Shakespeare's Perceptions of Pain

To adapt an image, pain and joy are the two great poles of human experience. There are a lot of other words that can be used to designate points within the two zones: if pain includes woe (a word Shakespeare much prefers to pain), grief, sorrow, suffering. . . joy embraces happiness, bliss, pleasure. . . . In the theatre, the key spectacle offered us in drama is usually one of human pain or joy; alternatives of course exist, many modern plays offer a spectacle of the stupidity, absurdity, confusion, sterility, and meaninglessness of human existence but even in them the characters almost necessarily are shown looking for or experiencing some kind of pain or joy, otherwise the audience will die of boredom. One might also want to mention the joys of pain and the pain of intense joy. . .

The ability of people to respond to the spectacle of other people's joy and pain will no doubt depend on their generosity of heart. Someone who doesn't give a damn for others will probably not see any point in drama, anyway. Shakespeare knew, surely, that most people sympathize with spectacles of pain more profoundly and thrillingly than with spectacles of happiness. A moment of happiness has its own theatrical intensity, but it is pain that really gets our emotions going. The patterns of pain in a play often indicate significant lines of interpretation.

At the very beginning of his writing career, Shakespeare was deeply interested in political and social matters. In the early history plays, individuals are shown in a strong social and political context, where personal ambitions and conflicts at times develop into open warfare. The potential for pain is clear, with innocent civilians suffering war's terrible consequences while the individuals at the heart of the action become victims of ruthless power struggles, culminating in the heart-numbing hecatomb of Richard III.

Richard's victims are many, as he hacks his way to the throne in a parody of Tamburlaine's pagan ruthlessness; he violates Anne's grief as she is following her father-in-law's murdered body at the very start of the play (Act I scene ii) to demand that she either kill him (bluff) or marry him (strategy), although her death later in the play is hardly noticed among all the rest. The two young princes are murdered near the end of a whole procession of victims and the pattern of pain is brought together in Act IV scene iv with the formalized laments of the three women who have lost those they loved: "Ah, who hath any cause to mourn but we?" (line 34), preparing for the cathartic revenge effect of Richard's death at Bosworth. For an audience, though, the accumulation of murders is such that the play becomes comic; when pain in a drama is too far removed from normality we no longer feel it deeply.

By contrast, in Richard II the characters who experience pain are mainly Richard himself, and his wife (the foil created by Shakespeare) as a result of what happens to him. We are told that he is a bad king, but are shown no striking examples of people suffering from his bad government. On the other hand, Bolingbroke becomes king without once displaying signs of ambition, certainly he does not wade through blood to the throne, and he is allowed to remain virtually guiltless of the death of his predecessor. The play has been described as a "passion play" in which Richard becomes more and more a Christ-like Man of Sorrows, but that does not prevent him loosing the throne and his life. His kingdom, if any, is "not of this world" and the text does not suggest that his loss of power was a disaster for England. We may sympathize, we do not support. How very strongly Richard II anticipates the rejection of (absolute) monarchy as a governing system!

In obvious contrast to this material, Shakespeare soon began to explore a very different area of experience, that called "love," in which he studies the processes by which men and women come together in a union leading to marriage; here too pain is rampant although happiness gets the gold medal, at least in most of the earlier romantic comedies. Yet none of them reaches the closing scenes of harmony without invoking a lot of darker possibilities. Even the final bliss, when the woman gets her man, the man his woman, is conditioned by the play's refusal to tell us what they will be like in twenty years' time! We are glad that the curtain comes down on their unwitting smiles. We all know that Hippolyta did not stay with Theseus, and look what happened to their son! Is it too much to expect that people watching A Midesummer Night's Dream should recall Phaedra?

Of the works that Shakespeare is assumed to have read deeply, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde is particulary important for the theme of pain in love.

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen
That was the kyng Priamus sone of Troye
In lovynge how his aventures fellen
From wo to wele and after out of joie
My purpos is er that I part fro ye.
(Book 1, stanza 1, lines 1-5)

At first Troilus is shown as ignorant of what "love" can be. The pain that begins the action is the love-sickness of a male who has to come to terms with the confusion caused to an athletic but insensitive young warrior by the impact of whatever it is that has "struck" him on seeing Criseyde in the temple. Thanks to the intervention of Pandarus, the lady's "pity" is obtained and this leads at last to the bliss of the "wedding night."

