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 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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Macbeth: A Tragedy

 

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At the outset let’s attempt to define what we mean by ‘Shakespearean Tragedy’.  No one tragedy fits perfectly any one definition of it, 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, evil is the cause of the catastrophe.  Shakespeare believed that his tragedies, including Macbeth, depicted the struggle between good and evil in the world.

Therefore, the best way to begin the study of any tragedy is to do what we have summarised above: describe the main elements of tragedy itself, say what happens and how it happens, and take stock of the qualities which are usually associated with the tragic hero.  Shakespeare’s tragic hero is always a man (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, etc.) of exceptional nature, a great man with more powerful consciousness, deeper emotions, and more splendid imagination than ordinary men.  He is a sensitive being often torn by an internal struggle.    We see our hero set out on a particular course of action and because of a ‘fatal flaw’ (Aristotle’s ‘hamartia‘) in his character he suffers ‘reversals of fortune’ and brings suffering on himself and others; he brings about his own death and the deaths of many others.  Macbeth succumbs to his powerful failing in his nature and is destroyed by it.  He moves along a preordained path through questioning, to awareness of his wrongdoing and finally to perception.  He undertakes a course of action which is credible and probable and the inevitable direction of the hero’s movement is from prosperity to adversity, from centrality to isolation.  This is well expressed by Chaucer’s Monk:

 Tragedy means a certain kind of story,

As old books tell, of those who fell from glory,

People that stood in great prosperity

And were cast down out of their high degree

Into calamity and so they died.

(The Canterbury Tales, trans. by Nevill Coghill, 1951, p. 212)

An essential tragic requirement is that the hero must be ‘a great man’ – a man of some status in society.  The essential features here are moral stature and greatness of personality.  In Shakespearian tragedy, such qualities are invariably associated with eminent people (Chaucer’s men of ‘high degree’) engaged in great events.  The hero in any tragedy must be a man who can command our earnest good will, a man whose fortunes interest and concern us.  We identify with him in his suffering; he must be a man who reminds us strongly of our humanity, whom we can accept as standing for us  –  (‘There but for the grace of God go I’).  Unless this sympathy for the tragic hero is maintained to the end the dramatist has failed in his essential task.

The tragic hero inevitably meets with disaster due to his unrealised and unforeseen failures.  He consciously sets out to undertake a specific course of action, ‘I am settled, and bend up / Each corporal agent to this terrible feat (Act I, Scene vii).  However, he now has no control over the consequences of his actions.  The notion of blindness is appropriate to his condition here, just as that of recovered sight is appropriate to his later recognition of what he has done and what he has become as a result.  The Golden Rule is that ‘what’s done cannot be undone’.  When he decides to murder Duncan and usurp the throne, Macbeth deprives himself of his freedom: his life now follows a determined and inescapable pattern after the fatal act.  In this regard it should be said that although Macbeth may appear to be – and is commonly described as – a play about ambition and its effects, it is not fundamentally that.  To stress ambition as the source of Macbeth’s tragic error is a case of false emphasis.  What happens is that he is tempted by forces hostile to his good into proving their predictions true.  In his efforts to fulfil a fated plan he is destroyed (just like Oedipus); these efforts lead him to forge a chain of crime from which he cannot break free.

The problem of Macbeth’s ‘motivation’ or lack of it is often given a central place in discussions of the play.  If he does not strongly covet the crown, he has no logical motive for killing Duncan.  Shakespeare does not present him as a man driven by an unquenchable ambition for power.  Indeed critics of the play have found his conduct wildly improbable, his murder of Duncan completely out of character.  When he is first tempted, he is racked by feelings of horror and guilt; the thought of murder makes his heart knock at his ribs and his hair stand on end; he has the conscience of a good man.  The problem, for some critics, is to believe in the transformation of the conscience-stricken figure of the early scenes into the ‘butcher’ and ‘hell-hound’ of the later ones.  His later murders are even more difficult to explain in terms of ‘logical’ motivation.  His fears in Banquo ‘stick deep’, yet surely his real target should be Fleance, since Banquo himself can never, if the witches are to be trusted (and Macbeth trusts them), be a danger.  Still, it is Banquo’s murder, not Fleance’s, which occupies most of his attention.  This goes to show that tragedy, not unlike real life, does not always conform to neat, logical packaging – what is important is that Shakespeare is exploring here the progress of a man towards self-destruction.  We marvel at the fact that he has the capacity to commit acts, which seem to violate his essential good nature.

