English Romanticism began in 1798 with the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s The Lyrical Ballads and ended in 1832 with Walter Scott’s death. William Blake and Robert Burns also belong to this literary genre, though they lived before the Romantic period.
Romanticism took place during a period of wars and revolutions, of considerable shifts and changes. It was a time of profound political and social reorganisation.
Romantic texts were varied and dealt with the Industrial Revolution and its consequences: a new class system, and a new type of economy. It’s important to emphasize the fact that this is the time when numerous kinds of problems appeared. Famous writers include William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.
Besides the Industrial Revolution, it is impossible to ignore the two major political upheavals that took place at that time, namely the American War of Independence (1776-1783) and the French Revolution (1789), which challenged old systems of social and political organizations.
The French Revolution struck British consciousness at first very favourably. Samuel Coleridge celebrated and praised it in a poem entitled “Destruction of the Bastille”.
Enthusiasm melted away as the war between France and Britain broke out four years later (1793), about the same time as the Reign of Terror started (1793-1794).
Romanticism was a period of constant tensions, observable in some of the poems we will study.
The term quest immediately calls up the fairy tale motif or the German Märchen (Tieck; Grimm). The quest has been studied by Propp in Morphology of the Folktale.
In a tale, the hero attempts to escape from his humble origins to claim a higher ascendency or a royal lineage.
James Gatz from North Dakota had never really accepted his parents who were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people: “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all”. James Gatz denies his social as well as biological parentage to aspire to a more glittering and glamorous future.
He, therefore, creates an exalted image of himself: he yearns to become a demi-god (“he was a son of God”). So James Gatz’s quest consists of proving to the world and possibly to himself that he is mighty. Now, this may only be achieved through personal enrichment.
The quest pattern is also closely bound up with the romantic desire to transcend the limitations of the Self. The aim of such a quest is therefore to assert the primacy of the imagination over reason in a materialistic and philistine world.
Fitzgerald often recalled his great admiration for the poet Keats and he went as far as to claim that he intended to “write prose on the same lines as Keats’ poetry” (Sheilah Graham, College of One, Harmondsworth, 1969).
So even if the novel’s action is steeped in the hedonistic, pleasure-seeking America of the Jazz Age, it is nonetheless imbued with Romantic idealism. In a way, The Great Gatsby may be interpreted as a downright rejection of everything that is earthbound, mundane, and devoid of spiritual lift.
“Real-time” versus timeless ideality
Time is the real enemy in the Romantic World. Keats, whose influence should never be underestimated, is constantly striving to attain a transitory moment of vision which will defeat time, even if he never loses sight of the chronological succession of events altogether.
Gatsby’s self-creation and transcendentalism
James Gatz refuses the constraints and limitations of his social milieu. He spurns the historical determinism that results from being born into a rather destitute family. By turning down his tie with his biological father, Jay Gatz lays claim to an existence outside history, that is outside time. His first romantic aspiration is to prove he is not in any way bound by the fetters/shackles of time.
James Gatz will be who he chooses to be, he will be his self-creation, a Byronic Romantic rebel who hates anything that excludes the imagination. The emphasis on the power of the imagination probably owes something to the transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Henri Thoreau). The latter rejected Calvinism and the materialism of society.
Emerson and Thoreau asserted their beliefs in the possibility of spiritual communion with nature. They also insisted on each individual’s capacity to fulfil his potential by relying on the force of his intuition.
Transcendentalism praises self-reliance, that is to say, a liberation from habits, conformism and traditions to create one’s true self.
Romanticism (also the Romantic era or the Romantic period) is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century and was at its peak in the approximate period from 1800 to 1850.
Romanticism is characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism as well as glorification of all the past and nature, preferring the medieval rather than the classical. It is a reaction to the ideas of the Industrial Revolution, the aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific rationalization of nature.
The meaning of romanticism has changed with time. In the 17th century, “romantic” meant imaginative or fictitious due to the birth of a new literary genre: the novel. Novels, that is to say, texts of fiction, were written in vernacular (romance languages), as opposed to religious texts written in Latin.
In the 18th century, romanticism was eclipsed by the Age of Enlightenment, where everything is perceived through the prism of science and reason.
In the 19th century, “romantic” means sentimental: lyricism and the expression of personal emotions are emphasized. Feelings and sentiments are very much present in romantic works.
Thus, so many things are called romantic that it is difficult to see the common points between the novels by Victor Hugo, the paintings by Eugène Delacroix or the music by Ludwig Von Beethoven.
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 the 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 had 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 progress and reason.
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’Avare – Le 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 Night – As 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.
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.