Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes and the Value of Literature: Prison Diary

Shakespeare Hamlet

Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes and the Value of Literature:  Prison Diary

By Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright (text only) 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

{9/27/07} I’m finishing reading the Signet Classic edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the third time, and I find that it’s more enjoyable than before. My last reading of Walden was possibly the most enjoyable and “fragrant” yet. What’s going on here?

Some books take significant effort to become accessible; Dream required three readings. Other books are a deep well one can draw from, enjoying each refreshment as much as the first. These are very rare in my experience, being limited to Shakespeare and Thoreau so far. [I would add, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam via Edward Fitzgerald.  9/8/18]

Despite my love and deepest possible respect for Shakespeare, I’ve never enjoyed his comedies, nor The Tempest. It seems I need a deeper understanding of them, by studying the critics, before I can appreciate them.

In Dream, one of the critics compared comedy and tragedy (Henry Alonzo Myers) and says “We feel ourselves joined to [the tragic hero] and to all mankind in the justice of a common fate: this is the secret of the reconciliation to suffering which we find in tragedy.” p. 163

I think he could hardly be more wrong. At the end of the piece I wrote in the book: “Seems to me the essence of Shakespeare’s tragedies is the portrait of nobility in the extremity of suffering. Justice has little to do with why we love tragedy. It may be however, that ‘justice’ plays a role in the tragic hero’s vision of his downfall—though Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear don’t speak of it. [Actually, Macbeth does somewhat in his final dialogue with Macduff—’of all men else I have avoided thee.’]  More often it is those who remain after the hero’s death who speak of a return to normalcy. But that moment is anticlimactic, not what we go to tragedy to see.

“We all suffer, and by seeing Othello’s and Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s strong and noble responses to their downfall, we can also feel ennobled and strong for a time. We weep for the hero, and ourselves.”

Myers is closer to my point when he says, “a truly tragic ending, in which joy and sorrow are inevitably joined together—a victory and defeat, a victory of the human spirit accompanied by the inevitable defeat of finite human beings.” p. 162

But where is the “victory in defeat” in Othello or Lear? Lear speaks of singing in prison, but even that is taken from him by the death of Cordelia.  His final delusion that she is still alive is not cheering to the audience—there is no victory for Lear. Nor for Othello—the punishment of Iago will not bring Desdemona back.

In fact, one is on thin ice in lumping together Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, each being so different from the others.

Macbeth is frankly a villain, a coward in hero’s clothes, yet he will “try the last” and shows the last gasp of heroism. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is a satisfying statement of extreme pessimism that we must repudiate by our lives. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s great love-hate hero.

Another, more heroic, is Othello. We don’t want him to kill Desdemona, and we share his anguish when he does, and we hate him for doing so. Yet we understand him and love him in his noble suicide.

Lear has little heroic about him, though he may be “every inch a King.” We love him for his anger and bitterness, and pity him for his endless sorrows. Like Macbeth he shows a flash of the heroic (off stage!) by slaying the one who tries to hang him. His other enemies all end up dead through their own machinations, not by his hand. There is no love-hate here except in the first scene, where we hate his treatment of Cordelia and Kent.

Hamlet, in the end, seems the most lovable and heroic of the four. His plotting and planning take too long, but in the end they succeed—Claudius dies, and by his hand. His one rash act kills Polonius, and finally Ophelia, and we probably hate his angry words to Ophelia and Gertrude, but overall he still seems the most lovable and least hateful because he is the most like us, perhaps: the modern, indecisive, angst-ridden intellectual. (Claudius’ killing was “ham-handed”?)

What of Romeo and Juliet? I used to see this as the ultimate romantic tragedy, and perhaps I still do—but the tragedy is that these two children have played with loaded guns and killed themselves. Juliet’s rashness is the more forgivable, as she must escape the forced marriage as well as trying to be with Romeo. His suicide is brutal and unnecessary. He should have gone back to Rosalind, but that is not his character. He is not mature enough to handle his grief maturely.

The other suicide—Othello’s—feels different. His grief is an order of magnitude greater than Romeo’s. There is no other course reasonably open to him.

Comparing Iago and Macbeth, we find the heroic somewhat lacking in Iago. We may relish his relentless evil—I certainly do—but he deserves all the tortures that can be devised against him. Iago is valuable, even priceless, because he can do what we dare not, though we might wish to with half a heart. He sponges off Rodrigo unmercifully, and revenges himself on all who he sees as enemies. But if we love him, it is a “guilty pleasure” that we gladly renounce at play’s end. (cf. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist in Notes from Underground)

Interestingly, we share no “fellow feeling” with Regan and Goneril, Claudius, and Tybalt.  Only in Edmund is there the touch of Iago to be briefly savored.

{11/5/07} Got to thinking about Macbeth this morning, and what it is “about.” It is “about” courage and cowardice. We see Macbeth and Lady Mac at moments when they are acting/reacting with valor, and moments when they are reacting with cowardice. We see minor or supporting characters at moments which test their courage [notably Macduff and his son] and they respond well. We also have a “study” of a man resting his “courage” on a hope which proves false—Macbeth—and a man who resists doing so—Banquo. Finally, we have a man who is faced with the failure of all his hopes, who responds with “the courage of desperation,” which is Macbeth confronting his nemesis.

Recognizing these facts, we can appreciate that the play has “thematic unity” in addition to more obvious or superficial unities, and this gives the play “depth,” which makes it “literature,” and leads us to appreciate “the greatness of Shakespeare.” In appreciating Shakespeare and in recognizing our insight in seeing this thematic unity, we can feel puffed up about our “superior intellect,” especially as compared to the Philistines that scorn Shakespeare. Then, recognizing the half-truth of this self-criticism, we can respond by noting that we also are emotionally moved by the beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry in Macbeth; alternatively, or in addition, we can reflect on our own valorous or cowardly actions and reactions to situations which have tested our courage—both of which can be said to advance the level of our understanding of ourselves. And self-knowledge we tend to think is a large part of what we call maturity and “wisdom,” and again we are led to feel “puffed up”—which we can also characterize as “enhanced self esteem.”

Then, if we are of a certain turn of mind we can contemplate this entire example of “one man’s response to literature” as having a thematic unity which could form the basis for one’s own literary efforts, either by writing a new play or story, or an essay, or merely this diary entry.

Taking another step back into “greater objectivity,” we can recognize that the reading of literature tends to stimulate such analysis and self-examination, whereas the reading of popular novels or the viewing of sitcoms tends rather to discourage analysis and self-examination—but does it really, or is this more dependent on who the consumer is, and not so much on what is consumed? If the analysis and self-examination occur, the “occasion” for these is found in the relationship: consumer’s response to what is consumed. (And so depends on the qualities of both.)

Unless analysis and self-examination and increasing self-esteem are good in themselves, and I think they are, then it does not matter what is consumed by each consumer. But if they do matter, then what is consumed and what is available for consumption and what is taught about literature and its analysis also matter, because they help determine what kind of society we live in, and the quality of life of those who live in it. And if anything matters, these things do.

“To promote a better society and improve the quality of life in the United States,” I wish to continue my efforts to promote the reading and analysis of literature on the Internet.

[9/22/18  I’ve edited the above to remove some “typos” that were introduced when I dictated this diary entry into the computer.  Dictation transcription is terribly error-prone, and my cleanup of the result missed rather a lot.  The following graphic is added just for its amusement value.  It’s from this (link).]

Copyright (text only) 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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