The Good and Evil in Literature and Poetry

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The Good and Evil in Literature and Poetry

Sir Philip Sidney, in his quote about poetry (literature) as it pertains to real life vice and virtue, is indeed correct that it can have a lasting effect on the way one acts, however, he is making a gross generalization when he states that a portrayal of pure virtue can divinely inspire, where as a portrayal of evil can herd the masses away from evil deeds. The true social value of poetry and literature is not in the portrayal of vice against virtue, but rather when the two meet inside a protagonist. It is the illumination of the paradox of right and wrong that gives us truly poignant literature. We can truly understand things about ourselves when we read about characters being pulled in two directions: as Queen Elizabeth in her struggles between romantic and patriotic love, or Othello as he is torn between jealousy and love, or as Abraham struggles with the murder of his son as a testament of faith.

Queen Elizabeth is an obvious example of how such a paradox can be helpful and inspirational. She writes, in On Monsieur’s Departure, about how she has a duty to the state, but at the same time, wishes to love romantically in spite of it. The reader can truly relate to the character, because she is not without fault, nor is she without virtue–literature which sheds equal value to the good and the bad in humans is the most illuminating and useful. The irony in this situation is the fact that the modern reader cannot even be sure which of the desires expressed by the queen is virtue and which is vice. Love of country is good, but fulfilling one’s own needs is good too. Ultimately, we learn from Elizabeth’s poem that one must make choices–that what is virtuous can also be harmful, and likewise.

Othello gives us a similar glimpse into the train-wreck that is the human mind when determining right from wrong. As the plot unfolds, the reader finds it hard to fault Othello’s actions, as he is only trying to do what is right and honorable. Even after he is duped into believing his wife is an adulterer, he still has a deep love for her (which is why Iago’s lies eat at him as they do). Eventually, Othello commits a murder which he views as the only "right" thing to do.
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