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The pressures of society can drive the mind crazy, and the fall into this madness is a major theme in the focus texts of this essay. Macbeth by William Shakespeare is a well-known play, written in 1606, whereas The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story written in 1842. Shakespeare’s tragedy tells of the guilt and insanity plaguing a nobleman, Macbeth, while Gilman’s tale follows the slow decline of an unnamed narrator’s mental conscience. The background, conventions and features of these texts piece together to underpin this theme, and these elements can be compared and contrasted for a deeper understanding of the complexities of one’s sanity.
Unusually, a relatively common purpose is shared between the two texts, though they were written over 200 years apart. Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written as a cautionary tale in response to The Gunpowder Plot against King James VI, promoting the haunting guilt pressing upon Macbeth in order to warn his audience of consequences that come with betrayal of the throne. Gilman’s text, unlike this, was more a personal story based on her experiences with feminist activity and post-natal depression. Gilman’s goal was to express the pressures of a women’s domestic livelihood, displayed by the increasing instability of her narrator, ‘trapped’ inside the bars and walls of her bedroom. While these purposes differ, they are similar in raising awareness within their audience. Gilman’s audience was told her story, whereas Shakespeare’s nation-wide viewers were warned of the consequences of actions portrayed. Ultimately, Macbeth warns the audience of the danger in betrayal, and The Yellow Wallpaper warns the readers of the turmoil felt by repressed women. Both of these warnings are achieved by the authors with an illustration of insanity, which allows for comparison of the methods each author used to create this image.
The text conventions are vital to portraying the descent into madness present in both focus texts, particularly in exploring the degree of insanity developed. Firstly, the text structure each author displays shows the form of descent the characters pursue. Shakespeare’s Macbeth follows the patterns of a tragedy, meaning the performance’s climax occurs early on and that Macbeth’s gradual demise into murder and power, and his eventual downfall, is a long series of falling action. Differently, Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper doesn’t reach its climax until the narrator has reached peak insanity, and her previous gradual disconnection from reality is a long string of rising action. Both texts display a decline in condition, but Shakespeare writes of an inevitable fall to madness where Gilman highlights the protagonists’ gradual escalation to mental instability.
Following this descent, many behaviours and symptoms of madness appear within Macbeth and the narrator, displayed by the thoughts of these characters. Gilman’s story most obviously uses this method as her text is written in diary entries, a literal structure of internalised thoughts. Instead, Shakespeare displays the thoughts of Macbeth through soliloquies. One of these soliloquies, the dagger, is a passage in which Macbeth sees ‘a dagger of the mind’, a manifestation of his guilt ‘from (his) heat oppressed brain’. This occurs just before the murder of King Duncan and is designed to give a first warning to the guilt and insanity that will lead to Macbeth’s downfall. A key passage from Gilman’s narrator can be compared to this, in which the narrator speaks of her investment in the wallpaper and how she finds more interest in it ‘than most children could find in a toy-store’. This behaviour demonstrates both the obsession of the narrator and her dangerous sense of creativity, which, like Macbeth’s soliloquy, gives a warning to the eventual nadir of the main character.
The character qualities of both Macbeth and the narrator have also become visible through these conventions, and they too contribute to the descent into madness present. Macbeth is an extremely ambitious character, who has a clear obsession with reaching the height of royalty. This ambition in combination with the paranoia and guilt discussed above was what led to the climax of Duncan’s death, putting Macbeth in an unhealthy position. This status of power with Macbeth’s ambition sent him into a state of confidence in which he’d ‘never shake with fear’, the source of his downfall. Similarly, Gilman’s narrator was also driven to madness by obsession, though this time in conjunction with creativity. The imagination of the narrator with the catalyst of repression is what sent her into delusion. These things together turned her focus to the wallpaper, causing her obsession and leading to her downfall to believing there were people behind this wallpaper, ‘shaking the pattern’.
As well as just displaying the degree of insanity attained by Macbeth and the narrator, Shakespeare and Gilman have used many stylistic features to allow the audience to empathise with the characters. Symbolism and imagery are two features used across both texts that paint a picture of the character’s feelings to the audience. This is evident in Macbeth with constant speak of blood which cannot be ‘clean(ed) from hand’, which symbolises the irremovable psychological stain on Macbeth’s mind. This is also shown in The Yellow Wallpaper by the ‘revolting; smouldering unclean yellow’ wallpaper, representing the family and tradition that has caused the narrator’s confinement.
Repetition is also frequent across both texts, which is used to convey importance to the audience and also to display episodes of obsession. Both Shakespeare and Gilman have used repetition to emphasise the symbolism in their texts. The Yellow Wallpaper puts an extreme repetitive focus on the bedroom wallpaper, a feature used to display the severe obsession of the narrator and build to the climax. Similarly, Shakespeare brings back the ideation of blood stains to display the guilt and obsession of Macbeth. In the case of this text, the repetition of guilt is also relevant to the purpose discussed.
In conclusion, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper share many similarities and differences. Many common techniques are used across the texts to achieve each author’s desired moral. The descent into madness of the two main characters was displayed uniquely across both texts. The audience was not only shown, but able to feel the stories of these characters. Both authors, using unique techniques throughout their texts, successfully captured the true essence of insanity.
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