Compare and contrast the presentation of the extremes of good and evil in Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. How do these extremes reflect the times in which the texts were written? (30 marks)
Both Lord of the Flies and Macbeth are texts that explore the inner darkness of the human race and describe what depravities mankind is capable of. Good is briefly presented in each text but is not the focus of the plot. These are texts that very much reflect the times that they were written in: Jacobean England and Cold War England, two periods of history that were shrouded with threat and fear of evil. In examining the presentations of good and evil, a good place to start is how the sources of evil are portrayed in both texts.
Primarily the main difference between the two texts is that in Macbeth evil is an external force personified as Satan as well as something internal. Conversely, in Lord of the Flies the Beast is only a figment of their imagination and all evil stems from man’s hereditary nature. This is presented to us in chapter 8 of Lord of the Flies when Simon hallucinates about a conversation with beast, and in Act 2 Scenes 2 and 3 of Macbeth when the concept of demonic influence is discussed in the wake of Duncan’s murder.
In Act 2 Scene 2 Macbeth bemoans that “I had most need of a blessing, and ‘Amen’ / Stuck in my throat.” The inability to say a prayer was seen to be a symbol of being bewitched and a total severance of any connection with God. This is because only a few scenes before Macbeth forfeited his soul in exchange for earthy desires. Macbeth acknowledges that he has committed a grievous sin but does not even have the ability to ask for forgiveness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, views evil as something less absolute and tells Macbeth that, “’Tis the eye of childhood / That fears a painted devil.” Lady Macbeth sees fear of the devil as something childish and doubts his very existence, peradventure to ease her conscience. The use of the word ‘painted’ is a play on words, as it can also mean something that is bloodstained.
Furthermore, Lady Macbeth’s statement about the devil existing only in, “the eye of childhood,” fits in extremely well with Lord of the Flies, where the beast literally only exists in the minds of the children. When Simon is hallucinating, most likely due to the effects of dehydration as his, “swollen tongue,” suggests, the Lord of the Flies asks him, “Aren’t you afraid of me?” Simon responds by shaking his head, indicating that he acknowledges what the other boys on the island have yet to grasp – as soon as you start fearing that the beast is real, the fear eats away at you until you turn into a beast yourself. Contrarily to Macbeth, the beast does not claim to be its own being. Instead it taunts Simon by stating, “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!” The succession of rhetorical questions only emphasise what Simon had already figured out. The beast is portrayed as a source of malevolence that exists inside the boys. The beast taunts Simon with its repetition of, “close,” emphasising how impossible it will be for Simon to resist him, until Simon eventually loses consciousness.
Additionally, the situation alludes to when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, but Jesus resisted. In fact, the name Lord of the Flies is a literal translation of Beelzebub, a powerful demon thought to be Satan’s second in command. However, this is not an exchange between two supernatural powers at the opposite sides of the morality scale. It is simply a young boy wrestling with his conscience and natural desires.
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Alternatively, another key speech from Macbeth that accredits the supernatural as the source of evil is the Porter’s drunken ramblings in Act 2 Scene 3. He starts by saying, “If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.” He imagines that he is the porter of Hell, and he implies that there is so much evil and atrocities in the world that Hell’s gates are never out of action. He continues by stating, “Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub?” and “Who's there, in the other devil's name?”, referring to Satan and his second-in-command Beelzebub. Unlike in Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub is referred to as a real creature, not just a rotting head on a stick. The porter no longer calls in the name of God, but in the name of his adversaries instead, suggesting that God has taken his hand off Scotland and it has been forfeited over to hellish forces. The repetition of this phrase is used to play up the effect of these names that would have been highly feared by a Jacobean audience.
His next sentences are very interesting: “Faith, here's an equivocator, / that could swear in both the scales against either / scale who committed treason enough for God's / sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, / equivocator.” When he pretends he’s letting an equivocator in it hints towards the Gunpowder Plot, where a priest named Garnet used equivocation as a defence in his trial before he was hanged. In the context of the play his statement is dramatic irony, because at that stage he is unaware that his master is a treasonous equivocator. The effect of the frequent repetition of the word “equivocator” is to convey just how serious a crime it is.
