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War Poet : Edward Thomas photo

War Poet : Edward Thomas

Biography

Edward Thomas was educated at Oxford University where he studied history. He was known as a critic and as an essayist. He wrote a lot (mainly reviews) but did not get much money.

Thomas started writing poetry in 1913 when he met Robert Frost, who encouraged him to write verse. December 1914 saw his first poems.

Thomas was 37, married and with family when he enlisted in 1915 because of social pressure. He died on Easter Day 1917, without seeing his poetry published under his own name: he was published under the pseudonym “Eastaway”.

He wrote poems during the last 2 years of his life. Considered as a major poet like Auden, Larkin and Walcott, who acknowledged their debts to Thomas.

It is difficult to categorize Thomas: his poetry has been variously described as Nature poetry, Georgian poetry, War poetry and Modernist poetry.

Although he wrote about Nature, it was more about his inner nature. Thomas’s poetry is a complement to Owen’s poetry.

His ideas about England

When asked why he enlisted, Thomas picked up a pinch of earth and said: “literally for this”. He had a deep love for England but did not write chauvinistic poems.

He regarded Coleridge’s poems such as “Fears in Solitude” as humble poems (“Oh dear Britain, O my Mother Isle”)

Thomas’s anthology is entitled This England. It is an allusion to the praise of England made by one of the characters of Richard II by Shakespeare (Act II, sc.1, l.40-50). This anthology is rooted in English traditions and landscape.

His definition of England was: “This England is what we may be Lord of without possessing. England is not an idea, not even a nation but a very specific place, a place that for the poet is home“.

Thus, Thomas’s notion of “Englisheness” is very different from Brooke’s conception in “The Soldier”. There is always a connection between “I” and the external world: Thomas wrote about life, survival, and the cyclically renewal of Nature.

In 1999, more than 60 poets wrote poems in a book called Elected Friends Poems From, For and About Edward Thomas. He is the only poet receiving such a tribute.

War Poet : Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) photo

War Poet : Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Biography

Brooke’s poems were very famous and influential. His War Sonnets, published in 1915, caught very well the mood of the time.

He was born in 1887 in a very wealthy family and was educated at Rugby School and at King’s college, Cambridge.

He was said to be strikingly handsome and the unfair reasons why he was considered a popular war poet was because of both his 5 poems dealing with war and his appearance.

In fact, Brooke’s experience of war was very limited and he was not a war poet in the sense S. Sassoon was. Yet, he had a strong symbolic role: he was a great and beautiful warrior turned into a myth.

Speaking of Brooke, Yeats said he was “the most handsome man in Britain” and Frances Cornford that he was “a young Apollo, with golden hair”.

Churchill himself paid him an homage in 1926 in an article entitled “Obituary”: there is a strong emphasis on Brooke’s romantic death (he died of a fever in 1915) and the construction of the heroic figure. His early death was symbolic of the death of a whole generation of dedicated English youth.

Brooke’s poetry at once reflected the mood of the time. He became a hero for those who needed heroes and that is at the detriment of his poetry.

He was wrongly considered as a war poet: he was a leading figure of the Georgian Movement, a pre-war poet. The most famous poems from War Sonnets are “The Dead” and “The Soldier”.

“The Soldier”, tradition both in its sonnet form and its idealistic patriotic mood, represents the last significant expression of an attitude that could not survive the horrors of trench warfare.

His followers expressed bitterness, irony, a sense of disillusion, loss of values, and had a great literary influence in the postwar period.

World War One poetry : a problematic issue photo

World War One poetry: a problematic issue

Introduction

War poetry is not a school of poetry in itself but it played a tremendous part since it inspired a new birth of inspiration. It was a totally new experience: nothing like that before in poetry, no war like WW1 before.

War had already been a subject for poetry but never with such feelings. In English consciousness, in 1914, war was fought by processionals away from home and many people thought it glamorous.

Before 1914, war poems would have an exotic ending, completely removed from immediate experience. But WW1 is a new experience in the sense that the poets had to find a poetic voice to render what they witnessed.

Poets were ill-equipped because they had no tradition to draw upon, no worthwhile models to imitate.

First, poets imitated anthology pieces or well-established forms like sonnets. Then, they gradually found their own voices.

The Georgian Movement

The Georgian Movement appeared in 1912. Originally, it applied to the writers of George V but the meaning was then restricted to pastoral poetry.

The five volumes of Georgian Poetry appeared between 1912 and 1922. It was very successful but the quality declined in the last volumes. Great influence for many poets.

Several poets, including Sassoon and Blunden, objected to being called Georgian Poets, although they had published poems in the Georgian Anthology.

Note : nowadays, “Georgian” has a rather pejorative and negative connotation. Many critics made it impossible to associate “Georgian” and good poetry, especially because of the importance of modernism which marginalized Georgian Poetry.

G. Poets were mainly blamed for their traditionalism (imitation of their forefathers), for being escapists (attempting to escape from urban and industrial life) and for cultivating false simplicity.

In fact, Georgian Poetry was most interesting than that: the Georgian movement was a reaction against the poetic establishment, embodied by Newbolt.

