Drama

Disguise as a Device in Renaissance Drama

VOLPONE: I ne’er was in dislike with my disguise

Till this fled moment.

(BEN JONSON, Volpone)

VolponeWith these lines Volpone indicates that he is becoming tired with pretending to be sick and wants to give up the con game (give me some wine to ‘fright’ this ‘humour’). Although not a disguise per se which necessitates change in identity but instead a change in condition, his feigning illness is still a deception perpetrated to further plot development.

However it is my contention that such change in condition as Volpone’s is not as helpful as it might be in understanding the significance of the device of disguise in Renaissance drama. This is because unlike with disguise, a mere change in someone’s condition (such as illness) does not allow him/her to leave his/her entire past behind him and become someone else altogether. If as postmodern philosophers like Foucault have suggested, the ‘self’ is narrated into existence by the stories that we and others tell us about us, then this ability to be someone else allows the disguised character to disconnect with his/her story and play an entirely different one to great effect.

For example, with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar who is himself the victim of deceit, is able to dismiss all boundaries of wealth and class when he disguises himself as a poor (and slightly mad) beggar named Poor Tom. Lear himself sympathizes with Edgar’s situation (as Poor Tom) in a way that we can imagine would have been impossible had Poor Tom still been the Edgar that Lear had always known (or even a mad version of Edgar). In the process of this interchange with Poor Tom, however Lear learns something very important about his own situation (‘unaccommodated man’ is no more than an ‘animal’).

In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano, uses disguise to perpetrate his deceit in exposing his mistress and Horatio as lovers to her brother, Lorenzo and would-be lover Balthazar. If in the garden with her lover, Bel-Imperia had realised that is Pedringano accompanying Lorenzo and Balthazar, the game would have been given up much earlier and the play’s plot much changed; for example Hieronomo would have more quickly and easily identified his son’s murderers and audience would not have witnessed nearly so much of his agonizing prevarication, the very painful explorations of the nature of revenge that Kyd achieved would have fallen by the wayside.

In Middleton’s The Changeling, the substitution of Beatrice’s maid for Beatrice in consummating the latter’s marriage to Alsemero is also perpetrated by disguise. Beatrice cannot allow her husband to realise that she is not a virgin. Not only does this result in the maid’s death which furthers the plot (toward Alsemero’s understanding of what has been going on behind his back) but it furthers one of the primary themes of the play – that of changelings and explorations of what happens when a person or thing is (surreptitiously) exchanged for another.

But in this play disguise also operates at much more sophisticated level. Keeping in mind Foucault and the narrated ‘self’, we can see that even without a disguise Beatrice plays two roles/stories living up to at least two different ways that she is perceived; Alsemero’s ideal of womanly perfection and also DeFlores’s ideal of ugliness. At the end of the play when Alsemero is discussing with Beatrice’s father, Vermandero, the identity of Alonzo’s murderers, he even uses the term ‘disguise’ – (I have ‘two other’ that were more ‘close disguised’) in reference to the real perpetrators, Beatrice and DeFlores. Clearly the realisation that Beatrice had played such two different roles triggers an even greater epiphany for Alsemero than had Poor Tom’s disguise triggered for Lear – for at the very end of the play Alsemero willingly admits that although previously he had been a ‘little ass’ he now considers himself to be a ‘great fool’.

In summary, a mere change in condition (illness) such as that demonstrated by Volpone is not as useful as it might be in considering the significance of disguise in Renaissance drama. Even though Volpone suggests that he had almost become the sick man whose role he had been playing (‘fore God, my leg ‘gan to actually ‘have a cramp’) he is still not seen by others as a different person. This prevents furtherance of scenarios that actual disguise allows such as great epiphanies as with Lear and Poor Tom- or clandestine operations like with Bel-Imperia’s servant, Pedringano – both of which further plot by either clarification or confusion. In the case of Beatrice in The Changeling, disguise operates at several levels – in my view the most important being in demonstrating how one person can in effect be two persons because we define ‘self’ or personage in regards to the stories we and others tell about ourselves. If she had merely been feigning illness like Volpone, such differences would be been anticipated hence taking much of the sting away from Alsemero’s final realisation.

Drama

Tradition and Form in Renaissance Tragedy

doctor-faustus-as-a-morality-play-5-638In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot advises that ‘art never improves’ even if the ‘material of art’ is never quite the same. According to Eliot, to be accepted into the coveted literary canon an author treads a fine line between innovation and tradition and hence although we might expect some development over time (refinement and complication) it is likely to more to do with economics than anything else.

Whilst the Renaissance dramatists were probably not worrying about being admitted to any future literary canon, they were interested in having their plays performed. I can imagine that many were also interested, for economic reasons, in having as many plays performed as possible in the shortest period of time. Hence it only makes sense that for economic (and doubtless other reasons), tragedy developed by treading Eliot’s fine line between innovation and tradition – or if you will, current ideas and inherited form.

The form of English tragedy has most certain evolved over time – with Chaucer it was a ‘ditty’ about prosperity ending in wretchedness whist in later periods it had morphed into sad stories about a man’s fall as told by his ghost. By the 15th and early 16th century, we see the so-called ‘everyman (morality) plays’ – whereby on actor represents all of mankind with angels and the like tempting him to do evil with a view to investigating notions of Christian salvation.

At least in part, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594 or thereabouts) is a throwback to these earlier morality plays. Faustus follows roughly the same form as the earlier plays in the sense of featuring polarised figures of good and evil (in Faustus the Evil and Good angels are constantly quarrelling as to whether Faustus is capable of repenting and in the A text in reality there was little possibility). As were the earlier plays, Faustus is didactic in the sense it aims to teach about what it takes to be a Christian. However unlike with the earlier plays the temptations do not come from outside ( i.e. with players representing specific qualities such Lechery or Sloth). As the opening scene demonstrates, without any outside stimulation Faustus prevaricates on whether he should ‘settle his studies’ and follow the party line by being a physician and making a ‘heap of gold’ or instead to follow his own inclinations and learn about alchemy and sorcery. I suggest this change in focus from outer to inner temptation is in keeping with expanding ideas about the nature of personal freedom (no longer constrained by a limited choice such as amongst the proscribed professions) but now encompassing a full range self-chosen goals from which Faustus makes his choices.

Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1586) signals a revival of the tragedies by the Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca doubtless in part because Seneca had fallen back into favour with the ruling monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The Spanish Tragedy focuses on revenge, a favourite Senecan theme, as the tragic protagonist Hieronimo struggles to obtain justice for the murder of his son, Horatio, and finally is forced to take revenge.

Kyd’s work also adopts Seneca’s five act structure and endorsement of Aristotle’s unities of action (no scene is a digression from contributing directly to the plot – as was the case with Faustus and the subplot with the two clowns, Robin and Rafe). But it fails to adopt unity of time which requires the action of the play to be compressed to usually to no more than a single day. Although there is no specific time period over which the action of The Spanish Tragedy takes place, it must have involved more than 24 hours for Hieronimo to learn the truth and decide on his course of action.

