Madness, Futility, and Death: A Shakespearean Take on Poe’s "The Raven"

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  • Author Paul Thomson
  • Published September 10, 2009
  • Word count 1,186

Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven" is one of the most easily recognizable poems in the world, ranking it right up there with "Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit." Written from a first-person perspective, the poem chronicles its narrator’s rapid descent into madness, paranoia, and the macabre after a strange encounter with a ghoulish raven. His brooding melancholy at the beginning of the narrative has been set off by the loss of a beloved "Lenore," whom we are left to presume is dead

Aside from its mesmerizing rhyme scheme and rhythm, what makes "The Raven" such a captivating work of literature are its themes of narrative unreliability, insanity, futility, mortality, and human loss. The deterioration of the narrator’s mental state is sped along by his own fatalistic interpretations, which attempt to apply a layer of cold rationality over what is clearly a crazy thought process. He initially analyzes the event quite reasonably, laughing that the bird’s speech bears "little meaning" and "little relevancy." (Gold star for the day!) Just for kicks, though, he postulates as to what the bird "meant." (Less productive, but we’ll play along.) Then, despite already having observed that the bird has only one word in its "stock and store," he begins asks it ever-more painful yes-or-no questions. Clearly, our narrator is one or two apples short of a pie.

Any other mourning, morbidly insane narrators with death wishes come to mind? Try this one on for size:

Once inside a castle dreary lived a family, bleak and teary, Mourning o’er their lost king who died three months before. As falling tears were splashing, suddenly there came a tapping, As of someone gently rapping, rapping at their castle door. " ‘Tis some visitor," they muttered, "tapping at our castle door – Sightseeing in Elsinore."

‘Twas a friendly foreign scholar who had given them a holler, Having just come back from noticing a ghost in the décor. He was certain that, moreover, he’d been fully sane and sober And sought to help the rover. "For his son did he implore – For his young and brooding, princely son who’s saddened to the core." (Famous here for evermore.)

But the son, who still was grieving, hadn’t had so great an evening, And was tricked into believing that his love loved him no more; Her father and her brother didn’t like her princely lover And were spying undercover to their private lives explore. They sent friends undercover to their private lives explore – Not so private anymore.

But Hamlet got excited when he heard he was invited To come be reunited with the father he adored. The ghostly apparition told a tale about sedition: "My brother’s gross ambition is the thing I’ve called you for. King Claudius has killed me, and this thing I must implore: See to it he live no more."

Prince Hamlet was appalled to hear his uncle had the gall To murder his own flesh and blood behind a bedroom door. Though Hamlet’s thoughts went hazy and he started talking crazy, We must agree that maybe this was all planned out before – We must admit that maybe he had planned it out before, Hiding things he had in store.

As months went by, his sadness turned increasingly to madness, Which bent his thoughts on evil plots to finish what he swore. But though his blood was spiking, he was not much of a Viking For he thought and thought, and cried a lot, and then he cried some more. Quoth Prince Hamlet: "Be? What for?!"

"Something here is rotting," said the Danes, who got to nodding As Prince Hamlet started plotting to cause anarchy galore. He decided that same day that he would write himself a play That would make the King go, "Hey! I cannot hide this anymore! I cannot hide the fact of my betrayal anymore! I’m the one who killed your lord."

The idea was appealing and the play was quite revealing Since the King was not concealing his desire for the door. The Prince then scorned his mother for her awful choice of lover: "You bed your husband’s brother! Your behavior I deplore!" "I wed my husband’s brother so the kingdom would endure!" Quoth Prince Hamlet: "Two-bit whore!"

He was feeling rather vicious when a noise made him suspicious. The thought was too delicious for Prince Hamlet to ignore: "I’m feeling fairly certain that the King’s behind that curtain. Methinks that I shall stab it ‘til the blood begins to pour." And quickly did he stab it ‘til a body hit the floor – P’lonius dead, and nothing more.

Feeling slightly bothered that her boyfriend killed her father, Ophelia talked ‘til people gawked, then babbled on some more For Ophelia was a Dane who had clearly gone insane And threw herself into a stream from off the flower’d shore. Yes, leapt unto her death from off the lovely flower’d shore. Quoth Laertes: "This means war!"

The Prince agreed to duel, but then Laertes acted cruel And played him for a fool by putting poison on his sword. He also got to thinking that Prince Hamlet should be drinking A deadly drink to make him sink down dying to the floor – A poisoned drink to make the Prince fall dying to the floor – Writhing there, alive no more.

They gathered in the hall to watch and see which man would fall. Laertes hoped the brawl meant he could even out the score But ran into a kink when Gertrude grabbed the poisoned drink. He couldn’t stop to think on how to save her anymore. The only thing to think about was how he could outscore Hamlet ‘til he hit the floor.

The tides were quickly turning and it soon became concerning That Prince Hamlet started burning in a wound from rival sword. They made a weapons trade, and soon the pair would need first aid For they were both cut by the blade on which the poison had been poured – Their wounds were of the kind which only antidote restored – Only this and nothing more.

The quickly-acting toxin could have killed a team of oxen. The Prince, betrayed with poisoned blade, could surely wait no more. Having found a reason to at last avenge the treason, He felt it was high season that this crime be answered for – He saw to it that Claudius this treason answered for, Stabbing him right through the core.

And Gertrude, without thinking, kept on drinking, kept on drinking As her son impaled her husband ‘til the hall ran red with gore. And the King had all the shrieking of a demon that was freaking, And the sword within his body threw his blood upon the floor; And the bloodstain on the carpet that spread out across the floor

Shall be lifted – nevermore!

Like "The Raven," William Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" portrays our morose hero’s psychological decline after an unexpected encounter with an otherworldly visitor. Both Prince Hamlet and Poe’s narrator are haunted by the death of a loved one – and ultimately driven to fatalism and self-destruction in the process of trying to rationalize their grief.

Shmoop is an online study guide for English Literature like Hamlet and Poems like The Raven. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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