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Elements of the Gothic in the Pardoner’s Tale

A short screen cast can be found by following this link…

It is intended as a stimulus for students studying the Pardoner for AQA LitB3.

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The Pardoner at Year 13

An introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale aimed at students sitting AQA Lit B3. This is intended as an overview and a platform to encourage further reading and research. It is not guaranteed to be “correct”!

Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The Pardoner’s Tale: A guide for AQA LITB 3 at
Slough Grammar School
This guide is targeted at students in Yr13 studying the Pardoner’s Tale for Lit B
3. In this syllabus, the General Prologue is not indicated and it will feature only
briefly in my writing. My aim is to introduce and stimulate discussion on key
elements of the Tale whilst ensuring that students are still required to
undertake significant amounts of independent research and thought. I am not
intending to offer model essays or similar responses. The text I am using is the
Oxford Student Text and any line references refer to this edition (Chaucer ed:
Croft, 2006). Further material will be published on the Slough Grammar School
VLE and on my blog: http://www.jwpblog.wordpress.com
Students will be reading this text as part of the Elements of Gothic strand. It is
worth noting, however, that when reading this text the priority should be to
engage with the text per se, rather than being sidetracked by the notion of
Gothic implied in the title. The Gothic elements will be discussed in due
course, but the questions in Part A require a close understanding of the text
first and foremost and the titles of the essays demand a clear focus on the
named texts rather than a general discussion of Gothic elements applied to a
text in a scattergun manner.
A useful guideline should be the AQA descriptors for each mark band, outlined
below:Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
This grid has proven very useful to me when assessing essays. The descriptors
give a good guideline for basic grading. Obviously nothing is in fallible, but by
using this to attach an essay to a particular level at the outset, it has been
moderately straightforward as I have become more experienced, to place
essays in their respective bands. I particularly like the “Some understanding”
band for those essays which move between focused thought and paragraphs
of irrelevance.
Obviously when a range of marks is awarded against the AOs that reflects a
range of Bands, a best fit approach is employed. Running through the whole
process is an understanding that in awarding marks, the question has been
I think this is the area that is most frustrating and one that I shall be reinforcing
all the time next year. Many of the papers I mark simply do not make their
responses relevant to the question. Students seem to have a great deal of
knowledge about genre, historical contexts, critical theory, contexts of
authorship and so on. Sadly, these ideas seem to be used to pad out essays
rather than to help to focus the response. Thus in an essay about the potential
attractiveness of the Gothic Villain (June 2012), a student is struggling to make
a clear link between the title of the essay and paragraphs focusing, among
other things, on the industrial Revolution, James I, characters (especially
female) who are not villains.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
In fact many essays simply set out to write the essay they have e practiced and
take little notice of the thrust of the essay that is set.
This is often most noticeable in Section A where the insistence on focusing on
“elements of the Gothic” makes a focused response on the text difficult to
maintain. The key word is “elements”. No one is pretending that The
Pardoner is a Gothic text, but there are elements in the themes and motifs of
the tale which could be said to reflect those ideas which some 500 years later
will be grabbed by Gothic writers. Students must remember what the
intention of the author was and also be aware of contemporary circumstances,
such as the Black Death, which have to colour Chaucer’s writing.
I will look at character later in the discussion. At this stage the General
Prologue description should be considered.
Lines 675-715 of the General Prologue contain the physical description of the
Pardoner. Chaucer, in the voice of one of the pilgrims, paints a clear image his
hair, “as yelow as flex” hangs lankly down and s spread over his shoulders in
“colpons oon and oon”. He is vain in his clothes, trying to wear his hood “al of
the newe jet”. The sense is one of vanity and almost female attention to his
outward appearance. Certainly, The Pardoner has moved away from the
restrictions placed upon clergy at the time. The description moves on to his
bulging eyes – again, at the time such staring was considered a sign of general
licentiousness and a far cry from what was expected of the clergy. Perhaps the
most interesting line comes at 691: “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare”.
Here Chaucer introduces the twin ideas of eunuchry and femininity. I will not
digress into a long discussion of potential homosexuality, but draw attention to
the twin descriptors. There is more here than a need to fill up a line and
students should have this at the back of their minds. The Pardoner boasts of
having a “joly wenche in every toun” (Tale 167), but this is unlikely in the light
of the description. Indeed the insistence on the padding out of his “lappe”
with his various relics suggests boasts born of an inability to partake of such Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
