The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a perfect example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction.

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Gothic literature was established in the eighteenth century with novels such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Radcliffe’s Sicilian Romance. Authors utilised the gothic genre to address contemporary societal fears whilst heightening the reader’s imagination and causing sensation through terror.  From themes such as patriarchal tyranny and religious oppression, the gothic genre evolved alongside its society. The Victorian fin de siècle Gothic fiction altered from its original genre because

‘The turn of the twentieth century [saw] the first merging of the Gothic with […] Victorian realism, under the premise of philosophical exploration’.

Maria Beville,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009),p.61.

Many fears arose during this period resulting from advancements in psychological theory as well as Darwin’s theory of evolution in The Origin of the Species. This caused heightened concern about the makeup of the human consciousness and counteracted with anxieties of devolution. Whilst class, sexuality, crime and aesthetics became major themes in late Victorian Gothic fiction, authors exploited the narcissistic obsession in society. Furthermore, by exploring the notion of good and evil as a co-existing entity in the human self, authors were able to rationalise the concept through satire. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the embodiment of the fin de siècle and the novel represents many aspects of late Victorian fears. This paper will discuss the ways that Stevenson successfully portrayed the Victorian fin de siècle through the gothic genre whilst comparing the novella to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Virtue and appropriate behaviour feature prominently in the late Victorian period:

‘Moral uprightness was one of the foundations upon which British society supported itself.’

Dennis Grube, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013),p.127.

Both Stevenson and Wilde explore the concept of virtue in their novels by examining the human consciousness. By creating the fictional double, the novels exhibit what the Victorian society attempts to supress, which is the binary opposite of appropriateness. In Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde the character of Dr Jekyll is portrayed as an ambitious and friendly man who superficially enjoys his wealth and his friends. However, oppressed by the society in which he lives, and becoming aware of his faltering tolerance, he delves into his inner self to explore the composition of his own consciousness.  His alter ego, Mr Hyde, is the primal version of his self who finds delight in the purity of evil he experiences. Written in the form of a case study, Dr Jekyll confesses his experiment in the form of a letter that his friend receives after his death:

It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness,[…] If each,[…] could but be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994), pp, 70-71.

Stevenson demonstrates the duality of the conscious mind and its struggle to balance good with evil through the narrator’s stream of consciousness.  Dr Jekyll suggests that in his original form, he has morality, yet he struggles to accept the ‘unbearable’ aspects of life, which his immoral side exposes. Relief, therefore, could only be experienced if they were to be separated into two individual entities. The primitive self is described as ‘unjust’, which suggests that it does not behave in accordance with what society deems as morally correct behaviour, as a result, this causes ‘remorse’ in the morally good conscience. Freedom from the ‘unjust’ is the only way that Dr Jekyll feels able to follow a morally righteous path. The final sentence in the above quotation satirises late Victorian society as Dr Jekyll describes how immorality exposes disgrace and causes feelings of penitence. The word choice ‘extraneous evil’ suggests that evil is external and therefore, created by the hands of society. By connecting sentences with semi-colons, Stevenson forms a union between good and evil as a natural result of societal expectation and, as Lord Henry Wotton suggests in The Picture of Dorian Gray:

People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. […] But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. […] The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001), p.18

Wilde establishes the way in which society stifles the self. Lord Wotton suggests that society deflects the primitive nature of man to one that has become morally constructed through fear. Lord Wotton refers to Kant’s philosophy of morality that states,

‘The first principle of duty to oneself lies in the dictum “live in conformity with nature” [and] preserve yourself in the perfection of your nature.’

Immanuel Kant, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.545.

This suggests that Victorian society oppresses the natural quality of man.

Whilst Stevenson developed the double in Dr Jekyll and My Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s exploration of human consciousness due to his internal dissatisfaction with the world, Wilde developed the double through self-development and a need for sensation. His character Dorian becomes highly influenced by his charismatic friend Lord Henry Wotton who suggests that ‘to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul,’ (Wilde, p.18). This results in Dorian believing that ‘Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him,’ (Wilde, p.125). This clarifies that good and bad influence can pass from person to person resulting in a multiplicity of souls residing within the human body. If this is the reason for a duplicity of the self, it is explored by Dr Jekyll who muses that ‘in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins [are] continuously struggling. How, then, were they dissociated?’ (Stevenson, p.71). Freud’s structural theory suggests that personality is split into three parts, the id, the superego and the ego.

‘The id is defined as the seat of drives and instincts […] whereas the ego represent[s] the logical reality-orientated part of the mind, and the superego [is] akin to a conscience, or set of moral guidelines and prohibitions.’

Theodore Millon, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003), p.121.

This theory as suggested by Million, demonstrates that ‘personality is derived from the interplay of these three psychic structures which differ in terms of power and influence. […] When the id predominates, an impulsive, stimulation-seeking personality style results, (Million, p.121). This trait is found in The Picture of Dorian Gray when the young Dorian determines that his:

time ha[s] come for making his choice. Or had his choice already been made? Yes, life had decided that for him – life, and his own infinite curiosity about life. Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he [is] to have all these things. The portrait [is] to bear the burden of his shame: that [is] all, (Wilde, p.85).

Dorian submits to the controlling factor of the id due to the influential personality of Lord Wotton. The balancing aspect of the superego becomes external and represented in the portrait, this allows Dorian to observe a physical depiction of his conscience. Wilde presents the alternating structure of Dorian’s consciousness by presenting his statement followed by a question.  This allows Dorian to submit to his id because he believes that he has no choice. The repetition of the word ‘life’ has a destructive function as the dash and comma create fragmentation in the sentence that mirrors Dorian’s thoughts and suggests his lack of control in the world. Moreover, the sentence is long and uneven which creates an imbalance of the consciousness.  Following this is a list of Dorians desires, the punctuation creates a punchy and fast rhythm representing the frenzy of its character and his grasping of control and is slowed down with a dash once the control is gained.

Late Victorian society developed an awareness of the self through evolutionary theories such as Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and narcissism compromised by a fear of devolution.  According to Bowler,

‘The Darwinian revolution […] and the emergence of cultural evolutionism were parallel developments that coincided in time […] the two ideas were soon linked by the suggestion that the primitive stone-age humans had evolved from ape-like ancestors.’ [7]

Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990), p.191.

Evolution of culture caused society to fear atavism because degeneration could reverse humanity to its primal state, therefore, disintegrate modern life. Stevenson portrayed these fears in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by illustrating the character of Mr Hyde from a public and private perspective. Mr Utterson gives a good example of the various ways in which the character is perceived:

‘God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say? Or can it be the old story of Dr Fell? Or is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent? The last I think,’ (Stevenson, p.23).

The beginning of the quotation suggests that Mr Hyde’s inhumanity is because he is prehistoric or primitive. Secondly, Mr Utterson ponders over his perception of the character as a personal dislike because of his rebellious nature. This is suggested through reference to Dr Fell who was openly disliked and mocked by his student Thomas Brown.

This last theory satirises the vanity of the late Victorians and their intolerance of the lower classes. For Utterson ‘The problem he was thus debating as he walked was one of a class that is rarely solved,’ (Stevenson, p.23). His conclusion, however, is that Mr Hyde contains a foul soul that radiates outwardly making his presence unpleasant.

