Last week finished with me in full theatrical mode, pacing the classroom like a restless, caged predator, declaiming at full volume (and probably decreasingly coherently), on the likely politics of Marlowe and Tennyson. That’ll teach my Y13s to ask for some ideas on Marxist Literary Criticism (AO5, folks), during Period 6 on a Friday …
A word that crept into the debate (lecture, actually) and onto my whiteboard in enormous blue capitals was ‘FEAR‘: the fear of the privileged minority that the great unwashed masses will rise and, through sheer weight of numbers, sweep them away. A fear, surely, built on a visceral recognition of the utter defencelessness of their positions as the ‘haves‘ in times of serious inequity. There was some discussion about the methods utilised by those at the top of the tree to keep their position.
But was I talking about 1592, 1850 or 2018?
The journey that led me to this week’s QotW continued with my listening to a new (to me) version of Measure For Measure by BBC Radio Scotland (available here until 29 May 2018). The modernising touches, and perhaps the Scottish accents, blurred again the distinction between Elizabethan England and the lunatic situation we generally find ourselves in now. The play resonated even more in the wake of the #metoo and #timesup movements. Then, coincidentally, I reached Jonathan Dollimore‘s essay, and found these:
‘the Elizabethan and early Stuart period marked an historical highpoint in an authoritarian preoccupation with the disorderly and their efficient prosecution. Nevertheless, many of those concerned with this proseuctionreally did believe standards were declining and the social fabric disintegrating. Puritan extremists like Stubbes saw prostituion as so abhorrent they advocated the death penalty for offenders. If […] this fervour is the result of insecurity in the face of change then, even if that fervour was ‘sincere’, the immorality which in cited it was not at all its real cause. […] while the authorities who actually suppressed the brothels often exploited the language of moral revulsion it was not the sexual vice that worried them so much as the meeting together of those who used the brothels.’
and we move beyond the brothels to other places of congregation, in its non-religious sense:
‘as with the suppression of prostitution,, plague control legitimates other kinds of political control. (Enemies of the theatre often used the plague threat as a reason to have them closed.) […] there was a constant fear amongst those in charge of Elizabethan and Jacobean England that disaffection might escalate into organised resistance.’
What I hope I got across in some measure during Friday’s lesson is that there would be no need for this anxiety, this surveillance and control, were society more equitable. Whilst we think of Elizabeth’s reign as a Golden Era, there was widespread inequity, and the people at the top of the pyramid had to work hard to preserve their advantage.
This extended to the moral messages of literature, most of which has always been written by the time-rich upper classes. Marlowe was, I think, an exception: if he was an enfant terrible, how much of this frustration and deliberate button-pushing was created by his inability to ever REALLY make it in society? On the other hand, it’s no wonder that Tennyson, as Poet Laureate, wrote poems which urged the working class lad to go and die gloriously for his country (not just the ‘Charge …’, but check out ‘Maud’, too), rather than stay at home and bemoan his poverty …
Jonathan Dollmore, ‘Transgression and surveillance in Measure for Measure‘, in Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (eds. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield), (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1994)