Sunday, 9 March 2014

Magical Thinking, Reading Magically

These then, though unbeheld in deep of night,
Shine not in vain, nor think, though men were none,
That heaven would want spectators, God want praise;
Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep:
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night: how often from the steep
Of echoing hill or thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to other’s note
Singing their great creator: oft in bands
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk
With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heaven.
                                          (John Milton, Paradise Lost, 6. 674–88)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much history I do in my degree as opposed to more literary work and whether, overall, this is good for my soul. I’m currently researching the performativity of the dead in sixteenth-century burial rites and have, inevitably, been reading historical accounts of funerals, historical essays on the development of ecclesiastical doctrine and some rather dry fare on liturgical exegesis. Not exactly Leavis approved (not that I seek his approval); but interesting and thought-provoking nonetheless. Yet, I cannot help wondering that whilst this literary history stuff is all well and good thank-you-very-much, am I sacrificing something else in the process? Friends and tutors working in other areas of literary endeavour don’t seem to have this trouble—although someone did point out that there’s a worrying ‘historicist turn’ in modernist studies currently, something I’m going to have to take his word for—and it doesn’t seem to bother most early modernists (note the time-bound, period epithet). But for me, it raises profound questions about the kinds of work I’m doing and, perhaps more importantly, about how and why I do it.

Doing an MA in Renaissance literature, I knew I’d be reading historically; I wanted to be. Situated into a period of (broadly) defined length, you gain a level of expertise centred on particular interests and obsessions. But every limit is a constraint by another name: by focussing on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, you’re obliged to leave other things out. It becomes ‘Horizontal Literature’: I realised there was a concern when I found more in common with early-modern archaeologists than I did with contemporary literature students. De-historicize, cross over your date range, or draw cross-temporal comparisons at your peril. If it didn’t happen when a Tudor or a Stuart was on the throne—don’t even mention the (civil) war!—it didn’t happen at all, and certainly not for you.

Well, I don’t think so. A number of moments, or, I could be dramatic and call them ‘events’, have occurred over the last few months that have led me to think seriously (something, no doubt, I should never have ceased doing) about what it is we do with literature, and, more specifically, want it is I want to do with it in the context of my academic work. I am very aware that my degree course is bound to historical principles: ‘Renaissance literature, 1500–1700’ inevitably leads you into a temporal zone, delineated as it is historically (1500–1700) and culturally (‘Renaissance’). ‘Early Modern literature’ isn’t any less problematic, but the time period, and the cultural referent are at least an attempt—veiled, convoluted and problematic as it is—to have one’s cake and eat it too.

What I worry about, exacerbated by talking to friends and tutors concerned with other literary periods, is that literary early modernists are fast becoming back-door historians: using literature as an excuse to write history, without admitting that’s what they’re doing or without having to assume responsibility for the History (N.B. the capital) they write. As one tutor recently put it, ‘I avoid calling myself a book historian, mainly because I want people to talk to me at parties’.

What about the literary, the poetic, the musical? What about the aesthetic value these texts have for us now? Is it wrong to read Milton’s Paradise Lost and discuss what effects it has on us as readers today, or must we always discuss it in relation to Milton’s particular political, theological and personal contexts? I admit part of the poem’s power (what does that even mean?) comes from knowing that Milton composed it blind, with an amanuensis, during a turbulent period in England’s history; the same is even truer of Samson Agonistes. Knowing Milton is experiencing the same fear, and it is fear like no other I’ve ever read, as Samson, the poem does things to you it otherwise couldn’t do. Milton’s blindness mixes up with Samson’s, the poet becomes part of the poem, and we can’t help but feel wholly moved reading (watching) someone come to terms with their blindness: their loss of vision, loss of faith, loss of God.

Literary criticism has come a long way from those days when it was enough for a critic to point out the ‘beautiful’ passages in a poem and describe how it’s moving, or pretty, or profound. Close-reading is only one tool in our arsenal. Abstract concepts such as these (I think of them as dead adjectives) don’t mean much; they can’t, because—ironically thanks to historicism and theory—we know that reading experiences are not the same for everybody and that one person’s beauty is another person’s quaint or tawdry. Beauty is no longer truth, if it ever was.