Primitivism in the physicality of Mr Hyde is demonstrated to contrast with the public perception of the character. He is regularly given animalistic form, for example; he took a ‘hissing intake of breath,’ or he ‘snarled aloud into a savage laugh,’ (Stevenson, p.23). Stevenson is illustrating the degeneration of man as not merely a mental but physical phenomenon. The characters of both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adopt separate physical appearances that demonstrate a desirable narcissistic presence in Dr Jekyll and a degenerate undesirable looking Mr Hyde. Wilde’s approach is slightly different to Stevenson because the character of Dorian Gray remains beautiful. It is only through the portrait that the reader is able to observe the alteration of the characters appearance:

An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty, (Wilde, p.123).

Dorian’s degeneration is unlike the Darwinian Theory, the characters sinful life does affect those around him yet he is still admired for his beautiful looks and status in society. The ugliness of Dorian is preserved in private and away from the public eyes. This demonstrates the importance of beauty for the late Victorians. What Wilde did do however, was establish the problematic elements of physicality. When Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward, Wilde illustrates the beast in his character:

The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around, (Wilde, 125).

Wilde demonstrates that an evil and monstrous soul can live in anyone, even the beautiful can hide a devious or wicked nature. In a time when the notorious Jack the Ripper roamed free, the public had only the criminology reports to refer to for peace of mind. Dr Bond for example, wrote the murder profile of Jack the Ripper:

The murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quite inoffensive looking man, probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed. He will be solitary and eccentric in his habits, also he is most likely to be a man without regular occupation, but with a small income or pension.”

Richard N. Kocsis, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006), p.4

Wilde utilised the theme of murder to create terror and fear in his readers. According to Emsley,

‘By the middle of the century the term ‘criminal classes’ was used to suggest an incorrigible social group – a class – stuck at the bottom of society.’

Professor Clive Emsley, ‘Crime and the Victorians’,  BBC History (2011) ≤≥ [accessed 09 December 2014] (para, 8 of  15).

The Picture of Dorian Gray illustrates that crime can be performed in any class in society and just as easily concealed.  Stevenson also used the theme of murder in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde but the crime is explored through the reaction of society, ‘London was startled by a crime of singular ferocity, and rendered all the more notable by the high position of the victim,’ (Stevenson, p.29). The sole witness described the victim as an ‘aged and beautiful gentleman’, (Stevenson, p. 29). Mr Hyde, however is described as ‘other’, to whom she ‘conceived a dislike,’ (Stevenson, p.30). Stevenson demonstrates the late Victorians outdated perception of crime and their dislike of otherness as perceived in the murderer.

Murder was not the only crime portrayed in the novels. Homosexuality is illustrated in both novels but more obviously in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil explains his love for Dorian in his art, ‘I see everything in him. […] I find him in all the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours,’ (Wilde, p.12). The Picture of Dorian Gray was being written in 1885, the year that Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was enforced. This stated that

‘any act of “gross indecency” between men in “public or private” [is] an offence.

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), p.19.

Subsequently, Wilde was arrested and imprisoned in 1895 for homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence at his trial. Stevenson published Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a year later although homosexuality is less obvious in his book. Mr Utterson is, ‘the last reputable acquaintance and the last good influence in the lives of down-going men.[…] so long as they came to his chamber, he never marked a shade of change in his demeanour,’(Stevenson, p.9). Stevenson’s subtle but provocative language is hidden amongst the class related subject to demonstrate also, that homosexuality could be found in all societies and all classes.

To conclude, the paper discussed the Gothic fin de siècle as represented in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Stevenson’s novel is the quintessential late-Gothic Victorian novel, because although both Stevenson and Wilde aimed to satirise late-Gothic Victorian society by preying on societal fears, Stevenson’s attempt was more comprehensive. Wilde covered several aspects such as doubling, crime and vanity. However, Stevenson explored a prominent fear in society at the time, which was devolution. Therefore, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde combined all aspects of the Gothic fin de siècle.


Beville Maria,Gothic-postmodernism: Voicing the Terrors of Postmodernity (Amsterdam: Radopi, 2009)

Bowler Peter J, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1990)

Emsley Professor Clive, ‘Crime and the Victorians’,  BBC History (2011) ≤

Grube Dennis, At the Margins of Victorian Britain: Politics, immorality and Brittishness in the Nineteenth Century (London: I.B.Tauris, 2013)

Houlbrook Matt, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005)

Kant Immanuel, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Practical Philosophy: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Kocsis Richard N, Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices (Totowa: Humana Press, 2006)

Millon Theodore, Melvin J. Lerner and Irving B. Weiner, Handbook of Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2003)

Stevenson Robert Louis, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London: Penguin Books, 1994)

Wilde Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2001)


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Madness and Hysteria in the Late 19th Century

I said some time ago that I would post some of my academic essays on my website. Please feel free to quote from any of my essays, but do remember to reference them accordingly. Also, please bare in mind that the point of view in the following essay is, like all critical analysis, subjective, meaning it is neither right nor wrong.

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The number of female lunatics in Victorian asylums outnumbered males toward the end of the Nineteenth century. According to Showalter, ‘the rise of the Victorian madwoman may have been linked to the rise of the psychiatric profession, with its attitudes toward women and its monopoly by men.’ [1] Psychiatrists suspected that female madness was a result of biological problems due to the ‘instability of their reproductive systems [which] interfered with sexual, emotional, and rational control,’ (Showalter, p.55). The subservient female in the late Victorian period was therefore, incapacitated due her male dominated society. Moreover, a woman’s ‘longing for independence [was] socially unacceptable at every phase of the female life-cycle,’ (Showalter, p.132). As a result, the oppression of women within the standardised role of femininity not only maintained patriarchal dominance but reinforced it. This paper will discuss the way that madness and hysteria was represented from both a male and female author’s perspective in late Victorian literature.

Written in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a multiple first-person point of view consisting of letters, diary entries, memos, and newspaper articles. This allows Stoker to present a comparative representation of hysteria in both masculine and feminine form. The character of Jonathan Harker experiences a ‘violent brain fever’ [2] because of his imprisonment in Dracula’s castle:

Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for: that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already […] feeling as though my brain were unhinged or as if the shock had come which must end its undoing (Dracula, p.32).

Harker’s breakdown is a response to his experience of the supernatural. Stoker portrays the characters madness as a form of post-traumatic stress rather than cowardice. This does not undermine Harker’s masculinity but rather reinforces it due to his intelligence and his bravery. In his journals, for example ‘When […] the conviction had come over me that I was helpless I sat quietly – as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life – and began to think over what was best to be done,’ (Dracula, p.24). The em-dashes in this quotation represent pauses that create a feeling of calm steady contemplation. Stoker was reacting to late Victorian fears of masculine decline, for example ‘In the fin de siècle […] men’s identities were destabilized by the appearance of the assertive new woman.’ Whilst Harker’s masculinity falls into decline due to his breakdown and his temporary removal as a narrator, it is reinforced when his supernatural experiences […] are

verified by a third party, masculinisation and writing; [therefore] Harker can be sure that he was not simply hallucinating [and] he can be confident of his manhood. [4]

Stoker’s assertion of masculinity in Harker re-established the male superiority in the late Victorian period. The author justified Harker’s madness as a temporary reaction toward the supernatural, therefore acceptable. Nordau suggested that madness was a symptom of modern times and quoted that, ‘We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria.’ [5] For Stoker, hysteria is a female illness, he demonstrates this by comparing the character of Harker to his partner Mina Murray.  Mina is an intelligent woman who works hard as a schoolmistress in order to ‘be […] useful to Jonathan,’ (Dracula, p.46), which is a typical representation of the late Victorian woman with ‘her innate qualities of mind [which] complement rather [than] equal [her man],’ (Showalter, p.123). Furthermore, the character appears to be more masculine than her partner Harker and is described as having a ‘man’s brain […] and a woman’s heart, (Dracula, p.195). Mina is, therefore, a threat to the masculine patriarchy of the Victorian period. Although her intellectual skills and courage become invaluable in the investigation of Dracula’s whereabouts, it is suggested by the psychiatrist Dr Seward that, ‘Mrs Harker is better out of it […] it is no place for a woman, and if she […] remain[s] in touch with the affair, it would in time infallibly [wreck] her, (Dracula, p.213). Dr Seward’s suggestion corresponds to Victorian psychiatric thought

that women were more vulnerable to insanity than men because the instability of their reproductive system interfered with their sexual, emotional and rational control, (Showalter, p.55).

