JHS Lit: Shakespeare, Ondaatje, Brontë – setting the story

Comparing the use of settings in The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and Anthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Each writer uses setting to explore the struggle for identity within sociopolitical constraints.  Setting is central to the writers’ portrayal of Almásy, Heathcliff and Cleopatra’s enigmatic and powerful identities. Almásy and Cleopatra are framed by the exotic East and Heathcliff’s masculinity is expressed through the moors; a setting representing ferocity and passion. Consequently, Almásy and Heathcliff are portrayed as struggling to assert their masculine identity against the Second World War and the mores of the Victorian era. Each writer also uses setting to highlight the difficulty of reconciling opposing identities within a restrictive climate. Through Kip and Anthony’s struggle to resolve their identity between Orient and Occident, Ondaatje and Shakespeare highlight the cultural disparity between East and West. Moreover through Catherine’s failure to reconcile Thrushcross Grange’s social stability with freedom in the moors, Brontë reinforces the societal restrictions Victorian women endured. Finally, each writer presents male protagonists trying to escape sociopolitical constraints. Almásy and Anthony are portrayed as wishing to remove the national restrictions placed upon their identity, whilst Heathcliff seeks to destroy the “two houses” that impede upon his identity throughout the novel.

Firstly, the writers present their protagonists’ identities through the settings they most comfortably inhabit. Throughout The English Patient, Ondaatje presents Almásy’s identity as bound up in exploring the desert. This is evident in Almásy’s introduction to his affair with Katherine; Almásy describes himself as a “man of the world, who had walked…from Dakhla Oasis to the Gilf Kebir, who charted the Farafra, who knew Cyrenaica”. Ondaatje seems to emphasise Almásy’s passionate connection to the Saharan landscape; linking each exotic locale to Almásy’s actions, with Almásy’s “walk[ing]”, “chart[ing]” and “kn[owing]” of the desert reinforcing his affinity to setting. Almásy’s grandiose masculinity can be detected through his third-person perspective in addressing explorative achievements (“who”) and describing himself as a “man of the world”. Ondaatje seems to infer that Almásy has already gained the knowledge and prestige associated with exploration. Afterwards, when Almásy recounts Katherine’s death Ondaatje furthers Almásy’s connection to setting, as Almásy bemoans “the desert raped by war, shelled as if it were just sand…the Barbarians. Both armies would come through the desert with no sense of what it was.” Ondaatje highlights how the Second World War restricted Almásy’s own identity; in contrast to the masculinity of the previous passage, Almásy’s description of the “war”-torn desert is infused with a vulnerable, almost feminine perspective. Using Almásy’s personification of the “raped” desert and description of the soldiers who “c[a]me through the desert” as “Barbarians”, Ondaatje may be identifying the “war” as a male oppressor to emphasise Almásy’s repulsion to its destructive nature. Through Almásy’s undifferentiated description of the Allies and Axis-powers as “Barbarians”, Ondaatje subverts the ‘war novel’ genre of his work; characterised by a historical portrayal of a conflict between distinct sides. Ondaatje possibly infers that to Almásy, both “armies” are part of the same destructive “war”, that ‘rape’ and ‘shell’ the desert.  Therefore Ondaatje highlights how the war limits Almásy’s own identity; as a “man” who knew the desert as more than “just sand” and a “man” who had a “sense of what” the desert truly “was”.

Like Ondaatje, Brontë uses setting to present Heathcliff’s particular masculine identity and his struggle against Victorian preconceptions. However, whilst Almásy’s identity is expressed through his understanding of setting, Brontë infers that Heathcliff’s emotions outwardly reflect the surrounding moors. This is evident when Nelly describes Heathcliff’s departure from Wuthering Heights as accompanied by a “storm [rattling] in full fury. There was a violent wind, as well as thunder…split[ting] a tree.” Through pathetic fallacy, Brontë effectively reflects Heathcliff’s anguish after hearing Catherine’s description of marrying him “degrad[ing]”. Brontë could be emphasising Heathcliff’s masculine power as his emotions are expressed through “fury” and “violence”, alongside the overt tumult in the “storm”, “wind” and “thunder” that follows. Heathcliff’s masculine power is further evident in Nelly’s account of Heathcliff after learning of Catherine’s death, “dash[ing] his head against the knotted trunk…[howling] like a savage beast” with Nelly “observ[ing] several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree”. Through Heathcliff’s violent connection to nature, evident in the “split[ting]” of and his “dashing…against” a “tree”, Brontë uses Romantic and Gothic conventions to portray Heathcliff as a Byronic hero. Heathcliff’s Byronic character is evident in the “splashes of blood about the bark” he causes which, through Brontë’s repetition of the plosive ‘b’ sound, reinforces his powerful, masculine identity. However, through Nelly’s somewhat judgemental perspective, Brontë infers that despite being the epitome of brutal masculinity, Heathcliff is made powerless by society, mirroring Almásy’s powerlessness against the forces of “war”. Nelly’s admission that she and the moors’ inhabitants “don’t…take to foreigners here” reinforces her bias in expressing Heathcliff’s identity, with his animalistic portrayal as “a savage beast” reducing his identity to an inhuman state. Despite Heathcliff’s emotional connection to the moors, Nelly still views him directly before his death as little more than a “ghoul” or “vampire”. Nelly’s misconception of Heathcliff’s identity parallels Almásy and his anger with the armies shelling the desert “as if it were just sand”; with both protagonists “foreigners” to the majority who negate their identity.

