Comparison Between "King Lear" And "A Streetcar Named Desire"

1918 words - 8 pages

Tracing Aristotle's tragic hero model in "King Lear" and "A Streetcar Named Desire":Aristotle defines tragedy as a form of drama which imitates noble people through artistically enhanced language and through pitiable and fearful incidents. According to Aristotle, tragedy involves several aspects that eventually lead to catharsis, an emotional cleansing of the audience. Some of these aspects include pity, fear, reversal and recognition. Reversal of fortune (peripeteia) is "an incident in which the tragic hero undergoes a reversal of fortune to the opposite state of affairs" (Section 11). Recognition (anagnorisis) occurs when "the hero undergoes a change from ignorance to knowledge and brings about a state of friendship or one of hostility in the tragic figure" (Section 11). These stages occur simultaneously in a complex plot is order to create feelings of pity and fear with catharsis as the main goal. Both William Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams present tragic heroes within their respective plays, King Lear and A Streetcar Named Desire; however, while Shakespeare accomplishes this by following Aristotle's tragic model rather closely, Williams adapts Aristotle's model to better suit a 20th century audience.Both tragic heroes, King Lear and Blanche DuBois, have tragic flaws as defined by Aristotle. According to Aristotle, every tragic hero is a "person who is neither perfect in virtue or justice (Section 13)." Shakespeare describes Lear's flaw as pride. This flaw is evident when Lear informs his daughters he will award the "largest bounty (King Lear 1.1.57)" to the daughter that professes his love for him in the best possible way. In other words, Lear is looking for ways to feed his pride. As Aristotle said, this tragic flaw leads to the downfall of the hero. In this case, Lear loses all his wealth to his daughters and wanders around homeless. He eventually turns insane and passes away due to grief over his lost daughter, Cordelia. Similarly, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire possesses a tragic flaw of pedophilia. When Blanche is alone at home one evening, she is visited by a young man who is collecting for the local newspaper. After a short flirtatious conversation with the man, Blanche "crosses quickly to him and presses her lips to his (Williams 84)." Stanley informs Stella, later in the play, that Blanche lost her job at the Laurel High School after being terminated for getting "mixed up with (101)" a "seventeen-year old boy (101)." This, in turn, leads to her downfall as the truth is exposed to all during her stay with Stella. Stanley then "interferes with (129)" her dignity and rapes her when Stella is in the hospital. At the end, we see Blanche going to a mental asylum without putting up a fight, which shows that she knows that her end is near. Here we see that Shakespeare deals with same flaw Aristotle talks about in his Poetics i.e. pride, whereas, Williams uses a more mature theme of sexual desire as a flaw which appeals more to a 20th century audience. Therefore, Williams does not follow Aristotle's model as closely as Shakespeare.King Lear and Blanche Dubois undergo peripeteia (reversal of fortune), the first rule for protagonists in a complex tragic plot as proposed in Aristotle's poetics. In the first scene of King Lear, King Lear of England is planning retirement and wants to divide the land among his three daughters - Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. In order to divide his land, King Lear asks, "Which of you shall we say doth love us most, / That we our largest bounty may extend" (King Lear 1.1.56-57), in other words Lear wants to distribute his land according to the flattery speeches of his daughters in order to feed his pride. While Regan and Goneril flatter King Lear with their elaborate speeches, Cordelia, to King Lear's surprise answers "Nothing, my lord" (King Lear 1.1.96). However, according to King Lear, "Nothing will come of nothing" (King Lear 1.1.99) and he refuses her dowry and makes Goneril and Regan his heirs. Ironic but expected, Goneril and Regan do not love their father as much because of his old age and feel that getting on the wrong side of King Lear could prove disastrous. Hence, Goneril tells Regan to act respectfully but strike while the iron is hot. These statements subtly hint at King Lear's approaching reversal from good to bad fortune due to the miscalculation of making two ungrateful daughters his heirs. This reversal of fortune becomes more evident when Lear stays in Goneril's house and Goneril accuses Lear's one hundred knights of making Goneril's house a zoo and demands Lear to reduce his train. Goneril's demand to "disquantity" (King Lear 1.4.256) his knights angers Lear and causes him to leave her house cursing her. Lear then moves to Regan's house where he finds his servant Kent in shackles. After Regan and Goneril question Lear's purpose of having a single knight, Lear becomes mad and wanders aimlessly during a storm. This reversal of fortune in King Lear is evident when the Fool says Lear banished his two daughters and blessed the third, indicating Lear's misfortune. This reversal creates an atmosphere of pity and fear since the audience now feels that such things could happen to them as well. Similarly, in A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is the owner of Belle Reve, "A great big place with white columns" but due to mysterious reasons, she loses control of the plantation and moves to Laurel where she lives in Hotel Flamingo and works as teacher in a high school (Williams 17). "After the death of Allan (Blanche's husband) - intimacies with strangers was all I [Blanche] seemed able to fill my empty heart with" (118). Her relationship with a seventeen-year-old student causes outrage and leads to her termination. All these unfortunate incidents indicate a reversal of fortune in Blanche because she loses her aristocratic position in society after moving to Hotel Flamingo and she does not expect that her affair with a seventeen-year-old boy to make "This woman morally unfit for her position". After losing all her dignity, she moves to her poor sister Stella's house for her tragic last grasp on happiness. Thus, King Lear and Blanche Dubois undergo a reversal of fortune by losing their elevated status, dignity and by wandering without a permanent home. Aristotle says that the reversal should take place during the course of the play like in King Lear, but Williams starts the play with a Blanche who has already undergone this reversal since she has already lost her possessions when she comes down south to her sister. This entertains a 20th century audience since it intrigues them to see what caused the loss of property, whereas Shakespeare just mentions the reason leading Lear's downfall.King Lear undergoes anagnorsis (recognition), as explained in Aristotle's Poetics. When Goneril demands that Lear reduce his knights to fifty from hundred, King Lear is astonished and asks Goneril, "Are you our daughter?" (King Lear 1.4.224). When Goneril persistently debases King Lear's knights; Lear curses his "degenerate bastard [Goneril]" and leaves her house (King Lear 1.4.263). The Fool constantly tries to make Lear identify himself as a tragic figure by telling him that he should have been wiser before growing old. After the Fool's repetitive analogies of Lear as "a Fool" (King Lear 1.5.37), Lear becomes aware of himself as a tragic figure and he pleads the heavens "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!" (1.5.45). King Lear comes to a complete recognition of himself as a tragic figure when Regan asks Lear "What need one [knight]?" (King Lear 2.4.304). Upon hearing this question, Lear loses control of himself and leaves the house into the storm raging outside, which symbolizes the turmoil King Lear is going through (King Lear 2.4.327). Lear recognizes himself as a tragic figure through incidents of the plot that brings about a state of hostility in the tragic figure. This recognition, once again, brings about emotions of pity and fear in the readers since the audience feels they are susceptible to betrayal as well. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois arrives at her sister Stella's house after losing her plantation, her husband Allan, her dignity and her job in Laurel. Blanche arrives at Stella's house for her last grasp on happiness because "There was nowhere else I could go. I was played out" (118). It is in Stella's house where Blanche meets Mitch and falls in love with him because Blanche "needed somebody, too" (118). Blanche needs Mitch because he "seemed to be gentle - a cleft in the rock of the world that [she] could hide in!" (118). However, Stanley destroys Blanche's hopes of happiness when he reveals her past to Mitch and later when he rapes her. When the enlightened Mitch confronts Blanche, a Mexican florist knocks the door selling "Flores. Flores para los muertos" (119). The "blind Mexican women in a dark shawl" symbolizes Blanche's death because of the 'blind' impartiality associated with death. The sight of the Mexican women makes Blanche recognize herself as a tragic figure. Few weeks after Stanley rapes Blanche, Blanche has "a tragic radiance in her red satin robe following the sculptural lines of her body" because Blanche recognizes that her last grasp on happiness is destroyed by Stanley. In both books, we see that the tragic figure loses a great deal of personal belongings which brings about the reversal of fortune. Shakespeare makes the reversal stand out as the reversal takes place since it happens just once in the whole book, but Williams makes Blanche go through several reversals throughout the book, thus confusing the audience into which reason causes her downfall. For example, her reversal could occur when she loses Belle Reve or even when she loses her dignity when Stanley rapes her. Therefore, the fact that Williams uses several reversals proves that he does not stay loyal to the Aristotelian model for tragic heroes.Therefore, we see that even though Aristotle's Poetics was written way back in history, it still plays an important role on the author's work. But, modern plays do not follow the model as closely classic ones as proven above. Williams uses more symbolic imagery, intrigues the audience and catches its attention more so than Shakespeare. Shakespeare stays loyal to the model and follows it the way its stated, whereas Williams tries some new things which the make the book seem more original. For example, Williams uses different methods of proving recognition and reversal throughout the book as compared to Shakespeare. Therefore, both authors use the model to better suit the audience.


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