The contemporary Byronic hero with reference to the character of James Keziah Delaney in the historical drama ‘Taboo’

We welcome back, Olivia Metcalfe, who writes about the ‘taboo’ of Tom Hardy’s latest television character; discussing monstrosity and the Byronic Hero.  Olivia graduated with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature, and most recently, with an MA in English Studies.

Douglas (2014) recalls that Lady Caroline Lamb once described Lord Byron as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ (p.343) this can also be applied to the character of James Delaney. Both men share remarkable similarities that define them as the Byronic hero. These include: high level of intelligence, sophistication and social and sexual dominance. They also possess an air of mystery and charisma allowing them to breeze through the society that they hold such distaste for.

Forina (2014, p.2) states that:

The Byronic hero is typically identified by unflattering albeit alluring features and an arrogant although intelligent personality. This character is usually an anti-hero who has committed a great crime for which he may feel guilt, but for which he has not repented as he feels he is above societal and spiritual law

Ultimately, the Byronic Hero is a beautiful outcast, one with inner demons and a turbulent past, correct, but he can express himself articulately, possessing the ability to flourish in society. The Byronic Hero does not choose this, for he longs for solitude and endangers his own life with his self-destructive behaviour. However, to understand the Byronic hero we must understand what it means to be considered as taboo. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term ‘Taboo’ as: “A practise that is prohibited or restricted by social or religious custom”. (taboo, 2017)

It is certain that in Regency England the character of the Byronic Hero was held with distaste and even disgust, in civilised society. He surpassed customs that were held as sacred law for aristocrats and the upper class. These customs such as to distain oneself from the opposite sex until marriage, to respect King and country and to be a law abiding citizen, were turned on blind ears to the Byronic Hero. Underneath the crisp front, Regency England was a place of darkness and corruption, one that favoured the patriarchy and left the lower classes in squalor and disease. The character of the Byronic Hero offers a sense of justice and integrity to a world that closes its ears to the screams of its country men.

In this segment of my piece I will discuss how James Keziah Delaney is first an abhorrent man with no moralistic values, closer to that of a beast than a man. This part will describe how James Delaney can be seen as taboo.

There are many examples in which Delaney disrupts societal values in order to pave his own fortune and pleasure. He rejects the life of an English gentleman and lives in Africa for twelve years. In a society that legalises slavery and reduces people in the eyes of the British law, to possessions or animals, it is taboo that Delaney associates himself with this culture. This causes him to become ostracised in civilised society; he is seen as a savage. Zilpha – his sister – asks if he really ate flesh in Africa, and the audience realise there is some grain of truth in this statement which is illustrated in his behaviour in episode two, when he uses his teeth to rip away an assassin’s neck. He is a beast who appears to have no morality, presenting danger and death to those who approach him

Not only does he return from Africa with new values and stolen diamonds, but also witchcraft. We see many examples of this throughout the series. Delaney can communicate with the dead and has visions and hallucinations from past events. We are often presented with the dream like memory of his Native American mother who his magic is inherited from; her painted face and expressions are rather terrifying for the audience. The disturbing ‘savage’ representation that is presented to the audience is how the white Europeans of Regent England would envision Native Americans to be. They did not understand their culture, their ways, and their magic; so set to demonise it. We question who the real monsters are when we find that his mother was bought by Delaney’s father as a wife, imprisoned in a claustrophobic room, then sent to Bedlam for rebelling against her English husband. This perhaps may be why Delaney rejects his father and English society, in order to preserve his mother’s memory and her magic.

This magic is used for sinister devices to ‘visit his sister in her dreams’. He approaches Zilpha in episode four to admit his crimes.

Delaney: You feel me, don’t you when I break in?

Zilpha: No

Delaney: Yes, you do. You feel me. And I could come more often but I spare you.