pleasures. The Host has no doubts about this as we read at the end of the tale
where he wishes to enshrine the Pardoner’s testicles in “an hogges toord”.
Perhaps he regrets that the Pardoner has none to treat this way, rather than
suffers from an outburst of good manners. Any student wishing to follow this
further should look at Carolyn Dinshaw’s essay: Eunuch Hermeneutics
(Dinshaw, 1997).
The Prologue is not wholly critical. The Pardoner is held as a fine example of all
Pardoners. Not that this is huge praise. Pardoners had a reputation for
dishonesty and hypocrisy. Although the Pardoner is a shining example, this
may well be an example of the worst behaviour.
A final comment should be given to his voice. In the Tale we will see the
Rhetorical skills that the Pardoner obviously has in great number, but this is
somewhat undermined by having “a voys… as smal as hath a goot”. This
seems to tie in with his lack of masculinity and also links the Pardoner to the
animal associated with the Devil and with lechery.
This section is not part of the set text for examination but an awareness of
ideas such as outlined above is vital as we begin to study the Tale itself.
In common with much writing of the 14th Century, the characters of the tale
are not drawn with any suggestion of motivation or self-questioning. Often
allegorical, characters are required to illustrate ideas behind the narrative and
in this story the characters are the three Riotoures, the Old Man, The tavern
boy and the Pardoner himself.
The Riotoures, “yonge folk” who resemble modern teenagers to a remarkable
degree, are not differentiated beyond the briefest of descriptions. None have
a name and are merely the “woorst”, the “proudeste” and the “yongeste”.
Indeed there is no way of knowing whether the epithets are to be equally
shared out. This does not matter. In the story they serve the purpose of
illustrating the theme “radix malorum est cupiditas”. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The three are united by a holy oath which they immediately break when they
decide to kill not death but one another. Indeed there is a gentle irony when
“oon of hem spak thus unto that oother/Thou knowest wel thou art my
sworen brother;”(Tale 521-2) thus acknowledging the pact they have sworn
immediately before moving murder of the youngest. Not that the youngest is
any better – he plans his murders with no prompting and is at pains to ensure
that the bottles he borrows are “large bottles thre” (Tale 585) as though
ensuring the maximum quantity of poison for his deed. Indeed it is important
to the Pardoner that they have little to distinguish them from one another.
The vital thing for such an allegory is that they “types” are less clear than the
message. Overt characterisation gets in the way. The one who speaks to the
Old Man has a definite swagger and threatening bluster, but we do not know
who he is other than that he is the “proudeste”. He responds to the Old Man
roughly and with arrogance little suited to the old man’s gentle politeness and
the respect conferred by age.
The Old Man is regarded by many as something of an enigma. He is caring and
polite – he greets the Riotoures and as he departs wishes them well: “God be
with yow… God save yow… and thee amende” (Tale 463-481). The proudeste
riotour draws our attention to the fact that he is disguised in some way and
invites the Old Man to tell his tale. Chaucer sets up the irony of the fact that
the young men seek death to kill him whereas the old man longs to meet death
in order that he himself might die. This serves to increase his melancholy air as
he taps at his “mooder” earth and begs “leeve mooder, leet me in!” (Tale 445).
This prayer has such a strong simplicity that we can only pity this character
who seeks not to challenge and who moves out of the tale having pointed out
the whereabouts of Death. Students should think carefully about the Old Man
and consider Chaucer’s intentions: he may be an obvious contrast and no more
– age confers wisdom and he is challenged by the proudest rioter thus
increasing the contrast; he may represent death itself or even be death in
disguise – he seems immortal and also ensures that the teenagers die a death
that will ensure damnation and therefore possibly acts as some kind of judge
over their morals; he might be seen to represent the idea of the “wandering
Jew” – the stateless outsider who has travelled as far as “Inde” and is doomed
to continue to do so, tapping at the earth in a constant reminder of his Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
enforced immortality; he shows no fear of the youngsters and still wishes them
well. Students should consider whether there is a hint of irony here.
The tavern Boy has no great role in the story other than as a contrast to the
young men. His role is brief, but in his dialogue Chaucer allows innocence to
emerge as he talks of the contemporary scourge: the Black Death. He
introduces the idea of the dead man being drunk as he died and the character
gains sympathy by referring to his mother as he warns the youngsters to be
“redy for to meet him everemoore” (Tale 398). Even his referring to the
questioner as “maister” is calculated to suggest his youth and his innocence.
The Pardoner himself dominates his tale and he should be seen as a key
character. After Chaucer’s introduction in the General Prologue, we are ready
for vanity and arrogance. We are not disappointed. So arrogant is the
character that his prologue openly admits to the Pilgrims that he is as guilty of
the sins he is going to outline as are any of his characters. He lists his lying and
cheating with a pride that even as he subverts the teachings and ideas of the
church, leads us to find him engaging. He admits to adding “saffron” to his
