Archive | October, 2013

Location, location, location..

24 Oct



King Lear and the demonstrative use of set and location to represent mental decline.

               The tragedy of King Lear is a play of progression and decline where the protagonist is demonstrably taken on a journey and literally walked through the tableaus of his own sanity. Not necessarily an odyssey of enlightenment but instead one of ever decreasing circles where ultimately the monarch discovers the truth behind the man whose crown he wears. An excruciating self-induced circuitous expedition and one that’s distinctly less travelled. Throughout the play we see a monarch on progress but not through the estates of his courtiers rather through the state of his own mind. Shakespeare offers us a personal psychological drama where the travelogue is picture-post-carded with a slide into dementia and loss of faculty by equating location with competence. It’s the symbolism of location that’s so important to the action that even if one had never read the text, one could certainly recognize an evolution in the debasement of self. Each location is cast deliberately to demonstrate mental health, each staged vignette an episode of cerebral degradation. In as much as the story line is vital, it’s the categorical showcasing of the inner workings of mind that is of equal importance The play is for all time, but no matter what personality a director gives the piece they must be true to the atmospherics of implied location. Shakespeare, through location and assisted by language, offers his audience an explication of the implicit. It isn’t only the action on stage that’s of significance, but where it takes place and what it reveals about the frailty of mind.

               Act 1 finds us in Lear’s castle, a stronghold of kingship, the center of royal control and the home of the divinely anointed. Ensconced behind thick walls, bourn above deep foundation we’re exposed for the first time to the mind of the king. Just as his home stands for stability, so are we met with a man who is clearly in control. His very first words are to disseminate orders, the progress of lucid thought and kingly endeavor forefront in his mind. “Attend the lords of France and Burgundy Kent.”(1,1,35) A clear command from a well ordered mind, a man considered of the future, what it holds and how he can manipulate it. A dynasty of kings of whom Lear is the regnal head and from which, we soon learn, wishes to divest himself. Lear we’re told is a man of years who wishes to relinquish himself of responsibility and abdicate sovereign cares by passing his crown down to “younger strengths.” What we’re really being shown by Shakespeare is the bulwark of psyche tormented by age, under siege and under tunneled, where the strong walls of mind that hold one together are beginning to crumble. One can assume that grass is growing through the paving slabs and the mortar that holds the great stones of the castle in place is in need of maintenance, ergo the onset of Lear’s dementia. Both castle and kingship are representative of mind; the immutability of statehood and the dexterity of Lear’s faculty. It’s this disturbing fact that’s presented to us within the symbolism of location. Lear then produces a map; or rather Shakespeare exposes the king’s inner psyche to the audience. By spreading his kingdom in full view, the map not only describes a location, it demonstrates inner conflict, the contention of mind and a “darker purpose.” Lear’s mental health is as splintered as the lines which divide the land on the map. His slide into dementia is further exacerbated by his banishment of his dearest daughter and his most trusted friend, both of whom are exiled and sent away from the castle and cast from the land. This is significant as the castle that represents a bastion of stability is now shown to be losing key pieces, revealing the king’s vulnerability and weakness. Both Kent and Cordelia are analogous of the king’s faculties and their banishment from the whole shows the disintegration of its parts. The castle or court is depleted of vital resources just as Lear is relieved of his senses; gone the dependability of the old and in with the insecurity of the new.

               Shakespeare continues to offer psychological diagnosis in Act 2 with the removal of the king from his castle and into the Duke of Albany’s palace, the home of Goneril his daughter. Why change location? The removal isn’t simply a set change but attempts to demonstrate that the mind of Lear is wandering, that he’s no longer of sound mind and that his judgment is impaired. He’s abandoned the castle of compos mentis and opted to move into the unknown, the daughter’s house representing those parts of the mind that are supposed to be left unvisited. If the castle was psychological stability then Goneril’s home is the fringe of insanity. That which Lear thought would be familiar is in fact foreign. Having moved into one new home, or transitioned his state of mind, he’s quickly ushered into another geographical shift, the home of the other daughter Reagan, describing schizophrenic tendencies or even split personalities. As with the revelation of Russian dolls from one another we understand Shakespeare’s location changes as demonstrative of Lear’s sanity. Briefly attended by the familiar, his knights, they’re as quickly removed as fleeting thoughts and his entourage, or rather the remainder of whatever senses he has left, banished. The king confused, a shadow of himself with his mind crippled, must once again remove his person and find accommodation elsewhere. The playwright hasn’t shown us the daughters’ homes for theatrical license alone but instead revealed a loss of the quotidian, or rather described a deeper context where the knowledge of oneself is no longer relevant and the inevitability of madness is in onset.

