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

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


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.


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


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

Posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non | Leave a comment


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

Analisi del 2014

I folletti delle statistiche di hanno preparato un rapporto annuale 2014 per questo blog.

Ecco un estratto:

Il Museo del Louvre riceve 8,5 milioni di visitatori ogni anno. Questo blog è stato visto circa 79.000 volte nel 2014. Se fosse un’esposizione al Louvre, ci vorrebbero circa 3 anni perché lo vedessero altrettante persone.

Clicca qui per vedere il rapporto completo.

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


img057 copiaShakespeare is considered   the greatest English writer of all times. His works have been translated into more languages than any book in the world except the Bible. He contributed to the development of the English language. A large number of words and phrases from his plays have passed into the language and are used today by millions of persons who have no idea that Shakespeare created them. When he wrote his plays, there were no accepted standardized  grammars or dictionaries, no accepted standards of spelling and pronunciation. Well-educated men spelled the same word in different ways and often pronounced it differently. They used grammatical forms which are not allowed today.   There were no English words for many ideas and new words and new expressions were taken from other languages or invented for the English language.

As far as his life, very little is known for sure. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon on April 26th, 1564. He  attended the local grammar school but he did not go on to study at the university. When he was eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway, eight years older than he and they had three children, Susanna and the twins Judith and Hamnet. Hamnet died in 1596 and his death affected Shakespeare very deeply. He moved to London to work for the theatre as an actor and a playwright. He joined the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the two existing companies of actors at the time, which later, when James I went to the throne, was renamed “The King’s Men”. They owned the playhouse “The Theatre”, which was dismantled and rebuilt in another place and called   “The Globe”. Shakespeare was a co-owner of The   Globe. He had a great success as a playwright and earned enough. Because of his success, he was attacked by   Robert Greene, probably envious of him, who complained that uneducated dramatists were becoming more popular than university men.  In his later years he retired to Stratford where he died in 1616.

Shakespeare wrote all his plays for performance not for publication and paid little attention to the written text. He wrote for the audience not for the readers because it was the audience that could afford him to maintaining his family and paying his company of actors. His plays were popular because he was able to write in such a way as to appeal both to learned and unlearned people.

Shakespeare did not bother to publish his works, which circulated in unauthorized copies known as  the “bad quartos” (quartos: volumes made up of sheets of paper folded twice; bad: because full of gaps and mistakes). They were reconstructed from memory by some actors or from notes taken in the theatres.  In 1623 two members of his company published the first edition of his plays, known as the First Folio (a volume made up of sheets of paper folded once). In this volume the plays were simply grouped as Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. This edition contained no indication as to the date of composition of the plays and the real chronology of his works remains imperfect and approximate. Critics divide his literary production  into four periods.

The first period goes from 1590 to 1595. It is the phase of his apprenticeship and he tried several different kinds of drama:  chronicle plays dealing with the history of Britain (Henry VI, Richard II, Richard III), comedies (The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour Lost, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, A Midsummer Night’s dream) and a Roman play (Titus Andronicus). They show little originality because he revised the plays of other authors or imitated those of his immediate predecessors that were already popular in the public stage. They are important because they contain elements that he later developed in his tragedies. To this phase also belongs  the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

The second period goes approximately from 1596 to 1600. Shakespeare gradually frees himself by imitation. It contains chronicle  plays (Henry IV, Henry V),comedies (The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It ,  Twelfth night) and the tragedy  Julius Caesar. To this period might also belong the history play King John  which contains a possible reference to Hamnet’s death.  Shakespeare expressed his great sorrow in Act III, scene IV, where he makes a character say the following touching words: “.…. I have heard you say that we shall see and know our friends in heaven. If that be true, I shall see my boy again…. Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, remembers me of all his gracious parts, stuffs out his vacant garments with his form…. O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! “ . Some critics maintain that these words have nothing to do with Hamnet’s death because, according to them, King John was written before his death.