goat-like speech and shows the falsehood inherent in all his relics. He is clever,
though, and we learn that he suggests the worst sins as being beyond his cure
– consequently anyone not approaching him will be suspected of these same
sins. This is market trading of the highest degree.
He is boastful throughout and is clear that although some people may be
absolved, he has only one purpose – to make money. He will preach “radix
malorum est cupiditas” from the position of being a sinner himself. Such
openness and honesty can be rather persuasive and can serve to make the
Pardoner something of an attractive rogue. He is clear in lines 161-75 that he
subverts the church and the role of the clergy. He refuses to follow the model
of the apostles and is even prepared to take “of the povereste wydwe in a
village/Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne” (Tale 164-5). Students should
read his prologue with care and note his boasts and claims. Many will return
at the end of the tale when he seems to have forgotten who his audience is.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
 Prologue
 Sermon
 Tale
 Conclusion
The Prologue serves to outline the character of the Pardoner and ensures that
any readers are fully aware of his own greed, lust and vanity. This is no bad
thing in a sense. A man as full of sin as he can still deliver the moral tale
requested by the host, and he does not disappoint. It is interesting that none
of the Pilgrims interrupt or question him. Presumably the content of the
introduction with its repetition of the “Radix Malorum…” tag comes as no
surprise. He openly acknowledges himself to be a “ful vicious man” and
launches into his sermon after showing the congregation his false relics. These
relics are typical of the kind and the Pardoner reflects his usual audience with a
focus on natural remedies for ill animals and so on. Behind this though, there
is a constant reference to illnesses relating to gluttony and lechery. It should
also be noted that the “horrible” sins mentioned in line 93 carry a much
stronger taint than today and that the sexual sins suggested might link back to
the possible homosexuality of the Pardoner himself (McAlpine, 1997).
The Sermon is based on the use of exempla. Here we see the rhetorical
flourishes of the Pardoner in all their glory. Although clergymen were not
encouraged to develop rhetorical skills, the Pardoner is a fine orator and uses
this along with exempla drawn from the Bible and History to win over an
The Pardoner’s descriptive skill is shown in the sequence describing the drunk:
lines 265-273. He uses onomatopoeia to engage the senses with “Sampsoun,
Sampsoun” being used to mimic snoring (as well as engaging with the fate of
the Biblical character); he uses further sensory description to focus on the
“sour” breath of the drunk and again uses a simile likening the drunk to a stuck
pig to describe the drunken collapse. He is a clever enough speaker to link all
these ideas with local colour since in his development he is able to refer to the
great markets of Medieval London in Cheapside and to the idea that Attila the
Hun was only brought down by drunkenness. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
Another rhetorical device is that of exempla, and students should list each
exemplum used and note the purpose of each reference.
His exempla are largely from the Bible and more often the old rather than the
New Testament. He implies great knowledge for himself and relies and
relative ignorance eon his listeners, however. The story of Lot in the bible says
nothing about his being drunk, for example. The eating of the apple becomes
gluttony and he quotes a minor St. Paul on this same sin. His exempla serve as
allusions rather than direct textual analysis of the sacred texts and as such
raise his status in the eyes of any audience of lesser intellectuals than himself.
This is best shown in the discussion of swearing where he sues the order of the
Commandments themselves to justify swearing being a greater sin than
Heightened language, in particular apostrophe, dominates much of the
sermon. Lines 212-4 see the triplet of lines opening “O” as he cries out to his
listeners. In Line 248 this becomes the glorious triplet “O wombe, O bely, O
stinking cod!” as he again implores his audience to listen. The imagery is now
replete with sensory revulsion as surely as when the host offers to “kysse thin
olde breech” (Tale 662) which are shit stained and filthy. Students should
remember that it is Chaucer, rather than his creation, who is writing this tale.
The Tale is not really introduced until line 375. Our anticipation has been
heightened by the sermon and we are ready for what is a straightforward
allegorical tale about the sins discussed at some length. The tale is dominated
in the telling by Chaucer’s use of dialogue, serving to give character to the
types he produces. There is little or no authorial comment here, whether by
Chaucer or by the fictional storyteller.
The Pardoner’s voice is established in his sermon and now he moves his story
briskly, allowing characters to be differentiated by their speech – the boy is
innocent in contrast to the rough “Riotoures” who are again contrasted in the
language of the old man who greets them “ful mekely”. There is a brutal
energy to much of the rioters’ speech and this sense elf characters speaking
directly to the audience is an important factor when seeking to engage. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The imagery of the sermon and tale is not used for comic effect but has the
effect of heightening the potential Gothic elements of the writing. It serves to
increase the sense of decay and rot which pervades much of the tale and will
later be seized upon by 18th and 19th century writers. Much of this is best seen
in the sermon and the exaggerated care to portray the grossness of Gluttony
(Tale 238ff). All here is distended and stinking and even the cooks “stamp”
“grind” and “knock” their food into submission.
In the tale proper the imagery is subtler – the old oak lies up a “croked wey”
(Tale 475) suggestive of the path chosen by sinners. Death is all around and
treated with a degree of informality – “privee thief” and “false traytour” serve
to reduce the figure to something manageable. That he is the ultimate victor
serves to highlight the fact that the young men are seeking to move well
beyond their boundaries in their action.
Chaucer uses metaphor widely and to good effect. Some examples are listed
above, and students should look for this use and list the effect of the choice of
language. Again the Gothic obsession with corruption is perhaps prefigured in
the references to Christ’s body being ripped apart by oaths…
One technique employed widely is Irony.
The Pardoner is asked for a moral tale, but is himself deeply immoral and
proud of the fact. This does not render him a bad teacher, but should alert us
to the layers of irony that Chaucer employs in telling this tale. Since radix
malorum est cupiditas, the Pardoner is portrayed ironically when he declares
that his “entente is nat but for to wynne” (tale 118). This ironic structure helps
to link the sermon to the tale proper and thus ensure that the audience remain
truly engaged with the moral purpose of the telling.
 In lines 141-5 he is clear that he sees this irony himself and seems to
revel in his underhand nature. Irony in the tale can be found in the oath
sworn by the revellers – one of Chaucer’s “fals swering” which is the
most serious form of the sin (Tale 346)- which is immediately broken
once money has appeared (and is even referred to as a reason for the
two to gang up on the youngest!).
 The revellers are enraged by death, yet, ironically, this rage immediately
dissipates when the encounter money.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
 The Old Man points out a “croked wey” that will lead to an encounter
with death. The greed of the revellers enables them to forget the clear
warning about following the sinner’s path.
 The revellers want to live long and well and seek death to obtain this
wish. The old man points out their death whilst at the same time
mourning his own inability to die.
A further irony might be seen in the Conclusion of the tale. Here, after a swift
denouement, the Pardoner begins to forget himself and tries to sell to the
company. He singles out Harry Bailey, the host, as one who is in greatest need
of pardons. Bailey attacks him savagely threatening to cut off his testicles to
create a new relic. It is ironic that having delivered the precise moral tale
required, the pardoner falls foul of his own arrogance and vanity in this way.
The tale has ended swiftly because Chaucer has no need to develop the deaths
in any way. These allegorical “types” have no family to mourn them or any life
beyond that pictured. The message is the death that comes to them and the
punishment for their sins. They are not characters in the modern sense and
should not be viewed as such.
Handle with care! This year (2012) questions in section B that might have been
used by students who had read this text in particular were:
 “Gothic writing warns of the dangers of aspiring beyond our limitations.”
How far does your reading of gothic writing support this view?
 “How do you respond to the idea that gothic villains make evil seem
The obsession question, whilst interesting, might also have been approached,
though possibly through the Pardoner’s obsession with the sins he preaches
against – a tricky ask. However there is enough here to put together ideas for
the other two questions. Certainly the aspiration to kill death seems to be an
apt aspiration, as might be the willingness to kill to obtain financial reward. In
the other question, students might feel that the revellers are rarely attractive, Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
but what of the Pardoner himself? There is a genuine attraction in the
dynamic and convincing clergyman which will eventually develop into The
Monk (a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis published in 1796). What we
see is a man who uses rhetoric and fear to raise money and ensure some form
of sexual satisfaction. His heavy use of irony can be seen as humour as he wins
over his audience, and only his ill-judged attack on Bailey causes his story to
fail. No other pilgrim seems offended. There is certainly room for discussion
Part A (2012) offered: “A sinister exploitation of people’s fears for his own
To what extent do you agree with this view of the Pardoner’s methods?
Here the need might be to focus on “sinister” and to analyse the tale as a piece
of writing. There is little need to introduce the “Gothic” as such, beyond
reference in terms of imagery or mention of the idea of the perverted
clergyman as being an element of many Gothic tales – this is a precursor to
that tradition and interesting, but the response requires a focused discussion
of the ideas enshrined in the question itself.
This should have given a brief overview of ideas and content as not intended as
finite in any way. Enjoy reading the text and be sure to explore widely on your
Works Cited
Chaucer ed: Croft. (2006). The Pardoner’s Tale. Oxford: OUP.
Dinshaw, C. (1997). Eunuch Hermeneutics. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer: New Casebooks (pp. 108-125).
McAlpine, M. (1997). The Pardoner’s homosexuality and how it matters. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer:
New casebook (pp. 36-50). Macmillan.


