English Renaissance and Puritan Age: historical and social background


The  English Renaissance is a very long period which covers the whole of the 16th century and part of the 17th   up to the Restoration of monarchy. It is generally divided into shorter ones: the Elizabethan Age (or the Age of Shakespeare), the Jacobean Age and The Age of Milton . There is no exact date at which the Middle Ages can be said to end and the Renaissance to begin. As always happens, the old and the new learning mixed together for several decades.

ESSENTIAL HISTORICAL AND SOCIAL BACKGROUND:  In 1485 the Civil war between the families of York and Lancaster ended with the defeat of Richard III and Henry VII started the Tudor dynasty on the throne of England. His reign lived a period of peace and prosperity. New classes began to emerge: The gentry (country gentlemen), the yeomen ( minor land-owners), and the merchants. Henry enforced law and order, encouraged commerce and restored to the Crown much of its former prestige. He never summoned Parliament. Unlike his father, Henry VIII,  followed   imperialistic dreams.  He had an  Digitalizzato_20180318 copiaimmense wish to command and his ministers were hardly allowed to interfere with his decisions. His name is linked to the English Reformation. He did not like the spread of Lutheranism in England and defended the Catholic Church against Luther. He also published a pamphlet , In Defence of the Seven Sacraments. The Pope named him “Fidei Defensor”, Defender of the Faith.  His break with Rome was not theological. The king needed money to cover   the cost of his  court and of  the expensive wars. He knew that the Church owned large estates and that the monasteries had treasures in gold and silver metalwork and jewellery . The church also reduced the Crown’s income because people had to pay taxes to it. The occasion to the break was given by Henry’s decision to divorce  his wife Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his deceased brother Arthur and aunt to the Spanish emperor Charles V.   He wanted   to marry Anne Boleyn  and asked the Pope to declare his marriage null. The Pope  refused his request  because he needed  the support of Charles V against the Lutherans. Henry decided to divorce all the same. He proclaimed himself Head of the Church of England rejecting the authority of the Church of Rome.  In 1534 he summoned Parliament and made it pass the “Act of Supremacy” by which the King was confirmed Supreme Head of the Church of England and Protestantism was recognized as the State Religion. He was now able to divorce his wife and marry     Anne Boleyn. All Englishmen were required to take an oath, known as the “Oath of Supremacy”, by which they accepted the rejection of the Pope’s authority and recognized the marriage to Anne Boleyn as lawful. Those who refused to oath were condemned to death on charge of high treason. Among them the most famous was Sir Thomas More, Henry’s Prime Minister and friend.  Henry closed the monasteries and confiscated their properties giving them to protestant families that made up the new Tudor aristocracy. Through this decision the Universities took the place of monasteries as seats of learning. Henry had a turbulent matrimonial life and had other four wives: Jane Seymour, who died giving birth to Edward VI, Anne of Cleves, divorced, Catherine Howard, who was executed and Catherine Parr, who survived him. After Henry’s death the religious struggles went on with an alternation of protestant ( Edward VI; he was only nine years old and had his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset as Protector  ) and Catholic Kings( Mary Tudor, Known as “Bloody Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and the wife of King Philip II of Spain) which witnessed first the persecution of Catholics and then of Protestants. When Mary Tudor  died she left behind her  a country deeply dependant on Spain, ill-governed and without religious unity.                      elizabeth Internal peace and stability was achieved when Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, came to the throne (1558).     She re-established the Anglican Church but she adopted a policy of compromise in the religious field and put the Anglican Church in the middle between the  Reformed  Churches and the Catholic one.  A second Act of Supremacy (1559) restated the independence of the Church of England ( no foreign prince, State or potentate could have spiritual or temporary authority within the realm of England) and the Act of Uniformity made the use of the Book of Common Prayer compulsory. Thanks to this policy of compromise in the religious field, Elizabeth ensured England internal peace and increased wealth and commercial power. After the discovery of America, knowing the importance of the foreign market, Elizabeth supported the new explorations  thanks to the creation of a powerful fleet. She encouraged the growth of the Royal Navy and the birth of companies (East India Company) that exploited the overseas trade. Of course she had to face frictions with other States who wanted to exploit foreign commerce (above all with Spain). Elizabeth had only one serious internal threat: her Catholic cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland,  next in succession after her.  Scotland was still a Catholic country but the common people were against the corruption of the clergy. There was a Protestant revolt in Scotland and Mary had to take refuge in England. The English Catholics, who wanted to restore Catholicism, tried to make her Queen of England.  She  became the centre of several plots. The Commons repeatedly asked for her execution but   Elizabeth refused. She kept her virtually prisoner for nineteen years. When the latest plot  was discovered,  Elizabeth consented to Mary’s execution. After Mary’s execution things went worse between Spain and England. The frictions brought to open war in 1588 when Philip II of Spain tried to invade England. The Spanish “Invincible Armada”, a huge fleet, was defeated in the English Channel and England’s victory saved her independence and  increased her prestige in Europe.

When Elizabeth died, the throne went to James VI of Scotland. He was the son of Mary Stuart and ruled both England and Scotland as James VI of Scotland and James I of England.The two counties remained separate, with separate Parliaments until May 1th, 1707 when, under the terms of The Treaty of Union, England and Scotland became a single state, the United Kingdom of Great Britain, and the parliaments at Westminster and Edinburgh were replaced by a single  Parliament of Great Britain . James was the first King of the Dynasty of the Stuarts. He was an educated man but he made many heavy mistakes ( The king of France Louis XIII said of him:”He is the wisest fool in Christendom”. The country he inherited from Elizabeth was very difficult to be ruled because of the internal tensions in the final period of Elizabeth’s reign. The system of taxation had become very inefficient, the finances of the Crown paid the cost of the war with Spain, the army was badly organized, there was a widespread corruption in bureaucracy and religion caused serious problems.  The Calvinists, called Puritans in England, wanted to purify the Anglican Church. Unlike the Tudors, who  had always realized that their strength came from Parliament and from the people, James believed in the “Divine Right” of the Kings: a king answered for his actions to God alone because he received authority from God. He believed that the powers of Parliament were a concession of the King. He called Parliament only when he was in need of money . In the religious field he  insisted on the strict conformity to the liturgy of the Anglican Church. He discontented both the Puritans and the Catholics. There was a strong reaction of the Catholics who tried to blow up the king and Parliament (the Gunpowder Plot, nov.5th, 1605). The plot was discovered and many Catholics were put to death. Severe laws and restrictive measures were passed against all dissenters. Puritans, too,  were persecuted .A group of them, known as “The Pilgrim Fathers”, to escape persecution, sailed   on board the “Mayflower” and landed in North America. There they founded New Plymouth, the first permanent English settlement in North America, starting the beginning of the future United States.

THE PURITAN AGE: Charles I, James I’s son, became king in 1625. Disregarding Parliament, he tried to rule as an absolute king. He was in need of money to support a series of military expeditions against France to help the Huguenots, French Protestants, who tried to oppose the powerful Prime Minister Richelieu. The House of Commons refused to grant it so he dissolved Parliament trying to obtain money by illegal means and forced loans. As money was not sufficient he   called a Parliament again in 1628. The Commons agreed to support the military expenses but asked the king to accept the Petition of Rights (taxes had to be approved by Parliament and no man should be imprisoned without a regular trial). The king refused and didn’t call another Parliament until 1640  when he had to face religious troubles in Scotland. This Parliament is remembered as the Short Parliament because it only lasted one month. Cardinal Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, wanted that the Scottish Church had to follow the canons of the English Church and   attempted to impose conformity to High Church ritual to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  Parliament   was summoned again in the same year ( Long Parliament) because Charles needed money. Parliament did not grant the money and asked Charles I to give up control of the country. In 1641, a rebellion in Catholic Ireland was militarily repressed. The first Civil war broke out in 1642. On one side there were the Royalists or Cavaliers, supported by the Crown and The Anglican Church while on the other side there were the Parliamentarians   (also called “Roundheads”  because they wore their hair short) supported by the Puritan dissenters lead by Oliver Cromwell (the term  Puritan was applied to followers of Calvin who wanted a purer church, that is a church purified from Roman Catholic rituals and vestments). The war ended in the victory of the Puritans. Charles I was charged with high treason and was beheaded. England became a Parliamentary Republic,  the Commonwealth, and was ruled for some years by the Commons. Heavy taxations and a strict way of life were imposed. Everything which could sound Catholic in the rituals was abolished( Christmas and Easter, too).  Any form of amusement such as Maypole dancing, cockfighting, bear-baiting and so on was prohibited and no games could be played on Sunday. The theatres were closed. People had to dress in a simple way and wore their hair cut short . In 1653 Parliament was dissolved, Cromwell became Lord Protector and the country was under his direct rule. The Royalists were forced to sell their estates because of Cromwell’s heavy taxation and the merchant class grew in importance. Puritan rule was brief. People soon got tired of all that.  It only lasted until 1660 when a newly summoned Parliament recalled King Charles II, the legitimate heir of the Stuart Dynasty from his exile. Charles restored the Church of England and granted freedom of religion to Puritans and Catholics, even if he his own assent to the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which stated that those   who did not conform to the Prayer Book had to be driven out of the Church. In 1672 however  he issued   a Declaration of Indulgence which suspended all penal laws against Protestants and Catholic non-conformists.

The English Renaissance was an age of great changes and great contrasts: king vs  Parliament; Anglicanism vs  Puritanism; aristocracy vs  rich middle class; refined Court manners vs   Court violent amusements such as cock-fighting, bull-baiting (the fighting between bulls and dogs), bear-baiting (the fighting between bears and dogs); wealth from the land vs  wealth from trade; sheep-rearing vs  peasants (the enclosures, that is the fencing of large plots of land formerly cultivated) and so on. Life was hard for the lower classes and unemployment was high. Many families lost their land and were reduced to live on begging. The slave trade, the witch hunt, the religious persecutions, the massacres in Ireland demonstrated that not everything was good in the Golden Age. To contrast poverty a Poor Law was passed under Elizabeth. It may be considered a first little step towards the future “welfare State”. It stated that  the parishes had to provide schools and hospitals and had to take care of orphans.  It was also an age of stability and unity especially during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. England began to change from an agricultural into a commercial and industrial country. New industries were established and private enterprise was encouraged. New Merchant Companies were chartered and the famous East India Company was founded in 1600.

Senza titolo-1Renaissance was also an Age of scientific achievements and  discoveries of new lands. The development of the new science and of philosophy changed the picture of the world as seen before. The studies of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler revolutionized  astronomy providing  a new model of the Universe. The Ptolemaic system was shattered: the earth was not the fixed centre of the universe; it was not the sun that revolved around the earth but the earth and the planets that revolved around the sun that was at the centre of the universe. Philosophers as Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon gave another blow to the traditional beliefs. They rejected the old deductive method in favour of the inductive method: general truth was not achieved proceeding from general ideas to particular facts but vice versa, thus establishing that personal experience was more important than accepted ideas. These ideas affected religion, too:  the reformation rejected the central church authority in favour of individual conscience. The individual reading of the Bible was encouraged. There were new translations of the Old and New Testaments into English. Many religious movements provided their own correct text of the Bible. In 1611 the King James’ Bible, Known also as the Authorised Version, was adopted in the Anglican Church. It was the result of the study of a number of scholars led by Archbishop Laud.  The age was characterized by a strong national feeling.

By the end of the century Elizabeth’s England began to decline. With James Stuart the mood of the country changed. The religious tolerance and the enthusiasm of the Elizabethan Age  were replaced by dissatisfaction and disappointment. In spite of excess and fanaticism  we may find something positive in the Puritan Dictatorship. Some proposals of  radical reforms such as woman ‘s suffrage and free medical treatment for the poor was a first approach to democracyGroups of reformers contributed to awakening of  the conscience  of common people . The most important were the Levellers and the Diggers. The former asked for great participation of the people in the government while the latter were in favour of common properties against private estates.

Posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks | Leave a comment

English Humanism and Renaissance:Prose-Poetry-Drama

The   term “Renaissance” derives from Latin “renascentia” and means “rebirth”. It was  used to indicate  the flowering of the arts and sciences and the changes in religious and philosophical thought.The historical event which gave origin to European Humanism and then to  Renaissance  was the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Digitalizzato_20180318 (4) copiaGreek scholars scattered all through Europe, particularly through Italy, bringing with them the manuscripts of classical antiquity. In Italy Humanism and Renaissance occupy the 15th and the 16th centuries. English Renaissance developed later than in the other European countries  at the end of the 15th century. This was due mainly to the country’s internal problems with the Wars of the Roses. It occupied the whole 16th  century and  part of the 17th  up to the closure of the theatres in 1642. English Renaissance   saw the renaissance of English literature especially in the fields of poetry and drama. It flourished in the second half of the 16th century. It is also called the Golden Age of English literature, the Elizabethan Age or the Age of Shakespeare.  It may be divided into shorter periods:  Humanism (early Renaissance), Elizabethan Age  (high Renaissance) and Jacobean Age (Late Renaissance).

The 16th century  was marked by great changes and events: the discovery of new lands, the circumnavigation of the world, the Copernican Revolution (the sun is at the centre of the universe; it is the earth and the other planets that orbit  around it and not vice versa as said in the theory of Ptolemy), the changes in the planetary astronomy, the achievements of Galileo Galilei, the rebirth of classical literature of Greece and Rome. The spread of learning was greatly favoured by the use of the printing press with movable type which had been invented by Gutenberg in Germany and introduced into England by Caxton in 1476. Books became less expensive and consequently literacy was within the reach of more and more people. Lutheran   ideas began to spread over Europe. Martin Luther, a German monk, challenged the doctrine of the Church of Rome and the authority of the Pope. He denounced the selling of indulgences, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and sacraments in general. He gave much importance to the individual relation between man and God.   His followers preached against the wealth of Abbots, the worship of images and relics and the abuses and corruption of the clergy. On the whole it was an Age of growing wealth and prosperity in the rich families but also of poverty in the lower classes.

English Renaissance was characterised by intense national feeling and national pride under the influence of the personality of Queen Elizabeth. Thanks to her learning reached a great intensity. She was a really cultured woman fond of music and theatre. She understood Latin and Greek and spoke several languages. She was able to play musical instruments, sing and dance. The Queen herself wrote lyrics and epigrams and translated classical works. Her people adored her and artists often dedicated their creation to her. She filled her Court with man qualified in every branch of human activity.  A characteristic figure of the English Renaissance was the courtier, an ideal complete man goodDigitalizzato_20180318 (2) copia at everything. He was usually a nobleman who possessed both physical and intellectual qualities. He was polite, could speak well, knew the classical and foreign languages, was able to compose poetry and music, sang well, played some musical instrument, and was valiant in the use of arms. These qualities correspond to Renaissance qualities of the complete man but it is obvious that a single person could  not   possess all of them . The all-round  man was modelled on “Il Cortegiano” by Baldassarre Castiglione (published in England as The Courtier) and on “Galateo” by Monsignor Della Casa.

Italian culture was very important and affected English Renaissance in many things from literary theories to fashion and clothes. It could be seen in the life at Court where Italian ways and costumes were emulated.  Italian poets and novelists were sources of much narrative material. Great Italian men, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli had a considerable influence on the Elizabethans. Leonardo was appreciated because he was seen as an “all-round  man” being master of many arts and fields of learning. Machiavelli’s The Prince had a strong influence on the politics. The idea that “the ends justify the means” is present in many characters of Marlowe’s and Shakespeare’s plays.  But Italy was also seen as the seat of vice and corruption and while her arts and learning were imitated, her customs and practices were rejected. Stories of   atrocious crimes were set in Italy and attributed to Italian characters. Roger Ascham in   The Schoolmaster warned English people who went to Italy because they might run the risk of being changed into corrupted man:  ” Inglese italianato, diavolo incarnato “ that is “ You remain men in shape and fashion but become devils in life and condition”. He also defined an Englishman Italianate: “he that by living and travelling in Italy bringeth home into England out of Italy the religion, the learning, the policy, the experience, the manners of Italy”.

HUMANISM: The term “Humanism” derives from the study of Humanae  Litterae, (grammar, rhetoric, logic, poetry and philosophy)   based on the ancient civilization of Greece and Rome, opposed to the Divinae  litterae (the study of old theology and sacred writings). In a historical and literary sense, Humanism is part of the wider movement of the Renaissance.  It disrupted the principles of the Middle Ages: the attention was focused no longer on God but on man explored as an individual who could shape his own destiny. In its first phase it was didactic and educational. It  started in Italy at the end of the 14th century under the impulse of schools and academies for the study of Latin and Greek classical authors and then it soon spread all over Europe. In England it flourished under the impulse of some scholars who had studied in Italy (Thomas Linacre and William Grocyn introduced the teaching of Greek at Oxford University). The most important English humanists were John ColetErasmus Desiderius, Sir Thomas More and Francis Bacon. John Colet, Dean of Saint Paul Cathedral, studied in Italy and France and brought back to England the culture of the two countries. In 1509 he founded Saint Paul’s School, where classical authors and principles of rhetoric were taught. The programme included the memorizing of passages in Latin and Greek and the translating from these languages into English and vice versa. By 1520 the flowering of Humanism was being checked by the religious struggles of the Reformation.

PROSE: The prose of the Renaissance did not have the great impact that poetry and above all Drama had. There were many translations especially from Italian sources (Il Cortegiano,  Il Galateo) because they expressed the new ideas of the courtier and of the gentleman. A translation which had an important influence on English language and literature was the translation of the Bible from Greek    and Hebrew into English in 1611. It is known as the Authorized Version or King James’s Bible (King James had appointed a group of scholars to work on a Book which had to be the basis of the Protestant interpretation of Christianity).  A lot of  prose-works were written in Latin. The most important prose writers were: Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More and Francis Bacon. Erasmus was Dutch but he is considered an English humanist because he spent a long time in England. He taught Greek at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His main interests were The New Testament and the classics. In 1516 he published a new Latin version of the Greek Bible and encouraged the spread of the teaching of Latin throughout Europe. Erasmus questioned the authority of Rome in the interpretation of the Scriptures and attacked the corruption of the Papacy. His best known book is Praise of Folly, a satire on the elements of superstition in religion and  ritualism.  It was written in Latin and then translated into English.   Sir Thomas More was a great friend of Erasmus (Erasmus dedicated his Praise of Folly to him). He was deeply religious and active both in church affairs and in politics( he was appointed Lord Chancellor,the highest political office in England). His book Utopia is written in Latin.  More’s targets were  the evils of   his contemporary social and political situation  ironically compared to the ideal society of the imaginary island of Utopia.   In this land  the welfare of the citizens was the main concern, war was detested and justified only for defence, all religious creeds were tolerated, private property was discouraged in favour of communal property, every citizen worked no more than six hours a day, the Sovereign was chosen by the people and could be deposed if he behaved as a tyrant, luxury was despised, man and women had the same right to education, laws were simple-written, hunting was abolished. Bacon wrote essays on many subjects. He contributed to the advance of scientific knowledge. His most famous works were a tract on education, The Advancement of Learning, and The New Atlantis. In The Advancement of Learning he asserted that the knowledge was to be achieved not through deduction from principles which could not be proved, but through induction, that is through observation and experiments moving from the particular to the general. In The New Atlantis he expressed the importance of scientific studies for the progress of the world. Other prose writers were Sydney (Arcadia) John Lyly (Euphues or The Anatomy of Wit – it dealt with education, philosophy and social customs), Robert Greene and Thomas Lodge.

DRAMA: Drama was the greatest achievement of the Elizabethan Age. It reached the vast popular audience at all levels of society. All the writers of the time, except Sidney and Spenser, wrote a lot of plays. Among them, the most famous were William Shakespeare ,  Christopher Marlowe  and Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson created a lot of masques. A masque was a form of courtly entertainment that combined poetic drama, song, dance and music. The plot was simple. At the end the audience danced with the actors. Gorboduc or The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex  by Sackville and Norton, may be considered the first regular tragedy.  Written in blank verse and modelled on Seneca,  it anticipated the great blood tragedies of Elizabethan drama. Terence and Plautus were the models for comedy and Seneca for tragedy. Their influence can be seen in some important traits of the Elizabethan plays: the theme of vengeance, the omnipotence of destiny, the supernatural (ghosts and premonitory dreams), the cruel tyrant, the presence of monologues or soliloquies. Seneca’s tragedies, usually characterised by atrocities, crimes and bloody actions,   appealed to the Elizabethans who were used to violence and bloodshed (the Golden Age witnessed cruelty in the religious persecutions, in the witch hunts and in the repression of political plots).At first the plays were performed in great halls or in inn-yards where the companies of travelling actors stopped. Each company had its own dramatist and the plays were the property of each of them.   There was no copyright (the plays were not published) and there were illegal versions written shorthand during the performances. The public companies of players were not officially recognizes during Queen Elizabeth’s reign. To avoid the laws against vagabonds, they placed themselves under the protection of a powerful patron or built their own theatre. They were very popular and  helped the foundation of a national theatre.

Digitalizzato_20180318 (3) The first real theatre, called The Theatre, was built near London by James Burbage in 1576. It was soon followed by The Rose, The Swan and The Globe. They were circular, octagonal or square and had no roofs. The stage was bare; it had no scenery, no curtain and no artificial lighting so plays had to be performed in day-light. The dialogue was the most important part of the play. The actor was very important because it rested entirely with him to create the dramatic tension. There were no actress and the parts of women were performed by boys. The admission prices were low. The audience was a great mix going from the poorest and uneducated classes (it was not unusual that they threw rotten vegetables at the actors, moved around, drank and ate during the performances), to the Middle and highest classes.  As a consequence the dramatist had to write so as to appeal at the same time to the learned gentlemen and to the illiterate.

Apart from the most popular theatrical companies (The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, The Admiral’s Men) there was also another group of dramatists: The University Wits. They  had been educated at the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. The group included John Lyly, George Peele, Robert Greene as concerns comedy and Thomas Kid (his Spanish Tragedy was the first “revenge play”) and Christopher Marlowe as concerns tragedy. Lyly, Peele and Greene   were fond of heroic and tragic themes, long speeches and powerful declamations and wrote for the Queen and her court. Kid and Marlowe,instead, wrote for a wider public than the refined courtly audience. Marlowe was the greatest of them all. His plays represent the dividing point between the late medieval drama and the Elizabethan drama and opened the way for Jonson, Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramatists. Another famous playwright was Ben Jonson. He lived and worked both under the close of the Elizabethan era and during the reign of James I. He was at his best with comedy in which he satirized human defects and weaknesses. His comedy Everyman in His Humour was the first example of the comedy of humours. The term “humour” refers to the four humours present in the human body (phlegm, blood, yellow bile/choler and black bile) which determine    man’s personality. According to the predominance of one of them a man could be phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric or melancholic ( in the Middle Age physicians believed that the particular character of an individual was determined by the combination of the   fluids of the body  with the four elements of the Universe (earth, air, fire and water).  The great period of the English drama came to an end in the second half of the 17th century. The Puritans regarded the stage as a school of immorality and vice.In 1642  public performances of stage plays were forbidden and the  theatres were closed.

