I think we should study other playwrights of the English Renaissance period not just Shakespeare. It’s easy to say that he was the best playwright of the era so why bother looking at the rest but Shakespeare’s contemporaries have a lot to offer as well. Playwrights like Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and John Ford deserve attention too. Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, a comedy with a multi-plot structure, parallels Shakespeare use of a play within a play among other met theatric notions that imply the power or magic of theatre.  Christopher Marlowe’s plays include The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus both tragedies which involve excess violence and vulgarity and involve (like some of Shakespeare’s works) a character whose downfall is caused by his own hubris. Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist is a city comedy set in contemporary times in London and tells the story of con-artists who pretend to possess magical powers (the theme of magic continues all throughout the Renaissance) in order to steal people’s money. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore criticizes societal views by narrating an incestuous relationship between brother and sister. His play is over the top and considered to be a melodrama. All these playwrights have written material that reflects the same time period as Shakespeare, but in distinct ways worth exploring.  

Prospectus!

November 9, 2011

Writing the prospectus was tough in terms of narrowing down my topic description. At first all I knew was that I wanted to pose gossip as having a function, not just idle chit chat. Coming up with a specific topic was hard because I had so many ideas floating around in my head and I wasn’t sure which one I should choose, or whether or not an idea was too specific or too broad. I found that all three components of the prospectus helped me explore my ideas. I brainstormed on several topic descriptions before I came up with the one I handed in and I still feel like my topic needs to be more refined. The statement of motive was tricky because I knew why this interested me personally but I had a hard time trying to figure out why anyone else would care. I’m still not sure why anyone else would care. Nevertheless, giving my research a motive really helped me think about my audience and it also helped me identify a few texts that I would enjoy working with. I had the most difficult time writing my research questions. Each question I thought of sparked a new question. It became frustrating because I wasn’t sure if I was being too broad or too specific or even if all the questions I had could be answered in one research paper. In terms of questions about the research process: I was wondering about how many sources we have to work with when writing our paper; is there a minimum/maximum number of texts we can utilize to support our answer?

I read The Scarlet Letter back in high school but I never realized (or perhaps I forgot) how cruel the women were to one another. The comments of the women towards Hester as she exits the prison were far crueler than the comments made by the men. Some women felt Hester should have been killed for committing adultery, whereas the men felt public humiliation was sufficient. This gender divide intrigued me because it associated women with gossip: not just idle gossip but vicious gossip, gossip that sought to ruin a person. One of the women declared: “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die” (39). Hearing these harsh words, a man asked her to have mercy. The women by the prison doors are depicted as fierce, yet the women in this novel in general are described as weak by the men. Many including Chillingsworth agreed that Hester committed adultery because she was weak, because women were the weaker sex. Yet it was the women that condemned Hester and wanted to see her die; it was the women that were willing to sacrifice Hester so that the community may learn from her mistake. Even Hester emerges as a strong character as she exits the prison: “Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air; as if by her own free will” (40). Despite her circumstances Hester is not shying away from the public. We get the sense that she undergoes her punishment because she chooses to. The women’s actions (strong; fierce; prideful) are completely contradictory to the way in which women are perceived in this novel (weak; fragile). One could even say that the men are the weaker sex in Hawthorne’s narrative as it is they that consent to Hester’s punishment as opposed to her death; Chillingsworth is described as physically deformed and although he seems to overpower the others he is a weak and immoral man who lets his pride blind his judgment; and Dimmesdale, who ultimately cannot handle the burden of sin as Hester did.

Emma revolves around a wealthy young woman whose perception of her own society is distorted. Austen’s plot is full of misunderstandings or “blindness” on Emma’s part as she learns that she cannot override the social hierarchy established at the time. It is almost impossible to overcome the social limitations set by Emma’s society. Women and men alike were obligated to marry within similar if not identical social classes. Social standing dictated all. This is the concept that Emma mistakenly believes she can override. While fulfilling her matchmaking duties she decides to fix Harriet, whose ancestry is unknown at the time, with Mr. Elton, a wealthy and very handsome young man. To the Victorian society (in this case represented by the voice of reason in Emma’s life, Mr. Knightley) it is an unsuitable match: “[…] Elton will not do. Elton is a very good sort of man, […] but not at all likely to make an imprudent match. He knows the value of good income as well as anybody” (42). Even proposing an imbalance of social order is looked down upon. Emma was mistaken in attempting to create this love match; mistaken in thinking that this was in anyway analogous to Mr. & Mrs. Weston’s match. This match opposed societal norms and therefore was not possible.