And yet. I don’t want to live in a world where Milton can be ‘sorted out’ in footnotes; where, so long as we can find the right archive, everything can be known and understood and historically inflected. I want to be able to say Milton moves me in ways I can’t fathom or articulate. That’s partly (and I stress partly) why we read poetry in the first place, isn’t it? Because it says things we can’t say but that we feel or think.

Recently, I attended a lecture on Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ in which the lecturer proceeded to take his students (it was a third-year undergraduate lecture; I hid in the shadows) through a close reading of various passages of the text. I don’t know how successful an approach this was—although it seemed the students enjoyed it, judging from what some of them said afterwards—but what was revealing was just how much you can get out of the poem if you read it historically blind. The lecturer suggested that by thinking of pathetic fallacy, for example, and other such devices as magical thinking, we can put the poetic back into the poem. I think there’s something in this; particularly for Milton, who, as a poet, is so attuned to the power of words: the real, visceral power language has on us and on our bodies, to excite, upset, cause laughter or tears.

I’m not for a moment suggesting we need to throw away all the work that’s gone on over the last half a century or so since theory, and in particular New Historicism, have altered the way we think about and approach literature. I’m still reading history for these essays. But, I suppose I’m saying that I want there to be enough room left for the poetry to breathe as poetry, not merely as historical record or even as poetry of the past. We need to understand and write about these texts both as artefacts and as living things. Like Milton, we need to be prepared to read the ‘Millions of spiritual creatures’ that walk the earth ‘Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep’ back into the poems we read. We need, that is, to animate as well as reanimate the literature of the past and see it, as Seamus Heaney sees the settle bed left by a late-departed relative in his poem ‘The Settle Bed’, as
                                                an inhereitance—
Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
In the long ago, yet willable forward

Again and again and again.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

‘My dearest love’: The Macbeths; or how to succeed at marriage

When Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth’s castle, they take a moment to enjoy the surrounding landscape and local wildlife: 

This castle hath a pleasant seat, the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.

                                    This guest of summer, 
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved masonary, that the Heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here; no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle;
Where they must breed and haunt, I have observed
There air is delicate.

Now, we can read this as just a nice little passage; some light relief from all the dark, claustrophobic, demonic things that happen elsewhere in the play. The little martlet does ‘haunt’ the castle, but it does so benignly; it’s a bird that only breeds if the air is good and wholesome, or ‘delicate’. There isn’t a cannibalistic horse in sight (2.4.18)—yet. But there is something more interesting going on here; something about how the martlet uses the Macbeths’ castle, and about that couple’s own domestic situation.

‘[T]his bird | hath made his pendant bed and procreant cradle; | where they must breed

This is the perfect Scottish retreat in which to bring up children. Banquo and Duncan realise this, as do the birds. So why do Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have none?

This is actually a question that has been asked by many critics and directors of the play, and there isn’t really a satisfactory answer. Indeed, most people tend to fudge what I argue is one of the key interpretative issues in the play: the Oxford editor, Nicholas Brooke, admits that ‘it should be impossible to go behind the direct assertion of a dramatic character and question its veracity unless the context gives her the lie. Macbeth does not retort “When did you ever give suck?”; so there it is, she did. Or did she? […] it is impenetrably ambiguous whether she means it, let along whether it is true or not.’ (Macbeth, p. 14) This is typical of criticism, but, I think, misguided.