               Perhaps the most desperate location we’re shown is the heathland where Lear is left to wander the moors and “abjure all roofs;” a pathetic fallacy of wind and rain-riven heather where a king of fools rants and raves to a deaf heaven. Why isn’t he stalking the abandoned corridors of some great house or screaming his last from the ramparts of an Elsinore? Shakespeare instead deliberately takes his audience into that which Elizabethans feared, the empty spaces and faerie hollows of the countryside – a place of rape and murder – in order to horrify. Nothing is familiar and all is strange; the heath is representative of the total separation of mind and wits. What are the realms of madness like, he seems to be asking, and who’s returned, if any, to tell of the horrors that lie there? Shakespeare with all the drama he can muster knows that the moorland is a country from whose boarders few of his characters will return and we’re deliberately led into the storm. Lear has abandoned by choice, or rather whichever personality at the time was dominant in the realms of his madness, and sought refuge in the ravages of the storm. Red in tooth and claw, the heath represents the finality of insanity, the complete isolation of the king’s mind and an empty stage. Left alone on the heath with rude shelter and a madman for company and with the distinct possibility of death, the Elizabethan audience would’ve been more than aware of the logic behind yet another location change. What was being enacted before them was their worst nightmare. King Lear isn’t just a tragedy but a horror story and the groundlings knew exactly what terrors were being represented on the scaffold before them. One can only imagine the hush that this would have elicited in an open-air roofless theater with the rain beating off their faces. Reality T.V. for a renaissance crowd perhaps?

               Finally we see Lear imprisoned all be it with his daughter. He’s achieved nothing and destroyed everything, left to rot in a cell with the body of his dead Cordelia. The cell is clearly the end, the closure of mind and an end to sensibility. The idea of prison to an Elizabethan audience would’ve been familiar but was generally reserved for the rich and landed. Most crimes committed during this period would have resulted in death by hanging or worse. Therefore the isolated cell location, rather than a representation of punishment, would’ve probably elicited the idea of the demise of conscious thought and reason.

                How does a sane man react with the onset of dementia, with the self-knowledge that mental fecundity is diminishing? This is the purpose of the geographical challenge the playwright sets for his characters. One can imagine Shakespeare pondering thoughts of madness and how he should demonstrate this to an audience. The staging of a mad rant would have been too simple and the allusion to insanity and multiple personality disorder could be accomplished by the continued reimagining of the stage. After all why interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, time and again, without reason or just cause? Set change, or its Elizabethan equivalent, and multiple locations where obviously extremely important to the sub-plot and rather than stage the whole in a Forest of Arden, Shakespeare chose to change location continuously during his play.  The metaphor of mind and location are self-evident when one considers the Elizabethan understanding of corporal humors. The body, so they believed, was controlled and compartmentalized by various forces – bloods and bile’s – and the movement of humors through the body could easily be equated to location and state of mind. Very cleverly Shakespeare leads his audience through various palaces offering them the view from each and then quickly relocating them to one from which the vista is far worse. The diverse locations are an allusion to mental stability and its inconstant aspects and are representative of a fragility of life that would not have been beyond an Elizabethan understanding.

All in the Thunk!

24 Oct


Reader Response Criticism – Literary Critique


       Reader response criticism is the application of the subjective rather than the objective; the interaction of the reader with the written word and their personal response to it. What is it about the novel that inspires the reader and what is it that creates the animus to turn the page? Instead of filtering the text through a lens, or molesting it from a particular viewpoint, the reader reviews, digests and comments accordingly, dependent upon their perspective, experience and personal understanding. Utilizing this method of critique one can reveal the implicit and that which may or not be implied through self-discovery. By reading, absorbing and reflecting upon the author’s words the reader is able to bridge comprehension gaps and complete the narrative using their own interpretive skills. Rather than accepting suggested criticism and paying homage to quotidian literary sign posts the end-user embarks on a personal journey through the work and performs an active rather than a passive critique. In short, this form of review is induced by reader response and understanding, not the application of structured due-diligence and close reading.