Stoker uses this theory of female vulnerability not only demonstrate that women are the weaker sex but also to destabilise the new woman’s desire for feminine independence. For example, when Mina is dismissed from the group, she records her feelings in her journal, ‘And now I am crying like a silly fool,’ (Dracula, p.213). This demonstration of emotional weakness in addition to Mina’s ‘strangely sad and low spirit,’ (Dracula, p.213) are signs of what was known as neurasthenia, ‘a more prestigious and attractive form of female nervousness than hysteria’, (Showalter, p.134). It is therefore unsurprising that Mina should fall victim to Dracula.

Stoker represents an eroticised representation of madness from the perspective of Mina when she first encounters Dracula. Mina uses highly sexualised language in her journal such as, ‘my feet and my hands […] were weighted [and] leaden lethargy seemed to chain my limbs,’ (Dracula, p.215). This language has connotations of sadomasochism, a term used to denote both dominance and submission. In the case of Mina, Dracula is dominating her. Whilst being aware of these emotions she recalls them at a subconscious level as she ‘must be careful of such dreams, for they would unseat one’s reason if there was too much of them,’ (Dracula, p.215). Whilst Mina’s first-person narrative makes her recollections unreliable, her sexual undertones are carefully documented. Stoker is demonstrating Freudian psychoanalytic theory of female madness:

For Freud, hysteria had to do with disavowed sexuality, primarily female sexuality, in the context of the Oedipus complex and its derivatives (unconscious incestuous wishes and penis envy). [6]

Although Mina’s desires are presented as subliminal, Stoker illustrates how women are susceptible to madness due to their sexual repression. Consciously the character shows visible signs of madness as Dr Seward diarises, ‘Mrs Harker […] had drawn her breath and with it had given a scream so wild, so ear piercing,’ (Dracula, p.235). Furthermore, he stated that ‘Her eyes were mad with terror’, (Dracula, p.235). Seward’s analysis of Mina is typical of the male psychiatrist of the Victorian period.

Feminine weakness and madness are also explored in the character of Lucy Westenra. Lucy is Dracula’s first conquest in England. Whilst her symptoms appear to Mina as signs of madness, such as shortness of breath, loss of appetite and lethargy, Dr Seward suggests that ‘there is not any functional disturbance or any malady that I know of’, (Dracula, p.92). Whilst Lucy displays hysterical symptoms, Val Helsing and his colleagues are powerless to help her. After four blood transfusions from four different men, Lucy’s deterioration continues. These transfusions represent masculine power over the female whose unconscious form renders her submissive. However, the men’s control over Lucy is in vain and therefore they attempt to ward off Dracula by giving Lucy a wreath of garlic to wear around her neck while she sleeps. She describes this in her diary as ‘lying like Ophelia in a play, with ‘virgin crants and maiden strewments,’ (Dracula, p.110). According to Showalter, ‘Ophelia was a compelling figure for many Victorian […] doctors seeking to represent the madwoman’, (Showalter, p.90). Madness in Lucy prior to her death is represented as weakness, however, as a vampire ‘The sweetness was turned to adamantine, heartless cruelty, and the purity to voluptuous wantonness,’ (Dracula, p.175). Lucy is not only sexualised but also powerful and dangerous. Stoker is demonstrating the negative effects of powerful women in the character of Lucy who is found to have taken several children to feed upon. Lucy’s vampirism defies woman’s nature and is therefore, presented as madness.

The Darwinian theory of madness suggests that, ‘mental disorder might be passed on to the next female generation, [however] these theories were convenient ramifications of existing social relations between the sexes,’ (Showalter, p.123). It is for this reason that the vampire Lucy is destroyed whilst Mina, still in her human form is protected. Stoker opposes the new woman who attempted to redefine gender roles and ‘overcome masculine supremacy’, [7] thus by comparing Harker’s madness to the character of Mina Murray, Stoker reinforces the traditional societal views of masculine power.

Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper written in 1892 is a semi-autobiographical short story narrated in first person. This allows an intimate perspective of the character’s thoughts and feelings through her writing. Gilman demonstrates the ineffective use of the rest cure that the narrator is prescribed by her husband, who is also her physician, as a treatment for her nervous disposition. The portrayal of the rest cure in the narrative is similar to the Silas Weir Mitchell rest cure of ‘entire rest […] excessive feeding […] confin[ment] to bed,’ and being ‘forbidden to […] read, write or do any intellectual work,’ (Showalter, p.138). Neurasthenia according to Dr. Margaret Cleaves is a result of ‘women’s ambitions for intellectual, social, and financial success, ambitions that could not be accommodated within the structures of late-nineteenth-century society,’ (Showalter, p.136). The narrator admits that her intention was to conform to the role of the stereotypical Victorian wife, and she writes that, ‘I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already.’ [8] The word ‘comparative’ suggests that she is atypical to societal expectations of the wife. In addition, the word ‘already’ suggests that the couple are newly married. Nervousness, therefore, derives from the narrator’s inability to conform to the role of the typical Victorian wife. She explains ‘Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able – to dress and entertain, and order things,’ (TYW, p.34). Furthermore, she struggles to cope with motherhood, ‘It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. […] And yet I cannot be with him, it makes me so nervous’, (TYW, p.34). The narrator’s neurasthenia is represented as post-natal depression that is clarified by the italicised ‘cannot’. Moreover, according to Victorian psychiatrists, ‘after childbirth a woman’s mind was abnormally weak, her constitution depleted, and her control over her behaviour diminished,’ (Showalter, p.58-59). Whilst the narrator is fully aware of her depressive state, her husband refuses to believe it:

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do? (TYW, p.31).

In the above quotation, Gilman is demonstrating how mental illness was misunderstood in Victorian psychiatry. The narrator’s husband John, to cure his wife, asserts full patriarchal control over her, he ‘hardly lets [her] stir without special direction,’ (TYW, p.32). Oppression causes the narrator to get angry with her husband and he tells her that she will ‘neglect proper self-control,’ (TYW, p.32). Fear of her husband’s dominance causes her to ‘take pains to control [her]self – before him,’ (TYW, p.32). The em-dash in this quotation suggests that the narrator is allowing her self- control to dwindle whilst her husband is out if sight. This retaliation is due to her husband’s ignorance, ‘John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him,’ (TYW, p.33). The italicised ‘reason’ demonstrates the narrator’s frustration in John’s dismissiveness of her nervous disposition.

