By Law Zhu Jun and Raeesah Hayatudin
LZJ: Hello readers! Welcome to another review on our literary obsessions! In this article, we will be sharing our love of literary classics such as Dostoevsky and Shakespeare’s works. If you don’t already know, both Raeesah and I are avid readers of the classics. Although we’re not majoring in literature, we have a lot of thoughts to share and to persuade you to read the books we love!
RH: We’d never let our lack of formal training curb our love of literature! Now, we’re two huge fans of two legends in the literary world: Dostoevsky and Shakespeare. I call them legendary because they’ve established themselves as such big names in literature that they both may as well represent genres on their own. Their individual writing styles, senses of drama and immaculate grasp of their characters are so distinct, you could easily identify a work by Dostoevsky or Shakespeare without being told that they were the authors beforehand. Their works are just that great – just that epic! If you couldn’t sense what big fans we are before this, then we’re letting our true selves blaze in this article. So buckle up, guys, and enjoy the ride as we examine what it takes to make a work epic, with the help of our friends Dostoevsky and Shakespeare!
The Soul of a Book Lies in its Characters
LZJ: An epic book always, always has very unique characters. For an anti-reductionist like me who hates stereotypes and all kinds of modern tropes, I always find assurance when I read Dostoevsky’s works because I know the characters in them are unique. In Crime and Punishment, we are able to explore the depths of Raskolnikov’s mind because of Dostoevsky’s use of ‘stream of consciousness’. He has an uncanny ability to elucidate a character’s thoughts much like you’d expect from a telepathic intrusion of an individual’s thoughts. An example of this is when a drunken man commented on Raskolnikov’s conspicuous hat when he was carrying out his plan to murder Lizaveta Ivanovna.
“‘I knew it,’ he muttered in confusion, ‘I thought so! That’s the worst of all! Why, a stupid thing like this, the most trivial detail might spoil the whole plan. Yes, my hat is too noticeable…. It looks absurd and that makes it noticeable…. With my rags I ought to wear a cap, any sort of old pancake, but not this grotesque thing. Nobody wears such a hat, it would be noticed a mile off, it would be remembered…. What matters is that people would remember it, and that would give them a clue. For this business one should be as little conspicuous as possible…. Trifles, trifles are what matter! Why, it’s just such trifles that always ruin everything….’” (Translation by Jessie Coulson)
This is a cute scene where we see Raskolnikov panicking about his own appearance. It is with such psychological insightful moments that Dostoevsky successfully captures the state of mind of a murderer like Raskolnikov. Yet, to call Raskolnikov a normal murderer would be far-fetched too. He’s a bit of an unusual character for committing a murder based on an idea, instead of a motive. That’s pretty much every character’s struggle in Dostoevsky’s works – a struggle with an idea or a notion. For Raskolnikov, he struggled with the idea of making himself a “Napoleon”, someone above moral concerns. In The Brothers Karamazov, we see Ivan and Smerdyakov’s struggle with a world with or without God. These characters evoked polarising views from various critics about Dostoevsky’s state of mind when writing his books. Some people marvelled at his psychological insight, but others believed that the psychopathological state of his characters reflected his own.
Dostoevsky himself has had near-death experiences before. Having been on the brink of an execution before a last-second reprieve, he’s known what it’s like to be on death’s door. His morbid portrayal of characters like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment and Mitya from The Brothers Karamazov accentuates his life experiences as a man condemned to die. Yet, I personally don’t think these experiences had caused him to be psychologically sick. Dostoevsky’s characters, despite their highly dramatised thoughts and actions, do not necessarily reflect the life of Dostoevsky. It is more likely that they reflect the “battle of thoughts” running in his own mind. For an author with a lot of contradictory thoughts and ideas, Dostoevsky portrays each of his character as taking up one of them. This is most evident in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan was the nihilist who could not reconcile a world of suffering with a merciful God; Alyosha was the optimist who ignored theological arguments in favor of overwhelming love and compassion; and finally Mitya, the man who lusts just as passionately as he loves. The breadth and depth of Dostoevsky’s life experiences is what makes each and every character he portrays come alive. As for the people who think that Dostoevsky was a sick man, they have clearly missed out on the beautiful central messages he embedded in his works. Regardless of whether his characters are believable or not, there is no doubt of the literary brilliance his works exude.
RH: There’s no doubt that Dostoevsky and Shakespeare are among the most skilled at constructing characters by even very high standards. For me personally, beautifully narrated character development is a Number One criteria for a very good book. In the form of questions: are the central characters depicted three-dimensional? Have I been able to relate to them, even love them? Has my attention been captured not only by well-written prose, but also by the emotions the central characters have experienced throughout the novel – by their experiences? Have I been amazed by how far they’ve come, and by how much lies before them? Have I seen more than a glimpse of how much potential they have?
As people, we often say that we want to be the best version of ourselves possible. The definition of the “best version of yourself” varies a lot between individuals depending on your goals and dreams for your own life, but it usually is a holistic idea of a version of yourself who achieves success in professional, personal and spiritual aspects of life. So what does it mean if we say that we want to see the best version of the characters in a novel? I’ve always defined a “best version of a character” as a portrayal so well-crafted that we can truly feel the potential of the character and their raw humanity. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, starring our dear Raskolnikov, he’s accomplished this feat.
