Tuesday, 28 October 2014

An Analysis of the Character of Hamlet in Acts I and II

a) Write a character assessment of Hamlet based on what other people in the play say about him.

Hamlet is one of the most interesting, complex and enigmatic of Shakespeare’s many tragic heroes, and it therefore comes as no surprise that he has fascinated audiences and readers for centuries. Hamlet’s character has long been a question of uncertainty, and many critics are divided as to whether they believe him to be admirable or unpleasant. The characters of the play themselves are also divided; the people of Denmark all seem to present Hamlet in very contrasting lights.

Hamlet is first introduced by his uncle Claudius in what seems to be a very calculated and deceptive speech, presenting Hamlet as rather ignorant and childish. Claudius refers to Hamlet as “my son,” and asks him: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Gertrude also questions Hamlet as to why he is still grieving; she advises him not to, since “all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” She even questions why his father’s death seems “so particular” to him. The attitude of Claudius and Gertrude towards Hamlet is largely one of condescension, and indeed both seem to treat him like a child. Claudius tells him: “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature Hamlet, / To give these mourning duties to your father…” This could be one of Claudius’ attempts to seem loving and supportive of Hamlet, but it almost appears contrived. The “But you must know…” of line 89 marks the beginning of Claudius’ quasi-paternal lecture in which he condescends (he refers to Hamlet’s “unmanly grief,” employing the macho stereotype as a method of persuasion) Hamlet in such a way that even the audience is, while horrified at his message, almost convinced that Hamlet is in the wrong. The phrase also introduces the theme of appearance and truth that occurs throughout the play. Hamlet is presented by Claudius as ignorant (“obsequious sorrow”), stubborn, and even impious (Claudius says that Hamlet’s grief shows “impious stubbornness” and “a will most incorrect to heaven”). Claudius’ attitude towards Hamlet is epitomised in his claim that Hamlet’s grieving is caused by “An understanding simple and unschooled.” Thus Claudius is clearly eager to treat Hamlet as a child, perhaps to present himself as a paternal figure, or perhaps as a method of control. Either way, the image of Hamlet he puts forth is indubitably one of immaturity.

On the contrary, we get a positive perspective of Hamlet from his friends Marcellus and Horatio, two of the first characters introduced in the play, and two of the most amiable. The relationship between Hamlet and Horatio is particularly kind and loving, and their greetings of each other suggest the intimacy of this relationship:

                Hamlet:                                             I am glad to see you well.
                Horatio – or I do forget myself.
                Horatio: The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.
                Hamlet: Sir, my good friend, I’ll change that name with you.

Hamlet’s saying “or I do forget myself” suggests that he knows Horatio almost as well as he knows himself, indicating their intimacy. Horatio’s extravagantly humble greeting could imply that, rather than simply revering Hamlet out of obligation, he really does respect him. Moreover, the fact that Horatio and Marcellus dare to tell Hamlet of what they have seen, and the fact that Hamlet later discloses his plans to them suggests their firm trust in one another. It is also worth noting that Horatio is revered amongst his colleagues for his scholarly status and intelligence, presenting him as a rather noble figure. He tries to speak to the ghost and tries to help him, exclaiming:

                “If there be any good thing to be done
                That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
                Speak to me.”

Indeed, Horatio’s repetition of the phrase “Speak to me” suggests a real and noble anxiety not only to help the ghost, but also to protect Denmark from any danger. Thus, the audience is able to warm to Horatio, and are therefore more likely to agree with his opinions of Hamlet. And so, through the perspectives of Marcellus and Horatio (whom we identify with particularly because we, like him, rely on empirical evidence of the ghost’s existence) we get a friendly, caring and amiable image of Hamlet, demonstrated through their friendly words and actions towards him, and through his response to them. This can be contrasted to the friendship between Hamlet and his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who feign friendship with Hamlet in order to trick him. In comparison, their greetings of Hamlet (“My honoured lord!” and “My most dear lord!”) are less extravagantly humble, and thus one could argue that they suggest a lack of sincerity. Again, this is a variation on the idea of appearance and reality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to manipulate Hamlet through their trickery, feigned friendship, and false praise (they claim that Hamlet’s ambition makes Denmark feel like a prison) and thus present him as ignorant, just as Claudius does.

Polonius and his son Laertes also view Hamlet in a negative light. They too, like Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, present Hamlet as ignorant, immature and childish. Laertes’ warnings to his sister Ophelia about Hamlet’s advances are littered with words that accentuate triviality and immaturity. For example, Laertes refers to “Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,” and goes on to describe it as “A violet in the youth of primy nature, / Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting.” Laertes is rather sternly warning Ophelia not to trust Hamlet’s advances since they are, for Laertes, simply the product of his youth. In fact, Laertes, despite being young himself, seems to distrust young people entirely, and indeed he says to Ophelia: “Be wary then, best safety lies in fear: / Youth to iself rebels, though none else near.” The fact that these are the only two lines of his speech that rhyme suggests that they are of some significance, and therefore reinforces Laertes’s view of Hamlet as immature and untrustworthy. Hamlet was performed in a time of political uncertainty and transition, and thus the idea of an immature and untrustworthy prince coming to power would have been particularly perturbing for the contemporary audience. Polonius’s warnings reinforce Laertes’s message, but in an even more cruel and unloving manner. He describes Hamlet’s advances as “springes to catch woodcocks” and he tells her: “These blazes daughter, / Giving more light than heat, extinct in both / Even in their promise as it is a-making, / You must not take for fire.” Polonius is cautioning Ophelia that Hamlet’s advances may simply be appearances and that they ought not be trusted. However, Polonius’s message is really rather convoluted, and his image of fire serves to make his meaning less concise. He says that Hamlet’s “blazes” should not be taken for fire, a contradiction in terms. Polonius goes on to tell Ophelia:

                                                                    “For Lord Hamlet,
                Believe so much in him, that he is young
                And with a larger tedder may he walk
                Than may be given you.”