Central to our definition of tragedy is the process referred to earlier as ‘reversal of fortune’, which is what happens when the hero achieves the opposite effect to what he meant or expected.  In tragedy, as has been stated already, the hero undertakes a specific course of action which leads to suffering and awareness at the end.  In their blindness, both the Macbeth’s believe that if they usurp Duncan’s throne they will live happily ever after; what they actually achieve is almost total misery culminating in ruin.

Aristotle’s final criterion for good tragedy was that the audience would experience ‘catharsis’, that is, be left with a mixture of feelings, of pity and fear at the end of the performance.  This is true of Macbeth, the sensitive, conscience-stricken, tortured Macbeth inspires pity, while the tyrannical Macbeth, ‘in blood stepp’d in so far’ inspires terror.

Shakespeare does a wonderful balancing act in Macbeth. The audience maintain their sympathy for Macbeth, the tragic hero, while also recognising the reality that evil must be destroyed and good must triumph.  This is achieved with Macduff’s final gory victory over Macbeth. Malcolm can now assume his rightful place on the throne.  Order has finally been restored – for the time being at least!

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Image Patterns in King Lear

 

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One of the possible questions on your Leaving Cert Higher Level Paper 2 in June may well demand a good knowledge of the imagery in this great tragedy.  As in all the great Shakespearean tragedies, imagery is very effectively used in King Lear to highlight and illustrate the major themes of the play.

These notes will focus on some of the most important image patterns such as

  • Animal Imagery
  • Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action
  • Clothes Imagery: Appearance V’s Reality
  • Imagery of Sight and Blindness
  • The Fool’s use of Rich Imagery

Animal Imagery

Animal imagery is dominant in the play.  For many people, these are the images that leave the most lasting impression.  We notice that the animals named are predatory: monsters of the deep, the wolf, the boar, the tiger, the vulture, the serpent, the dragon.  This pattern of vicious animal imagery underlines the theme of predatory humans who feed off one another in Lear’s degenerate kingdom.  The critic A.C. Bradley suggested that as we read the play, ‘the souls of all the beasts in turn seem to have entered the bodies of these mortals, horrible in their venom, savagery, lust, deceitfulness, sloth, cruelty, filthiness’ (Shakespearian Tragedy). Goneril and Regan, in particular, are seen as all-devouring creatures.  The Fool describes their behaviour towards Lear in terms of the cuckoo and its young:

                        “The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,

                        That it had its head bit off by its young.”

Goneril and Regan are persistently seen as beasts of prey, or as monsters:

  • More hideous … than the sea-monster” – Act I, iv.
  • “detested kite”, “a serpent’s tooth”, “wolfish visage”, “like a vulture” –Act II, iv
  • “boorish fangs” – Act III, Sc vii
  • “tigers, not daughters” – Act IV, ii

This type of imagery underlines the viciousness of the two characters.  They are seen as creatures that operate by the law of the jungle.  They are very dangerous.  They can devour all that is human and prey on those who are weaker than themselves.

On the heath, ‘unaccommodated man’ comes very close to the animal world – the wolf and owl, the cub-drawn bear, the lion and the belly-pinched wolf.  Poor Tom brings with him the lower and more repulsive animals.  Man no longer uses the animals – “thou owst the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool”.  Man himself seems no more than an animal.  His behaviour suggests this – he is likened either to the monsters of the deep that prey on each other, or to a “poor, bare, forked animal”.  Tom has been “hog in sloth, fox in stealth, wolf in greediness…” (Act III, iv).

In the terrible world of Lear’s vision, man is a beast.  Yet, something may come out of this elemental existence on the heath.  We notice that the animal imagery changes as Lear’s recovery gets underway.  The animals mentioned now are those which convey feelings of pleasure.  In Act V, iii a much-chastened Lear tells Cordelia:

            “We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage, …”

            “We’ll live and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

            At gilded butterflies…..”

These animal images leave two strong impressions.  The primary one is that humanity seems to be reverting to a bestial condition.  Secondly, there is a close association between the animal images and the suggestion of bodily pain, horror and suffering.  As well as savage wolves, tigers and other predators there are ‘darting’ serpents, a ‘sharp-toothed’ vulture, stinging adders, gnawing rats, and whipped, whining, mad and biting dogs.

Therefore, the animal imagery throughout King Lear is a powerful and imaginative expression of the play’s major themes – how predatory human beings destroy decent values by operating the law of the jungle, and how the inevitable result is pain and suffering.

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Images of Violent Suffering and Violent Action

King Lear is the most painful and harrowing of the tragedies.  All through we are conscious of strife, buffeting, strain and bodily suffering to the point of agony.  The images involving the human body are particularly grim.  We have, as Caroline Spurgeon has remarked, the repeated image of the body in ‘anguished movement, tugged, wrenched, beaten, pierced, stung, scourged, scalded, dislocated, flayed, tortured, and finally broken on the rack’ (Shakespeare’s Imagery and What it Tells Us).

Even death is seen by Kent as a welcome release from torture, which is almost the permanent condition of those who live in the Lear universe.  As Lear is dying, Kent makes the appeal:

O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this tough world

Stretch him out longer … (V, iii, 312).

Elsewhere he sees himself wrenched and tortured by an ‘engine’, and his heart about to break ‘into a hundred thousand flaws’.  Gloucester’s ‘flawed heart’ is ‘cracked’ and finally is said to ‘burst smilingly’.  Gloucester’s response to Edmund’s ‘revelations’ about Edgar is full of violent and agitated images.  Within the space of ten lines, Gloucester uses the following: scourged, falls off, cracked, mutinies, machinations, ruinous disorders, discord.  Gloucester himself is subjected to cruel and violent treatment: bound to a chair, plucked by the beard, his beard ‘ravished’ from his chin, ‘tied to a stake’, like a bear ‘to stand the course’.  He has his eyes gouged out, and is ‘thrust out of’ the gates.

The idea that human beings can easily lapse into the condition and behaviour of wild animals is often held out as a possibility in King Lear. Lear is certain that Regan, in his defence, will with her nails, ‘flay that wolfish visage’ of Goneril.  The most striking example of this violent, bestial imagery is Gloucester’s explanation to Regan for sending Lear to Dover:

                        I would not see thy cruel nails

Pluck out his poor old eyes, nor thy fierce sister

In his anointed flesh stick boarish fangs. (III,vii, 56)

Even the generally mild Albany declares that if he were to follow his natural instincts, he would ‘dislocate’ and ‘tear the flesh and bones’ of Goneril.  The generally violenmt tendency of the language and imagery of the play is summed up in Lear’s ironic promise to Cordelia:

He that parts us shall bring a brand from heaven

And fire us hence like foxes.  Wipe those eyes;

The good years shall devour them, flesh and fell

Ere they shall make us weep.  We’ll see ‘em starved first. (V, iii, 22)

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Clothing Imagery: Appearance and Reality

From first to last, there is a steady emphasis in the play on the contrast between man and his clothes.  At the centre of the play, Lear stresses the function of clothing as a symbol of class and wealth, and as a means of hiding perversions of justice:

Through tattered clothes small vices do appear

Robes and furred gowns hide all.  Plate sin with gold

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;

Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw doth pierce it. (IV, vi, 164)

 

Lear is the first to mention clothing imagery when he declares in his opening speech that he will “divest (us) both of rule, interest of territory, cares of state…”.