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Elements of the gothic links

Year 13:


This is a blog linked from the TES website. Have a look, treat it with respect and keep thinking…

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Suggestions about approaching a “setting” essay.


Many students seem to see use of setting essays as an excuse to write as much as they can about the plot of the novel, whilst opening each paragraph with a comment reflecting the location of the material which they discuss is.

The sad fact is that such “narrative driven” essays will score few marks, particularly at advanced level, and this document has been prompted by a batch of IBDP essays concerning the use of setting in The Awakening (Chopin) and Snow Falling on Cedars (Guterson).


It is important to note that setting refers to the whole “world” of the novel – location, era, culture, use of time of day (“hour”) and that any response should show an awareness of each of these ideas if possible. Ideally the response will be able to consider contrasts within the novel to build a sense of debate in the essay.
Once this is established then the writer needs to consider the link between any of these elements and the themes of the novel or the characters described.
Thus each paragraph should open with a clear statement of intent linked to the title of the essay before the discussion commences.

Using texts familiar to a range of my students, I will look briefly at each of the elements outlined above to suggest some stimuli:


This is the most obvious area of response, and I will look at The Awakening, Macbeth and Of Mice and Men.
The Awakening uses location in two ways – the general difference between the worlds of Grand Isle and New Orleans, and the specific as found within rooms used in the story. The sense of separation caused by placing any narrative on an island is straightforward to se. Grand Isle is different to some due to the regular contact with the “real” world due to the coming and going of Leonce, among others. Nevertheless, the creation of a temporary place of refuge for the women in the story helps to spark the whole story into action – women may well alter their behaviour on the island (the role of the eunuch-like Cajun male seems to suggest this), but it is never long lasting. After a time the freedom of the island, suggested by a relaxed dress code and regular forays into the sea is replaced by the stern societal norms of the city. The houses here have barred windows and columns standing phallically erect outside their doors – this is a man’s world and one in which society is to be obeyed. Given this, Edna’s response to her arrival is shocking.
Her home is carefully described, and the possessions within, including Edna herself, are carefully scrutinised by Leonce. Only after he leaves for New York can Edna begin to Awaken in a passage in which she subverts the “correct” use of the location by eating her (masculine) meal of beer and cheese in the living room. This clear statement of a wish to shatter society is backed up by a contrast of use of the garden in respect of nature. Gardens are often representative of “tamed” nature and here we see the same – although Edna begins to take an interest in her version of tamed nature, we note that it is only in the garden that any link to the sea is created in New Orleans, other than in the view through Mlle Reisz’s filthy windows!
The link to the sea is already established clearly in part one where it is the setting for the Awakening of the title as Edna is able to lose her inhibitions and surrender herself to this liquid, feminine environment.
To this end, we should notice that at the first soiree, Edna, whilst part of the party in the drawing room is seated at a window, half in and half out, listening to the voice of the sea. The personification of setting here used helps to draw attention to the role that specific setting will play in her emotional journey.

In Macbeth setting is again used to deliberate effect. Broadly the choice is between “blasted heath” and Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Any student working on this area should look closely at the castle which prefigures the use of a similar location topos throughout Gothic and Victorian literature. Not only is the castle prison-like, but I want to focus on the idea of the castle representing Hell and thus adding a layer to the character of Macbeth. By the time The Porter opens the gates, Duncan lies dead and Macbeth has “murdered sleep”. From this point, following the idea that the Porter represents the porter of Hell’s Gate (See another essay on the blog); this metaphor helps to render Macbeth clearly as the Devil himself. A change in character from the vacillating warrior of Act 1.

In Of Mice and Men, location can clearly tie in with the central themes of the novel to add a layer of subconscious understanding. Simple points such as the use of Soledad as the location of the action link with descriptions which carefully point out the thought processes behind the locations. The Bunkhouse is described in a manner which contrasts sharply with the natural world in which George and Lennie are so happy. The floor is unpainted, there is a lack of privacy, the small windows let in light in a bar, helping to suggest the sense of a prison or similar building. The first contact with the bunk house focuses on the infestation of “grey-backs” in the beds and on the lack of personal possessions carried by the itinerant workers. After this, the various key events of the novel – The meeting with Curley’s wife, the shooting of the dog, the planning of the dream-farm and so on, are related to this location and the use of light, silence and the development of tensions between the characters are all coloured by the initial description. Much the same could be said of the barn – all seems rather wonderful – quiet, peaceful, rural, close to nature, yet all threatened by the hanging fork which is suspended like an instrument of ill omen or of execution above all that takes place.


Although often referencing the time of writing, the era of setting can again influence the central themes of the novels. OMAM is set in the depression and suggests a lack of hope among the men and a context of failure against which the story is played out.

