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Torture in Shakespeare’s Literature Essay

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Updated: Oct 5th, 2021

It is often difficult to consider the word torture without an involuntary internal shudder. In its most common use, the word torture refers to “the use of physical or mental pain, often to obtain information, to punish a person, or to control the members of a group to which the tortured person belongs” (Lestikow et al, 2008). People typically envision dangerous gadgets and tools intended to inflict the most physical pain possible prior to death.

These gruesome punishments are all indications of torture as it was practiced up to and including the Elizabethan period and could be inflicted for crimes considered relatively minor today, such as stealing. It wasn’t until 1628 that torture was declared unlawful, but writers for many years prior to this had been including their denouncements of the practice within their works (Horton, 2007). William Shakespeare illustrated the concepts of torture within his plays as can be found in Macbeth and King Lear.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses mental torture as a means of punishing his main character for having used physical torture to obtain the crown. Macbeth murders not only the rightful king, his guest and kinsman, but also kills the men assigned to be guards but also anyone Macbeth suspects might prove treasonous to his own reign. In doing so, he adopts the example that has been set by King Duncan himself, who starts the play just as he’s ending a bloody war and orders the execution of the Thane of Cawdor seemingly without a second thought or providing the condemned man a final defense. Macbeth repeats this action twofold in his ordering of the murder of Macduff’s family and in the execution of Banquo.

The mental torture inflicted upon Macbeth as a consequence of his violence, though, is what finally destroys him. His wife and the three weird sisters have mentally abused him into taking actions he would not normally have taken even as he realizes that his actions, admittedly deplorable, are taken of his own free will. This illustrates how a king who resorts to violence as a means of asserting his power will be forced by his own nature to continue escalating his violent actions until he himself is destroyed.

King Lear is another monarch who has overstepped the bounds of authority and allowed vicious cruelty to reign by simply doing nothing to curtail it. In giving his authority to his daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear becomes a victim of the same sort of indifferent cruelty with which he has ruled his kingdom. He is slowly stripped of his belongings, as illustrated through the whittling away of his train of knights, and is provided no sympathy or understanding in the face of his oncoming mental illness.

This sort of mental torture further serves to destroy Lear’s mental abilities and he becomes a homeless raging lunatic on the moors before he is finally discovered and skillfully handled by Edgar and the blinded Gloucester. Physical abuse is also graphically evident in the play as Regan and Goneril begin poking at the tightly tied Gloucester in Act 3, scene 7. This abuse is brought to a point of no return when Corwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes as punishment for remaining loyal to, meaning concerned about the health and welfare of, the old king.

By allowing this action to take place on stage and then having the blind man continue to appear throughout the remainder of the play, Shakespeare again illustrates how violent acts such as gaining allegiance through torture will only serve to blind new rulers to the actions that lead to their doom as it serves to teach the old rulers of the many ways in which they have blinded themselves to the reality of fear and instability torture introduces.

Through both of these plays, Shakespeare depicts the use of torture as a means of coercing others into acting with violence or punishing those who have refused to act appropriately. Physical and mental violence is illustrated as characters are mentally abused into madness and physically abused through murder, mutilation or neglect. Rather than being a case of isolated and relatively powerless individuals engaged in these actions, Shakespeare places responsibility for torture squarely on the shoulders of the leaders – the kings, queens and nobility.

In doing so, he illustrates how the use of torture requires increasing amounts of torture as a means of keeping control as well as how this use of torture eventually brings about the tragic downfall of the torturer. In providing this illustration, he was attempting to encourage the monarchs of his time to abolish the use of torture within the legal system and adopt a more humane means of obtaining information.

Works Cited

Horton, Scott. “Macbeth for the Age of Bush.” Harper’s Magazine. (2007). Web.

Lestikow, Erin; Katie O’Fallon & Lori Patterson. “Torture and Punishment in Elizabethan Times.” Elizabethan England. (2008). Web.

Shakespeare, William. “King Lear.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin, 1969: 1060-1106.

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Alfred Harbage (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books, 1969: 1107-1135.

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