About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. (W.H. Auden, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’)
Discuss some of the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays use the interaction and distance between their protagonists and surrounding minor characters to illuminate the ‘human position’ of suffering.
This quote, taken from Auden's poem Musee des Beaux Arts, deals with the incongruous nature of human suffering, an idea that we are provoked to think about when reading many of Shakespeare plays. However the play which comes to mind first when any reader of Shakespeare hears the word suffering is surely King Lear, which arguably contains the most amount of pain and personal torment of all of Shakespeare's work. Although appearing in the Quarto edition as The History of King Lear, the indescribably tragic plot led the Folio edition to be named The Tragedy of King Lear. Many adaptations and rewrites chose to drastically change the whole idea of the play by omitting perhaps the most heart-breaking part and the grandest loss; the death of Cordelia. What is never lost, however, is the numerous examples of suffering. As a major theme, suffering can be discussed in relation to many different elements of the play, one which has a strong and obvious link to the idea of suffering is the interaction of major and minor characters. More specifically though we will look at how this, along with distance between characters, highlight suffering and create interesting ideas in relation to the human position of pain.
Before looking in detail at the ideas which these points provoke, defining the terms interaction and distance seems crucial. With regard to interaction we will be looking at how smaller, less significant characters mix with and relate to the more important characters when suffering is being dealt with. It will also be necessary to explore how these minor characters react to the pain and suffering that both they and the major characters endure. There are several ways in which we will approach the idea of distance. Distance often becomes synonymous with position, both on stage and in society and this idea helps us to see the huge part distance plays in the play. In this context we can manipulate the word distance in order to explore the literal or locational sense, to discuss distance with regard to relationships and how connected characters are and also to discuss social distance or how connected characters social groups are.
Suffering appears in King Lear in abundance and in many different forms. The human position of suffering is something which some characters find challenging to comprehend; pity is not a character train possessed by many in the play. Most characters, especially the most important ones, for example Goneril and Regan are pitiless to the extreme, but a few minor, and sometimes even unnamed characters show extraordinary sympathy towards others' suffering. Not only are the more sympathetic characters less important, they are also usually characters of lower social class. This difference in outlooks from the two socially distant groups bring about the first instance of distance playing a part in dealing with suffering. Making those capable and those incapable of pity so socially distant renders the distinction between the two unmissable, thus highlighting both the cruelty of the upper classes and the kindness of the lower, showing that the human capacity to feel for others survives through the most desperate times.
No discussion of suffering in King Lear can be done without looking at the most disgusting act of cruelty to be put on stage in Shakespeare’s time; the blinding of Gloucester. Referred to by Samuel Johnson as “an act too horrid to be endured in dramatic exhibition” this scene is still regarded today, despite our exposure to excessive Hollywood violence,...
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