Archive Page 2

08
Aug
11

Shakespeare Synthesized: The Relevance of Pride as Thematic Element

When undertaking a task as weighty as the study of Shakespearean literature, there are indeed some challenges.  This is not to say that the texts are necessarily difficult, or particularly easy for that matter, but that careful analysis must be accompanied with a solid reception of theme.  Undoubtedly, a student can get lost in the myriad of interpretations and meaning in the depth of the Bard’s work.  That is why, essentially because of this apparent inconsistency, finding the most significant elements within the text is crucial for a full and appreciative literary understanding.  The purpose of this discourse, then, is to argue that yes, the plays of Shakespeare we studied in this course – as well as their modern-day film adaptations – are ripe with valuable thematic elements.  But the over-arching theme of pride surpasses all of them in terms of saliency, substance, and magnitude.  It is this specific theme that initiates the tragic unraveling and decline of King Lear, causes Titus Andronicus to renounce and murder his own child, and precipitates the destruction of several main characters in Othello.  It is this type of pride that loosens a man’s grasp on reality and becomes that which not only defines him, but eventually destroys him.  As such, we begin the discussion of pride as a relevant thematic element by carefully looking at each source and arguing pride’s mostly unflattering (but nonetheless powerful) effects.

Since theme is defined as the main idea, or message, of a narrative, we look to theme as being one of the most important elements in terms of analysis.  Throughout the course, we studied themes that revolved around violence, family, and society.  In some cases, theme was even illustrated by certain gender roles or through sexual ambiguity of some sort.  There are four main texts that deserve our close inspection, to fully realize the extent to which pride thoroughly channels itself through and embeds itself within each one of them.  These include Shakespeare’s original plays Titus Andronicus, King Lear, and Othello – in addition to Tim Blake Nelson’s film adaptation of the latter, aptly named O.  With that in mind, our task becomes this:  by using the texts as a means for interpretation through close reading, how truly fundamental is pride in terms of the overall stories?  Does it usurp some of the relevance away from some of Shakespeare’s other views on family relations, politics, and religious connotation?  This essay will attempt to prove that yes, pride not only assumes the highest position in our hierarchy, but also speaks so loudly through the Bard’s use of language that it absolutely demands our attention and study.

The first play that we studied for this course was Titus Andronicus.  We are introduced to the title character in Act 1, and from the outset realize that he is a focused military leader with a number of equally admirable traits.  From the material, we are told that “A nobler man, a braver warrior, / Lives not this day within the city walls.”  Later on, readers learn that Titus is a “Patron of virtue,” and “Rome’s best champion.”  It takes no real great analytical talent to understand that our hero is essentially a good man.  We see the first instance of his prideful nature when Titus becomes enraged at his daughter’s betrothal to Bassianus instead of the new emperor Saturninus.  The prideful old soldier simply cannot allow his only daughter to “fall” from the potential position of Empress of Rome into a lesser role.  In his view, the Androcini are better than this, they deserve much better than this – and the pride of his family name simply will not be tarnished on his watch.  When his son Mutius comes to his sister’s defense, Titus’s pride reveals itself in the form of bloodshed – as Titus fatally stabs him and defends it by exclaiming, “Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine. / My sons would never so dishonor me.”  This, quite simply, is pride in its worst manifestation.  For a man to be so proud as to justify the killing of his own progeny, there must be some serious underlying issues.  At the very least, we can say that pride was the cause of this violence.  We see it again when the emotionally injured Titus declares that Saturninus’s words “are razors to my wounded [proud] heart.” Ironically, we see a measure of Titus’s pride when he cuts his hand off in an effort to save his two sons from execution at the hands of the Emperor.  Is this the same type of pride that drove him to stab his own son?  In an ironic twist, yes it is.  His pride has reached such a crescendo at that point in the play that he willingly agrees, “With all my heart I’ll send the Emperor my hand. / Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off?”  Without pride, this decision could never have taken place.  To divest oneself of something so important suggests that Titus is proud enough to sacrifice for his sons’ benefit.  It is this startling and quite real juxtaposition (pride as violence with Mutius, yet redemptive with Quintus and Martius) that makes pride such an undeniably crucial element within the reading of the play.

Aaron the Moor, Shakespeare’s example of unrepentant evil in Titus Andronicus, also demonstrates a form of pride that cannot be ignored.  His is an unapologetic pride, for he even states that despite being punished for his criminal behavior, he would do it again, “Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did / Would I perform, if I might have my will.”  This is an astounding statement, given the position that he is in – one of execution at the hands of the new political ruler.  But what makes Aaron’s position so strong?  Why does he maintain steadfast in his villainy, as the chips slowly mount up against him?  Again, look to pride for the answer.  Aaron is another type of character who feels wronged by his situation.  Outcast because of racial differences, he uses evil pride as a subjective form of checks and balances, or as a means to “get back” at society.  He is proud in the sense that he knows he is different, excluded, perhaps unfairly, and resentful because of it.  This pride translates into deceit, violence, and a shameless attitude without any real hope of reformation.

King Lear, as we will see, probably has the most compelling evidence in terms of how debilitating the element of pride can be.  We first see the aging King of England in a position to divide his kingdom equally between his three daughters.  There is really nothing prideful in that, but when he demands that they each state the level of love they have for him, we see his pride-driven ego begin to emerge.  Clearly, he is a proud man who needs to have this positive reinforcement in his life.  Otherwise, what would the point be in asking his children to declare their allegiance?  Shouldn’t a father already be aware of their position?  Should there be a valid reason for his request other than prideful vanity?  Ironically, it also works to show readers the dishonesty that lies beneath the surface in the sisters Goneril and Regan.  But Lear doesn’t realize this at the time.  When Cordelia opposes her deceitful sisters’ opinions and tells her father, “I love your Majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less,” Lear cannot understand this and his pride suffers dramatically.  It then follows that his pride “allows” him to outright disown Cordelia with these especially terse words, “Here I disclaim all my paternal care.”  When the Earl of Kent tries to intercede on Cordelia’s behalf, Lear banishes him as well, threatening him with death if he ever “be found in our dominions.”  Surely this is not the logical, well-thought out diplomacy of a right-minded monarch?  Why would a man who presumably has the capacity for consistent and rational behavior banish his own blood, and later one of the highest members of his inner circle?  For what crime, even?  The Earl of Gloucester calls his crime “honesty,” but the answer to our question is, unequivocally, pride.  This is not the nationalistic pride one feels for their country, for example, or the positive-feeling pride that accompanies watching your children succeed.  The pride that infiltrates Lear’s mind at this point is the type that incapacitates and is so inherently obtuse that it allows for no other balanced thought.  Since it is this element that triggers most of the resulting actions in the story, it must be categorized as the most salient theme.

Lear isn’t the only character in the play to show prideful tendencies, however.  Edmund, as the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is tremendously prideful in his actions to depose the rightful Gloucester heir, Edgar.  In Edmund’s mind, he is the more qualified to inherit the estate of his father.  And with that assumption, pride grows within himself.  He calculates how to remove his half-brother and voices publicly, “Let me, if not by birth, have [Gloucester’s] lands by wit. / All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit.”  With these words, Edmund is shaping his deceitful plan.  And what is the cause of his actions?  What urges his decision to take what isn’t his?  Namely, it is the prideful intent that lives inside him – most likely from his label as a bastard child, and the “unfairness” that he must feel at why Edgar’s rightful position cannot either belong to him, or shared in some way.  Contextually, being in such a position would certainly cause a bit of resentment and jealousy.  When you add a prideful man into this mix, nothing good can result.

Othello, much like King Lear, is packed with prideful elements – ranging from Iago’s pride in being overlooked for a promotion to Othello’s own internal pride which causes insecurity and anxiety at so many different levels.  To begin with, readers are informed within the first few lines that Iago has been “wronged” in some way.  It is evident that his own pride has been hurt by Othello’s selection of another for promotion when Iago states, “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.”  In this passage, we see an individual who most certainly thinks his qualifications and merits on the battlefield are deserving of the lieutenantcy he was denied.  He is flatly stating that he knows his worth (proud), and he deserves much better than what he has been given.  Human nature will generally confirm that a certain amount of humility should accompany such denial, but Iago is not a humble type of character in the least.  Fury burns within him, and revenge becomes his way of trying to reverse the current scenario to his favor.  Iago even gives it as plainly as he can to readers with these words, “And nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him [Othello].”  His pride is probably best described as being at least equivalent to the level of jealousy he has for Cassio, who was given the position instead.  Pride, therefore, is the instigator that drives him to start calculating Othello’s destruction.  Ironically, he even uses this same word to categorize the Moor himself.  He describes his boss as “loving his own pride and purposes,” which is perhaps Shakespeare’s way of foreshadowing the fact that Othello truly has a tremendous amount of prideful proclivities.  Coming from such an immensely evil character such as Iago, however, and so early in the play, readers may overlook this allusion.