Not only does this emphasise Polonius’s severity as a father, as it implies that he keeps Ophelia on a leash, it also emphasises Hamlet’s youth and possible insincerity. Polonius’s advice here seems to precisely contradict what Laertes told Ophelia: “his choice be circumscribed”. In this way, Hamlet is again presented as ignorant in his youth, although we are unsure as to whether these characters should be listened to and trusted.

Another contrasting perspective of Hamlet and his character comes from the ghost of King Hamlet himself. The ghost refuses to talk to Marcellus, Barnardo or Horatio despite their pleas, and it is only to Hamlet that he discloses his secret. The ghost clearly views Hamlet as easily persuaded, since when Hamlet says: “Speak, I am bound to hear,” the ghost replies: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” Whether this implies that Hamlet is noble for wanting revenge or ignoble for encouraging violence is unsure, but the ghost obviously trusts Hamlet to fulfil his desires. However, the ghost, like Claudius, also seems to be manipulating Hamlet by evoking his pity and so spurring him to action. For example, the ghost describes himself as “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for a day confined to fast in fires.” This attempted inspiration of pity, emphasised by the alliteration, could suggest that the ghost sees Hamlet as easily manipulated and coerced into acting, and therefore ignorant. However, since Hamlet already suspects most of what the ghost tells him, it is unlikely that he would need any manipulation, and thus it is simply a method of encouraging Hamlet to act rather than a method of manipulation. The ghost also views Hamlet as decisive and headstrong:

                                                  “I find thee apt,
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.”

This quotation, as well as recalling Marcellus’s words “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and thus insinuating the importance of Hamlet’s revenge, again implies the ghost’s trust in Hamlet to be decisive, despite the fact that indecisiveness proves to be one of his more prominent characteristics. Finally, although the ghost’s guidance of Hamlet could be seen as suggesting the young prince’s immaturity and ignorance, it more readily suggests a paternal affection and concern. And so, the insights into Hamlet’s character provided by the ghost are somewhat ambivalent: although the ghost’s confidence suggests that Hamlet is a trustworthy person whom his father dearly loved, we are unsure as to whether the ghost’s attitude towards Hamlet is condescending or loving.

Finally, Ophelia’s agitated conversation with her father gives us another angle from which to view the tragic hero. Ophelia believes that he is truly in love with her, and indeed he seems to fulfil the stereotype of the crazed and frenzied lover. For instance, she tells Polonius how “He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk…” She goes on to say that “He seemed to find his way without his eyes…” and all of these phrases suggest madness and frenzy. Moreover, Polonius says that Ophelia’s ignoring of his letters “hath made him mad” and admits that he was wrong. However, because the audience know that this is only Hamlet’s “antic disposition,” Ophelia and Polonius succeed in presenting Hamlet as a skilled and resolute deceiver, rather than a frenzied lover. Whether this is an admirable trait is ambivalent.

It is clear, therefore, that opinions of Hamlet differ dramatically from character to character, and that the prejudices of certain characters result in their manipulation of Hamlet’s personality. For instance, Claudius’s attempts to seem concerned for Hamlet result in a rather condescending tone, and Laertes and Polonius depict Hamlet as young and immature so as to persuade Ophelia to remain pure. Thus, Hamlet cannot be seen in such a negative light as these villainous characters desire. Indeed, the fact that Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes present him in such a negative light actually implies his nobility, since the audience is unlikely to agree with anything they say, and will in fact believe the opposite. However, even the characters who present him in a positive light are reserved about doing so: the ghost, for example, is forced to guide him not to harm his mother (“nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught”) for fear that he might do so, and Horatio himself seems bewildered and confused by Hamlet’s erratic behaviour, saying: “but this is wondrous strange.” In this way, the audience are affronted with a number of different insights into Hamlet’s character, and it is up to them to decide which ring the most true.

b) Consider how and in what ways your view of Hamlet differs from the views of the play’s characters

Our own view of Hamlet is qualified much more by what he does and says himself than what others say about him. However, this does not mean that the characters’ perspectives are wrong; in fact, their opinions are almost identical to those of the audience, although they are slightly polarised. The audience are able to discern both good and bad in Hamlet’s character, whereas Hamlet’s friends largely see the good and his enemies only see the bad. Hamlet is neither definitively good nor definitively bad; he is simply a product of Shakespeare’s skilled use of realism in the creation of personalities. This ambivalence of character makes the play all the more gripping.

