This is my final essay for my Shakespeare class. I really enjoyed writing this essay and haven't been this excited about an idea in a while. I realize most of you won't read this, but I wanted to post it anyway.
A Thousand Shades of Grey: Shakespeare as an Improver
There is a reason the general society considers reading the drama of William Shakespeare a daunting task. Distinct languages, extensive metaphors, multiple characters, coupled with confusing plots, bewilder Shakespeare’s audiences. I argue, however, that it is not the language, characters, or plot for which we consider Shakespeare an intimidating force; it is his ambiguity. Shakespeare never allows his work to be consumed by one complete emotion. He acknowledges the need for love, honor, integrity, humor, and balance; yet he does not deny the continuing existence and power of fault, weakness, pride, and disharmony. It is not that we have trouble understanding his thoughts; it is that we cannot sort our own. Bruce C. Hafen states society is uncomfortable with ambiguity (63). Hafen, quoting G.K Chesterton, asserts our society is compartmentalized into “optimists,” “pessimists,” and “improvers” (66). Summarizing Chesterton’s idea, Hafen says, “Neither the extreme optimist nor the extreme pessimist would ever be of much help in improving the human condition, because people can’t solve problems unless they are willing to acknowledge that a problem exists” (66). Chesterton asserts that “improvers” are those who can correctly see both the good and bad present in the human soul and action, and instead of being crippled by it, goes about improving what is seen so clearly. (qtd. Hafen 66). It is because of the ambiguity present in his work that William Shakespeare can be recognized as an improver through the contradicting triumphs present in his comedies and tragedies.
The improving quality of Shakespeare is recognizable in the ambiguity of his comedies as not even they are excessively and unbelievably optimistic. The end of a Shakespearean comedy brings marriage, dancing, and over-all happiness to the characters. The loose ends, however, leave the audience feeling a bit dissatisfied. A sense of injustice is felt as the virtuous, humble, and beautiful Hero’s heart still belongs to the raging, unjust, and presumptuous Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing (5.4.60-61). A feeling of incompletion remains with the survival and remaining evil in the conniving Don John (5.4.124-126). The four lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream model ridiculous behavior as they struggle to discover who loves whom to a point that disgusts the viewers. Flaws abound in almost every hero-character. Beatrice is prideful and harsh, Benedick is a hypocrite, Claudio is spineless, Helena is too devoting, and Demetrius is shallow. Audiences struggle to find a few characters they can like without reservation. Their reward is not granted often. Yet it is impossible to hate these flawed characters and blemished plots because they demonstrate the essentiality of love. Shakespeare’s imperfect picture of love reflects his nature as an “improver.” Shakespeare gives his viewers a beautiful message, displaying the hardiness, resilience, and necessity of love through flawed characters. He displays not an overly optimistic and unrealistic view of love, but a sincere view as love seems to be dragged through the mud yet somehow remains integral even as it is presented through the thick of human folly. Shakespeare improves the audiences’ view upon love as he acknowledges the presence of fault, yet does not allow it to consume the play or the viewers’ emotions.
Shakespeare’s status as an “improver” is illustrated especially well with the character of Demetrius in his comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The dream is contaminated by the remaining influence of the love potion over Demetrius at the conclusion of the play (3.2). One might not care about Demetrius’ insincere love upon first glance, recognizing the happiness of Helena, but upon the second glance an impression of disenchantment is felt. And so it is with many first and second glances on Shakespearean comedies. Blind happiness is shortly followed by open-eyed discontentment. The beauty of Shakespeare is that he provides the tools for his audience to improve upon the feelings of discontentment. Flaws are presented and magnified, yet Shakespeare allows his characters to triumph in their search for love and happiness. This gives the audience an improving view of love as it offers the opportunity to recognize it is not always perfect, yet it is always present and obtainable.
At the end of a comedy Shakespeare does not allow his viewers the luxury of a neat, overly optimistic ending. There is always an unresolved matter to which the audience feels invested. He forces his viewers to consider the reality of happiness and fault coinciding in an attempt to improve the ideals of his audience.
But Shakespeare does not force improvement and growth just upon the audiences of his comedies; his tragedies reflect his improving nature as well.
A Shakespearean tragedy creates a painful experience. A great and honorable character is the author of his or her own destruction through one tragic flaw in which death is the only release. Murder, insanity, and suicide run amuck in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. Audiences watch in horror as tragic flaws lead to brutality, war, and death. Even more painful, however, is the demise of character.
