Theme

An essay on meaning

Ray Harvey
Lit Up

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The word theme comes from the Ancient Greek word théma, which means “proposition or thesis.”

This definition essentially holds true to this very day.

Theme is thesis.

Theme is meaning.

In literature theme is the meaning to which the lines of a poem or the events of a story add up.

For instance, the theme of the Dostoevsky novel The Possessed is the way in which philosophical ideas shape all human action.

The theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is the injustice and absurdity of forced equality.

The theme of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is racial injustice in the post-civil-war south.

The theme of the J.D. Salinger short story “For Esme, With Love and Squalor” is the power of goodness combined with the healing power of lovingkindness.

The theme of V is for Vendetta is government tyranny and psychological manipulation of the citizenry.

The theme of the movie Quiz Show is honesty.

The theme of the Cohen brothers’ movie Miller’s Crossing is order and ethics in an orderless, ethics-less society.

The theme of Robert Louis Stevenson’s the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the double-minded man being unstable in all his ways.

The theme of William Shakespeare’s Othello is jealousy.

The theme of Bladerunner is human life and the constant struggle against death which gives life meaning.

Lord of the Rings — like Star Wars — is a theme of good-versus-evil, and that is why these stories are also called morality tales.

It’s important to note that not all stories necessarily have a theme.

Theme comes from an explicit emphasis and effort on the writer’s part to project abstract meaning — to infuse with deeper meaning, or principle, the events of the story or the lines of a poem, and it’s for this reason that symbol and metaphor are frequently the handmaidens of theme. They exemplify it.

The movie Pulp Fiction is an example of a (fairly) well-plotted yet themeless story.

Most soap operas possess plenty of plot but have no real themes to speak of.

In fiction, a well-done story blends theme and plot — it synthesizes them — so that the events of the story dramatize the theme, as the characters also embody the theme’s characteristics.

Plots are the vehicle by means of which some abstract idea or principle about human existence and the human experience is dramatized and objectified. That idea or principle when focused upon and developed becomes the theme — i.e. the calculatedly evil actions of Iago, and Othello’s reaction to them, dramatize the theme of jealousy.

Two similar plots in the hands of two different writers will invariably be about two different things, even if the events of the story are the same or essentially the same, and even if they have a similar style. The reason this is so is that their themes will be different.

The theme of the movie Rocky, for example, is the triumph of the human spirit, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Compare the movie Rocky with the more recent movie called The Wrestler — a well-acted and well-made drama directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke, both of whom were nominated for academy awards. It’s my firm opinion that The Wrestler was strongly influenced by Rocky, and yet, despite being similar in plot and subject matter, they are totally dissimilar in terms of theme:

The Wrestler is a theme of pure fatalism, even nihilism, as Darren Aronofsky’s movies invariably are, whereas Rocky projects a theme of pure triumph.

Every artist’s theme is a mirror and an extension of the convictions she or he holds.

The creator of Rocky, whoever it was, upheld an exalted view of humankind and, whether implicitly or explicitly, believed in the strength of the human spirit and the human will, even in the face of great odds.

Themes ultimately come from ideas — specifically, the ideas that the artist holds with enough conviction to take the time and expend the energy required to create an entire work of art around — and this is why all themes are not created equal: because all ideas are not equal.

Themes are ideas.

An artist’s explicit emphasis on theme is the primary thing that distinguishes serious art from less serious.

It’s common, as well, among skillful writers — in poetry perhaps most especially — to project themes in an ambiguous way. From an artistic standpoint, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Just the opposite, in fact — subtlety and a light touch are not only artistic virtues: they’re also a sign of artistic skill and stylistic mastery.

But when the projection of theme becomes too ambiguous or impenetrable, the work in question crosses over into obscurantism.

King Lear by William Shakespeare walks the vibrating tightrope here.

King Lear may (or may not) be about madness or death-and-nothingness or it may, after all, be about something else — something bigger: “Too big for the stage,” as T.S. Eliot once described it.

(Ian McKellen as King Lear)

William Shakespeare was as much a thinker as he was a poet —a poet and writer highly influenced by Lucretius’s verses of unparalleled lyricism.

Shakespeare was in particular influenced by Lucretius’s famous and philosophical poem On the Nature of Things, which, in turn, is directly descended from the great Greek philosopher Epicurus, who believed in and with breathtaking clarity and philosophical sophistication defended human reason, rationality, free-will, human excellence, and perhaps most especially human happiness and virtue while alive on this earth, without reference to the divine or any sort of afterlife.

Nowhere in Shakespeare are Lucretius and Epicurus more evident than in King Lear, where we also see, not coincidentally, a curious concern with numbers and mathematics. (Note the zero-like crown framing Sir Ian McKellen’s face in the King Lear photo above.)

