophelia, fear it.

Polonius forcefully dismisses her as ‘a green girl’.  Hamlet is portrayed as a seductive opportunist, using his charm as ‘springs to catch woodcocks!’  She obediently denies herself her one means of happiness.

In the Nunnery Scene she is exploited in a game of espionage against Hamlet.  The Queen is looking for an explanation of Hamlet’s ‘wildness’:

I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness.

She is, therefore, a pawn in a fatal game of intrigue, believing as the Queen does that in the accidental meeting, ‘her virtues’ may bring back Hamlet’s ‘wonted ways’ or sanity.  But in truth this is only a pretext to ‘sugar o’er the devil’ and assist Hamlet’s two enemies.  Suspecting the worst, Hamlet abuses Ophelia terribly in order to intimidate the King:

Get thee to a nunnery!  Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet ironically echoes Claudius’ guilty remark about the ‘harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art’ – as if he had overheard their plans to uncover his mask of madness:

  I have heard of your paintings too.

She is devastated for both of them: ‘Oh help him you sweet heavens’ and she refers to ‘sweet bells jangled’.  Her despair for herself follows swiftly:

‘Ands I, of ladies most deject and wretched’

When Hamlet leaves, she seems to break down in her speech, ending with:

‘Oh woe is me / to have seen what I have seen, see what I see’.

Ophelia’s world is beginning to collapse.  So far in her life, she has been under the continual direction of three men: her father, her brother and her lover.  Her brother has gone to Paris.  Her lover is insane and abuses her.  When her father dies at the hands of the man she loves, there is no one to direct her.  In Act I, Scene iii, Polonius told her to ‘think yourself a baby’, and tells her to stop believing what Hamlet has said and believe what he says instead.  She succumbed to this and is now, therefore, totally isolated.  Ophelia has never had to make her own mind up and has been dissuaded from doing so.  It might be fair to say that she does not have a mind of her own.  What happens when that infant mind is left to fend with the loss of everyone who is important to her?

This impression of Ophelia is strengthened, I think, in the Play Scene.  Hamlet embarrasses and confuses her publicly.  She is almost completely incapable of responding.  She has never been spoken to like this before and does not have the personality to cope:

That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

It is important to consider what Ophelia’s songs can tell us about her state of mind and what Ophelia’s madness adds to our understanding of madness in the play.  At the beginning of Act IV, Scene v, the unnamed gentleman tells us that Ophelia is mad.  At this point the Queen, full of her own troubles refuses to see Ophelia.  Her isolation is complete.  The gentleman says she speaks much of her father and that much of her speech is meaningless, but its chaotic state makes those who hear it try to make sense of it.  They are amazed by her speech and make the words fit their own interpretation. (Very little has changed over the intervening four hundred years!).  This statement seems to be crucial to understanding how madness is presented in this play.  When Hamlet and Ophelia are thought to be insane, their observers try to interpret the reasons for their insanity.  The reasons they come up with always reflect the preoccupations of the observers.

In the case of Hamlet, Claudius thinks he has a deep hidden secret since he himself has a hidden secret:

There’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that Hamlet’s ambition is the cause of his madness since they themselves are ambitious.  Similarly with Ophelia, Laertes thinks she is trying to tell him to take revenge for her father because this is a course he has already decided on:

By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight.

Therefore, it can be said that in Hamlet, madness is a mirror.

A close analysis of the songs Ophelia sings can also be enlightening.  She sings three songs to the Queen in Act IV, Scene v, and two more later in the scene after Laertes arrives.  Her first song is about an absent lover, the second is probably a lament for her father, while the third song, ‘Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day’, is a story of how a young girl is duped into sleeping with a man who promises to marry her and doesn’t.  The first two don’t create much of a problem: after all, she has an absent lover and a dead dad!  The third song, more bawdy, is a little trickier.  Hamlet has not been unfaithful to Ophelia; in fact the opposite is true.  He has, however, been very unpleasant towards her and this has obviously disturbed her.  She may be mourning the loss of her virginity, for she may have made love to Hamlet but the bottom line is that we don’t know enough to make a definite judgement.

It is plausible, going on the evidence of these five songs, to assume that Ophelia’s madness was caused by the death of her father, the loss of Hamlet and her confusion at his sarcastic remarks to her.  She probably feels a deep sense of loss for his love and companionship.  It is clear that by the end of Act IV that Ophelia had attained two dark finalities that Hamlet had either faked or at least meditated on: madness and suicide.  One bizarre aspect of this story is that the Queen seems to be aware of Ophelia’s mental state yet she does nothing to save her.

Ophelia dies near the ‘weeping willow’, which suggests that she died of grief.  The brook is also described as a ‘weeping brook’.  Another thing to note are the other plants that are mentioned.  She has been associated with flowers throughout the play.  She’s an ‘infant of the spring’ in Act I, Scene ii and in Act IV, Scene v, Laertes describes her as a ‘rose of May’, where she also hands out flowers to the Court.  At her funeral, Laertes imagines violets springing from her grave and the Queen strews her grave with flowers, which may signify her innocence, beauty, youth and fragility.

In Act IV though the flowers are weeds: crow-flowers, nettles, long-purples and daisies.  Perhaps these are a symbol of Ophelia’s decline, madness, or her disillusionment with the Danish Court.  Indeed, it has been suggested that it was in fact this Court that killed her.  She was, in effect, ‘a guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her’.

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