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DOCTOR FAUSTUS

Here are the official ground rules for reading Marlowe.

1) As a reader of Faustus, remember to engage in hilarious banter-battles with your peers over how much better Marlowe is than Shakespeare, and how you were a fan of Marlowe before everyone else was a fan of Marlowe, and how other people HATE him compared to how much you like him.

2) Definitely print out a picture of Marlowe and place it next to a picture of Shakespeare and try and decide which one was probably better looking at the time. I may or may not have done that. (I did, I did do that.)

3) Draw offensive pictures in your text book and label them as your friends! Everyone will go mad for it.

faustus

3) Call him Kit, not Christopher. He’d like that.

4) Do not watch the film Anonymous if you want to understand the politics of contemporary play-writing. Marlowe is the son of a middle-class tradesman, just like Shakespeare. You didn’t have to be a member of the aristocracy to be able to pen erudite and subversive plays.

marlowe

No likey no lightey

The hardest thing for us to understand today is that so much of Faustus would have been EXPLOSIVE at the time. It would have thrilled and appalled with its  irreverent rewriting of Christian themes. Maybe a bit like when Jerry Springer the Opera got broadcast on BBC Two.

telegraph.co.uk

telegraph.co.uk

Now that we no longer get set on fire if we don’t believe in God, it can be hard to truly appreciate the play’s controversy.

The play was hugely successful, balancing its role as a mouthpiece for people’s doubts about certain tenets of Christianity – a sometimes dangerous, and provocative role – with its role as simply another adaptation of the Faust story, a well-known moral tale that ultimately instructs you to be a good Christian, and not to meddle in all them confusing God things you’re too stupid to understand.

There’s a word with some kind of religious connotation in almost every line. It might be used in an expected context, flagging up a double meaning, or used ironically, often to imply that there’s some measure of hypocrisy in Catholic teaching.

Marlowe’s contemporaries were confused about what exactly he was trying to do in the play. Some saw it as jubilantly pro-Catholic, some saw it as anti-Catholic propaganda, and some said it was an example of his atheism. He’d got in trouble for that before. They weren’t sure sure, scholars still aren’t sure. And if they aren’t, you definitely don’t have to be.

The thing you’re looking for when analysing the play is BLASPHEMY – when someone (usually Faustus, or the devils) says something impious about God, or something that directly contradicts accepted Christian teaching. You won’t be short of examples for this. Faustus, obsessed with a sense of his own preeminence, constantly elevates himself to the level of demi-god, questioning and rejecting God’s divine authority. Look for easy points in Act 1 scene 1, with phrases like “A sound magician is a demi-God” and “All things that move between the quiet poles / Shall be at my command”. Even when he says “damned” is bad. That wasn’t polite.

Here are some of the things that would have been most subversive for Marlowe’s audience. Or so I am told by real scholars.

1) “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there’s no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so consequently die.” 

This is Faustus, ranting his way into nihilism. Half way through scene one and we’re already questioning the meaning of life. How can goodness exist? How does punishment work? How can we be sinful human beings with no sin? Faustus is not just ditching Christian teaching for the sake of it; he has considered the logic of the lesson and finds that there is none. This was RADICAL.

2) “Consummatum est: this bill is ended, / And Faustus hath bequeath’d his soul to Lucifer.”

This comes as Faustus signs his contract with the devils, pledging his soul to them after 24 years of fun and games. ‘Consummatum est’ means ‘It is finished’. These are Jesus’s last words in the Bible and are therefore in some way sacrosanct. Faustus’s recycling of these words in the context of signing a pact with Lucifer is bluntly blasphemous and irreverent.

3) “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscrib’d / In one self place” – “All places shall be hell that is not heaven.” 

The sad, cynical Mephostophilis frequently lets slip the ‘reality’ of the afterlife and it’s certainly not what the Good Book told you. ‘Hell’ becomes a state of mind, a psychological prison, rather than a physical pit of fire located underneath the earth. In this sense, it’s perhaps more frightening – inescapable and close, as it leaks out beyond its traditional confines.

4) “Despair doth drive distrust into my thoughts”

‘Despair’ describes the condition of a Christian doubting his faith. The word is used frequently throughout the text in what seem at first to be non-religious contexts. But the word would have had a very specific meaning for Shakespeare’s wholly Christian audience. Despair is more serious than a blasphemous comment; it suggests a more thorough, long-term rejection of God.

