Shakespeare’s plays depict the range of human suffering. Although written four hundred years ago they demonstrate the very same ways in which people have suffered since then and suffer today. It is one of the aspects of the plays that make us identify so closely with Shakespeare’s characters, as in such life experiences as loss of parents or children, pre and post-marriage problems, anger and revenge, unrequited love, war, madness and family rupture.
One would immediately think of the tragedies in connection with suffering but the comedies do not avoid it. Indeed, Twelfth Night is in many ways a play about pain. Often referred to as one of the ‘happy plays’ it is full of loss – loss of love, the loss of life, with the full complement of pain that involves. Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night and Hamlet at about the same time. Both plays begin with a character in excessive grief, one for the loss of a father and his mother’s over hasty remarriage, and the other for the loss of a brother. The dark vision of the tragedies begins to make itself felt in Twelfth Night. Although the ‘happy’ story of the lovers dominates the text, there is the tragic figure of Malvolio hovering, and suffering. We laugh at him but for him it is no laughing matter – it is real pain, the pain of abuse, of being ridiculed and of actually being physically abused, locked up in a dark dungeon. The climax of the play may seem like the conventional happy resolution of the lovers’ problems but in the middle of all that is the suffering figure of Malvolio, abused by those who are celebrating their restoration to happiness.
Much Ado About Nothing stresses love’s pain. It is in many ways a play about the battle between male and female, where the men are a band of brothers, bachelors incessantly joking about infidelity, using the language of sex in their bachelor bantering and being careless in their relationships with women. Claudio’s wooing of Hero is an act of shallowness, and even the final scene, where Hero is revealed as not having died of her loss of love after all, his behaviour doesn’t change. Even then, he remains a superficial character, seeking the diversion of Benedick’s wit, looking to him to make jokes about the situation. So again, here, what seems like a joyful conclusion is clouded with the suffering that has been running through the play at a deeper level.
And so to a play in which suffering makes up the very texture of the text. King Lear is a play that makes one almost believe that when Shakespeare sat down to write it he made a list of every painful thing that human beings could do to each other. No Shakespeare play is about one thing and, of course, King Lear is one of the most comprehensive plays about human life, but it is also very much about suffering. It depicts ingratitude, injustice, misjudgement, misunderstanding and gratuitous violence. If we are able to sit through a performance by the end of it we will have undergone a trial of endurance. Apart from the images of physical pain, with sharpness in the form of the claws and teeth of animals (‘how sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’), with the ripping and tearing of flesh, the breaking of bodies, and even the onstage pulling out of Gloucester’s eyes, the emotional suffering is the real thing in this play.
It is interesting that King Lear, this great canvas on which every kind of suffering is painted, begins like a fairy-tale. It has the structure of a common fairy-tale – a king, with three daughters, subjects them to a love test in which the ones who loves him are rewarded but the youngest rebels against that and the story goes from there. But this is a fairy-tale that goes wrong. Shakespeare keeps us thinking that there may be a happy ending but the ending is even more suffering.
The play is postmodern in many ways, not least in that the expectation of a happy ending, engendered by the fairy-tale structure with its ‘happily ever after’ ending, is subverted. The play consistently denies us the patterns Shakespeare deliberately encourages us to expect, and in that way the suffering is intensified. In Act 5 Lear and Cordelia are reunited, and although imprisoned, they are together and have risen above the political fray. But then Cordelia is executed and the play ends with the most excruciating of all suffering – the death of one’s child, something all human beings think of as the worst thing that could happen to anyone.
And in the frustration of our expectations Shakespeare is holding his text up as a mirror in the most painful way possible.