Any discussion of pride cannot be undertaken without also illustrating the same theme in the psyche of the title character.  Othello is a man full of it, and an argument can even be made that it is perhaps natural for him to feel this way.  After all, he is an extremely successful military officer who “commands / Like a full soldier.”  He has a beautiful wife who loves him unconditionally, and he enjoys the complete respect of his subordinates.  Even the Duke of Venice calls him “valiant” in the final scene of Act 1, and references are made to both the general’s nobility and bravery.  But what of pride?  A good place to start would be with his relationship with Desdemona.  In Act 1, Scene 3, we see both Othello and Desdemona in effect defending their relationship to her father Brabantio and the Duke of Venice.  The inference in this scene is that her father and the Duke are incredibly surprised that such a union exists.  But proud Othello will have none of this uncertainty.  He shows pride in the fact that he “won [Brabantio’s] daughter” through the “dangers I had passed.”  This speaks of pride borne of military duty, nobleness, and the pride that simply accompanies being a good, honest man above reproach.  He is so proud of his relationship with Desdemona that he implores the Duke and Senator to call for her and ask for her concurrence.  If he [Othello] is wrong, then “Not only take away, but let your sentence / Even fall upon my life.” For a man to wager his life on something that he knows to be true and just, shows an extreme amount of pride in the situation.  In this example, we can see some positive effects of being proud.  As the play continues, this same prideful spirit that Othello owns will begin to work against his historically good judgment.

Nelson’s film adaptation of Othello provides viewers with an interesting study by taking the centuries-old play and interpreting it through an especially modern lens.  Since his movie O is set in the present-day south, Nelson can explore such recognizable, yet polarizing, themes such as racial prejudice and familial conflicts in an extremely contemporary way.  But much like its original cousin, O showcases the destructive pride that causes the downfall of so many.  This source is an interesting study because it gives us an excellent visual representation of the effects pride has on a character.  It is one thing to read about a man’s pride causing internal conflict, confusion, and anxiety – but Nelson’s interpretation of his main character, Odin, evokes a sense of sympathy not found in the written text.  For example, when Hugo first plants the idea in Odin’s head that Desi is probably being unfaithful to him, the anguish on Odin’s face represents pure hurt.  This argument would even contend that without a significant amount of pride from within, hurt could not even be a possibility.  Odin loves Desi, he is proud of their relationship.  He is proud of his status as the star of the basketball program.  He is proud that despite being a (racial) outsider, he is still viewed as a leader on campus.  That is why his stabbing hurt, and Nelson’s capturing of it on film, is so full of despair.  Because he has such a large amount of pride, acceptance of something like Desi’s (apparent) infidelity throws him into such a state of confusion that he cannot recover from it.  The scene on the basketball court where Odin rips down the rim – and reacts so indifferently to the booing crowd – there is no way an “un-prideful” person reacts in that way.  Put yourself in his shoes: nobody disrespects Odin James.  He is the big man on campus with the MVP trophy, the prettiest girlfriend in school, and college scouts drooling over his athletic abilities. How dare anyone “diss” him?  For if this type of man lacked pride, the story would end before it even got started.  Once (a pride-less) Odin thought his girlfriend was cheating on him, he’d go find another girlfriend and that would be it.  However, pride sneakily intervenes and doesn’t allow that scenario to occur.  In other words, pride – more than any other dramatic element in the story – dictates the outcome.  It dictates Odin’s fall from grace, it dictates Hugo’s actions and resentment of his father, and it dictates the deaths of both Roger and Desi.  It plays a crucial role in Mike’s injury and eventual redemption, as well as the coach’s inability to see his son’s frustrations and desires for what they are truly worth.  Frankly, pride rules the day.  And while there are, certainly, other themes in Nelson’s film that are important (teenage violence, racial prejudices, etc), none produce a more compelling argument than pride does.

As literary opinions usually go, there are literally hundreds of different interpretations that could be introduced for any given work.  This is most certainly true with something as widely read and analyzed as Shakespeare.  With the handful of sources that are outlined and examined in this essay, however, the prevailing conclusion is that pride carries the most weight.  It easily cruises past other themes such as ones pertaining to violence, gender, or politics in terms of relevant power.  It surpasses any theme of love, or religion, or family.  By and large, this theme of pride sits alone as the most credible example of what is most significant in all of the works we have studied.  However, this is not to say that pride is necessarily a “good” thing – since it is clear from the textual evidence that it leads to some very serious and destructive outcomes if left unrecognized and unchecked.  Pride, as we have seen it, exists primarily in characters who either have earned some form of esteemed status (Lear, Othello, Titus), or have been wronged (subjectively) in some way (Iago, Hugo, Edmund.)  But the result is the same:  this overwhelming and heavy encumbrance of pride causes – whatever the individual context may be – bad judgment, ill-fated decisions, and a decidedly negative outcome.  It almost never leads to anything positive, and it can be debated that it clearly leads to the exact opposite – which is the tragic element of destruction.  For these reasons, it is fair and reasonable to pronounce pride as the most salient theme in the majority of the texts we studied this semester.  While other arguments may exist that saliency is subjective, or that other themes deserve equal billing, the fact is that pride, fairly or unfairly, exceeds them all.  Perhaps the Book of Proverbs can serve as a worthy complement to Shakespeare as Solomon warns, “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  For too many of the fallen Shakespearean characters, this was a lesson in humility learned far too late, and arguably, not at all.

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28
Jul
11

A Study of “Poor Susan”: Poetic Principles and Ambiguity Analyzed

As arguably the most popular Romantic poet in the history of literature, William Wordsworth is regarded by many to be the exemplar of the poetic craft.  As the Romantics preferred illustrating emotional/intuitive themes in their poetry over the hard-line concept of reason, a type of verse was born that gave readers a figurative breath of fresh air and centered on common, natural subjects and themes that were both full of definitive meaning and ambiguity.  The purpose of this essay then argues that despite his “Poor Susan” being a somewhat minor poem in the canon of Wordsworth – Peter Manning regards it as never being “central to the presentation of Wordsworth” (Manning 351) – it nonetheless remains compelling in that it addresses both social and gender themes of the early 19th century Romantic period.  Additionally, while it fits nicely around the poetic principles outlined by Wordsworth in his Lyrical Ballads, there is an arguable level of ambiguity surrounding Susan herself – which makes the poem even more receptive to a thoughtful and critical interpretation.

Wordsworth specifically defined a set of poetic principles that he regarded as necessary for the creation and handling of Romantic Era poetry.  First among these is the choice of subject from common life, with a touch of the humble, rustic, or simple.  This could also include elements of the natural world, for nature held a tremendous amount of importance for the Romantics.  Hand in hand with this concept is the use of common language, not flowery or ornate, but increasingly literal and exact in its descriptiveness.  He continues this guideline with the charge of gazing steadily at the subject, after which a spontaneous overflow of emotion will carry the poet into what he terms “emotion recollected in tranquility.”  This concept is best defined as the inspirational muse from which creativity flows forth – summarily gained only by deep introspection into the subject and a reverence for what it can display.

In this particular poem, ambiguity, or double-meaning, is also introduced as we meet Susan in the early morning hours on a London street.  As any student embarks on the task of critical interpretation, noticing ambiguity about her occupation, or why she is on the street at this hour, is vital to any real discussion.  Attempts at understanding what kind of woman Susan really is will certainly aid in the analysis.   David Simpson even argues in his article, “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan?” that the work “is a very sophisticated poem…in particular and general ways” (Simpson 603).  This is to say that what is seemingly simple about the story is really anything but.  And while it may be easy to suggest that Susan is just a plain servant maid, an equally compelling argument can be made that she is indeed a prostitute (read: fallen woman) at the end of her “work-day.”  With this crucial ambiguity in mind, we can also address some of the social implications that would be prevalent during this era – including how women were viewed, what effects societal bias had on the lower class, and what role the Industrial Revolution may have had in framing much of this context.

Since subject matter is one of the most important poetic principles according to Wordsworth, it follows that this topic must serve as an appropriate jumping off point for our discussion.  The poet’s choice of subject fits nicely into his definition that it must be from common life – for we see a very common woman from a lower class background simply oozing humbleness.  Readers see her in a “plain russet gown,” carrying “her pail,” which are vivid images very unlike those associated with the upper-middle class.  She is what Manning calls “the rural girl transported to the city,” (Manning 361), and there is textual evidence to suggest that she has come to the city for economic reasons (her possession of a pail contributing to this idea of work), and not as a prostitute as the ambiguity would suggest.  As representative of this lower class, we are given a clear picture as to how this class of people may have been treated during this time.

Wordsworth’s use of common language solidifies this poem as also fitting into the poetic principles framework.  Not only does it use simple language to describe picturesque elements such as an “ascending” mountain, “green pastures”, and a “single small cottage…of the dale,” it brings to light the girl’s vision of her home in the country, something she is currently removed from, but longs for. He uses these elements to draw his reader into understanding the contrast between the pastoral setting of the country and the mean morning streets of the city, where “volumes of vapor…glide.”  David Simpson confirms this area of London as being “the place of work of the most miserable and unfortunate among that class.” (Simpson 593).  Wordsworth also uses this language to identify female images, such as the “nest like a dove’s,” and the notion in the final stanza of “receiving,” which is generally female in nature.  Both examples speak to the nurturing side of the female, which is in stark contrast to Susan’s character.