We first meet Hamlet in deep mourning for the death of his father, and we immediately sympathise with him. To mourn, in many cultures, is considered just and noble, and thus we are made particularly uncomfortable when Claudius describes Hamlet’s mourning as “impious stubbornness” and “obsequious sorrow”. Moreover, mourning is not often considered a particularly immature activity since children often lack the ability to comprehend death, and thus Claudius seems almost to contradict himself when he says that “’tis unmanly grief”. The audience pity Hamlet even more on account of his mother’s remarriage. Distraught, he exclaims: “Oh most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” and the sibilance of this line serves to add a tone of contempt to Hamlet’s words. Claudius attempts to justify the swiftness of their marriage, saying: “With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, / In equal scale weighing delight and dole…” However, because the speech seems so utterly insincere and calculated, these attempts are unsuccessful. Claudius’s balancing of phrases (like “with one auspicious eye and one dropping eye”) and his references to “our brother” seem so well executed, and indeed his speech is so rhetorically impressive that it must have been contrived, and thus it seems insincere. Claudius’s affront to our sensibilities leads us to dislike him, and therefore his opinion of Hamlet is largely ignored. However, Hamlet’s suicidal and rather extreme exclamations in his first soliloquy (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” and “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!”) do, in many ways, support Claudius’s claim that Hamlet is too deep in mourning. In fact, for one to even suggest that they would like to kill themselves was seen as blasphemous and sinful in Elizabethan times, and so the audience may very well have lost respect for Hamlet here. Nonetheless, although there is some truth in Claudius’s words, we admire Hamlet for his sensibilities, and therefore our opinion of Hamlet is a positive one, whereas that of Claudius is negative.

Hamlet can also be seen as noble in his desire to exact revenge for his father. Hamlet is suspicious about Claudius from the outset, and indeed he says that his father is to his uncle a “Hyperion to a satyr” and he describes his uncle as “a beast”. Thus, when the murder of King Hamlet is revealed (“The serpent that did sting thy father’s life / Now wears his crown,”) we respect young Hamlet all the more for his quick discernment of character. This affirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions is emphasised by the parallels between Hamlet’s first soliloquy and the ghost’s speech in 1.5. Just as Hamlet compares the two brothers, the ghost compares himself, “whose love was of that dignity / That it went hand in hand even with the vow / I made to her in marriage,” to Claudius, “a wretch whose natural gifts were poor / To those of mine.” Thus our respect for Hamlet is increased now that we know his suspicions were accurate. Moreover, Hamlet’s reaction to the ghost can also be praised: he immediately declares his intentions to exact revenge and swears to remember the ghost. Indeed, we admire him for his determination and his claim that he will “wipe away all trivial fond records” so as to remember the ghost. This quotation is almost ironic since, soon after this, Hamlet assumes his “antic disposition,” and it is as if he really has cleared his mind of everything. Hamlet is also commendable in his ingenious plan of the play, and his idea to “set down and insert” a speech in it in the hope of a reaction from Claudius. We admire Hamlet for his desire to help Denmark and its people; he prays: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.” Furthermore, the fact that the King’s body is explicitly compared to the city of Denmark (“swift as quicksilver it [the poison] courses through / The natural gates and alleys of the body”) implies that Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father is, at the same time, a desire to avenge and protect his city. Therefore, he can be viewed as particularly admirable in his resolution of revenge, and thus the audience may agree with Horatio and the ghost, seeing Hamlet from a positive perspective.

In contrast, many might argue that Hamlet’s desire for revenge is not noble at all. Since Hamlet’s desire for revenge results in a violent and bloodthirsty climax, Hamlet himself could be seen as the villain. Moreover, the fact that immediately after his father has told him not to harm his mother he exclaims: “O most pernicious woman! / O villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain!” suggests not only his frenzied desire for violence, but also his inability to discern the real enemy. The audience, along with Laertes and Polonius, could consequently see Hamlet as young, immature and ignorant. Hamlet’s feigned madness can possibly be seen as another example of this immaturity. Indeed, at times he seems particularly childish and flippant, particularly when he mocks others; he says to Marcellus: “Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come bird, come.” He even goes so far as to suggest that, after he has conversed with the ghost, they should “shake hands and part” and go about their own businesses. This is, of course, a rather outrageous suggestion, and the audience dislikes Hamlet for his facetiousness, possibly caused by immaturity. Indeed, the audience once again identifies with Horatio, who says: “These are wild and whirling words, my lord,” and indeed the assonance (the repeated ‘ur’) suggests a certain whirling, repetitive motion. And although the exchange between Polonius and Hamlet in which Hamlet says “y’are a fishmonger” is rather funny (and, one could argue, an example of his wit) since fishmongers were considered to be particularly unglamorous, again it perhaps demonstrates Hamlet’s immaturity, and thus supports Laertes and Polonius’s perspectives. Finally, Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia and his feigned madness towards her is particularly immature and cruel. Indeed, it results in the poor Ophelia being “so affrighted,” and indeed she seems to blame herself for Hamlet’s mad advances: “I did repel his letters, and denied / His access to me.” She has done exactly what her father told her to do, and yet it has been unsuccessful. Pathos for Ophelia is inspired even more because of Polonius callous treatment of her and uncaring approach; he says, with a cruel brevity: “That hath made him mad.” Hamlet is to blame for Ophelia’s terror and plight, and thus the audience cannot help but concur with Laertes and Polonius in the view that he is somewhat ignorant and immature. However, we are unlikely to completely agree with them, not least because this is part of Hamlet’s plan, but also because we dislike Polonius and Laertes for their cruelty to Ophelia, and so we are loathe to agree with them.

Hamlet’s character is certainly ambiguous. Although he is not as ignoble as the play’s villains sem to think he is, he is certainly not perfect, and indeed many of the criticisms of Hamlet seem to ring true with his character. Nonetheless, the overarching characteristics of Hamlet in the first two acts seem to be his desire to be benevolent and exact justice, but his inability to go about this effectively. His youth and subsequent inexperience seems to be one of the factors that most impede him. He seems to think that the end justifies the means, when this is not necessarily true. Thus, Hamlet can be seen as an archetypal Aristotelian tragic hero, “a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgement.”

