Rebecca McKenney Literature and Film Mr. Green 7 December 2017 A Brief Consideration of the Concept of the Battle of Good Versus Evil in William Shakespeare’s Three Great Tragedies INTRODUCTION The theme of good versus evil is one of the most common themes in world literature. Within this theme, an author can incorporate three common concepts within a story. The author creates characters who are the tempter (usually the antagonist) and the tempted (usually the protagonist.) The characters within the plays can also demonstrate virtuous and unvirtuous traits.
The author may also include symbolism to contrast the forces of good and evil; one such example being the contrast between dark and light. Even the popular playwright William Shakespeare incorporated these concepts into three great tragedies. The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice. These themes appear in the modern film adaptations of directors Gregory Doran (Hamlet 2009), Roman Polanski (Macbeth 1971), and Oliver Parker (Othello 1995.
) THE TEMPTERS AND THE TEMPTED There is no battle between good and evil unless there is someone or something tempting someone. According to Philip Babcock Gove, editor of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, temptation is the “act of tempting or the state of being tempted to do evil” (Gove). In Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet, Shakespeare provides three predominant pairs of tempters and tempted. In Othello, Iago serves as the tempter while Othello is the tempted. In Macbeth, the Witches are the tempters while Macbeth is the tempted. Finally, in Hamlet, the Ghost serves as the tempter while Hamlet is the tempted. Iago and Othello Iago doesn’t hide the fact that he hates Othello. For starters, Othello passed him up for a promotion in favor of Michael Cassio.
Iago has also heard rumors that Othello had had an affair with Emilia. Do Iago vows that, “nothing shall content my soul ’till I am even with him” (Othello 2.1.
320-1). In order to gain his revenge against Othello, Iago decides to convince Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. To set up his plan for revenge, Iago arranges for Roderigo to disgrace Cassio. He then advises a distraught Cassio to seek the Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated.
When Othello and Iago spy Cassio and Desdemona talking together at the beginning of Act 3 Scene 3, Cassio, still ashamed of his pervious actions, “steals away” off stage (Othello 3.3.42). It is here when Iago is administrating his temptations to Othello. At first, all Iago has to do is talk with Othello. R.M.
Christofides, author of “Iago and Equivocation”, comments that, “Iago pounces on the opportunity offered by the shamed Casio’s guilty disappearance to repeat, to cite, Othello’s own words with an alternative emphasis” (Christofides). Iago reluctant explanation of his questioning of Othello on Cassio and Desdemona’s relationship starts to arouse Othello’s suspicions. This is significant, according to Christofides, because, “Othello repeats Iago’s words twice, initially with a reciprocal surprise and then as a restatement that attempts to remove suspicions” (Christofides). It takes more than Iago’s silver tongue to convince Othello of Desdemona’s affair, for Othello tells Iago, “Make me see ‘t or at least prove” (Othello 3.3.417). So Iago arranges for “proof” to be produced by asking Emilia to bring him Desdemona’s handkerchief that Othello gave her.
Once he acquires the handkerchief, he immediately plants it in Cassio’s cabin. Iago continues to taunt Othello by describing the affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Eventually, Othello falls into a trance in Act 4 Scene 1, perhaps partly mad in anger. Conveniently, Cassio walks into the scene. Iago (more or less) shoves Othello into a dungeon to spy upon him and Cassio in Oliver Parker’s adaptation. As Iago and Cassio talk in the distance, Bianca arrives with the handkerchief. Seeing the handkerchief, Othello concludes that Iago has told him the truth about the affair between Cassio and Desdemona.
Iago has successfully trapped Othello into his scheme of revenge. The Witches and Macbeth When it comes to the temptations of Macbeth, the Witches play the predominant role of tempters. For they not only tempt him into murdering Duncan and also to kill Macduff. They initially entice Macbeth into a murderous life by hailing him, “Thane of Glamis…Thane of Cawdor…and King hereafter” (Macbeth 1.3.51-3).
Although murdering Duncan satisfied Macbeth’s lust for power for a time, Macbeth quickly turns to murder Banquo who had witnessed the Witches salutes. But Macbeth becomes insecure in his power when Banquo’s ghost appears in the banquet scene shortly after his murder. Disturbed by this, Macbeth returns to the Witches to inquire what he must do to keep his throne safe. The apparitions that the Witches summon before Macbeth: “Macbeth. Beware Macduff! … Macbeth. Be bloody, bold, and resolute.
