It’s all coming back to me now, like it was deep in the ocean
Prince – Revelation – Hit N Run Phase Two
Once again my timeline was an angry one. Thankfully I did, however, get to read Sarah’s blog Speak for Yourself (Sarah Barker @ladybarkbark). Please read it. As always it’s spot on, something I am (biasedly) beginning to think is the ‘norm’ for many of Twitter’s #TeamEnglish and their views.
Why do we teach literature? It’s not just because it’s on the curriculum; I’ve always loved books. I vividly remember reading Hobson’s Choice and Kestrel for a Knave at school and not just loving them but also looking forward to the next installment in class. I don’t know why I loved reading as a teen, but I did. I loved the detail. Some brought me such joy I would often go back and read sections over and over.
In school through units – book, play, an anthology of poetry or short stories – students have access to literature that they’d never pick up on their own. And as such over the years we’ve been introduced to some truly phenomenal characters, for example, Doyle’s Sherlock Homes – the first great detective!
Stoker; he gave us Dracula and our love affair with monsters began. Consider the impact and lasting effect Stoker’s villainous, supernatural and sensual character has had since we were first introduced to him “and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince, an effect which was not lessened by the fact that it seemed as cold as ice–more like the hand of a dead than a living man”.
I could talk about more of the great characters, settings, and themes we get to discuss in class up and down the country and fill this blog. I won’t, I will save that for another day.
I want to focus on one. My love for Shakespeare through just a few of his works I’ve taught in class, and why I wish I had more time to not only read a text cover to cover but to discuss his works in detail. I have taught plays from extracts (mainly) to KS3 and it doesn’t work.
Below is why I believe texts MUST be read in full. How can you discuss or even touch on certain themes, concepts and sophisticated analysis if you don’t?
Midsummer Night’s Dream
The play is complex and questions love and perception, where the characters experience metaphoric moments of blindness, insight and finally clarity mirroring the reality of dreams. The rational clarity of Athens appears finally to rule with calmness restored and Theseus puts the stories of the night down to vivid imaginations. Yet it is the fairies that get the last word blessing Athens’s future, once again showing their control in both worlds. Robin ends the play by reminding the audience that they’ve all had fun, and it was no more than a dream.
The play begins and ends with an attack against an established rule, with loyal nobility rewarded with new titles and with the execution of a rebellious Thane of Cawdor. Good is shown in the language through imagery, symbolism, and repetition building an order of nature. It is finally in the closing scenes that Macbeth begins to see life as deceitful and he couldn’t be any further, at this point, from his true self, when he gives his speech where every single word choice is poignant:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Antony and Cleopatra
Cleopatra through Plutarch is depicted as scheming, threatening and demanding ‘she carried nothing with her wherein she trusted more than in herself, and in the charms and enchantment’ (Brown and Johnson, 2000,p20), ultimately a woman who is Antony’s downfall, portrayed through her sexuality in a derogatory manner. Yet Shakespeare shows a woman who loves Antony, whilst upholding her erratic behaviour and constant need for reassurance ‘if it be love indeed, tell me hou much (1.1.14) and ‘sleep out this great gap of time/My Antony is away’ (1.5.5). Shakespeare creates terms for Cleopatra, spoken through other characters; Philo refers to her as ‘strumpet’ (1.1.13) and ‘gipsy’ (1.1.10), Caesar a ‘whore’ (3.6.67) and Macaenas a ‘trull’ (3.7.95). These descriptions from other characters has enabled the foundations of Plutarch’s text to remain, but the audience, spectators of all scenes, are able to see the obstacles and judgements this powerful and enigmatic Queen had to endure.
Twelfth Night, a comedy, offers a glimpse of how behaviours and identity are built and can rapidly dissolve according to social assumptions and dictates. Whilst Pequigney (2000,p218) convincingly argues the language points to a more significant undercurrent, it is Barber’s (2000,p208) more accurate observations that the play is simply a ‘temporary and playful’ view of Elizabethan love, friendship and courtship. The close analysis of expectations and acceptances of social structure and sexuality become irrelevant when, at the end of the festivities and merrymaking, order and relationships are restored.
Throughout the play the characters display unexplained or irrational behaviour through their choice of clothes or actions, however, the play has been structured this way for the amusement of the audience, who are continually reminded of the characters’ (and acceptable) ‘social norm’. The confusion and allusions to any desire are in place to add and build to the comic tension unfolding. What is apparent is any desire; homosexual or heterosexual is problematic when unrequited.
King Lear and The Tempest
William Shakespeare offered a Jacobean audience what appears to be contrasting father-daughter relationships in King Lear when compared to The Tempest, two plays written in a period of male domination, expectation and acceptance. Close text analysis into the characters of Lear and Prospero show they are both representations of old order wielding power with authority where they expect obedience from their daughters. Two plays with similar objectives, but with completely different outcomes.
Greenblatt (2008,p3055) illustrates near the close of King Lear, the ruined old king, stripped of the last vestiges of his power, dreams of being locked away happily in prison with his beloved Cordelia. Father and daughter have a more tragic fate in store for them, but Shakespeare returns to the dream in The Tempest. There is no need for forgiveness between Prospero and Miranda as there is no real conflict in their relationship. Both plays analyse the importance of loyalty, honour and obedience for Lear/Prospero from their daughters and power, property and inheritance for themselves. Prospero and Miranda offer the audience a relationship developed without any social constraints, the lack of outside influences on the island could attribute to Prospero’s ability to retain sanity, compassion, and forgiveness.
My final choice for this blog is the Sonnets. Normally in a class, I’ve taught maybe half a dozen. And what a shame that is. They are both complicated and beautiful.
In an article Cheerful Girls and Willing Boys, MacInnes discusses an interest held during the Renaissance period by Elizabethans regarding age and mortality and how this interpretation helps with the understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The article centres on causes of the ageing body, alleviating old age and how these were related to the passions. MacInnes explains how Elizabethan and Jacobeans linked excessive, associated, passions and the ageing process. The article moves on to the different stages of the ageing process, or the ages of a man, and how they held certain social connections in literature, for example a young man was often presented as a soldier.
McInnes helps to modify Brown’s (2000,p43) article Shakespeare’s Sonnets which explores how the Sonnets have been interpreted over the years as complex representations of love and the love one experiences. Close text analysis shows how the language used through the Sonnets and McInnes’s article both unite the excessive passions such as joy, grief, and fear with the preoccupation of life. The article goes on to illustrate the need to show and actively pursue restraint with regards to the passions, in other words moderate passions were considered to extend mortality by strengthening the spirits through one’s maturity.
McInnes states how the Renaissance period characterised the passions through three main bodies; old man, young man and woman and these three representations fit the Sonnet’s sequence. The article also discusses how desire is neither homosexual nor heterosexual but “homo-social”. Social status and expectations, alongside the necessity for strong masculine bonds during the Renaissance period is detailed in McInnes’s analysis of the Sonnets. The article forms a new historicism and cultural materialism approach, highlighting the role the Sonnets could have held in supporting and creating Elizabethan values.
Teaching any text from extracts doesn’t work. It may be the very reason students dislike reading. You cannot break up perfection and expect it to remain perfect.