Interestingly The Spanish Tragedy also adopts the typically Stoic (again adopted by Seneca) idea that failure to remain unruffled in the face of difficult emotions such as Hieronimo faced after finding his murdered son (he rants and raves through several soliloquies about the injustice of it all) results in madness. Also of note is the use of Andrea’s ghost to frame the play as the ghost, like in those earlier English tragedies, tells the sad story about Andrea’s demise.

The Spanish Tragedy has been seen as a crude forerunner of Shakespeare’s later more complex and sophisticated tragedy, Hamlet – the two focusing on revenge, ghosts, and madness in fairly much the same ways. Yet although Hamlet may be a more complex character than Hieronomo (Hieronomo rails about the injustice of it all, whilst Hamlet takes this further and questions the very nature of man (‘what piece of work is man!’)), it is quite possible tthat Shakespeare made Hamlet too complex and sophisticated. In his essay entitled Hamlet and His Problems, T.S. Eliot concluded that as a play, Hamlet was an ‘artistic failure’ because Hamlet was so obsessed by emotions that he could not objectify, that there was nothing Shakespeare could do with the plot to express Hamlet who had worked himself to a point of inaction.

In summary, if we are to agree with the argument put forth by T.S. Eliot that art never improves even if the material of art changes, then it only makes sense that each new tragedy is a negotiation of inherited form and current ideas and fashions. This certainly seems to be the case as such famous tragedies such as Faustus, Hamlet, and The Spanish Tragedy – which clearly build not only upon older forms of English tragedy but also on classical forms such as that used by the Roman dramatist and philosopher, Seneca. Not only does the structure of these plays hark back to earlier times but also the tropes (ghosts and madness) and themes (revenge and Christian redemption).

literary criticism

The Concept of Canon & The Secret Book of John

Excerpt from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Adieu the Rose:

Marseilles

December 1920

“Your anger is that of all the wronged women since the beginning of time, Sophie.” Mother Superior fingered multi-coloured spines. “Yet the answer lies within not without.”

Although deeply pious, the mother superior was surprisingly progressive and she encouraged her nuns to be the same. After a challenging childhood in Corsica, this amazing woman had taught herself to read and write in several languages including English. Not only was she politically astute, but she’d developed strong allies in high places. Much to the chagrin of the Vatican, The Mother regularly published radical ideas about religious reform in the secular press. Her official library contained the accepted canon of Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine. Her personal library – kept under lock and key – was deeply heretical ranging from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to alchemy and a good bit in between.

Most of the nuns found this library alternating between fascinating and confusing. But the most confusing to Sophie was a collection of sacred alternative texts that had been handed down from ancient Mesopotamia. It was from this collection that the Mother Superior selected a slim volume.

The Secret Book of John?” squeaked Sophie.

“Like me, child, you search for the truth,” replied the Mother. “Yet when you fail to easily find it you’re all too willing to accept the lies. This Gnostic text explains a good deal about what it means to be a woman and how it came to pass that all women share the same anger.”

“Isn’t anger a personal thing?”

“Is original sin personal?”

Sophie edged closer to the ancient stone fireplace and rubbed her hands before the well-tended fire. It was the week before Christmas and Marseilles was not only miserably damp, but deadly cold.

“According to that text you hold in your hands, original sin resulted not from Eve’s encounter with the snake but from the arrogance of God.” Pouring more tea, the Mother beckoned for Sophie to sit next to her on a comfortable-looking settee. “In order to give life to his human creations, Adam and Eve, God stole light from the Mother Sophia. Eve thought this terribly unfair and it was whilst trying to return the light to the Mother, that she first tasted the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.”

“If that’s true,” replied Sophie, “then where does that leave Christian redemption?”

This was the most pressing question. Despite the exculpating eulogy that the Bishop of Beraux had delivered at her uncle’s funeral, Sophie prayed each and every day that her relative would never find redemption. It was inconceivable that such a life of wickedness on the part of such a privileged man should receive the same divine pardon as the theft of a piece of bread by a starving child. Nonetheless, it was a sad realisation that like the hungry flames of Hell, her own anger had engulfed her. Likewise it was a sad realisation that anger such as hers had assumed a life of its own. But worst, was the realisation that was that her anger was all that she had and that she wasn’t about to give it up without a fight.

“According to The Secret Book of John, it was with this act of disobedience that Eve kick-started the process of redemption.” The Mother chuckled. “You can imagine that God wasn’t best pleased that his own sin had been found out. Let’s suppose for a moment that this story is true. Then can you imagine how Eve must have felt to be eternally damned for doing something so noble?”

“She’d be angry.”

“Might it then be possible that if, as the Church teaches, all women are burdened with Eve’s sin they might also be burdened with her anger?”

“I think… maybe…yes.” Patting the soft swell beneath her plain, brown robe, Sophie considered whether her anger was driving her crazy or whether it had already done so. “Mother, I’m confused.

______________________

Unknown-1Albeit confusing and anger-provoking, the concept of canon is undoubtedly useful. Else how could it have endured for more than two thousand years? [1] Arguably, however, a more basic question is for whom and for what purpose is it useful and in this regard, I agree with the Mother Superior’s suggestion – the answer lies within not without.

This, however, is not the current view. According to Krupat (157-158), the concept of canon is generally understood in either of two (diametrically opposed) ways: (1) as formed exclusively by power relations or (2) as ‘the very best that has been thought’. I suggest that both keep the focus solely on someone – or something- other than the reader and as such can only further the ‘canon brawl’. As Krupat (158) acknowledges, if we ‘force people to read our books now, not theirs, they will fight back, conflict unending’. As Sophie acknowledges, anger is a very engaging emotion especially when it takes on a life of its own.

Krupat’s proposed solution to the ‘canon brawl’ is to either (1) dispense altogether with the concept of canon or (2) compile a canon to suit everyone’s tastes. I purpose that neither is realistic – let’s face it – some books really are better than others and as for suiting everyone’s tastes – at least in America this has proved impossible. Even after including an impressively extensive list of ethic/racial/gender groups in his sample canon, Krupat admits that he had still left out writers representing Chicanos, Italian Americans, and Scandinavians – not to mention the Jewish immigrants.

If we accept that (1) the concept of canon has existed for at least two thousand years and likely to exist for a few more and (2) in our increasingly globally mobile society, canon formation will not become easier then we need to look for a new solution and I propose that to be a radical change in our point of view.

In this regard, it is instructive to study the formation of biblical canon which, like a literary canon, is a compilation of writings believed to possess some ‘inspired’ special quality which conveys special status. Studies have shown that this special quality is dependent not so much in what it offers the community but instead how it furthers the community’s common values and ‘faith’. While it is true that initially some person or group of persons exercises their higher authority to form the canon, when the community at large no longer supports this canon, de-canonisation takes place (Zaman, 538-542).

