Find a problem and solve it. That was the final assignment for my favorite class from my first semester as a declared English major. I already had 7 semesters of college courses under my belt, but that didn’t mean I should breeze through the final for this pre-req class. This was a 200-level English course on British authors, and the final paper only had to be 5 pages. Not wanting to waste an opportunity to dig as far as I could and learn as much as I could, even from “just” a 200-level class, I came up with a fantastic question to answer. What would have happened if the Creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had found the complete works of Shakespeare instead of Paradise Lost. And for that matter, what would have happened if the outsider from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had read Paradise Lost instead of W.S.’s complete works? You see, the problem that I had to solve was writing about any of these works, all of which we read in class, in a fresh, new way that no one else had thought of yet. This was quite a challenge since I was dealing with some of the most-read and most-analyzed works of literature in history, and even more of a problem since I only had 5-7 pages to work in. This is what I came up with. (Please pardon any incorrect MLA format, I didn’t know it at the time, and don’t have time to fix it now.)
Swapping the Text within a Text for a Different Text to Change Context
The text within a text is a great literary technique that can significantly alter interpretations of a story for readers in the know. Shakespeare’s Hamlet used meta-text in the famous “Mouse Trap” scene to prove Claudius’s guilt of murdering his brother. The play within the play was the thing wherein Hamlet caught the conscience of the king (2.2.594) and thus was able to avenge his father on solid grounds. The use of meta-text also inspires readers not in the know to keep reading by looking up referenced books, just as liner notes in a CD might inspire a music fan to broaden their horizons. Similarly, a student who reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World will likely feel driven to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare to gain a full understanding of the novels, although they can certainly be appreciated independently. The protagonists of Shelley and Huxley’s texts both model their philosophies on the literature and allow it to dictate their actions throughout the novels, often times referring directly to the texts. After reading both Huxley’s and Shelley’s works, one might be left to wonder what would happen if the protagonists found each other’s books instead. Would John, the outsider in Brave New World, seek vengeance on his creator/father the Director when he enters the New World as Satan did in Eden? Would Lenina’s attempted seduction of John end differently? For Frankenstein’s Creature, which scenario would be more affected by reading The Complete Works instead of Paradise Lost; his quest for a mate or his quest for vengeance?
The Creature in Frankenstein is alone in the world and the only one of his kind. He is abandoned by his creator, rejected by his teachers and shunned by the world for his disfigurement. When he reads Adam’s request to God for a mate in Paradise Lost he assumes that his creator will fulfill the same request as God did for Adam. Adam argues, “But with me/I see not who partakes. In solitude/What happiness? Who can enjoy alone/Or all enjoying what contentment find? (8.363-368)” The Creature also has these feelings of solitude and loneliness. He tells Victor, “I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create. (Shelley, 128)” Relating to Adam, the Creature believes having a mate to love is the only route to happiness.
If the Creature considered Shakespeare’s work he might still desire a mate, especially after reading the love sonnets and comedies, but his reaction to her might not deliver the happiness he expects. Perhaps King Lear’s mad rant about women would have the same effect on the Creature that it did on John in Brave New World, who quoted Lear after a woman tried to seduce him with misguided professions of affection. After King Lear’s daughters profess their love to their father then turn their backs on him he rants, “Down from the waist they are centaurs/Though women all above./But to the girdle do the gods inherit;/Beneath is all the fiend’s. (4.6.121-125)” John repeats these lines when he feels he is wronged by Lenina’s advances. He also quotes Othello’s lament, “O thou weed/Who art so lovely fair and smell’st so sweet/That the sense aches at thee,/Would thou hadst never been born! (4.2.67-70)” He then abuses her and threatens to murder her as he chases her to a locked bathroom. If Othello’s tragic tale of “one that loved not wisely but too well (5.2.349),” proves anything, it’s that love can drive one to madness, not happiness, as John discovers. Like John, the Creature would not find happiness in love if he read Shakespeare, or if the mate is as loose as Lenina and as unfaithful as Desdemona appears.
Upon reading Shakespeare, the Creature would see that power is what makes a man, which is all he wants to be. Lady Macbeth says to her husband when urging him to kill and usurp the king, “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/And to be more than what you were, you would/Be so much more the man. (1.7.49-51)”. Manhood is all John wants after spending time among the soma-addicted zombie-like population of England. He sees them swarming for their daily soma rations and recalls Jacques’ speech from As You Like It. Jacques says “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/[…] At first the infant/Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. (2.7.139-143)” John sees the produced masses as halted in their infancy and asks them, “Don’t you want to be free and men? Don’t you even understand what manhood and freedom are? (Huxley, 193). The Creature would agree with John because he wants only to be free and a man accepted in the society that shuns him as soon as they see him. His fulfillment would no longer come from a mate or revenge, but rather from freedom and manhood, as it did for John.