At the beginning of the novel Emma is the nonconformist; the one who sought out to belittle the importance of marrying within one owns social strata or the institution of marriage as a whole. She insists that she would never marry because she knows “the limitations marriage places upon women” and so she “is intent upon protecting herself from any emotional engagement that might lead to marriage vows” (396). Throughout the novel Emma sees herself attracted to Frank Churchill, a man of similar social standing; however, once she realizes he is not genuinely interested in her, she decides to match him with Harriet. Harriet, however, has become infatuated with Mr. Knightley, and it is when she confesses this to Emma, that Emma herself realizes she has been in love with Mr. Knightley all along. “Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return?” (268). This idea haunted Emma for some time. She understood that a union between Mr. Knightley and Harriet was unreasonable because of their hierarchal incompatibility: “Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith! It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind. The attachment of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax became commonplace […] in comparison […]. Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith! Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his!” (271). Emma imagined all the mortification Knightley would endure if he did marry Harriet. Why wasn’t she able to see this when she attempted to pair Harriet with Mr. Elton? Emma, as a product of her Victorian society and in spite of her ill-advised matchmaking attempts, believes in the social hierarchy instated. Up until the end of the novel, Emma actually believed she could overrule it.

Jane Austen’s Emma is narrated by a third person omniscient (but biased) narrator. Austen’s use of free indirect speech becomes almost as frequent as her use of gossip throughout the novel. Free indirect discourse is distinct from ordinary third person narration in that it is more of a “personal style” imbued with the “personal language” of a certain character (Bal 55). This technique may give the reader the fallacious sense that Emma and the narrator are one in the same, when in fact they are not. However, the use of free indirect discourse creates unanimity between the narrator and the character which the reader must be wary of if he/she seeks the true story. Just as a first person narration is oftentimes deemed unreliable because of bias, so too can a third person narration exhibiting free indirect discourse. This technique works well for the purposes of the novel because it ties in with the idea of gossip as an unreliable source. An excellent example of free indirect discourse in Emma is demonstrated in the following lines: Yes, good man!—thought Emma—but what has all that to do with taking likenesses? You know nothing of drawing. Don’t pretend to be in raptures about mine. Keep your raptures for Harriet’s face (27). In this chapter Mr. Elton is complimenting Emma on her artistic abilities, but instead of having Emma respond through dialogue, the narrator responds for her using her voice. The narrator, who is not an active character in the novel, wouldn’t address a character as ‘you’, nor address herself as ‘mine’, so one can evidently conclude that the narrator’s voice is reworked in order to incorporate Emma’s thoughts, thus, illustrating free indirect speech. The trick with using this technique, a technique Austen has clearly mastered, is that the discourse has to be personal to the character (something this character would think or say); if not, it will make it easy to distinguish the narrator’s voice from the character’s voice which is the opposite of what free indirect discourse endeavors to accomplish.

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 3rd ed. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leonara Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo recounts the events surrounding the slave rebellion which eventually led to the Haitian Revolution. Similar to the narrator in Defoe’s A Journey of the Plague Year, this narrator is subjective, but unlike Defoe, Sansay lived through the historical event she writes about thus offering more validity to her letters. The narrator in Secret History is overtly biased against men. Moreover, the narrator views marriage as analogous to captivity and subjugation, which in turn is parallel to the slavery going on in Haiti at this time. Many would agree that Sansay is deliberately juxtaposing the turbulence occurring in this developing country (the oppression of African slaves) to the turbulence occurring in the home (the oppression of women). This corroborates her bias because all events emerged because of men; men are responsible for all violent behavior (or so she makes it seem), whether it is domestic or warfare. The narrator states: “All have suffered, but the sufferings of each individual derive their hue from the disposition of his mind” (113). After one acknowledges her indignant tone it is hard not to place emphasis on the “his” she speaks of, because even though it was not italicized (these letters were directed towards a man!) one knows that a great deal of weight is placed upon this three letter word. The narrator then retells the story of Madame C. whose husband abandoned her and their daughter to be with a “woman of colour,” and who later on refused to help his daughter as she lay dying. This account, or report she has actually “witnessed,” antagonizes the male figure as many of her narratives do (114). Concurring with Alyssa’s blog post, it appears that the “secret history” or “horrors” that Sansay actually refers to are the subjection of women and their dependence on men, which is cleverly “concealed” alongside the account of the slave rebellion.