There are similarities between Cleopatra and Heathcliff’s presentation through setting as characters of power and excess. Shakespeare uses Enobarbus to evoke Cleopatra’s legendary status through her command over her Egyptian setting. Shakespeare reinforces Cleopatra’s godlike control over nature through Enobarbus’ description of the “Barge she sat in” that “Burn’d on the water”. Enobarbus’ monologue would be used to emphasise Cleopatra’s power; noticeable in Ingham’s 1983 portrayal of Enobarbus gesticulating to emphasise Cleopatra’s overwhelming nature, whilst putting particular emphasis on the plosive ‘b’ sound, similar to Brontë’s use of “blood about the bark” to reinforce Heathcliff’s dominance over setting. Shakespeare evokes the hedonistic aspects of Cleopatra’s character through Enobarbus’ monologue, with the “poop…beaten gold, purple the sails” and her “pavilion” formed out of “cloth-of-gold, of tissue”, reinforcing the luxurious Egyptian lifestyle Cleopatra pointedly brings to Cydnus. Arguably, Cleopatra and Heathcliff’s identity differs due to their disparate statuses. However, Shakespeare and Brontë use Egypt’s immoderation and the moors’ “fury” to portray Cleopatra and Heathcliff as characters passionately expressing their identity. Moreover, through Enobarbus’ narrative about how Cleopatra enthralled Anthony, Shakespeare creates an ideal image of exotic Egypt for his Elizabethan audience; a use of setting which Shakespeare would be unable to achieve using an Elizabethan stage with few props and a male actor playing Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s placement of this narrative in the play’s centre parallels Ondaatje’s frame-narrative portrayal of Almásy; with both presenting their protagonists’ past connection to their settings. Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s prior enchantment of Anthony mirrors Almásy’s former experiences of “walk[ing]”, “chart[ing]” and “kn[owing]” the desert; reinforcing both characters’ connection to setting. However, modern readers would accept Ondaatje’s use of historicism in framing Almásy’s character around the real-life desert explorer. In contrast, Shakespeare uses his play’s historical genre to subvert the Elizabethan perception of Cleopatra as a “gypsy” and  “whore”; instead expressing Cleopatra’s commanding female identity through setting. For contemporary audiences Shakespeare’s presentation of Cleopatra would be more daring than Almásy and Heathcliff’s portrayal. Most modern and Victorian readers would accept Ondaatje and Brontë’s expression of masculine power. However, Shakespeare challenges the preconceptions of Elizabethan society where women played a subordinate role to men and Medieval views of Cleopatra as the epitome of female vice still had currency.  