For Shakespeare, the Historical setting of Macbeth, well accounted in Holinshead, provided an ideal setting for a story designed to promote the rule of King James I. The events are seen as “true”, but from a different age. Given the links between reality and the plot and the closeness of Guy Fawkes’ treachery, for example, the setting enables Shakespeare to promote the idea of a Scottish King without ever having to address recent history directly. There is no reference here in any form to Mary, Queen of Scots, and yet the establishment of a noble line of Kings north of the border is clear to all.

Guterson uses this setting to enable a narrative largely about racism and the inability of society to accept outsiders to present his tale against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest in the period (loosely) 1930-1954. The proximity of the War and the location enables his story to be told without reference to the occasionally clichéd world of the “deep South”. The narrative gains immeasurably from this as readers are forced to think anew of a subject that many think they “know”. Likewise the choice of era targets a time when the USA was riven with McCarthyism and prone to somewhat paranoid responses to anyone not of the norm. Finally the era allows a small measure of technology to be used, but makes the total isolation caused by the snow storm to be totally convincing.
Culture is explored often by use of race and societal expectation. Again Guterson is the focus perhaps in the text we are reading for the use of the Japanese/American clash. His use of Japanese language in the text as Hatsue is taught about her heritage builds a clear barrier between her world and that of Ishmael as well as between that of the reader, when reading in a “western environment”. Such deliberate distancing helps to emphasise the notion that “oceans don’t mix”. Ishmael response that they do “underneath” may well be true, but there is no room for this optimism in a novel which sees the Americans dominate their Japanese neighbours even down to the metaphorical sacrifice of a Japanese virgin each year to assuage the needs of the local community in the Strawberry Fair.

A similar use of the clash of cultural worlds pervades Wide Sargasso Sea and therefore looks ahead to Jane Eyre, novels in which cultures are brought into stark contrast. The hostility faced by Rochester – a tool of a colonial super-power – in the days following his marriage do not find echo immediately in Eyre, but a century earlier, Bronte had focused on a more tangible culture clash as she moves Jane between Gateshead, Lowood and Thornfield. Each has its own culture and Jane has to find her path to success in each. India and the West Indies seem here to provide excitement and a sense of the unknown since in the early 19th century the political response to colonialism was not that to which Rhys responds. Students should be aware of the context of creation as well as the context of the physical setting of the novel.

Time of Day, Hour, is as important as any of the above since writers will use this device to imply subtext and to create atmosphere. Macbeth takes place almost exclusively at night or at the least in locations devoid of the sun. If night time can reflect stratagems and a potential for evil, then this is seen in most of our texts – look at the time of day in Othello, key scenes of the Awakening and most of the Gothic literature you read.
Interesting, then, is the use of “time between time” as a setting which keeps possibility alive. Reading Hardy’s poems should keep one aware of the power of dusk and dawn as magical times. As Hardy watched morning “harden” on the wall following Emma’s death, so the setting moves from dawn to the full light of day just as Emma’s life moves from a fading life to the harsh reality of death. Interestingly Hardy, writing a factual account of his response, has to use the coming of light to signify death – an unusual effect. His choice of the verb “harden” achieves this beautifully as the light seems to bring a harsh clarity to the world – a far cry from the usual welcome release from darkness.

Finally – consider here the use of hour in the play of light that follows Curley’s wife’s death. As the sun sets, Steinbeck tells us of the bars of light in the barn rising up the walls. It is almost as if the fading light, signifying approaching death, produce light which is rising to heaven as the true nature of the poor, dead girl is revealed.

I hope this will be of use to anyone approaching Setting in essay form. As usual, the ideas are my own and I make no promise of a high grade simply by reading this essay.

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Macbeth the “dead butcher”

A response to Malcolm’s epithet – often used as a source for examination questions…