The discrepancies over the reality of Satan highlight only one of many moral differences between Jacobean England and Post-Modern Europe. Jacobean England had a Puritan philosophy, a system so dedicated to following of rules and fear of the Devil that it teetered on the edge of legalism. God was very real and he was considered a force to be both revered and feared. We see this mind-set reflected in the writings of Thomas Watson, a Puritan author who wrote, “The godly have some good in them, therefore the devil afflicts them; and some evil in them, therefore God afflicts them." Conversely, in the time of Golding’s writing God was dead for the majority of British society. The fear of damnation did not have the same impact, and people were generally at a liberty to decide for themselves what constituted good and evil. Traditional values that had been handed down from the previous generation were being replaced with liberal thinking. As former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote, “Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference.” Golding presents belief in supernatural forces as something humans invent to give them an excuse for their evil.
However, the two texts also agree on many aspects of the extremes of good and evil. Evil triumphs over good in both texts and evil is presented as the more powerful force. We see this conveyed in chapter 9 of Lord of the Flies when Simon is murdered and in Act 3, Scene 1 of Macbeth when Macbeth meditates Banquo’s murder.
In Lord of the Flies Simon is presented as a voice of reason, a beacon of hope amidst the darkness of the other boys. Even Golding said, “Simon is love.” Some scholars have even suggested that his character alludes to that of Jesus Christ, who came to restore goodness to a depraved world and was ultimately killed for it. The name Simon could also point to Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross for Christ and helped him with his burden, in the way that Simon helps both the little ones and Piggy with their struggles. Likewise, in Macbeth Banquo is also presented as a good man when everyone around him is encompassed by evil. This much is illustrated in Act 2 Scene 3 when he states that, “In the great hand of God I stand.” Shakespeare’s use of religious imagery is much bolder than Golding’s, but both authors use it to the same effect: creating a sense of good.
In page 188, leading up to Simon’s murder, we are told that, “The dark sky was shattered by a blue-white scar.” Golding’s use of pathetic fallacy foreshadows what evil is about to take place, as storms represent turmoil and violence. Similar pathetic fallacy is used in Macbeth in Act 2 Scene 1, when Banquo remarks that, “There's husbandry in heaven; / Their candles are all out,” implying that the stars have gone out and Scotland has been plunged into impenetrable darkness. The effect of darkness on the audience is that it creates an atmosphere of suspense and foreboding, hinting at the evil that is to come.
This evil is displayed when we see Macbeth meditating the murder of his closest friend in Act 3 Scene 1. Macbeth recognises that if Banquo is allowed to live he will always be a threat to him, for his, “dauntless temper,” and his, “wisdom,” far surpass that of Macbeth. He continues to deplore that, “Only for them; and mine eternal jewel / Given to the common enemy of man.” If Macbeth does not dispose of Banquo he will have defiled his mind for nothing, as it will all be to Banquo’s benefit. He further emphasises his inner evil by admitting that he has forsaken his soul, his, “eternal jewel,” to the Devil. This ties into the aforementioned demonic influences in Macbeth. Macbeth denounces the man that he previous described as, “kind gentleman,” as his enemy. He even states that, “I could / With barefaced power sweep him from my sight.” This violent image conveyed through, “barefaced power,” represents that evil has thoroughly corrupted Macbeth.
Following on from this, during the murder of Simon in chapter 9 of Lord of the Flies the hereditary evil of Ralph’s tribe is described as, “thick, urgent, blind.” This list of cacophonous adjectives conveys just how powerful evil is. The tribe repeatedly chants their militant cry of, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”, a variant of the chant they use when hunting pigs. Golding presents us with a group of boys who have abandoned any sense of logic, reason or conscience and have succumbed entirely to their savage and carnal desires. Good is literally trampled beneath the feet of evil as they, “struck, bit, tore,” at Simon. Again Golding uses a list of three to effect the reader in a way so they feel horrified at the events that are unfolding. Just like Christ, Simon does not try to fight back in any way. The reader is left to feel intense pity for him as his, “blood was staining the sand.” We get a final glimpse of Simon as he drifts out to sea, his, “brightness,” extinguished. Although the murder of Banquo was despicable by anyone’s standards, when we look at the murder of Simon it could be argued evil is more prevalent. Golding allows for no ambiguity in his portrayal of good and evil. He instead uses in language in such a way that the reader cannot help but pity Simon and loathe Jack.