(“Episode Four”. Taboo, 2017)

We wonder the extent of his powers when he states, ‘I spare you’. What is Delaney truly capable of? In some societies – including British – the ultimate taboo is to lay with one’s own blood; with one’s sister. Delaney does this by entering, pursuing, and reinstating a sexual relationship with his half-sister Zilpha Geary. In some scenes we wonder whether the relationship was wholly consensual as Zilpha attempts to reject his advances. He sexually assaults her in her dreams with his strange magic, as a result of this. Her husband watches this display then abuses Zilpha himself. Unfortunately in 1818 women had few rights and were unable to fight against the oppressive patriarchal society. Women such as Zilpha were at the mercy of the men in their lives. We applaud her bravery in episode seven where she kills the deserving and deplorable, Thorne Geary, her abusive husband. She runs to James in episode six to tell him of her crime “I killed him. Just like you said” she whispers kissing him. (“Episode Seven” Taboo, 2017) Delaney is confused and horrified. The audience question what demonic entity had possessed Zilpha to kill Thorne, as Delaney did not.

We may critique Delaney’s character; he is a despicable creature, one who commits carnal acts with no thought or remorse. However, I would like to present the argument that he represents a Byronic hero fighting against injustice in a cruel society.  To question this we must assess how his wrong doings in society are simply archaic judgments of a condescending time.

Although the act of incest disgusts and horrifies most viewers, it is an act ingrained in all of us from a young age that is deplorable and wrong. Rapf, however offers an interesting argument and gives us insight in to Delaney’s character. Rapf discusses the notion of incest:

In itself, there is no reason why this incestuous love should not be as intense, as creatively fulfilling as non-incestuous love. But in the eyes of society it is an “incorrect thing,” and impure, and as with any taboo, indulgence in it often results from a confused mixture of social defiance and self-degradation. (1981, p.643)

Delaney seemingly saves Zilpha from an abusive marriage, his love gives Zilpha the strength to destroy her husband and return to her true love. The lust and longing between both Zilpha and Delaney is electrifying, Zilpha knowing their love is forbidden attempts to push her brother away, but to no avail. She herself seduces Delaney – this is clear when both are seen alone in the church and Zilpha mounts her brother, initiates sexual intercourse and then pulls away. (“Episode Seven” Taboo, 2017) She teases him as they both enjoy the thrill of the forbidden. By saving Zilpha he is the gallant Byronic hero rescuing his damsel from not only her monstrous husband, but from a monstrous society. Like many formidable creatures Delaney is simply a product of an intolerant society. He is labelled as different, dangerous, and a demon. An ‘African Devil’ he is pronounced, by young Winter, also in episode seven, but it is through his embracement of this title, his rebellious nature and his dark charm, that make James Keziah Delaney, a true Byronic hero.

References

Taboo. Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 18.2.2017.  <http://dictionary.oed.com/&gt;

Forina, M. (2014). ‘Edward Rochester: A New Byronic Hero’. Undergraduate Review. Bridgewater State University. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/undergrad_rev/vol10/iss1/19

Rapf, J. (1981) ‘The Byronic Heroine: Incest and the Creative Process’ Rice University

Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/450231

Accessed: 13-02-2017 21:08 UTC

Douglass, P. (2004). Lady Caroline Lamb: A Biography. Palgrave Macmillan

“Episode Four”. Taboo. FX. 28th January 2017. Television.

“Episode Six” Taboo. FX. 11th February 2017. Television.

“Episode Seven” Taboo. FX. 11th February 2017. Television.

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The Beast that Haunts the Bedroom

As we delve further into the representation of the monster, this blog post, by Gary Christopher White, looks at the vampire and how the fangtastic image is eroticised, in text, and out. Gary graduated from the University of Sunderland with a BA Honours in English Language and Literature, went on to graduate with a PGCE, and is now currently teaching English as a lecturer for Newcastle College.

When we hear the word vampire we instantly think of two extreme ideals: the blood-sucking beast or the sparkling, illustrious incubus with a flawless complexion. However, it is what connects these two representations that is the most interesting. Their charismatic charm and ability to sexually dominate appeals to a dark fantasy that arguably resides within us all and transforms them from a beast that haunts the blood to a beast that haunts the bedroom.

