Monday, 28 January 2013

What Makes Macbeth a Tragic Hero?

Can a murderer be a 'hero' of any description?
Is Macbeth a tragic hero, or does he simply get what's coming to him?

The play is named after him and he dies at the end. These two facts are indicative of Macbeth being a tragic hero, but they don’t make him one. So what does?

Shakespeare’s perception, and our modern view of tragedy are founded in Aristotle’s theories on the subject.

Aristotelian tragedy, as described in Poetics, has shaped every form of dramatic art, from Ancient Greek theatre to big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Aristotle, tragic heroes must conform to a few rules. Most notably:

  • They should not be too good. Otherwise, an audience will feel that their downfalls are unjust. 
  • They should not be too bad. Otherwise, an audience will feel no sympathy for them. 
  • They must have an intrinsic character flaw known as ‘hamartia’, which causes them to do something horrific and instigates their fall from grace.

Macbeth’s Bad Side

Can we really feel sorry for someone
with all that blood on his hands?
It’s not difficult to explain how Macbeth conforms to the first of the rules above. 

As soon as the witches tell him that he’ll be king, he begins to have rather dark thoughts about how he can make it happen. 

“…why do I yield to that suggestion/Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair/And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,/Against the use of nature?…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,/Shakes so my single state of man…”

Of course, he doesn’t stop at the assassination of Duncan, either. 

In order to retain the throne, he is driven to even more heinous acts, including ordering the murders of Banquo, and Fleance, as well as the slaughter of every single member of  Macduff’s household.

Macbeth’s Good Side

Macbeth can't technically be called a 'baddie'
However, in concordance with Aristotle’s opinion, Macbeth isn’t all bad. At first glance, it may seem difficult to find redeeming features in a mass-murdering tyrant. 

But it’s important to remember that, at the beginning of the play, he is lauded as a great and loyal soldier.

His hesitancy over committing regicide, “We will proceed no further in this business…” is also evidence of the fact that he is not an innately ‘evil’ person.

Macbeth’s Tragic Flaw

Often, Aristotle’s use of the word ‘hamartia’ is translated as a fault that causes a horrific act to occur as an unforeseen consequence or accident. 

Alternatively, the terrible act can be as a result of ignorance or negligence. For example, Hamlet’s murder of Polonius is an accidental act, which is caused by his hesitancy in exacting revenge on Claudius.

However, Macbeth’s flaw, which is initially ambition, does not cause an accidental or unforeseen event. The murder of Duncan is a very purposeful act, although it could be argued that, as he was focused solely on the witches prophecy, it was an act of ignorance rather than malice…but even that might be stretching it a bit.

Do you think Macbeth is a tragic hero?
Later, after he has met with the witches for a second time, he begins to develop another flaw: hubris, which mistakenly convinces him that he is immortal. 

“Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn/The power of man, for none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth.”

The tragic flaws of ambition and hubris cause Macbeth, the loyal and honourable soldier, to become a mass-murdering despot. 

Despite the many horrific, bloody acts he has committed, we should feel empathy for him, because he isn’t a ‘bad’ guy. 

And there is a sense that, if he had never met the witches, he would not have come to such an unpleasant downfall.

But, of course, whether Macbeth truly is man 'more sinned against than sinning' really rather depends on who you ask. Macduff, for example, would feel that Macbeth got his just desserts. 

What do you think? Do you feel sorry for the mass-murdering Macbeth?

If you'd like to know more about Macbeth's tragic hero status, be sure to take a look at What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Importance of Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream

Puck or Robin Goodfellow is a
character from folklore
Cheeky sprite and Mischievous prankster, Puck plays an integral role in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare’s Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, is based on a character of the same name from ancient English, Welsh and Irish folklore; ‘Puca’ (in Irish) being used to identify a half-tame woodland sprite or fairy.

Both the original mythological Puck and William Shakespeare’s incarnation are known for their mischievous antics. However, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is much more than just a jester. 
In fact, it could be argued that he is the most influential character in terms of the confusion and outcome of the play.

Puck as Oberon’s Fool

Stanley Tucci as Puck
Parallels can be drawn between Puck, “that merry wanderer of the night”(II.i) and any number of Shakespeare’s fools; Feste in Twelfth Night, Touchstone in As You Like It and The Fool in King Lear. The use of clowns, jesters or fools was nothing new, even in the Elizabethan era.
Typically, Shakespeare’s fools are commoners, servants or citizens who are witty and able to run intellectual rings around their masters or ‘betters’. 
As mentioned in my post on the role of Shakespeare's clowns, often fools point out the ridiculousness of a dramatic situation. This is especially true of Puck, who mocks both the mechanicals and the lovers for the audience’s benefit: “Helena is here at hand;/And the youth, mistook by me,/Pleading for a lover's fee./Shall we their fond pageant see?/Lord, what fools these mortals be!”(III.ii)
Many of his pranks are ordered by, or concocted for the amusement of, Oberon. Thus, he is both servant and jester to the fairy king. In addition, his shenanigans, intentional and accidental, amuse and entertain us.