The third period goes from 1601 to 1607. Shakespeare’s life in this period seemed to have grown dark.  He was forced to live more cautiously because he was a friend of the Earl of Southampton who was involved in the Earl of Essex’s plot against Queen Elizabeth. The day before the rebellion, Richard II was played at The Globe under the pressure of the Earl’s supporters. They hoped to win support for the rebellion because of the theme it dealt with. The rebellion failed and his best friends fell into ruin: Essex died on the scaffold, Southampton went to the Tower, Pembroke was banished from the Court and Shakespeare was probably under suspicion. This is the period in which Shakespeare wrote the so-called   “Golden Tragedies”: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. They are tragedies of human sufferings, afflictions,grief and deal with the struggle between good and evil. The general mood   is one of pessimism. He also wrote four comedies, known as the “dark comedies” because they are full of blood  and we are tempted to consider them more as tragedies than as comedies: Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well that ends Well and Measure for Measure. They show Shakespeare’s pessimistic vision of the world and are tinged with a deep bitterness. In the same period he also wrote the Roman plays Anthony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus. Roman history was very popular in the Elizabethan Age because it was used as the material for political lessons.

The fourth and last period goes from 1608 to 1612. The works of this period (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest) seem to reflect a new attitude   to life.  Shakespeare overcomes the previous pessimistic mood and expresses his happier state of mind.

 Shakespeare is not original in the choice of his plots, which are all derived from various ancient and contemporary sources: historical works (Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland), Roman history, classical works (Plutarch’s and Plautus’s writings), the Italian works of Matteo Bandello and others and material taken from many Elizabethan playwrights. In the Renaissance the idea of originality as we have nowadays, did not exist. There was no copyright and it was possible to copy other writers without any legal consequence. Writers were praised not for saying something new but for saying it well or in a new way. Of course Shakespeare did not copy; his  originality was in his ability to handle the original source and make it assume a new meaning and value.  He penetrated the depths of the human soul and   represented impartially all aspect of life and attitudes of men. He created a great variety of characters. They include persons of all types: Kings, Queens, ordinary people, heroes and so on. Shakespeare loved music and he also wrote several songs which appear in some of his plays.

imagesRIQMYLT3The Great Tragedies have got some common characteristics. They all    have a hero who is assailed by forces, good or evil, the full nature of which he doesn’t know until it’s too late.  Like the heroes of the greatest Greek tragedies, Shakespearian heroes are   driven to their downfall by the loss of something they believed in. The hero, who may be as wicked as Richard III or as innocent as Romeo, is also brought to his ruin by the operation of the Fate. The Fate works through the faults or errors of the hero, through the evil embodied in a “villain”, a character who lives near  him (Cassius, Iago) or through the supernatural (ghosts, witches).In nearly all the tragedies the destruction of the hero involves the death of the innocent who lives next to him. The hero  has fatal tragic flaws which explain  the calamities by which he is overwhelmed.   When the play ends, there is always his “redemption” even if he has been so wicked as Richard III or Macbeth.  The spectators feel pity on him because Shakespeare is able to make them realize that he was not completely bad and that he has been brought to his downfall by the operation of the Fate.

Other common characteristics are    the theme of the “Shattered Harmony” and the use of prose and verse.  There is always harmony at the beginning of the play; then the harmony is shattered by a character, the hero, who brings chaos, and by the forces of evil. But Good in the end always wins and   another character, usually a minor one,   defeats the hero and restores harmony.As far as the use of verse and prose,  characters belonging to aristocracy speak in verse while common people speak in prose. When a character from the aristocracy speaks in prose, it is because he is out of mind (for instance Hamlet and Ophelia). In Julius Caesar instead, Brutus and Anthony in their speeches respectively speak in prose and in verse for a different reason: Brutus addresses to people’s rationality and Anthony to people’s feelings.

Shakespeare’s world is male dominated but women are as important as men. In some plays the action is equally divided between man and women, for example in Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. The psychology of the female characters of these plays, together with other female characters (Ophelia, Desdemona), has been openly investigated. They are stronger, more decided and less hesitant than their respective lovers and they are ready to risk everything for their love.