POETRY:   The Elizabethan Age is considered the “Golden Age” of the English drama but Poetry was held in high consideration, too.  Renaissance poetry is mostly identified with the sonnet but there were other popular types of poetry such as the songs and madrigals (after the Italian name), pastoral poetry, patriotic poetry, religious poetry, satirical and mocking poetry and erotic poetry. Songs and madrigals were popular both in   towns and in the country. They could be sung without instrumental accompaniment (songs) or accompanied by the lute and other instruments (madrigals). They dealt manly with pastoral and love themes.  Some of them were traditional English airs while others were translated from abroad, especially from Italy.  Pastorals dealt with nature seen as a consoling element and a shelter. Spencer’s pastoral poetry was the source of inspiration for many poets. Patriotic poetry was inspired by the nationalistic spirit which marked the English Renaissance. It dealt with poems on the monarchy, historical events and religion. Religious poetry originated by the reaction of the moralists of the time who were scandalized by the lasciviousness and licentiousness of some poems. Satirical poetry was also very popular. It was the answerer to the courtly sonnet and attacked the costume of the time mocking the courtier.

THE SONNET: The term “sonnet” derives from the Italian “sonetto”.  It is a short poem of fourteen lines expressing personal feelings and emotions.  Among the Italian sonneteers, the most famous were Petrarch and Dante. They provided the literary genre of the Cycles of Sonnets and the various themes, such as love, friendship, beauty, the destructive effect of time and the desire for women. The sonnets were collected in “Canzonieri” like Petrarch’s. They described the love affair of a poet with a lady he loved.  Often the lady the poets love was very beautiful but very cruel, too. Petrarch perfected the sonnet and established it as a major poetic form. His Canzoniere  deals with his love for Laura, a beautiful married woman who disdained his love for her. It is not only a love collection but it also deals with meditations on politics, religion and faith. The Petrarchan sonnet, also called the Italian sonnet, is made up of fourteen lines divided into an octave (or two quatrains) and a sestet (or two tercets) usually rhyming ABBA ABBA CDC DCD (or CDE CDE). The octave introduces a theme, a problem or a particular situation and the sestet provides a resolution, a comment on the situation or the personal feelings of the poet. Elizabethan sonnets modified this form and divided the four lines into three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet. The final couplet might be a summing up of the theme previously dealt in the quatrains or a reflection on it. Important sonneteers who wrote collections of love sonnets were: Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare. After 1600 enthusiasm for the sonnet declined.

The sonnet was introduced from Italy by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Wyatt sonnet was based on the Petrarchan model. To adapt the Italian pattern to the English language he left the octave unchanged and modified only the sestet dividing it into a quatrain and a final couplet. The Earl of Surrey modified the structure, three quatrains and a final rhyming couplet, and used a new rhyming scheme with different rhymes. The final pattern of the Elizabethan sonnet is three quatrains and a final couple of verses rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  Elizabethan sonneteers often develop a theme in the three quatrains and use the final couplet to summarise or  deny it, to give an answer or propose a solution.  The Earl of Surrey is also remembered for another innovation following the example of the Italian “ endecasillabo sciolto”: the use of blank, (or unrhymed) verse in his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. The development of the Sonnet was influenced by Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella. It is one of the first sonnet sequences in English literature. The poet tells his love story with Stella, a married noblewoman he loved. She did not reciprocate his love.  The sonnets are modelled on the Italian pattern of an octave and a sestet but the rhyming scheme is different: ABAB ABAB CD CD EE. Astrophel is the poet and Stella is probably Penelope Devereux. Spenser wrote Amoretti, a sequence of sonnets written to celebrate his love for Elizabeth Boyle, a lady who at first rejects him and makes him suffer and eventually accepts his love and marries him. The most beautiful sonnets are the ones dealing with episodes of his long courtship.  Spencer’s canzoniere is different from most of the sonnet sequences of his time because it also deals with common topics such as the passing of time and the eternal quality of poetry: everything on earth decays and dies; only the written words survive. His sonnets follow the traditional English sonnet: three quatrains and a final rhyming couple of verse. His masterpiece was The Faerie Queene. It is unfinished because of the planned twelve books, only six  and fragments of the seventh are extant. It is an epic allegory   in which twelve knights search for the Fairy Queen.   The Fairy Queen was Queen Elizabeth. In the poem she appears as Gloriana or in other female characters. She held a festival that had to last twelve days. On each day the knights accomplished some gallant deeds   representing one of the twelve virtues that make a perfect gentleman. King Arthur,   depicted as the ideal Renaissance gentleman, summed up all of them. Spenser adopted Ariosto’s ottava rima and modified it by adding a ninth line. The stanza is known as   the Spenserian stanza, a  nine-line stanza rhyming ABABBCBCC.

After Sidney and Spencer poetry played a minor role in literature. In the late Renaissance, however, we meet three great poets: Ben Jonson, John Donne and above all John Milton (John Milton).  During the Puritan Age   the poets were grouped into “Cavalier Poets” and “Metaphysical poets”.  Jonson and Donne   were the leaders of the two groups.  The followers of Jonson, known as the “Tribe of Ben”, were also called “Cavaliers” because they were on the side of royalists. Among them we can mention Robert Herrick. They preferred secular themes such as love and beauty, and exalted women as the main source of inspiration. They were in favour of a carpe diem philosophy of life: aware of the brevity of life, they invited man to enjoy what life offered. The followers of Donne, known as “Metaphysical Poets”, were on the side of Parliamentarians and wrote on religious and on sensual themes. Their poems often dealt with difficult arguments and contained   elaborate sentences rich in symbols, metaphors, similes and paradox. The most famous poets in this group were John Donne and George Hebert.  A poet of the time, who belonged neither to the Cavaliers nor to the Metaphysical, was Andrew Marvell. He combined the qualities of the two groups.


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This is a modern version of the General Prologue. It is the opening of the poem. It is written in couplets, that is two successive rhymed lines of verse equal on length. We may divide it into two parts: from line 1 to line 18 and from line 19 to the end.

1-When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
5-When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
10-That sleep away the night with the open eye
(So nature pricks them and their earth engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the strangers strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
15-And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.

It happened in that season that one day
20-In Southwark, at The Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
For Canterbury, most devout at earth,
At night there come into that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
25-Of sundry folk happening then to fall
In fellowship, and they were pilgrims all
That towards Canterbury meant to ride.
The rooms and stables of the inn were wide;
They made us easy, all was of the best.
30-And, briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,
I’d spoken to them all upon the trip
And was soon one with them in fellowship,
Pledged to rise early and to take the way
To Canterbury, as you heard me say.
35-But none the less, while I have time and space,
Before my story takes a further pace,
It seems a reasonable thing to say
What their condition was, the fool array
Of each of them, as it appeared to me,
40-According to profession and degree,
And what apparel they were riding in;
And at a Knight I therefore will begin

The first part is a single long paragraph divided into two sub-paragraphs by the conjunction when: “When in April…..When also Zephyrus ….. Then people long to go on pilgrimage”. From line 1 to line 11, Chaucer describes the time of the year when the Pilgrimage takes place: an April day in spring time. He gives us a beautiful description of spring through various beautiful images of peace and serenity: “The sweet showers fall and pierce the drought of March to the root….. also Zephyrus with his sweet breath exhales an air in every grove …. the young sun his half-course in the sign of Ram has run… the small fowls are making melody …”. In the second sub-paragraph, from line 12 to line 18, the poet links the rebirth of nature with people’s “long to go on Pilgrimages “. After a long and cold winter mostly spent in their houses, people want to go out and amuse themselves. Spring is the suitable season of the year for pilgrimages. There is a new harmony between man and nature. They both are linked to regeneration after winter. As April with the sweet showers brings new life to nature, the pilgrimage brings new life to the soul of man. In the second part, from line 19 to line 34, Chaucer describes the setting to the action and gives us information about the pilgrims. He is at the Tabard Inn in Southwark “ready to go on pilgrimage and start for Canterburywhensome nine and twenty in a company of sundry folk “ enters the Inn. They are pilgrims going to Canterbury, too. Chaucer makes friendship with them and decides to join them. Line 20 helps to identify the narrator, a first person singular narrator: “as I lay ready to go on pilgrimage”. The I person (= Chaucer), becomes a true eyewitness of the events and this adds credibility to his narration. From line 35 to the end, the poet tells us  what he is going to deal with in the Prologue: “ Before my story takes a further pace, It seems a reasonable thing to say What their condition was, the full array Of each of them, as it appeared to me According to profession and degree, And what apparel they were riding in“.


1-There also was a Nun, a Prioress,
Her way of smiling very simple and coy.
Her greatest oath was only ‘By St. Loy!’
And she was known as Madam Eglantyne.
5-And well she sang a service, with a fine
Intoning through her nose,as was most seemly,
And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;
French in the Paris style she did not know.
10-At meat her manners were well taught withal;
No morsel from her lips did she let fall,
Nor dipped her fingers in the sauce too deep;
But she could carry a morsel up and keep
The smallest drop from falling on her breast.
15-For courtliness she had a special zest,
And she would wipe her upper lip so clean
That not a trace of grease was to be seen
Upon her cup when she had drunk; to eat
She reached a hand sedately for the meat.
20-She certainly was very entertaining,
Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining
To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace,
A stately bearing fitting to her place,
And to seem dignified in all her dealings.
25-As for her sympathies and tender feelings
She was so charitably solicitous
She used to weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap if it were dead or bleeding.
And she had little dogs she would be feeding
30-With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread
And bitterly she wept if one were dead
Or someone took a stick and made it smart;
She was all sentiment and tender heart.
Her veil was gathered in a seemly way,
35-Her nose was elegant, her eyes glass-grey;
Her mouth was very small, but soft and red,
Her forehead certainly was fair of spread,
Almost a span across the brows, I own;
She was indeed by no means undergrown.
40-Her cloak, I noticed, had a graceful charm.
She wore a coral trinket on her arm,
A set of beads, the gaudies tricked in green,
Whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen
On which there first was graven a crowned A,
45-And lower, Amor vincit omnia.


In the description of the Nun we can appreciate Chaucer’s mastery in the use of satire. He treats satirically all the religious figures (the Nun, the Monk, the Pardoner, the Friar and so on) because he wants to make an indirect criticism of his own contemporary Church. The Prioress, a mother superior of a convent, is described with irony but Chaucer’s attitude towards her is sympathetic and he is not tough on her. She is described more as a lady with a bit of vanity than as a servant of Christ: “she is very entertaining, pleasant and friendly in her ways….” she wears a veil “gathered in a seemly way …..her cloak had a graceful charm….she wore a coral trinket….whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen”. She is more concerned with gentle manners and appearance than with religion: “At meat her manners were well taught withal …. For courtliness she had a special zest And she would wipe her upper lip so clean That not a trace of grease was to be seen, upon the cup when she had drunk “. As said before, Chaucer is very accurate in her description. He tells us her name, Madam Eglantine (a rose; in the Middle Ages symbol of Christ but also of passion), her social position (a prioress), her cultural background (she studied at Stratford-atte- Bowe and knew French). Then he describes her traits (elegant nose, glass-grey eyes, small soft red mouth, spread forehead, undergrown size) her clothes (a veil, a cloak and a coral trinket), her behaviour at table and her fondness for drinking and eating, her courtly grace and manners .She is not indifferent to the fashion of the time and goes against monastic rules keeping the veil higher to let her forehead and the sides of her face uncovered. Further, she has a golden brooch while monastic rules forbid nuns to wear jewels and ornaments. There is a certain ambiguity in Chaucer’s description because we may interpret her in various ways: pleasant and friendly but also affected and sophisticated; “charitably solicitous…all sentiment and tender heart” but more interested in her own pets than in human beings. The ambiguity is also increased by the Latin words “Amor vincit omnia” engraved on the brooch: they may refer to Christian love but also to a human sort of love and the brooch might be a present by a lover. Irony is achieved through contrasts: “Her greatest oath was only ‘By St Loy’ “( nuns shouldn’t swear); “ she spoke daintily in French, extremely after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe ( a monastery near London)” but she didn’t know “ French in the Paris style”; “ at meat her manners were well taught” but she “dipped her fingers in the sauce “ even if not “ too deep”. Some critics stress the analogies with “Monaca di Monza” by the Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni in his “Promessi Sposi”: they both were Prioress and they both are called “Madam/Signora”.


