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?
(subtitled, far too obviously for the UK football fans amongst us, ‘who ate all the pies?’)
I warned you! I WARNED YOU! Did I warn you?
Yes, I did. And so did Francis Bacon. And Jonathan Bate. And Fredson Bowers. We all said that revenge was likely to spiral out of control, because once you lose your faith in the law, and in divine justice too, all bets are off. And because every stroke in the ‘rally of revenge‘ is that much harder, has that much more spin on it than the last. Let’s mix our metaphors again: in this particular poker game, someone, eventually, is going to see your stake and raise you with everything they’ve got, not caring any more whether they win or lose. The chips, and what they represent, are suddenly and utterly unimportant …
Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge. If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:
‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’
And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:
Private action undermines the authority of the state:Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.
Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.