The Vice was the favourite character in medieval morality plays. He is both an intriguer and a deceiver. He creates laughter and engages the audience’s sympathy in a conspirational relationship.
Richard generates a special relation between word and deed. He tells the audience what he is going to do, then does it, and finally recalls what he did: his soliloquies and asides create a feeling of conspiracy.
The Vice was also a figure of carnival, who fights the established authority and embodies the audience’s anti-authoritarian impulses. He is an outlet for the people’s frustration.
II. A Monster
Shakespeare has added a physical deformity to the character of Richard because Richard was not a hunchback.
In fact, at that time, deformed people were said to be willing to take revenge against Nature: because they cannot change their lot, they want to bring people down.
Another reason is that showing fairground attractions on stage was a trick often used by Shakespeare to incite people to see his plays. A character both deformed and mobile was a very scary monster.
Shakespeare has used many genres to convey his stories, especially comedies, tragedies and historical plays.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy.
A comedy is a kind of drama which is intended primarily to entertain the audience and which usually ends unhappily for the characters. There are:
romantic comedies: revolving around love (As you like it).
satiric comedies: see French playwright Molière.
I – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the convention of comedy
Shakespeare was influenced by the concept of intertextuality and there are literary interferences all the time in his plays. Shakespeare inherited a tradition derived from Antiquity with Greek and Latin authors such as Aristophanes, Plautus or Terence. It is indulging in a literary exercise:
indulge in a game in which high spirits prevail (at least for comedy).
celebrate life renewal.
In Molière, you can single out his intention of copying life, distorting it, making fun of it. The social dimension is essential and the satire is intended to bring out a moral lesson at the end. (L’Avare – Le Malade Imaginaire).
In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is no satiric excess. They are light-hearted comedies of errors, whose main theme is usually marriage or a celebration of marriage. The spring of comedy is a stratagem of exchanging partners. Lysander and Demetrius suddenly fall in love: beginning of a long qui-pro quo. Helena and Hermia are unaware of what is going on and think they are made fun of.
This type of situation is also drawn from Italian comedy: la “comedia del arte”, based on qui-pro quo, mistakes, mistaken identities and the sudden reversal of relationships. A young woman who is in love with another woman dressed as a man (Twelfth Night – As you like it).
Here, the stratagem is based on the love juice. The comedy implies the participation of the audience on characters. We are aware of the love juice, we know the reason of the misunderstanding and the presence of the fairies. The Duke and Duchess are in the same position as we are, watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The superiority is shown by the audience. This is not found in tragedy: you tend to identify with the characters to the past in their own misery.
It is different from Molière: the comedy has a moral message. The epilogue is an appeal to balance and understanding: “if you pardon we will pardon“: triumph of common sense.
G. Meredith, in The Spirit of Comedy, said: “the comic spirit is the fountain of common sense”. In other words, the aim of the comedy is to re-introduce a balance in the end.
II – Shakespeare’s festive comedy
His comedies are celebrations and the mood is of holidays and festivals, making the whole experience of the play like that of a revel. Seasonal connotation: return of summer, victory of summer over winter.
Spring is the natural renewal. The play is about a midsummer festival and the aim is to celebrate a forthcoming marriage. The whole plot is entertained by music, dancing and disguise. The festival implies an escape to the woods, to a place out of the limits of ordinary society. It is a world set apart, which marks a break in ordinary life because it implies in the remote past: anything can happen. The wood becomes a place of celebration, leading to imagination, freedom, away from the context of social norms and order. Aberrations are things that are not normally tolerated but that are accepted within the norms of the play: we know that in the end, everything goes back to normal. Aberrations are tolerable as long as they do not last.
Because it is a festive comedy, no single characters control comedy, it is always as if it were a group. We have several groups of characters enjoying their own fun and they sometimes meet. Because it is a comedy, it also ends with a reconciliation, a promise of bliss. All negative features have been pushed aside and it brings back the characters to the beginning of the play but not exactly: something has happened in between.
The characters have been through a lot of tension and they have all been affected. Those tensions have been necessary to improve and society is indeed reinforced because the tensions have been solved.
III – A low comedy
The second layer of comedy (Puck, Bottom…) has very little in common with the first one. The people, very ordinary, are better suited for this low comedy. It relies on an absurd situation: the Queen of Fairies falls in love with an ass. The discrepancies appear in the gap between the register, between the message (Titania, declaring her love to Bottom) and the object (an ass): lots of ridiculous situations. There is even a third layer of comedy with Pyramus and Thisbe.
It is a farce: the subject of the play is inappropriate for the circumstances, a tragedy for a marriage celebration. The mechanicals are inappropriate as actors, unfit for the role they have. The play within the play gives way to satire. This other type of comedy is based on exaggeration (Pyramus’ death: “I die I die I die”). Presence of semantic mistakes (‘I’ll aggravate thy voice”): linguistic fun, use of alliterations. If too much, it becomes grotesque. Bottom is also the jester, typical of Elizabethan comedy. He is the fool, a naive instinctive character, an outsider to the main plot and in a good position to express the truth.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. It is not limited to one single comedy and mixes several dimensions: that is what makes it interesting. It is also more than a comedy in the sense that it could have become a tragedy.
Multiplicity of lines. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is remarkable for the many levels of its text. The play is different from Romeo and Juliet or the Taming of the Shrew (which have one main plot) because of the various levels of plots and characters.
There are 4 levels: Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies.
There are connections between:
Theseus & Hippolyta and the young lovers: made by Theseus, member of court.
The young lovers: connection through marriage.
The mechanicals: difference in substance, in social background. Bottom does represent the bottom in many ways, carpenter, weaver, taller…
It is not so much similarity as contrast. It is more from one social circle to the opposite. Shakespeare often involves the lower order of society. The justification is not simply methodological but also social. In the end, the play is a picture of the society (with top and lower orders).
There is a gradation in that social order: from the Duke to the normal people. This enables Shakespeare to make philosophical and social comments on the way society works ( harmony, balance, social order). High society does not necessarily embody perfection.
The introduction of Bottom has a farcical dimension, linked to the Duke and his lover. The connection between the Duke and Bottom exists because the play is put up to pay homage to the Duke and his future wife.
Fairies and friends: break in social circle but also in tone. Fairies take us into the realm of fantasy. There is a balance between couples: the Duke and the future Duchess, Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania. The first two couples are to be connected.
Opposition between mortals and immortals. Oberon and Titania argue, they are supposed to be invisible. Theseus and Hippolyta are flesh and blood mortals.
Oberon and Titania fall in love at first sight, have exaggerated demands and quarrel like any ordinary couple: they behave like old mortals.
The plot has been compared to a dance in which you exchange partners with 3 positions:
Hermia and Lysander.
Hermia rejected, Lysander and Demetrius fighting for Helena.
return to harmony.
It also follows the musical tone of the play.
II – Plot and structure
A – City of tension which seems to jeopardize the forthcoming activities
Conflict between father and daughter. Impact on the whole society: Elizabethan theory about balance. The rebellion by two individuals also implies a rejection of the norms of he society. The lovers rejecting the laws of Athens have to leave and go to the woods.
Rejection of authority (both the father’s and the Prince’s authority). Consequently, the woods function as a sheltering place.
B – The forest
Opposition between the town and the country: Athens~wood and culture~nature. The woods are a rich symbolic place in literature: they are a going back to nature, a return to something which is simple and unsophisticated.
The wood is a place of freedom as opposed to the constraints of the law of society, where one can break the rigidity of concentration of the city life. It is a beneficent place where the spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation is to be found.
It is a place of fun (break of rigidity) but also a dangerous place because it is dark and you can face a lion (Pyramus and Thisbe). Wild animals and wild men. It is a kind of maze, a labyrinth where you are likely to lose your wy and yourself (it is nearly what happened to Titania).
The wood is the symbol of the unconscious (c.f.. E. Young). We are in the realm of fantasy and imagination. It destabilizes but at the same time, it is also the forest that enables the return to contentment and order. It is a kind of necessary passage. The disorder of the forest enables a return of the end:
wood v. Athens
rational v. irrational
night v. day
waking v. dreaming
The play is a parenthesis in everyday life, it is festive. Holiday time: allowed to break the rules (law v. transgression).
C – Return to harmony – recovery – wedding festivities
It is a comedy: all is well that ends well. It would be wrong to say that the end is a return to the beginning: you cannot forget what happened in between : they achieved serenity and acceptance of authority.
The final act is often interpreted as a conclusion (postlude) to the whole play (see Act 5, scene1, l.414: Puck’s and Oberon’s comments at the end of the play.
III – A play within the play
The play has an embedded structure, with a flash of genius which contributes to the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Introduction of a ridiculous character, Bottom, whom Titania must fall in love with (Oberon’s plan is to make Titania ridiculous).
Pyramus and Thisbe are parallel to the main subject. The play is about going into the woods and face the danger.
The tone of the subplot turns into comedy and verges on farce. These actors are unfit to be actors: this creates a discrepancy between the main plot and the subplot, which is very funny.
The play reminds us of Romeo and Juliet: split, tension, family disunion but the most important justification is probably Shakespeare’s reflection on dramatic art: absence of women, problems of representation (moon..), and liability (the lion is not a real lion: how to persuade the public..). It is a mockery of bad drama: plenty of mispronunciations. Good example of “mock tragedy”.
It is easy to consider the subplot as a parody of the main plot. The play is very complex and parallels the complexity of themes and tones, and so many disconnected elements fit in so nicely in the end: that can account for the success of the play. The beginning and the end are set in the city, the middle is set in the woods.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most famous and successful Shakespeare’s plays. The play is part of the early work of Shakespeare (1554-1616), it was written and performed in 1595-1596, just after The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
There is a connection between Pyramus & Thisbe and Romeo & Juliet: one character kills himself because he thought his love is dead (tragedy of misunderstanding). It proves that Shakespeare could write a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have a tragedy within the comedy. Theme of rebelling children against their parents: 2 families at war but united through the love of their children.
Shakespeare could write in different moods at the same time: it goes very quickly from tragedy to comedy. Even in a comedy there is a substance of truth, of seriousness. A comedy is not empty of meaning.
Shakespeare’s last play is The Tempest (1611) and it is regarded as his testament for prosperity. Ariel is a kind of fairy, like Puck. Both plays have the same background of magic and fairies, and the episodes lead to a moral favol as an explanation of life’s mysteries: the surface of events and the meaning of events (more important).
Sources of the play
A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most leaned plays. Lots of information he took here and there:
Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Shakespeare borrowed Titania, who appeared as Diana.
Huon de Bordeaux (medieval French romance): Shakespeare borrowed Oberon.
Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale (love story).
and mythological references: Apollo…
Shakespeare put together all those apparently defragmented pieces to create an entirely original plot, which looks like a patchwork. His genius resides in the creation of something new in spite of the diversity of the elements.
Reception of the play
The play was not immediately admired.
18th century: the literary world showed skepticism towards it. It was the age of Reason and Enlightenment and the play had too little reason. 19th century: the judgments became more positive. Chesterton called it “the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays”. and Frank Kermade “Shakespeare’s best comedy”.
Why was it so popular ? Because it was most frequently performed and gave a lot of possibilities for stage directions. Shakespeare introduced a lot of singing and music so that it was easier for the audience and the actors to enjoy the play.
It is a comedy in which one past is hilarious but also a play with lots of ambiguities (position of women, position of the State). It is also a play with an usual modern dimension (sexual references).
The opening scene (Act I, scene 1, up to l.57)
It usually defines the setting and the characters and foreshadows what will come next. It can be divided into 2 parts:
1- the dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta 2- Egeus’ complaint about his own daughter Hermia: we do not learn more about her but it is enough to show her determination.
A. Introduction scene
The Duke of Athens: enables Shakespeare to write about a very solemn character, a member of the royalty: he starts from the top characters to the lower characters. Egeus is a well know name for it belongs to mythology although we may wonder if he is the same as the mythological Egeus. At least it rings with it.
There is no date: the Athens we are presented with is not 16th century but related to antiquity. It is not obvious how much the audience is aware about that: it addresses an educated audience.
We are given one aspect of Theseus (the statesman), far from the mythological killer of beasts. He suggests authority and love, and has 2 dimensions: the statesman (public image) and the personal impending marriage (private). The theme of marriage is present in the very first sentence.
Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons. She has been vanquished by Theseus in one of his military fights: “I wooed her with my sword” : she was captured by him. We may question this relationship: it has to do with power and not love (the alliteration in “w” is not accidental).
Time: 4 happy days. The scene tells the audience that the wedding is due to take place in 4 days. In fact the play would last two days and one night.
B. Human relationships
Egeus’ complaint is the story of a rebelling daughter, it is almost a monologue, deeply anchored in the myth of vexation: the rhetorical inversions are a way of giving more strength to vexation. It is about a father:daughter relationship. Theme of rivalry between the 2 young men Demetrius and Lysander:
“Stand forth Demetrius”
“Stand forth Lysander”
Each of them represents one conception:
Demetrius: can marry someone even if there is love.
Lysander: it should be based upon love.
Love is irrational. Hermia pleads for feelings and her father for reasons. Children should be totally subservient to their father: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her“. The play poses the problem of woman’s condition.
C. The Moon
The moon appears 28 times in the play. It is one of the richest symbol you can think of. At the beginning, the moon is too slow to appear. It is the moon that gives blessing to their wedding.
“Pale companion is not for our pomp”: coldness, chastity, frigidity: the moon is sad and therefore incompatible with the spirit of mirth (incompatible with the play ?). The play is imbued with the spirit of night (A Midsummer Night‘s Dream), it i a kind of fantasy.
Summary of the plot
Theseus and Hippolyta are about to get married. A group of mechanicals want to prepare a play for their marriage. In parallel to that, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. The Queen and King of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, have been quarrelling about a young motherless boy. The couple is split and she is strong will.
Oberon asked his servant Puck to drop some magic juice on Titania’s eyelids so that she would fall in love with the first person she wood meet: that would be Bottom, disguised in donkey by Puck.
Oberon also asked Puck to drop magic juice on Lysander and Demetrius but Puck makes a mistake: Hermia is rejected and Helena is loved by both Demetrius and Lysander. In the end, everything returns and finishes with 3 weddings.
The play: Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus finds Thisbe’s piece of cloth blooded as if Thisbe had been eaten by a lion and kill himself. Thisbe comes back and sees Pyramus dead. She kills herself.
theme of interest: lyricism and poetic beauty of the play.
becoming aware of the violence and madness of the play.
notion of power: political power (Duke of Athens), power relationships between men and women.
interpretation of love: romantic presence of love or cynical interpretation of love (all delusion): which type of love is it ?
The characters are set in a given space and time. Shakespeare draws his material from a large body of social background, historical facts and myth: let us see the Greek background, the May festivities, and the fairies and spirits.
I – Greek background
The play is set in early Greece, in Athens. It is unexpected as so much of the play seems so typically England. Shakespeare was writing at the time where antiquity was the cultural reference, although the English Renaissance was more and more regarded.
But outside inspiration from Italy and Greece, Ovid, Aristofane, Plato, Aristotle were the early writers who set the norms of literature. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in these settings (Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, The Twelfth Night..).
The Greek setting is a serious frame of reference, which the educated audience would immediately recognize. It also provides a warranty of seriousness and sets a distance from 16th century England: it enables Shakespeare to contemplate his society while distancing it in the past, which was important because playwrights were very dependent on sponsors and political power.
This Athenian background represents order and reason, all the more appropriate as it serves to emphasize the fantastic aspect of the forest. The story of Theseus and Hippolyta refers to Plutarch and Ovid.
Theseus was famous for his adventures and exploits. He got lost in the labyrinth and was saved by Ariane. He killed the Minotaur, kidnapped Hippolyta, and tried to marry her before he eventually married Phaedra.
Considering Shakespeare’s views of the myth, the reader is not sure who Hippolyta was. In theory, she represents female power, independence. Amazons were rebels and did not accept male supremacy.
Males were considered as procreation objects and the male child was usually got ridden of. The Amazons have usurped masculine power and authority. Hippolyta is a concrete woman, she looks passive: the contrary of an Amazon. She is an example of a dominated woman (dominated by her future husband).
Although admired for his courage, Theseus was known for his betrayal of women (not an example of fidelity). The play is about fidelity and betrayal (the disorder of love): Theseus could not be faithful to one woman.
Two fathers: Egeus and Neptune. Association between a mortal and a god. It is said that his birth was the result of a female trick: dangers and complexity of love relationship.
It would be possible to interpret the forest as a labyrinth, it is a place where you can easily get lost.
II – May festivities
Feast days: Christmas, Mayday, Midsummer, harvest time. Some ambiguity about “May”: month but also the hawthorn bush (may pole) which blossoms in May.
The golden bough: in May, there was a custom to go out to the wood to cut the maypole and bring the spirits of the tree home.
For Shakespeare, there is a tradition of going to the woods and bring back flowers as a sign of fertility, luck, hope and protection. Sexual dimension in this game: “the green gown“.
Shakespeare was elaborating on a very famous theme: a night out with a ritual about vegetation, return to nature and celebration of luck.The Queen or King of May are covered with flowers.
In the play, Oberon is covered with leaves. The Lord of Misrule, Pluck, upsets the order of the ceremony and plays tricks on participants. His confusion of identity can be seen as a way of upsetting order.
This rite does not necessarily takes place in May: it is also on Midsummer night & day. Shakespeare mixes the rite of May and of Midsummer (although similar). Midsummer eve: 23rd of June. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, the beginning of summer, bonfires. The fire is a protection against witchcraft, cattle diseases, all sort of evil. There are no bonfires in the play.
Notion of turning point: end of spring, beginning of summer, longest day and beginning of shorter days. Midsummer is also associated with magic, spirits would be in the air during that night.
III – Fairies and spirits
The Fairies are part of the Elizabethan folk culture. Most people believed that they did exist (especially lower classes). As for their size, we tend to imagine small spirits; the problem is Titania’s size: she is large enough to be able to hold Bottom in her arms. They have the power of curing most diseases using plants but occasionally they could also do harm.
“They step out of a tradition of infernal connections and dark deeds”. Oberon has been taken out of a Huon de Bordeaux, Titania from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (derived from Diana, connected with the moon).
Robin Goodfellow (Puck): in fact Pouke, meaning devil or demon. Puck belongs to a different background from Oberon and Titania: p.37, we learn that he is half animal and half-human, with hoofs and arms like the devil, pointed ears, and a mischievous look.
Yet, he has a neat beard and a benevolent face (opp. to the devil). Creatures resembling witches are dancing around him. He has got a huge penis: a connection with life. He holds a broom in his left hand: Puck was known to do housework at night.
l.378: “Not a mouse Shall disturb this hollowed house I am sent with broom before To sweep the dust behind the door“.
Puck is half devil, famous for his tricks and pranks. Act II, sc.1: mischievous but at the same time: “they shall have good luck“.
Puck’s ambiguity is remarkable, he has a power of transformation.
Very rich background of myth and folklore that Shakespeare borrowed and re-arranged in the play. It is not gratuitous for it adds up depth in the text. It also adds the fairy dimension, the mystery of a transcendent reality.
In Miller’s mind, Death of a Salesman was not an abstract concept but the concrete image of an enormous head that would be on stage, opening up the play, so that spectators would be able to see inside. It was a very ambitious idea and the original title was The Inside of his Head.
In Death of a Salesman, the spectator is plunged into the main character’s head. There is no linear onward progression – it is a play with interruption and the striking characteristic of Death of a Salesman is its uninterrupted dramatic tension. Tragic density can be found from the beginning to the end.
Miller: ‘it is not a mounting line of tense, nor a gradually come of intensifying suspense but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already been contained’.
Hence, everything is in place at the beginning and the music takes a great deal of importance for it is used to set the mood. It is time now to make the difference between the different kinds of plots.
The external plot represents the succession of events perceived by Willy Loman (present – objective reality). The internal plot deals with Willy’s stream of consciousness -his memories and obsessions (subjective reality). The music points to the fact we move to the character’s present to his past.
I. The external plot
Death of a Salesman is made up of two acts without any scenes. The requiem is a burial scene. The play is about the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life; it starts in ‘media res’, i.e. in the middle of an action that has already begun.
Act I starts on Monday night and at the end of it, all characters go to bed.
Act II is about Tuesday’s events at 10am. The action is no more limited to the Lomans’ house -the two sons go the restaurant… At 6pm, they go out with two girls. Later, they found Willy sowing seeds. There is an argument, a show down between Biff and Willy. Then, a car is heard roaring in the night. The curtain falls.
The requiem recounts the day of the funeral, which is not precisely set in time. Let us say out of time. It does not conclude convincingly the play. It is rather open.
The play also has a subheading, which is ‘Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem’. We can deduce a tension between the private sphere (son/father – husband/wife) and the requiem for it is public, attended by lots of people. Willy Loman is both a private character, nonetheless with a public dimension. Both public and private, he stands for the average American.
A. Act One: from fantasy to concrete decisions
Act I shows how the initial state of despair caused by Willy’s professional incompetence is replaced by decisions to change things: ‘everything will be allright’. Act I establishes :
Willy’s mental collapse [Exposition: p7-14]
Biff and Happy’s incapacity to face up the real [Complication: p14-21]
Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes [Crisis: p41-48] [Resolution: p48-54]
1. Willy’s mental collapse
Miller: ‘the ultimate matter with which the play will close is announced at the outset’. The play is set in motions when Willy comes back home late.
The first symptom we get is the fact Willy shifts between morbidity and optimism -p8: ‘I am tired to the death‘ and later ‘God dammit‘, full of energy. Such abrupt changes a mind point to a character who is cracking up.
Second symptom : Willy has a tendency to contradict himself -p11: ‘Biff is a lazy bum’ and later ‘such a hard worker’. We cannot expect coherence from Willy.
Third symptom : Willy is in a state of mental hyperactivity. His mind is overacting and he cannot see things clearly. His mind has run out of control. He is confused and no longer able to make sense of reality. For instance, he takes the Studebaker for his old Chevvy. The allusion to the need of change glasses may be seen as Willy’s incapacity to bring reality into focus.
2. Biff and Happy’s incapacity to cope with the real
Biff has returned home after a long absence and the night before he has had a quarrel with Willy – ‘did he apology this morning’ (p11). It is proleptic of the end of Act II. There are close links between the events occurring in Act I and Act II. The argument probably occurred shortly after Biff got off the train: it is not represented on stage but only alluded to.
Biff and Happy are not able to face up the reality. They are constantly trying to divert their attention from real facts. The choice of the names indicates their reluctance to face reality.
Happy: a cliché like ‘happy-go-lucky’ (= avoid difficulty). Happy is only interested in leading a carefree life, earning just enough money, working in an office without any decisions to make. Happy represents the city man, the city dweller. He proves his powers as a womanizer and makes a point at seducing his bosses’ wives.
Biff: can be read in reverse (fib = lie). A fibber is a person who tells lies not to face the truth. He is a character who tends to deny reality because it is upsetting and disturbing.
None of them is ready to deal with Willy’s problems. Biff has chosen to escape the family to live on a ranch. He is a drifter, he went to Nebraska, Dakotas, Arizona, Texas (p16). He represents two American stereotypes: the man on the move and the man living close to Nature (escaping modern world and cities). There is a refusal to assume responsibilities.
The point of the play lies in Biff’s attitude for he is always repeating he is not responsible: ‘just don’t lay it all at my feet’ (p45). The other point is the terrible secret shared between Biff and Willy. Biff does not want to come back on it: ‘it’s between me and him. That’s all I have to say‘ (p45).Both shirk their responsibilities. Biff’s role is more important than Happy’s.
3. Linda’s last-ditch attempt to open her sons’ eyes
The crisis from p41 to p48 is momentarily solved p48-54. Linda tells her sons and the audience that a moment of crisis has been reached: ‘a terrible thing is happening to him‘ (p44).
The function of Linda is to establish Willy’s significance as a human being. Willy Loman could be a type (low man) but he is a human being with private emotions and personal feelings. Linda permits a shift of perspective. She contributes to create a realistic dimension: she constantly reminds Willy of practical details of everyday life (unpaid bills, repair jobs or equipment that need to be replaced). She is a warrant of objective reality.
In Death of a Salesman, a lot is seen through Willy’s consciousness. It is tempting to say that most of the play is a representation of Willy’s mind. Yet, Linda’s offers an exterior viewpoint; spectators are invited through Linda to see Willy from the outside.
Linda is a protagonist, an intermediary between the audience and the play. She soothes Willy, on whom she lavishes motherly care and raises the alarm by calling the boys’ attention on their father’s suicide attempts. She has a passive role but she can evaluate the situation and prompts her sons to act.
At the end of Act I, Linda has succeeded in transforming the mood of the play from fantasy and obsession to resolution and determination:
Willy will talk to Howard
Biff is to pay a visit to Bill Oliver to get a new start in life.
B. Act Two: projects dashed by reality
Act II is action-packed. New places are introduced:
Howard Wagner’s office
Frank’s Chop House
The theatrical technique is more sophisticated. A telephone conversation establishes another action and reports Biff’s visit to Bill Oliver. Miller created a higher sense of suspense by using a theatrical prop -the telephone- so that the audience can participate to the reported action. It creates a sense of action: Miller uses alternatively theatrically represented scenes (Linda on the phone) and reported episodes (Biff’s visit to Oliver). The telephone creates dramatic tension. New characters are introduced:
Jenny: Charley’s secretary
Stanley: the waiter
Miss Forsythe and Letta: two broads
1. The staging of physical action
Act two shows the physical display of action. Emotions and feelings are translated into physical movements. This tone of action is set right from the beginning of Act II. Apathy is replaced by movement: ‘I’m gonna do it‘ says Willy (p57).
The point of Act II is to demonstrate that all this energy will prove to be wasted. It brings no tangible results. Willy only manages to get the axe: ‘I think you need a good long rest‘ says Howard (p65). Biff only manages to get into trouble, to get himself in a tight spot by stealing Oliver’s fountain pen. Linda herself cracks up.
2. Failures to communicate
A stock of theatrical devices in the play is used in the play. First, there is exchanges at cross purposes when two characters are talking of two different things (not on the same wavelength). Then dramatic irony, when spectators understand more than the character (the audience knows that Biff was not received by Bill Oliver but Willy does not (p.85)).
A two-level dialogue appears when Willy talks to Linda (present reality) and to Ben (imaginary): the communication is not immediate but hampered because reality and hallucination interfere with one another.
In Act II, a scene is symbolic of the (in)capacity to communicate: the scene in which Willy visits Howard, who is more interested in his recording machine than in talking. The recording machine, which should help communication, creates an obstacle to communication, a barrier between Willy and Howard. It is emblematic of the difficulty to communicate.
3. Lies and delusions
In Act II, lying is an important topic and even becomes a necessity. For instance, Biff cannot tell Willy what happened at Bill Oliver’s. He understands that telling the truth might be lethal and kill his father for Willy has just been sacked, p.84: “there’s a big blaze going all around. I’ve been fired today”. This image is hyperbolic: it is a traumatic experience for Willy. Biff cannot add disaster after disaster. He avoids speaking the truth to protect his father, not letting the cat out of the bag.
Later on, Biff finally says: “so I’m washed up with Oliver”. It is too much for Willy to hear: he is carried back into the past. When Biff says “I kept sending in my name”, what Willy hears is “Biff flunked maths”. This scene of the past is less tragic than the present one. The past is a protective screen that allows Willy not to be confronted with the harshness of life.
4. The final showdown
The showdown has been prepared. When Willy called on Bernard, the latter made an allusion: after going to Boston, Biff has never been the same again. The audience understands that something important took place in Boston.
Some of Miller’s moral principles are explained. Miller believed that writing a play is to make a moral statement. The message could be that sooner or later facts must be faced or there comes a moment when one must assume full responsibilities for the consequences of one’s deeds.
Biff is going to force his father to recognize a few things:
Willy is a coward: he intends to commit suicide with a rubber pipe. But Biff takes it off: “Allright phony! Then let’s lay it on the line.” (p.103)
Biff makes a painful revelation: “I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail.” (p.104). All his father’s ambitions are ruined.
Willy is under the illusion he will make money and rise in society. What Biff pushes Willy to accept is that they are simple ordinary people: they are “a buck an hour”. There is no need to build castles in the air and to lie to oneself.
When Biff and Willy are about to fight, the dramatic tension turns into high emotional pitch because emotion prevails: Biff bursts into tears and holds on to Willy. It is an important stage in the play when Willy becomes aware that his son has never stopped loving him. Willy is reinforced in his determination to pass on a legacy: his life insurance.
C. The Requiem
Is an important passage two. It is characterized by 2 ideas. First, it is subject to several interpretations because of equivocation. Lots of critics were disappointed by the requiem: it does not provide a final ending and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Then, despite the tragedy, it seems that characters have not changed in any significant way.
Happy still repeats the same rubbish: “to come out number one man”. He continues denying reality and even passes moral judgement “he had no right to do that”. Happy is the same as ever.
Biff has not changed his projects (go back West and run a ranch). He seems to have learn no lesson and he is committed to searching through movement and space what he could find in relationships. Going West is a way of escaping reality and the changing world. He praises his father and his manual abilities: what he likes is not the fighting man but the figure of a settler who built his house.
Charley makes a lyrical speech, turning salesmanship into poetry. The survival of the salesman depends on his capacity to convince with his words. The potential buyer must dream. It is a positive image of Willy’s destiny.
Linda has the final word. Here again, ambiguity prevails. Linda truly loves Willy but her love has not permitted her to understand the man. Love is powerless: “I search and I search and I search , and I can’t understand it”. She is too immersed into realism to see there was a spiritual dimension in Willy in climbing the social ladder. Not pure ambition but something highly respectable.
II. The internal plot (stream of consciousness)
If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be subdivided into chronologically organized sequences: Act one (Monday evening and night) ; Act two (Tuesday), and the requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness. In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.
The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.
A. “A mobile concurrency of past and present”
(Miller: from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p. 26) Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words (language) – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman, both past and present are given theatrical representation. There is no clear cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teen-agers and adults successively.
There are no flashbacks in DS. Better than the erroneous term ‘flashback’, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata. In a way, Willy is schizophrenic: overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.
In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say, the salesman as he used to be. Similarly the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.
The dramatic units, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston ; New York but also the Prairie through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity. In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.
B. A survey of the episodes of the past
The past is deeply subjective. It is not uniform. It takes many different shapes.
First there are scenes that are fully immersed within the past (the boys simonizing the Chevy ; the episode of the punching ball ; the cellar full of boys ; the contrast between Bernard the anaemic and Biff an Adonis). Here is a survey of the main episodes that are plunged in the past (music; different lighting)
[21-29]: the united family and their neighbours
[30-31] the same family scene is taken up and prolonged – Bernard is used as a choric voice “If he doesn’t buckle down he’ll flunk math” (31)
[36-41] Ben’s first visit: some horseplay between Ben, Biff and Happy (38) “Never fight fair with a stranger, boy” (38)
[66-70] Ben’s second visit. He’s got a proposition for Willy. Willy turns it down. This second visit happens to be on the day of Ebbets Field Tournament.
[91-95] The climactic episode of the past: Biff finds out his father in a Boston hotel with his mistress: Miss Francis: a traumatic episode.
All these episodes are framed within the past.
2. Double exposure
The action unfolds simultaneously in the past and in the present, through Willy’s split consciousness. The effect is achieved through a montage dialogue.
[34-36] The card game scene in stichomythic dialogue. It prepares the shift into the past. As soon as Charley leaves, we enter the past: “through the wall line of the kitchen”.
Stichomythia: form of repartee in drama: the words of the locutor and those of his interlocutor echo each other. One character takes up the words of his opponent, thus creating antithesis or parallel syntactic constructions:
WILLY: Naa, he had seven sons; There’s just one opportunity 1 had with that man…
BEN: I must make a train, William. There are several properties I’m looking at in Alaska.
WILLY: Sure, sure! If I’d gone with him to Alaska that time, everything would’ve been totally different.
CHARLEY: Go on, you’d froze to death up there.
WILLY: What ‘re you talking about?
BEN: Opportunity is tremendous in Alaska…
WILLY: Sure, tremendous.(35)
[86-91] the restaurant scene, and simultaneously, allusions to the day when the Regents results were disclosed – Bernard’s choric voice may be heard and little by little echoes from the Boston hotel become more and more perceptible.
[106-108] Willy is conversing with Ben and, at the same time, answering Linda’s repeated invitations to come to bed.
Spectators do not lose sight of the present context but are made to understand that suddenly Willy has lapsed into a mental vision and therefore cut himself off from his immediate environment.
[64 bottom of the page] in Howard Wagner’s office, Willy stares at the empty seat and addresses Frank, who is of course absent, long dead and gone…
 In his garden, as Willy discusses with Ben’s ghost, spectators realize that the ghost is very much a figment of Willy’s distorted mind. In fact it is Willy talking to himself.
4. Mnemonic mise-en-abime
From mnemonic (memory), hence a memory within a memory.
[29-31] The scene is set in the past, it stages Willy and Linda, when they were younger, from this first recollection emerges another recollection (a memory within a memory). In this second recollection the Woman (Miss Francis) appears, first her voice can be heard. Her laughter permits the shift from one level of the past to another. It seems that the mistress is laughing at the wife’s generous remark:
LINDA: To me you are [slight pause] The handsomest. (First temporal level)
From the darkness is heard the laughter of a woman …(Second temporal level).
The stocking is the metonymic object which brings together the two women in Willy’s life: Linda is darning her stockings while Miss Francis is offered brand new ones by Willy: “And thanks for the stockings. I love a lot of stockings.” (30); So, this memory within a memory contributes to increase Willy’s sense of guilt.
C. Subjective characterization
Willy spends most of his time on stage, in a continuous flow of words. He engages in conversations with characters who, like his sons or Charley, belong to his real, immediate environment. But he also discusses with figures who surge up from the inner world of his consciousness: Miss Francis; his older Brother Ben or Frank Howard.
In this sense Death of a Salesman can be regarded as a “psychomachia”. Willy, like Everyman the mediaeval character, generates other personalities, which are mental creations, and represent fragmented aspects of himself. These imaginary presences are like mirrors or doubles illustrating facets of Willy’s splintered personality.
Psychomachia: from psycho: mind and makhe (Greek): fight, so antagonistic forces that are fighting inside the protagonist’s mind.
1. The ideal types in the fantasy realm
Since everything is supposed to be strained through Willy’s consciousness, the play’s structure also depends upon the characters’ proximity to him.
The most distant the characters are, the most idealized they are. Thus Willy’s father is the absolute’ ego ideal. He is referred to twice in the play: during Ben’s first visitation (38) and briefly when Willy calls on Howard Wagner (63).
Willy’s father is a part-mythic, part allegorical figure that belongs to his very earliest, and vaguest childhood recollections: he is a fantasized image, a romanticized Father figure, or the paradigmatic embodiment of the heroic pioneer.
Ben represents an ideal figure that stands closer to reality. In Willy’s consciousness, Ben bridges the gap between the realm of fancy and the reality level. It is Ben’s qualities of toughness, unscrupulousness and implacability in the pursuit of gain, that Willy wishes for himself and wants his sons to emulate.
Dave Singleman represents success that is potentially within reach. Singleman offers the perfect illustration that being well-liked is the surest and shortest way towards success.
Now Death of a Salesman demonstrates that the high values incarnated by these various ideal figures do not find any close correspondences or parallels in Willy’s actual life. All the characters who surround Willy in the present, fail to live up to the status of those idealized types.
2. Real characters falling short of Willy’s ego ideals
The dramatic structure of Death of a Salesman may be ascribed to the tension between Willy’s fantasizing episodes, that are peopled by mythic figures, and his having to come to terms with real, unexceptional characters.
Biff most closely resembles his grandfather, through his preference for leading the life of a drifter (adventurer) out West. He has a touch of the artist and dreamer in his temperament. Yet he also breaks his father’s absolute ego ideal by turning out to be a loser, a failure : “and every time I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life“ (17)
Happy could correspond to Ben but only in a debased way. He shares his uncle’s unscrupulousness and amorality, but lacks his sense of purpose. So, again, he somehow belittles one of his father’s ideal types. Though his philandering (girl chasing) and nursing of injured pride, he also reminds his father of parts of himself, which he would much rather ignore.
Charley is Dave Singleman brought down to earth. Indeed he has none of the flamboyance and panache of the adventurous salesman. He is salesmanship domesticated. Charley is the perfect embodiment of the no-nonsense businessman. It is all the more humiliating for Willy to depend financially on Charley, as Charley’s example of success is in contradiction with Willy’s romanticized vision of capitalism.
One of the weaknesses of Death of a Salesman could come from the fact that the Requiem violates the subjective approach that Miller adopted in the first two acts. The Requiem is flagrantly outside Willy’s mind. This may be the reason why the consistency of vision that had been achieved through Willy’s consciousness is eventually lost. The irony of the play is that most of the action only goes on within the protagonist’s mind. It is ironical because what is needed is not imaginary action but real one: decisions that might change the course of things. By removing Willy from the play before the end, some of the tension that had been achieved through he “memory play” is lost.