How Should we Judge the Morality of Shakespeare’s Characters?

I believe that King Lear does a good job at giving morality its nebulous nature. Every character is much a more a product of their experiences than they are of some innate malicious intent. The antagonists of Lear are generally indignant, and rightfully so. Edmund’s actions are a product of his unfair treatment within society as a bastard. Regan and Goneril are second to Cordelia, as Lear is noted to have played favorites. And Lear, with his inability to take criticism, is this not just a pernicious side effect of his position within society. And if it is to be supposed that these characters are not a product of their environment, one would have to argue that they are a product of nature. This leaves a difficult dilemma where blame is escapable. Why blame character for actions that are dictated purely based off of either their environment or their innate qualities? This is simply not a feasible model for anything, it is not practical, riddled with excuses for actions, and disheartening. We cannot prove that free will exists, and yet we must accept that it does, for everything falls apart without that assumption. If we cannot prove its existence, we must at least pretend. In addition to this, what dictates the will of these characters? Does one dictate one’s own will? What wills Cordelia to forgiveness? What wills Goneril and Regan towards hate? Are we capable to dictating our own will, or only recognizing it? While I do not believe that Shakespeare attempts to answer these questions, or that this play speaks against the concept of a freely determining will, I still think Shakespeare is arguing that taking into account the experiences of a person is the most essential aspect to determining their character. King Lear touches on this, and by doing so, Shakespeare argues for a message of mutual understanding, of causal examination, and of empathy.

Paranoid Neighbor

What’s He Building? by Tom Waits on his album Mule Variations exemplifies the irrationality of humans and the irony and hipcorisy of human curiosity and anxiety. With effectively no melodic portions and a complete lack of any harmony, I’m not sure I would even call this music, but it serves my purpose as it’s one of the only works of music that I listen to that isn’t instrumental, or has sappy mid-century jazz lyrics, or has completely indecipherably esoteric lyrics. The “song” is a set of stanzas consisting of a man speculating on the doings of his neighbor. The neighbor is introduced as a mysterious character with unknown motives, what really is he building in there?

What’s he building in there?

With that hook light on the stairs What’s he building in there?

I’ll tell you one thing

He’s not building a playhouse for the children

What’s he building in there?

Tom Waits builds towards the final revelation throughout the entire piece, primarily using imagery. But not a sort of emotional or moving imagery. A kind of grim, familiarly dingy imagery. The imagery focusses on the less than pleasant, but not unpleasant. The underside of a sink, a bottle of formaldehyde, a dying lawn, and a tire swing. These innocuous objects become profound because they are mentioned. Their very mundane nature is precisely what gives them power when they are mentioned. The narrator’s fixation on the mundaneness of the whole scenario is what gives it significance, and what makes on question what is he building in there?

And I keep seeing the blue light of a

T.V. show

He has a router and a table saw

In addition to Waits’ usage of mundane imagery to further the intrigue of the scenario, repetition is liberally used to ground us, to bring us back to the question of “what is he building in there?” This repetition keeps one focussed on the mystery and the unknown. Every now and again it is eerily interjected into the words after a seemingly pointless and harmless piece of information is received.

I heard he has an ex-wife
In some place called Mayors Income, Tennessee
And he used to have a consulting business in Indonesia
But what is he building in there?
What the hell is building in there?