A third instance of the principles involves the steady gaze a poet must have in order to reach the overflowing emotion mentioned earlier.  There is little doubt that one would certainly have to gaze intently to come up with the level of emotion exhibited in this poem.  How else would a poet gain such intimate insight into the simple, sweet song of a rare bird in the city?  How else, other than by close observation, would a poet notice the notes of “enchantment,” or describe nature in such colorful detail?  In another example of how emotion is treated, my interpretation of the poem argues that Susan has been exiled to the city, away from her country home, which is the “only dwelling on earth that she loves.”  Placing this interpretation within the context of the time would indicate that she has done something to justify the exile, with the most reasonable explanation (in early 19th century idiom) being that her misdeed was sexual in nature.  Now she makes her living as a lowly servant maid, outcast and removed from her former life.  For a young English girl, the only acceptable solution and “place of resort would often be the streets of London” (596).  This would also explain what Simpson terms her “melancholy response to the thrush’s song,” (593) which is something she has heard against the “silence of the morning” for the last three years.  It fairly suggests that hearing the sweet melody of the bird reminds her of a happier place and time.  This, by all accounts, represents what Wordsworth would most assuredly term “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Much of this analysis also must consider that the Industrial Revolution created an extremely large jump in the urban population.  With more people in the area, an increased merchant class, and an exploding economy, there would necessarily be work to be found for a young girl like Susan.  Economically speaking, she was doing the only real thing she was qualified (expected?) to do.  The only other source of income for a female in her position would be prostitution, but I see very little evidence in the text that she fell to this option.  An additional point to be made in regards to the poem’s conclusion revolves around the idea of “thy Father” opening the door – most likely to welcome her back.  I prefer to interpret this not as Susan’s earthly father, but as a Christian allusion to God the Father.  Wordsworth’s capitalization of the word “Father” must symbolize something, and I think it is unlikely that this treatment of the word is accidental.  So in a sense, this is Susan’s acceptance, or redemption, in God’s eyes for her mistakes on earth.  This discussion maintains that yes, Susan was a fallen woman, but that redemption comes in the end as she is allowed to “hear the thrush sing from a tree of its own,” which can be viewed as a symbolic representation of her idea of heaven.

As with all critical readings, interpretations can be somewhat open and most often subject to even deeper criticism.  This is just one of many possible interpretations of one of Wordsworth’s less regarded poems.  As David Simpson remarks, in regard to the popularity of the work, “the ignoring of this poem (by critics) comes as no surprise” (590).  While this makes the task of a critical reading a little more difficult, it nonetheless offers us good, challenging work to undress some of the elements of subject, language, and emotion that we find within Wordsworth.  By doing this, a student can begin to understand how the poetic principles work, and see them in a definitive application.  Overall, the poem is a excellent study of Romantic-era verse and embodies exactly what the era was about – emotion in composition and expressing that emotion over reason.  For Wordsworth (who viewed the poet as removed from the reader by mere degrees), this was how he clearly thought of his craft:  being alive with elements of the natural, a spontaneous outpouring of sensation, and early 19th century idealism, with “emotion recollected in tranquility” leading the way.

Works Cited

Manning, Peter J. “Placing Poor Susan: Wordsworth and the New Historicism.” Studies in Romanticism 25.3 (1986): 351-369.

Simpson, David. “What Bothered Charles Lamb about Poor Susan.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 26.No. 4, Nineteenth Century (1986): 589-612.

28
Jul
11

The Rarer Action: Finding A Modern Redemptive Form in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Society has for centuries employed long-standing and effective systems for the punishment of criminals.  These methods have been defined by several resulting effects, whether they are transformative, reformatory, rehabilitative, or even complete failures.  Hank Rogerson has presented in his Shakespeare Behind Bars documentary a group of prisoners dedicated to the staging of William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest.  After consideration of both sources, a real need for further study becomes apparent in meshing the two into a solid explanation of theme:  such as salvation and recovery. The purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while there is a definitive, tangible relationship between the inmates we meet in Rogerson’s documentary and the themes and characters of Shakespeare’s play, a gap still exists between the rationalization and defense of the Shakespeare Behind Bars program.  In several ways, the program works to provide educational and cultural advancement for those who have been sentenced to prison for their heinous crimes.  But is the focus on Shakespeare the right rehabilitative answer?  Should we even be concerned with a question such as this?  And how does the Bard’s The Tempest serve as an appropriate complement to the struggles and realities of prison life?   From an objective view, this argument will attempt to answer (if indeed answerable) many of these questions using Shakespeare’s text as a comparative tool and Rogerson’s film as a real-life application of some very real, sometimes disturbing, societal themes.

After reading The Tempest, the obvious themes that stood out were those revolving around redemption, forgiveness, and the equally compelling question of how to achieve both.  For Prospero, this realization came after he was unduly stripped of his power (relevance) and exiled to a remote desert island.  For the prisoners in our documentary, they also experience exile from society – but in a much different and extremely more consequential way.  Whereas Prospero was tricked by Antonio and his co-conspirator Alonso, resulting in his banishment, the inmates in Kentucky are imprisoned due to their own criminal (consequential) actions.  When we talk about forgiveness and redemption in the play, I think the focus should be on two things:  Prospero’s rationale to forgive those who wronged him, and what the effect of that redemptive action really became.  In a slight twist for a well-argued discussion of the documentary, forgiveness and redemption should center on the actual inmates and the question of whether or not they should be allowed forgiveness, and ultimately, freedom.  Wrapped up in all this analysis is the question of how does Shakespeare fit into the whole of the argument?

To analyze the film in terms of how it interprets the play in this particular instance is a decidedly stiff challenge.  We aren’t necessarily looking at a modern film adaptation, but more of a complementary/companion work – which leaves us with some seriously vexing questions.  The comparisons are easily defined – Prospero is banished, just like the prisoners.  Redemption is represented by his eventual forgiveness, which is what the inmates ultimately seek.  But how are the two related?  For one, even though I have some very conservative thoughts on the abstract, I feel everybody should be allowed forgiveness.  As difficult as it is to rationalize criminal activity (maybe completely impossible), and as much as I detested the crimes that were associated with men like Sammie (murderer) and Leonard (rapist), the Christian in me offers that redemption is not only advantageous to the soul, it is also a requirement demanded from God.  I think Prospero would be in agreement with me, as he famously states, “Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part.  The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance.”  His fury?  Juxtaposed against his virtue?  This declaration of “fury” is an excellent word to illustrate how rational people would consider their emotions over the crimes these men committed.  Being “furious” is highly representative of how the majority of our classmates felt about the film, too, according to several blog posts.  But Prospero, despite his much deserved anger, chooses to take the higher road and allow his evil brother and conspirators a second chance.  When he, in Act 5, tells Antonio, “most wicked sir, whom to / call brother / Would even infect my mouth, I do forgive / Thy rankest fault,” we see the depth of his sincerity and the power of his virtuousness.  Could we as a society ask that much of ourselves to give Rogerson’s prisoners some form of the same?

Secondly, it is an interesting point to examine how a savage and primitive character like Caliban compares to some of the inmates?  Without singling out any one man, but rather lumping them together as “criminal” or “monstrous”, there can be a strong and valid argument that their situations are very much the same.  There is ample evidence that Caliban deserved his own “imprisonment” as a slave for his attempted rape of Miranda early in the play.  In fact, this crime conveniently mirrors some of the crimes illustrated in the film.  In Act 3, Scene 2, the imprisoned, resentful (but not emotionless) Caliban talks about sleep and dreaming, and how he thought the clouds would open “and show riches / Ready to drop upon me,” but wakes up crying to the reality that this wasn’t going to happen.  A thoughtful look at this instance would compare his plight to that of a man like Ricky, who faced two life sentences without a chance at parole.  In his existence, which is to say a life without hope, we see that Caliban’s words are eerily similar.  What hope did Ricky have?  Was he ever going to be allowed a shot at redemption and eventual freedom to see light outside the prison walls?  Probably not, but the two scenarios are similar in that they show some of the despair associated with trying to overcome guilt and rationalize some harsh situations.  Sammie, too, makes the comment that he “just wants to leave here so badly,” or something to that effect, mirroring Caliban’s anger at being Prospero’s slave and tied to the island.

Another comparison between the two situations can be found in the question of responses.  What is there to say about the possibility of Antonio repeating his crime?  If granted redemption by Prospero, what would keep him from doing the same thing again?  What about the prisoners?  I think this deserves at least some consideration given the fact that such a possibility exists.  In the play, we are astounded that Prospero would “my charms…break,” and “drown my book” of magic, but he does it in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable in the end.  Does a modern day Antonio (Red, for example) take advantage of this gift of grace?  My contention is that an argument can be made that complete redemption can never be achieved.  Red, for example, was released on parole – but eventually went back to a life of crime and received an even longer sentence.  It would be unfair to have a frank discussion about these themes and how they stack up against Shakespeare’s text without at least considering this possibility.  My own study of the play suggests to me that Ariel would be thankful for the release.  Caliban is most definitely appreciative, as he promises to “be wise hereafter / And seek for grace.”