Female repression due to male dominance in psychiatry is addressed in The Yellow Wallpaper. Not only does John mistreat the narrator’s madness, but her needs and solutions for recovery are ignored. As a writer, she is ‘forbidden to ‘work’ [until she] is well again,’ (TYW, p.31), moreover she suggests that, ‘Personally, I believe that congenial work […] will do me good,’ (TYW, p.31). The depravity of writing as a form of work and mental stimulation causes the narrator to use imagination in the confinement of her room. Allowing herself to lose her self-control, the reader begins to observe the narrator going insane. Whilst allowing the madness to consume her, the narrator begins to hallucinate. Enclosed in a room with bright yellow patterned wallpaper she slowly begins to see a woman behind the pattern, which introduces Gilman’s use of the literary double. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the narrative double in their book The Madwoman in the Attic.

She is usually the author’s double, an image of her own anxiety and rage. […] fiction written by women conjures up this mad creature so that female authors can come to terms with their own uniquely female feelings of fragmentation, their own keen sense of the discrepancies between what they are and what they are supposed to be. [9]

The above quotation highlights the technique used by many female writers in the Victorian period and can be found most certainly in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman uses the double to represent what women really are, whilst the narrator is represented as what women are supposed to be. The narrator studies the wallpaper vigorously to discover that in the moonlight the pattern appears to be bars. Furthermore, she continues to discover that ‘By daylight [the woman] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still, (TYW, p.41). What Gilman sees as the repressed woman. She is a prisoner in her own society, which pacifies her through societal expectation and law. Over time the narrator begins to experience a realisation of her situation and writes, ‘I don’t want to leave now until I have found it out,’ (TYW, p.42). At this point, in the narration, there becomes a transition and the narrator begins to be consumed by the wallpaper. Over time, she becomes the woman behind the bars, ‘I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?’ (TYW, p.46). By surrendering to her madness and metaphorically becoming the woman in the wallpaper, she is free from her husband’s dominance ‘I’ve got out at last […] in spite of you’, (TYW, p.47). For Gilman hysteria is represented as a misunderstood illness that is wrongly treated, causing madness in women who have no voice. Moreover, the author is demonstrating that because women are so repressed, madness can be an escape from it.

To conclude, at the end of the 19th century, hysteria and madness were represented in literature as a predominantly female malady. This was due to the Victorian patriarchal society that repressed women. For Stoker, male madness was represented as reactionary and could be justified, whilst female madness was represented as typical biological feminine problem. Moreover, Stoker demonstrated how the new woman threatened the patriarchy. Gilman however, represented female madness from a woman’s perspective, showing how it was misunderstood and misdiagnosed, leading to further madness. Gilman portrayed how ironically; this could become a woman’s escape from repression.


Chapman, James, and Matthew Hilton, ‘From Sherlock Holmes to James Bond: Masculinity and National Identity in British Popular Fiction’ in Relocating Britishness ed. Stephen Caunce (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004) [3]

Diniejko,Andrzej, ‘The New Woman Fiction’, The Victorian Web, (2011) ≤ [7]

Gilbert, Sandra.M, and Susan Guber, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination (London, Yale University Press, 1979) [9]

Gillman, Charlotte Perkins, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, in Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women, 1890- 1914 ed. Angelique Richardson (London: Penguin books, 2002) [8]

Nordau, Max, ‘Degeneration’, in Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C. 1848-1918, ed. Daniel Pick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) [5]

Pedlar, Valerie, ‘The Most Dreadful Visitation’: Male Madness in Victorian Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) [4]

Showalter, Elaine, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York: Virago Press, 1987) [1]

Stoker, Bram, Dracula (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993) [2]

Yarom, Nitza, Matrix of Hysteria: Psychoanalysis of the Struggle Between the Sexes as Enacted in the Body (East Sussex: Routledge, 2005) [6]

Scottish Oral Storytelling Tradition & The Ballad

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Sir Walter Scott recalls in his book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border that ‘The Twa Corbies’ was ‘communicated to [him] by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, esq. jun. of Hoddom, as written down, from tradition, by a lady.’ [1] The use of the word ‘Tradition’ suggests that ‘The Twa Corbies’ ballad survived orally. According to Buchan

The nonliterate person does not possess […] visual imagination, words for him cannot be translated into pictorial symbols, they exist in sound groups; his facility for imaginative retention is largely auditory. [2]

The traditional methods of ballad structure such as form, convention, uncomplicated language, and rhyme create the sound groups that Buchan is suggesting. Whilst assisting the performer and the audience in memorising the ballad, the construction of the ballad ensures that its bones remain intact regardless of time and place. This allows the longevity of the story.

The anonymous ballad, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has a chivalric theme. Morgan suggests that in the chivalric ballad ‘Neither historical figures nor legendary idols escape criticism, [in] the ballads of chivalry [they] serve to strip the façade of honor from their social betters.’ [3] Within a particular genre, the use of common tropes assists in memorising the narrative through fixed characters and themes. This also allows a performer to make a ballad contemporary whilst retaining the familiar narrative. Like most medieval ballads, ‘The Twa Corbies’ begins in Media Res, keeping the narrative brief whilst allowing the audience to quickly interpret the ballad’s intended meaning. The commonality of ballad themes means that multiplicity may occur, for example, ‘The Twa Corbies’ has great similarities to the English ballad ‘The Three Ravens’. Although the narrative of these ballads is similar, the tone sets them apart. ‘The Three Ravens’ conveys an optimistic tone which Morgan suggests ‘upholds the chivalric tradition of romance, complete with references to knightly behaviour, courtly love, and Christian piety’, (Morgan, p.119-120). The sombre tone of ‘The Twa Corbies’ however, implies a negative interpretation of chivalry with a realistic view of a social situation in which the importance of survival is crucial. This is found in the following three lines:

‘His hound is to the hunting gane,
His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s ta’en another mate, [4]

The abandonment and disregard for the dead knight’s body offers the audience a natural and realistic account of life and death and the nature of survival. These three characters resume living in the most natural way. The theme of survival is clarified in the final line of the stanza:

So we may mak our dinner sweet. (TTC, 12)

This line highlights not only that compassion is essential for survival but also that all creatures are equal, a direct criticism of chivalric hierarchy. The tone of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, is similar to ‘The Twa Corbies,’ in that it demonstrates the danger of the hierarchal structure, for example

‘O wha is this has duin this deed
An tauld the king o me [5]

The phrase ‘duin this deed’, suggests that the speaker has already accepted his deadly fate which, predetermines the remainder of the ballad. In addition, these lines not only demonstrate danger of royal hierarchy but also of the Kings right to assume the role of God. The ballad audience however, are already aware that the elderly knight is responsible:

O up and sat an eldern knight (SPS, 5)

The use of ‘O’ at the beginning of the line mimics the form of the traditional hymn. As a result, this technique elevates the position of the knight to God. This allows the audience to question not only the idealism of royalty, but also the hierarchal structure of the royal court and it’s danger of improper decision-making. The effect of tone in both ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’, in addition to theme, structure and word choice directs the reader to the underlying meaning and intention of the ballad.
The generic ballad form allows the performer to navigate his way through the ballad by creating self-contained narrative frames, or stanzas. Each frame consists of a variety of stylistic conventions that create auditory symbols, instructions, and prompts, essential for the performer and the audience in memorising the song. For example, the opening couplet in ‘The Twa Corbies’ acts as an essential idea, setting the scene of the narrative. The first person speaker recalls an incident in past tense:

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane; (TTC, 1.2)