Besides being a dramatist, Shakespeare was also a great poet. He wrote some long mythological poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece) and a collection of 154 Sonnets. They show  his knowledge of classical themes and mythology. Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, one of his patrons, who helped him when the theatres were closed because of the plague which raged all over Europe in the years 1592- 1594.It is probably because of the plague that Shakespeare and other playwrights start  to write poetry. The Sonnets can be conventionally divided into two groups: from sonnet 1 to sonnet 126 and from sonnet 127 to 154. The first group is addressed to a lovely boy, “a fair youth” a “Mr W.H.” while the second group is  dedicated to a “dark Lady”.In the first group there is also another character, a ” rival poet“, probably a poet (George Chapman?) who depended on the patronage of Shakespeare’s patrons. Critics have tried to discover who “the  fair Youth” and “the Dark Lady” were. They found no definite answers. Many of them think that the “Fair Youth”,    was the above mentioned Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, or William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who were Shakespeare’s friends and patrons.  The “Dark Lady” is a mysterious married woman, probably Shakespeare’s mistress. The poet describes their troubled and   painful relationship in which they are both unfaithful to each other. The woman bestows her attention also on one of Shakespeare’s friends and he feels doubly betrayed by his woman and by his friend. The Sonnets have got many themes: unselfish love and mutual infidelity, friendship, old age, the decay of all earthly things, the destructive force of time and the immortality of art.

Shakespeare’s sonnets do not follow the Petrarchan sonnets of an octave and a sestet (or two quatrains and two tercets) but the standard English structure of three quatrains and a final rhymed couplet. The final couplet is used either to summarize the theme dealt with in the quatrains or to reinforce it. They also differ from the other cycles of sonnets of the time (Astrophel and Stella, Amoretti) because they do not  tell the poet’s love story for a woman.

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 | Tagged | Leave a comment

SHAKESPEARE: HAMLET Act III Sc.1 To be or not to be

1157 Hamlet is one of the so-called “Golden Tragedies” of the third period. It is a “revenge tragedy” and deals with the use and misuse of power, honesty and dishonesty, corruption and ambition of power. It  has been   debated and analysed in every time both in political and psychoanalytic terms. Hamlet, too, has been differently seen as an irresolute man, torn with moral conflicts, oppressed by melancholy, full of Freudian complexes and so on.

After his father’s death, Hamlet returns from abroad to become king and finds his throne usurped by his uncle Claudius who   has married his mother. His father’s ghost appears to him, tells him that he has been poisoned by his brother  Claudius and asks for revenge. Hamlet wants to take the revenge but he loves his mother,  too. This conflict reduces him to despair. His mother’s marriage has made him distrust and despise all women. He wants to escape the situation,  pretends to be mad  and rejects Ophelia, the girls he loved. As a consequence, Ophelia goes mad and commits suicide drowning herself. Hamlet decides to test the ghost’s story and asks a company of actors to perform a play in which the Queen marries the king’s brother who has killed the king. Claudius reacts at this and demonstrates guilty. In the final scene in a duel with Ophelia’s brother, Hamlet succeeds in killing him but he is also mortally wounded. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, drinks from a poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet and dies. Hamlet, too, dies after stabbing the king and making him drink the rest of the poisoned cup.

To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
Thus Conscience does make Cowards of us all,
And thus the Native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their Currents turn awry,
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remembered

