Shakespeare and Robert Browning

Table of contents


Shakespeare and Browning both present the theme of desire through their central characters. Lady Macbeth (and Macbeth) is motivated by the desire for ambition and authority in ‘Macbeth’ whilst in the Browning monologues; the monologists are driven by the desire of power and control in ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ and revenge in ‘The laboratory’. All of which seem to have fatal conclusions as a result of each of their desires.

As the texts were produced over 400years ago, audiences may have found the works of Shakespeare and Browning highly thought-provoking and entertaining whilst contemporary audiences finding the different aspects of desire relatable to modern situations. Lady Macbeth’s need for authority in her famous soliloquy ‘unsex me here’ reflects on the feelings of many women at that time longing for power.

Likewise, audiences of the ‘the Laboratory’ are able to empathise with the protagonist’s desire for revenge upon their adulterous lover. In ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, Browning reveals an obsessive and controlling persona who can only satisfy his absolute love for his lover by strangling her, presenting his desire for control over others. Section 1: How do the writers introduce the central characters?


Lady Macbeth’s introduction to the audience in Act 1, Scene 5 immediately makes it clear of her intentions. ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty’. As this is a soliloquy, it invites the audience in to see her inner thoughts and feeling and her true desire for power. Her use of imperative verbs, ‘come’ and ‘fill me’ not only notifies the audience of her desire for power, but the lengths she is willing go to achieve it. Lady Macbeths mention of the supernatural shows how desperate she is for her desire as she craves to posses characteristics of a man by calling upon the ‘spirits’ and this possibly confirms the dark affiliation she has to the witches prophecy as she uses commanding language ‘come’ followed by supernatural references ‘spirits’ and only calls upon them. * She says ‘come to me woman’s breast and take my milk for gall’. Stating the physical differences of males and females not only shows the limitations of her desire (she is a woman), but reflects on the position of women at the time because she is pleading to have all her feminine traits emoved to attain her desire.  Likewise, when she says ‘that tend on moral thoughts’ unsex me here’ she is asking the spirits to de-feminise and undo her natural order her as she wants to be emotionless and not feel guilty as she recognises that her desire goes against the moral order thus emphasising her strong feeling of desire and how far she will go. It could also be argued that the fact that women had to act in certain ways in the 16th century, for instance being completely against violence of any sorts, may have spurred on lady Macbeth to rebel and achieve her desire. Also, the reference to ‘direst cruelty; make thick my blood’ further supports her portrayal to the audience as an evil and corrupted character. The use of the semi-colon emphasises the use of the word ‘cruelty’ which is a trait seen to be masculine not feminine * This may have been shocking yet entertaining to the Elizabethan audiences as women at that time weren’t expected to act and think in such a way. * The fact that when we meet her when Macbeth is not present (or any one else) shows her desire for power as she is telling us what she wants THE LABORATORY Similarly, in Robert Browning’s monologue of ‘The laboratory’ the audience are made fully aware of the narrators intentions from the beginning. ‘May gaze thro’ these faint smokes curling whitely’. The personae describes deadly arsenic fumes as something beautiful which suggests to the reader that she is somewhere where chemical reactions take place- hence the title. * The fact that we are introduced to her in this setting brings a dark atmosphere similar to intro of lady Macbeth * This may portray signs of insanity which questionable throughout the poem. Reference to the ‘devils smithy’ further enhances her desire for revenge as she knows she is doing something bad by going to a devils smithy * ‘Poison to poison her’- reinforces the narrative to kill and the first glimpse to who the revenge is on (‘her) and doesn’t mention the name * It shows how deranged the protagonist’s nature has become, who goes so far as to poison her rival in love The use of rhyming quickens the pace of the poem, adding to the woman’s increasing excitement as the apothecary grinds up the mixture.

Many of Browning’s poems were written about people with an unusual nature. At first glance, the poem appears to be written as if she were talking to the apothecary, but reading into it shows that she may be thinking to herself as at the start of the poem she tells the man to take his time, but as she thinks about the possibilities and power the poison will bring her she begins to hurry him. Her careless attitude towards her future crime suggests that she may have previously killed and does not care about being found out as she is proud of what she will have done. PORPHYRIA’S LOVER ‘ the rain set early tonight’- tonight is a time indicator and possibly foreshadows something that will happen tonight * Use of pathetic fallacy- weather mirrors feeling felt by the narrator * Irregular rhyme pattern- may show narrators instabilltiy * No stanzas –reflective of the narrators mental state/personality * When obsessed can’t stop talking about something * Build up of tension at the beginning to get to the climax


* All start in a sinister gloomy way * Section 2: How do the writers show that desire motivates and drives these characters?