The use the of verbs ‘Walking’ and ‘makin’ rather than ‘walked’ and ‘make’ are coded words which have a dual purpose, firstly to fulfil the rhythm of iambic tetrameter and also to describe movement, firstly from the speaker then followed by the corbies. The progressive verb choices, in addition to the past tense narration demonstrate the continuity of life and the underlying theme of the narrative, which is survival. Performed in thin Scots, the mixed dialect gives the audience a sense of place, whilst acting as a comparison to the English dialect – the dialect of the hierarchal chivalry. In addition, the refrain of the rhyming couplets assist the performer in memorising the sound units whilst allowing the narrative to be adapted and developed within a set structure. In the first couplet ‘all alane’ (TTC, 1) is a triad of assonance, with the ‘a’ sound at the start of the three syllables. This acts as a sound group, important for memorising. In line two, ‘making a mane’ (TTC, 2) is a refrain of consonance. The ‘m’ sound lands at the beginning of a two-syllable word followed by a one-syllable word. This elongates the sentence making the ‘mane’ onomatopoeia. It is therefore the manipulation of sounds and beats that aid the speakers memory rather than the words themselves.
The symbolism of the corbies – a Scottish word for ravens, has various mythological connotations, one of which is that ‘Ravens as birds of knowledge appear throughout myth, especially in Odin’s two ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory)’. [6] This tale will have been familiar to audiences in medieval times, therefore informing the audience of the role of the corbies within in this ballad to represent thought and memory, crucial for the survival of the narrative.
There is a tense change in the final line of the first stanza when the narrative changes into dialogue:

‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’(TTC, 4)

This change indicates a scene break that allows the oral storyteller to move on to a different frame with different conventions. The leaping between scenes or frames requires the audience to read between the lines and flesh out the narrative themselves. This closing line in stanza one is the last line in a long sentence, moving from past to present. This demonstrates movement in time, also survival and tradition – which is the link between past and present. The introduction of ‘we’ prompts audience participation, a further mode of memorising.
In stanza two, the speaker uses ironic juxtaposition in a couplet. The ‘auld fail dyke’ (TTC, 4) conceals ‘a new slain knight’ (TTC, 5). ‘Auld’ is the primary word, situated before ‘new’ in the stanza. This gives the former superiority. Not only does this romanticise an older way of life but also demonstrates the strength of the old through the symbolism of the wall and its survival. These conventions are important to allow the framing and unfolding of each stanza, important for prompting memory, and continuity.
The generic form found in ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is the most commonly found traditional ballad form; a four foot line followed by a three foot line. The consistent rhyming scheme, ABCB allows the framing of each stanza, which, like ‘The Twa Corbies’ is an arrangement of quatrains. Whilst this ballad is greater in length, the techniques are consistent of the ballad tradition. The sound refrains such as ‘whare will’ (SPS, 3) creates a sound like the wind, whilst ‘skeely skipper’ (SPS, 3) makes a storm like sound. These techniques not only create an ambiance, but also are sound symbols. Due to the length of this ballad, the refrain is demonstrated on a wider scale, such as ‘To Norway’ is repeated three times in stanza four. Using a variety of different conventions within each frame, aids the memory of the oral storyteller through the use of sound, symbols and prompts.
Whilst ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a much larger poem in length than ‘The Twa Corbies’ the techniques of style and convention are similar. The overall effect of the style and convention in both ballads is to aid the memory of the performer whilst guiding and prompting himself and the audience. The purpose of this is to deliver a story within the bones of a well-known narrative theme, which, through auditory symbols and sound groups, makes it adaptable as it is re-told and reworked over time. Moreover, whilst many medieval ballads adopt a familiar theme, resulting in multiplicity, the tone and dialect set them apart.


Anonymous, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Anonymous, ‘The Twa Corbies’, in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah (London: Penguin Books, 2006)

Buchan, David, The Ballad and the Folk (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997)

Frankel, Valerie Estelle, The Symbolism and Sources of Outlander: The Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meanings that Inspired the Series (North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2015)

Morgan, Gwendolyn A., Medieval Ballads: Chivalry, Romance, and Everyday Life. A Critical Anthology (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996)

Scott, Sir Walter, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: James Ballantyne, 1803)

The Relationship Between the Private and Public in Shakespeares Henry V – (Academic Essay)

I decided that once I had graduated from university I would post my English Literature essay’s on my site as a reference point for English Literature students. This essay and other’s on this site are my own work and have been referenced accordingly. Please feel free to use my essay’s but remember to reference my work to avoid plagiarism. 


Henry V is the concluding episode in Shakespeare’s tetralogy of history plays. It was estimated to be written in 1599 during the reign of Elizabeth 1. Critics have found the play to be puzzling and Shakespeare’s portrayal of King Henry unclear. Rabkin suggested that Shakespeare intentionally created Henry V as a play with two interpretations which resulted in the audience making up their own mind. [1] Shakespeare’s depiction of King Henry was influenced by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ as well as being integrated with the Tudor philosophy of The Kings Two Bodies. By using these approaches Shakespeare created a plot where Henry was able to weave between the private and public spheres. The audience may have perceived Henry V as either a well-rounded king or a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. The paper will discuss the relationship between the private and public in Henry V and will examine the theory of the Kings Two Bodies as well as relate some extracts from Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ to the Kings behaviours and actions. Furthermore, the essay will explore the key scenes in which the king adopts his role as a politician both publicly and privately which creates the illusion of the perfect monarch and argue that whilst he was aware of the sacrifices he had to endure, his actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.

The Kings Two Bodies derived from the English jurists of the Tudor and defined the King as having both the body politic and the body natural. According to the theory, the body politic describes the king as an eternal entity; his body will not age or weaken. The king cannot do wrong or even think wrongly, therefore, the king has no weaknesses. In addition, the king is described as superhuman and invisible therefore sees and hears everything. The body natural is polar opposite of this and is subject to all the flaws of the average person such as old age, weakness, corruption and fallibility.[2] Shakespeare used both aspects of this theory in Henry V in order to create the impression of the perfect king. Katrotowicz explains that the kings ‘capacity to take in the body natural is not confounded by the body politic, but remains still.’ (p.12). The evidence in this essay will display how Henry V was fully aware of his body natural yet his actions were purely that of the body politic; maintaining that his relationship between the public and private was merely an act which fulfilled his role as the monarch.

Salamon suggested that ‘the private/ public polarity is somewhat less obvious, taking the form by and large, of a unifying structural concept.’[3] This was an intentional tactic by Shakespeare who chose to exemplify the King as a compassionate leader. Henry underplayed his ceremonial role when it was beneficial to blend in with his public and he was able to exaggerate the spectacular when he needed to exude the body politic.

The Shakespearian audience would have known the former king as Prince Hal from the tetralogy. He was unruly, his friends were thieves, he gambled and drank with commoners. It would, therefore, have shocked the audience that Price Hal could adopt his kingship so completely. For this reason, when Henry V flits from public to private, the audience is not surprised. Rabkin poses the question, ‘Can political resourcefulness be combined with qualities more like those of an audience as it sees itself?’ (p.281). Shakespeare’s effective transformation of Prince Hal to Henry V leaves no doubt that this is possible.