OPHELIA     Good my lord,                                                                                                            How does your honour for this many a day?                                                                HAMLET      I humbly thank you; well, well, well.                                                      OPHELIA     My lord, I have remembrances of yours,                                                               That I have longed long to re- deliver;                                                                                                I pray you, now receive them.                                                                                           HAMLET      No, not I;                                                                                                                           I never gave you aught.                                                                                                      OPHELIA     My honour’d lord, you know right well you did;                                                And, with them, words of so sweet breath compos’d                                                                        As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,                                                                       Take these again; for to the noble mind                                                                                        Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind .                                                                       There, my lord.                                                                                                                         HAMLET      Ha, ha! are you honest?                                                                              OPHELIA     My lord?                                                                                                           HAMLET      Are you fair?                                                                                                    OPHELIA     What means your lordship?                                                                          HAMLET      That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should  admit no discourse to your beauty.                                                                                                                             OPHELIA     Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty? HAMLET      Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner  transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.               OPHELIA     Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.                                             HAMLET      You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot  so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of  it: I loved you not.                                                                       OPHELIA     I was the more deceived.                                                                            HAMLET      Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at  my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling    between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.Where’s your father?  OPHELIA     At home, my lord.                                                                                       HAMLET      Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in’s own house. Farewell.                                                                                                            OPHELIA     O, help him, you sweet heavens!                                                                HAMLET      If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for  thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell.                                 OPHELIA     O heavenly powers, restore him!                                                              HAMLET      I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and  nick-name God’s creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages:those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.                                  [Exit]

OPHELIA     O! what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!                                                              The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;                                                              The expectancy and rose of the fair state,                                                                                      The glass of fashion and the mould of form,                                                                                The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!                                                                         And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,                                                                                     That suck’d the honey of his music vows,                                                                                       Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,                                                                          Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh;                                                                           That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth                                                                   Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,                                                                                                  To have seen what I have seen, see what I see

This passage is taken from act III. Sc.1. King Claudius and Polonius, Ophelia’s father, are hidden somewhere waiting for the encounter they have arranged between Ophelia and Hamlet to test whether Hamlet’s madness is due to his disappointed love for Ophelia or to confirm the suspicion that Hamlet has discovered the truth about his father’s death.

It starts with a soliloquy by Hamlet  which enables the audience to enter inside  Hamlet’s mind and know  his intimate thoughts. The  first line, “ To be or not to be: that is the question”, sums up the dilemma that haunts his mind: should he continue to live and have his revenge or should he put an end to his life committing suicide? Soon after, his speech becomes a general analysis of the human condition. He  wonders whether it’s nobler to bear the difficulties of life or oppose them by putting an end to life itself. He does not refer to any event in particular. His words   can be interpreted in various ways: is life worth living or it’s better to commit suicide?  must he be passively submitted to the injustices and sufferings of life or react and rebel? must he   act and kill Claudius or   give it up? better react against an adverse destiny or  surrender to it?

 Hamlet meditates on the idea of committing suicide and considers all  available points of view. He  analyses life and death.  Life appears to him as a long series of evils, both inherent in human nature and interpersonal relationships – “to suffer  the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune….   and the thousand Natural shocks that flesh is heir to….. bear the Whips and Scorns of time (ageing)….. the pangs  of despised love” – and  the products of social organization – “The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, the Law’s delay (inefficiency in legal procedures), The insolence of Office (mistreatment by authorities), and the Spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes (unjust criticism)”. In Hamlet’s opinion to live means    “ to take arms against a sea of troubles…. to grunt and sweat under a weary life  ”.  Against this “weary lifesuicide would be a solution. To Hamlet death seems to have a positive connotation at first and he associates death with sleep, rest and peace  : “ to die, to sleep, no more”; Death  is the end “ of heart-ache”; Dying  while sleeping is “ a consummation devoutly to be wished”. But  when he associates death and sleep  to dreams ,“To die, to sleep,To sleep, perchance to Dream“, he realizes that death may not be an escape” Aye, there’s the rub”. Dreams are not always pleasant; they can be nightmares and death may bring an unknown and perhaps dreadful condition: “For in that  sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”.  There are two obstacles to suicide:  the fear that death would not end everything  and the shame of being charged with cowardice. The   after-death   is an“  undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no Traveller returns”. The impossibility of not knowing what comes after death “puzzles the will” and makes us fear death.   Our decision is then weakened, “  the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’’er”. Eventually  he   chooses life, but his choice isn’t really a choice for life.  He   does not know what the after-death reserves for him, so better “ bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”.