Laugh to scorn for none of women born shall harm Macbeth” (Macbeth 4.1.82; 90-2). Macbeth regains his confidence with these reassurances, for in Roman Polanski’s adaptation Macbeth’s voice echoes: “Then live Macduff; what need I fear thee? But yet I’ll make assurance double sure and to take a bond of fate. Thou shalt not live, that I may tell pale-hearted fear that lies, and sleeps in spite of thunder” (Macbeth 4.1.93-7).
The death of Macduff is not enough for Macbeth. Macbeth decides to arrange for the murder of the entire family line, knowing that Macduff could do nothing about it since he fled to England. But in Macbeth’s murders, perhaps, as Marvin Rosenberg wrote in The Masks of Macbeth, Macbeth felt a “yearning for the…continuation of dynasty” (Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth). The Ghost and Hamlet The Ghost of Hamlet perhaps provides Hamlet the most legitimate temptation of the three tragic heroes, for the Ghost tempts him to, “revenge his foul and most unnatural death” (Hamlet 1.
5.31). Marvin Rosenberg, author of The Masks of Hamlet, writes that the objective of the Ghost in this scene is to “unburden his soul to his son, move him to revenge and purge Denmark of its stain…The Ghost’s purpose, as part of the scene’s design, is to accumulate his wrongs up to his final temptation for Hamlet…the command to revenge” (Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet). In the heat of the moment, Hamlet vows to avenge the Ghost much to the Ghost’s approval, for in Gregory Doran’s adaptation the Ghost smiles and tell Hamlet, “I find thee apt” (Hamlet 1.5.
38). But when Hamlet has a moment to think, he delays in taking action. He recognizes that the Ghost he has seen, “May be a devil and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.
Yea, and perhaps in my weakness and melancholy…abuses me to damn me” (Hamlet 2.2.627-32). As a result, inspired by the arrival of some players, Hamlet arranges for the a play to be performed in front of the court to discover both evidence about the Ghost’s honesty and for the guilt of Claudius. Even though that Hamlet calls “The Mousetrap” is a success in ‘proving’ the guilt of Claudius, Hamlet still delays (Hamlet 3.
2.261). The delay is logical because if you want to accuse the King of treason, you better have a solid case against him. Hamlet only has circumstantial evidence and his two best witnesses can’t completely back up his claims. Horatio and Marcellus may be able to vouch for him in that they too saw the Ghost, but can’t vouch for the conversation between Hamlet and the Ghost. Claudius’s reaction to Hamlet’s play will help set up the tragic conclusion of Hamlet. In Act 3 Scene 3, Hamlet does face an opportunity to takes his revenge against Claudius, for it is the only time in the play where Claudius is alone.
Hamlet is quick to draw his sword and raises his weapon to deliver the fatal blow. But he hesitated. Rosenberg notes that, in at least one performance of Hamlet, “Claudius is terrified to see the tip of Hamlet’s sword pendent over him…So that Claudius prayed harder than ever” (Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet). Again, Hamlet couldn’t bring himself to fulfill his vows to the Ghost, for he cannot hear Claudius’s thoughts any more than Claudius can hear his thoughts. So Hamlet wonders: “Am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for the passage? No…Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven and his soul be as damned and black as hell, whereto to goes” (Hamlet 3.3.89-100).
Therefore, Hamlet resists his temptation the longest compared to Macbeth and Othello, as he did not get his revenge until the end of his story. VIRTUOUS AND UNVIRTUOUS It doesn’t matter if you are a fictional character created for entertainment purposes or if you are a real person, everyone has the choice to be virtuous or unvirtuous. A virtuous person is someone who, “acts in a just way and in accordance to moral laws” (Gove). According to the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica, there are seven virtues which include; “prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice…faith, hope, and love” (Editors). The seven vices, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, include; “pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony…wrath and sloth” (Editors). Macbeth and Macduff Macbeth is a character filled with envy.
This quality is shown in actor Jon Finch’s facial expressions and actions in Roman Polanski’s adaptation. Macbeth’s murders of Duncan and Banquo were an attempt to secure the throne for himself and his descendants. Macbeth is also very prideful, unleashing his pride when he learns from the apparitions of the Witches that he will never be harmed by woman born and that he will, “never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” (Macbeth 4.1.106-7). Polanski has Macbeth’s voice echo as he replies, “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements good” (Macbeth 4.1.
94-5). But at the same time, Macbeth isn’t entirely cocky. “But I’ll make assurance double sure and tale the bond of fate. Thou Macduff shalt not live” (Macbeth 4.1.94-5). For Macbeth knows that the Witches have told some truth, so he should be weary of Macduff.