In other words, biblical canon is formed by and for the benefit of the community in order to establish the norms underlying ‘life and behaviour’ (Zaman, 538). Further the biblical canon is altered and embellished by the literary canon which is arguably itself built on the idea that the collective self can be known and represented through a collective autobiography called canon (Krupat, 160). In other words, rather like a democratically elected government, the canon is ‘by the people and for the people’. Your candidate might have lost this election but he or she may win the next.

For example, it is true enough that if The Secret Book of John had been incorporated into the Bible, Sophie would not have such cause to be so angry; she would never have learned (as have many Western women) to define her place in the collective vis a vis the biblical Eve. Although she might not have realised it, Sophie’s problem grew exponentially when that biblically depicted Eve was further magnified and maligned by the literary canon with, for example, the creation of Milton’s Satanically inspired Eve in Paradise Lost (Gilbert and Gubar, 189).

It is likewise true that although The Secret Book of John was well known during the first centuries A.D. and still read in the eight century (Barnstone, 51) – it was not incorporated into the final biblical canon. This was not because it did not possess that ‘inspired’ special quality or that the Gnostics were not sufficiently Christian (actually they considered themselves the true and uncorrupted Christians). It was because the Gnostics lost out politically to the orthodox Christians (Barnstone, xviii). If Valentinus, a major Gnostic thinker, had won his bid to be elected as pope of Rome, we can imagine how the New Testament, fixed at Carthage in 397, might have been different. Likewise even though Milton was originally part of the literary canon, he has since been down-graded by a ‘political act masquerading as a poetic revaluation’ when TS Eliot and critic FR Leavis determined to ‘drag’ English Studies into a ‘bright new hard-edged future’ (Jacobs, 51).Secret Book of John

It is likewise true, however, that both Paradise Lost and The Secret Book of John still remain readily available for any and all who wish to read them. As the Mother Superior points out to Sophie, even for those who search for the truth it’s all too easy to accept lies. Whilst a canon is a compilation of writings believed to possess some ‘inspired’ special quality conveying special status, canon is not ‘truth’ set in stone by those with higher authority. Nor is it ‘lie’ similarly perpetrated by that higher authority to perpetuate that truth. When the community at large gets fed up with the existing canon, de-canonisation does and will take place. Who knows but that The Secret Book of John may yet (re)join the biblical canon much in the same way that Milton might be reinstated to his.

Viewed in this way, canon takes on a different significance than simply a method by which to ‘force people to read our books now, not theirs’. Viewed in this way, readers can acknowledge that canon represents community views regarding the norms underlying ‘life and behaviour’. It is neither an edict from on high any more than it is set in stone. Whilst such change in point of view might have been difficult to sell to previous generations, I suggest there is little or no excuse for present company not to at least entertain the idea.

In summary, let’s face it – some books really are better than others and as for suiting everyone’s tastes – although the Mother Superior’s official library contained the accepted canon of Plato, Aristotle, and Saint Augustine, her personal library – kept under lock and key – was deeply heretical ranging from Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to alchemy and a good bit in between – but (most importantly) this amazing woman was surprisingly progressive and politically astute enough to acknowledge and bridge the difference.

__________________

Excerpt from my (as yet unpublished) novel, Adieu the Rose:

Marseilles

December 1920

“Confusion comes when you’re unable to see things for what they are,” said the Mother. “Anger, however, comes when you refuse to accept things as you know they are. Eve couldn’t change her situation, Sophie, but imagine how miserable she’d have been if she’d refused to accept it?”

“How do I find the courage to accept my situation, Mother?”

“Prayer, child, and plenty of it.” Mother Superior softly kissed her cheek. “It’s your anger that’s keeping you from God and you’ll feel better when you and He are reunited.”

Passing through the dimly lit hall on her way back to her cell, Sophie came to the bewildering conclusion that not only was her anger keeping her from God but it was also keeping her from herself.

_____________________________

Bibliography

Barnstone, Willis, ed. The Other Bible. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic, 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Jacobs, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading, An Anthology of Literary Texts. London: Routledge, 2001.

Krupat, Arnold. ‘The Concept of the Canon, The Voice in the Margin’ (157-162). Debating the Canon: A Reader from Addison to Nafisi. ed. Lee Morrissey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Zaman, Luc. Bible and canon; a modern historical inquiry Studia Semitica Neerlandica; 50. Leiden, Koninklijke Brill NV, 2008.

[1] Like the concept a literary canon, a Great Tradition also prescribes a ‘must read’ list albeit perhaps based on different terms. Hence for purposes of this essay I will treat them as substantially the same.

Drama

The Significance of Humoural Theory in Early Modern Drama

UnknownWhen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (in regards to the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead Hamlet is referring to humoural theory which was in keeping with ancient and medieval physiology and medicine (OED A 1) as expounded by Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen – four building blocks or ‘roots’ of the material world with shared qualities resulting in certain physiological and psychological manifestations called humours and temperaments (Greenbaum, 7-18) found in all warm-blooded animals (Paster, 115):

ELEMENT QUALITY HUMOUR TEMPERAMENT
Fire Hot/dry Yellow Bile Choleric
Earth Cold/dry Black Bile Melancholic
Water Cold/wet Phlegm Phlegmatic
Air Hot/wet Blood Sanguine

The idea is not so much that, for example, black bile causes melancholy but that in some way it resides in it; in this sense ‘melancholy’ is not just a passing mood (as we might use the word today) but more or less a way of being in the world (Paster, 116-117). Humoural theory ascribed certain characteristic proclivities to the various temperaments as follows (taken from The Regimen of Health by John Harington, 1607, reproduced in Greenbaum, Appendix E and Nicholas Culpeper’s Descriptions of Temperament, reproduced in Greenbaum Appendix D)):

TEMPERAMENT CHARACTERISTICS
Choleric Violent, fierce, ambitious, proud, oft malicious, courageous, quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.
Melancholic Studious, solitary, pensive, musing, suspicious, avoids sport, harbours anger and hate, covetous, cowardly, envious, obstinate, spiteful and squeamish.
Phlegmatic Inclining to be fat, slothful, deadened spirit, dulled senses, little growth, dreamy (of great rains and drowning), sleepy, forgetful, shamefaced and sober.
Sanguine Loves women, wine, and all recreation (especially cards), merciful, courteous, enjoys pleasantries and music, not apt to take offence or be ireful, inclined to weep easily but little affected by grief.