The monologue ends when he realizes the presence of Ophelia. Hamlet is rude to Ophelia, pretends to be mad,laughs and speaks illogically: “ I did love you once…..I loved you not…..I never gave you aught …..ah, ah”.   He knows   that she has been asked by her father and by the king to spy on him and charges her with using her beauty as bait to trap him:“ …..That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty”. Pretending to speak to Ophelia, Hamlet attacks women and marriage: all women are prostitutes.   His attitude to women is probably influenced by his mother’s behaviour.  He thinks that beauty and chastity cannot coexist in women :“Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness”  ; women are corrupt and would be “ breeder of sinners”;  wives betray their husbands (“….for wise men know what monsters you make of them”); women deceive men  because they “change their faces”  using make up (“God hath given you a face and you make yourselves another”) and they “jig and amble….” to drive men mad; they are hypocritical because  they make their   false ingenuity an excuse for their lascivious behaviour(“ you make your wantonness your ignorance”) .   Ophelia    is disconcerted by his contradictory words. She  is a naïve simple girl and   fails to understand the double meanings of some words Hamlet uses (nymph, nunnery / standing for whore,  brothel) and his invitation to her to” go to a nunnery”.  As far as marriage, Hamlet is horrified by his mother’s  incest and is against marriage: “Only fool men can marry….marry a fool…… I say, we will have no more marriages…..”. According to a psychoanalytic interpretation, the attack on women and marriage may reveal  an Oedipus complex.

The passage ends with a soliloquy by Ophelia. She describes Hamlet’s  change from what he was before,   a perfect gentleman of the Renaissance, and his sorrowful present state:  “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword; The expectancy and rose of the fair state, The glass of fashion and the mould of form,……….. Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, Like sweet bells jangled out of tune, and harsh; That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth Blasted with ecstasy”. The soliloquy ends with a sad consideration on herself: She considers her own misery and desperation:” O, woe is me, To have seen what I have seen, see what I see”.

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 | Tagged | Leave a comment

The 18th century novel:De foe-Swift-Richardson-Fielding-Sterne


Modern novel began to develop during the 18th century.  The term novel derives from the Latin ‘novus and from the Italian ‘novella’. It was in opposition to the term ‘romance’, referring to a chivalric story in verse. It was used to refer to a prose fiction which was new because it told stories about recent events. There were many causes which brought to the development of the Novel:  expansion of the reading public,  growth of a new middle class,different position of women, economic reasons. People, who were richer than before, could afford buying books and women had more time for reading because, after the industrial revolution, they had much free time at home: they could buy in shops the products which before were handmade in the houses. Publishing  became a profitable business thanks to the spread of literacy and of reading as a form of entertainment among the wealthy middle class. The professional writers began to appear . They did not have rich patrons but earned their living by writing essays and books. This new situation, together with the creation of the circulating libraries  which borrowed books in return of a small subscription fee, increased the numbers of readers. Yet the number of those who could afford buying books was very small and there was still widespread illiteracy. The masses gained a low salary and books were still very expensive to buy.   There was no real public education system yet.  Poor children had little opportunities to study since they were used as industrial labourers and a huge number of people could neither read nor write.

The 18th century novel was labelled as realistic novel: the characters were real people with ordinary names and surnames; they were described in their daily routines; the settings were    real geographical places and the contents were taken from  real stories. Unlike the early Augustans, the novelists liked to write about ordinary people acting in real-life situations. The novelists tried to meet their middle-class readers who wanted to read about ordinary people because they enjoyed seeing themselves as protagonists of the stories. They were the ones who bought the books and consequently the authors’ point of view was the same as the readers’ one. 

The most important novelists of the time were: Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne. Some of them devoted to writing because, as an effect of the Test Act of 1673, being Roman Catholics or Dissenters, they were forbidden to hold any important position in society and chose to become novelists or journalists.