Puck is the Creator of Midsummer Madness

Puck by Joshua Reynolds (1789)
At the beginning of Act II, Puck introduces himself as a sprite with a talent for, and love of, mischief, “…sometime lurk I in a gossip's bowl,/In very likeness of a roasted crab,/And when she drinks, against her lips I bob/And on her wither'd dewlap pour the ale.” 
He is then quickly sent on two errands: a goodwill mission to encourage Demetrius to fall in love with Helena; and a ploy to humiliate the fairy queen, Titania.
In his attempt to achieve these goals, he unleashes romantic pandemonium. Mistaken identity leads to both Lysander and Demetrius lusting over Helena, leaving Hermia feeling heartbroken and betrayed, while Helena believes herself to be the butt of a joke, resulting in chaos in the Athenian wood. 
This, coupled with the transformation of Bottom, which prompts an infatuation in Titania, turns the play into a comedic farce.
It’s difficult to imagine any other character being able to affect this much destruction and yet still retain his or her likeable nature. Partly, this is due to an honest error, “This is the woman, but not this the man.”(III.ii) 
However, even his very deliberate humiliation of Titania is forgiveable due to his cheeky, almost childlike, sense of humour.

Puck’s Epilogue

The epilogue, which has echoes of the prologue from the mechanicals’ disastrous ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’, could only ever be delivered by Puck. 
With tongue firmly in cheek, he apologises for any offence the play may have caused and suggests that, if the audience members have not enjoyed what they have seen, they simply pretend it was all a dream, “Think but this, and all is mended,/That you have but slumber'd here/While these visions did appear.”(V.i)
Here, he acts as ‘mender’, seeking to put right any wrongs that the play, and its characters, have committed. Apt, of course, as he is also the character that fixes the woodland bedlam (albeit one that he was responsible for creating).

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Free Guide to Macbeth

For the rest of this week, until the 20th of January, What's It All About, Shakespeare? A Guide to Macbeth is available absolutely FREE from Smashwords.

If you're studying Macbeth this year, the guide will prove indispensable.

It offers a simple, straightforward explanation of the key events in the play, an analysis of the main characters and a closer look at some of the themes.

In addition, this free-for-a-limited-time ebook takes a look at the real life king of Scotland, who inspired the play and what was occurring in Shakespeare's world at the time of writing.

Humorous and enthusiastic, the book is a great guide for even the most reluctant of Shakespeare students.

Pick up your free copy today!

Monday, 14 January 2013

What did Nahum Tate do to King Lear?

Nahum Tate's work was a product of the changing tastes
of the Restoration
The son of a clergyman, Nahum Tate was an Irish poet and lyricist. As well as penning his own works, Tate turned his hand to 'adapting' a number of Elizabethan dramas, including some of Shakespeare's.

Nahum Tate was just an eight-year-old when Charles II took the throne and the Restoration permitted the reopening of the theatres.

And by the latter part of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Tate began tampering with the works of Webster, Fletcher, Marston and Shakespeare, London theatres were very different from Blackfriars or The Globe.

A Very Different Type of Theatre 

Restoration theatres were very different from
Shakespeare's Globe
More importantly though, Restoration theatregoers were very different from Shakespeare's audiences.

Unlike the socially diverse crowd at The Globe, Restoration theatre was attended by the crème de la crème; London's elite, the richest and most well-connected men and women.

This, more refined and more prudish, audience demanded something different from their evening's entertainment.

Now, it's not difficult to comprehend why Tate would alter Richard II, given what had so recently occurred in England. A play that almost glorifies and encourages the usurping of a king was, understandably, a touchy subject post-Cromwell, if not with audiences, certainly with the censors.

Shakespeare appealed to a very different kind of crowd
And, of course, this altered sensitivity toward all things to do with the monarchy accounts for some of Tate's tampering (for there is no other word for it) with King Lear.

However, there are other changes that were simply prompted by changing tastes. And, credit where credit is due, he was right. Tate's version of King Lear became incredibly popular and continued to be the only one performed on English stages for nearly 150 years.

Imagine, if you will, that She's The Man not only becomes the only version of Twelfth Night performed, but also remains the only version performed or shown, until 2156. - I'll say no more about that.

How Nahum Tate Changed King Lear

Nahum Tate's 'Reviv'd' version of
King Lear, with 'alterations'
Tate's version of King Lear, titled The History of King Lear, is drastically different from Shakespeare's. For one thing, it is not a tragedy. 