The transformation of Henry V is glorified by Canterbury who, in a conversation with Ely, establishes that the new king has fully adopted the body politic;

The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment,

Consideration like an angel came

And whipped th’offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise

T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.[4]

Canterbury described the transformation of Henry as a death of his former private self, this allowed his body to become a paradise in order to become god’s representative on earth. However, unknown to his council, the sudden change in Henry was always planned. According to Paris, Prince Hal’s behaviour in Henry 1V part two may have been a moral education for him. By associating himself with commoners he was able to increase his skills in dealing with a range of different people and by stooping so slow, he was able to achieve the grand effect of transformation he was looking for.[5] Shakespeare’s depiction of Prince Hal made his illusion of the perfect King in Henry V more accessible by exposing him as a private citizen. However; Prince Hal openly admits that his persona as a drunken thief and gambler is a deliberate and calculated act;

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wondered at

By breaking through the foul and ugly mist

Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.[6]

This admittance from Prince Hal suggests that he is less comfortable with the body natural and will become himself when he adopts the body politic. For Rabkin, Shakespeare’s portrayal of Prince Hal is deceptive, ‘the day has had to come when Hal, no longer able to live in two worlds, would be required to make his choice, and the Prince has had to expel from his life the very qualities that made him better than his father.’ (p.285) Prince Hal however, made his decision long before his kingship; his qualities were fabricated in order to assume a private persona which died the instant his father did.

When Henry V decided to invade France it is unclear whether the King believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne. Henry’s decision, however, may have been personally motivated due to his dying father’s suggestion that Henry should busy the minds of his public with foreign wars in order for them to forget the way in which he stole the crown from the former King Richard. It could be said that he did it to confirm his tyranny over his subjects.[7] Machiavelli states that it is ‘necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity.’ [8] Shakespeare hoped that by presenting the morality in Henry in his previous plays that the audience would be convinced that he is torn between his public job and his duty to protect his citizens.

If Shakespeare succeeded in convincing his audience of the Kings morality, there must have been an element of doubt when the chorus asked the audience to imagine the grand spectacle of the ship at Hampton pier. The elaborate spectacle served to overshadow the England that was left behind ‘Guarded with grandsires, babies and old women.’, (King Henry V, iii.0.20) It is obvious in this instance that Henry V has little regard for his countries weaker civilians and is motivated by his own agenda. Debord described the value and importance of spectacle as ‘something enormously positive […] the attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.[9] Shakespeare was able to display the disparity between the King’s private and public figures by involving the citizens in ceremony in order to motivate and distract them from the his true intentions. Later, the King declines the use of spectacle when after defeating the French, he has the opportunity upon his return to England to meet his public with a grand ceremony, yet he chooses not to do so. This action was an effective way of making the commoners feel that there was no public and private divide between themselves and the monarch.

Spectacle was also presented in Henry V in the form of speech. Henry V was able to use his skills as a public speaker to ensure his army felt equal to himself;

And you good yeomen,

Whose limbs are made in England, show us here

The mettle of your pasture; let us swear

That you are worth your breeding which I doubt


For there is none of you so mean and base

That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. (King Henry V, iii.i.25-30)

It is this intertwining of the public and the private that made Henry V such a good politician and increased his power as a monarch.

Shakespeare exemplifies the morality in Henry V prior to the final battle, when he has to muster a masterful speech to prevent his army from being defeated;

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It earns me not if men my garments wear:

Such outward things dwell not in my desires. (King Henry V iv.3.24-27)

Henry dismisses his position of monarch in this scene and the triviality of his royal garments; it is a cunning speech which deceives his soldiers into assuming that he is the body natural and that he sees no difference between himself and his subjects. Henry goes further than this by announcing, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he, today that sheds blood with me Shall be my brother.’(King Henry V, vi.3.61-62) Henry V is aware at this point that he has to combine the private and the public in order to gain loyalty from his soldiers and by treating them as brothers he gains their respect. Machiavelli wrote, ‘a prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty’ (p.2). Shakespeare used this approach to demonstrate the effectiveness of personal persuasion for political necessity.

On the eve of the final battle, Henry delves into the private world and disguises himself as a commoner. In discussion with soldiers Williams and Bates, he tells them, ‘I think the king is but a man, as am I […] all his senses have human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. […] by showing it, should dishearten his army.’ (King Henry V iv.i.102-112) The response from the soldiers is that of doubt, they mistrust his reasons for going to war and describe the implications that the King will have to face from his people if they are defeated. It is at this point that Henry diverts any blame or wrongdoing, ‘Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own’ (King Henry V, iv.i.176-177) It should be noted that when Henry is speaking as a commoner his dialect changes from his usual verse to prose, the style of language used by the common citizens. This highlights the variation of private and public within Henry.

What Shakespeare has produced in this scene is the body politic trying to convince his soldiers that beneath the spectacle of the king is a person merely doing a job. This scene, although mischievous, displays the King as his true self. Henry V is aware that in order to effectively perform his role as monarch he must supress the body natural yet display it to his advantage. According to Machiavelli, ‘it is necessary to know how to disguise this characteristic and to be a great pretender’ (p.4).

It is only when the King is alone that he fully allows his personal thoughts to be presented;

What infinite heart’s ease

Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!

And what have kings that privates have not too,

Save ceremony, save general ceremony? (King Henry V, iv.i.233-237)

Are though aught else but place, degree and form,

Creating awe and fear in other men,

Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,

Than they in fearing? (King Henry V, iv.i.243-246)

By allowing the audience to indulge in Henry’s soliloquy, Shakespeare hoped to provoke a sense of empathy towards the King. This enabled him to fulfil his aspiration of presenting Henry V as the perfect monarch. Henry is, however, aware of the sacrifices he has had to make and this private moment is reserved only for himself and the audience.

Shakespeare’s ability to humanise the King enabled his acts of cruelty towards his friends to be digested more easily. In order for Henry to fulfil his public duty, he was forced to sacrifice his private inclinations and banish those he loved. At the end of Henry 1V, Henry publicly banished and humiliated his friend Falstaff in order to display his body politic. Furthermore, in Henry V the King ordered the death of his friend Scrope, who conspired to kill him. In addition, his friend Bardolph was sentenced to death for stealing from a church. These acts display Henry’s ability to uphold the law and disregard his former private life in order to be a sincere monarch.

In this paper I  discussed The Kings Two Bodies and how Shakespeare used this theory to explore the relationship between the private and public in Henry V. In doing so he was able to create an illusion that allowed the audience to view the King with two different interpretations, one as a well-rounded king and the other as a crafty politician whose actions were deliberate and calculated. In addition, I incorporated some extracts from The Prince which Shakespeare used as a comparison to King Henry. In order to explore the relationship between the private and public, I described the character of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s previous plays which allowed the audience to feel empathy for King Henry’s actions. Furthermore, I discussed Henry V’s transformation from a private citizen to a public monarch and the challenges he faced when motivating his people to fight the war in France with him. As a result, I confirmed that Shakespeare integrated the private and public within Henry V which revealed that Henry’s actions were for the purpose of his kingship only.


[1] Norman Rabkin, ‘Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V: Shakespeare’s Quarterly, 28 (1977) ,279296 (p. 280)
[2] Ernst Hartwig Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1957)
[3]Brownell Salomon, ‘Thematic Contraries and theDramaturgy of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly,31 (1980), 343356 (p.345)
[4] William Shakespeare, King Henry V, ed T.W. Craik (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995) i.i.25-30
[5] Bernard J. Paris, Character as a subversive force in Shakespeare: The history and Roman Plays (USA: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), p.80
[6] William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, (New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2001), i.2.201-221
[7] Erasmus, The ‘Adages’ of Erumus, ed, Margaret Mann Philips (Cambridge: CUP, 1964), p.349
[8]Nicolo Macheavelli, Extracts from The Prince, (1513) [accessed 03 December 2013] p.1
[9] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Paris: Editions Buchet-Chastel Libre, 1967), p.3

The Role of the Cross-Dressing Male in Literature For Children.