Much of the discussion up to this point has been about how the two sources compare to each other in terms of theme.  At this point, it is necessary to look at another very real application of the film and the play, which is to what effect does any of this information have on anything.  For me, it places value on the play by using it as a tool to try and correct a group of incorrigibles.  It is proof positive that despite the result, there is at least an attempt being made to introduce these incarcerated men to the beauty of the Bard’s prose and vivid imagery.  If nothing else, it gives them an alternative to the mundane prison life and a chance to expand and fill their minds with something of value – not drugs, or violence, or other negatives that have consumed them thus far.  In the character of Prospero, the prisoners can learn much about virtue, and most importantly, humility.  For what can be more humble than excising oneself of hatred, and resentment, and a former life (evidenced by his casting off of his magical accessories) and liberating the guilty?  In the virtuous Miranda, they can see that goodness is rewarded, despite what environment you find yourself in.  Honestly, was there any hope in her that she would be released from the island after twelve years of captivity?  Maybe the inmates could use her character as an excellent example of not letting the small details of circumstances disallow doing the right thing.  Sammie said it himself in one interview – that if he just got rid of guns, he’d do better as a man.  If he hung around a better crowd (changed his environment), he would improve his situation.  But those things didn’t help Sammie, primarily because what was inside him never changed.  His attitude, emotions, and inner being never matured enough to overcome the negative.  Miranda’s inside was inherently good, decent, and virtuous, so she was unaffected by exterior forces that would have reduced lesser individuals like Sammie (exile, lack of social opportunities, limited education, etc.)  All of this points to some very crucial revelations that there is indeed value in using a mystical play from the Renaissance to speak to modern day criminals.  What is compelling in this study of literature and its cumulative effect on society is that we sometimes miss the opportunity to share its value.  And for that reason, if for no other, sharing the Bard’s words at least gets the subject of education and reform rolling in a very positive way.

In hindsight, and thanks to updated information on the Shakespeare Behind Bars website, we can look at the prison cast of The Tempest and see how they fare today.  It is perhaps one of the strongest indications of whether or not the program has succeeded, or has merit of any kind.  On average, most of the inmates are in the exact same position, eight years later.  Analyzing this information alone would tell us that perhaps learning lines of Shakespeare and dressing up in magician’s robes has done nothing to rehabilitate these men.  I offer here that it probably will never achieve that goal, and that if the ultimate ambition of the program is to rehabilitate, then it has failed.  What I do like about it, however, is that it gives prisoners a literal education in something that they may never have had exposure to up to this point.  It allows them to take all the redemptive thematic elements of Shakespeare’s work, all the words of old Prospero, “I do forgive thee, / Unnatural though thou art,” [read:  I do forgive you, you heartless bastard], and all the arresting subplots of the story to form thoughtful and introspective self-evaluations.

This marrying of Shakespeare’s 17th century play and Rogerson’s astute look at Kentucky state prisoners has most certainly triggered a thoughtful look at the value of redemption and the virtue of those who both seek it (Sammie, Leonard, etc.) and those who freely grant it (Prospero).  And while it is generally understood that several students will give several equally diverse interpretations, this singular argument maintains that the Shakespeare Behind Bars program is a positive step in the overall education of some very hardened criminals.  I hesitate at the conclusion of this essay to label the state’s efforts as “rehabilitative” only because I’m not sure if that word accurately illustrates the intent of the program.  Or, taking it a step further, I’m not even sure that it’s possible to rehabilitate these criminals.  What I do know, however, is that by placing a copy of The Tempest in the hands of a man who used those same hands to violently strangle his wife, society is at least making an honorable attempt to purge these inmates of their demons and guilt, and give them something of relevance to present to a judgmental society.  As the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand reconciled two fathers who had long been enemies, perhaps an introduction to Shakespeare can reconcile an equal amount of resentment in the lives of the prisoners.  At Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, just hearing the words of Prospero echoing in the common room should give us the hope of promise, “As you from crimes would pardoned be / Let your indulgence set me free.”  Shakespeare may not be the answer, but it certainly deserves the chance to try.

15
Jul
11

Antony and Cleopatra: A Non-tragic Study of Shakespeare’s Tragedy

In literature, “tragedy” can have any number of meanings or fluid interpretations. For William Shakespeare, tragedy generally involved the deaths of most of the main characters (in five Acts). His Antony and Cleopatra assuredly involves death, but is the play itself “worthy” of the tragic tag? From an interpretive standpoint, cohesive arguments could likely be made for both – either the play retains its traditional “tragic” label, or the label is removed by thoughtful and evidentiary consideration. The intention of this argument then becomes this: while there is certainly a great deal of thematic ambiguity surrounding the question of tragedy in Antony and Cleopatra, overwhelming evidence shows that the play really isn’t tragic at all – simply a causal effect of bad judgment, shallow self-analysis, and passive (if at all) reactivity.

To initiate any real and formative discussion on the subject of tragedy in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a working definition must be introduced. Literary-devices.com supplies one such appropriate definition of the term:
“In literature, the concept of tragedy refers to a series of unfortunate events by which one or more of the literary characters in the story undergo several misfortunes, which finally culminate into a disaster of ‘epic proportions’. Tragedy is generally built up in 5 stages: a) happy times, b) the introduction of a problem, c) the problem worsens to a crisis/dilemma, d) the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over, e) the problem results in some catastrophic or grave ending, which is the tragedy culminated.”

This definition works in several ways, but the most important is that it qualifies the rationale behind our ability to objectively classify a work as “tragic”. Not only does it set forth strong parameters, but it also provides a nice chronological timeline of events that works well as a template when entering into such a debate. It thus becomes the interpreter’s task to decide whether the work in question fits well within this established reasoning.

Mark Antony and Cleopatra are not tragic figures. By our definition, there is the caveat that “the characters are unable to prevent the problem from taking over”. This is where the crux of our argument resides. Antony and Cleopatra had every opportunity to prevent their deaths (if we contend that death is the ‘disaster of epic proportions’ in our definition). The problem is that they don’t do anything of any real relevance. Antony is seen as being driven by lust, and of having his heart “pursed up” upon first seeing Cleopatra. By succumbing to this emotion, he allows himself to be manipulated and all his decisions become rooted within that context. As lust overwhelmed his good judgment in terms of his relationship with his soldiers, his wife Octavia, and even within his own self-evaluation, the statement can be made that he had (and completely gave up) control over his situation. Antony, despite his successes in the political and military arenas, is a very reactive character – he waits until things are done to him before he acts himself. Cleopatra, relishing in the spoils of being queen of Egypt, is a master manipulator, making their relationship bad (or depending on the view, at least ill-fated) from the beginning. There is no tragedy in this. While she effectively loses the empire for Antony in Act 3, Scene 10 with the apt illustration of, “nag of Egypt…the breeze upon her… hoists sails and flies,” it can be interpreted not as tragic, but merely unfortunate that Antony has withered under her spell once again. The inference is that he could have denied her and disallowed her manipulative power.

Another problem with this play being categorized as a tragedy lies in the conclusion, with both characters being ordered to the same grave by Caesar. This act, many critics might say, smacks of a happy ending. Two lovers reconciled in eternity certainly doesn’t seem all that tragic or cathartic from this aspect. While some may argue that their deaths are what symbolize the tragic element, this argument maintains that death isn’t the end of the story. When Caesar states that, “no grave upon the earth shall clip in it a pair so famous,” that becomes the point when any discussion of “disaster” or “epic proportions” falls silent. They are now paired together in perpetuity, not because of any “tragic” timeline of events, but because they couldn’t see past themselves (selfishly), understand their inherent nature (rationally), or remove themselves from a sense of fate (willfully). If anything, there exists a trace of sympathy, or pathos, but not enough to be confused with tragedy.

Perhaps a final and more inclusive illustration of the entire argument is this: as representative of the audience, Enobarbus might be the best lens through which to study the main characters of the play. He is the somewhat cynical “Everyman”, but his opinion/loyalty to Antony gives us great perspective when studying and commenting on how actions turn into consequence (non-tragically). In Act 2, Scene 2, he reveals that Antony, “pays his heart / For what his eyes eat only.” From this perspective, Antony is completely smitten with something he cannot have, and pays an accordingly steep price.