With the visceral, constantly shifting, ineffable nature of humanity, capturing the essence of a character in a book is a very difficult task. The well-executed stream of consciousness in Crime and Punishment was Dostoevsky’s tool to flesh Raskolnikov out until he truly seemed like a fully-fledged human being, not just a fictional character buried within paper pages. No matter how bizarre Raskolnikov seemed, whether he was in the grips of his madness, agonizing over the state of the world, or spouting strange ideas about morality, we stayed with him, and we even understood him. We were there the whole time as Raskolnikov battled the demons in his mind and came to realize that submitting to his guilt by going to prison in Siberia was his only true option. We saw Raskolnikov at his worst, and we witnessed his burgeoning transformation into someone we would even be proud to be friends with. We knew that the end of Crime and Punishment was far from the end for Raskolnikov: and that final moment, when Raskolnikov’s hope and humanity shone, was the moment I knew that Crime and Punishment would always be one of my favourite books of all time.
We’ve witnessed Dostoevsky’s talent for detailing character developments in The Brothers Karamazov as well. As we mentioned in our review of The Brothers Karamazov, and as my fellow literary scout reminded us, in his very last novel, Dostoevsky uniquely conceptualized his mental compartmentalizations in the form of characters. While this is very different from the way Raskolnikov was portrayed (and while it sets the characters in The Brothers Karamazov apart as cut from a different cloth than Raskolnikov) we still managed to grasp the journey the characters of The Brothers Karamazov have undertaken and how much they grew since the beginning of the novel. Dostoevsky’s flawlessly chosen cast of characters made The Brothers Karamazov come alive.
While Dostoevsky may be one of my favourite authors for building very strong character developments, the foundation of my appreciation for Shakespeare lies elsewhere (though he, too, is pretty amazing with character developments, obviously). By constructing a cast of characters perfect for each of his dramas, and by designing his plots and choosing his words so carefully, Shakespeare put forward questions about human nature and the workings of the world which still strike chords deep within us even today. It’s analogous to Dostoevsky’s use of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov in the way that each character has a particular, easily defined role to play in their story, and yet each character can stand in their own capacity. It’s not quite like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov is really the only character we get to know very well, due to the nature of how the novel was written. Each set of characters gives each Shakespearean drama its own “flavour” of sorts – I’ve always believed that your favourite Shakespearean drama says something about you as a person because of this. We’ve talked at length about our love of our favourite novels from Dostoevsky – now let me talk about my love of my personal favourite of Shakespeare’s dramas, Macbeth!
Even as a child, I was always attracted to narratives about ambition and power: the chase in order to achieve an ultimate goal, what happens to us once we’ve achieved what we wanted, and how we must transform in order to get to our destination. Everyone knows that Macbeth is a warning about what having too much power can do to you as well as to others. Even older and more renowned than Macbeth in the line of stories about people who wanted too much is the story of Icarus, a Greek mythological figure, which inspired the idiom, “Don’t fly too close to the sun.” As the myth goes, Icarus and his father, a genius craftsman, were trapped within the walls of the Labyrinth, having been imprisoned there by King Minos. Icarus’s father fashioned wings for himself and his son by sealing feathers to a wooden frame using wax so they could fly out of the Labyrinth. Icarus, made overconfident by his own joy of flying, flew too close to the sun against his father’s warnings. When the wax in his wings melted, Icarus tumbled down to the sea and drowned.
Somewhat similar to Icarus’s story, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, spurred by the witches’ prophecies and promises, hungered for too much power. They rushed to seize the opportunity to take the throne by killing King Duncan and they struggled to keep their power through the raging paranoia and guilt they felt. Ultimately, they were their own (and each other’s) downfall. They’re akin to fallen heroes, except that they’re really not heroes at all since they’ve committed murder, several times over for Macbeth. But it was their own desire that brought them so high, and their own inability to deal with their crimes that caused them to fall. While positions of power attained by merit and other humane means might make some shine, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth never really got their chance in the spotlight because they were haunted by what they’d done to get to the top. In other words, they thought all along that the ends would justify the means, and they finally discovered that for them, it did not.
They became frightened of what they would do to keep their position, and by what they had become – Lady Macbeth especially. Her character is one I find very interesting. Along with Ophelia from Hamlet, Portia from Merchant of Venice, Cordelia from King Lear and, of course, Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, she’s among Shakespeare’s most well-known female characters. She’s known by these rather iconic lines, where she persuades Macbeth to act like those around him expect him to, and to perfect a facade of innocence while still keeping in mind their dubious plans, to deflect suspicion from both of them:
“To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t.”