The first two volumes include many poems but fail to include such poets as Owen (who thought himself Georgian). Marsh is responsible for the Georgian anthology, he made it on subjective grounds: “this volume is issued in the belief that English poetry is now once more putting on a new strength and beauty”.

As a result, the Georgian Movement is quite informal and Georgian Poetry is not homogeneous. There are two phases in Georgian Poetry :

  • Georgian phase proper: 1912-1915 volumes.
  • Neo-Georgian phase.

Phase 1 is the real Georgian Poetry. In 1912, Georgian Poetry was hailed as symbolizing “the new rebellion in English poetry”. Poets have in common to challenge the establishment, the current trends in poetry:

  • Denial of individualism.
  • Virtues of national identity and moral responsibilities.
  • “Poetic diction”, pompous poetry.

By contrast, the aims of Georgian Poetry in Phase 2 was to give a subjective personal response to personal concern to return to Wordsworth and to use a straightforward and casual language (that is why they were blamed for cultivating simplicity).

The Georgian general recommendation was the giving up of complex forms so that more people could read poetry. Georgian Poetry was to be English but not aggressively imperialistic, pantheistic rather than atheistic; and as simple as a child’s reading book.

Traditionalism

Georgian poets were blamed for being traditionalists: they rejected the accepted practices of their days. They tried to react and to follow the lead shown by Wordsworth a century earlier, who wanted to “write in the real language of man”.

They were not only reacting again but also trying to introduce some new keys innovations into English poetry.

Escapism

Georgian poets were said to have ignored the time in which they lived (unlike Newbolt). They wanted to make the poetry reading public, aware of the unpleasant faith of English society. They introduced prostitutes and tramps in their poetry.

Far from being escapist, early Georgian Poetry relied on realism (cf Brook). To make poetry relevant, they adopted a close reflection of real life, common and sordid. They attempted to describe the emotional reality.

Nature was an obsession for the poets: it was used to explore other issues and as a means of communication. Georgian Poetry puts a strong emphasis on emotional response. It is an answer to the increasing complexity of dislocation of the modern world.

Georgian War Poetry

Georgian war poetry is not a homogeneous mass, it changes at the same as new expedience arises from fighting and the life in the trenches. Early poetry written before the battle of the Somme in 1916 :

  • chivalric heroic aspect
  • virtue of sacrifice
  • righteous cause

Leading figures: Brooke, Sorley.

Later poetry (after 1916) :

  • sense of delusionment
  • war felt as senseless
  • cost of war in human terms (casualties)

Leading figures: Sassoon, Owen, Blunden, Rosemberg. Many of the early poems were written by patriotic versifiers.

Many poems (not all) are a mere formula using stereotypes of rhymes etc.

Richard III : the ambiguity of Richard's evil photo

Richard III : Order and Disorder, the Elizabethan problem

It is very often an issue in Shakespeare’s plays. It deals with order and degree: each thing in the Universe has a place in a scale of things.

It is more than a political doctrine: it implies a metaphysical organization of the Universe, which is also linked with theology. We can”t find an exponent of this doctrine, it is everywhere at the back of people’s minds. It is a world picture in the collective unconscious consciousness.

Disorder is the equivalent of the original chaos (as opposed to cosmos). God sustains the world as ordered, holding everything into place: he did not create it once and for all.

Order is the means by which you can judge disorder. The notion of sin also intervenes, at several levels (in the Bible…) :

  1. Revolt of the Bad Angels with Satan
  2. Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden
  3. Murder of Abel by Cain

It constitutes frames of references for the Elizabethan. Sin is the reason for chaos and disorder. The ordering of the world is very complex and means a very specific organization. Every thing has a place, even the slightest one.

They conceived the world as a scale, an infinite ladder with infinite degrees: each thing is both superior and inferior to something else. It is a hierarchical order of things, known as “The Great Chain of Beings”.

One can notice that only Hell escapes this ladder.

Great Chain of Beings

Man has all the possibilities of the earthly existences (he forms a microcosm in the macrocosm of the Universe). The inanimate class nourishes the vegetative class that nourishes… and so on.

Man aspires to the spiritual class. It is very closely linked: the bottom of one class is connected with the top of another class. It is a system of infinite diversity and unity of the Universe.

There is a primate in each class :

  • Birds: eagle
  • Trees: oak
  • Elements: fire
  • Man: King
  • Stars: sun
  • Values: justice
  • Body: head

Man is close to animals in sensuality and to angels in understanding: he is a nodal. For the Elizabethan, man was really himself when he was social. That is why morals and politics were far more important at that time than science.

Man is between Matter and Nature. It is a source of internal conflict because he is always trying to bridge the cosmic gap (to reconcile) the angel and the beast within him.

Macbeth is representative of the human condition but Richard is definitely evil. This brings us to make the difference between being amoral and being immoral.

Someone who is amoral does not have a moral because he does not know what moral is. On the contrary, someone immoral knows exactly what is moral but chooses to turn his back on it. Richard is definitely immoral.