In telling us that it is the ‘humorous’ character who will ‘end his part in peace -Hamlet hints that the theme of finding balance is one of the key significances of humoural theory for early modern drama. In his play Cynthia’s Revels, Ben Jonson expounds on this idea; ‘a creature of most perfect and divine temper’ is ‘one, in whom the Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ (i.e. balanced); whether this requires balance of all four humours or just two or three remains unclear and hence for purposes of this essay I will assume that balance is achieved when there remains no ‘emulation of Precedencie’. Jonson notes that should a man wish, to ensure his Humours and Elements are ‘peaceably met’, he must ‘strive’ through both his ‘discourse’ and ‘behaviour’ to be ‘Judicious’ (i.e. sensible in all matters’ (OED ad A 1). In other words, if the required effort is made and humoural balance is achieved such that no single temperament dominates, then according to Jonson ‘Fortune could never break’ a man (excerpt from Cynthia’s Revels is reproduced by Greenbaum, 38).humoral theory

Naturally no person could consist of a single temperament – as far back as Galan in the 2nd century it has been accepted that such ‘pure’ states are not possible in nature (Greenbaum, 14). Because the four temperaments share certain qualities, combinations are to be expected; in his translation of Galen’s Art of Physick (reproduced by Greenbaum in Appendix F), Nicholas Culpeper helpfully includes descriptions of certain ‘compound’ temperaments – for example a Choleric/Melancholic (sharing dryness) not only dreams of ‘Murders’ and ‘Hurts’ proceeding from ‘fire, fighting, or anger’ but is also ‘quick Witted’ and ‘studious’; he is however more ‘suspicious’, ‘fretful’, and ‘solitary’ than Choleric men. Not only that but in regards to men (but not to women) the transition from hot/dry (during adulthood all men are presumed to be hot/dry) to cold/dry occurs naturally with age (aging lowers body temperature).

Still it is not unusual to display a dominant temperament – for example Hamlet’s tendency to melancholy is more than evident when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Not only does he tell them that he has ‘lost all my mirth’ but also that he has ‘forgone all custom of exercises’ (2.2, 294-5). Later in the same scene he actually names his complaint – ‘my melancholy’; (2.2 590). But regardless of how many times Rosencrantz reminds Hamlet of his ‘ambitions’ (2.2, 250-260) – suggesting that Hamlet’s friend sees him as Choleric/Melancholic and hence having ambitions – Hamlet refuses (whether consciously or unconsciously) to engage with the full range of his temperaments – he does not ‘strive’ to be ‘judicious’ but instead allows himself to wallow in melancholy’s ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ (2.2, 300-301). In his essay Hamlet and His Problems, TS Eliot (81-87) concludes that such refusal leaves Hamlet ‘dominated by an emotion’ which ‘is inexpressible’ – he can neither ‘understand’ nor ‘objectify’ it – and if a key character such as Hamlet remains inexpressible on stage, then as Eliot suggests the play is an ‘artistic failure’.

This is not to suggest that all such exaggerations of type result in artistic failure. Compare Hamlet with Shakespeare’s I Henry IV – where in the opening conversation between Prince Hal and Falstaff (1.2, 69-70) the latter declares himself ‘as melancholy as a gib cat’ (cats by nature, are melancholy, Paster, 119). When Hal goes on to compare Falstaff with ‘an old lion’ or ‘a lover’s lute’ – again associated with melancholy (Paster, 115) – Falstaff plays along until Hal invokes the ‘melancholy of Moorditch’ (1.2, 73-74) at which point – with this implication of fetid stagnancy – Falstaff begs off the game (‘thou has the most unsavoury similes’, 1.2, 76). Although obviously aware of his humoural difficulties, like Hamlet, Falstaff fails (perhaps due to age) to balance his melancholy. Yet to my knowledge no one (including TS Eliot) has suggested that Henry IV is an artistic failure and this may be at least in part because by the end of 2 Henry IV the Choleric Hal (he has ambitions as he tells us from the start – ‘Yet herein will I imitate the sun, I.2, 186) and the Melancholic Falstaff cancel each other out. As Eliot (95) notes, in Shakespeare’s successful works his characters act upon each other in a way that is always fitting to their characteristic proclivities; there seems little doubt that Hal heightens his own fortunes at the expense of Falstaff’s.

Shakespeare’s use of humoural theory in Henry IV is in sharp contrast to that of Jonson. TS Eliot (89) suggests that in order to appreciate Jonson’s work, we must not look at the ‘emotional tone’ in a ‘single verse’, but instead at the ‘design of the whole’ work. This is because the success of Jonson’s comedies (but not his tragedies) is not because the characters have an effect on each other (as is the case with Shakespeare) but instead because of the effect of their combination as a whole (Eliot, 94).

Jonson’s work is satire and satire levels criticism against the real world. Thus it should thus come as no surprise that Jonson does not depict humours as balanced – but exactly the reverse – fortune breaks those who allow their characteristic proclivities to slide too far out of balance. Jonson himself has said in the Prologue to Every Man and His Humour that his intention is to ‘sport with human follies’ and ‘laugh at them’ because ‘they deserve no less’. Yet that is not to say that Jonson is more interested in the generation of laughter than in obtaining humoural balance; in his next sentence he qualifies that having seen his play ‘there’s hope left’ that once ‘you, that have so graced monsters’, may learn what it means to be men.

volp2If we are to learn from Jonson, then as TS Eliot suggests (89) we must look to the ‘design of the whole’ work. Like Hamlet, Jonson’s characters are exaggerations of type. Unlike Falstaff and Prince Hal, they fail to balance each other. However they become balanced as the result of the actions of outside forces. For example in Volpone balance is delivered through punishments imposed by the Avocatori, or four Magistrates; with Every Man in His Humour balance comes through the judgements of Justice Clement, also a magistrate. I further suggest that each character’s punishment/ judgement is in keeping with something that triggers a balancing shift in dominant temperament.

For example, in Volpone, the majority of the major players – Volpone, Mosca, Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino for the most part display a single domimant temperament as the gulls obsequiously line up to secure their anticipated booty when the ‘childless, rich’ hoaxter Volpone ‘feigns sick’ and ‘offers his state to hopes of several heirs’ (The Argument, 1- 7): they receive balancing punishments as follows:

CHARACTER DOMINANT TEMPERAMENT PUNISHMENT
Volpone Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

 

Along with his servant, Mosca, he plots the hoax on the others because he glories ‘more in the cunning purchase of my wealth’ than it its ‘possession (I i, 30-33).

Sanguine – hot/wet – not apt to take offence and little affected by grief.

Although he looses all wealth and sent to prison – he addresses the audience at end of the play indicating that for him ‘no suffering is due’ if the audience praises him – ‘clap your hands’ (Epilogue, 1-6)

Mosca Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, bold, given to jesting, mocking and lying.

Along with his master, he plots the hoax but turns on him in the end – refusing to acknowledge the hoax hoping to ‘inherit’ Volpone’s money himself.

Melancholic – cold/dry – harbours anger and hate, spiteful.