The role of the cross-dressing male in literature for children serves to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them.  In order for the genre of cross-dressing to exist, however, the implied reader must already live in a society where dress plays a significant part in gender recognition and is generally practised as a social norm. Transsexual activist Nancy Nangeroni quoted that ‘It is not gender which causes problems; rather it is the imposition of gender on an individual by another.’[1]  Due to the socialisation of gender in Western societies, the cross-dressing male in literature for children is treated as the ‘other’. By discussing David Walliams’s novel The Boy in the Dress in comparison to Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will identify the key issues surrounding the cross-dressing male in literature for children such as masculine reinforcement, sexuality, humour, and gender performance.

Written in 2008, Walliams offers an original critique of the male child cross-dresser in his novel The Boy in the Dress by addressing the way that clothing can create ‘otherness’. The opening statement of the novel is ambiguous, ‘Dennis was different.’[2] This statement not only poses the question of what or who is Dennis different from but also puts Dennis into the category of ‘other’. The narrator proceeds by telling the reader that ‘When [Dennis] looked in the mirror he saw an ordinary twelve-year-old boy,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). This implies that Dennis is not ‘different’ because of his appearance but rather because ‘he felt different- his thoughts were full of colour and poetry, though his life could be very boring’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.11). In this quotation, the italicised ‘felt’ in addition to his thoughts of colour and poetry not only demonstrate Dennis’s aesthetic view of the world but also an unconventional representation of the traditional masculine expression. Social theorist Victor J. Seidler suggests that ‘expressing emotions allows men to connect to an aspect of their subjectivity that traditional forms of masculinity have denied them.’ [3] Walliams is demonstrating that Dennis is aware that he deviates from the stereotypical Westernised idea of masculinity and therefore, feels different.  

Masculinity in The Boy in the Dress, suppresses the protagonist’s subjective self. Walliams demonstrates this by exploring masculine reinforcement within the child’s family. When Dennis’s mother leaves home, his father makes a rule of ‘No crying. And worst of all- no hugging, (The Boy in the Dress, p.16). For Dennis, his father’s lack of emotion is a result of depression, (The boy in the Dress, p15). Fischer suggests that

men hardly disclose their personal feelings, and tend to conceal the expression of emotions like fear, sadness, shame, and guilt. This can be understood as a strategy to boost conventional masculinity.[4]

By repressing his feelings, Dennis’s father reinforces his masculinity to the detriment of his sons. The repercussions of his behaviour are installed in Dennis’s brother who tells that protagonist that, ‘Only girls cry,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.17). Walliams demonstrates the effects that masculine reinforcement has on Dennis’s freedom of choice. When the protagonist is encouraged to try on Lisa’s dress, ‘he imagines for a moment what he would look like wearing it, but then told himself to stop being silly, (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). Identifying his discomfort, Lisa reassures him by saying she ‘love[s] putting on pretty dresses. I bet some boys would like it too. It’s no big deal,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83). This contemporary reaction to cross-dressing is a result of the ‘differences [that] have been found in the perceptions of men and women towards transgender behaviours and people. In general, women are more tolerant.’ [5]  Dennis however, is torn between what he desires and how he has been taught to behave, ‘Dennis’s heart was beating really fast- he wanted to say “yes” but he couldn’t,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.83-84). Walliams criticises the Western construction of masculinity by showing Dennis’s oppression due to the masculine reinforcement he receives at home.

Unlike Walliams’s criticism of masculinity, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908 promotes masculinity in order to reinforce Western gender norms. The character of Toad is represented as a carefree independent and wealthy animal with a disregard for societal rules. Following his imprisonment for joyriding, Toad’s female prison guard suggests that he dresses as a washerwoman to escape, explaining that ‘You’re very alike in many respects – particularly about the figure,’ [6] The character’s genderless shape allows him the ability to disguise himself. Dress for Toad is one of the ways that he can outwardly expose his masculinity in addition to gender performance and reputation.   It is for this reason that he is delighted when the original washerwoman suggests she should be tied and up and gagged before he escapes as she wants to keep her employment, ‘It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished, (The Wind in the Willows, p.80).  The word desperate in conjunction with dangerous reasserts Toads masculinity as he is proving not only that his cross-dressing is a necessary deviance but one that enhances his power. Moreover, whilst the cross-dressing incident is presented as humorous, ‘Toad’s behaviour simply reinforces the normative gender binary rather than engaging with the subversive function of the carnivalesque.’[7]  For Toad, cross-dressing is a way for him to misbehave and divert attention from his true masculine self and as a result, gender binary is reinforced.

Gender performance is a key trope in male cross-dressing literature and highlights preconceived assumptions of gender roles. In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the United Kingdom in 1884, the protagonist is encouraged to wear women’s clothing in order to obtain information. Huckleberry’s friend Jim suggests that Huckleberry ‘put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl?’[8] In this instance, the act of cross-dressing is a fun experience and supplemented by an illustration by E. W. Kemble. This shows Jim kneeling down behind Huckleberry and laughing, whilst Huckleberry looks over his shoulder grinning and posing in a feminine manner. Flannigan suggests that

male cross-dressing is used for comedic purposes. The male cross-dresser, adored in feminine apparel worn in such an inexpert manner that his true sex remains no secret is a well-established comedic strategy,’ (Flannigan, p.135).

Flannigan’s suggestion demonstrates the reaction that the cross-dressing male has on its audience but fails to address the problematic response. In order for the act of cross-dressing to be deemed as comedic, the implied reader must already assume that the male character is acting incorrectly according to his perceived gender role. Walliams identifies this problem in The Boy in the Dress, by raising the issue of female inequality and the difficulty of femininity. Lisa suggests to Dennis that it’s ‘Not easy being a girl is it?’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.124). Furthermore, cross-dressing Dennis discovers the difficulty of being a girl:

Remember to cross your legs when you are wearing a dress, and most importantly, Don’t catch the boys’ eyes as you may be more attractive than you thought! (The Boy in the Dress, p.138).

In the above quotation, Walliams explores some of the rules of femininity. Not only is he discussing the female etiquette of ‘cross[ing] your legs’ but also the ways in which girls are sexualised by boys. The exclamation at the close of the quote illustrates male dominance, as it is the female who must divert her eyes from the male. Moreover, when Dennis’s father asks his son if he enjoys wearing a dress, Dennis replies, ‘Well, yes, Dad. It’s just…fun,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.167). The pause before ‘fun’ suggests that the protagonist is searching for the correct word that will console his father. Walliams is, however, criticising the way in which cross-dressing in literature for children is perceived as humorous. For Dennis, cross-dressing allows him the happiness that he normally suppresses whilst in his conventional male role, ‘He felt so happy he wanted to dance,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.100). This then raises the question ‘why are girls allowed to wear dresses and boys aren’t? It doesn’t make sense,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.175).  Dennis can see how illogical the typical Westernised view of cross-dressing is.