1 – A worthy woman from beside Bath city
Was with us, somewhat deaf, which was a pity.
In making cloth she showed so great a bent
She bettered those of Ypres and Ghent.
5 – In all the parish not a dame dared stir
Towards the altar steps in front of her,
And if indeed they did, so wrath was she
As to be quite put out of charity.
Her kerchiefs were of finely woven ground;
10 – I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound,
The ones she wore on Sunday, on her head.
Her hose were of the finest scarlet red
And gathered tight; her shoes were soft and new.
Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue.
15 – A worthy woman all her life, what’s more
She’d five husbands, all at the church door,
Apart from other company in youth;
No need just now to speak of that, forsooth.
And she had thrice been to Jerusalem,
20 – Seen many strange rivers and passed over them;
She’d been to Rome and also to Boulogne,
St James of Campostella and Cologne,
And she was skilled in wandering by the way.
She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say.
25 – Easely on an ambling horse she sat
Well wimpled up, and on her head a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a shield;
She had a flowing mantle that concealed
Large hips, her heels spurred sharply under that.
30 – In company she liked to laugh and chat
and knew the remedies for love’s mischances,
An art in which she knew the oldest dances

69c107f6_144910d43f1__8000_00000019 www.easynotecards.com

The Wife of Bath is another female pilgrim. As in the previous description of the Nun, Chaucer gives us detailed information on her: jobs, social status, clothes, physical appearance, personality, interests and behaviour with people. She was a middle-aged, sensual, handsome woman from Bath: “Bold was her face, handsome and red in hue… she had gap-teeth….. large hips “.She was a skilled cloth maker. She was wealthy as we can see from her clothes: “Kerchiefs…of finely woven ground……scarlet red stockings …” soft new shoes, a large hat, a flowing mantle and spurred sharp heels. Chaucer’s opinion on her is positive: “a worthy” self-confident woman and her interests are not judged negatively. She was a very religious woman and went to Mass every Sunday. She was the first to go to the altar. She was interested in travelling and men: She had been on pilgrimage to Rome, Boulogne (Boulogne sur-Mer, a French town where there was an image of the Virgin), St James of Compostela (in the West of Spain, Galicia, where there is the shrine of St James the Greater), Cologne (in Germany to visit the shrine of the three Magi) and three times to Jerusalem, in the Holy Land. Chaucer makes us realize that religion played a minor role: how she behaves in church is not real devotion but ostentation; she wants to be the centre of attraction and loves to be respected in public ( “In all the parish not a dame dared stir Towards the altar steps in front of her “) and to show she was proud of her position in society; she went on pilgrimages more for recreational reasons than for spiritual ones. Love played an important part in her life: “She’d had five husbands ….apart from other company in youth….knew the remedies for love’s mischances, an art in which she knew the oldest dances”. Her attitude towards people was friendly and extroverted: “in Company she liked to laugh and chat “. Chaucer describes her as a very sensual woman. She had gap-teeth which, according to popular beliefs, was associated to lechery. As for the Nun, Chaucer is ironic but not hard on her. He liked woman and enjoyed their company. Sometimes he makes fun of them and uses irony to describe their human weakness. As far as irony we can find it in line 2 ( “somewhat deaf, which was a pity”), line 10 ( “ I dared have sworn they weighed a good ten pound”, line 17 ( “ Apart from other company in youth “), line 23 (“ And she was skilled in wandering by the way” ), in lines 26 -27 ( “ and on her head a hat As broad as is a buckler or a shield “ ) and in lines 31-32 ( “ and knew the remedies for love’s mischances An art in which she knew the oldest dances “).


The Wife of Bath is seen as a free woman who loves adventures and the company of men. Critics have often tried to consider the Wife as one of the first feminist characters in literature and a woman ahead of her times. She denies the common belief that women should be submissive, especially in matters of sex. Marriage and women’s sovereignty are the main themes in the Prologue. Her opinion is very authoritative because she has had five husbands since her first marriage at the tender age of twelve. “….Marriage is a misery and a woe” she says, but notwithstanding that, she has married five times only because she can’t stay without a husband. She also tells us that she flirted with other men. The Wife used marriage to increase her wealth and better her own social status. Her first four husbands were all wealthy men; when she eventually marries her fifth husband, she is sufficiently wealthy. She uses her sexual power as an instrument to control her husbands and bring them to total submission.

The following extract is part of her prologue. She speaks about her fifth husband.

‘Now of my fifth, last husband let me tell.                                                                                                        God never let his soul be sent to Hell!                                                                                                                And yet he was my worst, and many a blow
He struck me still can ache along my row
Of ribs , and will until my dying day.
‘But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
So coaxing , so persuasive… Heaven knows
Whenever he wanted it – my belle chose
Though he had beaten me in every bone
He still could wheedle me to love, I own.
I think I loved him best, I’ll tell no lie.
He was disdainful in his love, that’s why.
‘When my fourth husband lay upon his bier
I wept all day and looked as drear as drear,
As widows must, for it is quite in place,
And with a handkerchief I hid my face.
Now that I felt provided with a mate
I wept but little, I need hardly state .
‘To church they bore my husband on the morrow
With all the neighbours round him venting sorrow,
And one of them of course was handsome Johnny.
So help me God, I thought he looked so bonny
Behind the coffin! Heavens, what a pair
Of legs he had! Such feet, so clean and fair!
I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.
He was, I think, some twenty winters old,
And I was forty then, to tell the truth.
But still, I always had a coltish tooth .
Yes, I’m gap-toothed; it suits me well I feel,
It is the print of Venus and her seal .
So help me God I was a lusty one,
Fair, young and well-to-do, and full of fun!
And truly, as my husbands said to me
I had the finest quoniam that might he.
For Venus sent me feeling from the stars
And my heart’s boldness carne to me from Mars.
Venus gave me desire and lecherousness
And Mars my hardihood , or so I guess,
Born under Taurus and with Mars therein.
Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!
I ever followed natural inclination
Under the power of my constellation
And was unable to deny, in truth,
My chamber of Venus to a likely youth.
The mark of Mars is still upon my face
And also in another privy place .
For as I may be saved by God above,
I never used discretion when in love
But ever followed on my appetite,
Whether the lad was short, long, black or white.
Little I cared, if he was fond of me,
How poor he was, or what his rank might be.

Her fifth husband was the worst: “He struck me still can ache along my row
Of ribs ….” but notwithstanding that, she loved him because “in our bed he was so fresh and gay, so coaxing, so persuasive…..Heaven knows whenever he wanted it – my belle chose – Though he had beaten me in every bone he still could wheedle me to love…”.
Then she tells the occasion when she has fallen in love with him: the funeral of her fourth husband! One of the neighbours behind the coffin was “handsome Johnny”. She was struck by him: “… I thought he was so bonny behind the coffin!… Heavens, what a pair of legs he had! Such feet so clean and fair!” She admits that she couldn’t resist him: “I gave my full heart up, for him to hold”. He was younger than she: “He was, I think, some twenty winters old, and I was forty then, to tell the truth”, but this was not a problem for her because she had still “a coltish tooth “, a youthful sexual appetite. She is well aware of her sensuality: “yes, I’m gap-toothed: it suits me well, I feel …. I was a lusty one, Fair, young and well-to-do, and full of fun”. To justify herself she gives the fault to the influence of Venus and Mars and of the stars. She had “the print of Venus and her seal ……Venus gave me desire and lecherousness”. Mars endowed her with boldness and the stars determined her natural inclination to passion. The Wife believes her character to have been determined by her horoscope: “under the power of my constellation (I) was unable to deny my chamber of Venus to a likely youth“. Following her own appetite, she had all the men she liked with no shame and without caring “Whether the lad was short, long, black or white…..if he was fond of me, how poor he was, or what his rank might be”. The language she uses is straightforward and realistic. She uses vulgar connotations to refer to the feminine organ: belle chose, quoniam, chamber of Venus, privy place… She is not ashamed. She only wants to entertain the other pilgrims.

The themes introduced in the Prologue are present in the Tale that provides an answer to the question “What do women most desire?” She uses the tale to confirm her theory on the supremacy of wives in a marriage. The answer is: to have the supremacy over their husbands. She is persuaded that a happy marriage is one in which the wife has control. It is positive for husbands too because giving sovereignty to wives is good for both partners in a marriage.

The Tale: a knight  raped a girl and is condemned to death. The queen and other ladies offer to save him on the condition to tell them what women desire most. The queen gives him a year to find the answer. He looks for an answer everywhere but nobody except a very ugly woman can help him. She wants in return that he has to marry her. He accepts and has the answer: women want most to have the mastery over their husbands and lovers. The answer is correct and he is spared, but is also obliged to marry the ugly woman. He is desperate but, on the wedding night his wife gives him a choice: he has to choose whether to have her old and ugly but also loyal, faithful and humble or young and pretty but unfaithful. He does not choose and leaves her wife the choice: “My lady and my love, my dearest wife, I leave the matter to your wise decision. You make the choice yourself for the provision of what may be agreeable and rich in honour of us both, I don’t care which: Whatever pleases you suffices me”. Thus, when he lets her make the decision, he has abandoned the male’s sovereignty in favor of the woman’s rule. The tale has a happy ending: “….you shall have me both, that is, both fair and faithful as a wife……. cast up the curtain, husband. Look at me! ….and she was young and lovely”.wife_of_bath__s_tale_by_arri_starkarri-stark.deviantart.com

The tale ends with three wishes of the Wife of Bath: “May Jesus Christ send us husband meek and fresh in bed ….cut short lives of those who won’t to be dominated by their wives….. “and send a pestilence to people who keep their money and hate spending.

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Chaucer is the first great poet we meet in English literature. He is regarded as the “Father”   of English poetry   and of English language. He was the first poet to introduce the metrical form, including rhyme and stress, the iambic pentameter and the first to use it in the heroic couplets.   He was also the first great poet to use the East Midland dialect,  which was to become the official language of the country (it was the language  spoken in the region which comprises London, the two Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and the Royal Home) and the first to introduce   psychological and human qualities in depicting his characters, thus starting a new era of psychological portrayal in English literature.  He was also the first English poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey  Poet’s corner.

Chaucer literary activity is commonly divided into three periods: the French, the Italian and the English period. The French period is characterized both by the influence of French literature ( he knew French and several translations of verse romances have been attributed to him ) and by the influence of classical writers such as Ovid and Virgil. To this period belongs The Book of the Duchess, a dream-vision poem written to praise and commemorate the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, killed by the plague.  He also translated into English the Roman de la Rose.