DANIEL DE FOE is considered the pioneer of the modern novel and the first novelist in the English literature as well as the first journalist(his The Review is considered the first newspaper). He interpreted the likes and interests of the emerging middle class and depicted the 18th century world.  De Foe’s characters are common men and women with whom his middle-class readers could identify themselves. All characters of his novel narrate their individual struggles for survival in a difficult world, from Moll  Flanders, a prostitute, thief and incestuous wife to Robinson Crusoe, Colonel Jack, Captain Singleton and Roxana.

 Robinson_Cruose_1719_1st_editionHis novel The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner  is regarded as the first English novel. The novel is a true realistic novel: it is based on the real story of a Scotch sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who had lived alone for four years on the Isle of Juan Fernandez in the Pacific after a shipwreck. The story is told in the first person singular in the form of a diary.

Robinson Crusoe is the first narrative in which the character is not a hero, but an average man. De Foe went on with the puritan ideas that had survived even after the collapsing of the Puritan Republic of the Commonwealth. Robinson, a shipwrecked merchant who remained on a desert island for about 28 years, is considered the true puritan man: he showed industry, colonizing spirit, courage and initiative  and was seen by the readers as the personification of their own qualities: practical-minded, resourceful, religious.  He organized his life on the island and succeeded through  hard labour in surviving in a difficult situation exploiting all what the place offered.  Further , he not only made the native man Friday to accept him as master but also   made him use   his language and    converted him to Christianity .  Many critics charged this novel with being an imperialistic novel because it contained an affirmation of capitalism and saw man as an economic animal. Robinson was considered by those critics as the first capitalist hero in English literature, because he looked at everything in economic terms: produced more than he needed,   kept from  the ship a lot of things,   expanded his power on the whole island and eventually became rich.  They pointed out that when Robinson managed to go on board the ship which had been carried within a reaching distance, he also kept some money which, of course, was of no use on a desert island.

JONATHAN SWIFT  was the greatest satirist of his age. Using irony and satire he tried to change his own society and   attacked it at all levels. Together with Alexander Pope and others, he established the Scriblerus Club, an association of witty writers who satirized their contemporaries. People of his own time failed to see the irony and, sometime, they cried shame. An Anglican priest, he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where    he was buried.   A Latin epigraph he had composed himself  was placed over his tomb: “ The body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Dean of this Cathedral Church is buried here where fierce indignation can no more lacerate his heart…”.

gullivers-travels-first-edition-1726Swift is remembered for his   Gulliver’s Travels , a novel that, like Robinson Crusoe, is nowadays regarded as a book for children and as an anticipation of the modern fantasy novel. Actually the book was intended to be a bitter satire of his own country.Swift himself wrote to Pope that it “was intended to vex the world rather than divert it”. The novel satirizes the follies and the vices of politicians and scholars and is a very serious comment on politics, on learning and on all Mankind.  It shows Swift’s bad opinion on people. He is very intolerant of people in general and once he wrote to Pope: “ I heartily hate and detest that animal called man”. He maintains that man is not a reasonable animal but an animal endowed with reason, which he is not always able to use in the right way. Gulliver’s Travels tells the various imaginary voyages of Lemuel Gulliver, a surgeon on a ship, to various strange lands where he meets several man-like creatures. The philosophical basis  of the whole novel is in the contrast between rationality and animality. In the first book he is shipwrecked near Lilliput where he meets a race of tiny people, only six inches tall, and he is a giant among them. Rationality is represented by the Lilliputians with their organized society and their deep knowledge of mathematical science in contrast with Gulliver described as a big body. In book 2 the situation is reversed: he is in Brobdingnag, the land of giants   and he is a dwarf among them. The giants embody animality while Gulliver rationality. In the third book he visits the flying island of Laputa inhabited by scientists   concerned with abstract ideas. He visits the University of Lagado where he meets the “ projectors”, who work on new scientific odd plans:take sunbeams out of cucumbers,  melt ice into gunpowder,   melt ice into gunpowder and so on. They are presented in a decadent way: badly dressed, long hair and beard, very dirty, and even as beggars. Animality is seen in the scientists while rationality is seen in man. In the last book he is in the land of the Houyhnhnms , intelligent horses that can talk. They are perfectly rational and virtuous. They have man-like slaves, the Yahoos, who are bestial, irrational and vicious. Gulliver himself is seen by the Houyhnhnms as a Yahoo. In these various countries Gulliver explains to the inhabitants about life in Europe and in particular in England. What Gulliver says is how things should be , not how they are, and so his words become an ironical attack on what he is describing. In the first book he attacks the English Government and the hypocrisies of the party system.  Catholic Religion is ironically attacked, too. Swift comments the dispute over whether an egg should be broken, to be eaten, at the big end or at the little end: “ all true believers shall break their eggs at the most convenient end”.  In the second book he attacks the judicial and the political system in Britain aiming at stressing the hypocrisy and corruption practised in the Institutions. In the third book  there is an attack on science and on members of the Royal Society while in the fourth and last he attacks man. When he comes home after his rescue, he cannot accept the human race any longer. The human beings appear to him  like the Yahoos and he goes to live in a stable with the company of horses.

