Suffering In Shakespeare’s Plays
How does suffering affect one’s actions? Do different types of suffering
affect one in different ways? This paper seeks to determine how William
Shakespeare’s character’s respond to various types of suffering. Suffering can
be defined in two ways; physical suffering, in which the character is inflicted
with physical pain and trauma, and emotional suffering, where the character
suffers an emotional trauma or loss.
In The Tempest, the physically traumatized characters, are Trinculo and
Stephano. They are chased by dogs but their physical trauma has not induced any
sign of remorse or guilt. Ferdinand, on the other hand, is overcome by
emotional suffering at the “loss” of his son. In King Lear, Lear is plagued
emotionally. He feels that he has lost the love of his favorite daughter
Cordelia, and he feels the harsh hatred of his two evil daughters. At the
conclusion of the play, his sanity is restored but he has suffered tremendously
in an emotional manner at the hands of Regan and Goneril. In Othello, Brabantio
goes through emotional suffering when he must succumb to his daughter’s wishes.
Desdemona also goes through emotional suffering when she is accused by Othello
of cheating on him when he is convinced of this by Iago.
In The Tempest, the theme of purification through suffering can
clearly be seen. Prospero, in his long exile from Milan, has more than attoned
for whatever mistake he might have made while he ruled. Ferdinand must suffer
through Prospero’s hardships and laborious tests before he can win Miranda’s
hand. Most significantly, Alonso must undergo the suffering that Prospero has
designed for him before he is forgiven.
Prospero, who is the real Duke of Milan was overthrown 12 years earlier
by his younger brother Antonio. Prospero was driven out of the island along
with his daughter Miranda; the two were cast out to sea. His suffering has
occured in a physical and a non-physical way, he is deeply hurt from losing his
kingdom and from being cast out to die. Despite this, he is generous in
forgiving. He is not only in control of those around him but he punishes the
guilty and demands repentance.
When Ferdinand meets Miranda, they instantly fall in love with each
other. “I might call him…a thing divine; for nothing natural…I ever saw so
noble.” ( Tempest, I, ii, 417-419). He is perfect for her in that he is pure and
appreciates her innocence and purity. To make sure that Ferdinand is worthy to
marry Miranda, Prospero makes him endure heavy labor. “The mistress which I
serve quickens what’s dead and makes my labors pleasure.” (Tempest, III, i, 6-7)
Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio, who are denounced as “men of sin”
(Tempest, III,, iii, 53) are driven by Ariel into a frenzy of madness. Alonso is
deeply affected, he believes the “death” of his son to be punishment and he
confesses his guilt and seeks to atone for it. He is purified through the trial
and reconciled with Prospero at the play’s end. Neither Antonio nor Sebastian,
who are equally guilty, is affected in this way. They remain impenitent. Their
incapacity for remorse is punished, Ariel suggests by a “ling’ ring perdition,
worse than any death.” ( Tempest, III, iii, 77)
Stephano, the King’s butler, and Trinculo, the jester, plot to overthrow
Prospero. Their trial and suffering take form in a physical way. They are
submerged in a horse pond and then hunted by Prospero’s dogs.
King Lear allows one to see how physical suffering can bring on
emotional suffreing. This can be seen in the two main characters of each subplot.
Lear, King of Brittain, is described as “a very foolish old man, fourscore and
upward.” His fatal flaw of rashness causes his suffering. The Earl of Gloucester
lacks Lear’s capacity for wrath but shares his fatal flaw of rashness. Like Lear,
he is made to suffer greatly by his children before he gains true insight.
Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, suffers emotional pain. She is disowned by her father
but in the end, she survives to comfort him and proves her own selflessness.
King Lear is the epitomy of suffering. “His suffering includes a sense
of guilt for misusing his past powers.” (Bloom, 80). He endures a parents worst
nightmare. First, he is outraged by his daughters lack of love for him. “Love
and be silent” (I, i, 69). “I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.”
(King Lear, I, i, 78-79). Because of this, he