In reality, this is just one interpretation of many that could be ascribed to Shakespeare’s work. As with any interpretive assignment, students probably split the opinion down the middle with equally compelling arguments. For the sake of this argument, however, it is essential to remember two things. One is that sad doesn’t have the same meaning as tragic. Death isn’t always tragic. It can sometimes be glorious and honorable and fated. Secondly, and if we are to remain true to our initial definition of the term, we will see that much of what happens within the context of Shakespeare’s play is merely unfortunate and does not fit within the actual definition. There were really no “happy times” to start our story, and it never escalated (or declined) to a level our definition would suggest. Behind this reasoning, a case for thoughtful interpretation becomes necessary and an argument is born. For all intents and purposes, although a sad commentary on some very important elements such as pride, lust, manipulation, and moral weakness, this play cannot be called a tragedy. To do so not only flies in the face of accepted definitions, but also infers that death automatically complements “tragedy”. In this case, “sympathy” would be a much more apt description.

15
Jul
11

Titus vs. Titus Andronicus: Sex, Politics, and Society as Interpretive Themes

Titus Andronicus, a tragic play written by William Shakespeare, is both uniquely violent and thematically diverse. It bursts with such deeply-rooted elements of pride, sexuality, and revenge and explores such thematic concepts as language, race, gender, and politics. As such, it lends itself to an immense and widespread array of interpretations and analysis. This is most certainly true in the context of filmmaking, in that this play has so many acceptable and explorable areas in which to form differing commentaries. Since both the modern-day film version, Titus, and the original 16th century play have some wildly different illustrations of character, theme, and in some cases, plot, it becomes necessary to view them comparatively to gain a more complete understanding of some very complex elements. The main purpose of this essay, then, is to argue that while it is agreed that there are many possible interpretations of the play, there exist three distinct areas in which Julie Taymor’s film adaptation interprets Shakespeare’s original work – these originating from a sexual, political, and social standpoint. It is from this framework, thematically, that the biggest argument of interpretation must flow forth, with it being of equal importance how these views interact, either positively or negatively, with a personal interpretation of the primary text.

In order to initiate a cogent argument concerning something as broad and subjective as film interpretations of a four-hundred year old play against modern day views, some definitions are indeed necessary. In this essay, the force behind the main argument is that Taymor’s viewpoint must be measured against the three core thematic elements of sex, politics, and society. Granted, these are heavy and broad-reaching terms, both in modern culture and in Shakespeare’s time, and a clear understanding is needed to fully embrace the concepts the director is attempting to illustrate on the big screen.

Sexuality has been something essential to culture since the Creation, and its importance must not be overlooked or understated. It is simply the recognition of, or emphasis upon, sexual matters. It revolves around the age old concept of boy meets girl and that which allows the human race to grow and remain viable. It is that animalistic urge that guarantees the future of human life, and its power is immeasurable. In terms of our two main sources, sex plays a crucial role – as we see this theme being present in almost every major character. From Titus and his progeny of 26 children, to the physical relationship between Tamora and Aaron, to the sexual abuse of Lavinia, there is no mistaking that sex is a major theme for both Taymor and Shakespeare.

Politics is best defined by how governments are established, and how they function. In ancient Rome, particularly in Titus Andronicus, we see a period which is framed around a very unstable political environment. Within this framework, several political themes stand out. One is the initial struggle for power between Saturninus and Bassianus, while another could be Tamora’s role as the new Empress of Rome.

Society, as the aggregate participation that forms and shapes a community, plays an important role in both of our sources because the plot (any real interpretation of it) teaches society by both its positive and negative lessons. Society can learn from Titus’s mistakes as well as from what his honor and duty to family force him to do. Societal lessons can also be gained by cultivating normal relationships with others – not the drama-filled, complex relationships we see in both the movie version and the written play.

The first area to delve into is the way that the film version interprets the play from a sexual standpoint. As mentioned earlier as background information, sexuality is a key ingredient when looking at or discussing interpretations. Specifically, there are two instances that pertain to sexuality in Shakespeare’s work that stand out, but that Taymor removes (in a positive way) completely from the film. The implication and inferences are there, obviously, but the viewer doesn’t see anything. The first instance is the brutal attack on Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius. Viewers see her physically dragged away, but we are not reintroduced to her until after the violent sexual attack has taken place. The manner in which this is interpreted by Taymor is a just one, in that it grandly emphasizes the brutality of the act, in a sense, by excluding it from our eyes. We “see” the violence without literally seeing it. Illustratively, it gives the viewer the idea that the rape was so heinous that it does not need to be presented visually. We see enough of both the physical and emotional effects of her attack afterwards and upon her discovery by her uncle to “read between the lines” as to what has happened. The power of this depiction exists more in the negative space, or absence, which creates a very powerful image. While this particular example obviously contains an extreme amount of violence, a sexual act has taken place – which shows how grotesque the need for sexual gratification can be. Even Taymor’s depiction of Chiron and Demetrius as sexually hungry young men with the minds of children was an impressive interpretation of their characters. The notion that they were dealing in such adult activities (sexually) but behaved in such a child-like way only added to their “creepiness,” something that enhanced their character immeasurably over Shakespeare’s illustration of theme.

The second instance in the film that was a positive sexual interpretation was there was no visual representation of the physical [read: procreative] relationship between Tamora and Aaron. In Shakespeare’s written word, we know they were lovers, but we see only one short scene in the film with them together. This confirmed my personal view of the sexual relationship in that it wasn’t necessary to show any more than that in the film. By excluding any love-making scenes, Taymor actually made the discovery of their “blackamoor” child seem that much more dramatic. If we, as viewers of the film, had seen full-on sexual contact instead of mere hugging in the woods, the dramatic effect of a child showing up in Act 4 wouldn’t nearly have had the same effect. Personally, this discovery came as a tremendous shock to me, and strongly reinforced, a) how well Shakespeare illustrated the power sex really has, and b) how Taymor was able to visually bring this illustration to life. Interestingly, there is one area of sexuality that Taymor inserted into the film that was not present in the play. When Titus shoots his message-bearing arrows into the Roman court, Taymor inserts the image of a wildly erotic sexual orgy occurring at the same time the arrows arrive. This is perhaps using certain liberties as a director and taking them to extremes. Whether its intent is to excite viewers or give a glimpse into Roman sexual behavior of the time, it is inconsistent with the original and may or may not be a valid interpretation.

The second core theme in which interpretation is important revolves around politics. Politically speaking, Taymor’s film interprets the play by giving viewers a realistic depiction of how power is sought after, obtained, held, and even abused. The brother against brother struggle at the outset of the film was much darker than expected upon reading Shakespeare’s words. There was definitely the inference in the primary source that both Saturninus and Bassianus wanted control and authority, but Taymor’s interpretation took it a step further by showing how the brothers had an almost red-hot hatred and/or jealousy for one another. Saturninus looked like he could kill Bassianus over the throne, something much different from what I read in the play’s opening scene. Personally, this missed the mark of my original interpretation of how the brothers’ relationship really was. Taymor gave Saturninus such a mean-spirited edge, something I completely did not pick up on with the primary text. Obviously, I knew there was a race for power, but Taymor made the point more clearly in how she pitted the siblings against each other. There is also the idea of abusive power, or dishonesty, which I think Taymor portrayed well in her film. The physical representation of a rat-like Saturninus fell right in line with his “rattish” behavior – sneaky, conniving, and dishonest – all for personal gain.

Additionally, there was the film’s illustration of Tamora as the new Empress of Rome and how affected she was by her newly gained power. The movie depicted her as an evil and calculating force and a vengeful mother, which I thought was right on target with my interpretation. Her physical presence, her eyes in particular, showed such vengefulness that one could never obtain from reading Shakespeare’s description. Also, along these same lines, Tamora used her political status to influence her husband, Saturninus. She was able, early in the play, to convince her husband to smooth over the earlier injustices of Titus and his sons. Taymor’s physical depiction of the vindictive Empress, in a much grander way than the play’s text could have, showed just exactly how much sway her political power had. This was most evident in the way she physically appealed to Saturninus. Finally, it is interesting to note that the Empress was seen as having a very protective love for her sons, despite their evil weaknesses. In this respect, the film and the play mirrored each other.

The third core element of this analysis is how the film interprets the play in terms of the social arena. One particularly glaring interpretation that stood out almost immediately was how the different races were portrayed, specifically the black Aaron vs. the white/Roman community. While Taymor’s interpretation of this was decent, I thought it could have been taken a little further, increasing the divisive line of black vs. white that I thought Shakespeare most clearly defined. I personally viewed Aaron as being darker, and more sinister than the lighter colored actor portraying him. Aaron and Tamora’s son was certainly darker than his father, and in my mind’s eye I thought Aaron should appear the same as the son.

Another social illustration which I thought Taymor took significant liberty with was the inclusion of Young Lucius into the story as a main character. Certainly Shakespeare did not intend to give this young boy such a prominent place in his story? Surely he did not intend for his readers and viewers of the play to see the narrative through this adolescent’s eyes? The ending of the film, which shows Young Lucius carrying Aaron’s son away (inferring perhaps, safety?) does nothing for this particular viewer in terms of happy endings. If anything, I personally got the sense that the boy may now be allowed to grow up and perhaps avenge the execution of his father, and carry on his sire’s villainous ways. There must be a great degree of certainty that Shakespeare would not have concurred with Taymor in using this amount of directorial liberty? Instead of interpreting this added scene as a joyous, calming conclusion, I viewed it as circular in theory, with the son potentially coming back decades later to exact a painful revenge on his father’s assailants. Even more so, the young Moor could set in motion events ten times worse than his father did. This particular piece of interpretation was, for me, a little too far stretched out and, in fact, detracted from what was surely Shakespeare’s original intent.