Sentenced to be whipped and sent to the galleys as a slave, he hisses to his accomplice in crime, ‘Bane to thy wolfish nature (V xii. 115)

 

Voltore Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

Although a lawyer, he perjures himself to ensure he gets the ‘inheritance’ – Volpone realises this and plays Voltore further – ‘unscrew my advocate upon new hopes’ (V Xi, 20).

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

After disbarred – V xiii, 126-128, we imagine he is shamefaced to have so scandalized the worthy men of his profession.

Corbaccio Melancholic – cold/dry – covetous, cowardly, envious.

 

In order to secure he is Volpone’s sole heir he disinherits is own son.

‘And disinherit my son? (I iv,95-96) and ‘Tis done, ‘tis done, I go’ (I iv, 132).

 

Phlegmatic – Cold/wet – shamefaced and sober.

Upon losing all his worldly goods & being sent to a monastery to ‘die well’ at V xiii, 1129-1330 we can imagine his spirit will be deadened.

Corvino Sanguine – hot/wet – Loves women.

It is his prize, his beautiful wife, that he offers up in order to secure his ‘inheritance’. “The party, you wot of, Shall be min own wife (II vi, 80-81).

Choleric – hot/dry – quick-witted, quick to anger.

Sentenced to public humiliation and losing his wife at V xiii, 134-139 –he reacts angrily but cleverly – ‘I shall not see my shame, yet’.

In summary, the significance of humoural theory in Early Modern Drama is to be found in a character’s success or failure in ending ‘his part in peace’ in the sense that by the end of the play, his ‘Humours and Elements are peaceably met’ – or balanced. This can occur either through (1) striving to judiciously ensure no one temperament dominates to the end as Hamlet failed to do or (2) balancing dominate temperaments with other characters as did Prince Hal and his friend, Falstaff. Additionally Jonson has demonstrated that a character’s unbalanced humoural temperaments can achieve balance through the ‘design of the whole work’ by having balance imposed from the outside.

 

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Bibliography

Jonson, Ben. Five Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Shakespeare, William. 1 Henry IV. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Eliot, T.S. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997.

Greenbaum, Dorian Gieseler. Temperament – Astrology’s Forgotten Key. Bournemouth: The Wessex Astrologer Ltd, 2005.

Paster, Gail Kern. ‘Melancholy Cats, Lugged Bears, and Early Modern Cosmology: Reading Shakespeare’s Psychological Materialism Across the Species Barrier’ (113-129). Reading the Modern Early Passions – Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, ed. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rose, and Mary Floyd-Wilson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

literary criticism

The Role & Representation of the City in Modernist Literature

DublinersIn her essay Characters in Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’ – people began to behave differently, she says – giving the example of behaviour of one’s cook – Victorian cooks stayed below in their kitchens and did their jobs whilst Georgian cooks were always wandering upstairs to borrow newspapers or get advice about a hat.

The implication is that if human character has changed (and according to Woolf at the end of the day all literature is about character) then literature must change as well. What better backdrop than the city to illustrate these changes! The problem is however that not all modernist writers were interested in representing the same changes and even where they were, they did not all do so to the same effect.

Cities provide a convenient container, their infrastructure juxtaposing the old and new. In the section entitled ‘The Fire Sermon’ in his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses London’s Thames River to represent the differences between the nostalgic majesty of Elizabethan times (‘Elizabeth and Leicester’ – ‘beating oars’ – ‘a gilded shell’ – ‘red and bold’) and 1920’s London (‘trams and dusty trees’ that ‘undid me’ with little promise of a ‘new start’). Both these representations involve connections (boats/trams) whilst at the same time implying a fundamental disconnect. By choice of images invoked the speaker in this section of The Waste Land seems to suggest that the changes he or she experiences has turned yesterday’s London into a worse place.

Cities also provide a privileged space wherein everything that can happen birth, marriage, death, etc.) does happen with routine regularity. Although the speaker in the Waste Land seems to find little pleasure in his or her London, Virginia Woolf’s heroine, Clarissa, in Mrs Dalloway takes immense pleasure in hers – what with its ‘omnibuses, sandwich men, automobiles, and armies of people’. Little did she know however that just in a few hours wandering about London’s West End, Clarissa would confront so many complex issues –ghosts from her own past (prior lovers Peter Walsh and Sally Seton) and the devastations wrought by war (in the form of the suicide of poor Septimus). It is dislocating just to think of all the things a city throws up to its residents in a single day but the reader of Mrs Dalloway gets the sense that Clarissa finds more plusses than minuses in her London than did the speaker in Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Cities have a way of taking on a life of their own – contracting and expanding according to the needs of society as it changes. In Howards End, EM Forster represents the dislocation felt by the Schlegel family as their long-time London home is pulled down to make room for building a block of new flats. Like Clarissa Dalloway’s London, the Schlegel’s house is a temporal container (albeit in miniature) – for their ghosts. But rather like Woolf’s Clarissa, Margaret Schlegel found her London exhilarating and in the changes that the speaker in Eliot’s ‘The Fire Sermon’ found so threatening, Margaret found the promise for a ‘new start’ which would take her where she had needed go all along, Howards End.

Finally cities become symbols in their own right – representing a particular society as a whole – how characters react to this tells as much about them as the society itself. For example, in James Joyce’s story ‘Clay’ in Dubliners, Maria finds enough to admire in her city. Not only does she have a job that allows her enough money to pick and choose amongst the delightful goods at Downe’s cake-shop (and finally purchase a ‘thick slice of plumcake’) but she also has family with which to share them. Although Maria’s Dublin is more claustrophobic (despite singing nostalgic songs and playing games with her brother’s children, one cannot help thinking that Maria – ‘blushing very much’ – feels a bit put upon by her family) than Clarissa Dalloway’s London, it would appear better then what she might have experienced in days gone by (that a prayer book and subsequent jokes about entering a convent serves to remind everyone how much times have changed for the better, at least for women).

In summary, if as Woolf suggests human character has changed then modernist literature needed change to reflect that. The city provides an excellent opportunity to accomplish this because as a back-drop for the modernist writer’s characters, it is a privileged space – a container or microcosm – of humanity. Naturally with changing times comes feelings of dislocation but the way in which various modernist writers approach representations of their chosen cities suggests that for some such dislocation was welcome (as in the case of Maria, Margaret, and perhaps also Clarissa) while for others like the speaker in The Waste Land it was not.

literary criticism

TS Eliot and the Struggle for Maintenance of a Living Language

TS EliotLiving, the poet is carrying on that struggle for the maintenance of a living language, […] which must be kept up in every generation; dead, he provides standards for those who take up the struggle after him’ (T. S. ELIOT).

23 March 1921 – Virginia Woolf made an entry in her diary describing a taxi ride she shared that evening with T.S. Eliot in which she told him that neither of them were as good as Keats. He agreed noting that neither of them wrote ‘classics straight off’ because ‘we’re trying something harder’.