For the Elizabethans, Nature and Creation had done things for the best. That is why Richard accuses Nature and puts the blame on the Creation for being deformed. If he had accepted his rank in the order of things, he would have been alright.

The order of things -the Cosmos- is also based on a series of correspondences between the several levels of beings.

  • heavenly order: God
  • macrocosm: World, Nature (“sub-lunar level”)
  • the state: body politic
  • the body: body natural

Each element at a certain level has another correspondence in another level. In Richard III, Richard the Tyrant (state) is a cripple (body) and at the beginning, the King is sick because the State is sick. In Macbeth, there is an eclipse after Duncan’s death.

The question of evil

The main problem is the question of Evil. How can Evil be possible in a perfect world? Man yielded to the temptation of Evil and sinned. God allowed havoc as a punishment for man’s sins.

Man is the only creature who was given freedom of will and the choice of his own actions. He chose transgression and brought about Evil. Havoc happened because of man but it was also part of God’s plans. Everything is determined by God for the Elizabethans.

In the end, we realize that transgressors are always punished by God, whereas they were successful in the beginning.

In fact, this was not the Elizabethans” picture but the Middle Ages” one. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this world vision has already been questioned by several thinkers and especially by Machiavel, who believed neither in law and order nor in man’s basic goodness.

On one hand, man was capable of understanding what was good (Erected Wit) but on the other hand, there was evil temptation (Infected Will).

For Machiavel, man is basically prone to Evil and disorder is the natural state of man, not the exception. Man is not idealistic but completely cynical.

Machiavel said that through will and determination, man could reach power. The success story of Richard is the mere illustration of The Prince.

Richard’s role is that of the Scourge of God. From the start, he is determined by God but does not realize it.

In the end, machiavellian success is always part of God’s success. See the Wheel of Fortune, ruled by Providence and therefore by God.

Richard III : the ambiguity of Richard's evil photo

Richard III : the ambiguity of Richard’s evil

I. The Vice

The Vice was the favourite character in medieval morality plays. He is both an intriguer and a deceiver. He creates laughter and engages the audience’s sympathy in a conspirational relationship.

Richard generates a special relation between word and deed. He tells the audience what he is going to do, then does it, and finally recalls what he did: his soliloquies and asides create a feeling of conspiracy.

The Vice was also a figure of carnival, who fights the established authority and embodies the audience’s anti-authoritarian impulses. He is an outlet for the people’s frustration.

II. A Monster

Shakespeare has added a physical deformity to the character of Richard because Richard was not a hunchback.

In fact, at that time, deformed people were said to be willing to take revenge against Nature: because they cannot change their lot, they want to bring people down.

Another reason is that showing fairground attractions on stage was a trick often used by Shakespeare to incite people to see his plays. A character both deformed and mobile was a very scary monster.

Lire la suite

A Midsummer Night's Dream : a comedy photo

A Midsummer Night’s Dream : a comedy

titania_oberon_1000 compressor
“Titania with Ass-headed Bottom” by Johann Heinrich Füssli (1793/4)

Introduction

Shakespeare has used many genres to convey his stories, especially comedies, tragedies and historical plays.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a comedy.

A comedy is a kind of drama which is intended primarily to entertain the audience and which usually ends unhappily for the characters. There are:

  • romantic comedies: revolving around love (As you like it).
  • satiric comedies: see French playwright Molière.

I – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the convention of comedy

Shakespeare was influenced by the concept of intertextuality and there are literary interferences all the time in his plays. Shakespeare inherited a tradition derived from Antiquity with Greek and Latin authors such as Aristophanes, Plautus or Terence. It is indulging in a literary exercise:

  • indulge in a game in which high spirits prevail (at least for comedy).
  • celebrate life renewal.

In Molière, you can single out his intention of copying life, distorting it, making fun of it. The social dimension is essential and the satire is intended to bring out a moral lesson at the end. (L’AvareLe Malade Imaginaire).

In Shakespeare’s comedies, there is no satiric excess. They are light-hearted comedies of errors, whose main theme is usually marriage or a celebration of marriage. The spring of comedy is a stratagem of exchanging partners. Lysander and Demetrius suddenly fall in love: beginning of a long qui-pro quo. Helena and Hermia are unaware of what is going on and think they are made fun of.

This type of situation is also drawn from Italian comedy: la “comedia del arte”, based on qui-pro quo, mistakes, mistaken identities and the sudden reversal of relationships. A young woman who is in love with another woman dressed as a man (Twelfth NightAs you like it).

Here, the stratagem is based on the love juice. The comedy implies the participation of the audience on characters. We are aware of the love juice, we know the reason of the misunderstanding and the presence of the fairies. The Duke and Duchess are in the same position as we are, watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The superiority is shown by the audience. This is not found in tragedy: you tend to identify with the characters to the past in their own misery.

It is different from Molière: the comedy has a moral message. The epilogue is an appeal to balance and understanding: “if you pardon we will pardon“: triumph of common sense.

G. Meredith, in The Spirit of Comedy, said: “the comic spirit is the fountain of common sense”. In other words, the aim of the comedy is to re-introduce a balance in the end.