Perhaps the Creature has read Shakespeare. Some of his speeches and actions echo parts of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a point to Victor during his narrative about the nature of men after learning the history of the spread of empires. He asks Victor, “Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of the noble and godlike. (Shelley, 109)” This echoes Hamlet’s lament to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet wonders, “What a piece of work is man, how noble in/reason […] in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god (2.2.301-304).” Yet then Hamlet states that because of man’s actions, “Man delights me not (2.2.306).” Like Hamlet, the Creature “turned away with disgust and loathing (Shelley, 109)” because of the nature of the world. Like John, who regurgitates Shakespeare quotes as if he had undergone hypnopædia, the Creature finds his own responses to life coming from Shakespeare, the great “propaganda technician. (Huxley, 168)”
Further proof that the Creature has read Shakespeare is shown by his threat to Victor that, “I will be with you on your wedding-night (Shelley, 147).” Juliet makes a similar comment when a marriage to someone other than her beloved Romeo is proposed. She pleads to have her marriage delayed and threatens, “Or, if you do not, make the bridal bed/In that dim monument where Tybalt lies, (4.5.202-203)” insinuating that marriage would lead to her immediate death. Shelley may have found inspiration for these actions from Shakespeare and also from her friend Polidori who sentenced a character “to the tomb of the Capulets (Shelley, 22)” during the ghost story writing contest that generated Frankenstein. When Victor’s wedding night comes, Shelley turns Juliet’s idea into a reality and the Creature kills Elizabeth. He does this much in the same way that Othello kills Desdemona, suffocating her by strangulation in her wedding bed. Though Shelley’s Creature is driven primarily by Paradise Lost, which leads him down a path of vengeance, her knowledge of Shakespeare’s bloodlust and drama are evident in his actions as well.
In contrast, if Huxley’s savage read Paradise Lost instead of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, he would be driven towards vengeance. Like Satan, John is an outsider in two lands. Satan is abolished from Heaven and an intruder in Eden. John is a foreigner in Malpais and a savage in the New World. Exclusion, coupled with the influence of Paradise Lost, leads Frankenstein’s Creature to bitterness. Alone, he says, “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect. (Shelley, 116)” Because of these differences he “considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose within me. (117)” This sense of detachment from the rest of the world would undoubtedly drive John down the same path as the Creature. With this inspiration, John would seek revenge on the society whose mores make it impossible for Linda to return to civilization with her baby and thus condemn John to a childhood full of ridicule and pain.
John would probably resist Lenina’s attempts at seducing him regardless of what text influences his decision. If it was Paradise Lost, his logic may have had a different reasoning. When Lenina offers herself to John he fears becoming weak because of female influence and recalls a cautionary quote from Shakespeare. He thinks, “The singing, thundering, magical words made her seem doubly dangerous, doubly alluring. Soft, soft, but how piercing! boring and drilling into reason, tunneling through resolution. (Huxley 175-176)” Then he recalls Prospero’s command to Ferdinand not to take husbandly rights from Miranda until after marriage. Shakespeare’s influence drives John towards chastity out of caution and cultural laws not to have sex before marriage. Alternately, Milton’s influence makes sex entirely unappealing. Lustful sex is a direct result of sin after Adam and Eve taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. As soon as Adam swallows the last of the fruit, “Carnal desire [is] inflame[ed]. He on Eve/Began to cast lascivious eyes, she on him/As wantonly repaid: in lust they burn. (9.1013-1016). Adam and Eve’s immediate recognition of their sin made them feel “as Samson […] shorn of his strength, they destitute and bare/Of all their virtue. Silent and in face/Confounded long they sat as stricken mute. (9.1060-1064).” Because of sin, Adam is emasculated as a weakened warrior. He and Eve are vulnerable and show disbelief at their shame. John, as an impressionable reader, would take these uncomfortable sentiments and may avoid sex altogether.
Both Paradise Lost and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare are huge influences on culture and literature, even centuries after they were written. Both Brave New World and Frankenstein rely heavily on these texts in various ways and have become culturally important in their own right. It is fun to play around with which texts influence each other and where. In doing so, it is discovered that Paradise Lost seems to have more affect on morals and Shakespeare has more influence on human emotions and desires. Reading Milton drives the Creature on a quest for normalcy in the form of a mate. Reading Shakespeare might have him find fulfillment from manhood instead, which unfortunately does not bode well for John in Brave New World. Paradise Lost might have John abstain from sex because Milton’s work implies there is something inherently wrong with the act, whereas Shakespeare tempts John to think there is something wrong with Lenina (that impudent strumpet) and sends him into a passionate rage. Reading Shakespeare gives John awestruck hope at the prospect of going to a “brave new world” but reading Milton’s epic might leave him bitter and angry at everyone he meets, like the Creature who turned evil after being rejected. Switching out the texts does not change the major conflict in both books, which is the shunning of an outsider by society at large. Exile led both protagonists to murder; the Creature murdered others and John took his own life. Perhaps if they had read each other’s books, the Creature would have committed suicide and John would have gone on the killing spree. Alas, these are the presumptions we will never know because all of the authors in question are gone and their works are complete.