Abstract: There are two key points in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series when Severus Snape’s anger seems to get the best of him and makes him act irrationally. The first occurs in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Sirius Black escapes right out from under Snape’s “abnormally large nose.” The second occurs in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the chapter “Snape’s Worst Memory,” when Harry witnesses a memory of the Marauders humiliating a teenage Severus Snape. In this essay, I delve deeper into these crucial moments in a further exploration of the emotional state of the still-controversial Potions Master of the Harry Potter series and what exactly is going through his head at these moments.
Professor Snape is NOT a happy person. He is always sneering, making threats, speaking cryptically, being malicious… you get the idea. But strangely enough, the one emotion he does not seem to succumb to very often is anger. When a firework explodes in his class and deluges the dungeon with potions, he snaps that he will expel whoever did it. When Gryffindors show him cheek, he gives them detention. Even when someone sets fire to him, he mostly keeps his cool (no pun intended). So the few times that we see him get really upset, it’s utterly fascinating, and there is almost always more going on than one would suspect.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
The first time we see Snape utterly lose it, it’s at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban. He is furious for quite a large part of the evening, beginning with his dramatic entrance into the Shrieking Shack. When Hermione implores him to hear Sirius out, instead of his usual cutting remark, he goes into CAPS LOCK mode (giving us, in fact, the first instance of CAPS LOCK in the series).
‘KEEP QUITE, YOU STUPID GIRL!’ Snape shouted, looking suddenly quite deranged.
‘DON’T TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!’
Woah. Snape may be many things, but he has never been described as “deranged” before. In fact, he almost never shouts or shrieks either, since he has “the gift of keeping a class silent without effort” (SS 137). However, it says in Prisoner, “There was a mad glint in Snape’s eyes that Harry had never seen before. He seemed beyond reason” (360). And after a bit more provocation, Snape gets even crazier.
‘SILENCE! I WILL NOT BE SPOKEN TO LIKE THAT!’ Snape shrieked, looking madder than ever. ‘Like father, like son, Potter! […] You would have been well served if he’d killed you! You’d have died like your father, too arrogant to believe you might be mistaken in Black – now get out of the way, or I will make you. GET OUT OF THE WAY, POTTER!'” (361)
Again, woah. Snape says some pretty awful things to Harry over the course of six years, mocking him, trying to get him expelled, insulting his father. But saying Harry should have been killed… that’s a bit below the belt, isn’t it?
Actually, I think by close-reading these lines, we may finally get to the bottom of Snape’s fury. He says James died because he was “too arrogant to believe [he] might be mistaken in Black.” And who else died because of James’s perceived arrogance? That’s right, Lily. Snape’s only love.
As I see it, Snape blames Sirius for causing Lily’s death with his supposed betrayal, and that is why Snape is so unstable at the moment. He’s still bitter over the humiliation he endured at Sirius’s hands, but his hatred for Sirius runs much deeper than that. Snape wants revenge on Sirius for Lily’s death.
And to add insult to injury, Snape’s three least favorite students are trying to help Sirius! Harry is making the same costly mistake that James did! Additionally, Snape would be rather upset if Harry were killed, considering that protecting this boy is what he’s invested his life in now. It’s really no wonder Snape totally loses it at this point.
However, the trio then knock Snape out, and after a very big to-do, Sirius is about to get the Dementor’s Kiss and Snape is telling Fudge all about the daring rescue he allegedly performed. And here we see something even more bizarre than Snape flipping out at Harry and Hermione: He “snarled” at Dumbledore. Throughout his tenure at Hogwarts, we never see Snape openly disrespect Dumbledore to his face. Snape disagrees with Dumbledore a lot of the time but does so respectfully, or at worst sarcastically.
And in another completely uncharacteristic move, he yells at Hermione, “Miss Granger, HOLD YOUR TONGUE!” (420). Snape is flipping out at Hermione, after almost no provocation, in front of Dumbledore and the Minister of Magic! While Snape acts inappropriately toward his students on a number of occasions, it is very rarely with witnesses around, much less in the presence of arguably the two most important wizards in the country. It’s clear he’s beyond all rationality by now.
Then, as we all know, Harry and Hermione use the Time-Turner, and Sirius escapes. And that is when Snape completely and utterly loses it.