Throughout time the vampire has been a figure that not only represents contemporary fears but contemporary desires and is no more relevant than today, in a society that favours the ‘bad boy’ persona and considers a thirst for blood and prolonged canines irrelevant. He is an enigmatic, powerful and timeless creature that is propelled by lust. A lust that as an audience we also experience, although the object of it is different; we ultimately lust for the dangerous and the deadly. We are attracted to the Byronic broodiness of the vampire and encouraged to indulge our unconscious desires, leaving good judgement at the door.  The ultimate exogamy.

The link between the vampire and sexuality has always existed as has our innate compulsion to lust over something which we know isn’t particularly good for us. This coupled with the physical intimacy that the vampire has with his unsuspecting victim provides an audience with a thrilling element of excitement. Biologically the carotid artery –located in the neck- is the area that blood is commonly extracted from but it is also a main erogenous zone that on a human level we associate with intimacy and pleasure. This is extremely important when considering our own attraction to the vampire and our inherent desire for physical closeness. We have to acknowledge at this point Levis-Strauss’ discovery that primitive cultures used the same word for sexual intercourse as eating (1988, p.139).  During the nineteenth century women were somewhat sexually oppressed and observed as falling victim to madness if they exhibited overtly sexual actions, so Stoker’s narrative on a male vampire that exuded class, charisma and sexuality would have excited the Victorian woman and provided a release from domestic dreariness. That’s not to say that every Victorian lady was frantically flicking the pages of Dracula as though it were ‘Fifty Shades of Fangs’, but drawn to an element of the book that resonated with them on a human level and tapped into something that is still relevant today: repressed desire.

Although in today’s society we are more liberal than the Victorians in our views we still find the deadly desirable and we have to ask ourselves why. What formula exists that transgresses time periods and society that ultimately makes this beast attractive to a contemporary audience. As a society we have undergone a metamorphosis in relation to desire and what we find attractive and so has the vampire. The vampiric spirit and capabilities of the beast are a constant but the physical aspects are in a state of flux, moulded predominantly to what contemporary society deems as ‘attractive’. For instance Edward Cullen is the vampire, boy next door hybrid of the modern day who not only conforms to our conventional expectations of what is attractive but also appeals to our thirst for the dangerous and exciting; the modern day equivalent of the aforementioned ‘dark fantasy’. Although he sparkles in the sun when he should be burnt to a crisp he still exudes a charismatic influence that we can’t help but be attracted to. We are instantly enthralled and invested in the secret love affair between Edward and Bella, beauty and the beast. With this in mind, we have to consider another dimension to our attraction to that which should invoke terror: Does the monstrous become more attractive when affected by or exhibiting an emotion that is inherently human, such as love?  Is it the human elements of this monster that we ultimately lust over, categorising their primal desire to drain us of blood as simply ‘baggage’?

As humans we ultimately desire intimacy with others, therefore we are, by default, ruled by our own laws of attraction. The penetration of the vampire’s victims reminds us of our own susceptibility to dominant forces, something that some secretly enjoy, and can be seen as a metaphor for sexual intercourse; an intimate act that is inherently primal. Would we really brush Klaus Mikaelson away if we felt his stubble brush against our throats, anticipating intimacy not death? As a society we are wilfully blind to the deadly elements of such a beast, favouring their chiselled features and sensual actions. Russo (2008, p.134) sees the vampire as ‘ the quintessential outsider…outlaw creatures with a sensuality not entirely focussed on the social ‘norm’ of two minutes of genital thrusting’. This suggests that society is attracted to the ministrations of a torturous love affair with the deadly, willingly serving us –pun intended- to the charismatic caper who we are attracted to arguably because he exists outside societal norms. He is something we shouldn’t want, but we do. The vampire as a representation of extended reality significantly contributes to our desire as on some level we can consider a union with the vampire as feasible because he is isn’t visibly abhorrent. He is something other than the regular who transcends the mortality.

Through considering vampires as sexual beings we are forced to question ourselves on a number of levels and question the appropriacy of our transgressions. We reflect upon the boundaries that society imposes in terms of ‘constructions of normality’ but we always choose to indulge our dark desires in pursuit of deadly pleasure. Regardless of the physical manifestation of the vampire we continue to be enthralled and this is primarily a result of the versatile nature of the monster and its sensuous appeal; willingly placing ourselves at the hands of the monster. The supernatural becomes eroticised and death becomes sexualised in such a way that the chill that rubs down our spine upon encountering the vampire isn’t just fear.