Affective stylistics do of course help the reader to balance determinacy and indeterminacy; the digestion of factual information offered by the author, supplemented by an intimate reaction to that which is either omitted or included. The difference between this form of critique and the formulistic approach is that the reader’s response is a cerebral exercise as oppose to an adherence to a defined strategy. Instead of relying primarily on the author and their work the reader utilizes instinctive reading. Through personal experience, societal indoctrination, cultural awareness and all the other tenets of self of which we’re possessed, we’re able to apply ourselves to the story. Rather than dissecting the prose and exposing them to minute laboratory style scrutiny, the literature comes to life simply by being read.

Until a book is taken from the shelf, opened and read, literature doesn’t exist and remains a mere figment of imaginative possibility. It’s the interaction of the reader with the book that creates literature not the other way around – hence the importance of reader response. Certainly good writing engenders readers but first has to be discovered for its own merits – the primary response of the reader rather than the machinations of authors and their pens. Without readers literature would cease to be and so self-indulgent criticism is every bit as important as all the other forms of critique which Dobie describes in “Theory and Practice.” The reason that literary corner-stones such as the “New York Times Best Seller List” endure is because of the popularity of reading, not the insistence upon intellectual criticism. Reading, although generating discussion and untold amounts of work, is ostensibly meant to be enjoyed.

A critique of literary theory

13 Oct





A Critique of Literary Theory

               Reading is supposed to be an enjoyable pastime and so one may posit that the employment of literary criticism detracts from one’s pleasure and instead of offering insight into an author’s work will simply dissect and present a fractured sum of its parts rather than a work in its entirety. The purpose of critical application is to engender the insight necessary to help the reader develop an understanding of what’s written between the lines and even why the lines where written in the first place. It offers a position of intelligence rather than one of ignorance. With these critical tools in hand, the reader is more likely to appreciate and understand the literature being studied. Instead of reading a text and accepting it at face value, the reader is able to garner a more complex understanding of the subject, able to discuss the finer literary points, analyze the text and compare and contrast it with contemporary writings whilst simultaneously applying other disciplines of scholarly pursuit to embellish one’s reading. Two such disciplines are Formulistic and Marxist literary criticism, as described by Dobie in her book “Theory into Practice,” that offer very different literary lenses both of which can be applied separately to the same writing. Although there are several different methods, these both offer a juxtaposition that allows one to enjoy the writing for itself and its intrinsic beauty whilst enabling one to recognize the characters social standing, understand hierarchical influence and recognize the inclusion of itinerate politic. By understanding both forms one learns not only to appreciate the craft and skill of the author but also to comprehend what inspired them to write what they did and from what view point their words flourished. Formulistic and Marxist theory are therefore complimentary bedfellows when exploring and analyzing any literary text.

               “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” the very first line of the dystopian novel 1984 published in 1948 by Eric Blair under the pen-name George Orwell. Orwell was a committed socialist who understood the value of life, who during his own fought against both fascism and communism and concluded that anything that was centrally controlled, no matter how represented, was essentially evil and detrimental to the pursuit of happiness and the welfare of humanity. That aside let’s take the first line and apply formulistic criticism. Formulism concerns itself with imagery, scene-setting and the engendering of emotion through metaphor and allusion. Observed through this lens one simply views a clock, no matter where it is, marking time. The clock has just struck one o’clock and so we may perhaps have encountered a satisfactory period directly after lunch. We’re also told that it’s April, that part of the year when we’re coming out of winter and heading into spring, a time of rebirth and continuity, the cold in the air suggesting that we’re still within the clutches of the old season but fast approaching the brightness and clarity of the new; a foreboding perhaps of pleasant weather and happier times? At this point we know nothing of Orwell, his politics, or as yet what the novel has to offer. In fourteen words we’ve been given a statement of facts offering us place and time, imagery of a chiming clock, a sense of season and very little else. A fairly simplistic opening until we explore this from the point of view of Marxist criticism.

