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Terry Pratchett’s Literary Tryst with Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Postmodernist Reading with a Humanist Guide, 2011

Coverart by Guter Punkt/Katarzyna Oleska | Translation by Andreas Brandhorst

Coverart by Guter Punkt/Katarzyna Oleska | Translation by Andreas Brandhorst

Once again, I am viewing literature through the eyes of my ASD. My personal autism has latched on to Terry Pratchett as a great vehicle for learning. Most fantasy and science fiction stories will do, but if Pratchett is added to theory, my brain tries harder to understand information. In school, I got excellent grades when it came to analyzing certain texts through rote. But rote only goes a certain distance in understanding a subject.

These articles, that I am linking to, have both confirmed and changed my views of Wyrd Sisters. People are such odd creatures, and we seem to need to put meaning into stories that may, or may not, have been intended by the author. Asperger certainly gives me a starting point for interpreting stories that many seem to lack.

What Jenna Miller has done for me, is help me understand the theory behind postmodernism a little more. By using Terry Pratchett and Shakespeare as her keys, she open locks that would be a much more sluggish without.

Miller, Jenna; Terry Pratchett’s Literary Tryst with Shakespeare’s Macbeth: A Postmodernist Reading with a Humanist Guide; University of South Florida, Outstanding Honors Theses, Paper 19, 2011

Humanism and postmodernism reach a common ground in Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, and from this common ground, Pratchett launches an expedition to further chart the intricacies of the postmodern and humanist tendencies in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In fact, during the 1980s, “approaches to Shakespeare’s histories were strongly influenced by…deconstruction, Althusserian Marxism, and the various theories of postmodernism,” which serve to “facilitate new perspectives on those earlier paradigm shifts…of early modern historical thinking” (Holderness 2). Kenneth Bartlett, however, cautions that “the critical [postmodern] readings do not really address what the European Renaissance mind was intending to say” (Bartlett). Instead, the postmodern readings are meant to address “what first European and later American readers were searching for in their ideological quest for a new culture order and relevance” (Bartlett). Maurice Hunt clarifies that sense that postmodernism describes the intensification of modern disorder and fragmentation, it echoes the sentiments of Jacobeans” (Hunt 4). Hunt’s clarification exposes that while the postmodernists and the Jacobeans arrived at their disorder from distinctly unique cultural perspectives, and therefore cannot be directly correlated, they should be compared and appreciated for similar experience. Terry Pratchett, as a postmodernist, parodies the disorder found Jacobean England as exposed through Shakespeare’s own cultural experience, as well as exposes his experience with the cultural disorder of his own time period in Wyrd Sisters to display how two different time periods can arrive at the same cultural issues. Such issues arise in both cultures from the concepts of religion, magic and the supernatural, the nature of the individual and guilt, as well as cultural truths and expectations.

Pratchett’s postmodern vision both critiques and echoes Shakespeare’s early postmodernity and highlights the individual as the focal point where postmodernism and humanism intersect. William Holman and Hugh Harmon explain postmodernism as indicative of existentialism, alienation, solipsism, historical discontinuity and asocial individualism, while Jonathan Dollimore explains how “Marxist humanism has affirmed a faith in Man, the individual” (Holman & Harmon 370; Dollimore 480). Humanists maintain an “attitude that tends to exalt the human element, as opposed to the supernatural, divine elements,” and this promotion of the human individual over the supernatural or divine is focal to the study of Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters: Pratchett, as a humanist and an atheist, denies divine order in reverence to the individual (Holman, Harmon 233). This humanist perspective even arises in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Graham Holderness notes that “historiographers long ago began to identify…a transitional space between two great epistemological ‘breaks’ in historical theory- that of the Reformation” and of “Italian humanism” (Holderness 2). This schism exposes not only where Shakespeare draws his historical reference from, but also where he is heading culturally when he writes Macbeth in the early seventeenth century. This fraction that Shakespeare straddles explains, in part, the cultural disorder between religion and humanism found in Macbeth. While Pratchett straddles no cultural schism, he incorporates much of the humanism in Macbeth into Wyrd Sisters, as well as tackling the cultural disorder expressed through postmodernism.

Pratchett’s postmodern viewpoint, as well as his humanist opinions, denies the legitimacy of Shakespeare’s Christian worldview found in Macbeth, thus complicating the dictation on the soul, which is integral to the support structure of Macbeth (Smith 1). Macbeth’s Christian framework is manipulated into ambiguity in Pratchett’s parody. Michael Martin explains that this manipulation of religious uncertainty found in Wyrd Sisters is indicative not only of the postmodernists, but also the existentialists as well (Martin 7). While Pratchett shows personal certainty in regards to his humanist views on the soul, his actual textual discussion of the soul in Wyrd Sisters, unlike in Macbeth, remains ambivalent. Pratchett conducts this subtle discussion of the soul by utilizing the personification of Death itself who comes to all those who die, regardless of religious affiliation. Pratchett’s discussion of the soul, which contains not only postmodern ambivalence but humanist optimism, is exemplified and explained when Pratchett introduces King Verence immediately following his murder by Duke Felmet. King Verence discovers that “while someone he was certainly inclined to think of as himself was sitting up, something very much like his body remained on the floor” (Pratchett 5). This passage indicates two significant things. One is that King Verence is a ghost from the moment he enters the text. The second is the distinction Verence makes between his “self” and his “body”. King Verence’s “self” is his soul, which he makes a distinction as being separate from his body. Death comes to King Verence to provide inadvertent textual explanations of the soul when he rather hesitantly explains to King Verence, “I’m afraid, you’re due to become a ghost” (Pratchett 7). Since Death explicitly states that King Verence is specifically due to become a ghost, the text is implying that not everyone shares this fate. Death continues to explain that “ghosts inhabit a world between the living and the dead,” but Death fails to ever delineate what actually occurs when one reaches the land of the dead (Pratchett 8). Considering that Wyrd Sisters is a parody of Macbeth, and that Macbeth is so laced with concern on what happens to the soul after death, it is significant that Wyrd Sisters remains ambivalent on what occurs after death as it further distances the novel from Christian theory. Pratchett’s omission also further drives the novel towards the religious ambivalence of the postmodernists, using the absolute certainty of the afterlife in Macbeth as a foil to further illuminate his postmodern uncertainty, while simultaneously recalling his humanist perspective.

The rest of the article may be read at University of South Florida Scholar Commons

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