Chaucer first contact with Italian literature  was in 1372. He went to Genoa and Florence. He was in Italy again in 1378. In the period of Italian influence Chaucer wrote the unfinished The House of Fame,The Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. The House of Fame is a dream vision.It is divided into three books. In each book he visits a different place.   In the first he is in a temple of glass where each glass has got   stories of the famous persons of the past: Cupid, Venus, Vulcan, Aeneas, women betrayed by their lovers (Dido), Achilles, Medea, Hercules, Dyanira, Theseus and others.  In the second book he is taken by an eagle, which reminds us of the eagle in Dante’s Purgatory,  to the House of Fame on a high rock. In the house he sees the Goddess Fame:a creature with partridge wings and countless tongues, eyes and ears. The eagle explains how Fame works. There is no real virtue or reason that causes men to rise to fame: Fame decides by whim.  At the beginning of the third book  he enters the house of fame   where nine groups of persons try to meet the goddess of Fame for favours. Then he is taken to  the House of Rumour  where he hears a crowd of people telling each other news and gossip,   lies and   truth. The book reflects the influence of Dante’s Divine Comedy . In  The Parliament of Fowls  the poet is taken on the temple of Venus on Saint Valentine’s day. The goddess Nature has assembled the birds there to choose their mates ( according to an old belief connected with Valentine’s day, every bird chooses his own mate in this day).  Troilus and Criseyde is considered Chaucer’s greatest achievement before The Canterbury Tales. Based on Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, it tells the tragic story of Troilus’ love for the beautiful Criseyde, how she proves unfaithful to him and how he finds in death an end to his sufferings. The Legend of Good Women is taken from Heroides of Ovid  and The Claris Mulieribus of Boccaccio. It consists of a prologue and of nine stories of women notable for their faithfulness in love, such as Dido, Cleopatra, Lucretia and so on. Chaucer wrote it probably because he was attacked by women for having written about the unfaithful Criseyde and he wanted to apologize.  The Italian phase was important because it showed him that a vernacular language, the Tuscan , could be used to create literature and reach an importance equal to that of a classical language.

In the English period Chaucer tried to elevate English language as a literary language,  and wrote his masterpiece: The Canterbury Tales. It is a collection of stories, preceded by a Prologue,  written both to give his country a literature of its own and to give his countrymen a book that was a mirror of England, a book in which they could really recognize themselves. Chaucer gives a perfect picture of the society of his time.  The work is unfinished. Of the 120 stories only 24 are extant. The occasion that he chose was the traditional pilgrimage to Canterbury  where there was the shrine of a Saint-Martyr, Thomas à Becket , archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered in his Canterbury Cathedral by four knights sent by the king Henry II (T.S.Eliot’s historical verse play Murder in the Cathedral deals with this subject). Chaucer’s pilgrims are going there to beseech his protection from the plague that was devastating the country. Pilgrimages were both religious and recreational events undertaken by people belonging to different social classes and  took place every year in spring


The 29 pilgrims stop at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Chaucer is in the Inn, too. He makes friends with them  and, as they have the same destination, he decides to join them. The host   proposes that, to pass the time, they may have a storytelling competition: each of them would tell two stories on the way to and two on the way back. The winner of the best tale will have a free supper on the return to London.

The book is divided into a Prologue, in which the characters are introduced and described, and the set of stories. The Prologue starts describing spring, the best season for pilgrimages, and then describing pilgrims. All classes have representatives except Nobles, who did not like to mix with other people and went on pilgrimage on their own,  and peasants, who couldn’t’ afford it because they didn’t have the money. The pilgrims  are connected with the feudal world ( the  Knight, the Squire, the Yeoman), the Church ( the Prioress, The Nun, the Monk, the Friar, the Parson ), the mercantile and professional middle class (the Lawyer, the Physician, the  Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Student and so on). They are presented in order of social  importance:  first the members of the orders of chivalry, then the ones of the religious orders, the members of the rising middle class and lastly the lowest members of society. Chaucer describes them giving us details about their behaviour along the road, their private life, their habits, their character and social standing, their clothes and tools and even the kind of horse they ride. Many of them are often described morally, too, and   the reader comes to know their qualities and  weaknesses. They  are ironically depicted with a fault but with humorous tolerance. His tone is uncritical, sometimes comic but  never offensive. He respects virtues and attacks vices with sharp irony. Chaucer liked women and enjoyed their company. Sometimes he makes fun of them and uses irony but only to point out their human weaknesses. He treats satirically all the religious figures only because he wants to make an indirect criticism of the corruption of the Church in his own time.

The range of tales which follows the Prologue is very wide. It includes every type of medieval stories and  is considered a remarkable anthology of medieval literature. It goes from a classical subject to a religious one, from the courtly romance to the dirty stories with unfaithful wives and betrayed husbands. It deals with various themes: love, marriage, corruption, hypocrisy and chivalry.  The tales are structured as a series of interlinked stories. They  are linked to one another by the fact that they are told by   pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. Most of the individual tales have a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue links the teller’s tale to the previous one and contains the theme of the tale and the teller’s point of view. The epilogue  helps the narrative to the introduction of the next tale.

CHAUCER/BOCCACCIO: We don’t know whether during his travel in Italy Chaucer read Boccaccio’s Decameron. It was once thought that Chaucer might have taken the plan of his work from Boccaccio, borrowing from him the idea of a social event as a pretext for bringing various people together, but now a lot of scholars agree that Chaucer didn’t know Decameron since, if he had known it, he would certainly have used some of its stories.  There are some similarities but also many differences between the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. The similarities are: both works are written in a vernacular language spoken by ordinary people; both books have a narrative frame with a main narrative story that sets the scene for shorter stories (the occasion in Boccaccio’s Decameron is the description of the plague that stroke Florence in 1348); both Chaucer’s characters and Boccaccio’s ones tell a story to pass the time pleasantly. The main differences are: Chaucer writes in verse while Boccaccio writes in prose; Boccaccio’s characters are     young aristocrats, while Chaucer’s ones belong to various social classes and include members of the clergy; Chaucer’s characters are better described and more psychologically detailed; Boccaccio describes the effect of the epidemics on society while Chaucer focuses his attention on the pilgrims.

Posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks | 6 Comments


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The Middle Ages goes approximately from 1066, the date of the Battle of Hastings, to 1500. The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the Anglo-Saxons and conquered Britain. As a result of the Norman conquest, England fell under French influence. William made many reforms in various fields. He introduced the Feudal System of Government based on the holding of land. He distributed the land to the Norman Lords, the Barons, who, in turn, gave parts of their land to lesser nobles, knights and freemen. The Lords had to swear loyalty to the king and give him army service and part of the produce of the land. The feudal relation passed from father to son. The administrative officers were called Sheriffs. To ensure that each lord paid the right amount of tributes, the king ordered a detailed survey of the country, whose results were written in the Domesday Book (the name derives from the Last judgement on Doomsday because nobody could escape this enquiry). It contained data on every piece of land: villages, towns and shires of England, people of the Kingdom, houses and animals of each manor. It served as a register for fiscal and military purpose for several centuries. William also controlled the nomination of Bishops and Abbots who were both spiritual and temporal lords.
The judicial system was reformed by King Edward II. He introduced the Common Law of the Land to judge equally every person of his reign. It was made up of a lot of cases and decisions taken by the Royal Courts in preceding trials.

He also introduced Trial by Jury and stated that the judgement had to take into account the eye-witnesses to the facts. In the previous age a person who pleaded his innocence had to suffer trial by ordeal.