I am not even tempted to suggest that by a ‘living language’ Eliot was referring to that used by everyday people in their everyday lives. It takes only one look at his landmark poem, The Waste Land, and its collage of disjointed imagery, references to classical myth (by his own admission in his notes to the poem, he says that Tiresias, punished for affronting the Greek goddess Hera, is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem), and German, Greek, French, and Italian passages to realise that Eliot was not the least interested in making his mark on the common folk. What interest could he possibly have in maintaining a ‘living language’ for use by the likes of the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’ that he so sardonically depicts in that poem’s section entitled The Fire Sermon?

By ‘living language’ he must be referring to something else – something perhaps related to that comment he made in the taxi to Woolf – something that would impress not only (1) his contemporaries like Woolf (he read The Waste Land out loud in her parlour and the Woolf’s publishing company, The Hogarth Press, printed the UK version of his poem) but also (2) those poets who (as he notes) will take up the struggle after him.

Unfortunately for purposes of that ‘living language’, these later poets are inextricably linked with those who have come before. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot suggests that (at least in the eyes of a critic) a poet always walks a thin line between being innovative and following in the footsteps of those before him – get the mix wrong and the poet will either be regurgitating the past or completely out in the (present) left field. Eliot also suggests that an aspiring poet should aways be aware of the ‘main current’ (which does not always flow from those with the most distinguished reputations) whilst at the same time being aware that art never improves (albeit the subject matter changes).

Quite what all this means for the struggle of maintaining a ‘living language’, we can only conjecture – not only can maintaining this ‘living language’ not have to much do with innovation which usually strives to improve art, but it also can not have much to do with the poet’s personal experience because in that same essay, Eliot advises that the ‘emotion of art is impersonal’. If the ‘living language’ is neither about living, nor about how the folks in the street communicate, nor about taking a innovative approach to poetry, then about what can it be?

The only sensible answer remaining is in regards to subject matter (which admittedly according to Eliot does change); here the horrors of the Great War of 1915-18 come to the fore – for it is without argument that for many people (including poets) this war quite literally changed their world. Now we return to The Waste Land on more solid ground – for it more than adequately incorporates the destructive element of this war. Now the disjointed imagery makes more sense – how could anyone who had lived through such unprecedented devastation feel anything but disconnected? Now the sad reminiscences of the speaker in The Burial of the Dead about drinking coffee in the ‘sunlight’ in the ‘Hofgarten’ before going ‘down’ – ‘hold on tight’ – can be seen as both contemporary and timeless – that and ‘weren’t you with me at ‘Mylae’? serves to remind us that sadly war and its devastating are enduring through the generations – now the connections drawn between that ancient Battle of Mylae in 260 BC and the ‘corpses’ that have ‘begun to sprout’ in 1918 make perfect sense.

In summary, if in Eliot’s estimation any living poet is to carry on that struggle for the maintenance of a ‘living language’, he must look not to his personal experience nor to his innovative techniques, but instead to his subject matter else when dead and judged by those who will struggle after him, he will be judged to have simply regurgitated that which has come before or relegated to the ranks of poets deemed to have been out in left field. Quite how such judgement squares with Eliot’s comment to Virginia Woolf that he and she were not writing ‘classics’ as did Keats but ‘trying something harder’, I am afraid that I still cannot quite say except perhaps in the extent that Eliot hopes it shall place him in the ranks of those of his contemporaries who will someday have the most distinguished reputations.

literary criticism

Use of Fragmentation in the modernist work of Forster, Eliot, and Woolf

montageIn large part, modernist writers responded to the social conditions of modernity which, for a variety of reasons, spelt a serious disconnect with the past; naturally the old has always given way to the new but such transition had never before been perceived as so obtrusive – so fragmented – as it was in the early 20th century.

Not only had scientific advances thrown prior conceptions of physical reality out of the window (for example, the installation of city street lamps had all but eliminated the distinction between night and day) but also philosophers like Nietzsche had undercut traditional notions of an ordered, meaningful metaphysical reality by, for example, eliminating God. If that were not bad enough, psychologists such as Freud and Jung undercut traditional notions of perceived reality with suggestions that it was not human rationality running the show (as had been believed for almost 400 years) but instead an uncontrollable unconscious manifesting either as unruly, repressed personal desires or collective archetypal patterns reflected in myth and dreams.

Hence for purposes of this essay, I define fragmentation as any technique used by modernist writers to address these many fragmented, often seemingly disconnected, strands underlying modern constructions of reality. I suggest that whether or not such techniques are useful depends on the purpose for which the writer chose to use them and whilst we can never know what that purpose was, it is virtually impossible to determine if they were useful except in the limited sense that we as readers get a sense of the turmoil that society must have in some degree felt during this period.

Some modernist writers like EM Forster sought to connect fragmented bits of reality. For example in Howards End, Forster juxtaposed physical manifestations of the old and new; the idyllic countryside (‘untroubled meadows’) is viewed by Mrs Munt from the train on her journey to Howard’s End. She sees it as ‘awakening after a nap of a hundred years’ to such ‘life’ as is conferred by the ‘stench of motor-cars’. But if Mrs Munt was ‘equally indifferent’ to ‘history’ – ‘tragedy’ – the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, Forster was not. He uses that stinky motor-car as a symbol for death and destruction – Charles (with his fit-for purpose ‘gloves and spectacles’) who virtually becomes his car (his father admonishes – your ‘one idea is to get into a motor’) kills Mr Bast, and the paddock is sacrificed for a garage to house the motor, and the motor-car ‘flattens’ a cat. But no matter how often characters urge each other to ‘bridge’ the gap (between what is never made precisely clear) for the most part they seem to fail except perhaps through the marriage of Margaret (old order) and Henry Wilcox (new order) – neither of whom (interestingly) drives a ‘motor’!

But whilst Forster seeks connections, TS Eliot seems to glorify in disconnectedness especially in regards to metaphysical reality; in his poem The Wasteland, there are numerous references to a troubled Christianity – for example in the section entitled A Game of Chess, a reference to the ‘sylvan scene’ (an allusion to the 4th book of Paradise Lost by John Milton where Satan came in the view of Eden) serves as an appropriate forecast for the immediately following allusion to Philomela who was violently raped by her sister’s husband, Tiresias (who may be equated with Satan). The message would appear to be that all hell is breaking loose in creation.

Most certainly as each different section of The Wasteland shifts to the next without transition (or sometimes without even obvious links), we get a sense of how frustrated and lost that society must have felt when all around them they got the same message. But unlike Howards End, The Wasteland seems to suggest connections cannot be made. In What the Thunder Said, we learn from the poem’s speaker that he will be unable to ‘set my lands in order” because ‘London bridge is falling down’ – and that the ‘fragments’ have been ‘shored against my ruins’.

Whilst both Forster and Eliot draw attention to the problems inherent in making connections a fragmented reality, Virginia Woolf seems to suggest everything will sort itself out in the natural course of time. For example, in her autobiographical writings, Moments of Being, she states that she personally takes ‘great delight’ in pulling together her own ‘severed parts’ by dredging through memories (perceptions of time) – much in the same way that many of her fictional characters appear to do.