The time that Lord of the Flies was written adequately reflects this violence. As Golding himself said, “World War II was a turning point for me… Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.” Golding was writing after the culmination of World War II, where millions of innocents were murdered. Europe at the time was also under constant threat of a Russian nuclear attack that could decimate an entire city. These were times stained with blood; times where the depravity of humanity was painfully clear. Golding reflects this throughout his novel and especially through the murder of the innocent Simon.
Likewise Macbeth was also written in turbulent times. Although Jacobean England had not witnessed the mass genocide that Golding had lived through, they had just experienced the attempted regicide of James I when a Catholic group tried to blow up parliament. It is reported that when Guy Fawkes, one of the conspirators, was asked what he was doing with such large amounts of gunpowder he replied, “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains.” For Jacobeans it was the ultimate crime, for most believed that a crime against the king was also a crime against God. At the time Shakespeare was writing society would still have been reeling from this event, meaning that the fear of evil was never far from his audience’s mind. Shakespeare used this to his advantage to gain favour with King James.
Furthermore, it is also possible to assess the extremes of good and evil by looking at the conclusions of both texts, which are quite similar. In both good is ultimately restored, with reason and fairness triumphing over the totalitarian systems found in both texts. We see this in chapter 12 of Lord of the Flies when the boys are rescued and in Act 5 Scene 9 of Macbeth when Macbeth is killed. In both texts the arrival is brief and not dwelt upon.
In Lord of the Flies it is written that, “The ululation faltered and died away,” as soon as the presence of the naval officer was made known. The boys had long ago abandoned any hope of rescue, so the sight of an adult is enough to render them speechless near instantly. Through the initial reactions of the officer Golding portrays the typical adult view of children that Lord of the Flies tries to deconstruct. The officer, “took his hand away from the butt of the revolver,” conveying that he does not believe the children pose any threat despite their savage appearance. He concludes that the hideous display of behaviour he just witnessed was mere, “Fun and games.” The officer cannot even conceive that such evil would be possible from school children, so he tries to explain it away. The officer wishes to cling to the archaic Victorian mentality that children are innocent beings, uncorrupted by the world.
Although the evil in Macbeth is subdued in a similar manner, it is done through violent means. In Act 5 Scene 8 Macbeth meets his demise after being beheaded by Macduff. Through this action Shakespeare conveys that sometimes violence is the only way to defeat evil if diplomatic attempts fail. The language in the final scene is antithetical to the rest of the play. Malcolm speaks of, “several loves,” and, “honour.” The cacophony of negative language and demonic imagery used up to this point is dissipated and replaced with words of hope. The play culminates with a set of rhyming couplets: “That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace, / We will perform in measure, time and place: / So, thanks to all at once and to each one, / Whom we invite to see us crown'd at Scone.” Through his dual use of rhyming couplets Shakespeare emphasises that good truly has been restored, and that God’s hand has been placed back on Scotland.
The ending of Lord of the Flies, although ultimately hopeful, is more pessimistic in its wording. We are told that, “Ralph wept for the end of all innocence.” Even though good has been brought to them, Ralph acknowledges that what has happened on the island can never be undone, and they will all have to battle with the memories for the rest of their lives.
Golding rejected the accusation that his book was pessimistic. He said, “I think good will overcome evil in the end. I don’t quite know how but I have that simple faith.” World War II was finally over, Japan had surrendered. Good had triumphed. However, just like in Lord of the Flies, that victory had a hollow ring. Thousands of civilians had to be murdered by nuclear weapons before the militant Japanese government put down its arms. The world had very much witnessed, “the end of all innocence.” Likewise, at the time of Shakespeare’s writing Guy Fawkes and his men had been executed and good held the upper hand in England – if the emasculation and quartering of criminals can really be considered ‘good’. Both texts show the reader that good cannot overcome evil without considerable loss and anguish.
To conclude, both texts present the extremes of good and evil in keeping with the times that they were written in. Both give a clear message: evil is extremely powerful, but good will always triumph. Arguably Golding’s presentation of evil is more extreme than Shakespeare’s, because Golding uses pre-pubescent boys as his antagonists with no previous exposure to violence, whereas in Shakespeare the antagonist is a seasoned warrior with plenty of killing experience. Both texts issue a stern warning to humanity about controlling our desires.