Why study an evil or failing character?
From Teaching Poetry in the High School. Arthur Fairchild.
On first thought, it strikes one as somewhat anomalous that the finest and deepest moral
effects produced through the study of poetry should come through the study of evil and failing
characters. But, anomalous or not, a moment's reflection convinces one that it is so. Not the
perfect characters but the imperfect and evil characters make the deepest appeal; make, indeed, any kind of effective appeal to our imagination and to our moral sense.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Brutus and Julius Caesar, Hamlet and Ophelia, Othello and lago, Satan in Paradise Lost, Lancelot and Guinevere, the Duke in My Last Duchess, Andrea del Sarto and Lucrezia: all are evil or failing characters, failing rather than inherently evil, no doubt, if we see deep enough, 1
but all alike lacking in precisely those moral qualities which a study of their characters consistently inspires. Why is this?
In the first place, the study of an evil or failing character, artistically presented, calls forth a
series of standards in terms of which that character is said to be evil or to have failed. To judge
an act as evil or deficient is necessarily to have a standard according to which the judgment is
made. If we could not perceive what Macbeth ought to have done we could never know that he
did wrong; if we could conceive no ideals of which Andrea and Lucrezia fell short, we could find
nothing to condemn in their lives. But Shakespeare makes it clear, if it need be made so, that
Macbeth should never have killed his king; and Browning lets us know that Andrea should never have sacrificed his art for an ignoble woman. Each character is so presented by the artist as to make it reasonably evident what the implied ideals are. These intimations of ideals the reader catches and groups together in imagination into
a conception of an ideal character.
And there the pleasure lies. Not in what the poet gives us but in what he enables us to do for
ourselves do we find delight. Just as the child prefers the rag doll to the doll fully equipped, so
the reader prefers the evil or failing character to the perfect character. Each affords more room
for the play of imagination. The child does not play with the rag doll; she plays with her imagination; the doll is simply a concrete starting point; the child's imagination joyously calls up images of what the doll is conceived to be baby, mother, grandparent; the bold outlines of the figure, the lack of detail, leave the imagination unchecked in its. play. So the reader of a poem or play does not want a perfect character. That would leave his imagination nothing to supply.
He wants the outline, chiefly a negative outline, that will enable him to build up a conception of
a character for himself. "Always," if I may quote words that I have used elsewhere, "no matter how
perfect in some respect the poetic representation of a thing or person may be, there must be some
occasion, some room, for the play of the imagination; there must be some opportunity for the reader to construct for himself, to supplement, to add, to supply almost endlessly out of his own experience; always he must be left free to do more for himself than the poet does for him; and yet to do something which, without the poet's aid, he
could by himself never effectively attain." 2
But the reader does more than this. He does something more than find "On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven a perfect round." In the moment of his aesthetic pleasure he becomes in imagination the ideal which he has conceived.
Let us see how this comes about.
All the standards which any one makes use of ... are but reflections of his own potential self; they are
a part of himself. A standard of feeling, of thought, or of action which any one holds, is something to
which he regards himself as at least potentially capable of rising; it is, in the truest sense, a reflection of
himself. ... It is this ideal self that each reader or spectator becomes. So long as he remains in an
aesthetic attitude, so long as the flash of pleasure and delight lasts, he actually becomes his ideal and
potential self; he is that self which he ideally conceives. The ideal of himself, so vainly and ineffectually pursued in the world of dust and action, suddenly becomes, in imagination, both real and present.
The experience may last but for a moment; in any case it must be very short; but for that sweet moment he has held himself at the high level where is
In consciousness, in mind and soul, not in reality, not
in the world of action as yet, he is for the moment his
ideal self. 3
"... the most difficult of tasks to keep
Heights which the soul is competent to gain."
The study of an evil or failing character, artistically portrayed, results, then, in the finest
moral effects possible through any medium or form of activity. It enables one actually to attain in imagination ideals of character, blurred, dimmed, lost sight of, amid the struggles of daily life or the din of the market-place. This indeed is, in part, the very meaning of poetry to us. Adolescents especially are constantly making
and unmaking their ideals of character. The ideals conceived are practically determined by
the influences under which the child comes at this formative period. If these influences are inspiring the mind of the boy or girl is moved toward a fine and lofty idealism; if they are commonplace or base, the mind is dragged down. It might seem as if the type of character to be studied in poetry, in order to attain the better end, would
be a character which embodied all the virtues of life. But it is not so. No type of character is
more efficacious in producing desirable moral effects than the evil or failing character, presented
under artistic conditions and in accordance with the laws of art.
1. 1 All the greatest poets, Shakespeare especially, make it evident that ignorance rather than inherent viciousness and degeneracy of man is the fruitful source of error and tragic waste in life. This conviction, consistently implied by the teacher, especially in teaching drama, will be found to have a very real, however subtle, effect upon pupils.
2. The Making of Poetry, p. 173.
3. The Making of Poetry, p. 168. On the full significance of
this, both for the individual and for society, see Ibid., chapters
VI and VII.
How to cite this article:
Fairchild, Arthur. The Teaching of Poetry in the High School . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1914. Shakespeare Online. 23 Nov. 2013. < http://shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/whystudyevil.html >.
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