For example, in Mrs Dalloway, the ebb and tide of Clarissa’s day are a jumble of events, places, and people bound together solely by (often disparate and fragmented) memories spanning more than thirty years. Quite how reflections on the ‘most exquisite moment of her whole life’ when she had been kissed by Sally Seton are connected with her own ‘faults, jealousies, vanities, and suspicions’ (conjured up by Lady Bruton having not asked her to lunch) is left to the reader’s (vivid) imagination. But the way they are presented as a given – we sense that Woolf was never in doubt that they were connected. In Orlando, the only continuity between the hero turned heroine after a four-hundred year romp through history is his/her memories and face. Indeed, memory or personal perceptions of reality, are again here the binding thread – ‘running her needle in and out – up and down – hither and thither’ in a way that clock ‘time’ (which makes ‘animals and vegetables bloom with amazing punctuality’) can never do.

In summary, if we evaluate the usefulness of techniques of fragmentation for modernist writers in terms of whether their readers get some sense of the frustration that 20th century western society must have felt in the wake of changes on so many levels of ‘reality’, I suggest that at least in regards to Forster, Eliot, and Woolf it has been useful albiet in different ways; Forster suggesting that connections can be made between the fragments and provides clues how this might be achieved. Eliot suggests that such connections are inconcievalbe and we had better just make do with what we have with the fragmented ‘ruins’. Finally Woolf suggests that connections are not only are possible (through our perceptions of reality) as we grow older (and presumably wiser) these connections will be naturally be made.

Drama

New Criticism – its usefulness & drawbacks


The New Critics established that ‘literature requires and deserves responsible reading and readable response’, but the New Criticism was eventually rejected as being ‘intellectually naïve and methodologically fruitless’ (John Willingham). So what the usefulness and drawbacks, if any, of New Criticism?

New Criticism emphasizes close reading of a text – treating it is a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object – ‘art for ‘art’s sake’ – rather than a work fitting into some larger cultural or other context.

Such an approach is somewhat useful for at the end of the day all that we do have is the text and the larger context into which it may fit remains at best interpretation or conjecture. In this regard, New Criticism can never be ‘methodologically fruitless’; words do speak for themselves and if we are to understand what it being said it helps to focus on what is (as opposed to what is not) on the page.

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There is also significant room to argue as does Willingham, that New Criticism is intellectually naïve in the sense that for although we can never know for certain how the greater context in which it was written influences the text, we can be certain that it has indeed influenced it and if we ignore that influence then we have lost a great deal from our aesthetic experience.

For example in John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a close reading of the text in 2.5 where Ferdinand expounds ‘Rhubarb, O for rhubarb (t)o purge this choler’ may well leave us none the wiser. Certainly a 21st century reader realises that Ferdinand is angry (for ‘choler’ has retained that link) but the connection between ‘rhubarb’ (the New Critics were keen to focus on ambiguity and indeed tried to show the unity beneath the text’s apparent disunity) and ‘purging’ that ‘choler’ is lost. Without context, it is almost impossible to fit rhubarb together with anger (unless one suggests they are both related to the colour red). Indeed we may even be tempted to see this ambiguity or disunity as a flaw in the work; many 21st century readers tend to judge a work harshly when we are forced stop reading and think.

However if we know that in the early 17th century rhubarb was considered to medicinally ‘purge’ or cure ‘choler’, then a meaningful connection is made. But unless we understand that Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ is not a fleeting state of mind, but his temperament, we cannot realise the full import of this connection. We can rectify this however if, for example, we examine this text as might a proponent of New Historicism – in conjunction with a text contemporary of the period. For example in John Harrington’s 1607 Poems on Temperament, we discover that a choleric like Ferdinand is not only angry, but he is ‘oft malicious’ and ‘all violent and fierce’. Not only that but ‘on little cause to anger’ a choleric like Ferdinand is ‘great inclin’d’. This understanding of the nature of his temperament presents a different picture that if we were to believe him simply angry on a certain day.

Further, if we accept that a text is an ‘aesthetic object’ (however TS Eliot and others might have us define that) then if we are to take anything valuable away from our ‘aesthetic experience’, we need to focus on what it tells us about ourselves. For example, if we were to examine this text as might a proponent of feminist literary criticism, we might focus more on the suggestion that Ferdinand intends to ‘purge’ his temper on his sister (whom in a few lines earlier was pronounced ‘a notorious strumpet’) because she has married not to his liking even whilst he appears to have no problem that his brother, the Cardinal, keeps as his mistress, another man’s wife. Where is the equality in this asks the feminist? How can the Duchess express herself (as she clearly is attempting to do by marrying of her own choice) if politically she has not the power to do so? Now the focus is no longer just on a choleric brother having a 17th century rant but on the sexual politics of the period and how they might still inform our own sexual politics in the 21st century.

If we were to examine this text as might a proponent of psychological literary criticism then we would focus not on Ferdinand’s ‘choler’ and its manifestations but instead on its potential causes – perhaps the problem is sexual libido gone wrong – this is not an unreasonable suggestion what with all the knives and their phallic symbolism (in 3.2 Ferdinand sneaks into his sister’s boudoir and surprises her with a knife) and Ferdinand’s protestations in 4.1 about the effect on him of her body (‘Damn her, That body of hers’). Thus instead of Rhubarb to ‘purge’ Ferdinand’s ‘choler’, a 21st century psychotherapist might prescribe psychoanalysis or even a modern day substitute for ‘rhubarb’ like prosaic. What might this tell us about how much scientific advancements have changed 21st century society as opposed to that of 17th century?

In summary, if we wish to come to grips with a text then as suggested by the New Critics we should focus on the text. To do otherwise make it all to easy miss not only what has been written but also to add things that have not. In this sense the approach of the New Critics cannot be methodologically fruitless. It can however be intellectually naïve to believe that one can fully appreciate a text (or indeed any piece of art) if one does not understand it in the context in which it was created. It is likewise intellectually naïve not to attempt to draw conclusions about what that text or piece of art might tell us about ourselves – for example how society has or has not changed over time.

literary criticism

Representations of Gender in Modernist Literature – Virginia Woolf & TS Eliot

A Room of Ones OneModernism has been seen as a response to widespread concern that the traditional ways of representing the world distort actual experience. In The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, Pericles Lewis suggests that modernist literature attempts to respond to this ‘crisis of representation’ by creating literature that is radically different. Attitudes toward gender relations were shifting during this period and thus I suggest that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot seized upon using radically different representations of gender in order to explore their own take on the gender-related concerns of modernity.