Tate felt, and many agreed with him, that the ending of King Lear was just too sad to bear. So, he replaces Lear on the throne and doesn't kill off Cordelia. However, he doesn't stop at having a happy ending.

Nahum Tate decides to do away with the King of France and insert Edgar as a love interest for Cordelia. 

When Cordelia refuses to answer her father's request for a declaration of love, this is later explained by the youngest daughter as an intentional ploy to leave her dowerless and, therefore, lose the romantic interests of Burgandy.

Consequently, she doesn't go to France and when her father becomes lost in the English countryside, she goes in search of him. 

And, of course, it is not she (with the help of a French army) who can mount an attack against her sisters. Instead, it is the British people who revolt against Goneril and Regan's tyranny.
Restoration audiences found the original
King Lear too sad 
Lear and Cordelia are still taken prisoner, and orders are given to murder them, but Lear manages to fight and kill the would-be assassins, while Edgar is killing an utterly unrepentant Edmund.

Meanwhile, Goneril and Regan are poisoning each other (rather than Goneril poisoning Regan then stabbing herself). 

Albany happily offers the crown to Lear, who confers it on Cordelia and his soon to be son-in-law, Edgar. 

Despite a lower body count, and big alterations in cast (there is no fool in The History of King Lear) Tate does maintain a considerable amount of Shakespeare's dialogue and this is perhaps both a blessing and a curse.

Was Tate Wrong to Tamper With Shakespeare?

Should we be thanking Nahum Tate for Shakespeare's
Although an adaptation superseding Shakespeare's original seems crazy (at least to some of us) now, we have to remember that Shakespeare wasn't always perceived to be the world's greatest. 

In fact, in 1681 when Tate's version of King Lear was first performed, Shakespeare was just another Elizabethan/Jacobean poet and playwright. His work was no more sacrosanct than any other writer of the era (read more about that here).

And, of course, the original King Lear was out of fashion. Many deemed it too depressing; audiences simply didn't want to sit through an evening of misery. So, why was Tate's use of Shakespeare's dialogue a blessing? Well, it ensured that audiences and critics did not forget about Shakespeare's genius. And prompted the likes of Edmund Kean, in 1823, to resurrect the original. 

For Tate, of course, despite the popularity and longevity of his adaptation, using so much of Shakespeare's original material was a curse, as it quite naturally lead to unfavourable comparisons between his own verse and the Bard's.

As much as I think Tate's adaptation is a bastardisation of King Lear, it's important to keep in mind the important role he played in keeping Shakespeare's work alive. If it weren't for Tate finding what he believed to be an 'unpolished' and 'disordered' play in King Lear, perhaps it would have faded into obscurity. 

It is clear, if Shakespeare's work had not undergone a revival by the likes of Tate, the Bard would now be no more famous than his numerous contemporaries.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

What's Twelfth Night & What's it Got to do With the Play?

Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew personify
the Twelfth Night shenanigans

This evening, the 5th of January, is Twelfth Night, which doesn’t mean much to us now, other than it’s time to take the Christmas decorations down.

However, there was a time when the Twelfth Night holiday was, essentially, the biggest celebration of the Christmas festivities and, before that, of the winter solstice. It was the last night of the holiday; the last chance to let your hair down and really let rip.

So, what’s that got to do with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night?

Other than the title, Shakespeare makes no direct reference to Twelfth Night within the play. But his audience would have recognised aspects of it that were very obviously connected with the festival.

Twelfth Night or What You Will was written for the Twelfth Night celebrations of 1602. And it contains all the elements that Shakespeare’s revelling audience would have known and loved about the holiday.

  • Drinking
  • Feasting
  • Dancing 
  • Singing

Malvolio is made to look foolish & the topsy-turvy world of the play
is representative of a period of misrule
And, most importantly of all, Twelfth Night was known for it’s Lord of Misrule, who is a symbol of society being turned on its head. During Twelfth Night celebrations, a king or lord and all of those in high status, would don peasants attire and vice versa. Slaves would dictate to their masters. The lowly would rule…albeit for an evening.

So, it’s not difficult to find these elements in Twelfth Night: we’ve got the drinking and feasting with Sir Toby, who spends more time drunk than he does sober. We have dancing and singing during the post-midnight “gabble like tinkers” party. And we have misrule everywhere!

Watching over it all, there’s Feste, who acts as Lord of Misrule, ensuring that Malvolio gets his just desserts, and seeming to be the most powerful (or at least the most intelligent) character of the play, despite his low status.

Of course, there's much more to Twelfth Night than just festival silliness - it's a deep and, at times, very dark comedy. But the above explains the play's connection to the holiday and the aspects of it that were intentionally used by Shakespeare to appeal to a Twelfth Night revelling crowd.