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19th century literary movements : Realism and Naturalism photo
Jean-François Millet, Des Glaneuses, 1857.

Introduction

Realism and Naturalism are a reaction against Romanticism (imagination, poetry and prose, as well as the main themes : nature, exoticism, history, and heroes depicted as exceptional individuals) because it was thought to have lost touch with the contemporary.

Three revolutions took place during the 19th century : the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and the moral revolution.

In Great Britain, the Victorian Era lasted from 1837 to 1901. In the USA, the Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865.

The industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution was started by the invention of the steam machine (coal, railways, factories). All this happened in the cities : the increase of the population led to misery and social problems such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, prostitution… There was a shift from a belief in progress to an increasing pessimism.

The scientific revolution

The Scientific Revolution expanded in the transport revolution, started by the steam engine:

  • 1830: Manchester-Liverpool railway
  • 1869: Transcontinental railway in the USA
  • Thomas Edison invents the gramophone, the light bulb and the electric chair
  • Pierre and Marie Curie discover radioactivity…

The world was changing extremely fast.

Auguste Comte (1798–1857) is at the origin of a philosophical theory called Positivism. He devised the “law of three stages” : (1) the theological, (2) the metaphysical, and (3) the positive.

The theological phase of man was based on whole-hearted belief in all things with reference to God. God, Comte says, had reigned supreme over human existence pre-Enlightenment. Humanity’s place in society was governed by its association with the divine presences and with the church. The theological phase deals with humankind’s accepting the doctrines of the church (or place of worship) rather than relying on its rational powers to explore basic questions about existence.

Comte describes the metaphysical phase of humanity as the time since the Enlightenment, a time steeped in logical rationalism, to the time right after the French Revolution. This second phase states that the universal rights of humanity are most important. The central idea is that humanity is invested with certain rights that must be respected. In this phase, democracies and dictators rose and fell in attempts to maintain the innate rights of humanity.

The final stage of the trilogy of Comte’s universal law is the scientific, or positive, stage. The central idea of this phase is that individual rights are more important than the rule of any one person. Science is paramount and can give man absolute knowledge and power.

The moral revolution

The moral revolution marked the end of the hypocrisy of the Victorian morality. In the Origin of Species (1859), Darwin suggested for the first time that man descended from apes : there was no need for God, just a struggle for life (“survival of the fittest”). Darwin influenced Marx (communism and class warfare) and Nietsche (vision of super-man).

Conflicts and struggles define the future of society. It was a time of intense philosophy, and moral and scientific changes.

Realism

Realism is the fact of being faithful to reality. It was a movement away from romantic illusion, in order to get closer to the social and psychological reality of the time. It is the belief there can be a correspondence between reality and its representation.

Reality is a subject matter : the life of ordinary people in ordinary situations – for instance the bourgeois middle-class as exceptional people are not realistic. Balzac talked about every classes of society but very often, he selected.

Reality is also a matter of verisimilitude : how characters are determined by their environment, chronological narratives, psychological dimension of the characters, presence of an omniscient narrator.

Realism in England

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was a realistic who lived during romanticism but she was not romantic at all. She described middle classes in the countryside (how to get married) with two types of heroines : romantic on the one hand and reasonable and realistic on the other hand.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) defined realism with a strong social dimension : he portrayed the working class and the poor, and dealt with poverty and revolt against injustice. Dickens’ characters are defenseless orphans in a cruel world and his novels were used for social reforms.

In Oliver Twist (1838), there is sentimentality and pathos (influence of melo-drama) but also humour and caricature to alleviate tensions.

Uriah Heep in David Copperfield (1850) is evil, ugly, red-haired and smelled a fish. This romantic realism depicted social problems as well as imagination and sentimentality.

Reading Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine at Madame Geoffrin’s salon, painted in 1812 by Gabriel Lemonnier (1743-1824). DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

Introduction

The 18th Century can be dubbed “the Age of Enlightenment” as it was marked by French philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau or Diderot (the Encyclopédie was published in 1761).

The Enlightenment is characterized by the belief of natural goodness of man : man is perfectible, it is the idea of progress obtained through the use of reason. Since man is naturally good, all bad things come from society : if we could fight prejudices and oppressive social institutions, man would be better. It’s a question of education : political and social reforms would bring man happiness. These are the principles of the French Revolution.

The situation is different in the United Kingdom. The revolution has already been made : the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 established a parliamentary monarchy but it was not a democracy since you needed to be rich to go to Parliament.

John Locke, a famous British philosopher, influenced the notion of parliamentary democracy. He was a predecessor of the Enlightenment but his ideas were only applied in America after the War of Independence (1776-1782). The American Constitution was applied in 1789. In the USA, there is a republican government with a president and a principle of equality in front of the law : “everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a truly optimistic belief in man and happiness, and in progress and reason.