Obviously, this analysis just scratches the surface in terms of the limitless possibilities for interpretation that exist between Julie Taymor’s film version entitled Titus, and William Shakespeare’s original play, Titus Andronicus. For example, the film’s setting which used an anachronistic mixture of ancient vs. modern – what was the meaning behind that? Did one even exist? How does that illustration work thematically? Does it work at all? Did Taymor’s depiction of economical themes mesh with the original? And how was Lavinia’s “voiceless-ness” a commentary on strict gender roles of Shakespeare’s idiom? Most worthwhile discussions concerning something with this amount of breadth would have to include many of these thematic elements and would also have to explain how Taymor saw them differently from the original. Not only that, but each element would have to be explored more deeply, which is beyond the scope of this paper. These are simply a smattering of the innumerable ways the film version could interpret the play. However, the fact remains that despite its subjective nature, interpretation is a key element in studying literature, especially something as far-reaching and influential as a Shakespeare play. In this particular discipline, finding literary value in theme and representing that value in another form is an impressive feat. To do it with a classic work of Shakespeare, such as Titus Andronicus, is even better.

01
May
11

Defining Character: The Battle of Shiloh and Historical Significance in “Shiloh”

In her short story “Shiloh”, Bobbie Ann Mason creates Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt, a married couple in rural Kentucky who have come to a point in their marriage where some real questions need to be addressed.  After suddenly finding himself disabled and back home after years on the road as a truck driver, Leroy seems within the first few paragraphs of the story to be somewhat lost.  He is “not sure what to do next” and his home “does not even feel like a home.”  Similarly, Norma Jean’s life is also much different after her husband’s return.  While Leroy is content to sit and build models of B-17s and miniature log cabins out of popsicle sticks, Norma Jean takes a more active approach to life.  She involves herself with body-building, classes at a local community college, and music.  Their relationship, arguably never strong to begin with, must now face the challenges of new circumstances.  This is the context upon which the “battle” of their marriage is framed around.  Mason’s choice of the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh as the title for her story therefore serves not only as an element of setting, but also defines the complex relationship between her two main characters.

The Battle of Shiloh was a pivotal early battle in the American Civil War, fought in the spring of 1862 in southwestern Tennessee.  Its historical significance lies in fact that it was one of the most costly battles of the War, with both sides suffering heavy casualties.  But while Union forces escaped with victory, an argument can be made that no real victory was obtained by either side during those three days in April.  With the number of fatalities totaling near 3,500 soldiers, there was no real winner.  Currently, the battlefield site is a national park and cemetery and serves as a memorial to those who fought and died there.  It stands as a piece of history to remind us of the battle, the struggle that took place, and the seemingly meaningless sense of loss it represented.

This important site then becomes Bobbie Ann Mason’s central framework as she creates the story of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt.  In their relationship, we see classic examples of role-reversal from the symbolism between Leroy spending time doing needle-point [feminine] and Norma Jean lifting weights [masculine].  We see it again in the fact that she goes to work every day while he stays at home smoking marijuana and doing crafts.  The imagery that Mason creates in terms of implied gender roles here is unmistakable, and both sides have questions about the future of their relationship.  Leroy can’t tell what his wife feels for him, while she is “often startled” to see him at home, as well as being “disappointed” by the fact that he is.  The implication here is that she wants Leroy to be the typical male provider, which is something that he seemingly lacks the ability to be.  Whether it is his ignorance or an inability to adapt, he “can’t always remember…things anymore.”  Leroy also has a desire to build his wife a log cabin, but the text suggests that Norma Jean not only doesn’t believe him, but alternatively doesn’t even want the cabin.  “Like heck you are,” she says, and steers the conversation elsewhere.  She also suggests things Leroy might do for work, but he answers with a non-committal [un-masculine] “Don’t worry.  I’ll do something.”

Obviously, their marriage is failing.  This is evident.  As his wife embarks on new projects and works hard to better herself, Leroy is stuck in neutral.  Norma Jean “does” things while Leroy simply “is”.  The realization that they have very little in common settles in more as a reality now that Leroy is permanently back home, and we see him more than once being “intimidated” by some of the changes that are happening around him.  It is with this knowledge that their marriage is on the rocks that they decide (begrudgingly on Norma Jean’s part) to visit Shiloh, where the real symbolism and theme of the story comes full circle.

Remember, Shiloh is both a battlefield and a cemetery.  It is a place where harsh fighting took place and where the dead are remembered.  That Mason would choose this site as her ultimate setting speaks to many different viewpoints.  One view is that it represents the impending death of their marriage.  Shiloh symbolizes the battle and ultimate destruction of their relationship.  When Norma Jean announces her intentions to leave her husband, it is no mere coincidence that they are sitting among thousands of dead soldiers.  It is no small coincidence that these soldiers died fighting in a tremendous struggle, similar to the one we see happening within the Moffitt family.  Additionally, one could agree that Mason could have chosen any bloody battlefield in any bloody war to symbolize this failing marriage.  What makes it so ironic and worth careful study is the fact that she chose the American Civil War.  This is without question representative of the way the Moffitts’ failing marriage mirrors our country’s failure and division of the 1860s.  In both cases, instability and miscommunication led to a battle in which there was no clear winner.  This is perhaps the best analysis of Mason’s use of Shiloh as her setting, but there are certainly more.

Conversely, there is the view that with the insertion of a cemetery as a backdrop, Mason is inferring that this is a place where healing could begin.  Since she never decisively ends their marriage within the boundaries of the text, Mason leaves open the possibility that this picnic among the dead might represent rebirth, or a new beginning.  It serves therefore as a subtle reminder to the reader that hope is possible, and that perhaps this is a renewal of sorts.  Leroy is certainly open to this possibility, as we hear him tell his wife, “You and me could start all over again.  Right back at the beginning.”  Mason tells us in the final few paragraphs that Leroy has realized some of his shortcomings too, that building a log house was “the dumbest idea he could have had.”  In many ways, this is a good first step towards understanding his wife’s desires a little bit more.    

Another good representation of this symbolism involving setting revolves around the historical aspect of Shiloh.  Specifically, how Leroy’s misunderstanding of history is paralleled by his misunderstanding of his wife.  Much like the admission that he “doesn’t know any history,” so it is that he doesn’t really know his wife either.  He certainly hasn’t been able to relate to her or communicate with her since he’s been off the road.  Since his return they “sit in silence,” do things “mechanically,” and “have forgotten a lot about each other.”  As they sit together having lunch near the Shiloh cemetery, they are still “just making conversation,” even after almost two decades of marriage.  Much like Leroy’s inability to speak with any depth on the history that surrounds them, he is equally unable to speak about what lies squarely between them.  While Leroy offers conversation in the form of facts from a historical plaque, it is interesting to note that he has no similar way of speaking to his wife about their relationship.  He has no crutch to lean on [no plaque to read from] and he knows he is powerless to stop her from leaving.  We see textual evidence of this when Mason writes, “Leroy knows Norma Jean will have her own way.”  By placing this climactic moment of the story in a location so rich with history, symbolism, and meaning, Mason has created almost the perfect parallel between her characters and their surroundings.

One of the final pieces to analyze in terms of setting takes us back to the actual Battle of Shiloh in 1862.  The argument that there were no real winners is specifically paramount to Mason’s theme.  Both armies took on incredible losses, and the bloodshed was immeasurable.  Neither the Union forces nor the Confederates really “won” anything, it was simply a bloody battlefield marked by loss.  As Norma Jean walks towards the Tennessee River bluff in the story’s final scene, readers should recognize the corresponding fact that neither Moffitt has really won anything to this point, either.  The battle that makes up their marriage – with all its miscommunication and resentment being “miles away” from what could be considered healthy – produces no victor.  The image of Norma Jean waving her arms and of Leroy trying, hobbling, to go after her certainly doesn’t evoke any glorious picture of victory.  The pale sky of Shiloh doesn’t offer the reader much in the way of victorious celebration, either.  The fact remains that in exactly the same way the Battle of Shiloh occurred, ended, and is memorialized, so it is with this relationship.

Overall, Bobbie Ann Mason has taken the story of a conflicted relationship and overlaid it against the historical backdrop of a messy Civil War battle.  Her characters of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffitt are symbols also of this struggle, with Leroy representing the status quo (Union) and Norma Jean representing change and rebellion (Confederates).  By choosing Shiloh as a place where the two characters come to some harsh realizations, Mason weaves both the intricacies of relationships with the historical relevance of warfare.  She gives us a symbolic look at the foundations of relationships by illustrating that communication is important and assumed roles must be accepted in order for a relationship to become strong and prosper.  For without these things, any relationship will ultimately fall into itself.  From a historical perspective, just as our Union famously fell into itself in 1860, the union that Mason shows us through the Moffitts’ marriage mirrors it completely.  And for this reason, her choice of Shiloh as a backdrop to frame her characters around is more than relevant.  It quite simply defines their relationship and makes the reading of “Shiloh” even more worthwhile.

