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Posts Tagged ‘A Level’

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. 

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In my glossary I briefly touched upon how metaphor works in poetry.

Watch this brilliant TED talk by James Geary to understand it in more depth, as well as listen to the really helpful podcast from Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield at Slate below.

 

 

America’s impending FISCAL CLIFF is all over the news. But where did this metaphor come from? And why do we use figures of speech like it?

 

 

You could also look at this animation posted by the TED blog. Here is poet Jane Hirsch explaining metaphor.

Hope you see what they mean. *METAPHOR*

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In my first Chaucer post I talked about Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, the cleverest and most hilarious medieval blog there is.

I could easily spend an entire day gleefully chortling over Chaucer’s posts, as he keeps us updated on how the fourteenth century is looking and invites other medieval celebs to guest post.

If unlike me however you don’t have hours to waste but want to consume the same hilarity in 140 characters, the blog has a twitter account!

So, self-indulgently, I’m going to do my THIRD Chaucer post. The second one is here.

 

Chaucer is jokes

A lot of discussion of The Canterbury Tales is focused on the interplay of comedy and seriousness, of ‘game’ and ‘ernest’, that runs throughout the whole collection. It can be addressed in terms of the whole work, or analysed in just one tale at a time. A really good tale to look at is The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which schizophrenically flips back and forth between ‘moral teachings’ and more light-hearted scenes.

The important questions to think about are:

♦ Is there ever any kind of moral instruction in the comedy

♦ Is Chaucer constrained by the medieval literary theory that all writing must have a moral purpose?

♦ Are there places where Chaucer parodies this emphasis on a ‘moral’?

♦ Does Chaucer ever suggest that the two might be closely intertwined?

 

ellesmere

From timetravel-britain.com

 

Chaucer and the Retraction

A good thing to include in your answer to a question on this theme is the RETRACTION: Chaucer’s apologetic sign-off at the very end of The Canterbury Tales. Here he urges his audience to ignore the frivolous, playful parts of the work and instead focus all their attention on extracting its real moral core. It seems to be an embarrassed rejection of half his work. What’s Geoffrey up to NOW?

Here’s Chaucer asking for forgiveness for his own bad behaviour:

“Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns”

And here Chaucer tells us he would have written a better work if it weren’t for his own ineptitude: 

“Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that thereof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displease hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnyge. / For oure book seith, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,” and that is myn entente.”

pilgrims

The pilgrims

Remember: retractions of this sort were common features in medieval literature. Chaucer is calling on a very conventional medieval trope to end his work. Because of this it’s not clear just how sincerely he endorses this self-admonishing. He would of course have been very aware that the bawdier parts of his work were not exactly how the Church went about preaching its rules of good behaviour. But then again, do we too enthusiastically make Chaucer our contemporary? Are we too eager to perceive him as ‘one of us’ – as a modern someone not quite wholly aligned with the Church, and of course not really believing all that stuff about strict moral teaching? Here at the very end of the Tales, is Chaucer performing another well-constructed act of irony and self-deprecation, or is he deploying a standard trope that works as a necessary disclaimer to appease his harsher critics?

What ON EARTH is he doing?

The retraction rounds off a work that’s generally believed to be unfinished. We were originally promised tales on the return journey too but we never make it to that. It’s a conclusion that seems to give us an answer to our ‘ernest/game’ dilemma, but only as part of a work that hasn’t actually finished yet. How tantalising!

In the style of oure greate Father of Poetry, I think I’ll leave it here too. X

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bookshelf with books

With January exams fast approaching, ‘tis the season to be jolly of revision. But rather than bombard you with more close-reading, let’s step back and regard the WJEC syllabus as a whole. It’s still crucial that you hammer out revision notes and re-read works. But asking yourself why certain texts have been chosen might free up your thinking. It will allow you to put the texts you study in a wider context and hopefully enable you to write truly sophisticated responses to exam questions. This is the plan, anyway.

The question of ‘classic literature’ recurs again and again. My old university tutor has a podcast on the subject, which you can listen to here. Why do some texts make it onto a syllabus and others not? How do the WJEC make their decisions? I spoke to Hugh Lester, an assistant director from the WJEC, who told me about the process.