References:

Russo.A (2008) Vampire Nation. Llewellyn World Wide

Stevnson. J.A (1989) A Vampire in the Mirror: The Sexuality of Dracula.PMLA

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Communists Monsters and Capitalist Heroism

Following the graduation of 2016’s MA English Students, Katie Watson, is still intent on using her knowledge of theory, to address the matters of today. This piece, provides a detailed account of political pattern, and highlights the concerns circulating society, as we are faced with the current daily news reports. Katie graduated with a BA Honours in English and Drama, and an MA in English Studies.

In the wake of what can only be described as a hyper-capitalist political movement in the US, with the appointment of Donald Trump as President of, essentially, the free world, it’s no surprise that our monsters are beginning to talk about it.

We all know the Gothic rule of thumb – your monsters epitomise the cultural fears that keep you up at night. The Other, consumerism, illness; every era has their monster.

With the movement towards, sadly, a post literate era, as it’s being described, one must turn to the monsters of the movies to see where exactly our anxieties now lie.

Introducing KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), a remake of the classic favourite, set about a beast of a bygone era that man must conquer, tame, and ultimately show off to his friends back home…

King Kong (1933) in all its formats has always discussed the famous argument epitomised fantastically in Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus (1818): who is the real monster, here? Often, by the end of the novel, comic, film or other, we’ve concluded that it is: man. Is anyone surprised?

KONG: SKULL ISLAND is no different. What is interesting, however, is the political and social narrative that becomes incredibly relevant to the movements of today, rather than simply the anti-imperialist message of the original King Kong, SKULL ISLAND expands upon this, satirically creating a dialogue with the capitalist agenda that perforates throughout Hollywood, the industry that ironically funded this film.

First, the period. Set in the early 1970s, the film immediately harks back to a Cold War America, an America where to be Communist was to be a traitor, an America that invaded an east Asian country simply on the fear of the ‘domino effect’ – that of the movement and growth of communism throughout the east if not quashed by the heroic west (yes, you can taste heavy bouts of unapologetic sarcasm throughout this article).

Second, the terrain. Unexplored, exotic landscapes, uncivilised tribes, sub-human in comparison to the progressive American gentleman. If this is not a reference to the Americans’ opinion of the Vietnamese then I’m not sure what is. This idea that the west must save the barbarous easterners is a prevalent theme throughout Gothic literature. Note, the Crew of Light in Dracula (1897), two Englishmen, a Dutchman and an American who band together with their intelligence, bravery and valour to destroy a creature from the dangerous and wild east. This fear of the unknown and the Other is one that can be acknowledged throughout literature no matter what era. It is one that is resurfacing now as Trump’s fear propaganda floods the media.

Third, the title. Does anyone else find it rather notable that the film chose to drop the term ‘King’ from the title, disregarding the fact that the title has been King Kong since its creation in 1933? I am attributing that to the creator’s wit as they continue to refer to the Vietnam War.

The central threat to the US Military, during the Vietnam War, was a group of fighters named the Viet Cong. Coincidence? I’m really beginning to doubt it. These fighters utilised the rainforests that the US Military could not negotiate, much like Kong uses the landscape to his advantage. A shot in the 2017 film sees a group of helicopters who, from a perspective, seem tiny. One, however, we have mistaken for a dragon fly looking to land on a leaf, perhaps to symbolise how quite out of their depth – and blissfully unaware of that fact – the Americans were as they “choppered” in to Vietnam.

These Viet Cong soldiers used the craft of guerrilla – note the use of Kong, an oversized gorilla, as a metaphor for this – warfare to decimate the US Military and demonstrate their resilience to an overbearing west.

I have not seen the film, unfortunately, as the release date is not until March but my neurotic brain simply could not wait 2 months to produce this piece. However, what is apparent is that there is a social dialogue in place against the monster that is American capitalism and is not, in fact, the Communist monster, Kong.

