Having broken out of my Romeo and Juliet-induced enervation, I approached King John with a sense of excitement bolstered by my positive experiences with the Henry VI plays. Unusually, maybe impatiently, I skipped my Arden’s introduction and got stuck in after finding these hopeful signs elsewhere:
“a neglected play about a flawed king” [a]
“King John has all the beauties of language and all the richness of the imagination to relieve the painfulness of the subject.” [b]
Studying a History play? Look for the playwright’s sources …
My Marxist critical inclinations – that a text can’t be read in isolation from the contextual crucible that created it – get pretty much free reign when it comes to teaching Edward II. For the OCR A Level course, my students need to compare Marlowe’s drama to Tennyson‘s monodrama, ‘Maud‘ and, get this, 50% of the mark is context (that’s AO3, troops).
What, exactly, is context? I’d suggest that for both texts, maybe all texts, context is usually a mix of two things:
Hot ice and wondrous strange snow: the appetite for articulation …
Frequently, I ask my class to step into the time machine and join me back in 1592.
Conveniently, it’s as close as we can get to dating both Richard III and Edward II, my Key Stage 5 texts. The other plays I teach at the moment – Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth – follow on from here.
This period was a crucible in which Drama as we know it was being born, alchemically transmuted from the didactic Morality Plays into something fresh and exciting. With my Marxist critical hat on, if we can understand the contextual elements poured into that cauldron, we can better appreciate and analyse the resultant heady brew.
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene i
Regular readers will understand my complex relationship with the notion of ‘England’.
The catchy simplicity of Three Lions (It’s Coming Home) turned from pleasantly nostalgic ‘earworm‘ – I well remember the song’s release for Euro ’96 – to a cankerous ‘worm ‘i the bud‘ [a] long before Wednesday’s almost inevitable defeat to Croatia. The entire nation, it seemed, had been reduced to a vocabulary of just three words – a mantra which was unchallengeable, a self-evident truth destroyed in just 120 minutes (if only Brexit could fall as quickly.) As I watched people (including several students) spill out of The Sun – opposite where I was drinking – in a numbed state of shock after the match, I was glad I wouldn’t hear it for a while. Having ‘sat like Patience’ I was now, almost, ‘smiling at grief’. To no avail: by 11am the next day – no lie – I was hearing “World Cup 2022: It’s Coming Home” in the corridors of ‘C’ Block … sigh.
Has this anything to do with Romeo and Juliet? Of course.
Maybe it’s ironic to quote an author I haven’t read – apart from a single short story in a SF anthology (‘The Way of the Cross and the Dragon’ (1978), if anyone’s interested) – but this is the second time I’ve used GRR Martin‘s quotation (and indeed this image):
‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.’
‘Everyone‘ says I would love Martin’s work if I could find the time to read it, by the way. It’s not even close to reaching the slopes of Mount Tsundoku at the moment.
If Marxist literary criticism were renamed, say Contextual Critical Theory, I wonder if it would be taken more seriously by the uninitiated … like rebranding Labour as ‘New Labour’ in the UK helped Tony Bliar (intentional misspelling) come to power in 1997 … How can we possibly dissociate a text from the society in which it was created, or indeed from the intertextual cauldron that formed the author’s views?
‘Why would I bother watching Titanic, when I know how it ends?’ Silence …
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through. Romeo and Juliet: Prologue
As a trainee, I remember ‘inheriting’ R&J from the usual teacher on placements. Twice. And I vividly remember teaching the Prologue to a top set of smart, welcoming, wonderful students.
This was the class that christened Romeo the ‘pervy monkey boy‘ after watching Zeffirelli‘s interpretation of the balcony scene. Thanks, Hannah – I will never forget that. They’re also the bunch that did the ‘Mean Girls‘ recreation of Act III, scene v. They made ‘fetch’ happen! So much for ‘Two households, both alike in dignity‘ …
Despite the brilliant memories, I wonder if it’s significant that I have never, since, opted to teach the play, now that I am largely in charge of my own destiny? And for PTS purposes, what can we, can I, pull out of these fourteen lines that hasn’t been said before over the last 400-years?