Suffering In Shakespeare

’s Plays Essay, Research Paper

Suffering In Shakespeare’s Plays

How does suffering affect one’s actions? Do different types of suffering

affect one in different ways? This paper seeks to determine how William

Shakespeare’s character’s respond to various types of suffering. Suffering can

be defined in two ways; physical suffering, in which the character is inflicted

with physical pain and trauma, and emotional suffering, where the character

suffers an emotional trauma or loss.

In The Tempest, the physically traumatized characters, are Trinculo and

Stephano. They are chased by dogs but their physical trauma has not induced any

sign of remorse or guilt. Ferdinand, on the other hand, is overcome by

emotional suffering at the “loss” of his son. In King Lear, Lear is plagued

emotionally. He feels that he has lost the love of his favorite daughter

Cordelia, and he feels the harsh hatred of his two evil daughters. At the

conclusion of the play, his sanity is restored but he has suffered tremendously

in an emotional manner at the hands of Regan and Goneril. In Othello, Brabantio

goes through emotional suffering when he must succumb to his daughter’s wishes.

Desdemona also goes through emotional suffering when she is accused by Othello

of cheating on him when he is convinced of this by Iago.

In The Tempest, the theme of purification through suffering can

clearly be seen. Prospero, in his long exile from Milan, has more than attoned

for whatever mistake he might have made while he ruled. Ferdinand must suffer

through Prospero’s hardships and laborious tests before he can win Miranda’s

hand. Most significantly, Alonso must undergo the suffering that Prospero has

designed for him before he is forgiven.

Prospero, who is the real Duke of Milan was overthrown 12 years earlier

by his younger brother Antonio. Prospero was driven out of the island along

with his daughter Miranda; the two were cast out to sea. His suffering has

occured in a physical and a non-physical way, he is deeply hurt from losing his

kingdom and from being cast out to die. Despite this, he is generous in

forgiving. He is not only in control of those around him but he punishes the

guilty and demands repentance.

When Ferdinand meets Miranda, they instantly fall in love with each

other. “I might call him…a thing divine; for nothing natural…I ever saw so

noble.” ( Tempest, I, ii, 417-419). He is perfect for her in that he is pure and

appreciates her innocence and purity. To make sure that Ferdinand is worthy to

marry Miranda, Prospero makes him endure heavy labor. “The mistress which I

serve quickens what’s dead and makes my labors pleasure.” (Tempest, III, i, 6-7)

Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, who are denounced as “men of sin”

(Tempest, III,, iii, 53) are driven by Ariel into a frenzy of madness. Alonso is

deeply affected, he believes the “death” of his son to be punishment and he

confesses his guilt and seeks to atone for it. He is purified through the trial

and reconciled with Prospero at the play’s end. Neither Antonio nor Sebastian,

who are equally guilty, is affected in this way. They remain impenitent. Their

incapacity for remorse is punished, Ariel suggests by a “ling’ ring perdition,

worse than any death.” ( Tempest, III, iii, 77)

Stephano, the King’s butler, and Trinculo, the jester, plot to overthrow

Prospero. Their trial and suffering take form in a physical way. They are

submerged in a horse pond and then hunted by Prospero’s dogs.

King Lear allows one to see how physical suffering can bring on

emotional suffreing. This can be seen in the two main characters of each subplot.

Lear, King of Brittain, is described as “a very foolish old man, fourscore and

upward.” His fatal flaw of rashness causes his suffering. The Earl of Gloucester

lacks Lear’s capacity for wrath but shares his fatal flaw of rashness. Like Lear,

he is made to suffer greatly by his children before he gains true insight.

Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, suffers emotional pain. She is disowned by her father

but in the end, she survives to comfort him and proves her own selflessness.

King Lear is the epitomy of suffering. “His suffering includes a sense

of guilt for misusing his past powers.” (Bloom, 80). He endures a parents worst

nightmare. First, he is outraged by his daughters lack of love for him. “Love

and be silent” (I, i, 69). “I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.”

(King Lear, I, i, 78-79). Because of this, he ends up banishing her from his

kingdom and cutting her from the inheritance. He splits the land in two leaving

her with nothing. to his dismay, Lear discovers that life with his two other

daughters is no joy. He is outraged by their cruel behavior, a “Sharp-tooth’d

unkindness” (King Lear, II, iv). Lear is thrown out by his two daughters to rage

against natures harsh elements. “To be thrown from being king of Brittain to a

fugitive in the open, pelted by merciless weather, and betrayed by ungrateful

daughters is indeed an unpleasant fate.” (Bloom, 1). Lear has now completely

gone mad from exposure to the storm and the anguish he has suffered at the hands

of his daughters.