II – Shakespeare’s festive comedy

His comedies are celebrations and the mood is of holidays and festivals, making the whole experience of the play like that of a revel. Seasonal connotation: return of summer, victory of summer over winter.

Spring is the natural renewal. The play is about a midsummer festival and the aim is to celebrate a forthcoming marriage. The whole plot is entertained by music, dancing and disguise. The festival implies an escape to the woods, to a place out of the limits of ordinary society. It is a world set apart, which marks a break in ordinary life because it implies in the remote past: anything can happen. The wood becomes a place of celebration, leading to imagination, freedom, away from the context of social norms and order. Aberrations are things that are not normally tolerated but that are accepted within the norms of the play: we know that in the end, everything goes back to normal. Aberrations are tolerable as long as they do not last.

Because it is a festive comedy, no single characters control comedy, it is always as if it were a group. We have several groups of characters enjoying their own fun and they sometimes meet. Because it is a comedy, it also ends with a reconciliation, a promise of bliss. All negative features have been pushed aside and it brings back the characters to the beginning of the play but not exactly: something has happened in between.

The characters have been through a lot of tension and they have all been affected. Those tensions have been necessary to improve and society is indeed reinforced because the tensions have been solved.

III – A low comedy

The second layer of comedy (Puck, Bottom…) has very little in common with the first one. The people, very ordinary, are better suited for this low comedy. It relies on an absurd situation: the Queen of Fairies falls in love with an ass. The discrepancies appear in the gap between the register, between the message (Titania, declaring her love to Bottom) and the object (an ass): lots of ridiculous situations. There is even a third layer of comedy with Pyramus and Thisbe.

It is a farce: the subject of the play is inappropriate for the circumstances, a tragedy for a marriage celebration. The mechanicals are inappropriate as actors, unfit for the role they have. The play within the play gives way to satire. This other type of comedy is based on exaggeration (Pyramus’ death: “I die I die I die”). Presence of semantic mistakes (‘I’ll aggravate thy voice”): linguistic fun, use of alliterations. If too much, it becomes grotesque. Bottom is also the jester, typical of Elizabethan comedy. He is the fool, a naive instinctive character, an outsider to the main plot and in a good position to express the truth.

Conclusion

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comedies. It is not limited to one single comedy and mixes several dimensions: that is what makes it interesting. It is also more than a comedy in the sense that it could have become a tragedy.

Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream photo

Structure in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I – Characters and structure

Multiplicity of lines. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is remarkable for the many levels of its text. The play is different from Romeo and Juliet or the Taming of the Shrew (which have one main plot) because of the various levels of plots and characters.

There are 4 levels: Theseus and Hippolyta, the young lovers, the mechanicals, and the fairies.

There are connections between:

  • Theseus & Hippolyta and the young lovers: made by Theseus, member of court.
  • The young lovers: connection through marriage.
  • The mechanicals: difference in substance, in social background. Bottom does represent the bottom in many ways, carpenter, weaver, taller…

It is not so much similarity as contrast. It is more from one social circle to the opposite. Shakespeare often involves the lower order of society. The justification is not simply methodological but also social. In the end, the play is a picture of the society (with top and lower orders).

There is a gradation in that social order: from the Duke to the normal people. This enables Shakespeare to make philosophical and social comments on the way society works ( harmony, balance, social order). High society does not necessarily embody perfection.

The introduction of Bottom has a farcical dimension, linked to the Duke and his lover. The connection between the Duke and Bottom exists because the play is put up to pay homage to the Duke and his future wife.

Fairies and friends: break in social circle but also in tone. Fairies take us into the realm of fantasy. There is a balance between couples: the Duke and the future Duchess, Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon and Titania. The first two couples are to be connected.

Opposition between mortals and immortals. Oberon and Titania argue, they are supposed to be invisible. Theseus and Hippolyta are flesh and blood mortals.

Oberon and Titania fall in love at first sight, have exaggerated demands and quarrel like any ordinary couple: they behave like old mortals.

The plot has been compared to a dance in which you exchange partners with 3 positions:

  • Hermia and Lysander.
  • Hermia rejected, Lysander and Demetrius fighting for Helena.
  • return to harmony.

It also follows the musical tone of the play.

II – Plot and structure

A – City of tension which seems to jeopardize the forthcoming activities

Conflict between father and daughter. Impact on the whole society: Elizabethan theory about balance. The rebellion by two individuals also implies a rejection of the norms of he society. The lovers rejecting the laws of Athens have to leave and go to the woods.

Rejection of authority (both the father’s and the Prince’s authority). Consequently, the woods function as a sheltering place.

B – The forest

Opposition between the town and the country: Athens~wood and culture~nature. The woods are a rich symbolic place in literature: they are a going back to nature, a return to something which is simple and unsophisticated.

The wood is a place of freedom as opposed to the constraints of the law of society, where one can break the rigidity of concentration of the city life. It is a beneficent place where the spirit of rebirth and rejuvenation is to be found.

It is a place of fun (break of rigidity) but also a dangerous place because it is dark and you can face a lion (Pyramus and Thisbe). Wild animals and wild men. It is a kind of maze, a labyrinth where you are likely to lose your wy and yourself (it is nearly what happened to Titania).