Ondaatje, Brontë and Shakespeare also use setting to present Kip, Anthony and Cleopatra’s struggle to reconcile two opposing aspects of their identity. Throughout The English Patient Ondaatje presents Kip’s identity as torn between India and Britain. Through his third-person-omniscient narration Ondaatje could be establishing Kip’s British acculturation, with Ondaatje surrounding Kip with the traditional British landmarks of the “White Horse” and “Old Kent Road”. Many postcolonial critics including Hilger argue that Ondaatje’s portrays Kip as a “domesticated other…never granted full equality”. However, Ondaatje frequently highlights Kip’s enthusiasm for his British setting; with Kip watching a performance of Peter Pan and singing the classically English “They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace”. This infers that instead of feeling “other” to his British setting, Kip assimilates into it. However in using the Atomic-bomb in the novel’s climax, Ondaatje could be reinforcing the disparity between East and West, with Hilger arguing that the bombs lead to Kip’s “realiz[ation]” of the West as an oppressive force. Hilger is supported by Kip’s furious statement to Almásy (as Almásy is held at gunpoint) that “my brother told me…Never shake hands with them. But we…were easily impressed- by speeches and medals and your ceremonies”. This shows Kip rejecting western culture; Ondaatje’s associating of the East with “we”, the West with “your” and “them”, creates a hostile tone in Kip’s “realize[d]” attitude toward western traditions involving “speeches and medals and…ceremonies”. However, Ondaatje again does not adhere to his works’ historical fiction (war-story) genre in anachronistically using the bomb. Ondaatje gives Kip a post-1960s consciousness of the Atomic-bombs effects, alongside having Kip associate India with the xenophobic setting of wartime Japan in the spirit of ‘Asian solidarity’; aspects that appear misguided to many modern readers. Kip’s equating of his companions with “them”; the “other” further highlights an inconsistency in Ondaatje’s portrayal of a character who previously sought to transcend racial boundaries. Furthermore, the bombs’ abruptness as a device (a deus ex machina) undoes Ondaatje’s subtle development of Kip’s western identity through setting. Though many modern readers would see Kip’s reversal in identity as rather sudden, a postmodern reader may argue that Kip’s defiance gives a voice to those feeling marginalized and “other” due to western cultural dominance.

Shakespeare, like Ondaatje, presents Anthony’s identity as conflicted between Eastern and Western values; utilizing the historical genre of his work to highlight the cultural divide between the passionate East and politically ordered West. Shakespeare uses onstage dialogue to reflect this opposition between settings, with Anthony speaking expressively in Egypt and reverting to a more methodical tone once back in Rome. Anthony’s passionate Egyptian identity is expressed through his fervent love for Cleopatra; a love that cannot “be reckoned”, and to describe it requires “find[ing] out new heaven, new earth”. Through hyperbolic dialogue, Shakespeare reinforces Anthony’s passionate nature to the audience; alongside his natural incompatibility with Roman values of temperance. Shakespeare immediately emphasises this in I:I through Philo’s Roman perspective; portraying Anthony’s Egyptian passion as “O’erflow[ing] the measure” and later criticising Anthony’s lack of “that great property/ Which still should go with Antony.” Shakespeare infers that Anthony changes in Rome, with Anthony informing Octavia in II:IV to “love…to that point, which seeks/ Best to preserve it” Anthony adopts a sober tone: “Good night, sir. My Octavia”, alongside disparaging his Egyptian identity as having “not kept my square”. This practical advice contrasts to the ungovernable love Anthony evokes when speaking with Cleopatra. Shakespeare’s having an Egyptian Soothsayer entering after Anthony’s admission to Octavia encapsulates Anthony’s divided identity. This Egyptian interruption in Rome mirrors the Atomic-bombs’ encroachment on Kip’s western identity and reinforces the play’s tragic form as the Soothsayer’s fatalistic resolve to “hie [Anthony] to Egypt” foreshadows Anthony, like Kip, being unable to escape his struggle between two identities; as Anthony subsequently realises that “I’ the east my pleasure lies”. However, whilst Kip’s divided identity is characterised by a sudden change to Eastern allegiance, throughout Anthony and Cleopatra Shakespeare reinforces Anthony’s struggle between choosing the “pleasure” that “lies” in “the east” with the “honour” associated with serving Rome. This is reminiscent of Caesar’s opinion of the Roman “common body” as “a vagabond flag upon the stream [going] to and back”; perhaps further highlighting Anthony’s unresolved identity. For “like” the “flag”, Shakespeare quickly alternates his play’s short scenes to present Anthony’s shifting “to and back” between Rome and Egypt as not leading to a “realiz[ation]” of identity (as with Kip), but instead leaving Anthony as a “vagabond” from either setting.