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ode to Poetry

Poetry should sit on
out-of-date bank notes
and old receipts.

It should jump
and not forget
the texture of the dust upon
the ground.

It should admire the stars
and the trees
and the meadows
from the backseat of a
jet black Renault.

It should change wears
but keep in mind
the wears of
That yellow-spotted shirt.
Those socks.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Dramatic Effectiveness of 'Hamlet' Act 1, Scene 1

The first scene of Hamlet introduces a number of the play’s central themes, including death, revenge, war, and uncertainty. Because the play begins in medias res, the scene is used to familiarise the audience with the conditions, relationships, and sensibilities of the world in which the play is set, while also fashioning the play’s overall atmosphere and tension. Shakespeare does this very effectively through the presentation of the characters’ uncertainty and fear, the description of the supernatural ghost, and the prophetic implications that this appearance may have.

The play begins with the question, “Who’s there?” which immediately suggests that it will be a play riddled with uncertainty and anxiety. The confrontation that then ensues between Barnardo and Francisco, neither knowing whether to trust the other (Francisco: “Nay answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.” / Barnardo: “Long live the king!”) accentuates this uneasy atmosphere. The exclamation “Long live the king!” is clearly used as a password, and it shows that the two guards are suspicious of each other and are reluctant to give themselves away. We soon learn that it is midnight, thus explaining the characters’ inability to recognise one another, that it is “bitter cold,” and that the two men are both sentinels on guard. The fact that there has been “Not a mouse stirring” is somewhat ominous, suggesting that tonight is an unusually quiet night. Immediately the audience begin to question why there are guards at midnight and why they might feel so threatened. Moreover, the use of short, half-length lines clearly demonstrates their fear: 
FRANCISCO:                                      … Stand ho! Who is there?
HORATIO: Friends to this ground.
MARCELLUS:                        And liegemen to the Dane.
FRANCISCO: Give you good night.
MARCELLUS:                                        Oh farewell honest soldier…

The repeated exclamations and questions create a sense of urgency and angst. Francisco tells Barnardo that he is “sick at heart”, and indeed Horatio makes the slightly sardonic jest that only “a piece of him” is there, both implying that something is not quite right. This mood of uncertainty is made all the more real by the ominous references to “this thing” appearing and “this dreaded sight”. The introduction of the supernatural so early on in the play draws the audience in, and indeed their ignorance of what this apparition might be increases the tension. Barnardo and Marcellus both explain that they have seen “this apparition come” twice, thus making their story more believable. However, the audience is more inclined to believe Horatio, who is sceptical, at least until the ghost actually appears. In this way, the audience too are put in the dark and made ignorant, just like the guards. The opening of the scene effectively introduces the conditions of the play (we very quickly learn that we are in an unstable monarchy and that there has been a supernatural occurrence) and absorbs the audience into the plot.

The appearance of the ghost increases this tension. It is almost as if the mere retelling of the ghost’s appearance (“Marcellus and myself, / The bell then beating one -”) brings it back. Marcellus exclaims: “Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again,” anxiously interrupting Barnardo’s already rather fearful tale. The fact that Barnardo says that the ghost looks “like the king that’s dead” suggests that he still sees Hamlet Senior as the rightful king. Moreover, the audience can now infer the possible reason for the guards’ anxiety: the king has recently been replaced, and thus there is uncertainty about the future of the state. Horatio exhibits reverence to the old king in his phrase: “with that fair and warlike form / In which the majesty of buried Denmark / Did sometimes march…” Hamlet was written between 1599 and 1602, just after Queen Elizabeth came into power. Thus, the play can be seen as a response to the uncertainty felt during the transfer of power and the immense change experienced by the state. Their respect for the old King Hamlet is made clear through Horatio’s saying: “our valiant Hamlet - / For so this side of our wolrd esteemed him.” Indeed, this reference to another world is very ominous. Horatio, upon seeing the ghost, is harrowed “with fear and wonder”. Again, the audience relates to him, since they too have never seen the ghost. The fact that even the “scholar”, who was originally pessimistic, is struck to the core by fear insinuates how haunting the experience is. He admits:
“Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.”

This reinforces the fact that the ghost is not a simple fantasy, but is a real apparition. Barnardo and Marcellus’s anxiety is again evident from their short and broken lines: ‘“It would be spoke to.” / “Question it Horatio.”’ Horatio too is scared, but he is also keen to discover the ghost’s reasons for appearing to them: “Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!” Later on he repeats “Speak to me,” a number of times, and it is as if his voice is echoing through the darkness. The ghost is referred to by Horatio as an “illusion” and “it”. The ghost’s lack of a sex makes it seem even more otherworldly and fearful. The characters’ terrified reactions to the ghost are unsurprising, and the tension created by the uncertainty of the scene seizes the audience’s attention.