The Americans in the film resort to imperialist methods of destruction, their capitalist veins filled with a lust for power, they leave an undisturbed island in pieces as the credits roll. Fuelled with a fear of the Other, they must control it, cage it and display it as another example of Capitalist success.

Trump’s hypercapitalism, hatred of communism, and fuelling of the fear in Muslims, represents everything the new KONG film labels as monstrous. Like many other Gothic pieces, the reader/watcher comes away not actually knowing if the monster is the hideous beast, or, in fact, man himself.

 

King Kong (1933) Directed by Merian C. CooperErnest B. Schoedsack

Kong: Skull island (2017) Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts USA.

Shelley, M. and Johnson, D. (1984) Frankenstein, or, the modern Prometheus. New York: Random House Publishing Group.

Stoker, B. (2011) Dracula (Oxford world’s classics). Edited by Roger Luckhurst. New York: Oxford University Press, USA.

 

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Introducing the Spectral Visions Press Tarot Collection

Following the launch of Spectral Visions Press: Tarot Collection, Tegan Stevenson, who is an integral part of the press team, including editor and contributer of the new edition, introduces the book in further depth. Tegan has recently graduated from the University of Sunderland with a BA Honours in English and Creative Writing.

When I was asked to work on this project my first thought was, “wow”.

My second thought was, “how?”

I’d proofread small pieces of work for friends and classmates before but compiling an entire anthology was definitely something that I had never done. I was up for the challenge.

Thankfully, like most great achievements, I had a partner on the project. Danielle Shaw was the first to join me and her efforts when it came to managing and editing were tireless. Her passion for the work was a real inspiration throughout every stage. As well as her involvement behind the scenes, Danielle took the time to write her poem ‘Demeter’s daughter’ for the fifth illustration in the series, ‘The Hierophant’. As we sat on the train on our way to university, it was always fascinating to hear about her research into the meaning of that particular tarot card.

Of course, the production of the book really began with Katie Loyd. As an illustrator and artist who had worked with Spectral Visions Press before (Spectral Visions: Grim Fairy Tales was published in 2015 and contains artwork by Loyd), her beautifully drawn images depicting the Major Arcana of the tarot was met with enthusiasm. The illustrations were inspiring and I was lucky enough to be offered the chance of pairing the images with authors whose work would be published alongside the art.

Poetry was the initial and ultimately the only option to accompany the images. The singular focus upon one discipline of writing was unique in the repertoire of Spectral Visions Press to date and the approach we took was quite focused. The interest from writers willing to contribute was flatteringly high but there was no open call for submissions, barring a small post on the Spectral Visions Facebook group in the beginning to generate interest, instead each author was contacted personally by myself and Danielle. We were thrilled with the eager reactions we received.

We’d like to take a moment to thank the writers, in particular those who are not students or staff members of Sunderland University because their efforts were admirable. The response to our emails were great and I know that Danielle was especially elated by the positive response from Elisabeth Hewer, a published poet from South West England who has long been admired by Danielle (Her book Wishing for Birds was published in 2015 by Platypus Press). Elisabeth’s poem ‘High Priestess’ is the third poem in the SVP Tarot Collection.

All of the submissions, from students, staff and published authors alike, were fantastic and I remember being blown away when one writer, Ieuan Ivison approached us with a villanelle that he’d written within a couple of days. His poem ‘The Hanged Man’ accompanies the twelfth illustration in the collection.

The project became a team effort once we had received a poetry submission for each illustration and every person who was a part of the project was incredibly focused and passionate during each stage which was remarkable considering that they were working on the book during their final months at university.

We were lucky to have our proofreading team and our in-project copyeditor as well as our typesetter and cover artist: Kate Edmonds, Penny Metcalfe, Laura Stock, Jack Gray and Sacha Margetson. For some of us we were using new skills which makes their efforts even more outstanding.

As for me, I began as a project manager. I gathered interest, submissions and a team, but my role didn’t end there. I worked as an editor with Danielle. I was a typesetter. I was a designer as I made the initial sketches which were taken by Sacha and transformed into a beautiful front and back cover for the book. Most of these stages involved skills in a way that I’d never used them before but I am so proud of the work that was done and I sincerely hope that I will have the chance to work this way again in the future. My poem ‘The Tower’ is the sixteenth piece of writing in the series.