Swift was not insensible to the sufferings of the Irish and he was indignant at their exploitation by the British Government. The Irish lived on bad condition. He   wrote and published a work in defence of Ireland: Modest Proposal from Preventing the Children of poor people from being a burden to their parents or the country. It was a new attack against the English.  Using satire, he explained, that the misery of the starving Irish could be easily relieved by selling their children to the rich as food. There was also another benefit for the Irish: it should have solved the problem of overpopulation of Ireland, too. It was of course a provocation but at the times some foreign readers took it as an actual and serious one and there was quite a scandal

SAMUEL RICHARDSON: He is considered the inventor of the epistolary novel and the father of the novel of sentimental analysis. He introduced psychological studies of the characters, especially women. He started his career as a novelist quite late in his life when  some booksellers asked him to help the uneducated in their correspondence writing a sequence of letters   dealing with everyday subjects. Among these letters were to be included some to instruct pretty servant-girl to protect their virtue. He liked this idea also because, when he was at school, he used to be the adviser of girls who wanted to correspond with their sweethearts.  He decided to make a novel from the letters, and wrote Pamela, or virtue Rewarded. He chose an actual case  he had heard of, in which a virtuous 15-year-old  maidservant, who worked in a rich household, had resisted her master’s advances.

pamelaThe story is told through a series of letters from Pamela Andrews to her parents and their answers   to her. She asked for advice to defend herself from her master, Mr B, who wanted to seduce her . Published in November 1740, the novel had an instant success and it was followed by a second edition in February 1741, a third in March and even a fourth in May. As we can see, Pamela originated from the realistic moral problem for many young girls  who worked as maids: how to resist the advances of their rich masters. Pamela celebrates the middle-class value of chastity before marriage in opposition to the lasciviousness of the aristocracy. The theme of the persecuted maiden attracted many readers. The readers divided into “Pamelists”, who were for Pamela, and “Anti-Pamelists”, who criticized her. Pamelists maintained that she was a poor and simple girl who tried to keep herself honest and chaste. Anti-Pamelists ,  instead, maintained that her behaviour was not guided by purity but by utilitarianism: she was a cunning girl, who used her virtue to climb the social ladder and she provoked her master to make him marry her. In the 18th century  many people thought that virginity was not a value for a poor girl to defend and  that it was her duty as a servant to please her master.  Not all women considered chastity and honesty virtues to be defended. For instance Moll Flanders, the heroine created by De Foe uses her beauty and her seductive charm to improve the conditions of her miserable life. Pamela is considered the first best-seller in English Literature. It had got a happy ending, she married Mr B., and it pleased the readers, women above all, helping its success. Clarissa Harlowe, his second epistolary novel, is considered Richardson’s masterpiece. It deals with a woman who tries to escape from a combined marriage to a man she does not like. She finds refuge at a nobleman’s who seduces and rapes her. Clarissa refuses to marry him and eventually lives as an outcast condemned by society. 

