Tag Archives: knots

“Richard III” by William Shakespeare: Deformity and Evil

To really understand this play, you must have a basic understanding of the concept of the great chain of being.

For Medieval and Renaissance thinkers, humans occupied a unique position on the chain of being, straddling the world of spiritual beings and the world of physical creation. Humans were thought to possess divine powers such as reason, love, and imagination. Like angels, humans were spiritual beings, but unlike angels, human souls were “knotted” to a physical body. As such, they were subject to passions and physical sensations—pain, hunger, thirst, sexual desire—just like other animals lower on the chain of being. They also possessed the powers of reproduction unlike the minerals and rocks lowest on the chain of being. Humans had a particularly difficult position, balancing the divine and the animalistic parts of their nature. For instance, an angel is only capable of intellectual sin such as pride (as evidenced by Lucifer’s fall from heaven in Christian belief). Humans, however, were capable of both intellectual sin and physical sins such as lust and gluttony if they let their animal appetites overrule their divine reason.

(Source: Wikipedia)

To emphasize the importance of this concept, Shakespeare uses the word “knot” extensively throughout the text, symbolizing things from marriage to physical form. And just as Shakespeare and other Renaissance thinkers believed in the correspondence between the worldly and the divine realms, they also believed that the physical and the spiritual aspects of an individual were also knotted together.

Richard is a despicable character who seems to lack any redeeming qualities. He revels in his depravity and it is impossible to feel any sense of empathy for this person who is presented as the English equivalent of a Caligula. But what I find the most interesting is that Shakespeare establishes a clear connection between Richard’s physical deformities and his evil nature. In fact, during Richard’s opening soliloquy, the connection is immediately established.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

(Act I: scene i)

We can contrast this with a description of Edward, whose physical beauty reflects the nobler qualities of a human being.

Hath she forgot already that brave prince,
Edward, her lord, whom I, some three months since,
Stabb’d in my angry mood at Tewksbury?
A sweeter and a lovelier gentleman,
Framed in the prodigality of nature,
Young, valiant, wise, and, no doubt, right royal,
The spacious world cannot again afford
And will she yet debase her eyes on me,
That cropp’d the golden prime of this sweet prince,
And made her widow to a woeful bed?

(Act I: scene ii)

And again, Shakespeare reiterates that an individual’s face, or physical expression, is a direct reflection of what that person is like inside, and the thoughts and feelings that the person has within.

I think there’s never a man in Christendom
That can less hide his love or hate than he;
For by his face straight shall you know his heart.

(Act III: scene iv)

In our modern society, we want to tell ourselves that we do not judge others by their appearances, when in actuality, we still do. Studies have shown that individuals are considered more trustworthy if they have a nicer appearance. And there is the whole issue of judging blacks and people who look Arabic strictly upon how they look. We are not going to change this part of our collective being overnight, but we need to acknowledge this tendency and work toward changing it.

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“The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats

StolenChildThis morning I read “The Stolen Child” by W. B. Yeats. I’d read the poem in college, but it had been a while since I had last read it. The poem is a little too long to post on the blog, but you can click here to read it online.

(Note: There is a discrepancy between the online versions I found and the version in my print book edited by M. L. Rosenthal. The last line in the online versions starts with “For” but in the print version it begins with “From.” This greatly changes the meaning of the last line, in my opinion, so just consider that when reading.)

The poem is basically an allegory of the loss of childhood fantasy and imagination which seems to be told from the perspective of the faery folk. The child believes in faeries and magic, but the “real” world of adulthood is poised to steal the child away from the realm of imagination and draw the child into the world of sorrow and weeping. In addition to the basic interpretation, I recall discussions in college about how this poem could also be symbolic of Irish culture being stolen by the English, or pagan traditions being usurped by Christianity.

Structurally, the poem works like a childhood song. There is a refrain at the end of each stanza which enhances the musical feel. I would not be surprised if someone put this to music. If I didn’t have to start work soon, I would search YouTube to see if anyone has done so.

There are a couple of passages that stood out for me on this reading which I’d like to look at closer.

We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;

What I found interesting about these lines is that they invoke an image of Celtic tradition, particularly with the weaving. I almost get a sense of artists designing Celtic knots. The words also conjure imagery of pagan dances. I can envision people dancing around a May Pole, weaving their ribbons as they dance in circles around the pole.

The other passage that I found interesting is:

We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;

The first thing that struck me is that trout do not have ears, so there is no way that anyone could whisper into a trout’s ear. There are a couple possible interpretations here. First, it could be the child’s imagination creating an image of a fish with ears, but also–and this is what I find the most thought-provoking–it could symbolically represent how faeries communicate with people in our realm. I suspect that Yeats viewed faeries as beings from another dimension, and that the threshold between these dimensions is easily crossed by children. As adults, greater effort is required to cross the span between realms. But the issue arises: how do beings from different planes of reality communicate? I think that Yeats was trying to express that faeries communicate in a non-verbal manner with people in our realm, that the words are projected directly into our psyches, similar to speaking into the non-existent ears of a fish.

The more I read Yeats’ works, the more I appreciate his genius. He can be challenging, but that is a good thing when reading poetry, since the thing about poetry which I love the most is that it seeks to express that which is difficult to express in a way other than through symbols. Cheers, and thanks for reading!

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“The Shipping News” by E. Annie Proulx

This book has been on my shelf for a long time. My wife read it years ago and said I would like it, so I added it to my list. As many of you know, once a book is “added to the list,” it can be quite a while before you actually crack the cover.

My wife was right. I did like this book… a lot. The first thing that struck me was Proulx’s style of writing, particularly the way she uses sentence fragments to create stream of consciousness. Having struggled through, yet enjoyed, stream of consciousness novels by James Joyce and Thomas Wolfe, it was a pleasure to get that experience without having to tackle long, intricate, winding sentences. And honestly, fragments more closely resemble the way my consciousness flows. My awareness is comprised of pieces of thought, snapshots of reality, grouped together like a collage. This is how Proulx structured much of the book, like a collage.

There are many fascinating intricacies in the story itself, but I’ll only touch briefly on the main one: the image of knots. This is the primary motif in the story and it works well on so many levels. Obviously, a story set in a northern fishing town would draw on the imagery of knots, crucial in the daily lives of fishermen. Yet the knot becomes a metaphor that ties the whole story together. Individuals are tied to their pasts, tethered by their obsessions, entwined together, and ultimately bound to their destinies. Our lives and experiences are woven together like a fabric, and this story portrays that perfectly. One last word about knots; I loved that Proulx added a little magical binding in there, where the insane cousin used knots to bind a spell against Quoyle. For me, that reinforced the image of the knot as a universal archetype and a mystical symbol.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The story is interesting and reads well. It was never a chore to read. Even so, there is a lot of interesting symbolism and thought-provoking content here to stimulate deep, thoughtful readers. So whether you are looking for an enjoyable story to read while relaxing or if you are interested in something contemplative, this book will work. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.

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