The Spectral Visions Press: Tarot Collection is a beautiful anthology of art and poetry developed and put together by the students of the University of Sunderland.

 

You can purchase your own copy of Spectral Visions Press: Tarot Collection on Amazon now. Just follow this link: (X)

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Monstrosity and Misogyny: The Intellectual Victims of Hegemonic Discourse

After a short break, we are back, with the second instalment of Katie Watson’s article on Mary Shelley. Katie graduated with a BA Honours in English and Drama and is currently studying an MA in English Studies.

Continuing my discussion of Mary Shelley and the monstrous woman, I wish to digress further into the feminist movements that surrounded Shelley and led to a great many other women to be deemed monsters.

The 1790s saw the first real rise of the radical woman. There had been intellectual women in the past with an agenda for achieving better rights for women but this decade saw a vast increase in the publication of texts with a feminist agenda, both fictional and theoretical, for example, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Mary Hays’s A Victim of Justice (1799). The former text was written by none other than Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The pioneer of feminism, Wollstonecraft strove for the education of females, equal rights and the abolition of marriage as a patriarchal institute.

This rise of feminism directly confronted the entire male hegemony that had dominated society for millennia, thus, unfortunately, with this literary movement, came the social portrayal of these radicals as monsters.

Wollstonecraft’s reputation was systematically destroyed by reviews and social gossip. She went against the tide not only in her literature; she practiced what she preached, giving birth to a bastard child, Fanny Imlay, attempting suicide twice and spending time alone and unmarried, with men. This destruction culminated after her death when her husband, William Godwin, published her Memoirs. In this he revealed all the aforementioned information that had remained concealed until then. Wollstonecraft became a “hyena in petticoats” (Mills, C. 2015) according to our most beloved gothic father, Horace Walpole. She was nothing more than an animal, a bestial creature in the guise of a woman, a monster.

This divergence from the social norm spread to everyone around her. You need only refer to my previous article to see how her famous daughter strove against conformity. Her first daughter, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide as a young woman, the ultimate act of monstrosity: self-murder and sacrilege. Folklore told that suicides may indeed come back as vampires, and so to prevent any more claims of monstrosity being thrown towards the family, William Godwin and Percy Shelley worked to cover up the girl’s death, claiming it was the result of a short illness.
As a young woman Wollstonecraft worked briefly as a governess in Ireland for the Kingsborough family. Refusing to stick to the standard curriculum for girls, Wollstonecraft taught the Kingsborough daughters about more masculine subjects, and allowed them to go outside for great lengths in order to strengthen them. One of these daughters, Mary, felt the lasting effects of Wollstonecraft’s antisocial feminism. Mary fled her home to the continent, leaving her husband and children, there dressing as a man and training to become a doctor. Another monster in this misfit family.

Finally is Mary Shelley’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont. After Wollstonecraft’s death Godwin married his neighbour, Mary Jane Clairmont. Clairmont’s daughter eloped with Mary and Percy Shelley in 1813. She later had an affair with Byron which resulted in the birth of their daughter. Godwin and her mother, however, believed the child to be Percy Shelley’s as rumours of their behaviour as the league of incest grew in England. Jane Clairmont was deeply struck by Wollstonecraft, she changed her name to Claire in defiance of her mother and took on Wollstonecraft’s birthday as her own.

Thus it is often the case that with the rise of feminism, be it first, second or third wave, there is also the rise of the monstrous woman. The hegemonic male fear of the woman’s power, both seductive and intellectual. These women were struck down and cast out of the society they desperately tried to change for the better. Ignored was their intellectual capability, highlighted was their deviation from the norm. So always remember, ladies, patriarchy hates deviance.

Mills, C. (2015) Mary Wollstonecraft: A Hyena in petticoats, or just misunderstood? Available at: http://www.headstuff.org/2015/01/mary-wollstonecraft-hyena-petticoats-just-misunderstood/ (Accessed: 28 July 2016).

