What is the significance of two of the following to Shakespearean Drama: Death, Sin, and Sex? Refer to three plays.
In this essay, I will consider Death and Sin in Shakespearean drama and I would like to look at three of Shakespeare’s tragic plays: “Hamlet”, “Othello” and “King Lear”.
Shakespeare uses many themes in all his play that attract audiences throughout history. The things he wrote about are as relevant now as they were in his time. Death and Sin were issues that are always around. In his plays, Shakespeare could comment on these things and make audiences see things that they could not before.
In Hamlet, we can see clear examples of Death and Sin as significant to Shakespearean drama.
The first thing that points to both death and sin is the inclusion of a ghost in the play. The presence of a ghost became a conventional element to revenge tragedy, wherein the ghost would reveal why it was in purgatory and therefore haunting whomever it was haunting. The haunting was usually of someone in the same family who would then feel forced into revenging the ghosts death, such as Hamlet was haunted by his father and subsequently killed Claudius, the murderer.
Death in the form of a ghost was popular to revenge tragedy and was easily recognised by an audience. Shakespeare was aware of what his audience were looking for in a play and what would hold their interest and the supernatural seemed to hold great importance and interest in Elizabethan times. A recognised signal of something unnatural, the introduction of the ghost so early on in the play signifies straight away that something bad has happened and that a sin has been committed.
Hamlet himself describes in Act Once scene one that
Referring to the ghost of his father as being “in Arms”, his own first sighting of the Ghost sums up his moral dilemma in the play:
“Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,”
He casts doubt on the true intentions of the ghost, giving the audience the thought that perhaps the ghost is of ambiguous nature rather than just trapped in purgatory and seeking revenge. Hamlet fears this as he is by nature, a good tempered, philosophical character who, I believe, would be incapable of committing sin but knowing that the ghost is of his father, who Hamlet held up to be a God, if his father asked him to commit as sin, he would have no choice but to do so. This is ultimately his downfall.
The ghost terrifies Hamlet with the thought of eternally haunting him if Hamlet does not obey the ghosts orders. The ghost then goes on to describe his murder in detail but we are never sure if the description is true or not. One of the lines that suggests the nature of the ghost is not just of revenge is line 3:
“When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
The description is reminiscent of a description of hell, where it is suggested the ghost must “live”.
When the word “murder” is directly used, we are alerted to a sin having been committed. The description that follows is of how Claudius killed his brother by pouring poison into his ear. Whether this is metaphorical or actual is never disclosed. Claudius later admits to killing King Hamlet but does not say HOW he killed him.
The Ghost also brings to our attention that Claudius is an “incestuous, adulterate beast,” (I.V.42) and that he seduced “my most seeming-virtuous queen.” (I.V.45) In basic terms, King Hamlet was killed by his brother, Claudius, to seduce the queen, then marry her and then take the throne. Incest, Murder and deceit; all sinful things.
However, Hamlet is told not to take revenge on his mother, just his uncle. The Ghost is playing God with other peoples lives, which Hamlet questions. Why should Claudius face torture in this world and his mother face it in heaven? The ghost is strange and potentially sinful itself.
Claudius and Gertrude have committed a sin in incest but Gertrude is unaware of the murder that has taken place. Claudius is the cause of a death and therefore also the committer of a sin, and having committed incest, he is guilty of two sins. The cause of the revelations on Claudius’ character as revealed by the ghost make him a hated character in the play by the audience. There is normally a character that the audience know everything about, giving cause for them to hate him, and Claudius is “Hamlets” hated Character.
Religion in the 16th Century was still a prominent issue. Religion had changed from Catholicism to Christianity, depending on which monarch was on the throne at the time. People were expected to change religion depending on what their monarch said or face being an outcast. In Elizabeth’s reign, the religion changed from Catholicism to Protestantism. Being unsure of religions myself, the definition in the Collins pocket dictionary is as follows:
“Protestant: n 1 follower of any of the Christian churches that split from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Adj 2 of or relating to such a church. Protestantism n”
In the Ten Commandments, written for the Christian faith, there are some elements that must be followed that are also relevant to Shakespeare’s writing:
“Honour thy father and thy mother. Then you will live a long time inthe land.”
“You must not murder anyone.”
“You must not be guilty of adultery.”
“You must not want to take your neighbours house. You must not want his wife or his men or women slaves.”