(Act I, Scene V)
From the beginning of the play, between Lady Macbeth and her husband, her intellect and spirit was what kept them together, and they were what kept them on track with their lives and their plans. When Macbeth faltered in his determination to seize power, and when he hesitated to kill King Duncan at the last minute, it was Lady Macbeth who incited him to push forward and proceed as they had planned. When the deed was done, and Macbeth was so shaken by it that he’d carelessly brought the knives he’d used for the murder along with him, it was Lady Macbeth who went back to King Duncan’s chamber to leave the murder weapons there and to “gild the faces of [King Duncan’s] grooms” with blood to make it seem as though it was they who had carried out the crime. But more than her forwardness, what makes Lady Macbeth truly interesting is her ambiguous character. She revives Macbeth’s will to murder King Duncan, but she is unable to do the deed herself because King Duncan resembles her father. She desires power at all costs for herself and for her husband; but just as she is twice as spirited as Macbeth is, she is also twice full of heart. It’s she who falters and falls before Macbeth does, losing herself to her guilty conscience and eventually committing suicide, whereas Macbeth becomes numb, a pale shadow of his former self.
Shakespeare and Dostoevsky both have made the process of character building an art in their own ways. A complete portrait of the main characters in a novel is one of the things I value the most when I read; along with a great plot and well-written prose, it’s a way for a book I enjoyed to graduate from simply being one I liked to one I really loved. I’d call an author successful when he or she manages to make their readers feel what’s felt by characters they’ve encountered in their novel.
The Guilt of a Murderer
LZJ: While Dostoevsky’s characters are more influenced by his spiritual searchings, Shakespeare’s emphasis is on the earthly and concrete. This is evident from his play. A good comparison between Shakespeare and Dostoevsky would be between Macbeth and Crime and Punishment. Both of these literary masterpieces capture the post-murder guilt experienced by the murderers. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov struggled with his inner conscience and drowned himself in anxious pondering over the justifiability of his act; in Macbeth, the ascension of Macbeth by means of his sacrilegious murder came at the cost of losing his sanity as he committed cruelty after cruelty to suppress rumours and secure the kingship of his patriarchal lineage. Both of these characters murdered and dealt with guilt, but the way in which they’ve suffered was different. Raskolnikov, the proud and determined man, had progressive ideas of utilitarianism, but fell prey to a brief moment of moral compromise. He struggled with the fact that his desire to be a ‘Napoleon’ became his own undoing. Macbeth on the other hand, was a man who made up his mind to upset the balance of nature by murdering his own king. However, he was unable to deal with his own fallen nature and he sooner realized that his conscience was fallible.
Between Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky can be said to be the more humanistic author. There are no allusions or symbolisms in Raskolnikov’s expression of guilt. His feverish state was just raw humanity at its finest. One can see the complicated spectrum of emotions interplaying within Raskolnikov’s mind. His struggle with his own moral conscience, his pride in chasing his ideals, his love for his family and Sonya, the shame he felt at disappointing them, the burden of being his family’s only hope et cetera. Raskolnikov’s response to each struggle oscillates rapidly between hiding himself and lashing out at others in response to such emotional burdens. The excerpt below perfectly elucidates Raskolnikov’s feverish state of mind.
“He was not completely unconscious, however, all the time he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious. He remembered a great deal afterwards. Sometimes it seemed as though there were a number of people round him; they wanted to take him away somewhere, there was a great deal of squabbling and discussing about him. Then he would be alone in the room; they had all gone away afraid of him, and only now and then opened the door a crack to look at him; they threatened him, plotted something together, laughed, and mocked at him. He remembered Nastasya often at his bedside; he distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was, and this fretted him, even made him cry. Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that—of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember. He worried and tormented himself trying to remember, moaned, flew into a rage, or sank into awful, intolerable terror. Then he struggled to get up, would have run away, but someone always prevented him by force, and he sank back into impotence and forgetfulness. At last he returned to complete consciousness.” (Translation by Jessie Coulson)
Raskolnikov’s wavy emotions which swing between raging anger and fearful anxiety capture a psychologically realistic side of him. A man resolved to submit himself to justice would have been calm and thoughtful; a man who attained moral freedom akin to Raskolnikov’s conception of Napoleon would have continued his daily routine as if nothing had happened. Yet, Raskolnikov is neither of these two extremes. He is undeniably a human being who was just as flawed as everyone else.
How does Shakespeare differ in portraying Macbeth’s guilt? Was Macbeth less of a human by becoming more of a monster after committing murderous acts in succession after his first murder of the king? Macbeth’s murder wasn’t like Raskolnikov’s commonplace murder. Back in the old days, murdering the king is the equivalent of desecrating God’s anointed one. That’s a serious crime by their standards. Compared to Raskolnikov’s struggle with moral conscience, Macbeth’s struggle was implicitly one against the order of nature. The prophecies revealed by the three witches were essentially symbolisms used to show Macbeth’s relationship with nature. At first, he seemed to gain the favour of nature. He was told that he will only lose if Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill and that no man born of a woman could kill him. However, he soon found out that nature was not on his side, but against him. Shakespeare was not a man struggling with ideological conflicts like Dostoevsky. Macbeth was a play meant as a classic Greek tragedy, not a story about a normal man struggling with a overwhelming crime.