The WJEC don’t have a completely free choice. As Hugh says, they are ‘regulated’, and must pick from a pre-determined Welsh, Irish and English literary heritage. Invigilators higher up than the WJEC have already grouped ‘relevant’ poets together, before passing this ready-made group down to examiners, who choose what they want on their syllabus. Teachers then go on to pick from this syllabus. Each group is making a subjective choice. Some texts make it into the ‘heritage’ – texts we can retrospectively classify as representative of our history – but others are excluded from it.

P1020473

 

5 YEARS

The WJEC only review the syllabus every five years. This is slow work. It’s easy to see how a literary canon can become crystallised over time. The WJEC syllabus is only one of a vast number of processes working to establish a tradition and in doing so, potentially closing up the opportunities to meet genuinely contemporary poetry. Exam boards represent ‘English Literature’ to students taking their exams in a specific, necessarily circumscribed way.

So the texts you study are not self-evidently the bastions of ye olde English literature. Is it ridiculous to censure an exam board for making a syllabus? Surely a syllabus is by definition a finite selection of an infinitely diverse range of works? As debate intensifies around exam-taking in Britain, and more people call for a radical overhaul of learning, such censure is perhaps not entirely out of the question. Certain people are unhappy with ‘old-fashioned’ methods of learning syllabuses by rote. Others fear this kind of learning will become even more entrenched under the governance of Michael Gove. 

DON’T WORRY

But this isn’t reassuring to those of you currently sitting exams. I would recommend approaching a syllabus like this: certain texts are chosen because they contain something The Powers That Be consider relevant to you, as a

young person

♦ or a black person,

♦ as a girl or a boy,

♦ or as somebody from WALES – a place, like Scotland and Ireland, often perceived as marginal to England.

Race, gender, sexuality and nationality are not abstract concepts; you’ve definitely got one of something that probably means something to you somewhere along the way! The texts you study are malleable pieces of literature, capable of being interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Understanding why they’ve been chosen will point you in the direction of the answers that give you points! But just as importantly, if you respond sensitively to texts, you might find something in them nobody else even thought of. ‘Classics’ might be safeguarded by authoritative literary guard-dogs, but this doesn’t mean you can’t make them your own.

WELSHNESS ON THE PAGE

 

P1020490

Let us zoom in on one aspect the WJEC likes to see in its chosen textsWelshness

For a Welsh exam board, (although not one studied exclusively by Welsh pupils), Welsh poets are important to include. But what makes a poem Welsh or indicative of Welsh national identity? This is the tough question. National identity is important for Welsh poets, but it would be limiting to see it as the only concern of Welsh poets. National identity remains a particularly poignant theme for Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry; for poets who may feel like their unique personhood is subordinated by a general, all-encompassing ‘Britishness’. It’s inescapably implicated as these poets get themselves published, become identifiable in the public domain, and are consequently shuffled somewhere in among a British ‘canon’.

 

danDan Williams, a poet living in Aberystwyth, disagrees with me. Everyone else is more than welcome to disagree with me too. Below he talks about how the WJEC syllabus provided a framework for his own poetry, and just how Welsh he considers his poetry.  He mentions Carol Ann Duffy and Keats; see my posts on these poets here and here.

 

I also spoke to Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales. Her poems are on the WJEC GCSE syllabus. She told me that any reference to ‘Anglo-Welsh’ writing has been banished in literary discussion:

“Welsh, being an English word, is enough.”

She says she is, unambiguously, a Welsh poet. Her Welsh subject matter, the Welsh landscape and her total immersion in Wales, are enough to qualify her as a ‘Welsh’ poet.

These are important discussions to keep in mind. Reflecting on texts as part of a syllabus, heritage or canon – as part of artificial categories – will hopefully offer up a different perspective through which to view the poetry chosen for you. It is no bad thing to have a whole range of perspectives to hand, so that the way you approach a text does not stagnate but remains plural, fluid and always developing.

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This week I decided to trawl through A Level past papers, which saw all my essay-answering horrors come screaming back to me. I can’t remember how I ever did that. How do you do it?! COLLECTIVE PANIC!

essay meme

Alas, there is an easy solution. Looking at past papers allows you to identify which questions come up again and again. This shouldn’t be your only method of revision, but knowing that a question on ‘character’ often comes up for Wordsworth is a good starting point.

kalms

Today, blog friends, I am going to show you how Wordsworth creates ‘character’ in a poem.