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Frankenstein’s Summer Holiday

To end our discussion on Monstrous Women, Katie Watson brings you the introduction of an interesting two-part read on Mary Shelley and how a woman with no supernatural power can just as easily possess a ‘monstrous’ title. Katie graduated with a BA Honours in English and Drama and is currently studying an MA in English Studies.

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Credit: Flickr

Spectral Visions have recently collected a series of pieces on the Monstrous Woman. Aside from the fictional female monsters our society has been replete with since Classical times (just take a look at Medusa), there are women not supernatural or superhuman, not evil or demonic, yet still typified as monstrous. The concept of the Suffragettes as social monsters to the hegemonic patriarch was explored by Olivia Metcalfe. I would like to follow a similar lead. One such woman, daughter of a celebrated feminist, a runaway at 16, eloping with a married man, was a disgrace, a monster to her society. Perhaps even the monster in her own allegorical tale. The insightful, emotive and sympathetic first person narration from the monster’s perspective suggests so.

 

Coming up is the bicentenary of that fateful night on Lake Geneva where amidst drugs, sex and speculation a tale of terror was born.

 

The galvanist theme so prevalent in Mary Shelley’s timeless Frankenstein (1818) was not just a nightmare for the authoress. The summer of 1816, or lack thereof, was filled with tempests, thunder, lightning. Electricity was in the air.

 

It was the result of an environmental phenomenon that the League of Incest and, indeed, the rest of the world would not believe could cause such international meteorological distress. Beyond contemporary scientific comprehension, the world was terrified: crops wiped out, floods, and perpetual darkness. This was certainly reflective of the apocalyptic suggestions in Revelations. Was our God destroying humankind in its new, enlightened state of secularism? A fitting punishment for a world playing with the flame of science.

 

A catastrophic volcanic eruption, thousands of miles from Shelley, then Miss Godwin, in South East Asia lead to mass devastation. Tens of thousands killed instantly.

 

It was the year without a summer.

 

Remarkably comparable with our own tumultuous weather. Hail stones and snow in late April. It’s almost as if that same ominous thunder bolt that struck a bulb in Shelley’s head is ready to strike again. Or perhaps it is a sublime homage to that brilliant writer, a reminder that we should be careful playing with fire and tempting fate.

 

The summer of 1816 was ruined by a natural event. Can we say the same of our own weather? Or perhaps our Promethean hand has had a part to play in it.

 

How very Gothic indeed that we may be the result of our own destruction…

Image

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Lady Macbeth: A Misunderstood Monster?

As part of our Monstrous Women collection, Rachel Duarte has contributed with a detailed analysis on the ultimate femme fatale, Lady Macbeth. Rachel graduated from the University of Roehampton with a BA Honours in Drama and Dance, and a PGCE in English and Drama. She is the Head of English at Wolsingham School and is currently studying an MA in English studies.

So we’re here to talk about monsters, monstrous women to be precise. Yet just what do we mean by a monstrous woman? One who is a hideous, ugly beast; a giant superhuman; an evil sub-human killer? Or simply a frustrated female fed up with being subjected to the unfairness of a dominant patriarchal society and unwilling to play along with the feminine stereotype dreamt up by men?

One of the earliest archetypal monstrous femme-fatales has to be the iconic Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare’s meatiest role for a woman. She is cruel, cunning and conniving, convincing her husband to commit the ultimate crime: regicide in her quest for power and control. Yet is she really the monster she is often made out to be or is she really a scapegoat for male fears and concerns about intelligent women?

So just what is the case for Lady Macbeth?

Let’s start with the evidence. The first time she is seen on the stage she is reading a letter from her husband explaining his encounter with the witches and their subsequent prophecies. Described as his ‘dearest partner in greatness’ it is immediately clear that she is not a subservient minion responsible for running an efficient household, but rather an intellectual equal, even a superior, with powerful brains, foresight and intelligence. Is it any surprise then that such a smart woman would not be content to stay in the shadows, playing second fiddle to her man and confined to the domestic role? What would be more natural than for such a character to strive for a more stimulating role in life? It is a sure sign of the times that simply by naming her his ‘partner in greatness’ and his equal sets her up as an unnatural wife, a woman to be afraid of – a ‘monster’!