The internal evidence in Lady Macbeth’s ‘I have given suck’ speech (1.7.47–59) briefly alluded to above, seems to offer a conclusive answer to the question: she is sure about the reality of her once-upon-a-time motherhood. The speech makes a big deal out of the move from the indicative (‘I have given’, ‘I know’) to the conditional/subjunctive (‘I would’, ‘had I so sworn’), which is in turn answered by Macbeth’s hedging ‘If we should fail?’ (59). It is interesting that Lady Macbeth should make the transition from concrete declamations of action to hypothetical ‘what ifs’; Macbeth, we notice, goes in the opposite direction—from ‘If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me’ (1.3.44, my emphasis), from prophecy and ambition, to the King of Scotland running against a moving wood that he never thought would come (‘At least we’ll die with harness on our back’ [5.6.52]). Both characters begin and end the play on opposite sides of an epistemological divide—opposite both in terms of themselves but also in relation to each other. As Lady Macbeth moves from knowledge to uncertainty to complete senselessness so Macbeth becomes surer about what he must do and about the outcome. She is the yin to his yang, complementing him in this strange dance toward their respective destructions, but they are not the same. 
There is of course a midpoint between their two journeys, and we see this when they meet, literally and mentally, outside Duncan’s chamber after the murder in act 2 scene 2. He finally acts rather than just thinking about doing so, committing himself to the event and forcing himself to see it through—‘I have done the deed’ (2.2.15)—which, thanks to Lady M’s persuasiveness, constitutes a complete sea change from his opening speech about why he should abandon their plan in act 1 scene 7. She, on the other hand, starts to lose heart when she sees Duncan sleeping (‘Had he [Duncan] not resembled | My father as he slept, I had done’t. [2.2.13–14])—it’s as though between the two of them all bases are covered but they can never occupy the same space simultaneously.

Anyway, back to the birds. There is a sense that the martlet scene is just crude foreshadowing of the plot: it should be a pleasant home, full of the laughter and the joy of children, free from domestic cares, but ends up being a place of murder, treason, and paranoid tyranny. We realise that there is a disconnect between what Banquo and Duncan say (happy fathers both) and the reality of the Macbeths’ lifestyle—we expect bad things to happen. But in a play that is obsessed with prophecy and things fated, we should see this as another form of pre-destined knowledge; the Macbeths don’t have children in a place where they should, precisely because what we witness happening over the course of the story was always going to happen.

There is something odd about Lady Macbeth’s talking about a child she has reared. If it is a true fact—and I tentatively believe it is—it is only a fact for her. Brooke is quite right to say that ‘Macbeth does not retort “When did you ever give suck?”’, but it is clear he has never been a father. A. C. Bradley discusses this very issue in his lecture on Macbeth (Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 395) and suggests that: ‘It may even be, or have been, her [Lady M’s] child by a former husband; though if Shakespeare had followed history in making Macbeth marry a widow (as some writers gravely assume) he would probably have told us so.’ This is interesting, though I’m unsure about how far to take this point precisely because Shakespeare never did tell us so. Macbeth never mentions a child from the past, but only ever looks to the future, to his legacy. Indeed, Macduff tells us explicitly that ‘He has no children’ (4.3.216). But he wants to: ‘Bring forth men-children only’ (1.7.73). He expects to have children, at least in part of the play, sometime later. When Banquo is told he will have sons who will rule, Macbeth can’t let this happen because they are a threat to him (and his as yet unborn successors). Macbeth just can’t think ‘I’ll be King for now, and seeing as I have no offspring, when I die Banquo’s sons will take over, good for them’, but instead he collapses the future with the present: Fleance and his brothers are a problem for Macbeth now because he is alone, only himself, he has no children to secure his position as king.

Regardless, children are a problem for the play. How do you deal with fathers and sons in a world where to be a son is no guarantee of inheritance; where to be a prince does not automatically make you a king (1.4.38–40)? Is Fleance really a threat to Macbeth or is that threat merely imagined? (He does, after all, manage to escape—like Malcolm—and revenging sons always get their way in Shakespeare: Edgar King Lear, Hamlet and Laertes in Hamlet, Richard III). But where do you draw the line? Killing Macduffs family seems gratuitous, paranoid, not politically estute; at least Richard III killed children he knew would cause him a headache later on.

