Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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.


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.


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.



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. 


Read Full Post »

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.


Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »



Things to remember when close reading a poem, or part of a play:

  • You’re still always answering a question. In an exam, the question will pick up on a particular theme of the poem and will ask you to demonstrate how the poet works through this theme. This means picking up on points of language that relate to this theme, like ‘loneliness’ or ‘mother/son relationships’. You HAVE to use the language to answer the question; it is the only evidence you have. But only talk about points of language that are relevant to the question. Don’t just bombard your answer with random stuff. (Obviously if you are just annotating a poem in class, this doesn’t apply. In that situation, tear apart the poem completely.)
  • So this means being very SELECTIVE when writing your answer. Go through the poem line by line, and circle anything you feel relates to the theme addressed in the question. You will more than likely have too much to put in one answer, so prioritise your points. It is much better to talk about one point in depth, and really push your analysis as far as you can, than sprinkle your answer with point after point and never really move beyond the surface.
  • This means that you should NEVER just list what you see, i.e. ‘here Keats uses a metaphor’. You must always say WHY. You must always give the effect of this and make clear how it is relevant to the question.
  • Make sure you have an overriding point to make. In your opening paragraph, state, for example, how Keats generally treats the theme of loneliness in the poem. You might say, ‘In this poem, Keats is despairing about the oppressiveness of loneliness.’ Then you would produce points that support that. But to give your answer more depth, always look for places where you can contradict yourself. You might say: ‘But in other places, Keats seems to cherish the idea of solitude’. Do not be afraid to DISAGREE WITH YOURSELF. No poet ever produces a poem that is free of contradictions, or presents a perfectly consistent treatment of a certain topic. That is not how the human brain works. And this is never more apparent than when a poet tries to put a jumbled mesh of thoughts down on paper. Contradictions SHOULD be there. Drag them out.


Here are the points I’d be making if I was asked to talk about female cruelty in this passage from Shakespeare’s King Lear:

Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presages snow;

That minces virtue, and does shake the head

To hear of pleasure’s name;

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above:

But to the girdle do the Gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell, there’s darkness,

There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding,

Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!

‘They are Centaurs’: Lear’s evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, are repeatedly described as carnivorous, predatory animals. Albany famously calls them “Tigers, not daughters” and Gloucester disgustedly refers to Goneril’s “rash boarish fangs.” Here is another animal reference, and the fact that it is a centaur, part man, part animal, is the PERFECT image to encapsulate the real ambiguity of the whole play. Animal imagery works to dehumanise the women, stripping them of the compassion and empathy that distinguishes the human race from animals. Remember that an important question asked throughout King Lear is WHAT IS MAN? The play’s answer to this always returns tentatively to the feeling that ‘man’ is at least kinder, and more sensitive than animals. But the answer is ambiguous because it certainly cannot apply to so many of the ‘human beings’ that we watch cause unfathomable destruction and despair throughout the play. We see a degenerate people, blurring the line between human and animal that has helped to demarcate ‘human’ identity. The ‘centaur’, a man/animal hybrid, is the ideal image to contain all this confusion.

“Beneath is all the fiend’s”: That means exactly what you think it means. The top half of a woman may look pretty nice and virtuous, but when you reach the terrifying PIT OF DESPAIR below their waist, they are revealed to be rampant, destructive nymphomaniacs. Goneril and Regan’s vicious animality is always implicitly linked to a ‘monstrous’ female sexuality; violent, powerful, but always degenerate. They stand in stark contrast to the holiness of Cordelia, something made very apparent here with the cluster of ‘hell’ images: firstly the ‘fiend’, i.e. the devil, “hell”, “darkness”, “sulphurous pit”, “burning.”The last 3 lines see Lear overcome with emotion as he excoriates (current favourite word) his daughters. These lines burst out of a structured sentence pattern; instead words follow on relentlessly from each other as Lear’s rage consumes the verse: “There is the sulphurous pit – burning, scalding, / Stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” The last five monosyllabic (i.e. ONE syllable) words are effective staccato punches to close this outburst. As much as they are noises of disgust, and of exasperation, they also sound like the hissing, and boiling of the female sulphurous pit Lear is obsessed with. This is an incredibly potent image of female cruelty. ALWAYS look for places from Act 3 onwards where Lear’s language becomes like this: disorganised, rambling, unrestrained. Gone are his eloquent and poised speeches of Act 1. His breakdown of language signals his impending madness.

“Behold yond simp’ring dame”: Note Lear’s ‘presentational’ style here. The ‘behold’ allows Lear to introduce the topic like a learned schoolmaster presenting a case-study. This style is very typical of Lear (and a lot of the other men in the play) when they try to sum up women. It begins in such an orderly fashion – the man thrusting his own interpretation of women on his audience. But as Lear finds by the end of this passage, there is no ‘neat’ interpretation of ‘woman’. As he tries to pin the female sex down, his definition spirals out of control. The sudden rush of words escape him and he is only able to produce inarticulate sounds, ‘fie’ and ‘pah’. The suggestion here is that ‘woman’ is massively more complicated and independent of male categorisation than Lear thought.

Okay I’m all Leared lectured out. Class dismissed.

Read Full Post »

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is on in the Bay. This is done for both A Level and GCSE. So get to it, sirs!

This is a long way away in the blog-world but it’s worth mentioning now to make sure you all get tickets! The Tempest is a really interesting play in terms of staging. It has everything that would challenge a production team even today: shipwreck, sorcery, flying fairies. Remembering that the Elizabethan stage was incredibly bare – very few props and minimal scenery – it’s always interesting to see if the director will reproduce this kind of bareness, and rely on the imagination of the audience, or if there will literally be a ship, in the middle of the stage, and men dressed in fairy wings hanging uncomfortably from wires.

It only runs for 2 days! November 30th and December 1st! Look here for more info.



You should see as much Shakespeare on the stage as possible, because this is, unsurprisingly, the best way to understand how his plays work as theatre. (Stunning point). Scenery, props, facial expressions, physical gestures and music add so much to Shakespeare’s meaning, and you completely miss out on this if you stick only to the play as recorded on the page. If there is anything you are confused about, I can guarantee that seeing how a theatre company interpret it, and act it out, will help clear things up. 

Get to the theatre! Now! Go! Good! Told you so.

Read Full Post »

After appearing in Stratford-upon-Avon and the West End, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Julius Caesar is in Cardiff from this Tuesday (23rd October) until Saturday (27th October).

It’s not actually on the WJEC syllabus, but I would definitely recommend going! Shakespeare makes so much more sense when you see it on the stage.

It is on in Cardiff’s New Theatre and tickets range from £8.50 to £25.00

It also has some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. It is worth going just to hear those iconic lines that have taken on a life of their own: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears” and “Beware the ides of March”.

Happy watching!

Read Full Post »