King Lear is a play preoccupied with mental disintegration, and for this reason many commentators regard it as Shakespeare’s most “humane play.”

Yet interwoven among all this flesh-and-blood perishability and fear of madness lurks the absolute, elegant, bloodless world of math, which serves as a sort of anchor holding down the unshakable sense that Lear’s brains are busting loose from their moorings.

Some excellent readers have noted how frequently the words “nothing” and “all” resound throughout the entirety of the play, and many have noted as well that both “nothing” and “all” can be represented by the symbol zero: 0

The round world, the globe, the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s obvious punning on “hole” and “whole” throughout the entire play are also as well-represented by 0.

In King Lear, Shakespeare is clearly concerned with the idea — which is to say the theme — of nothingness and the finality of death, as, for example, when in Act 1, Scene iv, the Fool says to Lear:

“Thou are an O without a figure. Thou are nothing.”

In that same scene, the same Fool says the following:

Fool: Nuncle, give me an egg, and I’ll give thee two crowns.

Lear: What two crowns shall they be?

Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle, and eat
up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou
clovest thy crown i’ the middle, and gavest away
both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o’er
the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown,
when thou gavest thy golden one away.

A crown is one kind of circle, and so is an egg.

The egg is nothing, as the fool recognizes: eat the golden center of the hardboiled egg, and you have two empty rounds.

These empty rounds represent as well King Lear’s divided brain.

The golden center also represents Cordelia, Lear’s one and only loving daughter, whom King Lear has treated if not quite poorly, certainly less-well than his two other daughters, Cordelia’s sisters, Regan and Goneril, who are evil and who betray their father Lear.

The two empty rounds later become the gouged-out eye sockets of Gloucester, which Shakespeare unforgettably describes as “bleeding rings.”

Shakespeare deliberately deepens this description by having a servant say he will “fetch egg-white” to treat Gloucester’s maimed face, and by having Edgar say that if Gloucester were to throw himself from Dover Cliff, he’d be “crushed like an egg.”

Thus the bald head of King Lear suddenly takes on a newer, deeper, more complex meaning — an abstract mathematical symbol: not only a crown but a kind of circle as well.

In this way, Lear’s nothingness — his decline and mental disintegration— become a universal nothingness, with a chilling finality, and that is why when, near the end of the play, the blind Gloucester meets Lear, now legitimately mad, he says to him and about him:

“O ruined piece of nature! This great world
Shall wear out to nought.”

— King Lear, Act 4, vi, 134–135

Bleak but beautiful — and unbelievably brilliant.

Yet is King Lear, in the last analysis, quite so bleak after all — in the totality of its theme, I mean?

I’ve rethought this subject.

I now believe that to answer this question we must begin (and perhaps end) by asking ourselves: what was it that brought Lear to this point?

In answering this question, we’re immediately pushed back to the very beginning of the play and to the character who in my assessment is the true star of the entire drama William Shakespeare called King Lear: the calm, compassionate, Christlike Cordelia, Lear’s one and only loving daughter.

“And what will Cordelia say?”

“Love, and be silent,” Cordelia says.

It is my closely considered assessment that when we drive down deep enough into the chartless drama called King Lear, we find, like a distant burning star, a far more profound idea alive and pulsing inexhaustibly, however buried, however obscure or far, at the core of its core.

King Lear is not, I’m now convinced, about madness or nothingness — not ultimately. It’s about the fear of madness and nothingness.

More importantly still:

King Lear is about the reality and fundamental significance of the thing that forms the foundation of the entire human experience — the unkillable seed, I mean, that grows into the towering thing differentiating the human species from all other earthen creatures: the faculty of reason, which is choice, which is also known as the rational faculty, which is by its very nature volitional — “reason is also choice.”

It is the fact of this volitional faculty that gives rise to the entire field of ethics, which is also called morality, which in turn gives rise the fields of both politics and also economics. King Lear is explicitly concerned with all three of these things, beginning at the very beginning of the play when Lear, in the capacity of ruler and benefactor, is politically, economically, formally dividing his estate among his daughters.

Am I suggesting, then, that the theme of King Lear is “love, and be silent,” as silent Cordelia subtley suggests?

Yes, I am.

I am suggesting precisely that.

King Lear at the heart of its heart is about love and caritas, which is the purpose of it all and a foil against all the naught and nothingness, as it is also, in the pure flesh-and-blood reality Shakespeare creates, a foil against the elegant yet bloodless, lifeless universe of quantification and measurement, which is also called math.

This, I believe, is the densely buried, power-packed theme throbbing at the core of King Lear, by William Shakespeare, who never once, to my knowledge, wore his heart upon his sleeve.

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Ray Harvey
Lit Up
Editor for

Creative director of all things delightful.