Setting is also central to Brontë’s presentation of Catherine’s identity struggle between the socially elite Thrushcross Grange and the passionate moors. Brontë writes that Catherine chooses to marry Edgar because he is “rich” and she could “be the greatest woman of the neighborhood”. However, in the first half’s climax, Brontë suggests Catherine’s materialistic social choice of Thrushcross Grange negates her identity. Brontë uses body imagery to show imprisonment, with Catherine describing her body as a “shattered prison” and “wearying to escape into that glorious world…yearning for it through the walls of an aching heart”. Crouse argues that “while imprisoned…[Catherine’s] delirium conveys [her] powerlessness and emotional confinement”. Brontë’s use of  “shattered” reinforces Crouse’s viewpoint as it possibly reflects women’s social status in Victorian society; highlighting Catherine’s “powerlessness” due to her gender. Brontë’s use of “shattered” could also refer to Catherine’s “delirium” after struggling to identify with either setting, leaving her physically “shattered” by the “emotional confinement” caused by tuberculosis and hysteria; a characteristically female disorder. Crouse’s idea of “powerlessness” can be developed further. Perhaps Brontë also infers that Catherine’s expectations of Thrushcross Grange have been “shattered”, for Catherine desires to “escape” the identity Thrushcross Grange imposes, yet is ‘powerless’ to do so. Brontë emphasises Catherine’s determination to “escape” through her “wearying”, “yearning” and “aching”; verbs that convey a sense of unsatisfied longing, mirroring Catherine’s own “powerlessness” within the “confinement” of her room. Brontë structurally reinforces this female conviction to “escape” societal restrictions through Cathy’s “imprison[ment]” by Heathcliff in Chapter twenty-seven, with Brontë presenting Cathy’s “boldness” in attempting to escape Heathcliff’s clutches as reminiscent of her mother’s own “voice and glance”. Despite this “boldness”, Brontë portrays Cathy as remaining as ‘powerless’ as Catherine to escape patriarchal power, with Cathy consequently forced into marrying Linton. Whilst a Victorian reader would denounce Catherine’s desire to escape her identity as wife in Thrushcross Grange, to a modern reader, Catherine’s “confinement” is more representative of the struggle for identity than Ondaatje and Shakespeare’s presentation of the male Kip and Anthony. Both are presented as able to identify with East or West, but Catherine is consigned to life in Thrushcross Grange, having chosen social position over freedom. Moreover, Ondaatje and Shakespeare abruptly use the Atomic-bombs and Soothsayer to change Kip and Anthony’s identity, whereas Catherine’s gradual decline into an identity imprisoned by her “shattered” body poignantly illustrates women’s repression in Victorian society.

This idea of “escape” from the political and societal restrictions of setting is inherent to each writer’s presentation of their protagonists. Ondaatje arguably presents Almásy’s struggle against nationalism through Almásy’s desire to associate with the desert. In describing how Almásy “wished to remove the clothing of our countries….disappear[ing] into the landscape”, Ondaatje presents association with one’s country using the metaphor of “clothing”; highlighting Almásy’s aversion to nationalism. In Almásy’s desire to “remove” this “clothing” in favour of the desert “landscape”, Ondaatje reasserts his identity as an explorer; unrestricted by national boundaries. Ondaatje’s use of “disappeared” reinforces this, inferring that Almásy seeks to become part of the nationless desert. This erasing of national identity is also evident in The English Patient’s title, as Almásy’s name and Hungarian heritage are only revealed later, whilst his association to the desert is established immediately. Through Almásy’s national fluidity, Ondaatje perhaps explores his own migration to Canada in 1962 when traditional concepts of nationality were being destabilized, with migrants gaining increasing respect. However, through placing Almásy’s recollections within a frame narrative, Ondaatje creates a poignant tone, as the reader is aware Almásy never achieves his goal. Instead, Ondaatje shows how the Second World War, defined by nationalism, prevents Almásy “ remove[ing] the clothing of our countries”; highlighting the difficulty of struggling for one’s identity within a politically restrictive climate.   

Shakespeare also presents Anthony as desiring to break free from political restrictions. This is evident in Anthony’s assertion in I:I to “Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch/ Of the ranged empire fall!” after Cleopatra jests he return to Rome. Similar to Almásy’s wish “to remove the clothing of our countries”, Shakespeare’s use of “melt” and “fall” could convey Anthony’s desire to have Rome’s political restrictions disintegrate and therefore be “remove[d]”. This disintegration is reinforced by the deliquescent image pattern Shakespeare employs throughout the play, with Anthony warning Eros before his death about the “black vesper’s pageants”, of “cloud”-formed shapes that “mock our eyes with air”. Moreover, Shakespeare’s placement of Anthony’s assertion in the opening scene seems to establish Anthony’s wish to escape Rome’s influence for the audience. Shakespeare may be inferring that Anthony wants to associate with the exotic East, with his declaration: “Here is my space”, reasserting Egypt’s influence on his identity. The power of Anthony’s statement is evident in Dalton’s 1983 portrayal of Anthony; with Dalton gesturing commandingly to the floor as he proclaims Egypt as his true “space”. Almásy’s resigned and solemn tone contrasts Anthony’s fervent onstage assertion, crescendoing as he expresses Anthony’s rebellious ambitions. However, Shakespeare’s placement of this passage arguably introduces the futility of Anthony’s desires to the audience, just like Ondaatje’s use of the historical genre reinforces Almásy’s failure to struggle for his identity. Through the impossibility of “Rome in Tiber melt[ing]”, Shakespeare reinforces the tragic genre of his play. For it is Anthony’s identity that disintegrates before death as he becomes unable to “hold this visible shape”. Consequently Shakespeare creates a pessimistic tone, like Ondaatje, in showing that Anthony’s desire to overcome vast political forces is futile.