               In order to do this we have to step back from the page and consider the author, his works, his life, and his political inclination. George Orwell was the product of an upper-middle-class family who’d attended the best preparatory school in England, Eton, and who was destined to go to Oxford. Instead of becoming a scholar he neglected his studies and through lack of funds or scholarship joined the Imperial Police and become a colonial policeman in Burma;  a job which entailed the wearing of a uniform, the carrying of a weapon and which came replete with the full force of the British Empire to back his every action. In effect he’d become a colonial slave master who was supposed to hold the indigenous population in subjugation in order for the British Empire to continue its criminal rape of the country and its resources for the benefit of His Britannic Majesty. Knowing only this about Orwell we can now apply Marxist criticism, as we can clearly define hierarchy and identify the Proletariat, Bourgeoisie and define the practice of hegemony.

               “… And the clock struck thirteen.” Now we see that time is being defined for a reason, everything must run to schedule in order to insure continuity and uniformity. A clock signifies control and the fact that it’s striking is either an order or a command to which a required response is expected. But why thirteen, why not one? The twenty four hour clock, or military time as it’s known in America, is both a little austere and forbidding. Instead of an image in the mind of a clock on a mantel piece gently chiming the hours of the day we now have an image of a monolithic military time piece dictating the march of time rather than indicating the passing of time. The seasonal change also takes on a different context as the chill in the air now denotes not the representation of change but rather that of permanence; classic foreshadowing which will reach far into the chapters of the story. By applying different lenses we now have two very different interpretations of what the Orwell’s words represent and that from just the very first line of the novel; such are the contrasts of Formulistic and Marxist criticism. In one example we’ve enjoyed the language and accepted an image and in the other, by understanding a little about the author’s viewpoint, have put the writing into its true context and quite differently defined the projected image.

               The application of both of these forms of criticism to the same piece of work adds a depth that would not otherwise be appreciated. In the sonnets of Shakespeare we are offered beautiful imagery where allusion and metaphor are compounded with iambic pentameter adding nuance and precision to the spoken word. Shakespeare’s words conjure not just imagery but sound and innate color, creating a three dimensional experience from a two dimensional page. One can spend hours or even a lifetime pondering the significance of his words, but what if we employ Marxist criticism and apply that, are the sonnets quite as beautiful? We know that the Renaissance England under Elizabeth was a police-state and that religious antipathy existed between the recently formed Anglican Church and the older established Catholic order. Relationships were therefore inflamed and confused, causing the people to accept cognitive dissonance and lives of ill ease. Was Shakespeare caught in this struggle, or more to the point how could he not be, and how did that affect his writing? We know that in his sonnets he’s extremely deferential – accepting that he’s not the equal of the receiver of the sonnets – and can therefore understand that when writing, was clearly aware of the established class system. We know he sought patronage, as unless protected by a wealthier person of higher status couldn’t have continued in his chosen profession.

               In sonnet 29 Shakespeare offers “bootless cries to heaven.” From the Marxist point of view one has to appreciate that during the Elizabethan era there was no higher law than god or that of his representative on earth the Queen; a clear assignation of hierarchy.  When we understand that by offering prayers to a “deaf heaven” in a time when church attendance was mandatory and belief total then the lines are defamatory, heretical and even treasonous. Is Shakespeare saying that god is deaf and impotent and in doing so, by implication, the monarchy as well? On the other hand if we use the formulistic process then we have beautiful imagery of a bootless, destitute, hopeless individual for whom even heaven offers no solace and where prayers simply bounce off the iron work of the pearly gates!

               The use of both types of criticism can be justified in that they offer different depths or strata to an author’s works. Instead of staring at the reflection of one’s self in the waters of a lake, to use the Formulistic metaphorical method, we can instead see through the glassy layer and understand the machinations of the currents and the creatures that live beneath its surface and reveal its Marxist qualities. A combination of political awareness and literary imagery completes a fuller and richer digestion of any explored text. By offering two separate and polar opposite criticisms one can experience and reveal both the implicit and explicit.

LADY WITH THE TOY DOG – psychological critique – Chekhov

1 Oct


Chekhov’s tale, The Lady with the Toy Dog, is a story of conflict, not of martial enterprise, but of consciousness and ego. The psychological dilemma is personified as an older man who meets and loves a younger woman, who then leaves him to love another and who ultimately returns to continue their assignation. These details are supplementary to the thread that Chekhov runs so blatantly through his story. Chekhov with his vivid imagery and austere text paints a picture of modern psychology that is more palatable than the cold, clinical dissection of Freudian theory. Rather than explicating the differences and boundaries of the psyche we’re offered a story that encapsulates the processes of the mind in a beautiful Russian doll, where as one doll is removed another is revealed.

Our protagonist is Dmitri, a man who despite his age and obligation continues to carouse and satiate his lust with random females. He’s indifferently married to a woman – his intellectual equal despite his thoughts to contrary – and for whom life offers no fresh adventure. Born of his affairs is a tangible misogyny. He regards women as mere play things and uses them to illuminate his otherwise dull life. In reality Chekhov describes a personification of Id; that which must be satiated immediately and which doesn’t care whom it hurts or what judgment is passed upon it as a result of its actions. Dmitri’s trips to the coast to meet women are really the pursuit of the pleasure principal, where the only thing that matters is instant gratification and brief respite from wife, societal norm and obligation.

Our other protagonist is Anna, a woman who sets out to satisfy the Id by seeking adventure away from her marital bed and who actively, if unconsciously, seeks an affair. The affair is consummated when she meets the irresistible Dmitri. Although indulging herself Anna eventually becomes distraught as her super-ego suddenly awakens to requite her for all she’s done. She considers herself to be a loose and low woman confronted with a diabolical situation where she’s been led unwittingly into temptation by the personification of everything she abhors in herself. We find our Russian lovers ensconced in a hotel, where Id munches on water melon whilst Super Ego berates itself and pulls out its hair for Anna’s illicit indulgence.

At the end of the short affair both have to part from one another, go their separate ways and return to their responsibilities. Despite the miles between them and the quotidian drudgery of life they’re eventually reunited, when once again their pleasure principal is awakened by an impromptu trip from Dmitri to Anna’s home town. Their feelings of love aren’t sudden but develop over time as lust morphs into love and our heroes’ Egos tries to present common sense solutions to the predicament in which they find themselves.

Dmitri wants to see Anna and Anna wants to see Dmitri but can’t because of professional and domestic constraints. A common way has to be found where both Id and Super Ego demands are satisfied. The solution, although not a satisfactory one, are stolen moments of happiness in a hotel where they’re able to meet infrequently. Despite their inner conflicts, balance has been found where they can both continue to see one another.

What Chekov has really shown us is the conflict between the Id, instinctual gratification, Super Ego, societal expectation and deference to conditioning and the final culmination of acquiescence to compromise via the Ego, self-preservation and yet balance.

Dmitri and Anna don’t live happily ever after, but they do continue to live.

Marxist Criticism

1 Oct




                                                                                                                                                                                        Billy Bragg

In order to utilize Marxist theory one must first be able to identify the principles of Marxism and apply them accordingly. Karl Marx, a German philosopher and political activist, in his books, The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, divided the population into two groups. These groups were the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. The Proletariat is ostensibly the working class who give their labor in expectation of wages so that the Bourgeoisie, as factory owners or bosses, can profit from their endeavors. The Bourgeoisie is the entitled class that lives large and enjoys the riches provided by the working class who in turn are paid for their efforts. In order for this to succeed their must exist Hegemony. Hegemony is the accepted disparity of social status that must be enforced in order for the Proletariat to accept the superiority of the Bourgeoisie and so carry out their duties without hesitation or complaint.

In order to understand this so-called natural order their must exist cognitive dissonance – the holding of two separate and opposite beliefs and believing them both to be true simultaneously – which is the key to status quo or rather the Capitalist system. Hegemony is achieved through the manipulation of values and expectations via the media, marketing and the misrepresentation of class roles. These are the key points to Marxism and consequently to Marxist literary theory. If one takes television commercials as an example, one is able to experience hegemony and manipulation on a daily basis and depending upon the channel one is watching, at least every ten minutes!

Marxist theory allows one to identify prestige within character relationships and understand their roles. By using the example of the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell, we are very quickly able to discern who are the “haves and have-nots”, who is being hood-winked by whom and what’s holding the imbalance in place. Marxist theory can be applied to any hierarchical relationship and so we may see this anywhere from a book that deals with bondage or perhaps one that involves gender roles or even race. Marxist criticism views literature as a class struggle between factions or situations and allows one to decipher world views based on the perceived positions and attitudes of the characters. By applying this form of critique one is able to see the different angles of character consciousness and understand why it is they hold their positions and beliefs. Through Marxist theory we can interpret their actions, precepts and life struggles.