Shakespeare's Monsters of Ingratitude
An article by Brother Anthony, of Taize (Sogang University) first published in The Shakespeare Review (Seoul) in 1990.
if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful, were to make a monster of the multitude; of the which we being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members. (II.iii.8ff)
Then, when the plot to kill Coriolanus is revealed, Menenius exclaims:
Now the good gods forbid
That our renowned Rome, whose gratitude
Towards her deserved children is enroll'd
In Jove's own book, like an unnatural dam
Should now eat up her own! (III.i.287ff)
Cannibalism, as we shall see later, is the ultimate expression of ingratitude, and of inhumanity.
In Act V scene iii, the confrontation between Coriolanus and his mother, wife, and child is full of the theme of the past that must be remembered in the present: will he recall their natural, unforgettable relationship and act as their son, husband, and father must act? In that case he will respect their voices and grant their request to spare Rome. Indeed, the bonds are so absolute that if he does not, as his mother Volumnia says, it must mean that the whole relationship has to be reinterpreted:
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother;
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance. (V.iii.178- 80)
Always there is reference to identity: the person has a history, in particular that of parent and child: if you are your parent's child, you cannot be unlike him/her. Origin is identity, identity is origin. Similar ideas underlie Dido's last, reproachful speech to Aeneas (7): 'Traitor, no goddess was ever your mother, nor was it Dardanus who founded your line. No, your parent was Mount Caucasus, rugged, rocky, and hard, and tigers of Hyrcania nursed you....'
Shakepeare was also perhaps thinking of the Latin impietas. 'Scelerum in homines atque in deos impietatum nulla expiatio est,' wrote Cicero (Leg.I.40.) (there is no expiation for cursed impieties against men and gods). Pietas is defined in the OED as 'An attitude of dutiful respect towards those to whom one is bound by ties of religion, consanguinity, etc..' Pietas was one of the most sacred terms in the whole Roman vocabulary, especially demanded in relationships between parents and children, gods and humans, governors and citizens, as well as between friends. Like 'gratitude,' it has full implications of reciprocity.
It is clear that 'ingratitude' implies a revolt against the obligations and constraints stemming from the ideology that underpins all paternalistic power-structures, be they in family, state, or religion. The 'Father' is always present in king and god as well as in one's paternal begetter; so plays portraying 'ingratitude' may be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on the individual's preference for Freud or for Marx. In the popularized forms of both, the demand expressed within the revolt is seen as an assertion of individual autonomy; and in both schools, the strategy often preferred is the abolition of the father. Parricide is a parodic image of radical pseudo-solutions both oedipal and revolutionary.
We may therefore suggest that the drama of 'filial ingratitude' lying at the heart of King Lear is only the most thorough exploration of a theme that is found in many if not most of Shakespeare's dramas: the unacceptable but real possibility of a breaking of sacred bonds, of overturn, revolt and betrayal, in both private and public life. The person guilty of ingratitude betrays; and the traitor is guilty of ingratitude, as is clear when we hear Henry V's address to the traitor Scroop: 'thou cruel, Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature' (Henry V II.ii.94-5). The full scope of every challenge to paternalistic authority is well brought out in that same speech, when Henry concludes, 'this revolt of thine, methinks, is like Another Fall of Man' (II.ii.141-2). In defying the command, eating the fruit, and wanting to 'be like gods', Adam and Eve too were guilty of ingratitude. Or, looking in the other direction, Henry identifies himself with God!
R.W. Dent was so struck by the way in which Shakespeare associates 'ingratitude' and 'monstrous' that he proposed an extra hypothetical entry I66.1 'Ingratitude is monstrous' (SPL p.143, cf. Intro. p.xxviii); but no such expression is found before 1603 outside of Shakespeare, the expression is probably originally his. The example that Dent quotes, though, is helpful here: 'The name of men is too good for them (i.e. those guilty of ingratitude), seeing they are monsters in nature the which hath seeded a certain sense of thankfulnesse in all creatures' (from R.Allen Oderifferous Garden of Charitie). Ingratitude is 'monstrous', then, not just because it is outrageous, but because the monster is the image of everything nature-denying/defying.
The word 'monstrous' occurs sixty times in Shakespeare's plays, and 'monster' over forty times, even excluding The Tempest (28 times, thanks to Caliban). Clearly it was an image Shakespeare felt he needed. What, though, is a 'monster'? The word is often used to indicate general ugliness, physical and moral distortion. However, these meanings derive from a more fundamental sense. The monster in its Latin and pre-Latin origins is a 'reminder' (cf. moneo), it is a portent, an event or being that conveys a divine message. It is essentially 'other', and pregnant with unwelcome meaning.
The monster is also, then, terrible, as the gods are; it may be born, like the Minotaur, from some unusual and illicit coupling, and its shape is often the sign of this unnatural genetic origin. The monster is a monstrosity, a freak, contrary to nature, -- a cow with two heads for example. One of its main characteristics is that it cannot be, yet it is! 'Monstrous' is an exclamation expressing outrage, and incredulity. The very existence of the monster is a challenge that 'nature' fears, and needs as well. It is the exception ever confirming all the rules. People have always paid money to view monsters dead, or safely contained, in the sideshows of funfairs. The otherness of the monstrous is such, that our reponse is divided between horror and fascination, between repulsion and laughter. We need to have the dragon slain, the monster safely captive, or otherwise exorcized.
We find almost forty uses of 'unnatural' in the plays; we are struck at once by the tone of the words that accompany it: 'impious, mutinous, harsh, ugly, inhuman, faithless, unkind, foul, strange, carnal, bloody, barbarous'. The dominant sense, clearly, stresses the strong opposition between the 'natural' and the 'unnatural'; the first refers to a being in harmony with nature and its own nature, the second to one contrary to and denying its own fundamental nature and all nature. As was the case with grateful/ungrateful, the negative form is charged with a greater dramatic intensity, so that an 'unnatural' person is also no longer a 'true' human being (and therefore no longer a 'humane' or 'kind' person, either!), while one who is 'natural' is, in one sense of the word, foolishly naive, since that person assumes that all others share a common nature, and cannot suspect or anticipate difference! The nature of a being is its character- istic and specific way of being.
'Nature' is the fundamental question for Hamlet-the-son: 'If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not,' (I.v.81) says the father's ghost, and Hamlet has already said that 'nature cannot choose his origin' (I.iv.24). But the corruptions of nature are the problem he was confronting then, and later too:
O heart, lose not thy nature. Let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;
Let me be cruel, not unnatural.
I will speak daggers to her, but use none. (III.ii.411)
It is this sharing in a common nature transmitted from parent(s) to child(ren) that is the source of all that is shocking in filial ingratitude, where the child uses the daggers, literally or figuratively, to destroy that archetype whose image one is thought to bear; and that explains perhaps why the word 'unnatural' is vested with such special significance in Hamlet and King Lear, where the paternal bond and its consequences are so central. The kindness owed to parents and kings is so essential, thoughts of unkindness surely cannot be conceived? Yet Hamlet must struggle, Macbeth acted, in Goneril and Regan cruelty to fathers is brought to its highest perfection.
Edmund confesses, 'Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound,' (I.ii.1) but Lear, too, has his goddess: 'Hear, nature; dear goddess, hear!' and his thoughts, too, are about childbirth and transmissions of nature, as he curses Goneril in her capacity as parent-to-be, although later he finds stronger words for the same idea: 'Crack nature's moulds, all germens spill at once, That make ingrateful man!' If there can be no reliable transmission of kind nature from parents to children, it is better there be no transmission at all! Edmund's nature, he being an 'unnatural' child, is essentially un-nature, un-kind, which explains his final embarassment: 'some good I mean to do Despite of mine own nature' (V.iii.242-3). Edmund represents the claimed right of un-nature to be other than nature, although it may have to pay dearly for the privilege.
Nature is Lear's goddess, too, but with a touching idolatry he worships the filial gratitude he assumes to be inherent in father-daughter relationships. That is the snare he lays for himself in the initial scene. He has not understood that gratitude has its natural limits within the freedoms of individual choice; and just as he, the most absolutely paternal figure in Shakespeare, forgets that he was once not 'father and king' but 'son and subject', so he forgets that his grown daughters are passing or have passed from being his 'own' daughter to being another's wife (and then yet another's mother) along a path where he may not follow. The 'tell me how much you love me' game is a relic of the nursery, a test of lessons well-learned that Cordelia tells him is unworthy of the relationship between a father and his adult children. What Lear has failed to accept is the passing of time, he tries to keep his daughters captive in an infantile and dependant stage that is an intolerable insult to Cordelia's mature autonomy. She will have 'nothing' of it.
The ghostly father imposes on Hamlet the most terrible filial obligation in his departing 'Remember me!' (I.v.91) (for ingratitude forgets) and it is Lear's irony that he does not ask the same of Regan:
...thou better know'st
The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude;
Thy half o'th'kingdom hast thou not forgot (II.iv.175-8)
but of course, she knows that her dues of gratitude are attached to something more demanding than mere kingdoms, which is why in this scene she gives up calling him 'father' (l. 199), terms him 'old man' (l. 286), then prompts the locking of the doors. There is no room in her world for a relationship that makes such demands as Lear's views on paternity and daughterhood imply. Ingratitude is the denial of obligations assumed by society to be implicit in birth and origin, as Lear reminds Regan:
...if thou should'st not be glad,
I would divorce me from thy mother's tomb,
Sepulchring an adult'ress (II.iv.127-9)
Only Lear had been ungrateful to Cordelia in denying his natural obligations towards her; after all, fathers too have dues to pay.
There is on the side of the natural an innocence that leaves people unprepared for the horror of the unnatural; Lear's instinct tells him that daughters will naturally be kind, as King Hamlet's and Prospero's told them that brothers can naturally be trusted; Duncan, no doubt, went to sleep quite unsuspecting, and Timon should not be blamed for the nobility of his ingenuous nature. All of them manifest an ironically foolish trust in the kindness of human nature. Through them we are brought to a shocked awareness of the evil lurking in the greenery of our every paradise; the question that Shakespeare invites us to ask in all the great tragedies is: 'how evil comes into society and why it has such power over individual characters.'(8)
In Hamlet, attempts are made to anatomize that process. Hamlet's discovery, before he even meets the Ghost, of 'some vicious mole of nature in them' (I.iv.24), introduces an analysis of Danish social corruption where he concludes that 'the dram of evil Doth all the noble substance often dout To his own scandal' and he later encourages his mother that 'use almost can change the stamp of nature' (III.iv.170), before justifying the killing of his uncle with the rhetorical question 'And is't not to be damn'd To let this canker of our nature come In further evil' (V.ii.68-70). This sense of infection, of struggle, of mixed possibilities, is part of the central matter of Hamlet. Beyond it, we come to Macbeth, with its fuller study of the inner processes of the ingrate regicide/parricide (for Duncan is a father-figure) both before and after the act. Indeed, the play has no other subject than the working of the mind of a man who has broken the most sacred bonds of society and nature; Macbeth is ingratitude.
In King Lear, though, all the focus is on the ineluctable fact of ingratitude, almost as a mystery, something that exists as anti-matter exists, there without reason or process: 'I know you what you are,' says Cordelia the wise (I.i.268). Unkindness is the natural consequence of the other-nature of the wrongly-thought-to-be-natural, and nothing better focuses the matter of 'ingratitude' than Lear's words about Poor Tom's supposed daughters:
Is it the fashion that discarded fathers
Should have thus little mercy on their flesh?
Judicious punishment! 'twas this flesh begot
Those pelican daughters. (III.iv.69- 74)
Here we glimpse the root of the thought that underlies the strong element of sexual disgust we find in both Lear and Hamlet: the paternal flesh is the means by which kind-nature is transmitted; the father (much more than the mother!) is found in the child, together with all the reciprocal obligations we have seen to be contained in pietas or 'gratitude'. If the child is unnatural, its behaviour becomes a deserved punishment for the sinful author of its (un-)nature (9). Hamlet will have no more marriage (III.i.149). Yet kindness is natural, nature thinks, and Lear's optimism concerning Regan is also 'natural':
Thy tender-hefted nature shall not give
Thee o'er to harshness (II.iv.169- 70)
Lear has two flawed mirrors in which he expects to view his own nature reflected, in vain: 'I will forget my nature! So kind a father!' (I.v.31) and so he sees the twigs stuck into Poor Tom's flesh as a self-mutilating paternal punishment; 'pelican daughters' brings all the themes together, for it was the nature of the (emblematic) pelican to feed its children with the life- blood it pecked from its own breast. The pelican is ever termed 'pious' for that generosity, it is the model of pietas and of Christ. But the daughters have turned ravenous, and that the pelican image of pietas could be corrupted into a monstrous expression of impietas had already struck the dying Gaunt in Richard II: 'That blood already, like the pelican, Hast thou tapp'd out and drunkenly caroused' (II.i.126-7), talking of Edward III's blood spilled in Richard's murder of his uncle Gloucester.
In the end, it is Albany who best anatomizes the natures of the unloving daughters: 'Tigers, not daughters' (IV.ii.40); tigers had long been proverbial models of fierceness, cruelty, and mad, murderous fury (cf Whiting). The problem, he says, is no problem, since the daughters were only being faithful to their true (tiger-)nature. Only where did that nature originate? That is the core of Lear's paternal anguish: they are my children, but they cannot be mine, because they are unkind! Their actions are analysed by Albany at length, before he concludes: 'It will come, Humanity must perforce prey on itself, Like monsters of the deep' (IV.ii.41ff). It is urgent to get rid of such corruption, before it spreads (like Hamlet's canker) and humanity learns a lesson in generalized cannibalism that Shakespeare included in his addition to Sir Thomas More: 'men like ravenous fishes Would feed on one another' (86-7). That universal Thyestes' Feast would be the ultimate horror. But Albany is also, unconsciously, foretelling the final solution of the problem: the last ungrateful cannibal sister will in the end devour herself.
Cannibalism is used by Shakespeare as an image of the ambiguities of abolition and of identification in a remarkable way. Nothing can be more utterly an accomplishment of shared identity than the ingestion of the body of the other; but in that unifying process the other is totally and finally abolished as other! It is taboo, it cannot be, and yet it happens, as Lear discovers and Lear shows. It was very early in the play that Lear himself declared his choice:
He that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and reliev'd,
As thou my sometime daughter. (I.i.116- 9)
He did not realize that he had only to turn to his two other daughters to find the ungorged appetite already sharpened, and himself, their 'generation' in the other direction, the destined meal.
In King Lear the denial of fatherhood undermines the barriers of flesh and mind. Significant, for this thematic aspect of the play, is the other 'source' of Lear, the story of the 'Paphlagonian unkinde King' in Sidney's New Arcadia. It might be claimed that it was the reading of Sidney that gave Shakespeare the psychological and thematic key to Lear, for in many ways its contribution is far more essential than any of the bare bones of Leir's family misfortunes found in Holinshed.
First, it is Sidney who gives us the central haunting image of the encounter of natural sanity with intense human agony in 'the pride of the wind' of the violent storm ('never any winter brought forth a fouler child'), where the paternal struggle with despair, expressed in the blinded father's aspiration to leap from a high rock, is finally defeated by the unwavering kindness of the faithful child. In the narration that follows we have the story of two sons, the father's recognition of their true natures, and his death: 'with many tears both of joy and sorrow... his heart broken with unkindness and afflic- tion, stretched so far beyond his limits with this excess of comfort, as it was able no longer to keep safe his royal spirits' -- but is that an echo of Gloucester's death, or of Lear's? Above all, there is the story of the 'hard-hearted ungrateful- ness' of the bastard son.
More intensely relevant, though, is the psychological conflict within the blind father, who let himself be persuaded to reject and try to kill his 'true' son, (who escapes) then gave up every thing to his bastard son until 'I had left myself nothing but the name of a King,' after which he was blinded and put out, 'full of wretchedness, fuller of disgrace, and fullest of guiltiness.' The idea does not come to him to curse the ungrateful son, who is still his son ('if at least I be bound to believe the words of that base woman my concubine, his mother'); instead he curses himself, seeing his sufferings as a punishment for 'my wickedness, my wickedness.' He laments 'that truth binds me to reproach him with the name of my son!' and says 'his kindness is a glass... of my naughtiness,' but in both cases he is talking of the good son, before whom he cannot stand! Here is Lear kneeling before Cordelia.
In the centre of King Lear, Poor Tom breaks away from his role for a moment to become Edgar again and deliver a sententious epilogue to the scene of the king's madness: 'He childed as I father'd' (III.vi.108). In this moment the two stories, Lear's and Gloucester's, and the two sources, Holinshed and Sidney, become thematically one; in that expression the focus of all is contained. All a man's life is to be child of father, father of child. Yet are paternity and filiation possible, when the father only longs to be his own child, while the child is intent, in some hidden depths, on versions of parricide? From the earliest plays, Shakespeare (who is both son and father) is struggling with those ultimate questions.
We are confronted with the turmoil of doubt about identity and difference that is the matter of psychology. Filial Ingratitude is monstrous, not because it is unthinkable, but because it exists, latent in every child, every parent, the worm within the bud of our own too-cherished innocence. For the possessive parent, the child must be 'mine', the father has fathered and the mother has mothered, and only with the hypothesis of marital unfaithfulness can the authenticity of the resulting image be denied. To have a child is to offer oneself the flattering impression of having succeeded in mimesis. Alas, the child will one day have to prove that he/she is no mere copy! How is this to be done without becoming guilty of ingratitude? Hamlet already knew the question, and his play shows him working out the answer: 'This is I, Hamlet the Dane!' (V.1.250).
The ingratitude of the pelican daughters was unnatural, yet utterly natural, and it is almost voluntarily that Lear falls into their hands, as though he required that torment. That kindness of nature, which is both gentle and identical, had to encounter its opposite, the otherness which can only be monstrous cruel, in order to confirm for us, beyond the distress, the impossible possibility of parental mimesis and filial gratitude in the recovery and loss of the childless but not sterile, grateful but not foolish Cordelia.
She alone had defied the tyrany of possessive 'love' in the affirmation of her own autonomy, and that had allowed her to overcome the cannibal temptation to which her monstrous sisters naturally fell victims. Yet beyond the pain and madness, the entire family dies without any further childbirth. Only so could the monster be exorcized once and for all, we may think. The process of Shakespearean tragedy is less an Aristotelian 'catharsis' than an exorcising of the monsters that roar within each of us, theatrically shown in families as mysteriously cursed as those of Atreus or Cadmus. It is surely no chance, that at the end of each of the tragedies a blood-line is extinct, a chain of fathering and childing brought to nothing.
Yet the complexities of King Lear were not Shakespeare's last word on the monster theme. 'Ingratitude' as a word does not appear in The Tempest but it is present as a past fact or a present possibility behind every relationship, paternal, filial, or royal. Fatherhood, daughterhood and sonship here reach out so far that even the monster Caliban is half-ensnared within those complex bonds of love and otherness. He is the true monster, a half-everything, half-nothing, not even truly other, Prospero's failed son-by-adoption, Miranda's failed brother- husband.
What is the end of Shakespeare's bastard monster? The play does not even bother to tell us! Caliban, son of Sycorax and devil, remains for ever poised behind the scenes, making vague promises of kindness, frustrated for a while of his ambitions of control and mastery, denied for now the hope of seeing his own true likeness in a son. In the end Caliban, the pathetic ruin of a monster, may remain alone in the wild of the desert island, or be put on show in a theatrical circus, destined to become the making of clown Trinculo: 'Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would a monster make a man' (II.ii.28). That, too, is a form of exorcizing, when an ungrateful monster becomes the source of a fool's gratitude!
Copyright 1990 Brother Anthony.