To begin, a little quiz. What connects the following texts?
- Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach (2007)
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson: ‘Maud’ (1855)
- Christopher Marlowe: Edward II (1592)
- William Shakespeare: Richard III (1592), and
Quite a bit, actually.
Beginning with the fact that these are the four texts I have chosen to teach at A Level, my co-teacher focussing on Dystopia (Y13) or American Lit (Y12). But as we move inexorably towards this year’s A Level exam on 23 May, this year’s revision has felt a lot more reflective; several other connections have emerged. Some of them probably say as much about me as they do the texts.
They all fit the tragic model. Our tragic heroes each with their own hamartia, leading to their downfall and a great deal of painful collateral damage. Each has a painful, poignant moment of anagnorisis before the text ends.
I want to dig a little deeper: I’d also contend – and perhaps I look for it – that whilst each hamartia is a species of hubris, or excessive pride (and all hamartia are, in some ways), in all these cases we are looking at issues related to class. In On Chesil Beach, Edward is acutely aware of the differences between his background and his wife Florence’s (as indeed are her family); Tennyson‘s suggestively autobiographical protagonist (whatever the poet would have protested) feels excluded, cheated of the class position he assumed was his for the taking, and pins his hopes on re-entering it via marriage; Marlowe‘s play is also suggestive of his own class ambitions and struggles, not just via Gaveston but also Spenser Junior and Baldock; and finally we have Richard III, not content with being a Duke – effectively a Prince – a deciding that only the very top job can ease his pain.
Tennyson called his protagonist ‘a little Hamlet‘; the plots are broadly similar; the protagonist inclined to melancholy and madness. But it’s not a simple case of plagiarism, as TS Eliot would point out:
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest. [a]
So, another great example of intertexuality. And this, finally, leads me to this week’s quotation, by Catharine Arnold. Last night I finally got round to watching Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998) for the first time – I know! One of the things that fascinates me is the incipient rivalry between Marlowe and Shakespeare, over almost before it begun, and this featured last night, albeit (SPOILER ALERT) our rather selfish hero seemed quite reconciled to his mate’s death once he was persuaded he hadn’t caused it …
The film riffed on a friendly, co-operative rivalry. Whether this was the case or not, the rivalry was there, and it’s fascinating to speculate what heights the two writers might have challenged each other to had Marlowe lived on. Here’s Catharine Arnold, then: almost inevitably on Richard III, but with something to say in passing about Shakespeare’s debt to Marlowe:
“While modern audiences have learned to regard Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III sceptically as a product of Tudor propaganda, there can be no doubt as to the relish with which Shakespeare fashioned his Richard. If the devil has all the best tunes, Richard has all the best lines and emerges in all his malignant glory as His Satanic Majesty.
Darkly charismatic, Richard is Shakespeare’s most compelling creation so far. Before he even becomes the titular subject of his play, Richard springs upon the stage as a fully fledged monster equipped complete with self-knowledge, irony and ‘determined to prove a villain. Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile . . . and set the murderous Machiavel to school.’ Richard confirms his audience’s prejudices by embodying the common Tudor misconception of Machiavelli as a role model for devious politicians. He is, in many ways, Marlowe’s creature, with the vaunting ambition of Tamburlaine or Faustus, revealing his intent in confiding speeches which increase in impact when addressed to an audience standing so close to the stage” [b]
[a] TS Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920)
[b] Catharine Arnold, Globe: Life in Shakepeare’s London (Simon & Schuster: London, 2015)