taken from users.trytel.com

The ordeal established whether persons were guilty or innocent by giving them a painful and dangerous test, like contact with hot iron or boiling water. If they resisted and survived they were considered innocent. The ordeal was substituted by regular trial. Another important code of laws was the Constitutions of Clarendon. It faced the clash between the Crown and the Church in matters of jurisdiction and redefined the relationship between Church and State in England. The Church had the privilege to judge the crimes of persons belonging to the Clergy in the Bishop’s Court and not in the Royal Court . The king wanted to put an end to those privileges and asked that they had to be judged in the King’s Court , too. The Constitutions of Clarendon established a new procedure: clergymen who had committed ordinary crimes were first tried by the King’s Court and then sent to the Bishop’s Court. If condemned, they were deprived of Holy Orders and sent to the King’s Court for the final punishment. It was clearly a compromise.
During this period England saw the establishment of some Institutions. One of the written parts of British Constitution ( it is not a single document as in the Constitution of Italy) is an old document called Magna Carta Libertatum or Great Charter of the Liberties. It was signed on June 15th, 1215 by the King John Lackland (brother of the famous Richard the Lion hearted) and the Barons. By this document the king was forced to grant many rights to the English Aristocracy. In later centuries Magna Charta became a model for those who demanded individual liberties for all people, but in its own time its greatest value was that for the first time in the history of Britain, the absolute power of the king was limited. The 63 articles chiefly benefited the Barons and other members of the feudal class, some granted the Church freedom from royal interference and only few granted some rights of the rising middle class in the towns. The ordinary Englishmen and the peasants gained very little and were hardly mentioned in the charter. This document is also considered an important step towards the end of English feudalism because the nobles acted as a class and not as vassals. The base of feudalism, use of land in return for services, was beginning to crumble.
In 1258 the Nobles, led by Simon the Montfort, elected a Council and took responsibilities for governing the country. This Council was called “ parliament”, from the French “parler”, and referred to a place where people met in order to talk. Some historians maintain that the true origin of Parliament goes back to the Anglo-Saxon time when the King presided over a Council, the Witan, which should advice him and support his election. During the reign of Henry III parliament was a feudal assembly and its members were nobles and the high clergy. It became an important body only in 1295, when Edward I summoned up a Parliament, called later “Model Parliament”( because it was a pattern for later Parliaments) which marked the beginning of the present House of Commons. Its importance was that for the first time in the history of Britain, representatives by the people, two knights elected from each county and two townsmen from each of the many towns, had seats in Parliament.
From 1336 to 1453 a series of wars, now called the Hundred Years’ War, were fought between France and England, each of them claiming some rights in the territory under their rule. The King Edward III started the war. The conflict had an economic reason : the selling of English wool in the Flanders market blocked by the French. The merchants of Flanders were the best buyers of English wool. Many important towns of Flanders were under French control. When they blocked the buying of English wool they damaged the English economy. The war ended in the victory of France. The English were driven out of France and the period of the Dual Kingdome ended. During the Hundred Years ‘War there was a tragic event: the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. It wiped out about one third of the population, above all in the peasantry. There was a positive effect, too, because it brought to a rise in the importance of labour. The reduced numbers of men able to till the land obliged the lords to pay free labourers who demanded and obtained higher wages. The shortage of agricultural labour changed the relationship between the Lords of the manor and the villeins . The Lords were obliged to redistribute the strips of land among the survivors who demanded and obtained better wages. A new class of freemen, called yeomen, was formed. The yeomen employed the labourers who had escaped from the manors in search of better wages. The shortage of labour also encouraged the enclosure of agricultural land to form large areas for sheep rearing which required fewer men than agriculture and brought greater economic gains. Great poverty was still present among the lower classes. The peasants were oppressed by heavy taxations and lived on bad conditions. There was a strong feeling of dissatisfaction among all the poor country people. The dissatisfaction increased with the Poll Tax that asked 15 shillings for every man in the family over fifteen. It was considered unfair and the Peasants rebelled. Led by Wat Tyler, a craftsman from Kent, and John Ball they marched on London burning, robbing and slaughtering landlords, lawyer officials and priests. The teenage king Richard II met the rebels, promised to satisfy their complaints, ordered pardons for them and saved the situation to become worse. The Peasants’ revolt collapsed but Richard’s promises were not kept and the peasants’ leaders were executed.
During the last years of Edward III’s reign there was an attack on the established order of the church. At the beginning it was not an attack on the Christian doctrine but on the wealth and corruption of the high clergy. Eventually it turned into an attack on the doctrine of the Church. John Wycliffe, a priest and the followers of his heresy known as Lollardy believed that the Church should return to its original idea of poverty and give back all the lands around the monasteries to the state. They had followers above all among the poorer classes. They expressed heretical views attacking the Pope (“The authority of the wicked could not come from God”), the worship of relics, the veneration of images and asked for social reforms. They preached that the individual should have a direct relationship with God and denied the mediation and interpretation imposed by the clergy: “ Each man that shall be damned shall be damned by his own guilt, and each man that is saved is saved by his own merit”. Of course that was possible only if ordinary men were able to understand the Church services and to read the holy written texts themselves. To this purpose, Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. Eventually the movement was suppressed and many heretics were put to death. Their ideas survived and in the sixteen century they affected the birth of Protestantism.
END OF THE MIDDLE AGES: the end of the Middle Ages is marked by the Wars of the Roses, a long civil war which lasted from 1454 to 1485. It was fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The name derives from the emblems of the two families : a red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for York. This war was a family war and the people and the City of London remained indifferent or neutral. It ended in the victory of the Lancaster and Henry Tudor became Henry VII of England.
SPIRIT OF THE AGE: It was a feudal period in which England saw the establishment of her Institutions and the flourishing of trade. It was an Age of Transition from the Anglo-Saxon period, full of heroes and battles to a time of Chivalry and culture. Christianity affirmed itself in the Crusades and man was finding an identity as a servant of Christ, as a noble lover of a pure lady and a man of trade. He wasn’t a warrior anymore and became a Knight. The chief centres of culture were the monasteries. The period was affected by the antagonism with France, the attack on Church privileges and the revolt against excessive taxation and political oppression. In spite of conflicts and confusion, a new order developed and both parliament and the middle class grew in importance. In 1476 William Caxton set up the first printing press and published nearly 80 books.
LINGUISTIC SITUATION: In the early Middle Ages there were three languages in use: French, the language of the ruling class, Latin, the language of the church and the learned and English, the language of the mass of people. Middle English was basically Old English with some additions of vocabulary from French. It was not a uniform language and existed in different dialects in which vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation were not standardized. Among those dialects, the most important was the East Midland dialect spoken in London, at Court and in the area of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The persons that helped to the diffusion of the East Midland dialect as standard English were Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great English poet, who used it in his works, and Caxton, the inventor of the printing press, who published the majority of the books using it. In the course of the 14th century a certain linguistic unity was achieved and English became the official language of the country. English spoken in the 15th century was much closer to the present day language.
MEDIEVAL LITERATURE: Owing to the linguistic situation, early English medieval literature was written in three different languages: French, Latin and Middle English. From 1100 to about 1300 English language played a humble role than French and Latin. Some of the most important works of the period were written in Latin. Writings in English during this period were scanty and of small literary value. They aimed above all at religious instruction. Two typical example are Poema Morale ( urged the reader to reflect on the shortness of life and to repent before it’s late) and Ormulum (aimed at explaining the Gospel to the unlearned).
The Owl and the Nightingale (1200) and Brut (1205) show a more genuine poetic inspiration and do not have a religious character. The Owl and the Nightingale is an Allegorical Debate, a literary genre which developed widely in Middle English literature. It is considered one of the most remarkable English poems before Chaucer. The two birds are engaged in asserting the merits of their singing. They assume respectively different meanings: asceticism and pleasure, religion and love, old age and youth, philosophy and art. Piers Plowman by William Langland is a long social allegory written in the latter half of the 14th century. It is based on the dream-vision form, a very common narrative form in medieval English poetry. It deals with theology and social criticism. It is concerned with corruption in the Church and contemporary society. Foreshadowing the Puritans, Langland thinks that man can win salvation by loving God and working honestly. Together with Chaucer, he contributed to creating a full picture of medieval society. He was more concerned with the political situation of his time and introduced into his vision social classes which were absent in the Canterbury Tales.
Brut, written by Laymon, a priest poet, deals with the story of Britain from the time of the Flood up to about 1200. It contains some mythic historical episodes (one   is the description of the building of Stonehenge with the help of Merlin, the famous King’s Arthur magician). Brut marks the appearance of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in English literature. The legend, of Celtic origin, ( Arthur was originally a Briton chieftain who led the British resistance against the Saxons) was first preserved by oral tradition in Britain and then appeared in the History of the Britons by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Brut may be regarded as the earliest example of the Romance and the Verse Tales, the new literary genres which flourished in England in the 13th and 14th centuries. Another achievement of English poetry before Chaucer is the Lyric, in which we find the first voices of ordinary people. The most important is the anonymous Cuckoo Song, which is a simple outburst of joy at the return of summer.
ROMANCE: The term “Romance” was used to refer to a book, written in a Romance language, which told a story of adventure, marvellous and supernatural. The plot and the situation were often unreal and remote from everyday life. It came from the French Chanson de Geste ( the most important literary form in France which celebrated Charlemagne and his nobles) and represented a single social class: the knights. The three main literary themes of the time were: love, chivalry and religion. Nearly all the English medieval romances are translations or adaptations from French originals. The best known of them is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . Imported by the Normans and being as heroic as the Anglo-Saxon Epics, the Romance became popular with the British. It introduced into Medieval Literature the theme of the Arthurian legend (including characters as Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere and other knights of the Round Table), the theme of the mission to recover the Holy Grail and the theme of Courtly Love . Romances were grouped into four main cycles, called “matters”: the Matter of France (stories of Charlemagne and his lords), the Matter of Britain( the Arthurian cycle), the Matter of England( romances about native English heroes) and the matter of Rome which included stories of the ancient classical world.
The theme of the courtly love brought to a new type of relationship between the sexes in the upper class. It was sung by travelling minstrels called “ troubadours”. These songs always spoke of a knight’s love for a lady and his loyalty for a Lord. The knight’s lady was usually his lord’s wife and sometimes the songs dealt with the conflict between the two men. According to the conventions of courtly love, a knight served the lady he loved without expecting anything in return. He might desire her physically but, if she refused him, he had to accept it without complaining. Their love affair, if it took place, had to be discreet. The convention is very much different from the previous thinking, which viewed relations between men and women as a matter of sexual passion. The knight had to be virtuous, brave and pure; he had to serve justice and protect the poor and the week. The lady, too, had to be virtuous, chaste and pure. Courtly love had nothing to do with marriage; marriage was concerned with preserving or increasing hereditary estates and cementing alliances. If a husband or a wife wanted love and passion, they very often looked for it outside marriage.
In the 14th century two other forms of popular poetry flourished: the Medieval Ballad and Drama.
Ballads can be divided into two categories: popular or folk ballads, written by unknown authors, and literary ballads, written by well-known poets. Medieval ballads were oral compositions by unlettered authors for unlettered audiences. They used a very simple language since they were addressed to simple people. They have been defined as songs which tell a story and then they were probably accompanied by music and dances. Ballads were a popular form of art and one ballad existed in different versions and was sung by different people. This happened because, being oral, they were changed by the different story-tellers. They had a tendency to tragedy and dealt with various themes such as love, revenge, outlaw life (as for instance the well-known cycle of Robin Hood), ghosts, local events and so on. The most popular among them were Chevy Chase and the Nut-brown Maid. The former told the story of a mortal combat between two rival families while the latter was on the theme of faithful and rewarded love. The main features of a Ballad were: they told the story of a single character; they had a tragic end; they used the dialogue form and contained many repetitions (of single words) and incremental repetitions ( the repetition of the same sentences with possible slight variations at regular intervals), which worked as a refrain because, being sung compositions, they had to help the singer to tell his message more understandable and give the listener a pause in which to remember and reflect; there were usually one or two climaxes; the storyteller was not emotionally involved and did not express personal attitudes or feelings: he simply told the story without making personal comments on his characters; they were usually divided into stanzas; the conventional stanza form had four lines rhyming ABCB.
Medieval Drama originated from the liturgy of the Mass. Its chief aim was religious instruction. The priests had the need to teach the story of the Bible to unlearned people. They tried to do it by means of rough dramatizations of biblical scenes and of episodes taken from the lives of Saints. The earlier forms were called Mystery Plays, when they represented episodes taken from the Bible, and Miracle Plays when they dealt with episodes taken from the lives of Saints. The plays were first performed in front of the altar during the Mass. When the number of people was more than the church could contain, they were moved outside the church and around the streets. There were no theatres yet and they were performed on movable stages called pageants. Drama moved to the streets thanks to the “trade guilds”, town corporations of artisans and craftsmen.

The pageants were fixed or moveable. The moveable ones were moved around towns on carts and stopped at prearranged places. They were like small houses with two vertical rooms : a lower room and an upper room. The lower room was closed in the four sides and served as a dressing room for the actors, while the upper room, open on all sides, was the stage on which the actors played their part. Each pageant represented an episode of the story, so people moved from one pageant to another. Each guild represented a different pageant: bakers represented the last supper, carpenters represented the building of Noah’s ark, armourers the expulsion of man from Paradise and so on. There are four collections still extant. They derive their names from the places where they were first performed: The York (48 plays performed at Corpus Christi ), the Chester (25 performed at Pentecost), the Coventry and the Wakefield.

morality play.jpg

taken from:blanckd.yolasite.com

A second step in the development of English drama is the Morality Play. Unlike the Miracles / Mysteries, Moralities do not deal with episodes from the Bible but with the progress of man through life. They were forms of allegorical drama by means of which the message of the Bible could be conveyed to a mostly illiterate audience. Their characters were personified abstractions of vices ( greed, sloth, envy, lust and so on) and virtues (Patience, Temperance, Humility, Good Deeds, Mercy, Justice and so on) . Moralities represented the struggle between the Good and the Evil. The Good always won. Their aim was didactic because they aimed at teaching man the way to virtue and salvation. The best known Morality Play is Everyman: Death summons Everyman and he is forsaken by all his friends: Fellowship, Beauty, Knowledge etc…, except Good Deeds, who is ready to follow him before God. The final message is: we cannot take anything with us when we die except the good things we have done in our life. They who made good deeds in their life must not be afraid of God; only sin will be punished with Hell. God’s mercy will save those who will sincerely repent of their sins and commend their soul in his hand. Everyman is the representative of all mankind. He stands for the ordinary average man in the street. He believes in God and is afraid of dying without being absolved of his sins.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was a development of medieval drama: the Interlude. Interludes were comic dialogues inserted into the miracles to animate their atmosphere. They had little didactic purpose and dealt with humour and satire. They were different from the Moralities because the characters were not personifications but real individual characters. The best writer of Interludes was John Heywood, known for his “Four P’s”. It was a comic dialogue in which four characters, a Palmer, a Pardoner, an apothecary and a Pedlar contended as to who could tell the biggest lie. The Palmer won by asserting that he had never seen a woman out of temper.
The most important poet of the Middle Ages was Geoffrey Chaucer. Many critics maintain that true English literature started with him. He is also considered father of the English language because he wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, in the East Midland dialect, from which modern English derived.


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Julius CaesarJulius Caesar is a Roman Play, that is a play which deals with Roman History. Roman History was a very popular subject on the Elizabethan stage and it was provided with the material for political lessons. The main theme is the use and the misuse of power made by ambitious and corrupted people who have public roles. The play deals with the assassination of Caesar at the Ides of March of the year 44 B.C. by a group of conspirators including Brutus. The conspirators don’t like Caesar’s popularity. Brutus, who is a supporter of the republic, fears that too much power may corrupt Caesar and change him into a tyrant. He   loves Caesar as a friend but he loves Rome, too. Manipulated by Caesar’s enemy, above all by his brother-in-law Cassius, he  comes to the decision that Caesar must die  in order  to preserve the republic. The conspirators kill Caesar but they are forced to flee from Rome and are defeated by Antony at Philippi. Eventually Brutus kills himself to avoid of being taken prisoner.

The following passage is taken from the third act and is the turning point of the play.

