In tragedy, the boundaries between antagonists and protagonists are continually blurred. Explore to what extent you agree. Analyse closely Keats Authorial methods in two of the texts.
In tragedy, the boundaries between antagonists and protagonists are continually blurred. Explore to what extent you agree. Analyse closely Keats’ Authorial methods in two of the texts.
Keats’ desire to be remembered in history as a great literary writer lead to him taking on inspiration from traditional tragedies such as Shakespeare’s plays. However he wanted to make his own mark in history by advancing his own ideas in his literature. The influence of both traditional tragic literature and his own new ideas meant that the boundary between antagonists and protagonists were blurred. Aristotle set out that a true tragedy must have a tragic hero and a villain, however some of Keats’ poems are far more open to interpretation.
A key example of where that boundary between antagonists and protagonists is blurred, is in the poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’ At the start of this poem Keats attempts to identify the tragic hero as the ‘knight-at-arms’, the fact that he’s knight establishes a medieval setting, this is also reinforced through archaic language such as ‘Woe betide!’. Keats uses the fairytale stereotype of a heroic knight to set him up as the protagonist, the repetition of the first line (‘O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms’), in stanza two emphasises this. We are also told through Keats’ use of language that the knight is dying (‘palely loitering’) additionally the world ‘loitering’ explicitly implies that this knight is waiting to die, making the suffering seem more drawn out and his death more tragic. Despite this when the knight tells his story the ambiguity in his language leads us to doubt his character. The knight tells the narrator ‘And sure in language strange she said - “I love thee true”’. The ambiguity around the fact that La Belle Dame spoke ‘in language strange’ reminds us that we don’t know the whole story. We as the reader have no idea whether the knight is telling the truth or not, in this poem, Keats’ lack of authorial intervention emphasises this point of ambiguity. The structure also backs up this point. The metre is iambic tetrameter however the last line in each stanza is always only three stressed syllables. This reflects the idea that the poem is not as black and white as it seems and the shorter lines implies there’s more to the story than we are told. Certainly from looking at this poem I strongly agree that the boundary between the two characters are blurred as Keats doesn’t give us the full picture and leaves it up to interpretation.
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On the other hand the lines aren’t always that blurred. For example in ‘Isabella’ we can clearly see the two brothers of Isabel are meant to be the antagonists of the story. They are introduced as ‘Enriched from ancestral merchandise,’ telling us they have simply inherited their wealth and not worked for what they own, creating a materialistic image of the two men. This is later reinforced by Keats’ authorial interventions (‘why were they proud? Because their marble founts’). They also completely juxtapose Lorenzo, who’s a hard worker described as a ‘servant of their trade designs.’ The two brothers are further presented as the clear antagonists through the image of them presiding over their ‘torched mines and noisy factories.’ Keats thought the industrial revolution was attacking nature and here he takes a very anti-capitalist tone by presenting the two brothers as essentially slave owners. They are totally opposite to the two lovers who, despite being separated by class, see each other as equals, shown in romantic metaphors such as ‘The inward Fragrance of each other’s heart’, presenting a more socialist view. I therefore disagree to some extent as this poem contradicts the statement made as the boundaries are clearly defined through both the
politics and language Keats’ instills in his writing.
However the knight in La Belle Dame sans Merci also fails to follow the conventions of a tragic hero, as does La Belle Dame herself. Here we see Keats’ own ideas come into play as neither of the characters are tragic hero’s as defined traditionally by Aristotle. For example Keats’ suggests that the knight does not necessarily fall from ‘great heights’. The knight dreams of ‘Pale kings and princes too, [and] pale warriors’. Keats’ use of war imagery such as ‘pale warriors’ in the knight’s dream suggests that the knight has recently been to battle. The image of their pale faces is designed by Keats’ to appear as haunting and deathly and their cry of ‘Thee hath in thrall!’ implies that these warriors are taunting the knight. This leads the reader to believe that the knight’s past is not innocent and the haunting image of these warriors have signs of revenge rather than concern, the harsh consonance of ‘th’ emphasises this. Here we question the morality of the knight to start with and for a character to be a true tragic hero they must appear to be morally right before their downfall. The lines between the protagonist and antagonist are blurred to a large extent due to Keats’ drift away from traditional tragic definitions.
Isabella on the other hand does follow many tragic conventions. For example Isabel most certainly suffers more than she deserves and falls far from her original position in life. She starts the poem as ‘fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel’, here we see Keats foreshadowing her death from the first line and establishing the tragic nature of the death. The fact that she lives in a ‘mansion’ and despite her lovesickness for Lorenzo has an idyllic life. This is clearly shown through the extravagant and romantic setting of Florence in Italy. Not only this but she has also fallen in love with Lorenzo and despite the barriers, Keats’ intervention stresses the point that ‘the little sweet doth kill much bitterness.’ The idea that despite the difficulties they face, they are overcome by love. This all defines Isabel as the tragic hero and the main victim of the poem. First she loses the love of her life and is lied to by her brothers before even having her pot of basil taken from her. Her character falls further again and again, designed to truly reinforce the tragicness of her death and therefore defining her as the tragic hero. From this we can see that the statement is incorrect to a large extent as the boundaries are very distinct
In conclusion, Keats most certainly blurs the boundary between protagonists and antagonists, more specifically where he adds his own ideas to his poetry. In his want to be remembered as a poet he pushes away the traditional conventions to a large extent in order to create characters and poems with far more depth and interpretation and in doing so he avoids establishing a clear protagonist and a clear antagonist. However when he takes poems from older literature such as Isabella he does stick to the classic tragic conventions of a tragic hero in order to remain true to the original stories.