The wood is the symbol of the unconscious (c.f.. E. Young). We are in the realm of fantasy and imagination. It destabilizes but at the same time, it is also the forest that enables the return to contentment and order. It is a kind of necessary passage. The disorder of the forest enables a return of the end:

  • wood v. Athens
  • rational v. irrational
  • night v. day
  • waking v. dreaming

The play is a parenthesis in everyday life, it is festive. Holiday time: allowed to break the rules (law v. transgression).

C – Return to harmony – recovery – wedding festivities

It is a comedy: all is well that ends well. It would be wrong to say that the end is a return to the beginning: you cannot forget what happened in between : they achieved serenity and acceptance of authority.

The final act is often interpreted as a conclusion (postlude) to the whole play (see Act 5, scene1, l.414: Puck’s and Oberon’s comments at the end of the play.

III – A play within the play

The play has an embedded structure, with a flash of genius which contributes to the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Introduction of a ridiculous character, Bottom, whom Titania must fall in love with (Oberon’s plan is to make Titania ridiculous).

Pyramus and Thisbe are parallel to the main subject. The play is about going into the woods and face the danger.

The tone of the subplot turns into comedy and verges on farce. These actors are unfit to be actors: this creates a discrepancy between the main plot and the subplot, which is very funny.

The play reminds us of Romeo and Juliet: split, tension, family disunion but the most important justification is probably Shakespeare’s reflection on dramatic art: absence of women, problems of representation (moon..), and liability (the lion is not a real lion: how to persuade the public..). It is a mockery of bad drama: plenty of mispronunciations. Good example of “mock tragedy”.

It is easy to consider the subplot as a parody of the main plot. The play is very complex and parallels the complexity of themes and tones, and so many disconnected elements fit in so nicely in the end: that can account for the success of the play. The beginning and the end are set in the city, the middle is set in the woods.

Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream photo

Introduction to A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Place of the play in Shakespeare’s work

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most famous and successful nplays by Shakespeare.

The play is part of the early work of Shakespeare (1554-1616), it was written and performed in 1595-1596, just after The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

There is a connection between Pyramus & Thisbe and Romeo & Juliet: one character kills himself because he thought his love is dead (the tragedy of misunderstanding). It proves that Shakespeare could write a tragedy and a comedy at the same time.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we have a tragedy within the comedy. The theme of rebelling children against their parents: 2 families at war but united through the love of their children.

Shakespeare could write in different moods at the same time: it goes very quickly from tragedy to comedy. Even in a comedy, there is a substance of truth, of seriousness. A comedy is not empty of meaning.

Shakespeare’s last play is The Tempest (1611) and it is regarded as his testament for prosperity. Ariel is a kind of fairy, like Puck. Both plays have the same background of magic and fairies, and the episodes lead to a moral favol as an explanation of life’s mysteries: the surface of events and the meaning of events (more important).

Sources of the play

A Midsummer’s Night Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most leaned plays. Lots of information he took here and there:

  • Plutarch’s life.
  • Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Shakespeare borrowed Titania, who appeared as Diana.
  • Huon de Bordeaux (medieval French romance): Shakespeare borrowed Oberon.
  • Chaucer, The Knight’s Tale (love story).
  • and mythological references: Apollo…

Shakespeare put together all those apparently defragmented pieces to create an entirely original plot, which looks like a patchwork. His genius resides in the creation of something new in spite of the diversity of the elements.

Reception of the play

The play was not immediately admired.

18th century: the literary world showed skepticism towards it. It was the age of Reason and Enlightenment and the play had too little reason. 19th century: the judgments became more positive. Chesterton called it “the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays”. and Frank Kermade “Shakespeare’s best comedy”.

Why was it so popular ? Because it was most frequently performed and gave a lot of possibilities for stage directions. Shakespeare introduced a lot of singing and music so that it was easier for the audience and the actors to enjoy the play.

It is a comedy in which one past is hilarious but also a play with lots of ambiguities (position of women, position of the State). It is also a play with an usual modern dimension (sexual references).

The opening scene (Act I, scene 1, up to l.57)

It usually defines the setting and the characters and foreshadows what will come next. It can be divided into 2 parts:

     1- the dialogue between Theseus and Hippolyta
     2- Egeus’ complaint about his own daughter Hermia: we do not learn more about her but it is enough to show her determination.

A. Introduction scene

The Duke of Athens: enables Shakespeare to write about a very solemn character, a member of the royalty: he starts from the top characters to the lower characters.

Egeus is a well know name for it belongs to mythology although we may wonder if he is the same as the mythological Egeus. At least it rings with it.

There is no date: the Athens we are presented with is not 16th century but related to antiquity. It is not obvious how much the audience is aware about that: it addresses an educated audience.

We are given one aspect of Theseus (the statesman), far from the mythological killer of beasts. He suggests authority and love and has 2 dimensions: the statesman (public image) and the personal impending marriage (private). The theme of marriage is present in the very first sentence.