When Malcolm refers to Macbeth as a “dead butcher” (V.ix.35), the point is clear: the events of the play have been created and undertaken by a man with a driving blood lust and lack of respect for propriety. The play post dates Julius Caesar, a play in which the antithesis of butchery and beneficial sacrifice is laid clear by Brutus: “Let’s be sacrificers, but not Butchers, Caius” (JC II.i.173), “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods,/ Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds (JC II.i 180/1). Allowing that Brutus is to be seen as the quintessential “honourable” man accepting the need for Regicide to cleanse and heal the state, Macbeth might well be seen as his polar opposite with Malcolm’s words merely serving to draw our attention to the fact. Shakespeare, as we might imagine, gives us much more – a rounded portrayal of a war hero who degenerates as his character becomes tainted with the illicit power suggested to him by the Witches.
The play opens with descriptions of warfare and of Macbeth’s performance on the field. There is a sense of anticipation built up as Shakespeare delays the first meeting with Macbeth and allows the King and his men to discuss his exploits in his absence: “For brave Macbeth (well he deserves that name), /Disdaining fortune…carv’d out his passage…Till he unseam’d him from the nave to the chops/ and fix’d his head upon our battlements” (I.ii 16ff). The Captain’s description of Macbeth’s heroics serve to show him as everything Duncan could wish – brave and heroic in defence of the Kingdom and even the description of the savage upper cut surely reflects the savagery of war, rather than plain butchery. We should notice, however, that he is “Valour’s minion” in this passage, “disdaining Fortune”. Perhaps here there are hints at what is to come? A minion often carries overtones of sexual exploitation by a stronger party (See Marlowe Edward II) and this together with the disdain in which Macbeth holds Fortune, may well suggest that his own character is not strong enough to withstand the pressure that it will be subject to. Duncan grants Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor and we await our first meeting with this military superman.
When the witches announce to Macbeth and Banquo that the elevation is at hand, Macbeth is far from confident – “Good Sir, why do you start, and seem to fear/Things which sound so fair? (I.iii 51)- and his reluctance to accept the information seems genuine, even as he realises the true import of what has been shown to be true: “This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill; cannot be good:-“ (I.iii 129) and begins to weigh up the true implications of what he has been told. Recognising that the murder which must be committed is abhorrent to nature, Macbeth decides that “Chance may crown me/ Without my stir.” (I.iii 144). This warrior, so adept in warfare seems curiously unwilling to wield his sword in a manner contrary to nature at this stage. Even when Malcolm is raised to the Prince of Cumberland and Macbeth calls for the “stars to hide your fires!” (I.iv 50), Macbeth acknowledges his “black and deep desires” but requires a catalyst for his actions.
Lady Macbeth can be that catalyst and in receipt of the letter in I.v sees at once the issue at hand: “Yet I do fear thy nature:/It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness” (I.v.16); Thou…Art not without ambition, but without/The illness should attend it” (I.v.19). She notes that he would act “holily” given the choice and sets out to turn her warrior-husband into the butcher described by Malcolm.
In the soliloquy in I.vii Macbeth, on the point of action, is still considering his deed. Lady Macbeth has convinced him of the need to act and to ensure that he appears trustworthy, yet his conscience still troubles him. “He’s here in double trust…” ( I.vii) begins a sequence of ideas that present themselves as reasons not to kill Duncan which Shakespeare balances with the good/evil antithesis which runs throughout the play. Even now, Macbeth is clearly aware of the “deep damnation” which his act will incur for Duncan (as well as for himself) and recognises that his only motive is “vaulting ambition”. At this point he is interrupted by the arrival of his wife who shores up his courage and sends him to do the deed, contemptuously adding that he might otherwise “live a coward in thine own esteem,/Letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would”…”. Her language is that of the “fiend-like Queen” as Malcolm describes her (V.ix 35) as she imagines how she would “while it was smiling in my face,/Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums/And dash’d the brains out” urging Macbeth to act against “Th’unguarded Duncan” and “His spongy officers”. Her language is powerful and easily conveys the weakness of the prey. The speech is centered on the claim made by Macbeth to be a “man” She has already prayed to be unsexed and now Macbeth suggests that only male offspring are suitable for one such as her.
In Act II Macbeth’s subconscious still troubles him as he approaches the chamber, yet the deed is done, effectively but not completely, and he seems mentally unhinged when he meets Lady Macbeth on completion of the murder. It is she who takes the opportunity to murder the guards leaving Macbeth to wait in terror “whence is that knocking?” (II.ii 56). The knocking continues, linking the scenes and adding the subtext to the porter who will emerge like the porter of Hell, clearly rendering Macbeth’s castle into Hell itself. The new King of Hell, having “murdered sleep” seems trapped in agonies of guilt and an awareness of the moral implications of his actions. In II.iii 89ff “Had I but dies an hour before this chance…” Macbeth is given the chance to portray his innocence whilst telling anyone with knowledge of the crime committed the truth. He sees that his way is now clear and that there can be no turning back. As he tells the tale of the upper rooms the antithesis between Good and Evil re-emerges –Duncan’s skin is silver, “lac’d with his golden blood” and the stab wounds look like a “breach in nature”. There is no opportunity given from this point on for him to reflect on his acts or show remorse. Indeed the moral implications of the deed are not really the basis for his lack of impetus. To this point Shakespeare has given us a portrait of a man totally aware of the lack of motive for his action and struggling to overcome his qualms about acting in cold blood. After this, things will be different.