Lady Macbeth is often taken to be the more ruthless and, in some productions, thoroughly evil character than her husband. This is to grossly misunderstand who she is and what her motivations are, I believe. Her brutal self-determination comes from nothing more than love for her husband, a man for whom she has failed to deliver a child—made more disappointing if she did have one before her marriage with Macbeth. When she is told of the witches prophecy, she makes her decision to fulfil it at all costs: ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be | What thou art promised’ (1.5.14–15). She knows that ‘Thou [Macbeth] wouldst be great, | Art not without ambition, but without | The illness should attend it’ (17–18). In other words, her husband is too decent a human being to do what is necessary to get the crown; and we see this is true in his own speeches near the start of the play. So she takes on the sin; becomes sexless; ‘top-full | Of direst cruelty’ (41). Not because she is, but because he isn’t. She does it because she knows he cannot. It is the ultimate sacrifice; the ultimate act of selfless love. There is no mention of herself in this entire speech, no ‘I’, only ‘you’; only him, only Macbeth.

The price she pays is insanity, doomed to relive the horror of the murder every night, unable to wash away the blood, unable to clean the stain from her own once-wholesome conscience. Until it becomes too much and she ends her own life. And all Macbeth can do is wish for a Tomorrow that will never arrive to mourn for her. For now, for the present, he has other things on his mind, things he once thought could never happen—walking trees, unmothered sons—things that, unlike everything else, Lady Macbeth never thought about either.

Monday, 25 November 2013

"sleepers [...] let 'em forth By my so potent art."

After rising lark-like on Friday morning in order to rush off to a meeting in a dark and secret corner of the university, I had thought my day might be just "one of those days"; as it turned out, it proved one of the most intellectually stimulating I've had so far since arriving in York (and that's saying something at a place where every day someone is saying something fascinating about something, or something...). After the meeting - which was important and interesting but hardly "such stuff as dreams are made on" - I run over to the HRC (spilling my coffee as I weaved between casual strollers across Alcuin Bridge) for a seminar I have been looking forward to all term: on Shakespeare's The Tempest

The aim of the seminar was to explore issues of adaptation and cultural change across history, and we were doing this by looking at Shakespeare's text alongside two film adaptations: one, a lovely, one-reel silent film from 1908, and Greenaway's well-known, off-the-wall and highly conceptualized, Prospero's Books

I'd like here to discuss what were (for me) some of the most interesting ideas and questions that came out of the seminar, starting with the issue of Prospero's power, both political and magical.

"That's my noble master."

Halfway through 1.2 of The Tempest Prospero tells Miranda, his daughter, that they must "visit Caliban, my slave, who never | Yields us kind answer" (308-09); but why they must see him is unclear. From "within" Caliban calls out to Prospero that "there's wood enough", so it can't be that Prospero wants him to build up the stock of firewood. Indeed, it seems, at least for a time, that "there's other business" (315) for Caliban. And yet. Skip the intervening exchange between master and slave (to which I will return later) to the end of the conversation, and we discover that this is precisely what Prospero wants: "Hag-seed hence! | Fetch us in fuel, and be quick" (365). So what exactly is going on? Why does Prospero want Caliban to get more wood when clearly there is no need for it? And what is this "other business" that is never actually discussed?

I've always thought that Prospero was a little less potent than he'd like us to believe. In truth, his magical power is at no point in the play demonstrated to us. Ariel produces the storm that causes the Italian ship to be wrecked on the island; Ariel produces the banquet and masque that form the spectacular centre pieces of the play; Prospero threatens magical violence (to both Caliban and Ariel) but never - at least in front of us - does he do so. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Prospero is in fact a fraud - the text doesn't permit such a reading - because it is clear that Ariel and Caliban have experienced liberation and enslavement (respectively) at the hands, or rather the staff, of the Milanese sometime Duke. What we can say is that Prospero can't do the big stuff: like Sycorax before him, he needs the "help of [his] more potent ministers" (275) to exorcise his control over his not-quite-so-minions.

