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Through the course of this semester, we have looked at several Modern Irish Drama plays where the characters believe they understand all there is to know about any given situation – love, politics, family. However, as we know, majority of them were lacking the greater knowledge needed to comprehend the conditions around them. Using Plato’s Allegory of The Cave I will analyze these plays in relation to this theory. In addition, this theory will give a deeper understanding of how heroism is entangled and needed in order to escape one’s oppressed cave like conditions.
To begin, The Allegory of the Cave is a theory brought to light by a Greek philosopher by the name of Plato. The theory is expressed in the form of a dialogue between Plato’s brother and his mentor. In his book The Republic, Plato argues that people take on life, or other aspects in life, and the wisdom that they have in their head cannot only come from common sense that they all have, but through critical philosophical thinking. In theory, he gives an example of letting people imagine a situation whereby some prisoners have been imprisoned in a cave since birth. These prisoners have been tied up in a position whereby their arms and legs are facing a wall making them unable to turn and look at what is behind them. A large fire has been set behind them casting various shadows on the walls; there is an inclined path leading to the outside of the cave.
How it works
These prisoners have never seen people or objects in their entire life aside from their current surroundings. What they see is limited to the shadows of people carrying objects and the animals that pass over them, to include any noises they make while passing by the cave. Therefore, these prisoners live their life knowing that the shadows they see and the sounds they hear is the reality of the world. Growing tired of their current oppressed state, the prisoners play a game where they competed among each other to guess what shadows would appear next. The prisoner who could predict the shadow correctly would be praised and respected by the other prisoners and would be seen as the king of their world.
As time has passed, one of the prisoners manages to free himself from the chains he had been long bound by. He decides to venture out of the cave and see this other world. At first, he is blinded by the massive rays of light coming from the sun, but after some time, he adapts and can see the new reality of this world. The prisoner is now conscious of the fact that the shadows and sounds he heard back in the cave were false allusions and useless. He can now finally see objects, people, animals, and the sun. The prisoner becomes excited and loves the new reality of life more than the one he fortified with the other prisoners. Upon his new-found freedom, he vows to go back to the cave free his fellow prisoners so that they can also experience the reality of life instead of living a life of assumptions.
When the prisoner returns to the cave to discuss the truths beyond, the other prisoners do not – rather cannot, believe him. Due to the change of the two environments, such as the instant exposure to the light then darkness inside the cave, the prisoner who had escaped becomes blind. His fellow prisoners blame the blindness to the things he had seen outside. Growing weary, they threaten to kill anybody who attempts freedom from the cave.
Every piece of this analogy has a much deeper and fundamental meaning inscribed within. For example, the cave, in this case, represents people who are trapped within a world based off what they hear and see from other people but lack the extra energy, and/or conviction, to question such or push ahead. They apply no logical reasoning in their day to day endeavors, trapping themselves to never understand or question why their reality is the way it is. The various shadows represent the people who take whatever they see and hear to be correct as they have no reason to question outside issues. Plato further argues that those who trust in such sounds and reflections alone, will only believe this to be true and just. The game all the prisoners played of guessing the next shadow represents how oppressed people fall victim to believe only what they see or hear from others on the outside. The prisoner who escapes represents a philosopher who goes out of his comfort zone and deeply reasons out issues to explain how certain things the way are they are, and, how they could be made even better. His return to the cave represents how philosophers are rejected when they present their well-thought ideas to those who have never experienced the same self-discovery.
In Lady Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the play is about a family who had a son called Michael who wanted to marry. He prepared with dowry in hand while waiting for Delia and her family so that he could present them with the dowry. As some conversation passes between Michael and his Father, Michael sees an old woman coming to their house, and since she is a stranger, he hides the dowry since he does not trust her. The old woman comes in the home and begins to speak with Michael’s parents. She had her troubles by the look of things, but she did not talk like a poor person. She expressed how some people had come to her house and taken over some of her property and how she was living with them in her house. The old woman starts singing an old song and explains how a young man went to war and was killed because of her. By this time, the woman has captured Michael’s attention, and he is now listening to her stories. She finishes by refusing an offer of money from Michael’s parents, by saying that she does not want money but people who can commit to her. Michael follows out after her and encourages all the neighbors to do so as well.