The end of the 18th century saw an evolution : the development of the rational and the irrational. There were general changes in taste in arts in the 1750’s :

  • rococo and its myriad of details
  • primitivism (more simple) and its two sides : neoclassicism and its imitation of Greek and Latin architecture (strict and rational), and the Gothic revival.

Primitivism

Primitivism is connected to a new vision of nature. Instead of being addicted to laws, nature became a sentimental reference. It helps you meditate, find yourself – it’s a new conception of life. Nature is not a rational entity any longer but it is sentimentalized. This shift can also be seen in gardening : French gardens were less controlled, more spontaneous than British gardens for example.

Cult of “sensibility”

Feelings were seen as an essential part of human nature, that should be expressed rather than repressed:

  • romanticism is based on the expression of feelings
  • humanitarianism is the sentimental promotion of feelings and asks how feelings affect our minds through compassion for the poor and unhappy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau in La Nouvelle Héloïse glorifies passions and feelings, and as such can be considered a pre-romantic writer.
  • the development of a new type of psychology : our sensations influence our minds.

The Rise of the Novel

During the 18th century, the modern novel came into being and became the most important genre in literature.

The novel is characterized by its realism and simplicity :

  • the characters are not noble but middle-class characters
  • it is often presented as autobiographies, letters or journals : it looks ordinary, the language is not difficult, the style is simple – all that make novels very realistic.

Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Defoe created a new way of thinking. He was Protestant and took side for the Protestant capitalistic values, advocating thrift and perseverance.

Samuel Richardson, who wrote Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748), was a pioneer in the sentimental novel and psychological novel.

Henry Fielding, who wrote Joseph Andrew (1742) and Tom Jones (1749), was a specialist in comedy and parody. His books are anti-sentimental.

Lawrence Sterne, author of Tristan Shandy (1759), showed the artificiality of the novel. He questioned the conventions of the genre through the use of digressions, self-referentiality and puns.

Two traumatic events can explain the context of Gothic and Romanticism : the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Sommaire de la série 19th Century Literary Movements

  1. The 18th Century : the Age of Enlightenment
  2. The Gothic and the Fantastic
  3. The 19th Century : Romanticism in Art and Literature

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 prewar 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, sense of disillusion, loss of values and had a great literary influence in the postwar period.

“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.

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 enable Shakespeare to make philosophical and social comments on the way society works ( harmony, balance, social order). High society does not necessarily embodies 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.

Place of the play in Shakespeare’s work

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most famous and successful Shakespeare’s plays. 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 (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. 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. 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 symbol you can think of. At 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

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 devil). Creatures resembling witches are dancing around him. He has got a huge penis: 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.

I. Writing the territory: the literature of discovery and exploration

Started as a vision in Europe: it is a product of literary imagination. America existed only as a literary object that was represented in the writings of Europeans who first visited America. They brought back their own visions, written in Spanish or French and not in English.

16th century: the English knew about America through outside texts, not from English texts.
1670’s: English mariners started exploring the North American coast.

The creation of American literature goes hand in hand with the first permanent colonies at Jamestown, Plymouth, Boston, Charleston or Philadelphia. In the language, American in temperament and in tone, the literature of the colonists was different from the exotic narratives of the explorers (i.e. "land of miracles", "eldorado"). The literature of the colonists shows a contradictory mixture of terror and exaltation before the magnitude of the land.

However, more often than not, the literature of the first settlers shows that it was difficult to maintain a positive attitude toward America. George Percy’s Discourse on the Plantation (1607) shows that the writers saw America as a land of "meadows and goodly tall trees" and people as "miserable distressed". So there are full of ambivalence and contradictions. America is the land of the new beginning and opportunities but also a beautiful land of difficulties (sacrifices, isolation, and hard work). Ambivalence is an important factor of American literature. This first contradictory experience will mark American literature with its most nasty and characteristic voice, created out of actions rather than imagery or contemplation.

The narratives of Captain Smith are big examples of the American new character: the narration of the internal life of the individuals goes hand in hand with the external description of the land. There’s a constant dialogue between the mind of the individual and Nature. It’s always Nature that has a strong effect on the mind of the individuals. Human minds only change with confrontations with Nature.

European literature was more based on contemplation whereas American literature was a concrete experience with Nature: that makes a huge philosophical difference. Captain Smith wrote:

  • A true relation (1608)
  • A map of Virginia (1612)
  • The general Historie of Virginia, New England and
    the Summer Isles

The work of Capt. Smith is representative of a specific literary character in the sense that they show a deeply American theme: the theme of the relations between geographical exploration and individual exploration: by discovering the land, the individual also discovers himself. Self-exploration and geographical exploration came together. With the change of the colonies and their social needs, there was also a change in writings. The writer’s role now consisted in more than observing and depicting the land.

