8 September 2016
Fear No More: Shakespeare in Mrs. Dalloway
In her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf takes the reader through the winding, shifting, and wandering view of several different character’s viewpoints. Each character, like all of us, has layer upon layer of thought going on at any given time. As I followed the narration from person to person, small things began to reveal more and more about each character. Although there are so many things going on between characters, I found Woolf’s allusions to Shakespeare’s work in the novel were very interesting. I initially noticed that Clarissa and Septimus demonstrate an understanding of poetry that other characters did not. Woolf is able to connect the souls of these two seemingly different characters using Shakespeare’s poetry. She also, however, uses it as a way to demonstrate a contrast between these two characters, and others who represent the traditional British “carry on” mentality.
In a world where English citizens are expected to carry on in a hardened and stoic state, poetry provides Clarissa a more realistic and comforting way to get through it all. Woolf first demonstrates this tactic while Clarissa reads several lines from Cymbeline from a shop window. The lines “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun/ Nor the furious winter’s rages” are read directly after Clarissa begins to ponder the dark shadow that the war has casted over England, and the “well of tears” that each person has hidden inside of them despite also having a “perfectly upright and stoical bearing” (9). Shakespeare’s words affect her greatly as she considers the vast amount of sorrow everyone holds on to. The lines from Cymbeline reference a funeral hymn in which death frees the living from the pain of life. In this post war state, death’s beckoning seems almost more appealing than living in perpetual suppressed anxiety and sadness. Perhaps the next most important Shakespeare reference comes after the death of Septimus.
Upon hearing about Septimus’ death, Clarissa is greatly moved. She realizes that Septimus has freed himself from the anguishes of life. She finds that she in fact is very much like this soldier that she never knew. His death makes her feel in a way that she has never felt before, which greatly excites her. His willingness to “throw it away” makes her “feel the beauty, made her feel the fun” (182). Septimus’ death allows Clarissa to be free. She immediately recites the same line from Cymbeline, “Fear no more,” and feels a weight lifted off her shoulders. Septimus himself refused to be subjected to the societal pressures of the time period that advocated the repression of emotion.
As a contrast to Clarissa and Septimus, Woolf also provides other characters reactions to Shakespeare’s poetry. Richard Dalloway, her husband, is a prime example. Richard does not connect to poetry whatsoever. His inability to appreciate poetry reveals much about him, mostly his inability to properly process his own emotions. Richard aligns with the traditional British mentality, that is, to repress them altogether.
This novel reveals the problems that came with this emotionally suppressive society. Whether it was PTSD, sadness, fear, or anything else, Woolf understood that the old British ways were not sufficient. People were hurting, and needed to process their grief to be able to carry on, rather than suppress it. Woolf’s use of Shakespeare was masterful in my opinion, because it powerfully invokes every emotion needed to get her point across, especially to a British audience.
Woolf, Virginia, and Bonnie Kime Scott. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando, FL, Harcourt, 2005.
Question #1: I mentioned allusions to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, but there are many more than just this. What other allusions to Shakespeare (or any other poet/writer) are in this novel, and why are they important? How does Woolf use these references?
Question #2: I mentioned above that Clarissa is greatly changed by Septimus, and that the two share a connection through poetry. In what other ways are these two connected, or perhaps even doubled?
Question #3: In what other ways does Woolf provide criticism of the traditional ways of British suppression?