When outside forces divide the lovers both are deeply distressed with "peyne" and Criseyde seems to die. Troilus, seeing her lying lifeless before him, takes his sword and defies the gods as he declares his intention of following her into death in order not to be separated from her. He is determined to "bear her companye" and he is about to plunge his sword into his breast when Criseyde robs him of a tragic death by returning to life. She goes to join her father on the Greek side and takes up with Diomede, a fact which Troilus at last discovers with great pain. His death, though, is in no way a result of his love or pain, he is not even allowed to die at Diomede's hands, it is Achilles who kills him.

Shakespeare must have been struck by the similarities and contrasts this presented with the Romeo and Juliet story he found in Brooke. A possible reading of Romeo and Juliet is to see it as an example of what Theseus says in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" about "Who may been a fool but if he love?" The fools in this case are two self-centered kids, completely indifferent to the pain they cause others, despite the lovely poetry they speak. The root cause of all that happens to the two is called "love," a word that covers a multitude of sins. Before he sees Juliet, Romeo is shown playing with love, not mocking it as Troilus does, but not treating it as something real either. There is nothing to show he had ever addressed Rosaline and probably he never intended to! Love for him is not a relationship but a literary game, he has been reading too many sonnets.

The "magic" moment of the mutual encounter of Romeo and Juliet is equally literary, enshrined in a hidden sonnet, although no one watching the play can notice that. Love is represented as a sudden magic spell, Cupid's arrow striking, more magic since it happens to both simultaneously! A long aristocratic literary convention lies behind the way the play depicts the moment when the two "fall in love." Love may be wonderful, it leads to disaster.

The unthinking rejection of the family name incarnated in their parents by Romeo (and implicitly by Juliet) is only the first step in a process that leads through the scenes in which first Romeo (on hearing of his banishment in Act III scene iii) and then Juliet (after her marriage to Paris is decided, in Act IV scene i) say they are prepared to kill themselves if they cannot get what they want; it continues past the scene of parents lamenting the seemingly dead Juliet, who never stops to consider what they will feel, to the disaster of the last Act where the two perform the gesture that time did not permit Troilus to indulge in. During the action of the play Romeo has caused the death of Mercutio and killed two other young men, Tybalt and Paris, who also did not want to die, while we are told at the very end that Romeo's mother has died of grief at his banishment. Rather a lot of unredeemed pain.

It seems hard to take seriously any interpretation that suggests that the end of the play is beautiful, that the deaths of so many people have served to "reconcile" the two families and bring peace to the city. Commentators sometimes forget the awful and ineradicable pain felt by parents whose only child has died before them. In Korea, for a child to die before the parents is a grave sin against filial piety. The great pain in Romeo and Juliet is not the lovers' but the survivors', the "love" of the two has been the cause of disaster, one man having lost his wife and both families having lost their only child by suicide. There is no bright future proclaimed at the close of the play.

The Prince at the end says: "All are punish'd," he does not mention any positive aspect to the situation at all. "See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love." There is irony here, not any sense of a new beginning in restored civic harmony. All that remains is a tomb to be adorned with statues; and statues only come alive in A Winter's Tale. The last lines are clear: "For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

Why did Shakespeare write such a play unless he was trying to work through a problem inherent in literary love of the romantic kind? In many of his comedies, the happiness shown by the various couples who are united at the end of the play is rendered possible in the plot and effective dramatically by the way in which "the course of true love ne'er runs smooth" during the working out of the play. There is an enduring in pain, a constancy that has to be tested before it can be declared true, and this testing is often done through pain. Romeo and Juliet will have none of that, they "want out" and get out.

It might be thought that Shakespeare felt disgusted by the play, that he tried to free himself of it by mocking those things that Romeo and Juliet seems to take so seriously. There are aspects of A Midsummer Night's Dream that can hardly be understood otherwise. It is striking that this play has no very obvious "source" at all whereas Romeo and Juliet adheres so very closely to an original. Romeo and Juliet is one of A Midsummer Night Dream's main sources. As critics like to say, Romeo and Juliet is a comedy that goes wrong, A Midsummer Night's Dream a tragedy that fails to occur. Love brings pain in both.

What is the nature of that fascination we call love? In the literary tradition it was a divine madness from outside the personality, at the same time a wound and a divine blessing; no human act of choice was involved, falling in love happened involuntarily. Shakespeare did not need Chaucer to see that such ideas threatened the individual's autonomy. Marlowe's question from "Hero and Leander" quoted in As You Like It, "Who ever lov'd that lov'd not at first sight?" (Act III v 85) is answered with ridicule, it heralds the beginning of Phoebe's infatuation with Rosalind, a woman disguised as a man; that may or may not be better than an ass-headed Bottom, but casts doubt on the value of "love-at-first-sight."

