Saturday, November 1, 2014

Creepy Poe and Creepy Shakespeare

This is a creepy time of year, what with Halloween and the Day of the Dead and Guy Fawkes Day, and even All Saints Day, which can seem kind of creepy to a Protestant. So I've decided to write a post about the creepiest American author, Edgar Allan Poe, and his connection to some of the creepier plays of Shakespeare.

This thought didn't descend on me out of thin air (which, by the way, is a Shakespeare quotation. "Into thin air" is, I mean). Nay. The idea came to me as I was rereading Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" in my middle-schooler's horrible
on-line English textbook, in order to help him understand phrases like "overcharged with awe." (This apalling literary "resource" "instructs" students in reading by allowing them to click an icon and have the story read to them by an actor.) As I scanned this singularly dreadful e-book, the very sight of which pervaded my spirit with a sense of insufferable gloom, unrelieved by any of that poetic sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest images of the desolate or terrible, I noticed that the plot of "The Tell-Tale Heart" bore an eerie resemblance to that of Macbeth.

Now, of course, resemblances to Macbeth can be found in many places, if you seek them out. Who hasn't encountered three weird sisters, while on the way back from battling bloodthirsty Norwegians? And which of us hasn't, while at a dinner party, noticed a gory ghost sitting in what was supposed to be our chair? Yet, despite these experiences' ubiquity, there was something about Poe's story that bespoke a conscious and deliberate plan to evoke memories of Macbeth throughout the story.

Someone must have noticed this before, I thought, so I Googled it, and saw that of course many people had. As a sentence I found in one of those diabolical canned research-paper emporiums put it, "Poe's guilt-ridden tale reeks of Shakespeare." Since this blog also reeks of Shakespeare, I'm going to add to this high Internet wisdom some thoughts of my own.

It's true that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is insane and Macbeth is not (though after they meet the Witches, Macbeth's friend Banquo asks whether they have "eaten on the insane root / That takes the reason prisoner"). But both Poe's and Shakespeare's protagonists contrive to murder old men to whom they admit they have strong ties of affection, and both cold-bloodedly dispatch their victims while they are in bed asleep (though Poe's narrator's victim wakes up and shrieks at the last minute, a detail I kind of like. I also like when Poe's narrator pauses in his ghastly account of the murder to say "ha! ha!"). Both Macbeth and Poe's crazy narrator are plagued by sounds and sights no one else can see. Macbeth sees a dagger hanging in the air before him, while the Crazy Poe Narrator sees the old man's eye as the devil's eye. After his crime, Macbeth hears a voice saying "Sleep no more!," while, after his, Poe's narrator famously hears the "hellish tattoo" of the dead old man's heartbeat.

What seems most Macbeth-inspired in Poe's story is the demoralizing/moralizing effect of these sights and sounds on the guilty, who might without them have gotten away with their crimes. Poe's narrator, who accuses the policemen of also hearing the heartbeat and pretending they don't, is like Macbeth when he sees Banquo's ghost and marvels that his dinner-guests see but aren't bothered by it. Poe's narrator also borrows from the fate of Lady Macbeth, who does go insane, marveling that "the old man" had "so much blood in him," and seeing on her hands a spot that can never be washed away. "Out, damned spot!" Poe has borrowed her very phrase for his description of the old man's cataract-afflicted eye. His nutty narrator lets fall a lantern ray  right on "the damned spot" of the veiled eye that has so upset him, before he kills the old man and cuts up his body, ensuring that "no blood-spot" or "stain" of any kind remains on the floor. (Yes, they're still reading creepy stories in middle school! But check this out. My son's on-line textbook retained the dismembering, but changed Poe's narrator's exclamation, "Almighty God! -- no, no! They heard! -- they suspected!," to simply "No, no! They heard! -- they suspected!" I guess the phrase "Almighty God" scared the editors more than the sentence "I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.")

There are other Shakespearean echoes in Poe's story's language, as in the first paragraph, when the narrator, adapting Hamlet's comment to Horatio, claims his hearing is so acute that he hears "all things in the heaven and in the earth," and when the narrator refers to the murder simply as "the deed." Macbeth's "I have done the deed" is one of the most tersely eloquent phrases in Shakespeare. But there is in addition a resemblance, in this story, to what Borges called the sustained atmosphere of nightmare that pervades Macbeth: the unrelenting dread evoked not just by the grisly plot but by the language with which the plot is clad. This fearful language includes lines like "nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am" (Poe), and "Why do I yield to that suggestion / Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair / And make my seated heart knock at my ribs?" (Shakespeare). When I read that last line, I try to forget that the eighteenth-century tragedian David Garrick had a fright wig with a cord down the sleeve that he would pull to make the hair stand up on end as he said it. Banish that image, if you can, and agree that both Shakespeare's and Poe's terms create horrifying worlds which are thrillingly Halloweenish.

Of course, the differences between Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and Shakespeare's Macbeth distinguish the seventeenth- from the nineteenth-century author. In Macbeth, supernatural powers really exist. The Macbeths start sane, and are driven mad by the devilish spirits who are physically there in the play, who present them with illusions (not delusions), which tempt them to deeds which later freight their souls with guilt. This was the moral world in which Renaissance playgoers, and readers, believed. For Poe it was different. While there are supernatural events in some of Poe's stories, the author of "The Tell-Tale Heart" can depend on his readers' primary diagnosis of mental illness as his narrator's problem. "The disease had sharpened my senses," Poe's narrator begins. Lunacy precedes crime. In Shakespeare, crime was called sin, and it was the other way around.

The different genres also promote different experiences of the tale of horror. A master of the short story, Poe created a few pages to give a reader a short thrill of pleasurable fear, one framed and tamed by the milder contents of an illustrated periodical. The reading experience of Macbeth, and consequently the nightmare, is more sustained, and therefore leads the reader deeper into the horror. The audience experience of the play is more so, though at least as a playgoer, you're not descending alone.

However, I myself first encountered Poe in a way which exploited his creepiness to a maximal and indeed Shakespearean extent. As a kid, I read "The Tell-Tale Heart" not in a periodical, nor in a chipper on-line textbook with vocabulary words and colorful discussion questions arrayed in the margins, but in a dusty old complete Poe anthology,  with a flashlight under the covers, after having completed, in the same hours-long session, "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Premature Burial," "Annabel Lee," and "The Masque of the Red Death." I still think that's the right way to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment