A Beast in Disguise


“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.

Hamlet’s depression

34-hamletDepression: a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, feelings and sense of well-being(….)They may lose interest in activities that once were pleasurable (…..) and may contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide. Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains, or digestive problems may also be present.Depressed mood is not always a psychiatric disorder. It may also be a normal reaction to certain life events, (…). Well, according to this definition, we wouldn’t be too far from the truth, if we diagnosed that Hamlet suffered from depressive mood as “normal reaction to” precise” life events“: his father’s death, first of all; his mother Gertrude‘s “over hasty marriage” with his uncle Claudius – freshly crowned king of Denmark -, a man he despises even before knowing that he is the villanous murderer of his father; a country that seems to have too soon lost the memory of his father, to celebrate and feast the coronation and the wedding on the new king. Hamlet feels like a stranger in that merry atmosphere and stubbornly wears the clothes of woe . He has become apathetic and seems unable to react.

Claudius is a man of action. He had set his goal and done whatever necessary to reach it, without caring much about ethics. He is actually the most proficient disciple of Machiavelli, as he has successfully put into practice his well-known motto : “the end justifies the means.The crown, his sister-in-law, power, he has obtained everything he wanted and would fully enjoy his life, but for that strange nephew, whose public exhibition of grief annoys him. He is like a cloud in a summer day. The villanous Claudius cannot believe that the loss of a father may be the cause of such a sudden alteration in temper, and instinctively doesn’t trust Hamlet. He needs to know more about the cause of that affliction. At first he tries to sympathize with him, evoking the laws of nature ( even if he is well aware that he had given nature a little help), and reminds him that the death of a father is a natural event. Then he thinks that maybe that grief is due to Hamlet’s expectation to be king after his father, hence he assures him that he will be the next in the line of succession to the throne, but Hamlet keeps on showing his indifference and passivity. Eventually, in the vain attempt to provoke any reaction, Claudius derides him, calling his grief “unmanly“, unworthy of a prince. Hamlet is not virile enough to be the king of Denmark.The gap between the two is clearly ethical rather than generational.

Olivier-Hamlet-006When his father’s ghost reveals him the circumstances of his death, Hamlet is forced to awake from his state of torpor and take action against his uncle: “if thouhast nature in thee, bear it not“, warns the ghost (even Hamlet’s father seems to doubt upon his son’s constancy). It is an admonition that it cannot be ignored for sure, in fact Hamlet at first seems to be willing to revenge himself soon, but after a while his rage and resoluteness fade away, giving way to a sense of impotence : “Oh cursed spite! That I was ever born to set  it right“, he laments. Once the adrenaline is off, he realises that he just can’t do it.
Therefore even if the bloody details about his father’s murder should have brought Hamlet to a  prompt reaction, he takes time. He wants evidence. He spends the whole act II plotting against Claudius, pretending to have become insane at first and then organizing his Mousetrap : the public representation of the murder of his father. However, we understand that whatever he is doing, he is not psychologically ready and seems relapse into his initial state of inactivity. Whoever suffers of depression knows well, that the effort that even trivial actions require, is perceived so ponderous to have the impression of being overwhelmed by its burden, so every intent is crystallized by the paralysis of the will. Hamlet ‘s state of mind is fragile. Living for him is like being hurt by  “slings” and “arrows” and in this condition he perceives his revengeful undertaking as a “sea of troubles” . For a while he prefers to take into consideration another solution to put an end to his sufferance, another kind of action, towards himself this time: suicide; but the fear of death holds him back,  “thus conscience does make cowards of us all” he ponders, it’s conscience that makes “enterprises of great pitch and moment (…..) lose the name of action“.

act3scene3-hamletOnce again it’s conscience that prevents Hamlet from killing Claudius, who, after having seen on stage the representation of his treacherous deed, his uncle reaches the chapel in shock to pray. Killing the king while he is purging his soul( even if he is not, but he doesn’t know), would mean to send him straight to heaven, while his father is doomed to “fast(s) in fire“. It’s not the right moment and delays again. So, when soon after he meets his mother, he gives vent to all the frustration he has stored so far and mistreats her, till the ghost appears again, but this time only Hamlet can see him, as if it were a hallucination produced by his rage and guilt for his inadequacy. So we may say that Hamlet truly never acts except when he realizes that he had been entrapped by Claudius in the deadly duel with Laertes. More than a revenge tragedy, Hamlet is the tragedy of the impossibility of revenge.

The dried tuber syndrome


The symptoms of  the dried tuber syndrome are easily recognizable: melancholy, indolence, fear of the future, sense of loss; as far as T.S.Eliot is concerned a whole generation between the two great wars suffered from the consequences of its contamination. The causes? The sense of uncertainty produced by the loss of past values and the impossibility of replacing them with new ones. If the present is not fertile enough to offer new perspectives and hopes and at the same time slowly dries whatever we used to believe in, we just become like emptied tubers that would rather stay hidden in the darkness of the earth than grow and face the oppressive light of the day. Hamlet, for example, clearly suffered of that disease. He had seen his world gradually falling apart: the death of his father, the hasty marriage of his mother with his uncle who had become in the meanwhile King of Denmark too. When the play starts Hamlet has already been deprived of many certainties: his family, the mother figure, maybe even his succession to the throne of Denmark. The first time we meet him in the play he already displays the early symptoms of the syndrome: bitterness, melancholy, dullness. So when his father’s ghost informs him that his brother, the King, had shamefully murdered him while he was sleeping in his orchard, he actually deals the final blow to Hamlet’s psyche, At first he seems to be willing to react, to revenge immediately his father and kill the infamous murderer, but when the adrenaline is off, he realizes that he just can’t do it: “Oh cursed spite/that I was ever born to set it right“, he ponders. His father’s revelation should require a prompt reaction but Hamlet delays it – in fact the ghost will have to reappear a second time to incite his son to act –  showing signs of confusion and psychological stress. The frustration deriving from his inability to accomplish what he feels a moral duty towards the memory of his father leads him also to consider suicide. He will eventually react only when he realizes he has fallen in his uncle’s trap, before dying.

