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Dec. 2nd, 2011 | 07:45 am

How does social, physical and interpersonal environment impact our notion of identity?

King Lear and A Thousand Splendid Suns

‘Thou, nature, art my goddess.’ Despite Edmund’s affirmation of the existence of such an entity in scene 2 of act 1, it is an indisputable fact that the environment in which the characters grow and develop is what forms their concepts of values and personalization. As stated by Jacque Fresco in his 2007 address regarding ‘Existing Myths’; ‘We should not be preoccupied by the erroneous concept of human nature, but should rather examine human behaviour which has always been changing – otherwise we would still be living in caves.’ From the first scene onwards, Edmund is constantly reminded of his illegitimacy, in particular by his father, the Earl of Gloucester, with little regard as to how this may damage his psyche – ‘…the whoreson must be acknowledged.’ This constant and consistent de-legitimization has such a powerfully influential impact upon Edmund’s perception of self. Blind to the traumatic nature of his insults, the Earl of Gloucester provokes the birth of a Machiavellian-minded monster in his illegitimate son. 'He nevertheless,' argues Jennifer Wallace in her 2007 Cambridge Companion to Tragedy. 'Declares that 'nature' is his 'goddess' this implying that bing a 'bastard' or being 'natural' accounts for his evil nature.' (I.ii.)

The opposing belief expressed within the play is the scala natura; the universe-ordered hierarchy on Earth derived from the Ptolemaic assertion that two transparent or ‘crystalline spheres’ exist between the region of the fixed stars and the primum mobile (or outer circle of the heavens). It was the collective belief of the majority of Elizabethans that if something were to happen on Earth involving the disruption of the scala natura – if a peasant were to usurp a king or a duke to kill an earl, for example – the perfect balance maintained by the harmonious relationship between the social hierarchy of Earth and the Universe would be disrupted. This disruption would, in the eyes of Elizabethan custom, cause the chrystaline spheres to play ‘out of tune’ – this is why there are so many references to harmony and tune in Shakespeare’s work, most noteably in Macbeth. However, as cited by Jennifer Wallace in her 2007 Companion to Tragedy, 'Gloucester's 'miraculous' rescue at Dover Cliff highlights the gullible capacity of people desperate to believe in religious and theatrical illusion.' (IV vi). Here Gloucester is lead off what he believes to be a cliff but in reality is a very small fall, by the vivid and articulate descriptions of his disguised son, Edgar, who then assured him that 'the kind Gods' have chosen to save him. This is an example of how willingly we are prepared to fall softly into the arms of pure untruth if it is presented in an attractive enough form. It could also be taken as a point of fortifying the argument against the scala natura; as here the harmonious, comforting yet blatantly untrue beliefs of man are proven to be untrue.

The important thing to realize is that the main attribute the characters across each text share is trauma; they are all victims of sever traumatization as a result of a deconstructive, corrupt environment. In this sense it is only to be expected that we view them as victims, as indeed we must then view all humanity. When Lear is raging about on the heath, cursing at the apathetically thundering heavens, he comes to the realization that he has neglected his Fool who is shivering out in the cold, and the poorer inhabitants of his land who are 'without roof' to shelter them from the horrible storm in which he finds himself. However much this can unarguably be viewed as genuine contrition for kingly neglect, in light of this argument it takes on a fundamentally deeper meaning. The poor and deprived are not only Lear's people but himself, and humanity as a whole. When coming to terms with what Lacan would describe as 'the real,' Lear is faced with the true poverty that his structural class-ism -based society is stricken with. A completely warped and intruded upon development as human beings, and the lack of shelter is in reference to the lack of protection they have against the thrashings of harsh reality. It is here when Lear realizes also that his shelter, composed metaphorically of signifiers but also physically imposing the notion of entitlement and over-inflated self-importance which insulated him from the inevitable recognition of the condemnation of his species.

This has been interpreted to allude to the insignificance or 'nothingness' of the human race, and has been examined by critics as a nihilistic play in this aspect. Instead, I would like to approach it from a more scientific angle; perhaps it is possible to, while examining Edmund's almost pagan praise of nature when juxtaposed with the absolute brutality enforced upon the other bastard, Mariam, notice a trend of tragedy, in the non theatrical genre sense of the term, but rather in simply a human sense. This is also reflected in Kent and Edgar's last words to the audience. Kent's ominous 'My master calls me, I must not say no' is entirely implicative of the doom which awaits him and his fellow citizens in their duty to maintain the obviously flawed status quo. This interpretation can be fortified by Edgar's; 'The weight of this sad time we must obey.' Once again, this is foreboding of an inevitable descent into further corruption or at any rate of a continuation of the norm which is no real preferable alternative.