Much of the plot of A Midsummer Night's Dream depends on the remarkable properties of the pansy, here called "love-in- idleness." This flower becomes a portable Cupid's arrow, available for use by Puck, who is not blindfolded; falling in love in this play is no heaven-sent gift, it lies in the power of an accident-prone elf.

In the general setting-to-right of Act IV, one thing done in the forest is not set right. Demitrius has fallen for Helena solely under the influence of the juice but he is not given the antidote so he goes on loving her until the end of the play, by which time they are married. Since she loves him, that's fine, but what does it imply about the nature of "true love"? Does Demitrius "love" Helena or is it only a "magic spell" that an application of the appropriate flower-juice might at any moment remove?

The effect of the flower, we are told, is "real" and will continue to inspire love in Demetrius. If so, the sudden disastrous transfer of love that Lysander undergoes, passing from Hermia to Helena, is equally real for as long as it lasts. That reduces all human falling in love to an exterior, mechanical event, without inner meaning, arbitrary, reversible as instantly as it came. Titania falling for Bottom or Lysander turning in a flash from Hermia to Helena can be seen as parodies of Romeo falling for Juliet after Rosaline. What does it mean to say that such love is real or worth dying for? Love is madness.

By contrast, Hermia and Helena both really get hurt in the forest and their pain can only be made better by saying that it was all a dream, a lie that Hippolyta is bright enough to see through. What happens in the forest with the flower-juice is an acting-out of Shakespeare's discovery that if love is as the old courtly books say, it is not worthy of much respect.

The parody of Romeo and Juliet found in A Midsummer Night's Dream is mainly centred in the Pyramus and Thisbe play. The energy underlying the style of the mechanicals' text surely comes from some kind of particular fury on Shakespeare's part. He is perhaps expiating a sense of guilt at having dressed selfish love in poetry so beautiful it blinds our judgement. The poetry of the mechanicals' play is in a sense better than anything in the Balcony Scene, it is so utterly awfully true. It is particularly dreadful when we are in the moments parallelling the scene in the vault.

The harrowing effect of Romeo's last speech depends on the irony imposed by our knowledge that Juliet is not "really" dead, that he is addressing a living person. This is equally the case in the Pyramus play. The dramatic effect of keeping your audience in helpless suspense was later exploited in Othello. In the play- within-the-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream, though, the tension deriving from the powerlessness of the audience to intervene is broken and the conventions are challenged by the breakdown of the division between actors and audience, with not only the Lion and the Moon turning to the audience with direct address, but above all the corpse of Pyramus suddenly standing up as a living Bottom who gives the Epilogue. The death of Realism!

Shakespeare could surely not write the excellencies of "Quail, crush, conclude, and quell" or the marvellous last words, "Now die, die, die, die, die" and "Adieu, adieu, adieu" (cf Hamlet's ghost) without casting his mind back to the quite other style of words given to Romeo and Juliet. Liebes-tod on the stage passes into the realm of the sublimely preposterous, which may well be where it belongs, unless we are Wagnerians.

Shakespeare challenges our fundamental perception of pain in drama. Nobody really dies in a play, unless there is a serious accident. Still, the way in which Bottom suddenly rises from the dead to declare the happy message that we did not get in Romeo and Juliet, that "the wall is down that parted their fathers," would be an astounding bit of alienation in any "real" play. It makes us realize how aware Shakespeare must have been of the credibility problem death, and all pain on the stage, poses.

The reading so far proposed of Romeo and Juliet is deliberately provocative and iconoclastic. It cannot replace the more conventional critical discourse about "the absolutes of love not being able to withstand the demands of time and adulthood, intensity is all," but it should have its moment. Out of this reading it appears that the play's themes of pain involve not only the young but also the old; it would be wrong to take sides with the children against their parents, since all suffer. The root of the suffering, despite the stress on love in the preceding paragraphs, is not love, but political power-struggles. There is civil war in Verona, and the two families are on opposite sides. Tybalt's attack on Romeo and all that follows is caused by war, not love. Therefore love is only the driving factor that brings the two together and then seems to make communication with society impossible. Time operates to sweep everyone along until disaster happens. The play essentially becomes, in this case, an exploration of family pain, parents causing pain and death to their children and children to their parents. The essential weakness in the play seen in this perspective is the fact that there is no choice of the will involved; none of the main characters means to do anything but love. As the critics say, there are too many accidents.