The actual concept of the play is about the independence of Ireland where despite being held under colonization by the French people, the citizens of Ireland were able to join forces and fight against the French regime. The allegory is, despite Cathleen Ni Houlihan being old she was able to rebrand herself and look like a young queen. She was able to move outside her comfort zone, or the cave, and went outside and experienced the light and the reality of life. Same way as Ireland did, no matter how small they are they were able to think outside the box and discover that the oppression they had been subjected to by the French regime was not worthwhile, and they had to sacrifice everything to gain independence. This demonstrates how they came out of the cave, which in this case, is the oppression they faced. The Irish also fought for their independence which is their journey of escaping the cave and fighting for that freedom to be upheld.
In J.M Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, the women frequently face heartbreak as they are subjected to having their husbands and sons live and die by the mercy of the sea. One of the main themes in this play is that of religion; Christianity versus Paganism. In the Irish tradition, it is accustomed that the mother bestows blessings on their sons prior to leaving, and as seen in the play, Maurya breaks this tradition the day Michael leaves and never returns. Such blessings of the holy water upon one’s children is a sign of the Anointing Oil in Christianity. The aspect of Paganism is introduced when Maurya walks with a stick belonging to one of her previously fallen sons and fails to bless Michael who is also fated a life by the sea. Similarly, Bartley wearing Michael’s shirt might have caused his death. The Allegory of the Cave is applied in this play as the Christian’s are similar to the philosophers as they have accepted reality – to move out of the cave and embrace the light of Christianity. The Pagans can be compared to that of the prisoners as they are only accepting what they hear and see as truth. Maurya never tries to unravel the truth or ask why her kids are subjected to such death, rather she accepts her children’s fate as just, never trying to discovery the light. By doing so Maurya will live within her cave like home and assume there is nothing more for her life or the life of her children’s.
Much like Riders to the Sea, Synge’s Playboy of the Western World also deals with discussing the possibility of a new life as we follow Pegeen a “wild-looking but fine girl of about twenty” sits writing a list of items she needs for her upcoming wedding. The rural setting creates a sense of isolation in which not much usually happens. Shawn is nervous because he is god-fearing and doesn’t think he should be alone with Pegeen Mike, his fiancée, until they are married. Synge uses the looming darkness of night to create a space where a “hero” might enter and conquer Pegeen’s fears of the unknown acting as her protector. Shawn becomes the foil to any chance at having a hero as he displays cowardly dispositions which contrast that of Christy.
The entirety of the play is set in a quiet country pub somewhere in a small village on the West Coast of Ireland. Synge uses the play’s opening to create a sense that this is a place crying out for a hero. Much like the Cave, the country pub is deserted, and the darkness of the approaching night is looming. Pegeen is scared of being left in the pub alone: “I’m asking only what way I’ll pass these twelve hours of dark, and not take my death with the fear.” This creates an imposing sense of fear that particularly emphasizes the isolation of the location. None of the men are willing to stay with Pegeen that night. Her father is going to a rowdy funeral wake nearby with the pub regulars, while her fiancé, the cowardly Shawn Keogh, is too afraid of the judgment of the local priest, Father Reilly, should he dare to be alone Pegeen before they are wed. To make matters worse, Shawn thinks he heard a “fellow” in a nearby ditch, “groaning wicked like a maddening dog”; he was too afraid to investigate. Through this set-up, Synge creates a kind of vacuum based on a lack of bravery into which a hero could enter, just as the other prisoners aren’t brave enough to gain knowledge of what is beyond their shadowy walls.
As the play progresses, Christy’s heroic status is short-lived, punctured by the arrival of his father—injured, but very much still alive. The community swiftly turns on Christy, angered by what they see as a betrayal. Synge therefore shows the village folk to be a fickle bunch, highlighting the instability of Christy’s heroic identity. He paints his son as a distinctly unheroic figure—foolish, fearful of confrontation and too shy to speak up. In the same way that the escaped prisoner comes back and expresses more beyond the life everyone believes to be normal, Christy just accepts this life rather than speaking up about his true feelings taking away any hope at a new beginning he may have had. In resorting to violence, he demonstrates the exact behavior that had so impressed the village community. But this doesn’t bring opinion back around in his favor, suggesting that their initial hero worship was in part based on the mythical quality of Christy’s story—that it was removed from their own reality and they are unaware of what other truths were outside the pub. Overall, Synge implies that heroism needs an element of fiction and mystery—unknowability—to function strongly, and that when these unravel so too does the hero’s status. Perhaps, then, heroism is a kind of paradox—the hero must seem like he can answer the community’s desires but never become too real; and there is certainly no room for doubt or inauthenticity in the hero’s story. If the one escaped prisoner stood up to his fellow companions on what type of life they could have outside their current world, then at the very least, an attempt at a new experience would be at bay; In order for one’s circumstances to change, bravery and knowledge are needed.
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