Macduff, on the other hand, shows qualities of humility and temperance. Ross even comments that Macduff is “noble, wise, judicious, and best knows the fits of th’ season” (Macbeth 4.2.19-20). But Macduff also has some vices of his own. He flees Scotland out of feat of Macbeth.
When he learns of the ambush on his castle of Fife and the fate of his family line, Macduff realizes his mistake. “Sinful Macduff, they were all struck for thee” (Macbeth 4.3.265)! Malcom recognizes Macduff’s need for revenge against Macbeth, and quickly suggests that Macduff take action. Though he has every right to unleash his wrath against Macbeth, Macduff still has a relevantly cool head. “I must feel revenge like a man” (Macbeth 4.3.261).
Rosenberg notes that, “Macduff…has made his last speech of this scene a prayer – kneeling with his sword out, to apostrophize the heavens” (Rosenberg, The Masks of Macbeth). At the same time, Macduff recognizes that there is a chance that Macbeth may escape his wrath. After all, Macbeth could manage to kill him first, Macbeth could manage to never face him in battle, or someone else may get to Macbeth first. Because of these thoughts, Macduff speaks, “If he ‘scape heaven forgive him too” (Macbeth 4.3.274-5).
Desdemona and Othello Though her world was fall apart with Iago creating false images of an affair between her and Cassio to Othello, Desdemona strangely remains kind, innocent, and willing to grant grace. When Cassio approaches her for help, she quickly agrees to help her old friend. While she discusses relationships with Emilia, she rejects all thoughts of infidelity. She had every reason to fight Othello when Othello carries out her murder, yet she resist only a little, She responses, “The Lord have mercy on me…and mercy on you too” to Othello’s “Thou diest” (Othello 5.
2.71-74; 50). When she is briefly revived and quested by Emilia as to who her murderer is, Desdemona only replies, “I myself” (Othello 5.
2.152). Othello is different visually from the other characters of his own play, in that he is a Moor (African) among Italians.
In a time frame where Africans were not seen as equals to those of Caucasian descent and when black could be seen as evil, Othello had to work harder than most to gain a positive reputation. As he recounts how he wooed Desdemona, he recalls, “These arms of mine had seven years’ pith…They have used their action in the tented field…more than pertains of feasts of broil and battle” (Othello 1.3.98-103). As if by reward, the Duke for nice remarks that Othello is “far more fair than black” (Othello 1.
3.331). It isn’t surprising that, after hearing that his wife is (allegedly) having an affair with one of his officers, that Othello becomes upset. He had long years of building up a relationship, only to have his lover have an affair with someone else. It could be argued that Othello tries, at first, to push his wrath aside and allow Desdemona time to confess her ‘deeds’, but with Iago taunting him with the details of the ‘affair’ and the ‘proof’ of his first gift being in the hands of Cassio, Othello couldn’t hold in his wrath any longer. With his ego wounded, he did strike back at Desdemona with all he had, if only because of a broken heart.
Hamlet and Claudius When it comes to Hamlet as a character, the line between virtue and vice is sometimes blurred. Hamlet is quick to declare his wrath against Claudius when he is with the Ghost, but to our amazement (and perhaps his own), he see the wisdom of delaying his wrath. For Hamlet never gains any concrete evidence against Claudius, and without evidence how could he justly accuse Claudius of treason? It could be argued that Hamlet’s delay is sloth, but he demonstrates patience as he searches for ways to prove his uncle’s guilt. Hamlet can be cruel to the citizens of Elsinore, but he is also humble.
He confesses to Ophelia, “I am very proud, ambitious, with more offenses on my back than I have thoughts” (Hamlet 3.1.134-6). As for Claudius, however, perhaps the only ounce of good within him is his love for Gertrude. When Laertes asks Claudius why he hasn’t brought legal action against Hamlet for murdering his father, Claudius replies that, “The Queen his mother…is so conjunctive to my life and soul that, as the star moves not by his sphere, I could not by her” (Hamlet 4.7.12-8). Claudius, like Hamlet, makes a confessional statement.
In Claudius’s case though, it only reaffirms his vices. “‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That cannot be, since I am still possessed of these effects for which I did murder: My crown, my ambition, and my queen.” (Hamlet 3.3.56-9). Although there are subtle hints that Claudius is a drinker, it isn’t important to his character. However, his manipulation of other characters is his highlighted vice. Hamlet hints that Claudius manipulated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to discover Hamlet’s madness in return for an award that will never be granted.
