On the resolve of villainy
Upon concluding, last week, thoughts concerning the Cumberbatch/Lee Miller rendition of Frankenstein, I was left with the not unfamiliar feeling that there was yet more to say.
Throughout both the novel and the play, the Monster’s relationship with ‘society’ remains a topic of contention that is portrayed as one intrinsic to his own feelings of self-identification.
Having considered the inherently destructive ‘compact’ of interdependence that governs the lives of Frankenstein and his Monster, this week felt like an appropriate time to consider the Monster’s relationship with others more broadly. In the immortal words of Henry V, therefore, I shall proceed ‘once more unto the breach’.
It is often suggested that there is a Shakespeare line for every occasion, a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur; in contemplating the Monster’s enduring feelings of isolation and injustice, I was reminded of two monologues in particular.
The first of these monologues is the opening speech to Richard III, during which Richard bitterly laments the fact of his physicality making him feel removed from the rest of society; it is a dehumanising force that singles him out and renders him inferior to other men.
The second monologue begins the second scene of the first act of King Lear, in which Edmund laments, just as bitterly, the fact of his being a bastard placing him at a disadvantage to others – namely, his half-brother, the ‘Legitimate Edgar’.
It struck me that all three characters – Richard, Edmund, and the Monster – are united in their feelings of involuntary exclusion. For Richard, this is due to his physical appearance, for Edmund, it is a question of his birthright – or lack thereof; for the Monster, it is a combination of both.
Richard observes, for example, how he is shaped neither ‘for sportive tricks, / Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass’; he is ‘deformed, unfinish’d, sent before [his] time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up’. Likewise, the Monster is self-professedly ‘deformed and horrible’.
There is a certain irony in the fact that, whilst Richard describes himself as ‘cheated of feature by dissembling nature’, the Monster is, of course, not the product of nature at all, but rather ‘an experiment that has gone wrong’; he is the product of another man who ‘failed to make it handsome, but…gave it strength and grace’.
The Monster relays, moreover: ‘when I walk through a village, the children throw stones. When I beg for food, they loose their dogs’; Richard, meanwhile, is ‘so lamely and unfashionable / That dogs bark at [him] as [he halts] by them’. Despite their difference in origin, therefore, it becomes apparent that Richard and the Monster feel the same when in the presence of others.
Edmund is equally vehement when questioning – albeit rhetorically – his own fate: ‘why “bastard”? wherefore “base”?’ In defending the legitimacy of his own claim and right to life, he draws a number of parallels between himself and the Monster.
As the latter observes, ‘I did not ask to be born, but once born, I will fight to live. All life is precious – even mine’.
The same accusatory defiance defines Edmund’s tone, as he verbally thrashes against the injustice of his life’s lot: ‘wherefore “base”? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true, / As honest madam’s issue?’
Again, there is an irony in the fact that the Monster is not the issue of any madam – honest or otherwise – and yet, his conviction regarding the preciousness of his own life is equally resolute.
The difference, therefore, between them lies in their resolve to become ‘the villain’. Whereas, for Richard and Edmund, this resolve is almost immediate and revealed at the end of their monologues – both of which are, to this end, declarations of villainy – the audience bears witness to the full, progressive trajectory of the Monster, who conversely appears to become ‘the villain’ against his own will.
As he himself observes ‘I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan’s the one I sympathise with. For I was cast out, like Satan, though I did no wrong’.
In keeping with his intention ‘to reason’, being an individual ‘capable of logic’, the Monster presents Frankenstein with ‘his request’, insisting that ‘a master has duties’.
‘Frankenstein. Here is my request. I wish to be part of society. But no human being will associate with me. But one of my own kind…she would understand…I want a female. Built like me.’
The Monster then presents Frankenstein with an ultimatum: ‘if you deny me my request I will make you my enemy, I will work at your destruction, I will dedicate myself, I won’t rest until I desolate your heart!’
As with so many tragic heroes, this dedication to reason is presented as both a blessing and a curse, ultimately representing a fatal flaw of sorts. Initially, it is seeming justification for Frankenstein to meet the Monster’s request; upon finding his request denied, however, reason is instead presented as being justification for this destruction, on principle of Frankenstein not fulfilling his half of their agreement.
The Monster’s adoption of the role of ‘the villain’ – or the ‘criminal’ as he later refers to himself – is thus portrayed as an act of self-loathing, as he laments ‘my mind, once filled with dreams of beauty, is a furnace of revenge!’
It is also, therefore, very much in keeping with Nietzsche’s suggestion of ‘action’ being ‘fundamentally reaction’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887) within the master-slave dynamic: ‘he promised to give me the only thing I lack, the only thing I need to be content, but then he broke his word’.
There thus develops a distinct sense of poignancy, as he regrets that all he asked for was ‘the possibility of love’, and yet, in keeping with his desire to execute reason, he feels compelled to execute in turn ‘the only one’ to show him pity and love, Elizabeth; his reason being that Frankenstein ‘broke his promise, so I break mine’.
Indeed, just as Frankenstein is trapped by his incapacity to engage emotionally, the Monster is trapped by his desire to be seen as an individual capable of human emotion.
As he reveals, yet more poignantly, ‘I studied the ways of men, and slowly I learnt: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master, I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie’.
Whereas, however, Richard decides independently ‘since I cannot prove a lover, / […] I am determined to prove a villain’, and, similarly, Edmund, observes of himself that ‘if this letter speed, / And my invention thrive, Edmund the base / Shall top th’legitimate’, the Monster’s villainy is depicted as one founded upon a sense of obligation, rather than choice.
Of course, Richard did not choose such an unduly deprived existence, nor did Edmund choose to be born illegitimately. Indeed, there is, too, a distinct irony in the fact that, like Richard, the Monster’s ‘villainy’ is the result of his not being given ‘a lover’.
In terms, however, of their engagement with villainy itself, the dividing factor seems to lie in the fact that, whereas Richard and Edmund both resort to villainy willingly, the Monster actively ‘wanted to be good!’
No doubt his villainy may be attributed, to a large extent, to the interdependence that is forever in play between himself and Frankenstein.
As he laments in the final scene: ‘My heart is black…when I was born, I laughed for joy at the heat of the sun, I cried at the call of the birds – the world was a cornucopia to me! Now it is a waste of frost and snow’.
Perhaps most telling of all, however, of the Monster’s sincerity is the fact of his openly revealing, earlier in the play, his dislike of inconsistency: ‘I find it infuriating!’
Accordingly, he observes that, had Frankenstein fulfilled his request, ‘all the memory of hell’ would have melted ‘like snow’; consistent unto the breach, therefore – both literally and metaphorically.
- Cleo O’Callaghan Yeoman