Finally, look how Faustus’s language breaks down as his mental state crumbles; as time falls away and the awful reality of his bargain with Satan looms ever closer. It’s his most tragic, and most beautiful, speech. LOVE punctuation (although at the same time be aware that these are most likely to be additions by a modern editor). Nothing says broken up speech like an actual physical break [ – ] on the page. Other linguistic signs of Faustus’s panic include the repetition of ‘Christ’ and the hysterical apostrophising to both Christ and Lucifer as he swings between allegiance to the two. Faustus’s formerly tight, well-structured blank verse unravels into disconnected thoughts and manic cries.

O, I’ll leap up to my God! Who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop. Ah, my Christ! –

Rend not my heart for naming of my Christ;

Yet will I call on him. O, spare me, Lucifer! –

Where is it now? ‘Tis gone: and see where God

Stretcheth out his arm and bends his ireful brows.

Exeunt the blogger. 

On Sunday morning I found myself tutting over Michael Gove, who with his thick-rimmed indie spectacles bobbing up and down on the screen, was expostulating against the use of Mr Men characters to help explain Nazi history. How awful! Cartoon characters desecrating the reign of Hitler!

But then, six minutes in, I found myself nodding in assent. This took me by surprise.

Gove wants you to read Middlemarch, rather than Twilight. But actually, he says, he’s just happy if people are reading.

“There’s been an assumption that books like Middlemarch, or plays by Shakespeare, or poems by Keats or Wordsworth, are only ever accessible to a minority, to a gilded elite. I think that’s wrong.”

Thank you for your wise words, Minister.

It really is a valuable philosophy and one that all students of literature should remember. It’s a case of approaching works like this fearlessly, facing them head-on and making them your own. You are the poets, just as much as the poet.

It’s just a shame it came in the middle of a speech about greatness, where I’m confident I know exactly who he was thinking of…

Party Faithful Attend The Annual Conservative Party Conference

I promise to post something a bit more helpful very soon.

x

flo rida

Sure, you know him. Flo-Rida, like Florida but with a hyphen, so also like a Flow Rider, which I guess can only mean good things in the world of rap and beatz and beautiful women.

If I block out the words coming out of his mouth, I sometimes (and I’m sorry to admit it) but I sometimes accidentally enjoy his music.

I’M SORRY.

How can you not screw up your face with a sort of appalled admiration at the man audacious enough to rhyme “I might lose it” with “That’s how we do’z it”?

Unfortunately I struggle to understand what Mr Rida is actually saying in his verses that come at you as an indecipherable wall of sound loaded with body-popping and laydeez and party-rocking.

So it’s a good job poet Hollie McNish is listening. Boundary-bending, fornicating, hyphenating Flo-Rida receives some severe critical analysis in her own rap-poem. You know his whistle? We think it might mean something else. And the metaphor doesn’t quite work like he intended it to.

All you have to do is watch these videos simultaneously. Mute Flo-Rida’s video and listen to Hollie’s commentary over it.

She is GREAT!!!

Here’s some of her other work about sexual imagery:

But to present a balanced argument, with an alternative view point, and not to disparage the world of rap about which I am generally ill-informed, please read this analysis of some of the best rap we have. The offensive and sexist lyrics of Flo-Rida (Florida but also Flow-Rider) aside, rap is a complex and highly technical poetry. It requires a precise sense of rhythm and an ability to quickly and flexibly pull up rhyming words.

I pass you over to Martin Connor to illustrate just how FLOW in a line of rap works. Oh hey maybe that’s what Flo-Rida really means after all. Read it HERE.

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Everyday Poetry

Konichiwa bloggits!

Close-reading poetry is about tearing language apart. You have to barbarically cut up a poem and inspect its tiny pieces. Then, when satisfied, you slot them all together and kick back.

You can do this with ANYTHING.

If you don’t believe me, read this.

This blog, Verbatimlooks for poetry in places you wouldn’t expect it. It catches the poetry of the everyday, in signs, or phone conversations, or comments on an internet forum. Repetition, patterns, and words that sound strange in a certain context are often the features that transform ordinary language into the poetic. There’s no obvious line between what counts as poetry and what doesn’t. It’s up to YOU to decide!