Brontë similarly presents Heathcliff’s desire to break down societal restrictions through setting, with Heathcliff determined to get “levers, and mattocks to demolish the two houses”. Brontë’s use of “demolish” suggests Heathcliff wants to destroy the settings that had impeded his identity, with Thrushcross Grange taking Catherine from him, and Wuthering Heights providing the setting of his enforced labour. Brontë presents Heathcliff as more destructive than Anthony or Almásy, as Heathcliff’s “demolish[ing]” reflects his desire for revenge against his childhood oppressors. Anthony and Almásy motivations do not relate to vengeance but instead concern eliminating the political limitations placed upon them, with Almásy’s desire to “remove the clothing of our countries” and Anthony’s wish for his political constraints to “fall” containing less aggressive undertones than Heathcliff’s need to “demolish the two houses”. Though like Ondaatje, Brontë’s placement of Heathcliff’s assertion towards the novel’s climax creates a resigned tone to Heathcliff’s ambitions. For none of the protagonists fulfil their desires to ‘demolish’ restrictions placed upon them by setting. This un-accomplishment creates a tragic tone. Consequently each writer could be accused of defeatism in highlighting the futility of struggling to assert one’s identity against sociopolitical restrictions; with all protagonists but Kip facing tragedy after having their identity impeded upon. Despite each writer using setting to characterise Almásy, Heathcliff and Catherine, setting is predominantly used to highlight their central characters’ struggle in failing to overcome the insurmountable forces of politics and society.  





  • Anthony and Cleopatra’, Dir. Lawrence Carra, Distributor: Bard Productions, Television Center, 1983, Film: Theater adaptation
  • Crouse, Jamie S. ‘This Shattered Prison: Confinement, Control and Gender in Wuthering Heights’, Brontë Studies, Vol. 33, November 2008


  • Elizabethan


  • Forina, Marybeth, ‘Edward Rochester: A New Byronic Hero’, Undergraduate Review, 2014


  • Ganapathy-Dore, Geetha. “The Novel of the Nowhere Man: Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.” Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 16.2 (1993)


  • Hamlin, Hannibal: ‘The Bible in Shakespeare’, OUP Oxford, 29 Aug 2013
  • Harrison, J.F.C., ‘Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901’, Routledge, 17 Jun 2013
  • Hertel, Ralf: ‘Making Sense: Sense Perception in the British Novel of the 1980s and 1990s’, 2005, Rodopi
  • Hilger, Stephanie M., ‘Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Rewriting History’, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Volume 6 (2004) Issue 3
  • Hutcheon, Linda. “The English Patient” (Book Review). The Nation, 256.1 (January 4 1993)


  • ‘In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje’ New York, A. A. Knopf, 1987


  • Kathman, David: “How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Actors?” in Shakespeare Survey 58 (2006)
  • The English Patient. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992; Toronto: Mc-Clelland and Stewart, 1992; London: Bloomsbury, 1992


  • Levene, Mark and Roberts, Penny. The Massacre in History. 1999




  • Marotous, George, ‘Cambridge Checkpoints VCE Text Guides: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë’, Cambridge University Press, 1 Sep 2013


  • McLoughlin, Kate, ‘Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq’, June 2014



  • Anthony and Cleopatra, Dir. Trevor Nunn, ITV, 1974, Film: Theater Adaptation




  • Ondaatje, Michael: ‘The English Patient’, 1992, Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, London


  • Ousby, Ian: ‘The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Literature in English’, Cambridge University Press, 23 Feb 1996



  • Rosenberg, Marvin: ‘The Masks of Anthony and Cleopatra’, 2006, University of Delaware Press




  • Sharma, R.S.: ‘Wuthering Heights: A Commentary’, Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 1 Mar 1999




  • Vörös, Győző, ‘Egyptian Temple Architecture: 100 Years of Hungarian Excavations in Egypt, 1907-2007’, American Univ in Cairo Press, 2007





  • Wallace, Robert K., ‘Emily Brontë and Beethoven: Romantic Equilibrium in Fiction and Music’, University of Georgia Press, 1 Aug 2008
  • Wilders, John: ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’, 1995, Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, London


An Introduction to Classical Rhetoric, Essential Readings. Ed. James D. Williams, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

scroll to top