Gossip: The Real Distemper

October 2, 2011

As I read Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, I discerned that the narrator was rather arrogant; he seemed to think that God would protect him and keep him from any harm. It was almost as if he felt himself to be superior to everyone else, which is the reason I believe he stayed in London- he felt he was impervious to disease. He implies that the plague was brought about as punishment from God to remove the wicked people who lived among him: “I look’d upon this dismal Time to be a particular Season of Divine Vengeance, and that God would, on this occasion, single out the proper Objects of his displeasure, in a more especial and remarkable manner” (60). This disposition could have led him to believe that poor people were more susceptible to the plague and all of the horror that ensued: “…these things had a more than ordinary influence upon the minds of the common people” (19). Taking his condescending tone into account one can agree that he refers to them as “poor” in double meaning: destitute and unfortunate (as they were not a favorite of God as he was.) H.F. implies that God takes more pleasure in keeping the wealthy people, such as himself, alive: “[The Court] fled now out of the city…and went to Oxford, where it pleased God to preserve them; and the distemper did not, as I heard of, so much as touch them” (15).  Through gossip he finds out that those who were of nobility and thus deserved to live, did in fact escape death, and that last part “so much as touch them” makes them seem just as impervious as he described himself.

I cou’d give a great many such Stories as these, diverting enough, which in the long Course of that dismal Year, I met with, that is heard of, and which are very certain to be true, or very near the Truth; that is to say, true in General, for no Man could at such Time, learn all the Particulars (Defoe 46).

Gossip is a pervasive force in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Though the narrator (H.F) experiences the chaotic aftermath of the plague on the people of London his account is infused with ‘stories’ he has ‘heard’, or gossip. In the first page of his account he tells the reader that newspapers did not exist at the time so information was disseminated through “Word of Mouth only” (3). Notice how he capitalizes those terms, signifying how gossip had become a central and reliable source. Several times, as in the italicized quote I selected above, he attempts to justify the validity of his account, which in turn leads us to question his sources.  His passages are filled with phrases such as “it was said,” “it was heard,” “it was told,” “it was reported by way of Scandal,” etc. which indicate his main source of information is gossip.

I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between rumor or scandal and the reports of the plague. One passage in particular reminded me of Shakespeare’s Rumor who stated “Rumour is a pipe/ Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures, / And of so easy and so plain a stop/ That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, / The still-discordant wav’ring multitude,/Can play upon it.” In Defoe’s account we almost get a parallel telling of the story: “[The poor People] ran to Conjurers and Witches, and all sorts of Deceivers, to know what should become of them; storeing themselves with such Multitudes of Pills, Potions, and Preservatives, as they were call’d; that they not only spent their money, but even poison’d themselves before-hand, for fear of the poison of the infection, and prepar’d their bodies for the plague, instead of preserving them against it” (27). This idea of people poisoning the minds of others through vicious gossip is exactly what Shakespeare’s Rumor speaks of; these conjurers poisoned the thoughts of these people and made them disposed to catch the disease, just as the “blunt monster with uncounted heads” or people can alter the disposition or the minds of others by way of Rumor (As we saw in Othello and Lady Windmere’s Fan).

Gossip spreads like the plague.