And finally, by the end of the song, the narrator remarks that

What’s he building in there? We have a right to know…

Now ask yourself, “what do we know about this mysterious neighbor?” Come to think of it, quite a bit actually, we actually know a good bit about his life. This mysterious character is not so mysterious at all. This suspicious man across the street with his alterior motives is doing nothing abnormal. The constant reference to innocuous and simple daily objects serves to show us that this neighbor, is in fact, not doing anything abnormal or unwonted by any means. But what do we know of the narrator? This narrator who is so obsessed with his nieghbor and his doings? By the end the real enigma is the narrator. The neighbor is not the one we should be concerned about. After all, the neighbor is not the one stalking his nieghbor. While this song may not be exceptionally deep or emotional, I believe that through the mundane diction, the repetition, and the final revelation, Waits reveals several truths about human nature. First, information can always be skewed by how it is presented. The first couple of times that I listened to this “song”, I truthfully saw the narrator as a concerned citizen. The power of the context in which information is presented is everything. The mysterious background noises, the low, gruff, voice. And yet, by simply reading out the lyrics, we see that clearly the narrator is the one with a loose scew, not the neighbor. In addition to this, I believe that our inability to see our own hypocrisy is also a primary theme of this work. The narrator can not see that he is the very embodiment of that which criticizes. The whole “song” primarily serves to highlight the anxious and pernicious shortcomings of humans by presenting this facts in an absurd but telling manner.

A Yearning for the Familiar

While it is apparent that a central theme in this book is the importance of acceptance and accepting change, Hamid does a wonderful job of complicating this narrative that change is a one sided issue. What Hamid struck with this novel is the nuance that exists in every narrative, every story, and every situation. While Exit West argues that change is good, even necessary to a healthy world, and blind conservation of a status-quo is a fruitless ideology to adhere to, what spoke to me the most was Hamid’s more subtly worked in idea that humans, regardless of what power they hold in a system, are resistant to change.

Throughout the story this idea of resistance to the unfamiliar is presented as either violent opposition to change or exhibited as characters passively gravitate to the familiar. The most obvious example of this opposition to change is seen through the anti-migrant sentiment that is pervasive throughout many of the natives. The migrants are unfamiliar to natives, and the migrants supplanted natives in areas which the natives once called their own. I am fairly certain that even the most pro migrant individual would react with indignancy seeing what they had called theirs taken from them by something, someone, or a group of people who are unfamiliar. We see the often unfounded fear of “migrants taking away our [your answer here!]” in Exit West realized to an extent in which people are in fact having their property, livelihoods, and homes uprooted by a migrant crisis. What is a more rational fear than the fear of the unknown? And what is more rational than to adhere to that which you understand poses no threat? I believe that Hamid does an excellent job at not demonizing the anti-migrant nativists. They react how most all people would when faced with such a situation.

What is more is that this yearning for the familiarity is not limited to nativists, or those who hold power within the status quo. The maid who is mute is an example of this. Even promises of something better do not sway her from her mundane, but secure life. Similarly, Saeed seems to be the character with the most yearning for familiarity. He is always said to be thinking about his country, and gravitating towards that which he knows, his people. In London, Saeed, faced with the uncertainty of a hostile environment, finds comfort in his people. Similarly, Saeed’s father, despite most likely understanding he will die without contact with his son, stays in his home country despite knowing it will likely be his demise.

I find the culmination of this “yearning for familiarity” in the final times that we see Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. They both are reluctant to end it, rather have it wane and dissipate slowly. They both fear the implications of addressing anything that might hint at the end of the relationship, or a change, a departure from familiarity. Even Nadia, a bastion of unorthodoxy, progress, and desire for change, still needs time to let of go of a familiar but ultimately argumentative and pernicious love. I find this moment to be the most profound expression of Hamid’s view of change. We all experience change, we all must change, we all do change. Resistance to change only makes us unhappy. Unhappiness, often, if not always, is characterized by dwelling on that which we cannot change. And we cannot change our feelings, we cannot change our love, changing those are subject to the whims of chance. This book shows the malleability of love, something which we often believe can be ossified, something that can be relied on. The power of this book comes not from the eventual mutual acceptance that Saeed and Nadia share as they break off their love, but the difficulty that they both share in doing so and in how they are both able to live as more authentic versions of themselves, and are ultimately better off simply accepting the inevitability of their relationship’s end. They must accept the inevitability of change. Hamid perfectly embodies the eternal human struggle with change through the uniquely human and indecipherably complex phenomenon of love.

Extremes, Dehumanization, and Alienation

I believe that certain aspects of Camus’s story may be a commentary on the danger of extremes and how a human taken to those extremes is viewed by society. This may be illustrated by the story through not only Meursault, but also through “the robot woman”, and Meursault’s observations on her.