RH: Intense feelings of remorse are a common denominator between Macbeth and Crime and Punishment. These emotions define the characterization of Macbeth and Raskolnikov; they are so prevalent that they seep into Macbeth’s, Lady Macbeth’s and Raskolnikov’s subconsciousness. All three characters were haunted by what they’d done, to such an extent that their guilt crept into their dreams (and days!) and made them see things which weren’t really there. In a notable scene in Act V of Macbeth, a doctor and nurse watched helplessly as Lady Macbeth sleepwalks, holding a candle and sleeptalking mournfully about what she and Macbeth have done:
“Out, damned spot! out, I say!–One: two: why,
then, ’tis time to do’t.–Hell is murky!
The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?–
What, will these hands ne’er be clean?–No more o’
that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with
(Act V, Scene I)
Our minds and bodies are strongly and intrinsically connected – a change in our mood or line of thought can make us feel heavy, weary of life, more clumsy in our step. Major events in our lives can often be pinpointed as the cause of some of our most memorable night dreams. And more often than not, dreams can force us to confront the parts of us that make us feel uneasy or even horrified. Lady Macbeth couldn’t escape from what she’d done while she was awake, no matter how much she tried to pretend all was well, and her subconscious wouldn’t let her forget it either when she laid down at night. Raskolnikov, too, suffered in this way. Although Crime and Punishment is a rather grim book which is – simplistically put – about a murderer, for me, the most terrifying scene in the book was not the murder of the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, as you might expect, but a scene where Raskolnikov has a nightmare before his murder of Alyona Ivanovna. In his nightmare, a child version of himself, accompanied by his father, watches a horse brutally beaten to death by its owner for being unable to work. A group of drunken people had climbed into the cart being dragged along by the incapacitated mare, and her owner became enraged when his horse struggled to obey his commands to “gallop”. He proceeded to thrash the horse to death as the onlookers laughed; the elderly in the audience in Raskolnikov’s dream denounced the horse’s owner as a “devil” and “not a Christian”; and the younger Raskolnikov cried and protested while his father tried to drag him away from the scene.
There are many ways to interpret a dream. But since dreams are the product of our own subconsciousness, one obvious way to look at dreams is to see each part of a dream as representing a part of ourselves. When we wake up from dreams, I think our first reactions are either to go back to sleep, too fuzzy to process them; or we pause for a moment, wondering where they came from. In Raskolnikov’s case, after he’d woken up from his graphic and torturous dream, chilled and drenched with his own perspiration, he said, “Thank God, that was only a dream,” and then he said: “‘Good God! […] Can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open … that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, break the lock, steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood … with the axe… Good God, can it be?”
Several interpretations of Raskolnikov’s dream are that the owner’s beating the horse represents Raskolnikov’s potential for cruelty; the nonchalant reaction of the owner and Raskolnikov’s father to the scene represent the part of Raskolnikov which has become hardened to the hardships in life; and finally, the child’s horrified reaction to the mare’s treatment represent Raskolnikov’s conscience and the part of him which still clings to innocence. The mare’s owner saying, “It’s my property, I’ll do as I choose!” – reflecting the owner feeling as though he had the right to treat the horse as he wished because he had ownership of her – is a parallel to Raskolnikov’s initial reasoning that he had the right to kill Alyona Ivanovna because she cheated many people of their livelihoods, even poor people.
I find it curious that Raskolnikov immediately took his dream to be related to his plans of murdering Alyona Ivanovna, wondering whether he was really capable of being as brutally violent as the owner of the mare in his dream was. Seeing as Raskolnikov wasn’t the one wielding the whip in his dream, and instead was the innocent child protesting the horrific nature of the horse’s beating, he could have compared the owner’s terrible treatment of his animal to Alyona Ivanovna’s constant cheating of the poor, and he could have interpreted his dream as a reason why he should rid the world of people like Alyona Ivanovna. Instead, Raskolnikov felt a heavy weight of sorrow to see the horse in his dream beaten, and reacted as though he had been the owner of the horse in his dream. The dream captured Raskolnikov’s doubts about killing Alyona Ivanovna, which he thought he had buried deep down within himself, but his subconsciousness wouldn’t let him forget them. We can even say that Raskolnikov’s dream set a precedent for how Raskolnikov would feel, viscerally and consciously, for the rest of the book. This magnificent quote from Crime and Punishment encapsulates the immense effect dreams can have on us:
“In a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have a singular actuality, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality. At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truthlike and filled with details so delicate, so unexpectedly, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer, were he an artist like Pushkin or Turgenev even, could never have invented them in the waking state. Such sick dreams always remain long in the memory and make a powerful impression on the overwrought and deranged nervous system.” (Translation by Constance Garnett)
Hallucinations are akin to dreams: they’re products of our own subconsciousness too. Macbeth’s hallucinations are among the most legendary of Shakespeare’s scenes. Reading scenes where Macbeth hallucinates alone sent a chill down my spine the first time; I can only imagine how amazing and frightful it would be to witness an actor depicting Macbeth’s terror and insistent confusion up on a stage! Macbeth’s hallucinations are significant because they depict how Macbeth came to lose himself as the play unfolded. In an early scene before Macbeth kills the king, Macbeth recites one of my favourite Shakespearean monologues, apparently hallucinating a dagger floating before him, pointing towards the king’s chamber:
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”
(Act II, Scene I)
In a yet more significant scene, after ordering Banquo’s murder and retiring to feast with Lady Macbeth and their subjects, Macbeth hallucinates the mute ghost of Banquo himself at the feast, much to Lady Macbeth’s disgruntlement. It’s the first time when the extent of Macbeth’s burgeoning insanity becomes apparent to the people of Scotland, as well as to the audience of the play. Though Lady Macbeth seethes to him, “Are you a man?” in an attempt to shake Macbeth to his senses, Macbeth remains intent on the silently judgemental spectre of Banquo he sees which is only visible to himself. The scene only underlines that although Macbeth attempts to cement his rule by ordering for more and more murders, he’s really losing his grip on his throne as well as his sanity:
“Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with!”