This is my favourite from the blog:

I mean I actually have to
physically 
send him a link 
to the thing I want.

I mean I would almost
rather him not buy anything for me…
because he just goes
and buys me something

really SHIT. And he’s started being
really funny about it, like now
he buys me something
and says I probably won’t like it

even before I unwrap it. And I
just said to him that it’s better for me
to SAY I don’t like it and take it back,
than to pretend. And

I must have mentioned like
twice a day that I want
some stacking rings. But he
sees that as like an engagement ring,

like I’d MARRY him
for Christ’s sake. I mean if I want
to find out what HE wants
I would ask his friends.

Why doesn’t he do that? Oh, and then
he goes online to Sophie
to ask what I want
and she tells him that I want

some black jeans and this poster
I linked to on Facebook, and he
just didn’t pay ANY ATTENTION to her…
Yes but I shouldn’t have to say

what I want.

Taken from a phone conversation overheard on the train from London to Pewsey, 4.36pm, December 19th. 

Extempore poetry. Excellent.

 

from poetrybyheart.org

poetrybyheart.org

The government is backing a poetry-reciting competition for young people. Although Bad to Verse knows few people that welcome the Department for Educations’s initiatives with open arms, and recognises that for others this is a nice, romantic throwback shuffled in among Michael Gove’s buttoned-up, antediluvian, Britannia-rules-the-waves educational philosophy, it whole-heartedly celebrates this effort to get people reciting poetry. And let me tell you for why, sirs!

  • So much poetry was meant to be read aloud, whether among peers, or families, or poetry-loving coteries. Speaking poetry gives it the human voice that put the words there in the first place.
  • Speaking a poem over and over again is a great way to lead the brain to think about it – to approach it in different ways as you say it in different ways. This is a great way to appreciate the myriad of layers one poem can have.
  • Lines you learn will stay with you forever. Until you really do forget them. Listening to poetry recited well by somebody else might stay with you even longer.

The competition, called ‘Poetry By Heart’, has invited 14-18 year olds to learn poems from its online anthology of 130 poems. Browse all of them on the competition’s website. Its recent announcement has kicked other forums into thoughtfully discussing the ‘point’ of it all.

The British press has excitedly lapped it up. News editors seem both intrigued and bemused by the idea of reciting poetry.

The Guardian opened up a twitter discussion about the best poems to commit to memory, and Christopher Howse, writing in the Telegraph, recalled some of the greatest poetry anthologies of our time.

Radio 4’s The World Tonight spoke about the competition in a discussion framed with scepticism. Won’t children come to resent poetry if forced to learn it by heart? UK Canal Poet Laureate Jo Bell wasn’t convinced that this kind of rote learning would help young people understand poetry. Michael Schmidt, writer in residence at St John’s College Cambridge, took a different approach. Listen to it here!

The BBC even got Sir Andrew Motion on to talk about it! Nice one, Beebz!

I want to know your thoughts! And possibly steal all the opinions that are better than my own! What do you think?

Shakespeare Back Then

If you haven’t already come across it, the Interesting Literature blog has some great posts, all laden with myth-busting facts about literature. The Shakespeare post is particularly good!

Here are my favourite Shakespeare gems, pilfered from many peers and academics over the years, and now lovingly handed over to you.

This information really changed the way I read and watch Shakespeare. Go forth and be wise.

1. Shakespeare is writing parts for specific people. In early modern plays, actors were typecast; they would play the same role in each play, particularly if they were the clown. Shakespeare wrote for two specific clowns in his career. His first was a man called William Kempe, an actor famous for his physical, slapstick and buffoonish style of comedy. Shakespeare’s earlier plays revel in just this kind of rambunctious, silly clowning. But after a disagreement (about what, we don’t know) Kempe quit the company. The clown that replaced him was a man with a very different theory of comedy: Robert Armin. As a result, we see a new ‘clown’  generating the comedy in Shakespeare’s later works. Fools like Touchstone in As You Like It are given verbally complex speeches, bursting with riddle, word-play, and always overlaid with satirical seriousness. The fool in King Lear sings the same song that the fool sings in Twelfth Night. It’s likely to have been Armin’s special set-piece, especially because we know Armin was a singer and Kempe was not.