The guards, horrified by the ghost, suggest that this apparition may be some sort of omen. Indeed, the fact that the ghost is wearing armour (“With martial stalk” and “this portentous figure / Comes arméd through our watch,”) could be prophesising the imminence of war and danger in Denmark. Horatio says, with a certain fear and unease (“In what particular thought to work I know not,”) that the appearance of the ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The guards believe that the ghost appears to tell them something, or to settle some matter unsolved in his lifetime. The repeated ‘s’ sound in Horatio’s words serve to make his prophesy more fearful to the audience. Marcellus then describes Denmark’s preparations for war, the “daily cast of brazen cannon” and the “foreign mart for implements of war”. He questions why Denmark is overcome with haste and why the night has been made “joint-labourer with the day”. Horatio explains the history of wars in Denmark, while also introducing the theme of revenge: young Fortinbras wishes to regain “those foresaid lands / So by his father lost”. Moreover, Horatio makes reference to the murder of Julius Caesar, possibly implying that the death of King Hamlet was not as natural as is supposed. He then compares the ghost to the “prologue” or prophesy of the “omen coming on”. His anxiety about his country’s future is evident in his entreaties: “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, / Which happily foreknowing may avoid, / Oh speak.” These repeated references to the state’s fate and security, and indeed the allusions of prophesy, add tension to the scene and successfully prepare the audience for the events that follow.

The tension that has been built up throughout this chilling scene is then steadily released with the metaphorical narration of the awaking of “the god of day”. Marcellus also describes the season of Christmas “Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,” and when “The nights are wholesome”. This depiction leads to a gradual relaxation of the tension, and indeed Horatio replaces the figure of the walking ghost with a description of “the morn in russet mantle clad / Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.” This comes as a pleasant relief for the audience, who up until this point have been, like the characters on stage, unsure and afraid. The guards then plan to tell Hamlet of what they have seen, and this again prepares the audience for other parts of the play, and they question what the outcome might be. Thus, we can tell from the first scene that this play will be about suspicion, ignorance, insecurity, murder, and revenge. This is achieved through the fearful and supernatural atmosphere created, the tensions introduced, and the prophesies of Horatio and Marcellus.

Is Life After Death Impossible?

The belief in an afterlife stems from China, India, and the Middle East, originating in Ancient Egypt. Almost all world religions hold that there is some sort of life or existence after death. The Abrahamic religions, for example, tend to believe in an afterlife in heaven, whereas Buddhism believes in reincarnation and samsara. Thus, if life after death were impossible, then many of these religions would become invalid and be replaced by nihilism. On the other hand, people may turn to the Epicurean ideals of hedonism and pleasure in their search for a purpose in life. Indeed, this seems to be what a number of today’s atheists have done. The religious belief in life after death appears to have been founded as a form of wish-fulfilment, and so many people have turned away from religion altogether. Since there is no proof of an afterlife, we should assume that death is final and that “To live at all is miracle enough.”

One of the reasons for belief in the afterlife is the belief in an eternal soul. Throughout history scholars and philosophers have attributed our thoughts, feelings and personalities to a distinct, metaphysical entity, the mind or the soul. Plato and Descartes are two of the most-renowned dualist philosophers, and both claim that the soul lives on after death and is eternal. But even if we postulate the existence of the soul, there is no evidence for its immortality. Aristotle, whose dualist principles were very influenced by Heraclitus, presents his views about the soul in his book De Anima. Although he believes that the body and the soul (or ‘anima’) are distinct, he saw them as inseparable. He claimed that when a person dies, their soul dies with them, since the soul is the “cause and principle of the living body”. Thus, belief in the soul does not necessarily mean belief in an afterlife, since a soul is not necessarily immortal. In fact, if the soul is indeed the source of animation for the body, then there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it can exist independently. Furthermore, the actual existence of the soul is questionable. Although Descartes claims that “cogito ergo sum” (his famous aphorism from his Meditations, meaning “I think therefore I am,”) proves a priori that there is some sort of metaphysical “me,” most modern philosophers reject his theory. Descartes was simply ignorant of the mind and its scientific functions, and so Cartesian Dualism is based largely on fideism, seeking to explain the unexplainable with the supernatural. Moreover, Immanuel Kant criticises Descartes’s theory for assuming too readily that, because we use the nouns ‘soul’ or ‘mind’, that they must exist ontologically. He says that Descartes, just by defining the ‘soul’, does not prove its existence. Therefore, since the afterlife relies on the existence of a soul, we are forced to accept that it is impossible.

However, many religious people might argue against this view and continue to believe in the existence of the soul. Christians, for example, see Jesus’ resurrection as proof of a soul, and indeed of an afterlife. They claim that, because somebody has overcome death, our lives are not necessarily finite. Indeed, St Paul said that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” He also says that, if one does not believe in Christ’s resurrection, then there is no foundation for the belief in life after death. Paul believes in bodily resurrection (as stated in the Apostle’s Creed), and he differentiates between the body we have in life (the material, imperfect ‘sarx’) and the body we are given in heaven (the imperishable, glorious ‘soma’). While the ‘psyche’ carries on after death, the ‘sarx’ is swapped for the ‘soma,’ and in this way Paul proposes belief in an eternal life. St Thomas Aquinas also supports the belief in bodily resurrection, although he believes that the body is simply reunited with the soul in heaven, rather than being replaced entirely. Aquinas baptises Aristotelian thoughts in that both referred to the soul as the ‘anima’. Aquinas saw them as two entities that interact with one another: “The soul is what makes our body live…” However, Aquinas, unlike Aristotle, believes in an afterlife. He suggests that, because of the link between particular bodies and particular souls, they are essential to one another and are united in heaven. Thus, although Christian beliefs about the afterlife vary, Christ’s resurrection is seen as proof of an eternal afterlife with God.