CHARACTER

‘Character’ is a literary term that gets thrown about a lot, but ‘character’ is a fairly elusive thing. What do we mean when we talk of ‘character’? How do you construct a ‘personality’ or an ‘individual’ in a poem? What actually constitutes this represented person? Can you ever have too many rhetorical questions?

‘Character’ in a poem is an amalgam of different literary techniques; direct speech, free indirect speech, metre, vocabulary, style, form. From these you form your own assumptions about what Wordsworth’s chosen character is ‘like’.  Character isn’t just revealed through straightforward description, i.e. ‘He was short and liked playing piano.’  A character will be vividly realised in a poem because his/her attributes seep into every aspect of the text.

PREFACE TO THE LYRICAL BALLADS

This is essential reading if studying Wordsworth and I’m sure your teachers will have shown you. This preface, revised a few times throughout its lifetime, first accompanied Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1800 version of their Lyrical Ballads. 

wordsworth3

One of the most striking parts of the preface is the poets’ emphasis on the poetry of simple speech – the ‘honest’ plain-speaking of them good ol’ rustic country-folk. It famously commends “language really used by men”, “low and rustic life” and “feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions.” Wordsworth and Coleridge’s contemporaries had plenty of problems with this idealistic, perhaps naive, and often patronising celebration of poor people’s patois, but it is important to remember that a lot of their representation of character is focused on just this ideal: the unexpected beauty and poetry of the ‘common man’.

THE IDIOT BOY

village idiot

In this poem, Betty Foy, an anxious mother, sends her ‘simple’ son to fetch the doctor for her sick friend Susan Gale. Along the way she becomes so preoccupied with the fate of her son and chastising herself for her own wretchedness that the doctor and Susan Gale are eventually forgotten. It is written in a mock-heroic style; Betty Foy, a country maid, is jokingly elevated to the position of tragic heroine, churning out the hackneyed phrases of tragic romance and extravagantly lamenting her sorry state.

It’s a long poem. You can read it here.

CONTEXT

Find the facts that you can refer to easily. For example, ‘Betty’ is often the name given to lower class, domestic servant characters in literature from this period. Wordsworth’s ‘Betty’ can safely be presumed to be of this class. But her surname is different; ‘foy’ is likely to mean ‘faith’. It is an old romance name – think of Spenser’s pagan knight Sansfoy in The Faerie Queene. (I wish I could claim that last bit as my own knowledge. It’s not. I found it on Wikipedia – SOMETIMES a useful resource). This combination epitomises the movement of the Lyrical Ballads: the grand actions and powerful sympathies of ‘common’ people.

METRE

Wordsworth really hams up the tension and pace of the poem, which matches Betty’s own fussing and disorder. The second stanza builds in intensity as urgent questions pile incessantly on top of each other: “Why are you in this mighty fret? / And why on horseback have you set / Him whom you love, your idiot boy?” In the same stanza, the repetition of the sound ‘us’ adds to this sense of chaos and fussiness: “Why bustle thus about your door, / What means this bustle Betty Foy?”  That hissing sound is insistent, and persistent.

Also look at how the iambic pentameter is working here. (Look at my post on metre if this all sounds weird!) It is equally persistent; Wordsworth uses plenty of monosyllabic words to really push the pace on and on. Look at lines like “There’s scarce a soul that’s out of bed” or “His lips with joy they burr at you”. They trip off the tongue faster than a word with two syllables would. The ‘I-AM‘ rhythm of iambic metre is also kind of like the gallop of a horse. And what do you know! Betty’s son is about to be put on one. Yes that last point is contrived.

‘THE ORDINARY

Look for places where the kind of colloquial, idiomatic language we would expect Betty to use slips into the narrator’s own voice. This happens in moments that feel like Betty’s own stream of consciousness.  In the 21st stanza we get “The silence of her idiot boy, / What hopes it sends to Betty’s heart! / He’s at the guide-post – he turns right, / She watches till he’s out of sight.” The third line here could almost be the running of Betty’s mind; the thoughts of the character and narrator are blended, creating a kaleidoscopic and indefinite shifting of perspective. It is this sense that the character is, in a way, telling their own story, that brings you closer to them.