William Kempe, from biography.com

William Kempe, from biography.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

Robert Armin, from findagrave.com

2. Actors learnt their lines from cues. They were given ‘parts’ to practice, which only consisted of their lines, and then a three word cue of the last line before they were due to begin speaking. Always pressed for time, rehearsing was limited, and often actors would have no idea what was going on in the rest of the play until a final rehearsal, or in some cases, until the actual performance.

3. Actors wouldn’t stay in character. Learning from ‘parts’ meant that actors were part focused, not play focused. Unlike today, where we consider the best acting to be ‘realistic’, Shakespearean actors would not have had the same sense of keeping a character consistent throughout the play. In fact, they would often flop out of character on stage when not speaking.

4. Shakespeare didn’t always write in ‘acts’. From 1608 onwards, Shakespeare’s company performed in the indoor theatre Blackfriars during the winter, and the outdoor Globe in the summer. It’s at this point that Shakespeare first starts writing in acts. On a practical level, this was because Blackfriars was lit by candle chandeliers and 4 act breaks were needed to allow the candle wicks of these candle chandeliers to be trimmed. Pretty neat, huh! Of course, you could argue that Shakespeare’s new structure was simply borne out of a new interest in classicism and a corresponding desire to formalise his plays. But that is in no way as cool a fact.

blackfriars playhouse

Blackfriars, from orwhatyouwill.wordpress.com

5. Loads of people walked around semi-blind. It might seem like an obvious fact that the overwhelming majority of the groundlings would not have worn glasses. But as somebody that spends my whole life forgetting my glasses, not being able to see well enough to find where I put my glasses, and as a result seeing everything through a blurry haze, I sympathise with the groundlings all the way at the back of the pit, with poor eyesight, only laughing when everyone else laughed. It wasn’t assumed that everybody could clearly see the acting; as a result, a lot of gestures on the stage were huge and over-blown in order to communicate the drama explicitly enough.

6. The play would not have been viewed as exclusively ‘Shakespeare’s’. Actors would frequently change the lines written by the playwright. The best example of this is Hamlet’s final line: “The rest is silence. (Hamlet dies)”. In the 1623 folio edition of the play, however, we have “The rest is silence, o, o, o, o.”  The prolonged wailing of Hamlet as he dies (and an obvious contradiction of Shakespeare’s ‘the rest is silence’) is thought to be an addition by the actor likely to have played him: Richard Burbage, the most experienced actor in the company. Having played many tragic heroes, Hamlet’s swift death was perhaps not quite dramatic enough for him.

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

The Folio, from peterharrington.co.uk

7. Similarly, two or more playwrights would often collaborate to write one play. A famous example of this is the play Sir Thomas More. Scholars think Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and Shakespeare all joined forces here. Interestingly, the sole surviving manuscript for this play is the only place scholars think they can detect Shakespeare’s handwriting.

8. If Shakespeare is mixing tragedy and comedy, he’s likely to be mixing other things too. He wrote a number of ‘mixed genre’ plays: plays that can’t be neatly defined as either ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’. Othello, as a tragedy underpinned with comedy, is a perfect example of this. In this play we also have a mixed marriage. And a title that ostensibly brings together two incompatible things; a ‘Moor Of Venice’, where a Moor (North African) can presumably be in Venice, but not of, as in from, Venice. Shakespeare is reconciling opposites: black/white, soldier/husband. More brilliantly, this play has more compound words, (i.e. a word formed by joining two or more words) than any other Shakespeare play!

9. Shakespeare is always referencing the physical space in which his plays are being performed. For example, the insignia on the flag of the Globe theatre was either Hercules or Atlas holding the globe on his back. So any references to Hercules or Atlas in the plays are always meta-theatrical – a nod to the raised flag above them.

Michael Wood, In Search of Shakespeare

To marvel at Shakespeare some more, watch the Michael Wood documentary In Search of Shakespeare. Here’s the first episode:

Finally, if you like history and enjoy amassing as much information as possible, go and read historian Dr Lucy Worsley’s blog. SHE’S GREAT.

I set up this blog with the intention of showing you how easy it is to close read language. It’s when you take the time to look at words, phrases and sounds in serious detail that you come up with original thoughts about a poem. And when you’re talking about poems or books that have been discussed over and over again, an original thought is GOLDEN.