Hippolyta is the Queen of the Amazons. She has been vanquished by Theseus in one of his military fights: “I wooed her with my sword“: she was captured by him. We may question this relationship: it has to do with power and not love (the alliteration in “w” is not accidental).

Time: 4 happy days. The scene tells the audience that the wedding is due to take place in 4 days. In fact, the play would last two days and one night.

B. Human relationships

Egeus’ complaint is the story of a rebelling daughter, it is almost a monologue, deeply anchored in the myth of vexation: the rhetorical inversions are a way of giving more strength to vexation.

It is about a father/daughter relationship. And the theme of rivalry between the 2 young men Demetrius and Lysander:

  • “Stand forth Demetrius”
  • “Stand forth Lysander”

Each of them represents one conception:

  • Demetrius: can marry someone even if there is love.
  • Lysander: it should be based upon love.

Love is irrational. Hermia pleads for feelings and her father for reasons. Children should be totally subservient to their father: “As she is mine, I may dispose of her“. The play poses the problem of woman’s condition.

C. The Moon

The moon appears 28 times in the play. It is one of the richest symbols you can think of.

In the beginning, the moon is too slow to appear. It is the moon that gives blessing to their wedding.

“Pale companion is not for our pomp”: coldness, chastity, frigidity: the moon is sad and therefore incompatible with the spirit of mirth (incompatible with the play ?). The play is imbued with the spirit of night (A Midsummer Night‘s Dream), it i a kind of fantasy.

Summary of the plot

Theseus and Hippolyta are about to get married. A group of mechanicals want to prepare a play for their marriage. In parallel to that, Helena loves Demetrius who loves Hermia who loves Lysander. The Queen and King of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, have been quarrelling about a young motherless boy. The couple is split and she is strong will.

Oberon asked his servant Puck to drop some magic juice on Titania’s eyelids so that she would fall in love with the first person she wood meet: that would be Bottom, disguised in donkey by Puck.

Oberon also asked Puck to drop magic juice on Lysander and Demetrius but Puck makes a mistake: Hermia is rejected and Helena is loved by both Demetrius and Lysander. In the end, everything returns and finishes with 3 weddings.

The play: Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus finds Thisbe’s piece of cloth blooded as if Thisbe had been eaten by a lion and kill himself. Thisbe comes back and sees Pyramus dead. She kills herself.

Different interpretations

  • theme of interest: lyricism and poetic beauty of the play.
  • becoming aware of the violence and madness of the play.
  • notion of power: political power (Duke of Athens), power relationships between men and women.
  • interpretation of love: romantic presence of love or cynical interpretation of love (all delusion): which type of love is it ?
  • fantastic dimension.
  • very performing play : play action.
Introduction to A Midsummer Night's Dream photo

Background of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Introduction

The characters are set in a given space and time. Shakespeare draws his material from a large body of social background, historical facts and myth: let us see the Greek background, the May festivities, and the fairies and spirits.

I – Greek background

The play is set in early Greece, in Athens. It is unexpected as so much of the play seems so typically England. Shakespeare was writing at the time where antiquity was the cultural reference, although the English Renaissance was more and more regarded.

But outside inspiration from Italy and Greece, Ovid, Aristofane, Plato, Aristotle were the early writers who set the norms of literature. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are set in these settings (Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice, The Twelfth Night..).

The Greek setting is a serious frame of reference, which the educated audience would immediately recognize. It also provides a warranty of seriousness and sets a distance from 16th century England: it enables Shakespeare to contemplate his society while distancing it in the past, which was important because playwrights were very dependent on sponsors and political power.

This Athenian background represents order and reason, all the more appropriate as it serves to emphasize the fantastic aspect of the forest. The story of Theseus and Hippolyta refers to Plutarch and Ovid.

Theseus was famous for his adventures and exploits. He got lost in the labyrinth and was saved by Ariane. He killed the Minotaur, kidnapped Hippolyta, and tried to marry her before he eventually married Phaedra.

Considering Shakespeare’s views of the myth, the reader is not sure who Hippolyta was. In theory, she represents female power, independence. Amazons were rebels and did not accept male supremacy.

Males were considered as procreation objects and the male child was usually got ridden of. The Amazons have usurped masculine power and authority. Hippolyta is a concrete woman, she looks passive: the contrary of an Amazon. She is an example of a dominated woman (dominated by her future husband).

Although admired for his courage, Theseus was known for his betrayal of women (not an example of fidelity). The play is about fidelity and betrayal (the disorder of love): Theseus could not be faithful to one woman.

Two fathers: Egeus and Neptune. Association between a mortal and a god. It is said that his birth was the result of a female trick: dangers and complexity of love relationship.

It would be possible to interpret the forest as a labyrinth, it is a place where you can easily get lost.

II – May festivities

Feast days: Christmas, Mayday, Midsummer, harvest time. Some ambiguity about “May”: month but also the hawthorn bush (may pole) which blossoms in May.

The golden bough: in May, there was a custom to go out to the wood to cut the maypole and bring the spirits of the tree home.

For Shakespeare, there is a tradition of going to the woods and bring back flowers as a sign of fertility, luck, hope and protection. Sexual dimension in this game: “the green gown“.