‘HE DIDN’T DISAPPARATE!’ Snape roared, now very close at hand. ‘YOU CAN’T APPARATE OR DISAPPARATE INSIDE THIS CASTLE! THIS – HAS – SOMETHING – TO – DO – WITH – POTTER!’
[…] Snape was beside himself.
‘OUT WITH IT, POTTER!’ he bellowed. ‘WHAT DID YOU DO?’
[…] ‘See here, Snape, be reasonable,’ said Fudge. ‘This door’s been locked, we just saw -‘
‘THEY HELPED HIM ESCAPE, I KNOW IT!’ Snape howled, pointing at Harry and Hermione. His face was twisted; spit was flying from his mouth.
‘Calm down, man!’ Fudge barked. ‘You’re talking nonsense!’
‘YOU DON’T KNOW POTTER!’ shrieked Snape. ‘HE DID IT, I KNOW HE DID IT -‘” (419–20).
This is the most unhinged we have ever seen Snape. He’s in full CAPS LOCK mode, not even attempting to make sense, spit’s flying from his mouth, he’s yelling at the top of his lungs at the Minister of Magic… It’s clear that he is as furious as he’s ever been in his life. He failed to get his revenge on Sirius, so he failed to avenge Lily’s death. And he was foiled by his three least favorite students. Not exactly a good day for him.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
After the Time-Turner incident, Snape keeps himself in check for close to two years, and we don’t get to see an angry Snape until, during Harry’s Occlumency lessons, Harry has the brilliant idea of diving into the Pensieve in Snape’s absence to view his hidden memories. Harry sees the day the Marauders tortured Snape and more importantly, Snape called Lily a “Mudblood” and lost her friendship forever. Most fans have deduced why this is Snape’s worst memory: not the bullying, but because he lost Lily. And though the book says Snape was “white with rage,” his reaction is different from the one in Prisoner of Azkaban:
‘So,’ said Snape, gripping Harry’s arm so tightly Harry’s hand was starting to feel numb. ‘So . . . been enjoying yourself Potter?’
[…] It was scary: Snape’s lips were shaking, his face was white, his teeth were bared.
‘Amusing man, your father, wasn’t he?’ said Snape, shaking Harry so hard that his glasses slipped down his nose.
‘I – didn’t -‘
Snape threw Harry from him with all his might. Harry fell hard onto the dungeon floor.
‘You will not tell anybody what you saw!’ Snape bellowed.
‘No,” said Harry, getting to his feet as far from Snape as he could. ‘No, of course I w -‘
‘Get out, get out, I don’t want to see you in this office ever again!’
And as Harry hurtled toward the door, a jar of dead cockroaches exploded over his head.” (649–50)
Okay, so it looks like Snape is angry, and I believe it. After all, Harry did just invade his privacy in the worst possible way. And he does bellow at Harry, throw dead cockroaches at him, and cancel the Occlumency lessons.
But somehow it doesn’t seem like he’s as angry as he could be, and he’s certainly nowhere near the level he achieved during Book 3. First of all, he maintains his sarcasm, whereas last time, he was too far gone for that. And while he appears to be angry, at no point is he described as “deranged” or “mad” like he was in Book 3.
Most importantly of all, there’s no CAPS LOCK here. In Book 3, we received almost three full pages of Snape in CAPS LOCK mode. Even in Half-Blood Prince, Snape bellows, “DON’T […] CALL ME COWARD!” (and is also described as looked “demented” and “inhuman”) (604). Here, we don’t even get italics, only two measly exclamation points! Jo’s writing style is very consistent, and there’s a reason for everything; the vast differences in the way these passages are written lead me to believe that something is up.
I’d like to just take a moment to disprove a popular theory. Ever since this book came out, and to this day, there are people who believe Snape was acting and that this was all a show put on for Harry’s benefit, so Harry could see what jerks James and Sirius were. At first, it does sound like something Snape would do – he has been going out of his way to prove to Harry that the Marauders were awful people, and he’s certainly a good enough actor, as well as conniving enough to pull it off. But in retrospect, this makes very little sense, because why would Snape choose this memory? He must have seven years’ worth of memories of being bullied by James and Sirius, so why would he choose the one involving Lily coming to his rescue?