Claudius uses Laertes anger against Hamlet to help manipulate Laertes into murdering Hamlet. Plus, it could be argued that Claudius manipulated Hamlet into participating in the final duel. “Osric: The King, sir, hath laid, sir, that in a dozen passes between yourself and Laertes, he shall not exceed you three hits… Hamlet: And if I answer no? Osric: I mean, my lord, the opposition of your trail” (Hamlet 5.5.178-185). Shakespeare’s characters come from different backgrounds, but they can all teach us a lesson or two in virtues and vices.
DARKNESS AND LIGHT Dark and Light in Macbeth When the Macbeths lose their innocence, Banquo comments that, “There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out” (Macbeth 2.1.6-7). This statement helps our understanding of just how dark Macbeth is.
For it is night when horse lose their sanity, when Macbeth unleashes his wrath, and madness falls on Lady Macbeth. In Polanski’s adaptation, when the Macbeths are contemplating doing dastardly deeds and after the deeds are done, Polanski decides to have the scenes shot at night (or dusk), on dark sets, or in storms. For instance, when Macbeth orders the stars to “Hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires”, we see that it is night (Macbeth 1.4.57-8).
Again, when Lady Macbeth calls out, “Come thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell…nor let heaven peep through the blanket of light” we see that it is dusk (Macbeth 15.56-60). The set of the Macbeths’ private quarters has a darker tone to it, which is highlighted when Macbeth dreams that Banquo and Fleance will murder him in his sleep. The night that Macbeth murders Duncan, a storm is raging. Light will not return to Dunsinane until the English besiege it.
Dark and Light in Othello Oliver Parker followed in Polanski’s footsteps in that his production of Othello also empathized the dark. In the opening scene, for instance, Othello and Desdemona travel to their wedding under cover of night. Whenever Iago speaks to the audience, it is nighttime or he is in an ill-lit room. The downfalls of Cassio and Othello take place at night; as well as the murders of Roderigo, Desdemona, and Emilia.
Parker takes this theme one step further by having Iago show the audience a white queen, a white knight, and a black king as chess pieces. The white queen is Desdemona because she is innocent and is the general’s wife. Othello is the black king because he is a Moor, the general, and he will soon be tainted by Iago’s advice. Iago is the white knight because he appears to be honest, though he is the antagonist. Dark and Light in Hamlet It seems to be a recurring theme for Shakespeare to open up his tragedies at night, for Hamlet continues the pattern of Macbeth and Othello. Compared to Parker and Polanski, director Gregory Doran decided to place the cast of characters in a darkened set, though there is enough lighting to see what is happening in a scene. The choice to emphasize this contrast may be to elaborate on Hamlet’s view of Denmark as a prison (Hamlet 2.
2.262). For example. When Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the characters are seen in a dark room while the light from the widows hints that the sun is going down. Again, when Claudius and Laertes make planes to kill off Hamlet, they are in a darkened room with very little lighting.
Finally, take the scene when Osric comes to tell Hamlet and Horatio of the wager between Claudius and Laertes. Though the windows provide enough light for the audience to see the characters, the room is almost completely dark. Compared to Polanski’s Macbeth and Parker’s Othello, Doran’s Hamlet is a lighter adaptation as far as the lighting design goes. Even in the night scenes, the blue tint of the moonlight creates a nice contrast between light and dark. For example, when Hamlet first interacts with the Ghost in Act 1 Scene 5, we can clearly see that it is nighttime. But as the Ghost ‘pushes’ Hamlet against the wall, Hamlet is covered in a blue tint while there is little backlighting for the Ghost. The light tint on Hamlet could be to demonstrate his innocence and that he is in a dark place which could show his state of mind. It also emphasizes that neither Hamlet nor the audience knows whether the Ghost is a “spirt of health or goblin damned” (Hamlet 1.
5.44). The use of light and darkness in modern film adaptations of Shakespeare’s tragedies, provides a visual understanding of the battle between good and evil.
CONCLUSION Within Shakespeare’s three great tragedies, there is a battle between good and evil. We meet characters who tempt other characters. We meet characters who are virtuous and unvirtuous. Finally we meet characters who are placed within the visual symbolism of light and darkness. While Shakespeare provides the words for his characters to speak, it is up to the actors and directors to manipulate the actions of their respective characters and how a scene is viewed. These manipulations helps the audience understand Shakespeare’s works. Sources Christofides, R.M.
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