As time passes, we might like to think that Shakespeare saw Romeo and Juliet as a treasure-house of things not to do again. Rosalind in As You Like It might be echoing her author's thoughts if she were not a good enough character to have thoughts of her own: "The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love cause. Troilus had his brains dashed out with a Grecian club (...) and he is one of the patterns of love. (...) men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love." (IV i 89-103)

It is important to recall how many conventions of high-class literary love are rejected in A Midsummer Night's Dream as "doting." In the Merchant of Venice people do not have to fall in love because they are already in love before the play starts. Viola in Twelfth Night loves Orsino but not on first sight. The ultimate solution to the Romeo and Juliet problem is that established in Much Ado About Nothing by Beatrice and Benedick; squabbling from the word go, they are the anti-lovers favoured by all those who know how much anger and tension there can be in the best relationships.

The great force of Much Ado About Nothing comes from the way its main plot rejects and reverses the end of Romeo and Juliet. When Claudio learns that Hero, whom he falsely believes to be dead, was innocent of the things he had accused her of, he figuratively enters the vault with Romeo, exclaiming "Dear Hero! Now thy image doth appear In the rare semblance that I loved it first" (Act V scene i 245-6) but instead of killing himself he accepts whatever penance her apparently grief-stricken father commands, consenting to time and life. The result is that he is alive for the restoration of Hero who is still his by a remarkable act of generosity that looks forward to Desdemona's. The moment parallels that, already evoked, in A Winter's Tale.

The centre of interest gradually changes in the plays that follow these, and it is in Hamlet that we find the best expression of his concern:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth, wherein they are not guilty
(Since nature cannot choose his origin),
By their o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit, that too much o'erleavens
The form of plausive manners--that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being Nature's livery or Fortune's star,
His virtues else, be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo,
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance often dout
To his own scandal.
(Act I iv 23-38)

Hamlet itself, though, is a play less concerned with the "dram of evil" than with the pain of being the son of too powerful a father; the deaths that come at the end are caused by family obligations, not power-struggles or love. The only potential villain in Hamlet is never given space to expand upon his motives in killing his brother because that is not the play's central focus.

The ghost's pain in Purgatory is strangely diminished by Hamlet's playful term of address: "Alas, poor ghost!" This is supposed to be his father! A few lines later Hamlet calls him "boy" "truepenny" "this fellow"

There is hardly time to explore the already familiar territory of Hamlet's skirmishes with words, that might cause pain or ease pain, but that can never be a substitute for deeds, his question being always how to "suit the action to the word, the word to the action" (III ii 18). The action is started by a dead father's disembodied words, of which "Revenge" is the most important and the most pain-threatening. Why did it not ask for justice, after all?

In contrast to the father's deadly clarity, Hamlet's words are never clear until rewritten words have sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. Then he is Hamlet the Dane indeed. The rest, we recall, is silence and that includes a lot of things that critics love to talk about.

Shakespeare still needed to explore his awareness of just how much pain people can inflict on one another in the family circle, as the palimpsest of the joys of comedy that he had laid aside rather than quite given up, for in The Tempest all these things are resurrected, even the joke about love at first sight.

Comedy leads to marriage. Marriage, though, cannot be heaven on earth, it is notorious that Shakespeare knows almost no happy long-married couples. Once they are married, the happy couple has children who become the next, problematic, generation. Alive at least since Romeo and Juliet was an awareness of how difficult the parent-child relationship is, how ripe for inflictions of pain. Hamlet experiences almost all there is to know about that in one direction, the generation gap being stressed by the old- fashioned armour and the religious references of the paternal ghost who seems not to know that the Reformation had abolished Purgatory!

Shakespeare pursued Hamlet's observation about the dram of evil found in people, the unexpected flaw in nature that makes all the difference. Out of that came the most pain-filled of plays. The reading of Sidney's revised Arcadia gave him a tale of father-son pain the reverse of that found in Hamlet.

Intense pain dominates Sidney's little episode of the old blinded king of Paphlagonia who urges the true son guiding him to lead him to the top of a cliff so that he can jump down and die; the king tells of his bastard son's "poisonous hypocrisy, desperate fraud, smooth malice, hidden ambition and smiling envy" that led him to discredit his true brother. Surrendering his power, "I had left myself nothing but the name of a King" he trusts the bastard who blinds him and casts him out, "delighting to make me feel my misery, misery indeed, if ever there were any; full of wretchedness, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltiness." He finds now that he has shown "cruel folly to my good son and foolish kindness to my unkind bastard."