(Act III, Scene IV)
LZJ: While both Raskolnikov and Macbeth struggles with their waning sanity and “heat-oppressed” conscience, their expression of anxiety differs a lot. Stylistically, Shakespeare is more concerned of the form and beauty in Macbeth’s hallucinatory expressions. Although I’m personally compelled to find Raskolnikov’s hysterics a more relatable expression of anxiety, I find Macbeth’s monologues to be a lot more cathartic than Raskolnikov’s.
“She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Act V, Scene V)
Shakespeare has this uncanny ability in turning nihilistic rambling into poetic catharsis. This mini soliloquy by Macbeth after learning of his wife’s death is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. Raskolnikov would have lost himself in a flurry of hysterics if he was in Macbeth’s place, his mood swinging between panic attacks and rambling about random trifles. There is beauty and passion behind every expression in a Shakespearean character. Even an empty phrase like “the days would come until the end of time” is crafted into this beautiful metaphorical phrase:
“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time,”
“The last syllable” compares time to written records, implying the predictable and destined outcome of Macbeth’s life. One could also say that this refers to the flow of time being compared to the flow of language. Phonetics, structure, rhythm and figures of speech constitute a meaningful string of words, much like how Macbeth’s life has had numerous ups and downs, successes and failures, uprisings and downfalls that define him. Both the flow of language and time are linear, irreversible and build towards an inevitable end. A nihilistic, yet aesthetic and meaningful comparison. As audience, a soliloquy like this is what makes us empathize with Macbeth. It is with this empathic passion that Macbeth seemingly breaks the fourth wall, pleading to us, the audience that he wants nothing of this life of a walking shadow, as he is just a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage in a play directed by Power and Ambition.
Raskolnikov’s hysterics on the other hand, have neither form nor beauty. Dostoevsky’s take on a guilty murderer is a lot more humane. He discards aesthetics in favour of psychological realism. Sometimes, Raskolnikov’s ramblings can be quite messy and all over the place, resembling a convoluted mass of unnecessary narrative. However, they’re not a dismissable part of Crime and Punishment. A lot of these ramblings are in fact, psychologically impactful, even to the readers. Take for instance this passage where Raskolnikov panicked after learning that in his delirious and unconscious state, his dear friend Razumikhin brought Zametov, the police officer to visit him.
“‘Bah, Zametov! The police office! And why am I sent for to the police office? Where’s the notice? Bah! I am mixing it up; that was then. I looked at my sock then, too, but now … now I have been ill. But what did Zametov come for? Why did Razumikhin bring him?’ he muttered, helplessly sitting on the sofa again. ‘What does it mean? Am I still in delirium, or is it real? I believe it is real…. Ah, I remember; I must escape! Make haste to escape. Yes, I must, I must escape! Yes … but where? And where are my clothes? I’ve no boots. They’ve taken them away! They’ve hidden them! I understand! Ah, here is my coat—they passed that over! And here is money on the table, thank God! And here’s the I O U … I’ll take the money and go and take another lodging. They won’t find me! … Yes, but the address bureau? They’ll find me, Razumikhin will find me. Better escape altogether … far away … to America, and let them do their worst! And take the I.O.U … it would be of use there…. What else shall I take? They think I am ill! They don’t know that I can walk, ha-ha-ha! I could see by their eyes that they know all about it! If only I could get downstairs! And what if they have set a watch there—policemen! What’s this tea? Ah, and here is beer left, half a bottle, cold!’” (Translation by Jessie Coulson)
Raskolnikov’s mood went from confusion to bewilderment, then to panic and adrenaline-gushing, then to cunning calculation, then back to panic and right at the end, his thoughts wandered to some random trifle. It’s hard to imagine such a character at first, and it’s probably because we’ve never met a murderer in our life before, especially one that is yet to be convicted. Yet, Raskolnikov is the man most of us would really become if we actually murdered someone. That’s how guilt strangles you and turns your mind inside out. Every single detail and emotion in this passage reflects the psychological turmoil in Raskolnikov’s mental state. The initial confusion Raskolnikov experienced is a sign of his weakening ability to grasp details. Then comes the sudden panic, the regained memory of his criminality. His senses began to accelerate and his mind started to think of escaping, a natural response to danger. His intellect then kicks in and his mind began to formulate a cunning plan to escape with his stolen money, then more panic. In the end, his mind couldn’t take it and tries to distract itself by focusing on something else, something totally random and insignificant. The self-imposed distraction is a coping mechanism, a way for Raskolnikov to not break down at this moment. There are countless instances where Raskolnikov’s hysterics would flare up like that. It comes unpredictably, but naturally in order to reflect the psychological realism in Raskolnikov.