Clothes become a symbol of luxury – “Thou art a lady…” a desperate Lear tells an obstinate Regan in Act II, iv:

            “If only to go warm were gorgeous,

            Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wears’t

            Which scarcely keeps thee warm…”

In the Storm Scene, there is much significance in Lear’s tearing off his clothes and his joining “poor Tom” in the naked state.  This gesture allows Lear to become “unaccommodated man … a poor, bare, forked animal”.  It is only when he experiences this reduced state that Lear can truly identify with the poorest of his subjects.  Naked to the elements, he now knows what it is like to “bide the pelting of the pitiless storm”.

The theme of appearance versus reality is a common one in Shakespearean plays.  In King Lear, the image of clothing and its opposite, nakedness, is the imaginative expression of this theme.  Clothes are seen as a camouflage to hide injustice and to symbolise power and privilege.  It is a much wiser Lear who tells us in Act IV, vi, that things – and people – are not always what they seem.  The outward trappings of wealth and privilege can sometimes conceal corruption.  Likewise, poverty in one’s personal appearance can adversely affect the attitude of others towards us:

            “Through tattered clothes small vices do appear.

            Robes and furr’d gowns hide all.

            Plate sin with gold

            And the strong lance of justice hurtles breaks:

            Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”

Lear has travelled a long way along the road to wisdom since he was fooled by Goneril’s and Regan’s flattery in Act I.

The imagery of clothing in King Lear is closely linked to the theme of disguise.  Just as “robes and furr’d gowns hide all”, Goneril’s and Regan’s hypocrisy is disguised by their honey’d words at the beginning of the play.  Those who do not resort to disguising their true feelings must suffer – i.e. Cordelia and Kent.  In fact, Kent quickly finds that unless he disguises his appearance, his survival is at risk.  Edgar too must assume a new identity if he is to stay alive – he becomes the naked “poor Tom” who is at the mercy of the elements on the heath.

The image of clothing is, therefore, a central one in King Lear.  It is used most effectively to bring out the theme of appearance versus reality.  The notion of disguise is also linked to the clothes imagery in the play.  A key element in the tragedy is that virtue can only survive if disguised, while vice can parade openly and be rewarded. And we wonder if Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s world!

Blindness in Lear

Imagery of Sight and Blindness

The frequent allusions to eyes, sight, and seeing are significant throughout the play.  They begin as early as the first scene when Lear expels the sincere and loyal Kent: “Out of my sight!”  Notice Kent’s emotional plea in reply:

            “See better, Lear and let me still remain

            The true blank of thine eye.”

These words underline Lear’s lack of insight, i.e. mental sight.  The theme will be developed from this point onwards.  Before long, Lear is forced to acknowledge his lack of insight.  In Act I, iv, he is beginning to see Goneril in her true colours.  The truth about his “thankless child” is painful for him: his “eyes” have deceived him, and in bitterness he wants to cast them out:

            “… Old fond eyes,

               Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out,

And cast you, with the waters that you loose,

To temper clay….  “

The anguished king returns to this theme again later:

            “Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?

            Where are his eyes?”

Lear’s redemption is linked to his painful acquisition of the personal insight to himself and to others which he so blatantly lacks at the beginning of the play. His frequent references to sight, eyes, seeing, illustrate and highlight this theme.

Shakespeare also uses the sight/blindness imagery for another purpose.  Through it he merges the main plot and sub-plot of the play, i.e. Lear’s betrayal by his daughters and Gloucester’s betrayal by Edmund.  Gloucester, like Lear, does not know his children.  He is fooled by Edmund and mistakes Edgar’s honesty for deception.  This truth is brutally conveyed to him by Regan in Act III, vii, as Cornwall plucks out the old man’s eyes.  Paradoxically, Gloucester only begins to acquire insight when his physical sight is taken from him.  Within seconds of his becoming physically blind, in Act III, vii, he sees that Edmund truly “hates” him.  Gloucester’s realisation of his foolishness is poignant:

            “O my follies!  Then Edgar was abused.

            Kind gods, forgive me that and prosper him!”

Gloucester may now be “an eyeless villain” according to Cornwall, but in reality he is a much more “seeing” man than before.  His reply to the Old Man who tells him in Act IV, i, “you cannot see your way” is, therefore, highly symbolic.