What Prospero does have, however, is language. He can threaten violence, and the rhetorical picture he paints of it with words is - for the moment at least - enough to ensure that Caliban and Ariel do his bidding: "I must | Once in a month recount what thou [Ariel] hast been, | Which thou forget'st." (1.2.262-63) His authority is bound up in his ability to (re)narrate the past - though a past that is heavily skewed to his advantage. Indeed, at the beginning of the act, when Miranda appears to remember the events that Prospero is attempting to describe about the circumstances surrounding his usurpation and escape to the island, he gets excited (or anxious?) at the prospect of her knowing the details first hand: "If thou rememb'rest aught ere thou cam'st here, | How thou cam'st here thou mayst" (51-52). After this he keeps checking that she's paying attention to his narrative, as though he's frightened her memory might be triggered by his speech, but offer up a memory that contradicts his view of events - "I pray you mark me" (88) is both an imperative to listen and a plea to believe his story.

The play is constantly antagonizing the process of memory and historical reconstruction. Memory (real and edited) is always mediated - at least, expressed - through language, people are bias, and thus historical fact is always at two removes from knowledge. Miranda learned to speak from Prospero, who teaches her how she came to be on the island; Caliban - at least in most editions of the text - learns language from Miranda rather than from Prospero (1.2.350-64), so his engagement with history and memory, as mediated through speech, is at an even greater remove than Miranda's. All this is complicated (in ways I won't go into here in the interests of space) by the fact that Prospero's own language is informed by allusions to and, as in 5.1.33-57, by direct use of Ovid, Montaigne, Virgil and others.

"I'll drown my book."

In one of the key moments of Prospero's Books, Prospero (Gielgud) takes up a book in which the three Ariels have been scribbling. In it they write: 

Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections 
Would become tender.

The film makes this moment - an interpretive crux in any performance or reading of the play - to mean that Ariel's words have prevailed on Prospero, and persuaded him to show mercy to those upon whom he would otherwise be revenged. "And mine shall" he says, falling into his chair. His entire plan has altered because of this scene: he breaks his quill as a symbolic act that he is no longer the author of the narrative (while previously it has been clear that was in control) and steps down from his desk to join the other participants in the drama, as actor only. The film ends with Prospero not dictating the action but as participating in it; he becomes relational, reacting to the narrative of the final act as it occurs rather than as he designed it. 

This is an interesting view, and one that works, but it is conspicuous in its modernity. I don't think Shakespeare's Prospero really renounces his authority like this - just look at the epilogue. 

Having said that, Shakespeare's Prospero is a character who realizes the importance of relationships rather than solitude by the end of the play: he returns to Milan to take up his dukedom, rather than closet himself away with his books; he moves out into the world rather than creating one in which he is more or less alone. His "Every third thought shall be my grave" (5.1.311), presumably his first and second will be his children and his political responsibilities, not his books.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Class act from Penelope Wilton

First of all, let me apologise for leaving it so late since my last post. Things have been a lot busier over the last couple of weeks than I had planned (in a good way!). I hope to get into a better rhythm with this which will mean that I write things weekly or fortnightly at the least. One can hope.

Anyway, on to more interesting fare...

Today I had the great opportunity of attending a workshop/masterclass given by Penelope Wilton (aka Mrs Crawley, Downton Abbey) at the Theatre, Film and Television (TFTV) department at the University of York. It was a masterclass on 'stage presence' and how actors take control of the stage in order to intrigue, entertain, and generally hold an audience during a performance. 

So, obviously we arrived early: we wanted to get good seats, not have to scramble over (and possibly, if necessary, hurt) others to get close to the acting legend that is. Luckily enough there were lots of other things occupying the TFTV students in other parts of the building so there was enough room for everyone to be comfortable and get involved. 

Mike Cordner (theatre prof. and all round good egg) came onto the stage with Penelope ready to introduce her but this was evidently not necessary. Penelope just smiled, took off her coat and launched into her class; never a thought spared. (Mike winked and took his seat, I suspect slightly in awe of how comfortable Penelope was with 200 over-eager undergraduates, and us, hanging on her every word.) Nobody could doubt her ability to teach a class on stage presence - we were under her spell from the off.

The first thing she talked about was the importance of posture and how an actor walks onto the stage. This seems an obvious point (she said as much herself) but one that is vitally important to get right. She worked with some of the student actors, going through various ways of entering and setting up, with body language alone, what the person's story might be. It was amazing how little time it took to really see an improvement in the students work and how at ease they were with her.