01
May
11

Arguing the Real Comitatus: A Study of Hope in The Lord of the Rings

As with any great work in literature, there is generally a thematic framework in which the author centers his or her work around.  For J.R.R. Tolkien, this framework is heavily rooted in both his own philosophical beliefs and his world view in general.  Concepts such as nature vs. industry, Boethian principles of good, evil, fate and free will, and the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of the heroic code are just a few of the elements Tolkien uses to (sub)create his epic secondary worlds and fantasy literature.  And as any thoughtful student of his novel The Lord of the Rings will recognize, his primary theme – that which runs throughout the saga – is that of an unfailing Hope, even in the midst of crushing despair.  The fact that his characters have the ability to overcome this despair and experience the “eucatastrophic” happy ending (by their refusal to give up hope) is directly linked to the Anglo-Saxon view of comitatus, or heroic code.  Interestingly, an argument can be made that comitatus both existed and thrived in The Lord of the Rings not only in the form of the returning king Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan, but also within a small band of four diminutive hobbits – two of which carried the future of Middle-Earth into the dark lands of Mordor and the hellish pits of Mt. Doom.  By studying these hobbits and how they represent such elements as heroism, faith, hope, and comitatus itself – we can begin to understand how Tolkien relies on this ancient ideology to frame his (sub)creation in terms of theme.    

Leslie Stratyner calls Tolkien one of the “most revered and celebrated Anglo-Saxonists of all time” (Stratyner 5).  As such, he would be well-versed in the comitatus and its basic focus on the relationship/kinship between a leader and his followers.  In short terms, the main element of comitatus is the idea of mutual obligation, in which the people swear an oath to follow a leader into battle no matter the circumstances, and he gives them his oath to reward and support them at all costs.  This idea also goes hand in hand with the view that one keeps fighting for the cause, never giving up, even if all hope seems lost.  It relies heavily on complete cooperation from both Lord and warrior in that the entire company charges into battle together, because that is where their duty lies.  Interestingly enough, it matters not to members of a comitatus what the outcome may be.  They are either victorious and survive, or they die gloriously on the battlefield – also seen as a “victory”.   They are not concerned, then, whether or not success is guaranteed, or even if they will survive the fight.  Many times, they do not. Their honor is found in such belief that dying on the battlefield is more honorable than sitting idly by, or giving up or surrendering altogether.  A fellowship such as this keeps fighting on, knowing that defeat is near, and most likely eminent.  This is the philosophical background, then, that Tolkien uses as his theme in The Lord of the Rings, and the foundation around which the previously mentioned unfailing Hope is built upon.  It is this ideal that keeps the characters of Pippin and Merry engaged “most clearly in conventional heroic activity” (Lakowski 22).  It is this ideal also that keeps Frodo and Sam trudging through extremely disparaging circumstances to destroy the One Ring and defeat the evil forces of Sauron.

When making a case for comitatus being present within the small fellowship of hobbits, it is important to also recognize how this ideology can be identified within the characters of Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan.  Aragorn seems to be that surface hero, much like Beowulf, who readers immediately gravitate to.  He is the swash-buckler, larger than life character that we normally associate with the idea of heroism in battle.  He embodies many of the “heroic” ideals that we look for:  bravery, leadership, courage, faith, etc.  He has an ability to will others to follow, as he did on the Path of the Dead.  Romuald Lakowski even goes so far as to call him the “embodiment of Arthur” (Lakowski 28).  The Riders of Rohan represent, at least in my mind, the Anglo-Saxon tradition and are placed in the story by Tolkien to give us an idea of how the comitatus operates.  They follow their leader into the fray, knowingly outnumbered.  And since comitatus operates on such a platform of reciprocity, we see Aragorn as the type of leader who fits nicely into this paradigm.  At first glance, this would be an easy answer to how Tolkien incorporated such a concept into his story.  Yes, Aragorn and his accompanying Riders exhibit much bravery and steely confidence in their fight.  They represent the comitatus well.  But a few facts still remain to prove that they are not the true representation that Tolkien intended.

For one, Aragorn’s “full heroic stature” (29) isn’t revealed until after the defeat of Mordor.  By this time, Frodo and Sam have already achieved the goal of destroying the Ring and emerge (Sam specifically) as recognizable heroes.  Secondly, we have the concept of the Ring to deal with.  Frodo as ring-bearer was immensely more affected by the power and evil seduction of the Ring than Aragorn.  For him to keep up his Quest to destroy it in the face of insurmountable (seemingly) odds, despite the Ring’s bearing on him, is a testament to which character is more “heroic”.  Admittedly, Frodo is not the stereotypical hero in the romantic sense, and an argument can even be made that his brand of heroism is unflattering and unacceptable to readers.  But Frodo is heroic, and I think he represents the leadership role in the comitatus better than Aragorn does.  For in the context of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo symbolizes the leader (Lord) of the hobbit’s version of comitatus.  Sam, Pippin, and Merry all stand for the type of follower (thane) that the obligation rests on.  A deeper study of the hobbits based on the text, the concept of Hope, and how they all combined to defeat a much more powerful foe will show us how Tolkien’s real embodiment of comitatus is perfectly represented in this small fellowship.

As stated earlier, Frodo emerges early in the narrative as the leader of the hobbits.  He is the de facto choice as ring-bearer as Bilbo’s nephew, and is recognized by the other three hobbits as their Master.  These three join the fellowship purely out of a sense of duty to Frodo.  Gandalf reinforces this point with his comment after the Council of Elrond, “If these hobbits understood the danger, they would not dare to go.” (Tolkien 269).  Further proof of the hobbit’s allegiance comes in a statement from Pippin, “You do not understand!  You must go – and therefore we must, too…we know the Ring is no laughing-matter; but we are going to do our best to help you against the Enemy” (102).  Duty such as this is rarely found, but it shows the reader that the hobbits are committed to Frodo on this “hopeless journey” (265) and are willing to risk everything, including their easy life in the Shire, to serve their Master.  The fact is not lost on the reader that Pippin’s rationalization comes merely from the fact that if Frodo goes on this dangerous journey, so will they.  Sam is even described as being willing to “jump down a dragon’s throat to save you” (102).  This in itself gives us a glimpse into the heroism and loyalty they exhibit.  Pledging to follow, even under threats of peril, strife, and possible death, they are loyal to Frodo and the cause. 

As the representative leader of this comitatus, Frodo carries the One Ring into Mordor.  The hobbits’ role, therefore, becomes one of protection.  They knowingly admit not being prepared for this journey, but their moral obligation drives them to protect Frodo at all costs.  The success of their comitatus relies heavily on the idea of Hope, the complex but true element that weaves itself throughout the entire novel.  We are told that Sam Gamgee “never had [it] from the beginning” (624), and Tom Shippey, in The Road to Middle-Earth even suggests that the “wise characters in The Lord of the Rings are often without hope and so near the edge of despair.” (Shippey 158).  The key point to remember is that even if the suggestion is true, the outcome reveals something completely different: the hobbits do not succumb to the enemy.  Hope must, then, carry them through.  Certainly it wasn’t preparation, or luck, or fate (arguably).  It wasn’t their skill in warfare or their physical size that secured the victory over Sauron.  The hobbits’ sheer will, enabled and edified by Hope, pushes them through Mordor, up the monstrous Mt. Doom, and delivers Middle-Earth.  Hope is what enables Merry to slay the Witch-King at the Battle of the Pelannor Fields, under terribly desperate and overwhelming conditions.  Hope gives Pippin the ability to help save Faramir from the funeral pyre and later destroy a powerful troll.  Other arguments could be made the element of fear could be at the heart of the hobbits’ actions.  Sam certainly didn’t “think of himself as heroic or even brave” (Carpenter 329), and so this lack of bravery could denote fear.  Obviously, huge trolls and Ringwraiths would never have been a common sight to the Shire, so fear would be understandable in the hobbits.  Loyalty to their comitatus is certainly a factor.  But the underpinning for all of these things is the unwavering Hope that good will prevail and measures of success will be gained.  Sam shows he has Hope with his reply to Frodo after the comment that they may never see the other members of the fellowship.  His reply of “yet we may, Mr. Frodo.  We may.” (Tolkien 397) shows an absolute security that Hope exists within the duo.  Otherwise, what could the motivation be?  He also expresses to his Master Frodo that he wishes for rest and sleep, saying directly, “plain ordinary rest, and sleep…waking up to a morning’s work in the garden.  I’m afraid that’s all I’m hoping for all the time.” (697).  Hope existed, and it most certainly carried them through.  My opinion is that a certain will to survive has to be present in an individual in order to blindly undertake a task such as walking into the depths of Mordor (for one does not simply walk into Mordor).  It must also be there to battle great enemies such as the Nazgul, the Orcs, and the trolls such as Merry and Pippin did.  It is the overriding force that does so many things throughout Tolkien’s story, and without it urging the characters on, the outcome would have been very different.