Richardson’s success in his own age is mostly due to the subject matter of his novels, and to the technique of narration he used. As far as the former, that is the theme of  women who defend their virtues from the advances of a powerful man, it  appealed to a vast audience, above all women who constituted the larger part of the reading public. The other element was the suspense created by   the technique that Richardson used. He himself defined it as “writing to the moment”. This technique is a bit similar to the one used in modern soap operas: each letter dealing with the present has got elements whose consequences will happen in the next letter thus letting the reader wait.    

HENRY FIELDING: He was the first English novelist to introduce the burlesque element in the novel. He defined his novels as  “comic epic poem in prose.  The mock epic   is a parody of the epic  because it treats trivial things as if they had great importance. The  protagonist is involved in a series of apparently dangerous  adventures. Fielding was different from De Foe and Richardson. He belonged to the aristocracy  and unlike them, he did not believe in sexual chastity above all other virtues. The aristocracy regarded uninhibited sexuality with indulgence and considered other virtues as courage, generosity and loyalty above it. His first novel, An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews is to be considered as a reaction against the hypocrisy of the time as well as a reaction to Richardson’s Pamela. Fielding wanted to ridicule the Puritan view of morality. The Shamela in the title is a pun on the words of “shame” and Pamela. In his second  novel, Joseph Andrews, he   wanted at first to parody Richardson’s Pamela but he put aside this idea and wrote a story based on the life and adventures of Joseph, Pamela’s brother, and a friend of his. The situation is reversed and we have a young man who works at a lady’s that wants to seduce him after her husband’s death. Joseph, who is chaste and virtuous, refuses her advances.

Tom Jones ,his best novel,  is a picture of the life of the lower and upper classes of the 18th century society. Fielding depicts with humour and irony human weaknesses and stresses his tolerant attitude towards them. Tom is an unheroic character and has all the limits of the ordinary man. Fielding’s novels are considered picaresque in style, written in imitation of Cervantes  (Picaresque novels come from Spain and  deal with the adventures of a rascal of low social class; they are usually humorous, full of action  and excitement).

LAURENCE STERNE: In his own time, Sterne was considered an anti-novelist because he did not follow the canons of the realistic novel. He is the closest novelists to the modern ones of all eighteenth century novelists. His novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was written in instalments in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. It  does not respect  the 18th century canons of the realistic novel. It is unconventional and very difficult to summarize. It recalls the stream of consciousness technique of Joyce and Woolf: it has no plot, no time scheme; it is full of the author’s interventions, digressions, comments, asides, long quotations, and shandy_pagemany unusual devices  and eccentric typographical characteristics as black pages ( to mourn a friend’s death),marbled pages, white pages, asterisks, arabesques, a little hand with printed finger to direct the reader’s attention to a point   . When a digression takes places, the author shifts from the main theme of the novel to other topics which are not related with what the character is going to do or say. The time of the story is interrupted to be resumed at the end of the digression. The temporal dimension is non-existent and clock time is abandoned for psychological time. The digressions allowed Sterne to tell events of the past or of the future in whatever order he pleased. The story is told in the first person singular by the main character, Tristram Shandy who remembers particular events of his past and present life. It starts with a flashback: we meet Tristram in the first volume as an adult but his birth happens in the third volume . We may suppose that Sterne was influenced by John Locke’s theory of the Association of Ideas. Tristram himself  defined Locke’s Essays as “ a history book….of what passes in a man’s own mind”. Sterne made a distinction between time of the clock, that is the chronological time, and time of the mind. Organizing his plot, the author goes backwards and forwards in time, thus disrupting the chronological order. He anticipated Bergson’s theory of the time, “la Durée”. Bergson thought that each individual lives moments and experiences that cannot be measured in fixed periods of time since the mind has its own time different from the conventional one of the external world.

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 | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments