Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Is the greatest downfall of Shakespeare’s male tragic figures the fact that they underestimate the power of women?

The “heroes” of Shakespeare’s tragedies are often said to have a “fatal flaw” which leads them to their ruin. This fatal flaw could be hubris, jealousy, greed, or a variety of other emotions or drives. However, in many of Shakespeare’s tragedies the protagonist’s ruin is inextricably linked with the impact women in the play have upon his life. This appears to be true of Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. All of the eponymous men of these tragedies are thwarted because they neither see the plots women are constructing nor do they appear to believe them capable of such a thing.
            Firstly, in Othello both Othello himself and Iago are doomed because they underestimate the power of the women in the play. Othello underestimates the power of Desdemona’s chastity. This leads him to believe Iago’s empty “evidence” for her infidelity and thus kill his newly-wed bride. In a sense Desdemona is powerless because she cannot control the manipulative lies spun by Iago, but the fact that Othello is driven to murder because of her sexual power shows that she has a great deal of this type of power simply because she is a woman. Moreover, the power women have to undermine the power of men in the play is highlighted in the fact that the volta of the play occurs when Emilia hands Iago the handkerchief; this piece of evidence is vital to the construction of his case for Desdemona and Cassio’s affair. Thus, without Emilia Iago may never have had the power to cause Othello’s downfall. Othello could never fathom the idea that Emilia may have stolen the handkerchief from Desdemona and given it to Iago because he is irrational and acts rashly rather than considering other possible ways in which Iago may have ended up with the handkerchief. Iago never acknowledges the help that Emilia gave him and appears to believe that his plot functions purely because of his own brilliant cunning. However, when Emilia exposes Iago to Othello at the end of the play as having constructed the plot which lead to Desdemona’s death Iago appears to realise that he has underestimated her. He underestimated the love that Emilia had for Desdemona, and for this he is ruined.
                        Similarly, the work of Macbeth in his eponymous play is driven forwards by his wife Lady Macbeth. Macbeth never truly appears to recognise to what extent he is controlled by his wife; this underestimation of her power causes his downfall. The murders of his intimate friend Banquo and the King he ought to respect are orchestrated by her. As soon as she latches on to the hope of him gaining power she becomes obsessed with it and drives him to seek more power. For this reason I believe that ambition is Lady Macbeth’s fatal flaw, not Macbeth’s. From the point at which she can see a powerful future, Macbeth becomes somewhat of a puppet for her bidding. Likewise, Antony in Antony and Cleopatra becomes a powerless man when he falls in love with the ambitious Cleopatra. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra does not encourage Antony to do anything; he merely does what he thinks she would like him to do because he is so utterly besotted with her. To see a martial man so weakened in this way makes him a figure of ridicule; even his suicide is carried out for such a trivial reason that it is almost laughable. His death is directly caused by the hold that Cleopatra has over him, which even she underestimates. He never appears to understand that she is manipulating him, which allows him to underestimate the power she has over him and thus for her to cause his ruin.

            Lear on the other hand is not ruined by a lover but by his daughters. He does not believe that there could be untruths behind Regan and Goneril’s professions of love for him and thus hands over all of his lands to them. This makes him a powerless figure from very early on in the play as, without his lands, he has lost all of his authority as King. Moreover, he underestimates the fact that Cordelia could be wise and thus disinherits the only daughter who truly loved him. The further plotting of the two landed sisters results in both Lear and Cordelia being imprisoned which is closely followed by their deaths. Finally, by underestimating the power of all three of his daughters Lear not only causes his own ruin, but also that of the country.