Another view we can take in terms of how the hobbits’ comitatus was significantly more “real” than that of Aragorn and the Riders of Rohan comes in the form of the burden of the Ring.  Specifically, Frodo and Sam and their particular brand of comitatus that existed just between the two of them.  Shippey eloquently calls them “the two ants creeping along the Ephel Duath who are going to change reality” (Shippey 166).  This image is at the core of Tolkien’s theme.  They creep along, slowly, willing each step at a time, unknowing of what will happen next.  They, of course, have the One Ring in their possession.  Its heaviness increases with each step closer to Mt. Doom.  Frodo and Sam are the ones tasked with its destruction, knowing full well what will happen if they don’t accomplish their goal.  Significantly then, this burden strengthens their brand of comitatus.  For Aragorn’s battle means nothing if the Ring is not destroyed.  He and the Riders fight on, of course, displaying once again the Hope that they will be victorious, but ultimately their fate rests with Frodo’s success.  This fact alone makes the argument that the hobbits’ comitatus outweighs that of Aragorn’s due to the relevance of each one’s task.  If Aragorn fails, there is still Hope.  However, if Frodo fails – then all Hope is lost and evil wins out.  This incredible picture of the burden Frodo and Sam have undertaken is an amazing example of how Hope strengthens the relationship between the hobbits.  Ultimately, it is this relationship that secures the “safety” of Middle-Earth.  Call it a “mini-comitatus”, but the obligation that Sam Gamgee has to Frodo, and how this frames their relationship, is the key to the destruction of the Ring.  Granted, the story needed Gollum’s character to complete the destruction absolutely, but the Ring never makes it through Mordor and up the path of Mt. Doom if not for the relationship between Sam and Frodo.

Interestingly enough, this relationship is absolutely crucial to the eucatastrophe that Tolkien created.  Shippey reminds us that “Tolkien…being a Christian, did in absolute fact believe that in the end all things would end happily” (174).  Frodo steps up at the Council of Elrond and says he will bear the Ring, even though he does “not know the way” (Tolkien 264).  The text reveals later in the form of Elrond’s voice that “it is hardly possible to separate you [Sam] from him [Frodo]” (264).  The imagery here is unmistakable:  the ring-bearer as Lord emerges, and his inseparable servant (as thane) joins him.  Again, as the two separate themselves from the rest of the fellowship, Sam simply tells Frodo he isn’t going alone, “I’m coming too, or neither of us isn’t going.  I’ll knock holes in all the boats first” (397).  Demonstrating that loyalty upon which comitatus is built, Sam says everything in a few short sentences.  The relationship is therefore established.  When Sam rescues Frodo from the evil Orcs in Cirith Ungol and they begin their final descent to Mt. Doom, we again see that Sam doesn’t give up – even though he briefly considers going the rest of the way alone.  His Hope and his loyalty to Frodo outweigh anything else as a motivating factor.  They push on, their wills unyielding.  Frodo too, even though some critics brand his manner of leadership as lacking, exerts his will over the strength and power of the Ring.  He pushes himself, with Sam behind him, urged by will, comitatus, and guts.  Because of this, the duo is able to rise victoriously over the “long defeat” and put an end to Sauron’s evil rule.  Once they are at the crucial moment of scaling the mountain and actually delivering the One Ring to its fiery destruction, we see Sam emerge as the unifying force that keeps the comitatus strong.  Sam Gamgee, the little gardener hobbit from the Shire, literally carries the ring-bearer Frodo to the top of the mountain.  Frodo “crashes” in the romantic style, unable to continue due mainly to fatigue and Ring’s effects.  He even instructs Sam, “Lead me!  As long as you’ve got any hope left.  Mine is gone.” (907).  And the hero in Sam responds.  In what perhaps is the greatest show of indomitable will (heroism) that a reader will find in literature, Sam proves to us that the comitatus is alive in well on the rocky slopes of Mt. Doom.  The Hope that pushes through did not die in Sam, it was turned into “a new strength” (913) and he literally takes Frodo on his back and crawls higher and higher.  Comitatus rings true as Sam tells his Master, “I can’t carry it [Ring] for you, but I can carry you and it as well…tell him [Sam] where to go, and he’ll go.” (919).  The fact that Sam literally burdens himself not only with Frodo’s physical body, but also the weight of the Ring’s effects, shows the absolute gut-check that he must have had in order to serve his Master.  He admits to not even knowing where they are going, but still he goes.  Absolutely and without question, there was Hope evident on that mountain slope, and I contend there were scores of Hope in these “small gray insects (that) crept up the slope” (921).  It is the single most important element that carries a reader through Tolkien’s work, and it is the single most recognizable element when it comes to approaching the happy endings he loved so much.  For without Hope, the next day could be a “day of doom…or disaster” (919). 

Ultimately, Sam and Frodo reach the pits of Mt. Doom and the Ring is destroyed (with a little timely help from an equally “hopeful” Gollum).   They are rescued by Eagles and return to the Shire.  Aragorn regains his kingdom, and the evil forces of Sauron are defeated forever.  All of this is perfectly framed within Tolkien’s idea of what he called the “eucatastropic” happy ending.    Everything culminates into a happy story in which good overcomes the forces of evil, the once formidable enemy is defeated, and life returns to normal.  The question then becomes, as we conclude this essay, how did all of this happen?  Was it luck?  Was it just good fortune that dropped the Ring into a fiery hole?  Was it the element of fate, or the providential aspect that Boethius spoke of (which Tolkien knew so well) that crushed the likes of Saruman and Sauron?  My contention is that none of these things had as much impact on the overall ending of the story as did the element of Hope and the bond of comitatus.  And this is not necessarily a blind hope, akin to “I hope it doesn’t rain.”  It is a Hope that lights a fire within, or draws us to action.  It is the type that Lady Galadriel speaks about when she says, “stray but a little (from your Quest) and it will fail…yet hope remains.” (348).  When everything else is failing around you and you are outnumbered, exhausted both physically and mentally, and seem to have no chance at victory, it is this type of Hope that pushes you forward and makes you take the next step.  Sam embodies this when he and Frodo are sitting isolated, after the destruction of the Ring, and their deaths seem eminent.  “I don’t want to give up yet.  It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.” (929).  I think at this point, all readers can definitely understand where Sam is coming from. Persistence and Hope is what delivered Middle-Earth from evil.  Belief in the comitatus, a stronger version of that of Aragorn’s, ultimately saves the day, and civilization. 

Our concluding thoughts must then answer with the statements that no, it wasn’t luck that prevailed.  Good fortune wasn’t to be applauded for the victories gained inside Mordor’s boundaries.  It is difficult to garner from the text even whether fate or providence had a major role in the outcome.  What is shown in the text of The Lord of the Rings, however, is the fact that Hope remained.  Through trials and tribulation, and moments where all hope even seemed lost, it carried the day.  Frodo and Sam certainly had it with them as they ventured into an unknown land with no guarantees of success.  Characters such as Gandalf, Gimli, and Legolas pin their hopes onto the two hobbits slowly moving across Ephel Duath.  Faramir and Boromir have differing views of Hope, but still they have it.  And even the pitiable Gollum, who chases the Ring as far as its power will lead him, “hopes” to regain his “precious”.  Tom Shippey sums up this idea of Hope beautifully with this quote from The Road to Middle-Earth:

What one can be absolutely sure about is that giving up does the other side’s work for them, and ruins all your own possible futures and other people’s as well.  While persistence offers no guarantees, it does give ‘luck’ a chance to operate, through unknown allies or unknown weaknesses in the opposition. (Shippey 165)

 In conjunction with this Hope, the ancient ideology of comitatus plays an equally important role as a major theme of Tolkien’s novel.  The hobbits represent this kinship perfectly, with Frodo as the de facto leader and the rest of them as loyal subjects. What makes this work is the idea of reciprocity.  Sam protects and serves Frodo with the understanding that Frodo will give his return oath of reward and support.  They keep fighting as a group, no matter what.  Even Pippin and Merry, whose courageous acts were done (yes) out of bravery and courage, but also out of a sense of helping Frodo.  They knew they must be victorious in their endeavors if Frodo (again, as Master) was to succeed.  This is what brings Tolkien’s (sub)creation full circle.  The Anglo-Saxon idea of the comitatus as the heroic code, and retaining honor in the face of insurmountable odds puts the theme of The Lord of the Rings into perspective. Great battles are won, good trumps evil, and order is restored – all because Hope remained in a small brotherhood of loyal hobbits.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Lakowski, Romuald Ian. “Types of Heroism in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 90.Fall-Winter (2002): 22-34.

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-Earth. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Stratyner, Leslie. “He Who Gave Us These Rings: Sauron and the Perversion of Anglo-Saxon Ethos.” Mythlore 59.Autumn (1989): 5-8.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1954.