Direct speech is a more obvious place to look for vocabulary that distinguishes Betty as a ‘character’. Look at idiomatic expressions like “As sure as there’s a moon in heaven” and exclamations like “Oh saints!”

dorothy wordsworth

On a completely unrelated note, here’s Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy

Wordsworth is subtle when it comes to representing Betty’s dialect. At one point in the poem Betty comments that her son is “not so wise as some folks be” where ending with the verb ‘be’ is done to facilitate a rhyme with the last line of the previous stanza: “him you often see.” But the verb-ending sentence has, what Wordsworth might have considered, a ‘provincial’ feel about it. It has the grammar of certain English dialects, and because we know this is country-maid Betty’s voice, the ‘be’ and also the ‘him you see’, where the pronoun comes first, is made to sound almost clumsy.

The 14th stanza includes this bit: “And Betty’s most especial charge, / Was, ‘Johnny! Johnny! mind that you / Come home again, nor stop at all, / Come home again, whate’er befal, / My Johnny do, I pray you do.” This passage feels like a country song, or nursery rhyme. The line “come home again” acts like a refrain, and the repetition of “do” in the last line punctuates it with the cadences of song. It is formed like the kind of poem or song that Betty herself would sing/recite. Again we come across the idea that there is something poetic in the music of the most average person. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the point examiners are looking for. Maybe.

MOCK-HEROIC

Finally, onto the ‘mock-heroic’ aspect of the poem. Betty cries out, with plenty of melodrama, “O woe is me! O woe is me!” She has a lot of these hackneyed theatrics at hand. Her preoccupation with the sense of her own tragedy, does feel like it’s intended to be funny: “The piteous news so much it shock’d her, / She quite forgot to send the Doctor”. Betty, the much-put-upon heroine, hurries past the pond in case, redolent of Ophelia, she should drown herself in despair.

ophelia

Here is where you COULD, if you were feeling pretty kooky, turn the whole question of ‘character’ upside down. Why does Wordsworth spend so long developing a character, so that she becomes a ‘familiar’ person, only to then load up literary cliches that take away some of the ‘depth’ or ‘reality’ of a character? Is this because the only way we can perceive ‘character’ in a literary text is through recognisable formulas and repeated stereotypes?  HOLD ON A MINUTE. Is Wordsworth developing a character that works, indirectly, to question the very concept of character?

A lot of analysis out there of this poem paints Betty Foy as a romantic figure representing high ideals. But why, then, does she often perform as a figure of ridicule? Wordsworth’s tone frequently borders on disdainful. And here we arrive at one of the major unresolved tensions of the whole Lyrical Ballads collection. Just how warmly does Wordsworth feel towards his working-class heroes?

wordsworth

He is JUST as stressed about it as you are

There are an unlimited number of things to talk about when it comes to Wordsworth. If you want to read blog posts written by people who actually do know what they’re talking about, then I suggest you go here and here!

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I have been meaning to throw events at you for a while.

I have said it here and here, but I cannot recommend going to see adaptations of works you’re studying enough. Do it! Get your school to pay! (If that’s how it works.)

For all Shakespeare events going on in Cardiff, this blog is indispensable. It’s also full of interesting articles that are worth reading if you have time.

NUMBER 1

Richard Burton on the set of Under Milk Wood

In just under two weeks, Chapter Arts Centre is screening the first ever adaptation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, starring Richard Burton. The film’s director, Andrew Sinclair, will be there to answer questions. This is such a good opportunity – definitely try and go! Here’s the facebook page with more information.

NUMBER 2

Llandaff Musical Society are taking on Charles Dickens’s Christmas story Pickwick, based on his Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. For any students studying Dickens, consume as much as you can! Overload yourself with Dickens! Get totally Dickensed. Information is here.

NUMBER 3

BLOOD BROTHERS! IN FEBRUARY! IN CARDIFF! Lots of schools study this for GCSE so plan ahead and get it booked. For more information click here.

NUMBER 4

Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong isn’t on the WJEC syllabus but I read it this summer and I did a post on it so I’m selfishly including it here. I’m really interested to see how this works on stage. The BBC reworked it for TV only last year so there are plenty of adaptations out there for you to compare and contrast. It also links well with the World War I poetry some schools look at for GCSE. Book your tickets here.