Shakespeare versus Dostoevsky is indeed form versus realism. Both are beautiful modes of expression in their own way. Personally, I’m incredibly blessed to be able to experience the best of both worlds.
RH: While novels, play scripts and poetry are all ways of telling stories and expressing ourselves, the way we engage with these texts can be very different. When we read Macbeth, we must always keep in mind that it was meant to be a drama, to be acted out upon a stage. We’re meant to get so caught up in the story that we murmur the words under our breath and imagine the characters come alive, as though we were watching them, and not merely reading them. With Shakespeare, that’s so easy. His prose is so poetic, so perfectly crafted, that – as my literary partner described – we feel a sense of satisfaction, of catharsis, as our eyes run down the page. His words themselves breathe life and expression into our characters. Every line – no matter how simple – is suggestive of an impression of how the character is gesticulating, even as they recite their lines. For example, in the aforementioned monologue of Macbeth’s where he hallucinates a dagger, when he says, “Come, let me clutch thee,” Shakespeare prompts us to imagine Macbeth stretching his hand forward, gently prompting the knife closer – and encountering only air about his fingers, as he says, bewildered, “I have thee not, yet I see thee still.”
While the author has the freedom to express himself as he likes on the page, to describe a character’s actions and features as he desires, a playwright’s expression is limited to the emotions and imagery he imbues his character’s speech with. Actors preparing for a drama must read between the lines to know how their character is feeling and thinking, and we as readers must also draw upon our imagination to help us interpret Shakespeare’s characters. I’d say that you must try to recite Shakespeare’s passages aloud, and listen to them being read aloud, in order to truly appreciate them; Shakespeare’s works, whether his plays or his poetry, were meant to be spoken aloud. Part of what I find amazing about the way Shakespeare writes is that he writes with enough flexibility that you can imagine his plays acted out in a variety of ways while still staying true to the original text. There are really a multitude of ways a director can have a scene from Macbeth acted out. Let’s see, for example, this speech from Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalked, in the grips of some guilt-haunted dream:
“Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so
pale.–I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he
cannot come out on’s grave.
To bed, to bed! there’s knocking at the gate:
come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s
done cannot be undone.–To bed, to bed, to bed!”
(Act V, Scene I)
When I read this scene at first, I imagined that Lady Macbeth was dreaming a dream where she was comforting her husband, who was stricken with guilt and paranoia himself. I imagined that she was attempting to care for him in order to distract herself from her remorseful feelings. In times of turmoil, immersing yourself in a repetitive routine, such as preparing for bed, can bring about a type of numb comfort. However, in the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel, the scene was portrayed as Lady Macbeth (acted by Marion Cotillard) hallucinating a sickly vision of her and Macbeth’s dead young son, whom they had lost at the beginning of the movie, I suspect due to illness. Lady Macbeth spoke to her little boy tenderly, urging him to come with her to bed. Cotillard’s acting is superb; that scene moves me to tears every time I rewatch it. The emptiness present in that scene really permeates the whole film, now that I think of it. Kurzel’s interpretation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth chasing after power to try and replace the hollowness the death of their son had left behind is a very interesting take on Macbeth, and I think it’s absolute genius because it makes so much sense in context of the whole drama! It also helps humanise Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Like, just see these examples below.
In a rather famous rebuke delivered by Lady Macbeth to her husband in response to him hesitating to kill King Duncan, she alludes to having had children before:
“I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.”
(Act I, Scene VII)
In another scene, Macbeth vents about his fears that Banquo (or, more specifically, Banquo’s children, as foretold by the prophecy of the three witches) could claim the throne for himself, and angsts about having no sons (anymore!) to pass his crown down to:
“Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my gripe,
Thence to be wrench’d with an unlineal hand,
No son of mine succeeding.”
(Act III, Scene I)
Books, however, are innately different media of telling stories from plays. We engage with the text within novels, too, but depending on the individual, as we read, we might picture scenes happening in our mind like a stop-motion movie, like myself, or we might even process novels as a way in which the author directly “tells” us a story. It’s really quite subjective. I think my experience of reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was one of my most memorable experiences of reading any book – Raskolnikov’s “stream of consciousness” allowed us to fully escape into the depths of his mind. Have you seen videos of freedivers who take a single breath before plunging down into the deep ocean to explore its depths, without any type of breathing gear to help them? For me, I think reading is a bit like that, that sense of giving yourself up to something “other” to discover what it’s hiding – and I think it would be that way for anyone reading Dostoevsky’s novels. They’re part of our world, and yet not – Dostoevsky’s novels encapsulate what it’s like to escape into another person’s (well, character’s) mind and escape from our own minds, if just for a while. A very long while, if you ask my book-loving partner about The Brothers Karamazov!