            “I have no way, and therefore want no eyes;

            I stumbled when I saw”

Gloucester has acquired knowledge and wisdom.  The loss of his physical sight is meant to be understood in that context.

The parallel between Lear’s predicament and Gloucester’s, between main plot and sub-plot, is highlighted in Lear’s words to the blind Gloucester in Act IV, i,:

            “A man may see how this world goes with no eyes.

            Look with thine ears…”

Edgar sums up the paradox later in the same scene: “Reason in madness!”

Through the imagery of sight/blindness in King Lear, Shakespeare parallels the main plot and sub-plot, and this highlights the paradox at the very centre of the play.

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Richness in the Imagery used by the Fool

The Fool in King Lear is one of the most interesting comic characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays.  His language is rich, his thoughts at times profound.  It is worth looking more closely at some of the imagery which he uses.

From the first moment of his appearance in the play, the Fool begins his commentary on Lear’s foolish behaviour.  His first action is to offer Kent his “coxcomb” – his foolish cap.  He explains that Kent has a right to the coxcomb  “for taking one’s part that’s out of favour”.  The Fool then goes on to compare the Truth to a dog that must be whipped out of sight and confined to its kennel.  In the universe of hypocrisy and deception which Lear has now created, Truth, as always, will be the first casualty.

As Act I, iv, progresses, the Fool is relentless in pursuit of Lear and his folly.  Although disguised in the form of nonsense rhymes, the Fool’s message is consistent: the real Fool is Lear himself.  In one of these rhymes, the Fool distinguishes between the Fool who wears “motley”, i.e. the Fool’s uniform, and the real Fool who wears ordinary clothes, i.e. Lear.

At times the Fool is more direct: “thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away”.  He keeps up this piercing banter until Lear threatens to have him whipped.  The Fool’s response is sharp:

“I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are: they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying…. I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool: and yet I would not be thee, nuncle; thou hast pared thy wit o’ both sides, and left nothing ‘i the middle”.

As Act I is drawing to a close, Lear is beginning to question his own wisdom in giving everything to his daughters.  Goneril has already complained about the size of his retinue of followers, and the Fool’s premonitions look like becoming a reality.  Lear is troubled, and his appeal to the fool now is urgent:

            “Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!”

From now on, the Fool will also be mindful of his master’s suffering as well as his folly.

In Act II, iv, the Fool’s language is dense with significant imagery.  He keeps up the meaningful rhymes which take the edge off his poignant commentary:

            “Fathers that wear rags

            Do make their children blind,

            But fathers that wear bags

            Shall see their children kind”.

He also uses the imagery of a wheel careering down a hill and out of control to depict Lear’s fate for Kent.  He warns Kent that he will be crushed if he doesn’t release his hold on the “wheel”:

“Let go thy hold when a great wheel runs down a hill, lest it break thy neck with following; …”

When Lear comes to the verge of emotional collapse in this scene, the Fool switches to nonsense to try and retrieve the situation:

Lear:   “O me, my heart, my rising heart! But, down

Fool:   Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ‘em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried “Down, wantons, down!”  ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”

As the climax of the play approaches, there is poignancy in the Fool’s attempts to save his master from total despair.  He relents in his torture of Lear and concentrates instead on urging him to take care of himself:

“O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o’ door” …

But the caustic note is not completely gone.  When Kent asks “Who’s there?”, the fool’s reply is deliberately ambiguous:

            “Marry, here’s grace and a codpiece,

            That’s a wise man and a fool”.

One is in no doubt that he means to convey how these roles have been reversed.

Through the imagery of his speech, the Fool acts as a kind of intelligent chorus in King Lear.  He never lets us forget the tragedy of what is happening on the stage.  His loyalty to, and concern for, his master is touching.  He is, perhaps, the play’s most endearing character.

 

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Works Cited

Bradley, A.C., Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: Meridian Books, 1955.

Spurgeon, Caroline F. E., Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Cambridge Univesity Press, 1935.

 

Further Reading

Single Text Study Notes on ‘King Lear’

Some Central Themes in Shakespeare’s King Lear