“Gloucester must go through intense suffering before he can identify

with the deprived.” (Bloom, 74). He is convinced that his son is secretly

planning to kill him. His bastard son Edmund convinces Gloucester that Edgar,

his natural son, wants to kill him. Edmund then convinces Edgar to flee from

his father’s wrath.” My father watches. O, sir, fly this place,…Fly, brother,-

Torches, torches!- so farewell.” (King Lear, II, i, 20, 31-32). Gloucester’s

suffering continues as he attempts to help his friend Lear and his followers,

but is betrayed to Cornwall and Regan by Edmund. As punishment, Gloucester is

blinded and sent to rage the storm with Lear. “…I would not see thy cruel

nails pluck out his poor old eyes” (King Lear, )III,iii, 58-59) “Let’s follow

the old earl, and get the bedlam to lead him where he would. His rougish madness

allows itself to anything.” (King Lear, III, iii, 105-106).

Cordelia’s suffering begins when she tells her father the truth- “I love

your majesty according to my bond, no more nor less.” (King Lear, I, i, 93-94).

He then banishes her and cuts her from his will. Despite all that has happened

to her, She still loves her father and is there when he needs her. When she

hears word of his treatment, she returns to help him. Lear’s sanity is restored

with loving care on her part. “From his vision of universal guilt, Lear moves

to a vision of universal suffering, the basis for a different kind of

mutuality.” (Bloom, 90). His final suffering is at the end of the play. He

enters carrying Cordelia’s body. As he weeps for her, he is surrounded by the

bodies of Goneril and Regan, the survivors can only stare in respect.

In Othello , the suffering comes about through emotions. Othello is

suffering because he feels that his wife has been unfaithful to him. Brabantio

suffers because he feels that his only daughter has been kidnapped and seduced.

Desdemona suffers because her father disapproves of her marriage and she is

plotted against by the evil Iago, making her husband think that she has been

disloyal. Othello represents how jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy, can

bring on corruption, suffering through ones emotions.

Brabantio, a Venetion Senator, is terrified that his only child has been

kidnapped by Othello and has been seduced with drugs and potions. ” It is to’

tree an evil, Gone she is,…O, unhappy girl!-… O, she deceives me,…O,

treason of the blood!… is there not charms by which the property of youth and

maidhood may be abused?” (Othello, I, i, 178-195). When he learns that Desdemona

is in love with the moor he is bitter and resentful. “At each house I’ll call. I

may command at most.- Get weapons ho! and raise some special offices of the

night.” (Othello, I, i, 203-205). He accepts the defeat but not graciously; he

will not allow Desdemona to stay in his house while Othello is at war. Despite

his harsh reaction, Brabantio is not a villain, he is only a hurt father, hurt

by his daughter’s deceptions, that she married behind his back. He is so wounded

that when he dies, it is probably of a broken heart.

Desdemona, a young Venetian woman, has lived a sheltered life in her

father’s home. She falls in love with a man several years older than herself,

from a foreign land and of a different race. Fearing her father’s disapproval,

she elopes with Othello and goes with him to the war zone. Desdemona is

portrayed as a lovely, gentle woman, deeply in love with her husband.

Unfotunately, being so delicate causes her vulnerability to the terrible plot

and accusations brought on by Iago. “Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do

nothing, she can not retaliate, even in speech.” (Bloom, 80). Although Othello

finds her unfaithful, there is no room in her world for the things he has

accused her of. It is her very innocence that makes her a victim.

Othello’s sexual jealousy is one of the most corrupting and destructive

emotions; it is the cause of Desdemona’s pain. Desdemona goes from a state of

vulnerability to a state of suffering. Iago’s contribution to Othello’s jealous

rage also affect her suffering. “The marriage might have succeeded had it not

been for the evil character, Iago.” (Jorgenson, 59). Iago tries to convince

Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. When Desdemona goes to

see her gentle, loving husband, she finds him in an overwrought emotional

condition. When she tries to soothe him by stroking his head with a handkerchief,

he becomes irritated and throws it to the side. “Are you not well?… Let me but

bind it hard; within this hour it will be well.” (Othello, III, iii, 325-329).

Later, Iago uses the same handkerchief to incriminate Desdemona. Together,

Othello and Iago agree that Desdemona should be put to death. Out of rage,

Othello smothers Desdemona in bed and kills her. “She must die, else she’ll

betray more men.” (Othello, V, ii, 6).

In conclusion, there is evidence that Shakespeare designed his

characters to be affected by different types of suffering in different ways. The

characters who underwent emotional suffering, usually ended up purified or at

least in a better state of mind. On the other hand, those who only underwent

physical suffering did not change from their past behaviors and did not repent.

Evidence of this can be seen in the following ways: Ferdinand in The

Tempest, is struck by emotional pain. Because of this, he is purified through

his trial and he repents. In Othello, the main character is caught in an

emotional battle- who is he to believe- his loyal servant or his new bride?

Unfortunately, Othello does not realize the truth until it is too late and has

already killed Desdemona. In King Lear, Lear becomes temporarily insane from the

pain and turmoil he endures from his daughters. He does not come to terms about

his mistake until, like Othello, it is too late and Cordelia has already been



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