There’s also the fact that this memory, while highlighting how awful the Marauders were, also fails to cast Snape in an especially good light. After all, he attacks James when his back is turned, he calls Lily a “Mudblood” after she comes to his rescue and refuses help… All in all, I think he could have found a better memory to make this point if he wanted to. Also, Snape is above all a very private person, and I just don’t see him granting Harry access to his memories, no matter how malicious the intent.
You may ask, why, then, did Snape make such a show of removing his memories to place them in the Pensieve? Surely he knew Harry’s curiosity would be piqued. Well, yes, but I believe that was just Snape being Snape. It was Snape’s version of gloating over Harry, a statement that Snape’s memories were safely tucked away whereas all of Harry’s were fair game. It’s just Snape snidely asserting his dominance over Harry.
So this all begs the question of what’s going on? Well, I would argue that Snape isn’t angry here, so much as he is absolutely scared out of his wits. Because the memory that Harry saw isn’t the only memory Snape placed in the Pensieve; it says that Snape has placed several memories in there (533). And I would argue that those memories are none other than “The Prince’s Tale.”
After all, Snape cannot be sure of which memories Harry has seen since the one he catches Harry in is squarely in the middle of them all. And if Harry saw the other memories in “The Prince’s Tale,” the results would be catastrophic.
First of all, Harry would find out that Snape was in love with Lily. Um… AWKWARD!!! Snape would never be able to look Harry in the eyes again (no pun intended), and Harry would bring it up whenever they argued – just as Harry brings up the Marauders at every opportunity. There’s further proof that Snape considers it imperative that Harry not learn about this. Let’s look at the time Harry uses a Shield Charm and ends up seeing Snape’s memories for a change.
Harry’s mind was teeming with memories that were not his – a hook-nosed man was shouting at a cowering woman, while a small dark-haired boy cried in a corner. . . . A greasy-haired teenager sat alone in a dark bedroom, pointing his wand at the ceiling, shooting down flies. . . . A girl was laughing as a scrawny boy tried to mount a bucking broomstick –
Three guesses who that girl laughing was. I’d venture to say it was Lily. Snape lets Harry see his abusive home, but as soon as the scene switches to a memory with Lily, Snape pulls away. It’s pretty clear he does NOT want Harry to see the friendship between them.
But that’s not the extent of “The Prince’s Tale”; there is plenty more damaging information to be found there. Harry would also learn that Snape has sworn to protect him, which would also make things complicated – I can just see Harry flaring up at Snape and shouting, “I don’t need your protection!”
In Deathly Hallows, we witness this exchange between Snape and Dumbledore.
The – the prophecy . . . the prediction . . . Trelawney . . .’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Dumbledore. ‘How much did you relay to Lord Voldemort?’
‘Everything – everything I heard!’ said Snape. ‘That is why – it is for that reason – he thinks it means Lily Evans!'” (677)
This needs to be put in context. Keep in mind that during the Occlumency lessons, Harry has not yet heard about the prophecy. So if he heard this, I bet he would be quite full of questions about what the prophecy was, if it concerned his mother. And then he would find out that Snape relayed it to Voldemort, which he did not take well when he found that out anyway. The damage that would come from Harry overhearing this exchange would be enormous!
And Dumbledore would be livid with Snape. When Snape yells at Harry not to tell anyone about what he saw, it’s possible he has Dumbledore in mind, since Snape knows how angry Dumbledore would be after this slipup. If Harry had found out, it would certainly have made for a different ending to Book 5.
I believe that this is the theory that best explains Snape’s behavior during that “Snape’s Worst Memory scene” – it makes the most sense to me, and I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing this passage. Even the physical description of Snape at that point – lips shaking, face white – can very easily happen when a person is terrified, as well as from anger. And thinking about what Harry could have seen, it’s really no wonder that Snape was freaking out.
He’s such an enigmatic character – we are still analyzing his behavior four years after the last book was published, and that’s a huge testament to how well written a character he is. Going back through the books and keeping his love for Lily in mind, so many things can be explained. For example, it helps explain why Snape treats Pettigrew so deplorably in “Spinner’s End,” whereas he is very respectful toward the other Death Eaters. Snape now knows Pettigrew is to blame for Lily’s death and thus takes every opportunity to make him miserable. In retrospect, there is certainly an awful lot to be gleaned, but there is still plenty to be debated, and I welcome the debate.