It seems that from this point Macbeth becomes obsessed with the need to kill to maintain his safety. Whilst Lady Macbeth becomes wracked with torment and guilt, he moves from one act to the next with a degree of certainty, even seeking to hide his actions from his wife lest she manages to dissuade him. That he needs to kill Banquo is obvious to him “To be thus is nothing, but to be safely thus:” (III.i46ff) and his soliloquy is driven by references to his jealousy and sense of injustice that Banquo’s offspring shall become Kings after him. Murderers are organised ( the confusion over the Third Murderer need not delay us here) and all is done without the driving of Lady Macbeth who is given one of the very few opportunities in this play to present a case with pathos. Her portrayal of the tormented and sleepless Macbeth is rudely brushed aside, however (“We have scorch’d the snake…”) and the scorpions in his mind lead him to the simple decision to carry on with his action. Lady Macbeth is shut out at this point and seems to be ignorant of the deeds, even when Macbeth is facing Banquo’s ghost at the banquet. Her response than harks back to her taunts in Act 1 as she cries, “What! Quite unmann’d in folly” and links Macbeth’s response to the lack of manhood perceived at the time of the murder of Duncan. As Macbeth is driven on to his next murder –“How say’st thou, that Macduff denies his person, At our great bidding?” she notes merely that he lacks “the season of all natures, sleep” (III.iv125ff).
When the witches conjure the apparitions in IV.i 70ff, Macbeth acknowledges that they have “harp’d my fear aright” acknowledging that his fear of Macduff is already strong, the parade of Kings stands more as a political gesture by Shakespeare than a further intensifying of the message. The murder is not carried out by Macbeth, but is in his name and Shakespeare focuses the audience on the death of a child – innocence being slaughtered. Against this background, Macbeth’s character is commented upon by Malcolm and Macduff in IV.iii as they discuss their country from the safety of the Saintly English King’s court. The country is described with a metaphor of the yoke and “each day a new gash is added to her wounds”(IV.iii 40), presumably by the butcher who now rules the country. As Malcolm seeks to show his unworthiness to rule, Shakespeare shows us the true nature of Macbeth: “black Macbeth”, “bloody, Luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious” as he seeks to show his own weaknesses. Macduff will counter this and hold him as fit to rule before the news of his own loss is brought. After the pathos of the murder scene, the news is carried briefly, with little exaggeration of the deaths of the children and the wife. The message is juxtaposed with the description of the saintly Edward the confessor and contrast is clear. Macbeth, hitherto suggested as the King of Hell, is now clearly seen in that light.
It is a light which will prevent him mourning his wife’s death and provide Shakespeare with a nihilistic vision of the world in which Macbeth finds himself (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”). In the early acts Macbeth seems concerned about the effects his actions might have and seems prepared to leave much to chance. Now his life is measured out in repetitive days with no hint of hope of anything. The great ruler of Scotland/Hell is reduced to equating man to a shadow, to wishing the candle of life were out and to recognising his life as “full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing” (V.iv 28). This recognition is important as Shakespeare is bringing the play to a close in which order and the “right” way of things is restored. It is clear that Macbeth’s rule should be seen as hollow and empty in this way. As he dies he severs any last link with Brutus and the like by refusing to “play the Roman fool” and warns Macduff with the idea that his “soul is too much charg’d/ With blood of thine already” (V.viii.6). It is open to conjecture whether or not Macbeth is feeling remorse here or rationalising his own fear, or even boasting, but the language of the final duel does not reflect butchery in any way. The pair converse not in taunts of warriors, but in the interpretation of the witches’ pronouncements. Macbeth is given a curious end and one that might be designed to help the audience to perceive as a victim of circumstance. He is terrified of fighting but, warrior that he is, finds an element of nobility in his acceptance of certain death at the hand of Macduff. He vanishes from the play, his head appearing in a stage direction, but with no final comment. The play closes with Malcolm’s speech in which he states that he will restore the world to rights. He refers to Macbeth as a “butcher”, to Lady Macbeth as a “fiend-like Queen” but otherwise the focus looks forward. There is no dwelling on the fall of a tragic hero or a recognition of the “moral” of the tale.

Is it just, this appellation? Certainly Shakespeare has set up an idea that butchery is linked with potentially sinful acts and dishonour and there are enough references to Rome and Caesar for this to seem relevant. Undoubtedly Macbeth is a sinner, in fact he can be equated, thanks to the porter, with the ruler of Hell itself, but he is not yet a “butcher”. The single murder he commits is botched and requires his wife to finish the job; he employs murderers for all his other killings and seems reluctant to take up weapons at the close of the play when faced by Macduff. In III.iv 135ff he seems to sum up his life – not one of endless violence and slaughter, but one of circumstance: “I am in blood/Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er”. This sentiment seems very close to that of “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”. Macbeth is driven by circumstance and need and behaves as he does since he sees it as the only way he can behave. He is not a “butcher”- Malcolm exaggerates.

References from Arden Edition of Macbeth, Ed: Muir. 1951.


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