NUMBER 5

Can you believe it! Another WJEC text on stage at the New Theatre! Unbelievable scenes! Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has been turned into a ballet. Admittedly, this won’t be useful if you wanted to digest Fitzgerald’s words, but it’s always exciting when a text gets translated into a medium you did not expect. And if you’re really desperate for some words, Baz Luhrmann has only gone and done a Hollywood film for you. It could not be easier to get out and experience the texts you come across in the classroom.

Happy watching! x

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DING DING CORRECT

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is not a poem.

But I wanted to write about it because 1) so many schools doing the WJEC board do it for A Level 2) I am nostalgically looking over the notes I made for it when I did my A Level and 3) people often assume that the prose passages in plays do not require the kind of analysis and close-reading you would give to a poem.

You can tear apart prose as much as you would a poem. Be just as creative with it. Even stage directions are falling over themselves to hand you good essay points. Especially Miller’s stage directions.

I want to look at the very end of Death of a Salesman – Linda’s farewell speech to Willy. It is tragic, despairing – but ambiguous. Is it happy or sad? I don’t know! Let us see, shall we!

“Linda: I’ll be with you in a minute. Go on, Charley. (He hesitates.) I want to, just for a minute. I never had a chance to say good-bye.

Charley moves away, followed by Happy. Biff remains a slight distance up and left of Linda. She sits there, summoning herself. The flute begins, not far away, playing behind her speech.

Linda: Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it. Why did you ever do that? Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you, Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. (A sob rises in her throat.) We’re free and clear. (Sobbing more fully, released.) We’re free. (Biff comes slowly towards her). We’re free… We’re free.”

So the Loman family are at Willy’s funeral. And nobody has turned up. This passage is often interpreted as a final note from Miller on the frustrating, and endless disappointment of life in a capitalist society – on the brutal pointlessness of Willy’s death, and the emptiness he has left behind. But there is something equally uplifting about this final speech, and it can be found in very small touches.

  1. Look at words like “summoning” and “released” in the stage directions. Combine this with the ethereal sound of the flute in the background, the word “free”, and that ellipsis (the ‘…’) right at the end. They make this conclusion strangely spiritual – definitely not the feel of everything that has come before.
  2. The flute: this music keeps drifting on stage at significant points during the play. It opens the play, described as “small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.” It is immediately something otherworldly, transcending the ugly tower-blocks that form the backdrop to the play. It speaks of dreams not yet realised; a sad reminder of the distant world outside the Loman family. But it is not completely hopeless. At other points in the play, it appears when Willy recalls a happy memory. Therefore there is always a kind of sweet sadness attached to the sound of the flute, and it is that tension that is reproduced here at the end: Linda’s regret at losing Willy mingled with a sense of freedom that the burden of loving, and pitying, and caring for Willy, has evaporated. 
  3. In this way, “summoning” and “released” are fitting descriptions for Linda here. ‘Summoning herself’ is Linda attempting to gain self-control, but ‘summoning’ can easily suggest the summoning of spirits – of a ghostly Willy figure that Linda must let go of. Here is the crunch of the passage – the final confrontation with an invisible, but tangible Willy figure, and the friction this creates. This  forms the top of the speech, where Linda insists, again and again, on her inability to cry. We are “free and clear” she says, where ‘clear’ is a financial term referring to the final payment on the house. But then the passage slips quietly into a new mood. Linda drops the word ‘clear’, and suddenly they are simply ‘free’. The ‘we’ seems no longer to include Willy, but instead the new Loman unit – Linda, Biff and Happy – however disjointed a unit they may remain. And now the tears come easily! She is “released.” Willy’s death could be seen as solving more problems than he is given credit for.
  4. If you ever see an ellipsis in ANYTHING I would jump straight on it. Why would a writer need to use three full stops in a row? It’s got past an editor for a reason. Ellipses create space. They really stretch out and open up a sentence. “We’re free… we’re free.” It’s like it marks the passing of Willy, easing away gently.  Or it’s a breath – of relief, or of satisfaction.

Look! So many possibilities! Who knows what the real answer is!

Also the 1985 film of Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman playing Willy is good. It’s all over YouTube.

Curtain. x

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