After the murder, Brutus speaks to the mob to give reasons for Caesar’s death . He wins their approval but he makes the mistake of allowing Mark Antony to deliver the funeral oration. It is a fatal error because    Antony, who has got a good eloquence, succeeds in turning the situation upside-down and stirs the mob against the conspirators.

brutusBrutus Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:…Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
None, Brutus, none.
Then none have I offended. I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences enforced, for which he suffered death.
(Enter ANTONY and others, with CAESAR’s body)
Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony: who, though he had no hand in his death, shall receive the benefit of his dying, a place in the commonwealth; as which of you shall not? With this I depart,….that, as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need my death.
Live, Brutus! live, live!
First Citizen
Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Second Citizen
Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Citizen
Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Citizen
Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.
First Citizen
We’ll bring him to his house
With shouts and clamours.
My countrymen……
Second Citizen
Peace, silence! Brutus speaks.
First Citizen
Peace, ho!
Good countrymen, let me depart alone, And, for my sake, stay here with Antony: Do grace to Caesar’s corpse, and grace his speech Tending to Caesar’s glories; which Mark Antony, By our permission, is allow’d to make. I do entreat you, not a man depart, Save I alone, till Antony have spoke.
First Citizen
Stay, ho! and let us hear Mark Antony.
Third Citizen
Let him go up into the public chair;
We’ll hear him. Noble Antony, go up.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
First Citizen
Methinks there is much reason in his sayings.
Second Citizen
If thou consider rightly of the matter,
Caesar has had great wrong.
Third Citizen
Has he, masters?
I fear there will a worse come in his place.
Fourth Citizen
Mark’d ye his words? He would not take the crown;
Therefore ’tis certain he was not ambitious.
First Citizen
If it be found so, some will dear abide it.
Second Citizen
Poor soul! his eyes are red as fire with weeping.
Third Citizen
There’s not a nobler man in Rome than Antony.
Fourth Citizen
Now mark him, he begins again to speak.
antonyBut yesterday the word of Caesar might
Have stood against the world; now lies he there.
And none so poor to do him reverence.
O masters, if I were disposed to stir
Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,
I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
Who, you all know, are honourable men:
I will not do them wrong; I rather choose
To wrong the dead, to wrong myself and you,
Than I will wrong such honourable men.
But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ’tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament–
Which, pardon me, I do not mean to read–
And they would go and kiss dead Caesar’s wounds
And dip their napkins in his sacred blood,
Yea, beg a hair of him for memory,
And, dying, mention it within their wills,
Bequeathing it as a rich legacy
Unto their issue.
Fourth Citizen
We’ll hear the will: read it, Mark Antony.
The will, the will! we will hear Caesar’s will.
Have patience, gentle friends, I must not read it;
It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you.
You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!
Fourth Citizen
Read the will; we’ll hear it, Antony;
You shall read us the will, Caesar’s will.
Will you be patient? will you stay awhile?
I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it:
I fear I wrong the honourable men
Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar; I do fear it.
Fourth Citizen
They were traitors: honourable men!
The will! the testament!
Second Citizen
They were villains, murderers: the will! read the will.
You will compel me, then, to read the will?
Then make a ring about the corpse of Caesar,
And let me show you him that made the will.
Shall I descend? and will you give me leave?
Several Citizens
Come down.
Second Citizen
Third Citizen
You shall have leave.
(Antony comes down)
Fourth Citizen
A ring; stand round.
First Citizen
Stand from the hearse, stand from the body.
Second Citizen
Room for Antony, most noble Antony.
Nay, press not so upon me; stand far off.
Several Citizens
Stand back; room; bear back.
imagesIf you have tears, prepare to shed them now.
You all do know this mantle: I remember
The first time ever Caesar put it on;
‘Twas on a summer’s evening, in his tent,
That day he overcame the Nervii:
Look, in this place ran Cassius’ dagger through:
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabb’d;
And as he pluck’d his cursed steel away,
Mark how the blood of Caesar follow’d it,
As rushing out of doors, to be resolved
If Brutus so unkindly knock’d, or no;
For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statua,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.
O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
Whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us.
O, now you weep; and, I perceive, you feel
The dint of pity: these are gracious drops.
Kind souls, what, weep you when you but behold
Our Caesar’s vesture wounded? Look you here,
Here is himself, marr’d, as you see, with traitors.
First Citizen
O piteous spectacle!
Second Citizen
O noble Caesar!
Third Citizen
O woful day!
Fourth Citizen
O traitors, villains!
First Citizen
O most bloody sight!
Second Citizen
We will be revenged.
Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!
Let not a traitor live!
Stay, countrymen.
First Citizen
Peace there! hear the noble Antony.
Second Citizen
We’ll hear him, we’ll follow him, we’ll die with him.
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up
To such a sudden flood of mutiny.
They that have done this deed are honourable:
What private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
That made them do it: they are wise and honourable,
And will, no doubt, with reasons answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend; and that they know full well
That gave me public leave to speak of him:
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on;
I tell you that which you yourselves do know;
Show you sweet Caesar’s wounds, poor poor dumb mouths,
And bid them speak for me: but were I Brutus,
And Brutus Antony, there were an Antony
Would ruffle up your spirits and put a tongue
In every wound of Caesar that should move
The stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.
We’ll mutiny.
First Citizen
We’ll burn the house of Brutus.
Third Citizen
Away, then! come, seek the conspirators.
Yet hear me, countrymen; yet hear me speak.
Peace, ho! Hear Antony. Most noble Antony!
Why, friends, you go to do you know not what:
Wherein hath Caesar thus deserved your loves?
Alas, you know not: I must tell you then:
You have forgot the will I told you of.
Most true. The will! Let’s stay and hear the will.
Here is the will, and under Caesar’s seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas.
Second Citizen
Most noble Caesar! We’ll revenge his death.
Third Citizen
O royal Caesar!
Hear me with patience.
Peace, ho!
Moreover, he hath left you all his walks,
His private arbours and new-planted orchards,
On this side Tiber; he hath left them you,
And to your heirs for ever, common pleasures,
To walk abroad, and recreate yourselves.
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?
First Citizen
Never, never. Come, away, away!
We’ll burn his body in the holy place,
And with the brands fire the traitors’ houses.
Take up the body.
Second Citizen
Go fetch fire.
Third Citizen
Pluck down benches.
Fourth Citizen
Pluck down forms, windows, any thing.
(Exeunt Citizens with the body)
Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt

The two speeches are addressed to the Mob who appear very changeable and confused. They reveal contradictions because after applauding Brutus for killing Caesar, they are easily manipulated by the eloquence of Antony and stir against Brutus. Brutus is genuine. Unlike Antony, he has not a second aim. He does not understand the mentality of the crowd and   he does not know how to manipulate them.

There are many differences between the speeches of the two characters.  First of all Brutus speaks in prose and Antony in verse. A common way in which poetry and prose were used in Elizabethan drama, was to distinguish the hero or the heroine and characters belonging to the nobility, who speak in verse,    from   the minor characters belonging to the lower classes  (soldiers, common people, servants, nurses and so on) who speak in prose. The use here is different: Brutus speaks in prose because he wants to appeal to the Mob’s rationality while Antony speaks in verse because he wants to make appeal to their emotions. Brutus needs to justify Caesar’s assassination for the good of Rome: “hear me for my cause ……  censure me in your wisdom and awake your senses, that you may be the better judge”. He underlines his love,   and respect to him:  “Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his  …if, then, that friend demand, why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer – Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more”. To do that, after celebrating Caesar’s military qualities, he focuses on his ambition: “as he was ambitious I slew him: there is tears for his love…. honour for his value and death for his ambition”. Brutus speaks to the mind of the people trying to persuade them that Caesar’s death was necessary to make them live free men and not to die all slaves : “ Had you rather Caesar were living,  and  die all slaves, than Caesar were dead, to live all free men?

Brutus reaches his aim and persuades the mob that he had done the right thing. He had started his speech appealing first to the Romans and then to his countrymen and lovers. Starting like that, he leaves a gap between him and the crowd. Antony, instead, begins with “Friends, Romans and countrymen” making people feel that he is one of them. He speaks to their souls and feelings because he has to push them against the conspirators .He plays with the citizens’ feelings. Before Antony begins to speak, the atmosphere is not favourable to him. The crowd is all against Caesar and in favour of Brutus. To win their favour, he has to clear the effect of Brutus’ speech on the mob. He knows that he can’t attack Brutus directly. He must be very careful and appear harmless: “I come to bury Caesar …. under leave  of Brutus …….I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke….. If I were disposed to stir your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage….I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong, who you all know, are honourable men “ .  First of all he has to show the crowd that Caesar was not ambitious.He  reminds the mob that Caesar has refused the crown: “ You all did see that on the Lupercal (yearly celebration of the God Lupercus on the 15th February) I thrice presented him a kingly crown, which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? “.  He celebrates Caesar as a friend who has brought a lot of money to Rome. He pretends not to do or say a certain thing, but actually he does. He  mentions facts that everybody can witness and    after each fact, he repeats as a refrain “ ….. but Brutus says he was ambitious, and Brutus is an honourable man”. His scheme of reasoning is very cunning. Following the syllogism, typical of Greek philosophy, he starts with an implied major premise: “Honourable men tell the truth” but he insinuates into the people’s minds a logical conclusion which   is the opposite of the starting premise:  major premise: Honourable men tell the truth; minor premise:  Brutus is not an honourable man, Conclusion: Brutus doesn’t tell the truth and consequently Caesar’s assassination was a crime.  Then he interrupts his speech and makes a pause to see the Mob’s reaction and to adjust his speech to it: “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come back to me”.

Antony pretends to be “no orator as Brutus is…….for I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth, action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech to stir men’s blood; I only speak right on”. Actually he is a very experienced orator as it is showed by his gestures (stops talking and covers his face with his hands, shows the tears in Caesar’s mantle, shows the will to the crowd) , by his way of moving physically in front of the audience and by the many rhetorical devices he uses: metaphors, alliterations, irony, skilful contrasts and  praeteritio (to claim not to say or do something which we are already doing or going to do). He is a master of the language and uses it as a weapon. When he is sure that he has won the Mob’s consensus, he introduced his last rhetorical trick: Caesar’s Testament. He says that he has found it in Caesar closet. To increase the Mob’s curiosity, he says that he does not want to read it because “ it will inflame you, it wilt make you mad”; then  he lets them know that they are Caesar’s heir : ‘Tis good you Know not that you are his heirs or, if you should, O! What would come of it …… I have o’ershot myself to tell you of it…I fear I wrong the honourable men whose daggers have stabbed Caesar”. Of course the Mob asks him to read the will but he makes them wait.  Before reading it, he wants to   increase their rage, showing them the massacred body of    Caesar and   Caesar’s mantle   with the marks left by the conspirators’ daggers. He describes Caesar’s last piteous action when he saw Brutus stabbing him : “  Ingratitude, more strong than traitor’s arms, quite vanquished him: then burst his mighty heart; and, in his mantle muffling up his face, even at the base of Pompey’s statue, which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell”. When he realizes that he has won the Mob’s approval  has  stirred them against the conspirators, he reads Caesar’s testament: “To every Roman citizen he gives, to every several man, seventy-five drachmas….he hath left you all his walks, his private arbours, and new-planted orchards, On this side Tiber; he has left them you, and to your heirs for ever, common places to walk abroad, and recreate yourselves”.  Antony’s mission is now accomplished. The fury of the crowd is now uncontrollable and they rush to set fire to the conspirators’ houses. By an aside, Antony   throws off his mask and reveals to the audience his real intention: “Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course you wilt“.