Sexual orientation is often explored in literature for children when a cross-dressing male is a main character.  In Terence Blacker’s Boy2Girl, written in 2004, Sam Lopez, is persuaded to cross-dress as part of an initiation into the Shed gang. The gang decide that Sam should go to his new school wearing girl’s clothes for five days. The novel is written with first person multiple narrators with the exclusion of the protagonist. This immediately demonstrates Sam’s lack of individuality. His first reaction demonstrates a common reaction to male cross-dressing, “You want me to be some kind of fruit?”[9]  Fruit or fruitcake is a common slang word that refers to a homosexual. [10] This association derives from the Victorian fin de siècle when ‘widespread contemporary fear[s] that perversion and deviation [from gender norms were] agents of degeneration.’[11]

This notion is also identified by Walliams in The Boy in the Dress when Dennis is caught by his Head Teacher wearing the orange sequined dress in school. The Head Master expels the boy and tells him ‘I am not having a degenerate like you in my school’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.163). Cross-dressing is often thought of as sexually motivated.  ‘Male cross-dressing is perceived as inherently sexual in nature (either in a fetishistic sense or in a homosexual context),’ (Flannigan, p.49). Sam’s reaction to cross-dressing in Boy2Girl demonstrates that the remnants of Victorian fear still remain. Similarly, in The Boy in the Dress, Dennis’s brother suggests that boys who read girls magazines are ‘Woofters!’(The Boy in the Dress, p.56), which is another popular term to describe the homosexual man. Whilst cross-dressing is identified as deviant behaviour in Walliams’s novel, Harrison suggests that cross-dressing can be referred to as:

“Gender Deviance” [which] simply refers to an individual who falls outside of our ordinary everyday understanding of male/masculine and female/feminine.’[12]

This critique raises the question of how the male child cross-dresser can be legitimately deemed as deviant when he is still in the early learning stages of his life and may not be fully aware of the Western gender ideology.

Walliams addresses gender ideology in childhood as problematic. In The Boy in the Dress, Dennis becomes bored due to his confinement within a socially constructed gender role. The word boring is mentioned eleven times throughout the novel and cross-dressing allows him to ‘feel like he [doesn’t] have to be boring Dennis living his boring life anymore’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  This quotation illustrates the stifling effect that conformity has over the protagonist. Cross-dressing gives him a feeling of liberty. Walliams demonstrates this freedom through a change in narrative voice, from the third person to first, ‘I can be whoever I want to be,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.107).  The ‘I’, allows the character independent thought, whilst the repetition of ‘be’ gives him freedom of choice and finally ‘whoever’ is gender neutral.  The action of cross-dressing gives Dennis insight into life without gender conformity and he tells ‘Lisa I want to thank you for opening my eyes’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.207). Walliams is teaching the reader that gender should not be defined by what one wears.

The idea of gender neutrality is found in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author demonstrates Huckleberry’s non-conformity due to his preference of wearing no clothes and his inability to accept and conform to civilisation:

We was always naked, day and night,[…] the new clothes Buck’s folks made for me was too good to be comfortable, and besides I didn’t go much on clothes, nohow, (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Para.3 of Chapter 19).

In the above quotation, Twain demonstrates Huckleberry’s relaxed nature and how he is comfortable in himself without the stifling effects of clothing. In addition, the author points out that adults are a child’s source of clothing, therefore limiting their independence. Huckleberry’s nakedness makes him gender neutral as opposed to conforming to socially constructed masculinity.

Cross-dressing in literature for children is often used to either reinforce societal gender norms or criticise them. Walliams, however, demonstrates that cross-dressing simply means a person who does not conform to Western dress codes. Dennis identifies this in his Sikh friend because he is ‘the only one who [wears] a patka,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Dennis asks, ‘Do you feel different Darvesh?’(The boy in the Dress, p.63). The emphasis on the italicised ‘you’ alters the tone of the question suggesting that Dennis is aware of segregation due social conformity of dress. Darvesh’s reply allows Walliams to highlight how otherness is socially constructed; ‘When mum took me to India at Christmas to visit Grandma I didn’t at all. All the Sikh boys are wearing them,’ (The Boy in the Dress, p.63). Walliams is demonstrating how alienating clothing can be for children, not only in gender but also within a cultural context.

Walliams, at the end of The Boy in the Dress, addresses exclusion or ‘othering’ due to societal control over children’s dress. In order to include Dennis in the football match after his exclusion from school, the full football team dress in women’s clothing. Suddenly ‘There was a huge cheer from the crowd’, (The Boy in the Dress, p.192). Walliams normalises the act of cross-dressing to demonstrate that exclusion due to gender or cultural dress is unnecessary. The final message in the novel serves to convince the reader that clothes are irrelevant to gender;  Dennis notices a red jacket coming towards him ‘And then the red jacket turned into a man,’(The Boy in the Dress, p.196).This defies the contemporary Western ideology of gender binary through dress.

I found that many of the authors wanted to demonstrate the effects of socially constructed gender. In The Boy in the Dress, this meant that the protagonist felt alienated through his family’s masculine reinforcement. Both Walliams’s novel and Blacker’s Boy2Girl, highlight the discrimination towards the cross-dressing male, which illustrates an out of date notion of homosexuality being linked to dress. Twain aimed to deconstruct the gender binary by presenting a character that was not affected by gendered clothing, whilst Grahame used the act of cross-dressing to reinforce gender binaries. Humour was a trope in all of the novels which was a result of inadequate gender performance, however, this highlighted that gender is socially constructed and therefore, unnatural. Not only did Walliams attempt to deconstruct the notion of the gender binary and demonstrate how emotions are similarly gendered, he also encouraged his reader to believe that clothing is irrelevant to gender. The originality of Walliam’s novel arises from his exploration of feelings surrounding gender and gendered dress and how these restrict individual freedom and result in segregation.


Adams James Eli and Millar Andrew H, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996)

Blacker, Terence, Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004)

Bolich, G.G, PhD. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007)

Fischer, Agneta, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Flanagan, Victoria, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Grahame, Kenneth, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908)

Harrison, Kelby, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013)

Nangeroni, Nancy, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film, ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011)

Sedler, Victor J. in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)

Steen, Edwin B. and Price, James. H, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Constable and Company, 1988)

Twain, Mark, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company)

Walliams, David, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008)

[1] Nancy Nangeroni, in Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film , ed. by Victoria Flanagan (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.258.
[2] Davis Walliams, The Boy in the Dress (London: Harper Collins, 2008), p.11.
[3] Victor J. Sedler in The New Politics of Masculinity: Men Power and Resistance ed. Fidelma Ashe (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), p.111.
[4] Agneta Fischer, Gender and Emotion: Social Psychological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.173.
[5] G.G. Bolich, Ph.D. Today’s Transgender Realities: Crossdressing in Context (North Carolina: Psyche’s Press, 2007), p.271.
[6] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: HarperCollins Publisher, 1908), p.79-80.
[7] Victoria Flanagan, Into the Closet: Cross Dressing and the Gendered Body in Children’s Literature and Film (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2011), p.143.
[8] Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Charles L. Webster and Company), para. 9 of Chapter 10.
[9] Terence Blacker Boy2Girl (Oxford: Macmillan Children’s Books, 2004), p.44.
[10] Edwin B. Steen and James H.Price, Human Sex and Sexuality (London: Costable and Company, 1988), p.297.
[11] James Eli Adams and Andrew H. Millar, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (U.S.A: Indiana University Press, 1996), p.97.
[12] Kelby Harrison, Sexual Deceit: The Ethics of Passing (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), p.9.