Dostoevsky and Shakespeare in Modern Times
LZJ: Indeed, the trip my mind took was almost three weeks! I admit, I’m kind of a movie-in-my-head reader too. Dostoevsky’s books can be really imaginative. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t any good adaptations of his works. Shakespeare’s plays are given a lot more attention than Dostoevsky’s books since there are a lot of movie adaptations with various perspectives in interpreting his plays. However, both Dostoevsky’s and Shakespeare’s works still resonate with us even in modern times.
Here’s a fun fact that you may not know. You quote Shakespeare more often than you think. A lot of English phrases have a Shakespearean origin. For example, ‘wild-goose chase’ (from Romeo and Juliet), ‘good riddance’ (from Troilus and Cressida), ‘be-all end-all’ (from Macbeth), ‘the game is afoot’ (from King Henry V, but most often confused as a phrase coined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), ‘heart of gold’ (from King Henry IV) et cetera. Shakespeare’s influence still persists even in modern times. The beauty and simplicity in his use of the English language amazes me. Above all, the themes and values that he imbues in his characters are both universal and relatable. Behind the guise of poetic and dramatic devices which Shakespeare employs in his characters’ expressions are common emotions such as guilt, love, ambitiousness et cetera. His writing is truly timeless, his ideas way ahead of his time, and his messages deeply profound. One of my all-time favourite Shakespearean soliloquies is narrated by Prince Hal from King Henry IV Part II.
“I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok’d humour of your idleness.
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 wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But, when they seldom come, they wish’d-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behaviour I throw off,
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”
(Act I, Scene II)
If I was a part of an audience witnessing a powerful narration of such a masterfully crafted soliloquy, I’d be blown away. Prince Hal, the prodigal son of King Henry IV, has never had a noble reputation that can measure up to his royal standing. This soliloquy breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience of his true nature – a cunning, calculative man who delights in an advantageous position of knowing what others don’t, and knowing that others have yet to know what he knew. This is my favourite soliloquy which I find the most relatable because being the youngest in my family sometimes requires me to pretend at being immature. I’d occasionally feel that my opinions and thoughts are not as appreciated as my older siblings. It’s really common among those who are the youngest in the family, but over time, I began to realize that keeping to myself is not necessarily a sign of passivity, but a sign of patience. There is always a time for everything, just like how Prince Hal would finally falsify men’s hope, redeeming time when men think least I will. Your family would one day come to see the immense growth in you, regardless of how pampered and protected you were. Of course, that is not to say you can offend to make offense a skill, which would’ve been bizarre in a modern perspective. The use of that phrase is Prince Hal’s way of digging a bigger hole to his hedonistic vices so that when he reforms to climb out of his old habits, his achievement would be even more amazing. A man who deliberately mars his own reputation is certainly unconventional, but not unfamiliar in modern times. I’m pretty sure some of us in our younger, more naive days once conceived the thought of failing an exam just to score higher in the next in order to make ourselves look like hard workers. The use of deceit to construct powerful contrasts between our old and new selves is a very timeless idea. This goes to show Shakespeare’s deep understanding of human nature.
The renowned founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was assisted by Shakespeare’s literary masterpieces in most of his own work. Dostoevsky’s time was only about 200+ years after Shakespeare, but without Shakespeare’s early inspiration of psychoanalytical theories as detailed by Freud, Dostoevsky would never had developed his patented writing style. There are a lot of evidences of Shakespeare’s influence on Dostoevsky. One of them includes this cute little discovery that Dostoevsky once doodled a portrait of Shakespeare. Today, we can all enjoy Crime and Punishment not just because of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but also because of William Shakespeare, the man who inspired Dostoevsky in a profound manner.
Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov are definitely all-time greats and in my opinion, must-have study materials for literature students in high school. Even literary giants in the 19th and 20th centuries such as William Faulkner and Friedrich Nietzsche admitted that they were fanboys of Dostoevsky’s works (if writers can be Dostoevsky’s fanboys, you can imagine how much more of a fan I am). Dostoevsky’s works not only dealt with psychological realism, but it also elucidates the core of human nature, and the motivations behind man’s actions. He dealt with all kinds of questions in life that are huge in magnitude. He battled with existentialism (even before this word was coined), and gave profound answers to life’s biggest questions not in a (very long) essay, but in a fictional book longer than 800 pages. For the majority of the people who had read Dostoevsky’s novels, life is never viewed in the same way. This is true even till today.
RH: Therein lies the reason why Dostoevsky and Shakespeare are such greats: they’ve written epic works that have challenged the ways we think. When people think of great English literature, Shakespeare’s one of the first authors to come into their minds; Dostoevsky’s made a similarly irrevocable mark on Russian literature.
Shakespeare wrote plays which were meant to entertain as much as they had the capacity to educate; all classes of English people in his time went to enjoy his plays, from royalty, to nobles, to the middle-class and to the poorest of the lot. Among all writers in English history, Shakespeare is the only one with such all-encompassing influence – not only in the literary world, but also in the world of theatre, philosophy, politics, and even in our everyday lives, as my fellow literary scout pointed out. He is unparalleled in the scope of his works, which explore the human condition in all its entirety. Would you believe that before Romeo and Juliet, romance wasn’t considered a good topic for tragedies at all? The idea is totally befuddling to me, considering that a staggering number of my ships all come under the trope of “forbidden love”! Without Romeo and Juliet, many romance novels and films we see today would be something else entirely. And Romeo and Juliet is just one example of many. What would the world, literary and otherwise, look like without Shakespeare? Incredibly different, that’s for sure.