The Robot Woman exhibits almost comical discipline, which acts in opposition to Meursault’s indifference and lack of ambition or drive. While Meursault “had no ambition” (41), The Robot Woman is described as, well, “robotic” (43) They are clearly meant to represent polar opposites of “internal drive.” However, this difference can also be said to be a reflection on their role of society and how they are viewed by that society. Meursault, during his trial, his accused of “having no place in society” and of “being a monster” (102). This, combined with robotic actions often being used as an antithesis to human actions, could serve to illustrate society’s discontent with extrememes. Despite being opposites, The Robot Woman and Meursault both exhibit traits that are taken to extremes deemed “inhuman” by the standards of society.

What goes against established norms of society is apt to be demonized by a society which adheres to those norms and blindly equates normalcy to goodness. And yet many people feel forced to adhere to those norms for fear of losing their societal label of goodness. However, by all accounts, we can agree that Meursault was true to his schema and belief system, and therefore himself. And therefore, it can be reasoned that, quite possibly, Camus believes society, as it exists, to be an attack on the individual. But I don’t know this just kind sounded cool in my head and makes a little bit of sense, but I still am not entirely sure of what to think of The Stranger or its themes, in all honestly.

Meursault’s Actions, Nature of The Sun, and Free Will

I do not believe that Meursault’s character simply exists to be observed as a sociopathic, apathetic, and reprehensible individual, but rather an indivual afflicted with a condition that anyone is subject to when put in a certain situation: the realization of a lack of control. Meursault understands his lack of control, this universal lack of control, and so he lives his life as he does, as an indifferent, but rather content individual. He is content in this fact, in this knowledge that he is powerless. It is comforting to believe oneself to be free from concious impulse, accountability, or reasonable judgement. For if one lacks control, no rational individual can cast judgement on one who does not have any ability to control themselves. This person sans control is consigned to a societal outcast, just as Meursault is. I believe that Meursault believes and finds comfort in his understanding of his lack of control and his rational conclusion that he is impervious to any blame and how this allows for him to live a fulfilling and content life.

Meursault is subject only to nuture and nature, just as we all are. He has no control over his indifference, that is how he is. He has no control over his experience or reaction to the sun. He has no control over the thoughts that pop into his head, just as we do not, as what manifests itself in one’s mind, even though one may claim thoughts to be one’s own, are not created by a concious choice. His nurture, the death of his mother, his childhood, are all out of his control. His reaction to these events, or any event, is not by choice. His character is formed by phenomena outside of his control and his response to phenomena are governed by his thoughts, and as thoughts arise in ones mind, not through will, but by the whim of a mind conditioned by phenomenal experience, Meursault has no free will, just as we all do not. Meursault is no difference than us, he just accepts this lack of control. He does not attempt to pretend that he has control, as many of us claim to. The only difference between us and Meursault, is that we have not accepted that life is not in our control. Meursault has. If Meursault had a choice, would he have shot the Arab, as this, of course, will probably cause him great trouble in the future? Does the word choice of “[t]he trigger gave” (59) imply any sense of agency in Meursault? No, it does not. The sun is a natural occurrence, and how we can hope to have any control over the sun? We cannot control the sun, we cannot control that we are prone to follow its cycle to rest and rise. We are condemned to follow nature, which we cannot control. The sun in the story is a representation of untamable nature and its effects on us, and is therefore the antithesis of free will.

And so, I believe the sun made Meursault shoot the Arab. And I believe the sun is uncontrollable nature, and so it is the antithesis of free will. I believe that the only difference between us and Meursault is how much agency we believe that we have. And while many would argue that a lack of free will strips meaning from life, Meursault’s indifference to this fact is precisely what allows him to live contently, to enjoy life, and to live fully. While Meursault may not consiously understand this fact, I believe that he unconsiouly understands that he is not in control of his life, and this is what frees him from the hardships of life. And finally, this is why I believe many people in our class believe that Meursault is a societal outcast, when he is in the very same scenario that we are all in, subject to the same whims of nature which cannot be controlled.