At the end of the 17th century, American literature still showed the discovery of literature: same themes, same lyricism, poetic quality and sense of actions but despite this influence, a more abstract type of literature was now emerging. For instance, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1650) concentrates on the complexity and difficulties of colonial administration as well as a social organization of the community.

In the final analysis, the ambivalence of exploration and discovery in American literature reveals another kind of ambivalence. It is the ambivalent relationship but also the ambivalent contrast between the positive and the negative, good and evil, utopia and tragedy. This type of ambivalence remains the most characteristic territory explored by the first writers of America. Emerging from the magnitude and the complexity of the land itself, this ambivalent vision would determine the American literary and popular imagination. Even today, it still represents a very important aspect of the American literary sensibility.

II. An authentically American literature ? Textual appropriations, generic influences and innovations

To many observers, the idea of an authentically American literature seems to be a paradox. Many would think American literature emerged and developed in the shadow of the English literary tradition. However, this paradox is only apparent: the authentically American literature is like every literary innovation, it always needs some influences for inspiration.

At the same time, those influences are little by little changed through authentic innovations (first they borrowed, then they changed). In this sense, literary texts of the New World are both an extension of English literature and a new creative body of literature. The relationships of continuity between English and American literature comes from a common cultural and national heritage: religious, ethnic, historical and linguistic relationships.

There are some similarities between English and American education: in both countries, the major subjects like Latin, Philosophy and History are very important (as well as Greek and Roman literature). Concerning the common heritage, both people and colonists shred the memory of the English Reformation and thought of themselves as elect nations. With the Reformation, we see the myth of England as an elect nation divided by the Puritan Saints. They were a special nation from the start: "God owns the country".

The colonists and the English people identified with the myth of the elect nation by means of religion: the most important and legitimate text was the Vernacular Bible (Geneva version) in 1560 written by Calvin. Other texts:

  • John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563)
  • Edmund Spencer, Faerie Queen (1590)

More important: what happened from the heritage is a common vision of the individual reflected in two major aspects of the protestant literary and existential experience:

  • The strict application of every event in the Bible to the individual (develop their own ideas in relation with the Bible, standard for the right personal behavior and code for the Puritans).
  • The perception of historical events as the predestined fulfillment of biblical events as they apply to the elect nation.

These two common aspects of colonial and English experience made many English writers to consider America as a special and elect land. Many thought that an English/American Reformation was going to happen in America. The English religious poet George Herbert expressed this historical and religious continuity between England and America:

"Religion stands on tiptoe in our
Land,
Readie to pass the American
Strand" ….The Temple, 1633

No surprise that the sense of a shared heritage came from a common imaginary perception of the New World: religion shaped perceptions. One of imaginary vision of America is the myth of Arcadia that shows a contrast between peaceful, simple life in nature and corruption in city life. [Nature is always seen as positive].

The myth of arcadia is found in many pastoral poems and romances and in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). America is not a secular utopia and is unseparable from the biblical visions of the continent as a new Eden or a new Israel (parallel between the Puritan’s crossing of the ocean and the exodus of Moses’ s people). The myth of America as a new Eden is finally restored to its innocence. It was also reinforced by the English literary tradition of utopia:

  • Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)

The conception of America also finds its way into Puritanism for the notion of the holy community was also a kind of utopia. The prose forms that appeared during the English Reformation had a tremendous influence on American literature. The most important of those prose forms is the sermon, influenced by the religious community, which became a biblical sensibility. In poetry as well as in prose, the writers of New England appropriated biblical references, imagery and themes. They used biblical imagery and themes in order to represent historical events as a realization of the Protestant world vision. The others forms of literary production existed in colonial America: poetry and prose about the analysis and the exploration of the individual (mind, body and soul): introduction of the meditation, journal, diary, (auto) biography and lyric poetry. Purpose: self-improvement and self-help. The world vision of Protestantism is presented as a central element in judging individual human experience. The most important criteria of self-judgement derived from the Bible: literature of introspection and self-exploration:

  • The narrative of the Exodus: very beginning of America and hope to reach a better land.
  • Paul’s metaphors on Christian pilgrimages and warfare: must go to a better place.
  • The conception of the Christian life as "a progress of the soul" (Hebrews, 8). Progress = work.
  • The psalms as an account of David’s sins and repentance.

Conclusion

From the beginning, American literature simultaneously assimilated and transformed English culture and literature. During the colonial period, the writers of the New World were obsessed by the same themes as English writers. They used the same literary forms and biblical metaphors that predominated in English literature during the Reformation. However, American literature must not be reduced to a simple transplant of English literature for in the process of this American transplantation, American literature emerged metamorphosed in innovating and fascinating ways.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism

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