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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth – Credited to John Singer Sargent

As a genuinely insightful woman, she understands from the start that her husband is ‘too full o’ the milk of human kindness’ (1,5) to fulfil their joint ambitions and so realises that she has a job of persuasion on her hands. She knows that, despite all her qualities, it is only through her husband’s promotion that she can gain any active control over her destiny and so she knows she has to persuade him to “do the deed” (1,5)

Her next speech depicts her summoning spirits and it is this soliloquy, which is often used as damning evidence in the charges of monstrosity. As she calls on those evil beings who ‘tend on mortal thoughts’ (1,5) asking to be filled ‘from top to toe with direst cruelty’ (1,5) and for all compassion and remote to be effectively ‘stopped’ there are clear parallels with those other monstrous women in the play: the witches. However, she also rather strangely asks to be ‘unsexed’, a curious and telling command and one, which reveals quite another aspect of her character. By asking to be made androgynous, Lady Macbeth recognises that, as a woman, she has feelings, which would make her unequal to the role of murder and even that of accomplice. She needs to be ‘filled with cruelty’ as it is not in her nature. She requires her feminine emotions and empathy to be removed in order to go ahead with her plan, highlighting that she does have these emotions, but she sees them as a sign of weakness. In a society filled with barbaric battles and the most vicious fighting, is it any wonder that power is viewed as in the hands of those who seize it for themselves? Merely because Lady Macbeth is a woman existing in a man’s world can we condemn her for trying to emulate male behaviour in order to achieve her political aims?

Another male fear and literary trope of the monstrous woman is the female who emasculates her man. Again, Lady Macbeth is shown to use this method effectively to shake up her reluctant husband in order to persuade him to go ahead with killing King Duncan. Calling him a baby and metaphorically ‘unmanning’ him indeed hits a sore spot and ultimately succeeds in ‘screwing his courage to the sticking place’ (1,7). So does this really make Lady Macbeth a monster? Surely, behind the majority of great men (to quote the song) there has to be a great woman (Franklin, 1985) and across history it is the females in the background who have made their men into household names. It is again a mark of her own frailty that she needs Macbeth to do the actual killing while she waits for him to go ‘about it’. Surely if her husband were a real man he would not allow himself to be easily convinced by a few taunts and insults.

Probably the most damning evidence in the argument of Lady Macbeth’s monstrous identity is in this speech. Her admission that:

[…] I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this. (1.7.62-67)

is a horrific image clearly intended to create abhorrence in the viewing audience. What greater evidence could there be of an unnatural monster; a woman who would willingly kill her own offspring is surely pure evil. Indeed, this statement does the trick and drives Macbeth to agree to kill the king. Yet, if we look more closely, look beyond the hyperbolic admission and at the grammatical construction of these words, a rather different perception is waiting. By using the subjunctive mood here, Shakespeare actually writes that she ‘would…have…dashed the brains out, had I so sworn…’ meaning that she would have killed her own baby if she had promised to do so. Obviously she did not make any such promise and so can safely claim to commit any heinous crime safe in the knowledge that is it simply a tool in her persuasive armoury.

So Lady Macbeth stands as one of literature’s most monstrous female characters and as such she has to be punished. Her demise is both pitiful and ironic. As the partner who ensured her husband’s success, the clever accomplice covering his back when he went to pieces, she pays the ultimate price for claiming the ultimate prize. As Macbeth withdraws his support and effectively abandons her to her guilty conscience, madness descends and suicide beckons. Her ‘unwomanly’ behaviour, which threatened the male hegemony, is her downfall in order for Shakespeare to maintain the patriarchal status quo.

The monstrous Lady begins the literary trope of the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and so a whole stereotype is born.

References:

Image rights obtained:

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Shakespeare, W. (1997) Macbeth (Wordsworth classics) (Wordsworth classics). United Kingdom: Wordsworth Editions

Frankin, A. 1985. Sisters are doing it for Themselves. Arista Records. United States.

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