She also talked about how important it was for actors to people watch and to remember particular movements: how, for instance, when people trip over something they tend to turn and look at the spot on the pavement far longer than they need to in order to show others around them that they tripped; how we are always performing in life because we are aware that others are watching. 'Everything is interesting to an actor' was kind of the mantra for the afternoon. Soak it all up, remember it all, use it.
The students on stage then took part in a trust game that Penelope set up. One student would shout out a command ('let's all row a boat', that kind of thing), and the others would reply in the most enthusiastic way possible 'oh yes!' and do the action. (One actor suggested they 'all hug Penelope' and, instead of bulking at 20 18 year olds running at her, she threw open her arms to catch them all). The point was to be completely comfortable with each other and with what others might say, and to react quickly to what they say.

One of the most surreal highlights of the afternoon was seeing a group of students surrounding Penelope, all walking sideways as a crab jumping straight into the thriller dance. Her robot was great too.

It's difficult here to express exactly what was so good about the afternoon (apart from the obvious point about meeting Penelope herself) but I guess it comes from the fact that here was an actor at the top of her game, investing all her energy into the students that had turned out to see her. Her enthusiasm for her work - and, clearly, for passing that enthusiasm on to the next generation - was (luvvy as it sounds) truly inspirational. I think everybody got something out of today - I certainly did. Not only has it given me a hankering to get back on stage (a hankering I will resist, if for other people's sanity rather than my own) but it has made me reconsider what it is when we're doing 'theatre'. We're telling stories to people who want to hear them. We're telling them not just with words but with our bodies, with everything we've got. 

For a stuffy old(ish) postgrad who spends too much time reading and writing about theatre than actually experiencing it, this was a great reminder of the whole bloody point of it. Texts - words - are only part of the story. Actors, present on stage, can move us as much with a sigh, or a look, or a gesture, as they can with a word.

An English student abroad (or, at least, across campus)

Another great part of the day was meeting some of the staff and students based on Heslington East in the TFTV department, especially Mike Cordner, whose research interests terrifically overlap with mine. They're doing some really great work over on Hes East, lots of Jacobean and Caroline drama, lots of adaptation stuff and lots of educational theatre. I hope that at some point this or next term we can find a way of collaborating and pooling all our energies/activities to some exciting ends. But this is something on which to ponder, not to blog...

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Who's there? Nay answer me, stand and unfold yourself...

Okay, so, I've finally got round to starting my blog. Tah-dah! Welcome. I'm not going to say how long I've had the page set-up in anticipation of the flow of bon mots that must surely follow (fingers crossed), because it's a pathetically long time, but I will say that, as of this week, I am finally in a position to write regularly about a whole host of (I hope) interesting things.

So, let's make like a GCSE English language exam and state what, why, and for whom is this blog designed? 

What? I've decided that I need a place to record my thoughts, feelings, and ideas about all the books, films, plays, music, etc. that I read, watch, and listen to over the weeks.  

Why? In part it's simply because I need to remember plot lines (I have a terrible memory), but it's also somewhere I can begin thinking things through about the works I'm engaged with in writing, which really helps when it comes to refining ideas for essays, seminars, etc.

For whom is it intended? Me. And you; if you want to read it too that might be nice... 

A little about me then... 

I'm currently studying for an MA in Renaissance literature (1500-1700) at the University of York, having received my BA(Hons) in English literature at Southampton. I'm interested in all aspects of early modern literature, but focus mainly on: drama and spectatorship; the reception (early modern and modern) of Classical texts and culture; the politics and history of Caroline theatre; revenge tragedy; and issues of artistic censorship.

At the moment I'm preparing papers on the transmission of rhetoric in the poetry of Thomas Wyatt, early modern conceptions of Ancient Egypt, and Shakespeare's Cymbeline

This isn't just an academic exercise, however. I also intend the blog to be somewhere I can jot down my thoughts and responses to other stuff that I happen to come across: film, theatre, tv, music, art, etc. or indeed anything else that I feel I have something worth contributing to. 

That's all for now.  I'll be posting something up soon though and hope you enjoy reading it!