Woolf wrote extensively regarding women’s access to a level playing field – be it in marriage or the learned professions. In her essay A Room of One’s Own, she muses suggestively on the fate of William Shakespeare’s imagined sister, Judith, who, although as talented as her brother met with a very different results purely because of her sex. After running away from home to pursue her writerly goals, poor Judith would have been denied the same opportunities to display her talents as her brother would have enjoyed – and hence finally broken by the societal ‘ideas and prejudices’ that blighted her life, after committing suicide and instead of being enshrined as would be her brother, lay buried at ‘some crossroads’ where the ‘omnibuses now stop outside Elephant and Castle’.

In her novel, To The Lighthouse, Woolf evoked images of her own parents to demonstrate the inequalities of the sexes in marriage. Whilst Mr Ramsey (so gruff that he excited in his children such ‘extremes of emotion’ that they fanaticised ‘gashing a hole in his breast’ with any handy sharp object) strutted about pondering great things such as the philosopher David Hume, ‘enormously fat’ and ‘stuck in a bog’, his long-suffering wife, Mrs Ramsey (adored by her numerous children), charitably knitted stockings for the Lighthouse keeper’s son (with a ‘tuberculosis hip’). But whilst Mr Ramsey lived a long, literary life littered with accolades, Mrs Ramsey died young having burned herself out in the service to others (Mr Ramsey was especially needy).

In another novel, Orlando, Woolf evoked representations of the androgynous Tiresias who as punishment for affronting the goddess Hera, was forced to experience life as both a man and a woman. Whilst as a man, the character Orlando lived and loved in unfettered freedom, eventually being appointed ambassador to Constantinople where between long, luxurious lunches, he was ‘kept busy’ with the ‘wax and seals’ and ‘various coloured ribbons’ of officialdom. However upon becoming a woman, Orlando was ‘forced to consider her position’ and with the ‘coil of skirts about her legs’ concluded her life now revolved solely around preservation of her chastity – that ‘jewel’ and ‘centre-piece’ – laying at the foundation of womanhood.

Tracy Hargreaves (Androgyny in Modern Literature) has suggested that for a broad range of writers, the androgyne has signalled both cultural regeneration and degeneration – a disruption in ‘normative’ gendered identities which can be seen as being ‘divine or reviled’. But whilst Woolf takes the position that such disruption would be divine, Eliot seems to suggest that as women become more like men, society suffers.

Certainly this is the picture he presents in his poem, The Waste Land when in the section entitled The Fire Sermon, the ‘bored and tired’ typist returns home from work ‘at teatime’ and ‘lays out food in tins’ before coupling indifferently with her equally uninspiring ‘small house agent’s clerk’. As is well known, androgynous beings cannot reproduce and impotency is an important theme of The Waste Land – much of its symbolism suggestive of the myth of the Fisher King whose damaged sexuality was the cause of his kingdom being infertile and drought-stricken (the poem invokes this from the beginning commenceing with ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’).

In his notes accompanying The Fire Sermon, Eliot states that Tiresias was the most ‘important personage’ in the poem, ‘uniting all the rest’. After witnessing the grim love-making of the typist and clerk, the speaker (presumably still Tiresias), making an allusion to Oliver Goldsmith’s poem When Lovely Woman Stoops to Folly), looks wistfully back in time to the 16th century when a woman ‘knew’ her place as a woman (after illicit promiscuity, she could only hide her shame and die) rather than lackadaisically turning on her ‘gramophone’ as did the ‘bored and tired’ typist, saying ‘Well now that’s done’ and ‘I’m glad its over’ as perhaps might a man. Such reversals of gender can only spell trouble – for with the departure of normative gendered identities all hope of cultural regeneration is now lost (keeping in mind that Tiresias could prophesize the future) and our own civilisation is now destined to fall away as did Carthage – ‘burning burning burning burning’.

literary criticism

The changing fortunes of the ‘author’, ‘reader’, and ‘text’ in English literary criticism

barthes_graphThe interpretation of the relationship between conceptualizations of either author/reader vis a vis their engagement with a literary text and the relative significance of all three have grown increasingly complex and attenuated. It is my view that although such distinctions are of intellectual interest, their only practical benefit being to highlight new and novel parameters through which authors and readers may frame and express their engagement.

During the English reformation Sidney (Defence of Poesy) and Spenser (The Fairie Queen) announced that the purpose of poetry was both to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’. This was to be achieved through mimesis, the process of imitating (with a view to perfecting) nature. Arguably both the author and reader are equal partners in this process – the responsibility for delighting and teaching rests with the (real live) author and responsibility to being delighted and taught rests with a (real live) reader.

In the 18th century, when critics began scrutinising and commenting on various texts, the author arguably began to loose significance in favour of the reader/critic. By the end of the 19th century with poet-turned-critic Matthew Arnold, who espoused an objective criticism of poetry (proper subject matter = proper execution of authorial duties) the focus had shifted almost exclusively to the text leaving the significance of both author and reader in serious question. In the beginning of the 20th century, New Criticism (based on the ideas expressed by TS Eliot in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) picked up this theme of text as good or bad and declared that a text was a self-referential aesthetic object – with authorial intent irrelevant and the role of the reader reduced to determining how the text slotted in (or not) with a historical line of ‘great’ texts.

In the mid 20th century with the advent of the Structuralists, the focus was on identifying similarities and differences amongst texts with a view to finding patterns (theme, design, symbology) common to all texts; in this regard the text remained of primary importance with the author and reader carrying little or no significance.

When the Post- Structuralists pronounced that as Nietzsche has declared there were ‘no facts only interpretations’, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault announced the ‘death of the author’ along with the corresponding ‘birth of the reader’. With this neither ‘author’ nor the ‘reader’ are real, live persons as had previously been understood but a ‘function’ for wielding the (dangerous) political power inherent in words.

With all meaning resting firmly now in the hands of the ‘reader’, other critical theories come into their own – looking for ‘meaning’ outside the text in many different places – for example, in gender politics (feminist and/or gay-lesbian criticism), in culturally determined divisions of society such as class (Marxist criticsm), or in cultural norms, beliefs, and practices (Cultural Materialsm and New Historicism). But by the time the Postmodernists come on board at the end of the 20th century, meaning has become so relational and provisional that it – as well as the authors and readers who would try to pin it down – all but (happily) disappears.

In summary, whether any of these many distinctions from the time Spenser and Sidney to the Postmodernists change the way readers and authors actually engage with their texts is questionable and unless rigorous scientific study is undertaken (to my knowledge this has not been done by any of the critical theorists) we will never know for certain. Hence I suggest that in in the 21st century when an author sits down to write a text he is pretty much still focused on delighting and teaching (or at least delighting should he wish his text to be picked up by mainstream publishing) and when choosing texts to read, readers will quickly put down anything that fails to either delight and/or teach and hence the question of his/her role vis a vis the author and/or text quickly becomes irrelevant. However at least should a reader choose to engage with a text, these critical theories will provide him/her with new and novel ways to frame and express his engagement.

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