Shakespeare linked this scenario with the beginning of the old story of Leir and his daughters found in Holinshed, Spenser, and an old play; he developed the dramatic theme of pain so extreme that it drives a man mad found in A Spanish Tragedy, added an idealized love so pure it restores the mad to reason, and then allowed the multiple equivalents of Sidney's one bastard to destroy Cordelia under her father's very eyes before at last allowing Lear to experience what Sidney's old king had begged: "never was there more pity in saving any, than in ending me, ... because therein my agonies shall end." The way in which Shakespeare diverges from the Leir story after the initial scenes shows that the priority as main source should go to Sidney.

Pain in King Lear is the central focus, the exploration of its possible causes happens in a Nature full of both kindness and unkindness, where pity and gratitude are denied by those who ought to manifest them most, children turning against fathers in a way no animal but proverbial tigers and vipers would do. The dull ache of pain at the close of previous plays here becomes the shrillness of raving madness but ends with silence, sightless eyes fixed on dead, wordless lips that had once spoken nothings of daughterly love.

That had been the factor, no doubt, that had drawn Shakespeare to the Leir stories: unfilial daughters are a step beyond in horror. Between sons and fathers, he did not need Freud to know how conflictual and potentially murderous the relationship can be. Without that dimension our readings of Hamlet would be naive and partial; the son whose death is imposed on him by the raving ghost of a deceased daddy can scarcely pass into the night without at some point sympathizing with the alternative father who rid the world of his all too dominating brother; Hyperion and Hercules are intolerable as role-models and as sibling rivals.

Between fathers and daughters, convention demands images of affection, tenderness, submission. The ground for unconventional behaviour had been laid at least by the time of Juliet, who obviously gives not a fig for her tyrant-paternal, but she is not yet Goneril; neither, for that case, is Jessica, or later Desdemona, yet she too brings her father pain provoking accelerated death. Undoubtedly, the crux of the matter in King Lear is to be found in the variations of pain made possible by the intermingling of the feminine and the masculine on both sides of the equations of torment. Sex and politics both add their dram. Conventional expectations are denied in every area, while the key words explore the underlying theme: kind / unkind, natural / monstrous, grateful / ingratitude. And the play passes from the "Nothing" of filial love's silences to the repeated "Never" of speechless paternal grief.

It becomes necessary at the end of such a journey to propose a conclusion. Shakespeare perceived pain in various ways. It was, at times, the testing ground for new models of happiness. The pains experienced, mostly by women, in the happy comedies seem to be of this kind. Pain was always known to be the lot of entire populations when peace breaks down and civil warfare explodes across the landscape; of this pain nothing good can come and the history plays are full of fervent prayers that things may not come to such a pass. The climax of pain is found in a relationship from which there is no escape and in which pain- giving ought to have no place, the relationship of parent and child. In a perfect world there would be no pain, but what world could that be? One where parents have no children?

Shakespeare shows the pain caused in the course of political and social power-struggles without demanding strong audience identification. He plays multiple games with the joys and pains of young lovers. But the way he concentrates in Hamlet and King Lear on the family relationship suggests that there he was pursuing a question that fascinated him personally: how deeply can people hurt one another? What is the worst pain we can imaginatively portray? He was interested in why it is that some persons choose to inflict such pain on those they ought most to love, one of real life's deepest contradictions.

Shakespeare was not a philosopher, or a preacher, or a conventional moralist; as a dramatist who knew the limits of what he could do, he represented things and left his audience to look for some meaning in what they saw. Or in the words of a recent critic, "Shakesperean tragedy never merely tells a sad story. The stories are always symbolic systems that allow us to re- experience and re-define the crises in the making of our own identities" (Robert N. Watson in "Tragedy" The Cambridge Companion to English Renaissance Drama ed. A.R. Braunmuller and Michael Hattaway 328). That may be overly Freudian, but at least it is more helpful than Bradley's remark that "Tragedy would not be tragedy if it were not a painful mystery." Comedy, too, would probably not be very comic without a good dose of pain.

Our students tend to think Romeo and Juliet is a beautiful play about romantic love, they cry sentimentally at the end; they think Hamlet shows how a dutiful son is obliged to obey his father, they cry respectfully at the end; King Lear ends for them with Lear dying happily believing that Cordelia is alive, so they cry happily at the end. Are they wrong? How can we get them to look again? What were Shakspeare's perceptions of pain?