LADY MACBETH * Act 1, Scene 7- ‘When you durst do it; then you were a man’ shows Lady Macbeths play on masculinity as she uses the perfect tense ‘were’ highlighting the difference now and before which provokes Macbeth and in turn manipulates him to go through with the execution of Macbeth with will get allow her to attain her desire for power (again shows how far she is willing to go to achieve happiness) * * Strong imagery and emotive lang-passionate * Blank verse instead of prose * Shakespeare uses a metaphor and contrast to show that Lady Macbeth is ruthless.

In Act I scene 7, when Macbeth wants to back out of killing Duncan, she tells Macbeth “I have given suck, and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me: / I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, / And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you”. * First, Lady Macbeth uses feminine language, showing she knows what it means to be tender and nurturing with words like “tender love” and “milk”. But then, she shocks the audience by using violent language such as “dashed the brains out”.

This is an upsetting image; it makes the audience understand that Lady Macbeth would put a promise before the life of her own child. * Lady Macbeth seems to have no problem with violence of the cruelest kind: violence against a child. What makes Lady Macbeth sound even more ruthless are words like as “boneless” and “smiling” because the baby sounds defenseless, yet Lady Macbeth won’t show it mercy. * By having Lady Macbeth talk about committing infanticide, Shakespeare makes her a villain in the eyes of the audience, because in the 1600s, women were seen as soft and nurturing.

Behaving this way would be seen as unnatural and would have shocked Shakespeare’s audience. * This shows how her she is driven by desire because for Lady Macbeth (who portrays a strong personae) to talk about how she knows what I’s like to be a ‘woman’ and be nurturing, which doesn’t happen very often in the play, as a way to control her husband into getting into power shows how driven she is and again how far she’ll go. THE LAB * Browning also presents the reader with a character who is completely ruthless when it comes to fulfilling her desires.

Although Lady Macbeth desires power whereas the speaker in “The Laboratory” desires revenge, they share the same determination to get what they want regardless of the consequence. When talking to the chemist about her plans for revenge the speaker says “and Elize, with her head, and her breast, and her hands should drop dead! ”. Just like the presentation of Lady Macbeth, Browning also paints a vivid image of death and murder. Worryingly for the reader, Browning strongly suggests the speaker’s enjoyment of the idea of her rival’s death.

By repeating the word “and” it suggests that she is relishing the idea of revenge and also that she has thought about it just as much. Section 3: How do the writers show how desire affects relationships in the text? Section 4: How do the writers show the results/consequences of desire? LADY MACBETH * In the final stages of the play the result of Lady Macbeth’s desire for power becomes clear when she loses her mental stability and starts to re-live the murder she and her husband committed. Whilst in her room she utters the phrase: * ‘Out damned spot! * Out I say! *  The use of the command here clearly shows the fact that Lady Macbeth – a once powerful and desire driven woman – is becoming increasingly unstable. Shakespeare’s use of the repetition of the word out shows how desperate she has become, how she has lost control. The repeated use of the exclamation marks highlights the intensity of her need for her hands to ‘be clean’. The ‘spot’ to which she is referring to is that of the blood of King Duncan, however in this instance the blood is a metaphorical manifestation of her guilt, and one that will never go away.

Her need for power has destroyed her; she can no longer escape the consequences of what she has done. In this dialogue Lady Macbeth also alludes to the fact that she herself has been ‘damned’, just like she may never get the spot of blood off of her skin she will never be able to clean her own soul, she will never be able to escape what she has done. Through the use of the word ‘damn’ Shakespeare successfully suggests the idea of hell, one which was key in Lady Macbeth’s initial soliloquy.

In this scene many may feel a sense of sympathy for Lady Macbeth, as she is going through a traumatic experience, and yet there is no sign of Macbeth, once again taken over by desire he has abandoned his wife in her time of need. However, this scene may be considered to be appropriate by Shakespearean audiences as Lady Macbeth losing her mental stability is seen as a result of her dealing with aspects of life that are deemed to be ‘not feminine’. Conclusion: present your own ideas about the varying successes of the different writers, evaluating which of the treatments you prefer and why – exemplar to follow * Whilst Shakespeare presents highly compelling characters in the shape of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, both of whom are driven to self-destruction by their strong feelings of desire, it is Browning’s monologist in ‘The Laboratory’ that conjures this desire most convincingly. Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste,/Pound at thy powder, — I am not in haste! ’ Both the language and the form compel the reader to reluctantly empathise with the persona. We feel drawn into the conspiracy she has arranged with her apothecary, driven by the imperative commands she expresses through the use of alliteration, exclamations and commanding verbs. Moreover, the use of bilabial plosives ‘ paste… pound… owder’ attracts the reader, caught up in the excitement she feels as she anticipates the deadly outcomes of the concoction being created. Of course, she is [in haste]. What is interesting is that all three texts make desire enticing (even though we know that moral boundaries are being challenged and broken). Browning not only shows the corruption that strong feelings of desire can bring but also succeeds in corrupting the reader as we ‘warm’ to her intentions …

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