Shakespeare was elaborating on a very famous theme: a night out with a ritual about vegetation, return to nature and celebration of luck.The Queen or King of May are covered with flowers.

In the play, Oberon is covered with leaves. The Lord of Misrule, Pluck, upsets the order of the ceremony and plays tricks on participants. His confusion of identity can be seen as a way of upsetting order.

This rite does not necessarily takes place in May: it is also on Midsummer night & day. Shakespeare mixes the rite of May and of Midsummer (although similar). Midsummer eve: 23rd of June. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, the beginning of summer, bonfires. The fire is a protection against witchcraft, cattle diseases, all sort of evil. There are no bonfires in the play.

Notion of turning point: end of spring, beginning of summer, longest day and beginning of shorter days. Midsummer is also associated with magic, spirits would be in the air during that night.

III – Fairies and spirits

The Fairies are part of the Elizabethan folk culture. Most people believed that they did exist (especially lower classes). As for their size, we tend to imagine small spirits; the problem is Titania’s size: she is large enough to be able to hold Bottom in her arms. They have the power of curing most diseases using plants but occasionally they could also do harm.

“They step out of a tradition of infernal connections and dark deeds”. Oberon has been taken out of a Huon de Bordeaux, Titania from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (derived from Diana, connected with the moon).

Robin Goodfellow (Puck): in fact Pouke, meaning devil or demon. Puck belongs to a different background from Oberon and Titania: p.37, we learn that he is half animal and half-human, with hoofs and arms like the devil, pointed ears, and a mischievous look.

Yet, he has a neat beard and a benevolent face (opp. to the devil). Creatures resembling witches are dancing around him. He has got a huge penis: a connection with life. He holds a broom in his left hand: Puck was known to do housework at night.

l.378: “Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hollowed house
I am sent with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door
“.

Puck is half devil, famous for his tricks and pranks. Act II, sc.1: mischievous but at the same time: “they shall have good luck“.

Puck’s ambiguity is remarkable, he has a power of transformation.

Very rich background of myth and folklore that Shakespeare borrowed and re-arranged in the play. It is not gratuitous for it adds up depth in the text. It also adds the fairy dimension, the mystery of a transcendent reality.

Introduction to

The dramatic quality in Macbeth

The order of sins are always strategically ordered :

In Act I scene 2, Duncan is told about Macbeth’s valorous qualities and Cawdor’s sins.

In act I scene 3, the witches call Macbeth successively “Thane of Glamis”, “Thane of Cawdor” and “King”.

It creates dramatic irony: we know something about the character that he still ignores. Moreover, the technique of using a prophecy, that is to say a prolepsis tends to add tension and suspense.

Violence is present throughout the whole play and is part of Shakespeare’s tradition of gore, like in all his revenge tragedy. It does not bother Shakespeare to show murders, blood or violence on stage, like in Titus Andronicus or Troilus and Cressida.

When a war is shown on stage, it is to embody disorder and a certain amount of chaos. The actors are then entering and exiting, fighting, and falling down. But the more violent scene for the audience remains the child murder. It was the deepest evil for the Elizabethans.

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Political questions in

Political questions in Macbeth

Political questions are typical of the Renaissance: it is due to the inheritance of rulers by divine right.

Malcolm, the oldest of Duncan”s sons, is declared heir to the throne and Prince of Cumberland. Like Richard III, Macbeth wants to disrupt the natural order of things.

At the end of Macbeth, just like in Richard III, the natural order is restored (“Hail, King of Scotland”) and the divine right is respected.

The feudal social organization is based on duty, loyalty, and allegiance to the King. All these virtues are violated by Macbeth.

Like disorder, treason is unnatural. A traitor is an unnatural subject. In II, 2 Macduff discovers the dead King and describes the deed as the “most sacrilegious murder” and the murderer as “a new Gorgon“. Killing a rightful monarch is an offense to order.

In II, 4, 5 we see that what happens on earth is closely linked to what happens in the “skies”. The events on earth (“sublunary”) are so horrible that an eclipse occurs, meaning that the sun dares not happen. The murder of a King is unnatural, horrible, and impossible to name.

The whole play is based on the contrast between true royalty and tyranny. Duncan is the good King and Macbeth is the Tyrant. The subjects love the good King but fear the tyrant like in V, 2, 19: “Nothing in love” .

In V, 3, Macbeth boasts himself to have a spy in each of his subjects” house. The tyrant used to have spies. Macbeth is unfair (like Richard III) and Justice is the main quality of a good ruler. The abuse of power is shown in Act V, sc3, v11.

Macbeth is gradually more and more lonely and less and less communicative. He fears himself, perhaps because if he has killed the King, he can be killed too.

What is a good ruler ?

This question is set everywhere in Shakespeare”s works (see The Tempest). A good ruler has to be the natural heir of the throne and needs culture, knowledge, and prudentia.

In Act IV, sc3, Malcolm is precocious and aware that “a good man can turn evil / A bad man can turn good”.

Malcolm is not as naive as his father. He will test Macduff, whom he thinks is one of Macbeth”s spies, by pretending to be totally awful. Malcolm recounts Cawdor”s death in I, 4. He is aware of Man”s nature and tells how Cawdor, a bad man, turned repentant.

Macbeth is compared to Satan because he is so valorous and close to the king that he thinks he can take his place. The central moral debate is how could Satan, so close to perfection, rebel against God.

The answer is plain: because of jealousy. Macbeth was Duncan”s favourite knight just like Satan was God”s favourite angel.

Malcolm has prudentia and has learnt to be aware of traitors. Macbeth is tempted and falls. Malcolm is even aware that fall is part of Human Nature.

It was the post-lapsarian period: everybody can fall and no one is innocent. The link between Macbeth and Satan resides in the name of Macbeth”s servant, Seyton.

Introduction to

Introduction to Macbeth

Macbeth was written by Shakespeare between 1603 and 1606, between Caesar and Hamlet. It is the story of a murderer and usurper, like Richard III or Claudius (Hamlet) from crime to crime to achieve security. Macbeth is a villain but a more humanized character compared to Richard.

Macbeth is a noble and gifted man. He chooses treachery and crime, knows them for what they are and is totally aware he is doing evil. Evil is concentrated in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are influenced by the Weird Sisters.

The play examines the possibilities of evil and centres on the villain-hero. We find good only in secondary characters like Duncan or Malcolm. Macduff is the righteous character. Macbeth is a tyrant (Cf Richard III) and Malcolm will be the good king (Cf Richmond).

The supernatural powers are represented by the Weird Sisters and Hecate, standing for the side of evil (disorder) and by the King of England, standing for the side of good (order). The symbolism is obvious: it is light versus darkness, angels Vs devils and heaven Vs hell.

The character of Macbeth is interesting because he is fully conscious of the horror of his deeds. Indeed, we learn in the beginning of his soliloquies that he knows very well what is good: in Act I, sc2, l.13, there is an enumeration of all reasons why he should not kill Duncan. Macbeth is tortured between his erected wit and his infected will.

Macbeth is the story of the temptation of a good man by witches. It is comparable to Adam and Eve with the Serpent. Lady Macbeth is the one who is really tempted.

There is also a sort of philosophical issue: Macbeth is a brave soldier but a moral coward too: he is a brutal murderer feeling guilty. It is a moral dimension that does not exist in Richard III.

The play is therefore more subtle since we find the presence of evil in the virtuous and of good in the wicked. It is not a manichean word: “our life is a mingled yarn, good and evil together” (All’s Well that Ends Well).

The Thane of Cawdor is a traitor and he dies in I,4. But we learn that even the wicked can have virtue through repentance. It announces the other side.

The fundamental moral issue is that evil is made possible because of man’s free will. Moral damnation is possible because man has understanding and can make the difference between good and evil.

Awareness and clairvoyance make moral judgements possible. Macbeth is perfectly aware and morally conscious. The tragedy lies all in both being aware and being courageous -it is the fate of the tragic hero.

Macbeth is not a manichean vision of man. Richard III is the villain as hero but Macbeth is the hero who becomes a villain.

The emphasis is on the process of turning evil. Hence, it is fundamental that, from the start, Macbeth should be presented as a hero: “for brave Macbeth” (I, 2, 16).

At first, he is a very brave soldier but he is ambitious and wants to satisfy his wife who is even more ambitious. He will seize the opportunity to get the crown. But he made a misjudgment between temporal good (crown) and eternal good (heaven). Macbeth has awareness but his judgement is weak: he is very much influenced by his wife.

Shakespeare decided to show the steps by which a noble man is made to his damnation, to depict a man lured by evil. The more evil Macbeth is, the more isolated he becomes.

Shakespeare could not show a devil at the time of the Renaissance (for it was considered as comical at that time) so he showed witches instead, who were human beings that had given their souls to the Devil).

Witches are not naturally evil. They have to become evil, just like Macbeth. Like Parcae, the three sisters are weaving human destiny. They represent fate and humans who have become evil. They know the past, govern the present and can foresee the future.

They appear at the beginning, announce Macbeth’s rise and finally his fall: mainly at strategic moments. They only tempt Macbeth because he is ambitious and responsible. Ambition and his wife’s influence will lead him to murder Duncan. Everything is motivated by fear.

The ultimate evil is always a child murderer. Banquo is killed because he represented a living reproach for Macbeth: Banquo did not yield to temptation and remained loyal. It is a vicious circle for Macbeth: after murdering Duncan, he has to murder Banquo. Macbeth’s solitude increases with the number of crimes.

The recurrent idea in Macbeth is that the more you fall into evil, the less free you are. Indeed, Macbeth has less and less choice. He has to do evil and he feels less and less guilty by doing so. Guilt was good because it showed him the difference between good and evil. Macbeth’s will is infected.

Lady Macbeth is less aware of this difference between good and evil. At the end, when consciousness comes back to her, she tries to wash her hands during her sleep, just like Pontius Pilate. It is interesting to notice that sleepwalking was a sign of possession by the Devil in Shakespeare’s times.