Fresco maintains that ‘You can not identify the factors responsible for human behaviour through the studies of individuals alone’, as proven by the hugely influential impact the family aspect of environment has within the two texts. ‘Rather,’ he continues. ‘We must study the cultures in which people are nurtured.’ Parenting, in particular, for when we examine Lear’s persistent marginalization of Regan and Gonerill in favor of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, it is evident that this breads them into monstrously corrupt murderers. This theme of degeneration spreads across the apocalyptic play, manifesting itself primarily through language but also, more obviously, through the characters’ actions and interactions with each other. Gonerill and Regan’s fixation upon the much younger Edmund (when they are both married) leading to the former’s poisoning of the latter and Gonerill’s suicide is a perfect example of the mental illness an environment that is incompatible with its inhabitants may spawn.

Mariam grows up in near total isolation and her mother’s constant intonation of the futilities of female existence in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 60’s – ‘How women like us suffer… How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.’ This develops into an almost antipodean mental illness, evolving in the belief that she is worthless. Living until the age of fifteen with no human contact other than with her mother (Nana), her priest and the

weekly visits from her father (Jalil), her most constantly present role model and source of guidance is her mother who, upon being questioned as to why the young Mariam can not attend school, responds that the only lesson a woman must learn is ‘to endure.’ Nana has, in turn, suffered severe emotional trauma as a result of being shunned into seclusion in the isolated kolba by society after having given birth to her and Jalil’s illegitimate daughter Mariam. The sense or lack of sense of self-importance as a result of illegitimacy is then something which manifests itself across both texts, and its diverse affects on each character are proof that it each aspect of environment does not affect a person singularly, but rather the accumulation of each does.

Mariam too is made to feel unwanted by her mother, however unlike Edmund she bears the stigma of being unwanted by her mother emotionally as opposed to resenting the denial of rank that it implies. ‘A heirloom breaking, clumsy little harami.’ Harami meaning ‘bastard’ in Arabic, Mariam does not at the time understand the full meaning behind the word, however ‘It was the way Nana uttered the word—not so much saying it as spitting it at her—that made Mariam feel the full sting of it.’ Mariam responds by coming to terms at such a young age that she is an ‘illegitimate person who would never have legitimate claim to the things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance.’ It could be disputed here then that it is innate human nature which sets Mariam and Edmund apart, but it’s mandatory to realize that to be illegitimate in a monarchy will create a different set of priorities in an individual than it will to be illegitimate in a secluded shack in Afghanistan. The stigma of being illegitimate plagues Mariam into her arranged marriage with Rasheed, where, unable to bear him the son he so ardently craves and after suffering seven miscarriages, she is ‘replaced’ when he takes on the orphaned Lalia as a second wife. Upon their first dinner together, Rasheed disparagingly excuses Mariam’s sullen silence with personal details; ‘Mariam, have you told her that you are a harami? Well she is. But she is not without qualities…’ Although obviously the literal translation of harami is ‘bastard’ it is the implication which matters and haunts Mariam’s character more than the scientific fact of being born out of wedlock. This is made transparently evident in the way she desperately strives to attain Rasheed’s approval. ‘Once, disasterously, she even bought makeup and put it on for him… He winced with such distaste that she rushed to the bathroom and washed it all off, tears of shame mixing with soapy water, rouge and mascara.’ The impact the connection, or lack thereof, implied by this word and those who throw it at her – her mother, her husband – is so powerful that it is not even in her act of ‘…deciding the course of her own life’, when she kills Rasheed with a shovel, she thinks not so much of herself, but of Lalia, seeing in his eyes ‘murder for them both.’ ‘Had Mariam been certain that he would be satisfied in shooting only her… she might have dropped the shovel.’ Here more than anywhere we are permitted the most heartbreaking insight into Mariam’s profound lack of any sense of self-preservation. The arc of Mariam’s character is then brought to an end when she signs her death sentence having selflessly chosen to stay behind and bear the brunt of Rasheed’s murder, recalling how, ‘…twenty-seven years before, at Jalil’s table… the last time she’d signed her name to a document.’

‘Selfless’ is a word I would like to examine in closer proximity in reference to both texts. As I have already established, under the premise of this argument, Lear and Edmund are both beautiful examples of the lack of true self anyone can experience in an environment loaded with heavy, almost Machiavellian impositions of competition and violence. Mariam instead reflects a far more personalized but in no way less deeply broad version of the same message - human rights stripped away by her environment, she becomes a stripped version of a human being, her life bereft of any of the fundamental things proven mandatory for a human being to develop healthily; gentle touch, affection, calm, support... In addition to being starved by poverty and starved and beaten by her husband. Mariam's selflessness is key in order for her to willingly get executed at the hands of her government in order to assure Lalia, her two children and Tariq a safe passage into their new life. This could perhaps be taken, in context to the premise of this argument, as a gesture implying that only with conscious sacrifice of the previous generation can we hope to progress healthily.

The physical environment is an obvious factor of Lear’s reliance on signifiers and sense of grandeur. Born and bred in great echoing monuments and residing for the majority of his existence in the company of guards is vividly evident through his use of inflated hyperbole; ‘Darkness and devils! Saddle my horses! Call my train together!’

This use of lavish yet empty rhetoric extends across his language in reference to his daughters – ‘I would divorce me from thy mother’s tomb, Sepulchring an adult’ress.’ Carelessly flung in the direction of all that which angers him, it is of course an indication of Lear’s deteriorating mental state. However, it is also and perhaps more significantly a reflection of the impact his grand, empty surroundings. This is fortified in the beginning of the play, when, in order to ascertain which of his daughters loves him more, the old king invites them to pamper his achingly inflated ego with grand, insincere declarations of devotion. ‘Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty… that makes breath poor and speech unable.’

Jonathan Dollimore described Lear in 1989 as being, 'above all, a play about power, property and inheritance.' The eldest two inevitably comply to Lear's demands of ego as in terms of being environmentally-corrupted they are not long behind their father (only more violently competitive as a result of their de-prioritisation on his behalf in favour of Cordelia). However, the youngest seems the least affected by their deconstructive environment, and this is perhaps because the consistent love of her father allowed her to receive the influences of physical and social environment in a less deconstructive way. Regan and Gonerill's inflated hyperbole is a reflection therefore of physical circumstance, of parenting ruthlessness of society and Machiavellian notion of competition.

This bears a striking contrast to Mariam’s disposition in A Thousand splendid suns, who, raised in intense poverty and isolation for the mot part of her youth, develops plain and softly spoken – developing awareness of herself as a vessel for accumulated experience, but never affecting the same pretence of individuality, as most characters in Lear. Having only ever gotten as far from the kolba to throw stones at the boys Jalil sends to provide her and Nana with supplies (because Nana has instilled her with an automatic though not yet heartfelt hatred of men), Mariam’s temperament is partially a reflection of the fifteen years she spent in the secluded, ‘waving, long-grass’ kolba.

Mariam's dejected, unassuming and at times desperate selflessness has been a factor of her mother who in turn has been effected by seclusion, which has made her too possessive of her daughter out of selfish need and ‘realism'. Mariam has also been encouraged throughout her life by oppressive, violent political situation, the racist brutality of policemen, the sight of burning buildings and women either covered entirely or plastered with makeup, and domestic violence. Towards the end of the novel she has spent the majority of the past twenty-seven years within the walls of Rasheed's home which physically recall the barrier which separates her from the rest of civilization both physically, consciously and socially.

It is consequently unreasonable to fail to acknowledge that Jacque Fresco is correct when he ascertains that examining or attempting to evaluate any psyche, motive or character based purely on the superficial repercussions of environment - temperament, belief, etc. - is an inaccurate measure of character to say the least. We are furthermore able to concede that, with reference to these two texts, it is possible to draw the conclusion that if one wanted to have a great deal of manipulative control over the development of a person, or indeed population, one would need to be able to tamper with, manipulate, or have a certain amount of control over their environment. It also stands to reason that on the opposing hand, if the person or population in question formed and then collaborated under a form of mutual consensus, such regimes would be rendered totally ineffective.

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