As always happens at the very end of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we feel pity on the hero who has been defeated, even if he has done terrible deeds. I am for Brutus who kills himself because he really sees Caesar’s death as a moral problem. He is not ambitious. He is a true democrat and   an idealist who believes in words such as “respect, honour, wisdom and freedom”. In my opinion, Antony may be compared to a good politician or trade-unionist who knows how to use the language and stir a crowd. He is ambitious and wants to become emperor.  “Be aware of the wolf”, says a very popular Italian singer, Lucio Dalla, in a well-Known song….. Be aware of politicians, trade-unionists and experienced orators! ……… they might be all wolves. *’_° dog-wink

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Romeo e Giulietta  The story of Romeo and Juliet was originally told by the Italian storyteller Matteo  Bandello. It is set in Verona, Italy, and it tells the tragic love story of two young lovers who come from rival families : Capulets and   Montagues. The families oppose their love and , after many troubles, they die for this. Romeo, the son of Lord Montague, accidentally finds out about a ball given by Lord Capulet and plans to attend uninvited  because he wants to meet Rosaline, Juliet’s cousin. He is   deeply in love with her but she does not love him back. He wears a mask to disguise his identity . In the course of the feast, he meets Juliet, Lord Capulet’s daughter. They fall  in love at first sight   and   the following  day are secretly married by Friar Laurence, their confessor, who hopes to reconcile the two families through their union. That same day Romeo is involved   in a street quarrel. His friend Mercutio is killed by   Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin and Romeo kills Tybalt in revenge. Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s death is the tragic turn in the play.   As a consequence, Romeo   is banished from the town by the Prince of Verona. After spending their  wedding night together , they separate and Romeo goes to Mantua on exile.  The noble Paris wants to marry Juliet and her   father, who   knows nothing of the secret marriage, arranges the wedding ceremony for the next day. Juliet refuses and  asks  Friar Laurence to help her escape the marriage. The friar suggests her  to take a potion he will give  her,  which would put her in a deathlike deep sleep.  The Friar will send a letter to Romeo informing him about the plan. Seeing no other way out, Juliet agrees. Unfortunately Romeo does not receive Friar  Laurence’s message in time. When he is informed of Juliet’s death, he goes back to Verona, breaks into her tomb and   takes a lethal poison killing himself near her body. When Juliet wakes up from her trance, she sees Romeo dead. Grief-stricken , she takes Romeo’s dagger and kills herself. Eventually the two families are reconciled.

Romeo And Juliet is considered the first of  Shakespeare’s  tragedies. In a tragedy the hero is very often a man but here we also have a heroine, Juliet. This always  happens when the main subject of the tragedy is love. The name of the protagonist almost always appears in the titles, e.g. Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra. The play, that starts like a comedy( Act 1 shows potentially comical elements), contains many tragic elements Shakespeare  will later perfect in his great tragedies : tragic plot,  the theme of the  operation of fate, the use of the dramatic irony and the final Catharsis. The tragic plot of Romeo and Juliet   develops through the following stages: INTRODUCTION: Romeo meets Juliet at a party in her house; DEVELOPMENT: Romeo hears Juliet confessing her love for him; CLIMAX: They are married by Friar Laurence; CRISIS: Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin; DECLINE: Julia drinks a poison that causes apparent death; CATASTROPHE: Juliet kills herself.

The role of Fate in Romeo and Juliet  is introduced to the audience by the prologue:             Two households, both alike in dignity                                                                                                (In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),                                                                                         From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,                                                                         Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.                                                                           From forth the fatal loins of these two foes                                                                                   A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,                                                                                 Whose misadventured piteous overthrows                                                                               Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

 As we can see, they are depicted as     “a pair of star-crossed lovers”. In the whole play  the  hostile fate  works through many  unfortunate events:Romeo accidentally meets Juliet and kills Tybalt; Friar Laurence’s message accidentally does not reach him; it’s   fate that makes Juliet awake shortly after Romeo’s suicide.   Romeo and Juliet  are not like the heroes of the ”Golden Tragedies”. They do not have tragic flaws that lead to their downfall. There is no “ villain” and there are no supernatural  events that determine their tragedy. There is only a series of unlucky events.

The audience’s attention is captured through dramatic tension. While Juliet does not know that Romeo is there listening to what she is saying, the audience  is aware of Romeo’s presence. Romeo may be discovered by  Juliet’s  relatives . The presence of danger increases the tension. To add   suspense, Shakespeare also uses the “ dramatic irony” : the audience knows something that the protagonists  on stage do not know and it is kept in suspense,  uncertain about what is going to happen. Another tragic element is the final Catharsis that involves the audience. Tragedy must be able to arouse pity and fear in the audience which eventually feels sympathy for the protagonist  .  The audience understands that   Romeo is a victim of fate and feels pity for him because his misfortunes are greater than he deserves.


giuliaScene II. Capulet’s Garden.

(Juliet appears above at a window)

But soft, what light trough yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love! (10)
O that she knew she were!
She speaks, yet she says nothing; what of that?
Her eye discourses, I will answer it.
I am too bold: ’tis not to me she speaks.
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.

What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp. Her eyes in heaven (20)
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.

See how she leans her cheek upon her hand
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

Ay me!

She speaks.
O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o’er my head,
As is a winged messenger of heaven (30)

Unto the white-upturned wondering eyes
Of mortals that fall back to gaze on him
When he bestrides the lazy-puffing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air.

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

[Aside.] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy: (40)
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name, which is no part of thee, (50)
Take all myself.

I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

What man art thou that, thus bescreened in night,
So stumblest on my counsel?

By a name
I know not how to tell thee who I am:
My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself,
Because it is an enemy to thee. (60)
Had I it written, I would tear the word.

My ears have yet not drunk a hundred words
Of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound.
Art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?

Neither, fair saint, if either thee dislike.

How cam’st thou hither, tell me, and wherefore?
The orchard walls are high and hard to climb,
And the place death, considering who thou art,
If any of my kinsmen find thee here.

With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls, (70)
For stony limits cannot hold love out,
And what love can do, that dares love attempt:
Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.

If they do see thee, they will murder thee.

Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet
And I am proof against their enmity.

I would not for the world they saw thee here.

I have night’s cloak to hide me from their eyes,
And, but thou love me, let them find me here; (80)
My life were better ended by their hate
Than death prorogued, wanting of thy love.

By whose direction found’st thou out this place?

By love, that first did prompt me to enquire.
He lent me counsel, and I lent him eyes.
I am no pilot, yet, wert thou as far
As that vast shore wash’d with the furthest sea,
I should adventure for such merchandise.

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek (90)
For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I dwell on form; fain, fain deny
What I have spoke. But farewell compliment.
Dost thou love me? I know thou wilt say ‘Ay’,
And I will take thy word. Yet, if thou swear’st,
Thou mayst prove false. At lovers’ perjuries,
They say, Jove laughs. O gentle Romeo,

If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou thinkest I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown, and be perverse, and say thee nay, (100)
So thou wilt woo: but else, not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond;
And therefore thou mayst think my ‘haviour light:
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.

I should have been more strange, I must confess,
But that thou overheard’st, ere I was ‘ware,
My true-love passion: therefore pardon me;
And not impute this yielding to light love
Which the dark night hath so discovered. (110)

Lady, by yonder blessed moon I vow,
That tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops —

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

What shall I swear by?

Do not swear at all.
Or if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self,
Which is the god of my idolatry,
And I’ll believe thee. (120)

If my heart’s dear love —

Well, do not swear: although I joy in thee,
I have no joy of this contract to-night:
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say ‘It lightens.’ Sweet, good night!
This bud of love, by summer’s ripening breath,
May prove a beauteous flower when next we meet.
Good night, good night! as sweet repose and rest
Come to thy heart as that within my breast! (130)
O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?
What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?
The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.
I gave thee mine before thou didst request it:
And yet I would it were to give again.
Wouldst thou withdraw it? for what purpose, love?

But to be frank, and give it thee again.
And yet I wish but for the thing I have:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee, (140)
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Nurse calls within 

The above passage is taken from the so-called   The Balcony Scene. Romeo is outside Juliet’s  garden when she appears at the balcony. She does not know that he is there and speaks aloud revealing to the audience her love for him. Romeo is unsure about  waiting in the shadow listening to her or making her realize he is there: “  Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this? ” .When he speaks, Juliet recognises  him  by his voice: “ my ears have not yet drunk a hundred words of thy tongue’s uttering, yet I know the sound: Art thou  not Romeo, and a Montague? ”. Romeo is very much struck by Juliet’s beauty and exalts it through a series of metaphors: he compares her  to “the fair sun” (he had done the same with Rosaline when, speaking of her in act 1 sc. 2 describes her so beautiful that “ The all-seeing sun / ne’er saw her match since first the world begun)  and contrasts her with the “the envious moon who is already sick and pale with grief that thou her maid art far more fair than she ”. According to the classical mythology, the Goddess Moon and her maids, the Vestals, were devoted to chastity.  Romeo invites Juliet not to be “her maid ” , not to wear her “vestal livery”. Juliet’s eyes are brilliant  as if two stars have changed places with them: “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven ….do entreat her eyes to twinkle in their spheres till they return. What if her eyes were there, they in her head? ”.  They would beam their light  on the sky  making the night so bright “ that birds would sing and think it were not nightand would enhance the brightness of her cheeks   “   that would shame those stars as daylight doth a lamp”. When he comes out  into the open he declares his love, too: “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo ”. From Romeo’s and Juliet’s speeches, we may realize that they have a tremendous crush on each other. They are like teenagers of all times when they first fall in love. Their love is not a pure, chaste and  platonic love but there is passion, too.   Romeo invites Juliet to cast her vestal livery off. He would like to be “ a glove   upon that hand (Juliet’s one), That I might touch that cheek! At the end of her speech Juliet invites Romeo to “ take all myself ” that is both soul and body.

The   passage reveals the characters of the two adolescents. Romeo is like all teenagers, bold, passionate, impulsive  and quite irresponsible .Someone points out that  he is also reckless in his attitude towards love transferring quickly his love from Rosaline to Juliet. I don’t think so.   He is only infatuated of Rosaline but he truly loves Juliet.  Romeo has followed Juliet after their meeting at the  masque ball and hides in her garden, a dangerous place that as Juliet says, may be “   death, considering who thou art, If any of my kinsmen find thee here …….. If they do see thee, they will murder thee ”. He is not afraid of the danger of being in the Capulets ‘ garden. He is very cheeky : “For stony limits cannot hold love out, And what love can do, that dares love attempt. Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me……. Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords! Look thou but sweet, And I am proof against their enmity….. . let them find me here. My life were better ended by their hate than death prorogued, wanting of thy love ”. Romeo   would run all risks to take possession of her:  “ were thou as far as that vast shore wash’d with the farthest sea I would adventure for such merchandise ” .Juliet is the more rational of the two. She is conscious  of their situation and fearful of the danger they are running; she knows that their belonging to two rival families is a serious obstacle to their love. Romeo is a Montague and she a Capulet, then she is well aware that their families will oppose their love: “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet…….’ Tis but thy name that is my enemy ”. She has a deeper understanding of things  even if she is a naive girl, too, when she thinks that giving up their names, they can overcome their problem. She says that  names are not important, they do not affect the object for which they are used: “What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face …… What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet ”.  Juliet is sincere, spontaneous, simple and innocent  and she openly declares her love.   She does not want to play the conventional game of the cunning girl who pretends to be shy to be courted on. She does not want to flirt with Romeo and  to appear as a light girl: “ do not impute this yielding to light love ” .  She knows that Romeo has heard her declare her love when he was hidden by the dark night: “  ….. if thou thinkest I am too quickly won, I’ll frown and say thee nay so that thou wilt woo ……In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond …..But trust me, gentleman,I’ll prove more true than those that have more cunning to be strange (shy). …..I must confess …… my true love passion ”. They exchange wow of eternal  love and faithfulness  to each other. Romeo wows by the moon and Juliet replies that he mustn’t because the moon is inconstant and she fears that his wow might be inconstant, too.  She knows that formal declarations of love are often insincere  and love may be short and superficial. She is aware that their love is too quick and unprepared …too rush, too unadvised, too sudden, too like the lightning” and she fears it “..doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens” and asks him not to swear at all   Romeo insists: He wants the satisfaction of “ the exchange of thy love’s faithful wow for mine ”. He fears that Juliet may withdraw it.

The love story of Juliet and Romeo belongs to all times. Nowadays we can find similar situations because there are many parents who oppose their children’s love and many opposing groups that regard each other as enemies. Parents or groups should not interfere in their sons’ love affairs. They are entitled to  express their opinion and suggest them how to behave, but it is the young men’s right to choose freely their partners.

Posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks | Leave a comment