Although these theories may be convincing to people who already believe in God, they are improvable and fideistic. Moreover, as well as there being no empirical proof of the resurrection, there is also no real record of its happening. Jesus’ is only seen resurrected and alive once in the entirety of the Gospels, the biographical part of the Bible. It is recorded in Mark 16 9-20: “When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared to Mary Magdalene…” However, the earliest manuscripts do not have verses 9-20, and so we can assume that they were added later to support belief in the resurrection. In fact, in Mark 16 1-9 nobody actually sees Jesus: his tomb is simply found empty, with a strange man inside claiming that Jesus has been resurrected. The only other part of the Bible that records Jesus’ resurrection is the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke a number of years later. This desire to affirm and strengthen faith in the resurrection could imply that there was doubt about Christ’s resurrection even during the time immediately following his death. This lack of evidence therefore defeats the Christian belief in immortality, since it is founded in faith only.

John Hick, a Christian philosopher and theologian, takes a very different, monist view on life after death. He tries to argue that life after death is possible by putting forward his ‘Replica Theory’. He says that replication is the best way to describe what happens after death, although he does not necessarily believe in the theory itself. He argues that if somebody disappeared and an exact replica of them appeared in another country, they would still be the same person. This theory shows that, philosophically, bodily continuity is not absolutely necessary for belief in the afterlife. He then goes on to suggest that, at death, God creates a replica in a “resurrection world which does not stand in a spatial relationship with the physical world.” This belief, rather than relying wholly upon the existence of a soul, relies on an omnipotent God that could replicate human beings into a new place, or indeed a heaven. A soul is not necessary for this replication, and so Hick’s theory avoids the problems of the Cartesian and Platonic arguments for an afterlife. Hick, who became a pluralist later on in his life, also put forward the ‘Multiple Resurrection Theory’ (in his essay “Ressurection”), which differs dramatically from his former proposition. He suggests “a series of finite lives, each beginning, morally and spiritually, where the last left off.” This theory is hugely influenced by the Buddhist belief in reincarnation and the ongoing Karmic wave. He integrates his beliefs in soul-making and human development into this theory.

However, these theories are still weak because of thier reliance on the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and an eternal soul. As aforementioned, the soul, or indeed the mind, has been largely disproven by modern science. Kant’s arguments against Descartes (that we should not assume the existence of the soul) have been developed by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, both at the forefront of Biological Reductionism. Pinker points out that the activities of the brain cause the so-called ‘mind’. Thus, the mind is simply a collection of electrical, magnetic, or metabolic impulses in the synapses of the brain. He goes on to say: “We know that when the brain dies, the person goes out of existence.” John Searle, an American philosopher and professor at Berkeley, holds a similar position. He claims that mental phenomena are features of the brain, and that there are two levels of description in the brain: at a higher level, intention causes actions, but at a lower level, the electrical impulses in our bodies cause them. This would therefore show that the mind is only a product of the brain’s impulses. Dawkins too argues against the existence of a soul, and thus against the existence of an afterlife. In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins cites Daniel Dennet’s understanding of human nature. He says that, in order to survive, human beings developed the ability to judge the thoughts and intentions of others, and this encouraged us to hold a dualistic view of life, since we felt we could put ourselves into one another’s shoes. Thus Dawkins proves that our belief in the soul is founded on nothing, and that we are simply “psychologically primed for religion”. Therefore, if the soul does not exist, then life after death is impossible.

Believing in life after death largely boils down to a belief in the soul. If one does not believe in the soul, it is very hard, in fact almost impossible, to postulate an afterlife. The fact that there is no proof of the soul, and the fact that modern science has explained thoughts, personality, and consciousness, therefore implies that life after death is indeed impossible. Richard Dawkins suggests that religions preach a belief in immortality simply because it is a subjectively appealing doctrine, rather than a proven fact. He writes: “The idea of immortality itself survives and spreads because it caters to wishful thinking.” This brings me back to my original point: life after death is simply a form of wish-fulfilment, as is the belief in human purpose. Dawkins, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, proposes a humanist interpretation of life and existence. He explains that, because our existence is so utterly improbable, it is amazing that we are alive at all. He writes: “In other words, it is overwhelmingly improbable that you are dead.” Thus we should relish our lives, rather than hope in vain for an impossible afterlife. There is no need for a heaven or a beatific vision simply because our lives are so unlikely, special, and exciting. Rather than living life in order to reach heaven, we should live life for life’s sake, for its beauty and wonder.

Freshly-Floating Grass

Sunshine days, when hidden hollows
burst with smiling light, brimming through
the slightly see-through leaves;
when freshly-floating grass
is softly drifting through the happy air,
we cannot help recall the taste
of sweet and chilled and glimmering
ice cream.