To try and hammer home to you just how easy it is, I have a chosen to analyse Carly Rae Jepsen’s seminal piece ‘Call me Maybe’. You may know her from works such as… no wait, just that one.

hey i just met you

In case you are unfamiliar with her work, here it is in all its resplendent glory:

I’ll just look at the first four verses. It’s long and stuff pretty much just gets repeated. Over and over.

I threw a wish in the well,
Don’t ask me, I’ll never tell
I looked to you as it fell,
And now you’re in my way

I’d trade my soul for a wish,
Pennies and dimes for a kiss
I wasn’t looking for this,
But now you’re in my way

Your stare was holdin’,
Ripped jeans, skin was showin’
Hot night, wind was blowin’
Where do you think you’re going, baby?

Hey, I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me, maybe?

Let’s start with Jepsen’s clever play with rhythm. The first three lines each contain 7 syllables, and for the first four syllables of each line, there is a hint of iambic rhythm: unstressed followed by stressed syllable. (See my post on meter for more explanation of this!) We have “I THREW a WISH”. But then we end with “in the WELL” – a three syllable anapaestic foot (unstressed, unstressed, stressed) that allows Jepsen to end with emphasis on the main rhyming sound of this stanza: ‘ell’. It gets repeated three times.

We see the same thing in the next stanza: “I’d trade my soul for a wish.” Note here how the ‘iss’ sound seems to gets passed through the stanza. But Jepsen, fiendish lyrical mastermind, is a fan of ­half-rhymes. “Wish” does not fully rhyme with kiss. Is this a product of laziness – of the senseless, manufactured, hit-hammering, plastic pop-paganda music industry?!? NO! We are of course overlooking the bigger picture! Jepsen is simply rejecting the frequently delimiting nature of a strict rhyming pattern, instead allowing her meaning to transcend what began life as a self-imposed pattern. The sound ‘iss/ish’ washes comfortably through the passage. It remains distinctive enough to feel part of a definite rhyming schema.

carly rae quote

Even more inspirational writing from Jepsen. 60 unfilled diaries’ worth. Celebquote.com

The refrain line “But now you’re in my way” is perhaps the cleverest part of the whole song. Notice how the 7 syllable pattern, the iambic/anapaestic hybrid line, gets broken here. We now have SIX syllables, and the rhyming word we have grown to know vanishes. Instead, Jepsen laments that a young man is obstructing her way, just as she obstructs the rhyming pattern. Oh you couldn’t write this stuff!* Genius! I beat my fists upon the ground in delirious awe of you, ye silver-tongued songstress!

*(She probably didn’t)

Now the tension is buildin’. We’re at the bridge. We powerfully hear Jepsen’s Canadian twang, helpfully represented by the elision of the g that creates the word endin’ of the participle ‘holding’. It also feels colloquial. “Your stare was holdin’” – now that’s not a real sentence. Holding what? Is it grammatically incorrect in order to imitate the informal speech of young, hip, grammatically incorrect Jepsen? Or is it purposefully unfinished – an enigmatic introduction to a male figure that proves equally enigmatic? Or does it rush past its own conclusion, caught up in the verse’s spine-tingling acceleration towards the explosive climax of ‘HEY I JUST MET YOU’.

We’re at the chorus. Overcome with a kind of babbling, euphoric hysteria as she speaks to the young man, Jepsen – and oh my, oh boy is this crazy, no seriously, it really is unhinged – Jepsen HANDS OVER HER TELEPHONE NUMBER. We’re hurried through the chorus in breathless, unpunctuated excitement; the conjunctions that begin lines 2, 3, 4, “and” “but” and “so” respectively, give the semblance of logical progression – as if Jepsen is constructing an argument that has reached its conclusion, something suggested by the summarising ‘so’ of the last line. But do not be fooled! We know that handing over your phone number to a stranger is almost unacceptably kooky. Jepsen structures the verse to give the impression of rational thought but in reality, this is a woman too adrenalized by her erotic encounter to do anything calmly. Asking him to call! Well, I never.

It is not uncommon to chance upon a blogger analysing cheesy pop. Rebecca Black’s unforgettable ‘Friday’ is a must-have set-piece. Here’s one analysis.  Here’s another.

Steph Hicks has written a more serious post about the poetry of modern pop. A lot of people agree with her! What do you think?