Order and chaos


“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2Yes, a god, this is very likely what Basil Hallward must have seen the first time he had met Dorian Gray. And just like for gods, Basil is ready to worship and adore him, because he instinctively feels that Dorian Gray’s uncommon beauty is the mirror of the innocence and wonder of his soul. This is the real trap, as it is very arduous for anybody to conceive that a beautiful facade might hide an evil nature.This is very likely due to the archetypes we have been fed with in our early age with all the stories, fairy tales, myths. After all fairy comes from fair, that is light and consequently good, all witches are actually dark in fact. However, this is just a childish distinction, because the nature of a man is far more complicated that this. Man is a delicate balance between the world outside and the world inside. Ethics is what keeps him stable. When Dorian Gray realizes that his wish of eternal beauty has been fulfilled, that very moment his ethical world collapses and his balance is lost forever. The unmentionable desires, passions, lust, fear, freedom, that romantic chaos of his soul  will slowly prevail over the classical immutable perfection of his beauty. But if Dorian wants to enjoy fully that chaos he needs to crash definitely anything that might stir any moral process. That’s why he stabs the portrait. He wants to be free from feeling any remorse. But what is a man without ethics? Could he really bear the chaos of his soul? What would become of him? When the servants find the body of Dorian Gray lying on the floor, they can hardly understand who it was.

Heathcliff the villain


A villain is the evil, immoral guy of a story. The etymology of the word villain comes from the Latin “villanus” meaning “farmhand“. He is antagonist to the knight not only for his low social status but for those moral values of chivalry: faith, loyalty, courage and honour that do not seem to affect his world.The villain is often cruel, malicious and devoted to wickedness. The typical villain of the Morality plays was the devil himself:Satan. In the Elizabethan Drama the villain’s want of morality allowed him to act against the laws of nature and God which were at the basis of society and  thus breaking them he gave the start to the dramatic action. The audience could easily spot villains on stage because dramatists often used to choose for them names that hid the clues for their moral imperfection. In Hamlet, for example, Shakespeare called the villain Claudius, which comes from the Latin “Claudus” that is “lame”. Sometimes the names could also point out the dangerousness of the villain. Richardson seemed to warn his unfortunate heroine Clarissa naming the man of her dreams Lovelace, truly a loveless man whose lace of love will strangle her to death. Heathcliff as well belongs to the cathegory of the villains. Emily Brontë chose for his protagonist a name that could mirror all the enigmatic nuances of his personality. He is heat, heath and cliff at the same time, that is wild, passionate, maybe stubborn, but definitely dangerous and uncontrollable. He is a modern Satan, dark( “he looks like a gipsy“), retiring, elusive and vengeful. Wherever he goes he upsets the preexisting balance bringing chaos and sorrow. Once adopted, for example, he will win Mr Earnshaws’s affection causing such frustration and  jealousy in his son Hindley that will fire up their deadly fight. The same destiny will share the Lintons’ when, after a mysterious absence of years, Heathcliff will turn up at their door only to carry out his revenge. Nothing and nobody will stop him. Not even love.

The affliction of time

The Enemy

My youth has been nothing but a tenebrous storm,
Pierced now and then by rays of brilliant sunshine;
Thunder and rain have wrought so much havoc
That very few ripe fruits remain in my garden.

I have already reached the autumn of the mind,
And I must set to work with the spade and the rake
To gather back the inundated soil
In which the rain digs holes as big as graves.

And who knows whether the new flowers I dream of
Will find in this earth washed bare like the strand,
The mystic aliment that would give them vigor?

Alas! Alas! Time eats away our lives,
And the hidden Enemy who gnaws at our hearts
Grows by drawing strength from the blood we lose!

Charles Baudelaire L’Ennemi  translated by William Aggeler.

At the very beginning of the Ode on a Grecian Urn Keats draws a line between art and man. Man has the gift of creating something that may outlive him, something immortal:ART. That’s why the urn is “foster child” of slow time that is eternity and a  “bride” that will never be violated by the mortal touch of life. On the contrary, men’s destiny is to be “wasted” by “clock time” generation after generation, while the urn/art is the cold indifferent witness of our “woes”. Hamlet regarded the passing of time like a whip that leaves on our skin and flesh scars that can’t be wiped out and “scorns” us when we become old, weak and useless. We can feel the pain in these words which is both physical and psychological, while in that “wasted” there is all the nonsense of the disrespectful action of time on man, who can’t find any consolation in art. In Baudelaire ‘s L’Ennemi  time takes the semblance of a vampire which “eats away our lives” “gnaws our hearts” and sucking our blood finds its strenght. It is the cruel twilight of our dreams of a youth that very soon will become autumn.