Lady Macbeth turns from a faithful and attentive wife to a murderous and compassionless lunatic. Macbeth goes from a content, honorable warrior to an inhuman tyrant. Romeo and Juliet turn from innocent lovers to irresponsible, suicidal teens. Brutus gives the final stab in the murder of his great friend and mentor, Caesar, leading the eventual downfall of the Roman Empire.
Yet at the end of these tragedies viewers are not depressed, miserable, or disheartened. The plays are clearly not optimistic, yet the tragedies do not reflect pessimism; pain is felt, but repulsion is not. Instead the ambiguous endings reflect the ideals of an improver.
Macbeth demonstrates that he was once a great man, valued solider, and respected Thane of Scotland. Macbeth is praised by the saint-king Duncan saying, “O worthiest cousin, / The sin of my ingratitude even now…Thou art so far before / That swiftest wing of recompense is slow / to overtake thee…More is thy due than more all can pay” (1.4.14-17, 21). Duncan proves Macbeth is a man worthy of many commends. Even after he murders Duncan, his servants, his friend Banquo, Macduff’s family, and many others, Macbeth’s madness has admirable qualities. Even amidst his downfall Macbeth states, “They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly, / But, bearlike, I must fight the course” (5.7.1-2). There is something to be said for Macbeth’s decisiveness and determination. Macbeth demonstrates stoicism at it’s greatest as he resolutely faces the overwhelming English army.
Lady Macbeth, too, has laudable qualities. Her determination, loyalty, and courage are unmatched by any Shakespearean character. Once she learns of her husband’s prophesy, Lady Macbeth concocts the plan to murder the King and never strays from it, giving her famous “unsex me here” speech and exclaiming, “Leave all the rest to me” (1.5.40, 72). Her loyalty is notable as though she does not agree with murdering Banquo she offers support to her husband, even covering for his hallucinations at the banquet (3.4). Lady Macbeth’s courage is even greater than her husbands. She reproaches him saying, “But screw your courage to the sticking-place, / And we’ll not fail” (1.7.60-61) and is continually questioning his manhood when courage is called upon (3.4.58). Though Shakespeare presents them through a wicked character, certainly determination, loyalty, and courage are all admirable traits and viewers cannot completely rejoice when Lady Macbeth is dead, as her positive traits die with her.
Is it not the same with Romeo and Juliet? Aren’t viewers sad to see Romeo’s passion and Juliet’s wisdom and courage dead along with their irresponsibility and madness? Are we not touched with the foolish poignancy of their love?
Brutus presents perhaps the strongest case for ambiguity. An honorable man bases his logic from the shaky foundation of trust and murders his friend in a decision based off of limited information. Brutus repeatedly rejects the advice of the older and more experienced Cassius by allowing Antony to give his swaying speech at Caesar’s funeral and again by making irrational military moves (3.2., 4.3). Yet audiences morn his death and say “this was a man” and call him “honorable” just as Antony does (5.5.67-74). Audiences admire Brutus’ pureness. He is indeed honorable and integral in his desire to protect his country.
The ambiguity felt is a reflection of Shakespeare’s ability to improve upon tragedy. Shakespeare takes a once noble trait and pushes it to a negative extreme. There is something great and admirable about the faults of those in his tragedies, yet we cannot deny they are faults. If the plays were merely black or white audiences would have no trouble distinguishing or articulating their thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Instead the plays are grey. And as such audiences have great difficulty in deciding if the Macbeth’s should be admired or hated, if there is a pure or pathetic quality in Romeo and Juliet, and if Brutus is honorable or a selfish man of treason.
Instead of allowing his tragedies to be subjugated to disaster, misery, and pessimism, Shakespeare provides an emotional catharsis in the nobleness and honor of his characters. Shakespeare provides the tools for improvement as he demonstrates failed potential and character, but not failed existence.
Instead of allowing a comfortable sensory experience wherein his plays allow his audiences to sort their emotions and thoughts into one compartment with one label, Shakespeare stretches his audiences by never allowing his plays to be dominated by overwhelming optimism or devastating pessimism. Shakespeare’s unwillingness to leave his work in complete light or shadow leaves his audiences feeling disconcerted in a thousand shades of gray: certainly an improvement on only black and white.