Meanwhile renowned Russian writers of the 19th century, including Dostoevsky as well as Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, have given Russian literature the formidable reputation it has today. Perhaps more than any set of authors from any other country or time, these writers have formed a singular perception of Russian literatures as works which investigate the deepest questions about human nature, as well as about what it means to be human. You can find incredibly raw stories of all the facets of the human experience in Russian literature: romance, war, death, murder, marriage, childbirth, grief, poverty… The list goes on and on. But Dostoevsky was a major contributor to the idea of the “Russian soul”, which is primarily a literary term for the unique cultural identity of Russia, and an identity which the whole world has come to believe is shared by all Russians. The “Russian soul” is known as one who is not afraid to love, to live as fully as possible, and to express himself or herself with a boundlessness reaching beyond even the expanse of Russia’s lands. Regardless if this belief still persists among Russians today or not, one thing’s for sure: Dostoevsky’s impact on Russian literature is undeniable.
For people like me who adore emotionally-centred works which contain incredible details I uncover each time I return to reread them, Russian literature is a veritable paradise of treasures. I definitely hope to explore and examine the works of other great Russian novelists such as Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov. I name those two in particular because, interestingly, they were doctors and writers at the same time! As someone who writes and intends to pursue a career in science, they’re very inspirational for me.
Do you plan to explore more Russian literature too, fellow scout?
LZJ: Yes, definitely! One of the major themes of Russian literature is the conception of man and his free will. The presentation of conflicted characters is what deeply fascinates me. The experience of reading Raskolnikov and Ivan’s thoughts is something I can never find in daily life. Perhaps many of us have had existential questions such as them, but we don’t have the artistic and creative mind like Dostoevsky to express them. Dostoevsky simply possesses far broader and deeper life experiences than most 21st century writers. This is quite evident from the wide spectrum of characters in his works which seem to represent his conflicting perceptions of human freedom. For example, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov represents Dostoevsky’s difficulties in reconciling free will and moral responsibility; in The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan and Alyosha’s opposing philosophies represent Dostoevsky’s conflict between existentialism and creationism. The true beauty I find in such a wide spectrum of characters is the unbiased writing of Dostoevsky. There is no definitive evidence or even a hint as to what Dostoevsky’s final image of man is. In fact, critics have called such a presentation of freedom as a defense of man against dissolution into the rhetoric of science and theology. As a humanistic author before the rise of anthropological sciences such as economics, psychology and sociology, Dostoevsky’s works prevent the reduction of man into a mere object subject to deterministic forces of nature. This is why I appreciate his work, and Russian literature, especially in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, Dostoevsky hinted at the final answer to all the big questions which surfaced in his final work, The Brothers Karamazov, in its ending:
““Let us remember his face and his clothes and his poor little boots, his coffin and his unhappy, sinful father, and how boldly he stood up for him alone against the whole school.” “We will remember, we will remember,” cried the boys. “He was brave, he was good!” “Ah, how I loved him!” exclaimed Kolya. “Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!” “Yes, yes,” the boys repeated enthusiastically. “Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, probably Kartashov’s, cried impulsively. “We love you, we love you!” they all caught it up. There were tears in the eyes of many of them. “Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted ecstatically. “And may the dead boy’s memory live forever!” Alyosha added again with feeling.” (Translation by Constance Garnett)
Ilusha’s funeral was of particular importance, despite the backdrop of parricide and the epic court proceeding. Dostoevsky seemed to have concluded that living a life like Ivan’s is a lot harder than one like Alyosha’s, despite the logical plausibility of Ivan’s philosophy. Ivan’s nihilism was never disproved in the book, nor did he commit fully to it (unfortunately, Smerdyakov became the victim of his infectious nihilism). Dostoevsky’s answer to the inherent world of suffering is to embrace the essential goodness of life. “Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!” A childlike naivety in dealing with the behemoth-like questions of life’s meaning is the only driving force Dostoevsky reckons to live a meaningful life. The final line “Hurrah for Karamazov!” represents the change in the meaning of ‘Karamazovian passion’. Leaving behind the history of jealousy, lust and disloyalty associated with the Karamazov family, Alyosha now steps into a new path to live a just and faithful life.
Dostoevsky certainly isn’t the only one to be so successful in portraying such depth in philosophical thought. There are many other Russian authors such as Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy, to name a few, that are successful in portraying a near-infinite spectrum of human experience. I will definitely read their books in the future when I have the time. If my mind can’t stand it, I might rant about my thoughts again in a 10k word review!
I hope you’ve enjoyed our intense fanning of Dostoevsky and Shakespeare in this almost-10k-words-long review!
RH: I hope you’ve enjoyed it too! Thanks for sticking with us this far!