Gossip or the act of avoiding of gossip is crucial in the society Oscar Wilde depicts for us in Lady Windmere’s Fan. Gossip is like a wildfire: It has a clear beginning; however, its path is unpredictable and volatile, so much so that it may be a long time before the damage caused can be repaired. When one considers the origin of gossip or a particular scandal it’s important to consider motive. Who started the rumor, and why? In Othello it’s clear that Iago is the character who thoroughly poisons Iago’s mind with scandalous ideas about his wife, Desdemona. Iago spreads these rumors because he has a motive: vengeance. He wishes to ruin Othello for promoting Cassio and he wants to ruin Cassio for taking his place. It’s also speculated that Iago hates Othello because he slept with his wife, or because he himself is in love with Desdemona. Despite having numerous presumable reasons for hating Othello, Iago’s motives are still discernable within the text.

In Lady Windmere’s Fan, however, we are not sure who started the rumor. We know that Lord Darlington is the first to hint at Lord Windmere’s affair in the first scene. Through Lady Windmere’s meeting with the Duchess of Berwick we know that this rumor has been floating along for some time, and that “everyone” knows about it: “Only last night at dear Lady Jansen’s everyone was saying how extraordinary it was that, of all men in London, Windmere should behave in such a way” (Wilde 17). Lady Windmere, like most victims of gossip, is the last to know. The origin of the rumor is unknown, but what about its purpose? What is the motive behind this rumor? Evidently, whoever started it wants to see Lady Windmere and Lord Windmere apart. The Duchess of Berwick comes to Lady Windmere with good intentions: she wants her to fix the relationship by leaving with Lord Windmere to their country estate (because vacations, as all women know, are the only way to stop your husband from ever cheating on you). Clearly Wilde is poking fun at the ideals both women and men adhered to in this time. Lord Darlington, on the other hand, hints at the rumor to Lady Windmere with different intentions. He desires Lady Windmere for himself and his aim in bringing this hypothetical situation up is perhaps to plant the first doubt in her mind (as Barbantio did to Othello). When the Duchess tells her of the rumor concerning her husband’s affair, Lady Windmere recalls Darlington’s hypothetical situation and it gives the rumor more validity in her mind.

It is plausible to say that Lord Darlington could have started the rumor himself, in order to win Lady Windmere, but since the origin of the rumor is never revealed, nor its motive, it’s reasonable to say that Wilde has intended it so because it is irrelevant to the play. Wilde did not intend for us to follow the gossip chain as we did in Rockwell’s illustration, “The Gossips.” I think he intended to satirically criticize Victorian society’s views of marriage. Marriage is something sacred and meaningful and if it only takes gossip to reduce it to nothing then there’s much to be said about where this society places its priorities. Wilde makes it very clear that gossip is ubiquitous in this society, that it is a vicious circle: the characters in Lady Windmere’s Fan are governed by rumor and by scandal (much like Shakespeare’s Rumor), so much so that they become the givers and receivers of gossip, the instruments and victims of gossip themselves.

Iago the Puppet Master

September 14, 2011

This is actually the first time I read Othello; however, it’s structure and subject matter are very much characteristic of Shakespearean drama. The first theme that came to mind as I read Iago’s initial speech with Roderigo is that of appearance versus reality. It’s a common theme in Renaissance plays in general as it hints upon the metatheatric: the act of being something you’re not is akin to the job of an actor. In this case Iago may represent the actor in his duplicity. He is the ultimate fraud as he is disloyal to Othello but also disloyal to everyone he encounters, including his poor wife Emilia. What I find most striking is his ability to sway characters in any direction he wishes. In many ways Iago is like a puppet master. He reminds me of the central characters in Christopher Marlowe’s plays (sorry Shakespeare!) such as in The Jew of Malta. Here we also have a man who has full control (up until the very end of course) and can pull the strings in any which way he desires. The rest of the characters are puppets that fall victim to his game. Iago chooses his prey well for he knows each characters motive. He knows that Othello is credulous. In fact, everyone knows Othello to be naïve, even Othello himself admits it. Iago also knows that Roderigo only seeks Desdemona’s attention. He knows Emilia will do what he asks her to. From the very beginning we see him calculating his every move. Conceivably Iago is not parallel to the actor but to the dramatist himself who directs what happens in each scene. This is completely ironic considering his motive for ruining Othello. He hates Othello because he wasn’t promoted to lieutenant; however, metatheatrically speaking, Iago surfaces as someone with more power.