Although nothing is directly written about incest in the Ten Commandments, the rules above are relevant to “Hamlet”. Incest is a Natural Law: one in which every man of any English religion should abide by. It is a crime in some parts of the world that is punishable by death or imprisonment. And to commit any of the Ten Commandments or to break the natural Law is to commit a sin in religious circles. This wide held belief would be in the minds of the audience watching “Hamlet” and they would be judging the characters that committed these “Crimes”.
In “Othello”, we see more examples of death and sin to demonstrate their significance in Shakespearean Drama. Iago is the key character to the whole of the play as far as instigating death and sin. His deceptive ways towards everyone in his life are beyond imagination. He lies to his “friends”, his political leader (Othello), his wife – everyone who comes in contact with him becomes a part of his plots and scheming. We cannot believe anything Iago says to another character but we are given an insight into what is really going on in his mind through his soliloquies. This is the only time that Iago speaks the truth.
The most sinful thing about Iago is the fact that he is so plausible in his explanations to each character, that he is believed, without question and that he is thought to be a “honest, honest Iago” (V.II.). We learn very early in the play, however, that Iago is jealous and bitter. He is jealous that Michael Cassio has been made Lieutenant to Othello and he feels that it should have been him, as he is more qualified and has served Othello for a long time. This may be his motive but is not justified enough for anyone to feel empathy with him.
The audience’s reaction to Iago is one of disbelief and hatred, again demonstrating the power of the sinful villain. The audience sees everything that goes on and goes through Iagos mind and certainly when I watched Othello, I was willing the other characters to stay away from such a deceitful man! This proves that to have a deceitful character in a play means the audience will watch and react. It is important for the audience to react to the characters as it means they are believable and that the playwrights skills are good, such as Shakespeare’s.
In “King Lear”, the plot is slightly more complicated but demonstrates not only death and sin but also the rule of “cause and effect” in the sense that if you sin, you die. This can actually be seen in all the plays I have looked at. In “Hamlet”, Hamlet kills Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia (although not directly) and Laertes and is then killed himself. He has had revenge for his father but has sinned and dies as a result. In “Othello”, Othello kills Desdemona, thinking she was unfaithful to him with Cassio, Iago kills his wife for revealing the truth, and Othello kills himself on realising what he has done. Iago does remain alive but for how long is an unanswered question. He is injured but not killed and it could therefore be said he is forced to see what his devilishness has caused and how many lives it has ruined. This in itself would be torture and a painful way to die, with the knowledge of what he had done.
“King Lear” shows us a complicated line of events leading up to the death of the majority of the main characters. To put it in terms of sin and death, Lear sins against Cordelia who refuses to play Lears game in Act One Scene One. She says
According to my bond, no more nor less.”
He then banishes her, the truest daughter, from his kingdom and gives her nothing.
Goneril, having been given half Lears land, turns on him, annoyed by his behaviour in her house and Lear then curses her. He goes to Regan, who turns against him and sides with her sister, and he calls her “unnatural”. Goneril and Regan have sinned against their father by not honouring him but Lear has sinned against them by choosing who loves him the most and then cursing them. In the sub-plot, Edmund has convinced his father that Edgar is evil (A lie, so therefore a sin) and Edgar has taken on the role of a beggar after being banished by his father.
As a result of all the sin, Lear goes mad. Cordelia returns and proves to be the honest creature Lear banished her for and she protects him from her sisters. Ultimately, Cornwall is killed after plucking out Gloucester’s eyes, Cordelia is hung on the command of her sisters and Lear dies from a broken heart on realising that she is the most loving daughter he has. Regan poisons Goneril, Edgar kills Edmund and Regan kills herself on hearing of Edmunds death. Cordelia is the only one to have not been sinful, but truthful in her actions but all the other characters that die have committed a sin and been punished for it.
In “King Lear”, the dramatic chain of events resulting in so many sinners’ deaths shows that cause and effect really does exist and that the two work together. Shakespeare was clever in the way he wove both elements into his plays. One didn’t seem to be able to exist without the other.
I am not sure what audiences expected in Elizabethan times, but I am sure that entertainment was a vital element of expectation. Shakespeare wrote plays that reflected real life situations, such as that of Iagos jealousy, and showed what he believed would happen as his course of action continued. The anticipation of a play depends on its genre: tragedy, historical, comedy and so on. I believe death and sin are expectations for a tragic play, such as the ones I have looked at in this essay and I think that without them, the audience would be disappointed in the play.