Feminism in Chaucer and Austen

Jane Austen was writing in an era of momentous change. The French Revolution of the late 18th Century revealed various tensions in English society, and print culture became a medium whereby political beliefs could be expressed. This social and political uncertainty, incited by the spread of Jacobin ideals, led to a breakdown in the distinction between traditional male and female roles. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Austen’s novels have attracted so much feminist commentary. Geoffrey Chaucer’s poetry, particularly The Canterbury Tales, has also been interpreted as having feminist motivations. His ‘marriage tales’ (labelled thus by Professor Kittredge) exemplify the questions raised about male and female roles in his time. Austen’s Emma and Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale and The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, despite being written five centuries apart, are very similar in their approach to female emancipation. While both writers seem to accept patriarchy, they both present it as unfair.
Chaucer and Austen lived in societies in which women were subjugated, and both writers seem to accept this. This subjugation is particularly evident in Chaucer’s Tales, which have only three female pilgrims. Chaucer’s age was one where young girls were married off against their will (like both The Wife of Bath and May) and were then treated as commodities by their husbands. In The Merchant’s Tale, male dominance is demonstrated when January is awoken by his own coughing, and then orders May to “strepen hire al naked” because her clothes get in the way of the “plesaunce” he proposes to enjoy. Austen’s age, too, was one of male dominance; for example, the men engage in “parish business” once the females have left the dinner table, and although Emma and Mrs Churchill seem to be prominent members of the society, they are the arbitrators of domestic matters, while Mr Knightley is the actual owner of Highbury. Robert P. Irvine even suggests that Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley is her “submission to the overwhelming social imperative for women to marry.”
Not only do the two writers accept patriarchy, they also appear to support it. Emma, a Bildungsroman, narrates the moral growth of its heroine through the guidance of a dominant male figure. Irvine notes:
“The plot of the novel subjects Emma to a process of education whereby she discovers the limitations of her judgement and learns the superiority of Knightley’s: theirs is a lover-mentor relationship…”
In fact, Emma’s inferior judgement causes the novel’s main catastrophes: the Box Hill incident and Harriet’s heartbreak. She is seen as a heroine who must be tamed and educated by a male, just as Catherine Morland is educated by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. At the end of the novel Emma has nothing to wish for “but to grow more worthy of him [Knightley], whose intentions and judgement had been ever superior to her own,” and this could imply that men are morally superior to women. Chaucer’s Tales also seem to imply that women are morally weak. St Jerome, Theophrastus and Walter Map all wrote treatises known as ‘mal marié’ (‘badly married’), which depict women as lustful, scheming and greedy, often citing Eve as the Biblical example. The Wife of Bath, as Pamela King writes, is “designed as a living example of the kind of wife warned against in the treatises.” Her use of religious texts for her own advantage (for example, she argues for promiscuity, claiming that Abraham, Jacob and other holy men “hadde wyves mo than two,”) shows her manipulative nature, and this may have been seen by the contemporary reader as a reason not to trust women. May is also characterised by her immorality, being explicitly compared to Eve on a number of occasions. For example, Damian is compared to an adder, and the garden in which the adulterous act takes place ostensibly resembles the Garden of Eden. May abuses January’s anxiety about Damian’s feigned illness, and this suggests a certain female immorality similar to those warned against in the treatises. Chaucer’s poems, at first glance, can therefore be seen as warnings to men about the untrustworthiness of women.
However, this does not do justice to the depth of Chaucer’s Tales and to his skilled use of narrative technique. It is vital to remember that the Tales do not always represent Chaucer’s views, and indeed Valerie Allen writes that, by making himself one of the pilgrims, Chaucer’s “own stance on the issues he raises is hidden within a complex creation of masks and disguises.” Indeed he acts as if these tales are not his own creation, but that he is simply rehearsing them: “…but for I moot reherce / Hir tales alle…” For that reason, each tale must be considered to represent the teller’s beliefs too, and not just Chaucer’s. The Merchant is a wholly misanthropic man, and indeed in his prologue he complains about marriage, claiming: “We wedded men lyven in sorwe and care.” It is no wonder, then, that May is characterised as deceptive and manipulative, and that January’s character corresponds directly to the ignorant ‘Senex amans’ burlesque character of anti-feminist literature. Furthermore, if The Wife of Bath was intended to demonstrate female immorality, Chaucer would not have made her so likeable. Similarly, the claim that Austen values male morality over female morality is false. Her use of the Bildungsroman form, rather than suggesting the superiority of males, can be put down to the conventions demanded by her genre. Moreover, Emma’s decision to choose Knightley over Elton and Churchill is famously a prompting from within and it is wholly her decision; she is freely and spontaneously choosing Mr Knightley. Thus, although they may seem to in some aspects, Chaucer and Austen do not support patriarchy.
Chaucer shows his sense of injustice at the unequal status of women through both his use of irony and his inspiration of sympathy. It is particularly ironic that, while the Merchant is trying to make the reader dislike May, they actually begin to pity her because of her youth compared to January’s age:

“The slake skyn aboute his nekke shaketh,
Whil that he sang, so chaunteth he and craketh…
…She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene.”
Not only is he depicted as old and unattractive, but also arrogant; January says: “God forbede that I dide al my myght!” The Merchant, by presenting January in a bad light and as ignorant, evokes sympathy for May, and this is clearly not his intention. The reader also sympathises with The Wife of Bath; she, like May, was forced into marriage at an early age. Moreover, she is now single, old, unattractive (she is “gat-tothed” and has “hipes large”), and in search of a new husband to look after her. She laments that now her “flour” is gone, she must sell the “bran as best she can”. She is also nostalgic about her past and her youth, exclaiming: “But age, allas! that al wole envenyme, / Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.” Her tale is another source of sympathy. It depicts an old woman marrying a young Knight, and then becoming young again – this is exactly what she desires to do herself. Ian Bishop described her tale as “an unconscious ritual act of wish-fulfilment”. Thus, The Wife of Bath, along with May, is covertly presented as a sympathetic figure, since her quest for a husband seems pitiful, even futile.
Austen described Emma as a heroine whom none will like but herself, and she said this because, although she saw her faults, she sympathised with her and saw these as the product of her society. Through Austen’s use of free indirect discourse the reader sees Emma’s point of view and warms to her as a character. Many critics, Roger Gard in particular, defend Emma, putting her mistakes down to boredom; after all, Highbury affords her “no equals”. Gard believes that Emma is the victim of her own marvellous ideas and that she always chooses what she sees as the most exciting option – this, for Gard, is what her makes her so attractive to the reader. He goes on to say:
“It is not malice or ill nature that insults Miss Bates on Box Hill, but restlessness and boredom coupled with an habitual esprit – so that we can see the episode sympathetically as well as through Mr Knightley’s justified dismay.”
Just as a misogynistic Chaucer would not intend to make May or the Wife sympathetic characters, so a misogynistic Austen would not let the reader warm to Emma. By evoking sympathy, both authors appear to be defending woman’s corner.
There are, of course, other characters in Emma whom Austen intends the reader to sympathise with, notably Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates is described as “neither young, handsome, rich, nor married”, and with “no intellectual superiority”. The Bateses are described as living in “a very small way”, demonstrating their position in the lower class. Here Austen is sympathising with the spinster figure, just as Chaucer sympathises with the Wife of Bath. Jane Fairfax also inspires sympathy, having “very limited means” and “no advantages of connection”, but described by Mr Knightley as a “really accomplished young woman”. Austen, who never married, is demonstrating the plight of the contemporary woman: unless they are born into a rich family they must either marry or face the melancholy fate of Miss Bates. Irvine notes that Jane Fairfax “represents a much more female powerlessness, and specifically the possibility of downward as well as upward social mobility.” Her marriage to Frank, whose manifestly inferior mind and character become detestable to the reader, demonstrates this powerlessness. Both Austen and Chaucer, by inspiring compassion for the troubles women were forced to face, invite the reader to challenge the status quo.
The three female characters, as well as being sympathetic, are also laudable for their methods of overcoming their suppression. The obvious starting point is The Wife of Bath and her use of “maistrie” to gain “soveraynetee” in marriage. Throughout her prologue she is depicted as a powerful and dominating woman. She wears “a paire of spores sharpe” and a hat likened to “a bokeler or a targe”. Moreover, her cloth-making business is a tribute to her female independence. She says of her first three husbands that she “governed hem so wel, after my lawe,” explaining that to gain this power from them she “sette hem so a-werke” and that “many a nyght they songen ‘Weilawey!’” The reader also applauds the wife for her pugnacious stance against the numerous misogynist attitudes of the time. For example she says:
                “Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief
                To wedde a povre womman, for costage;
                And if that she be riche, of heigh parage,
                Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie.”
For a woman to question patriarchy and tackle misogynistic Bible teachings was, in itself, a feminist act, and the reader applauds the Wife for her determination and wit. The fact that she flaunts and revels in her rejection of the status quo makes her a character one can easily warm to and admire. Finally, the Wife uses maistrie on her fifth husband, Jankyn, and this is clearly depicted in the finale of her prologue. Her trick is so effective that Jankyn even burns his “book of wikked wyves” and promises to allow her to do whatever she pleases. The Wife’s use of her wit to such effect (pretending to be dead) undermines the widespread assumption that women are less intelligent than men. Again, Chaucer is questioning misogynistic beliefs.
May also uses maistrie; she deceives her husband in his blindness, and indeed she is able to trick him even when he has seen her in the act. January is very subtly compared to Pluto, who abducted Proserpina; it is Proserpina who then gives May the power to use her maistrie and trick her husband. Thus, despite perhaps pitying January in his cuckolding, the reader realises that he has provoked this state of affairs. The tale can therefore be seen as Chaucer’s warning to older men not to take younger wives, which he clearly viewed as similar to abduction. In Emma, the women of Highbury exercise a vast amount of control over the men. From the instant we meet Mrs Elton she is a dominating figure; Emma has an almost free rule over Highbury (Frank refers to her as “she who could do anything in Highbury!”) Mrs Churchill has a huge amount of power over Frank, comparable to the power Mrs Ferrars has over Edward in Sense and Sensibility. Moreover, Highbury’s men (except for Mr Knightley) are really rather loathsome characters. By giving these women such power Austen is showing that the need for a patriarchal society is highly questionable and out-dated. Emma has all the confidence of the so-called ‘new woman’ that emerged in the 19th Century, and indeed she is entirely in control of all she does. By presenting such autonomous and individual females, the writers seem to be promoting female equality.
Clearly Chaucer and Austen were not unequivocal feminists. If they were, they would not have presented such imperfect female characters. However, both writers oppose the status quo of their times, and both allow their female characters to evade the limitations placed on them by their society. Austen, while opposing radical feminism of the Mary Wollstonecraft type, was nevertheless strongly disapproving of the unequal status of women in society, and is happy to make her characters a mouthpiece for her opinions in this respect. Anne Elliot of Persuasion could not be clearer about men’s unfair advantages in society: “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.” Chaucer also questions the intrinsically unfair nature of the patriarchal society by using the Wife as a mouthpiece. She demands to know: “Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?”
Gilbert and Gubar note that “Austen admits the limits and discomforts of the paternal roof, but learns to live beneath it… Austen makes a virtue of her own confinement, as her heroines will do also.” Chaucer too, whilst illustrating the limitations of the patriarchal society, allows his characters to work around them. Therefore, both writers clearly do question the status of women in society. Through their skilled use of narrative technique and satire, their inspiration of sympathy in the reader, and their presentation of female determination and individuality as admirable, both authors have succeeded in creating works that can be more accurately described as critical portrayals of the role of women in society, rather than as radical manifestos for change.

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