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”.

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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.

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2013 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 38,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 14 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The 18th century: Neoclassicism – The Augustan Age – The Transition/ Pre-romantic Age


pregoThe 18th century is known as The Age of Enlightenment or The Age of reason, to stress the rational trend of the period and the attitude according to which reason and judgement should be the guiding principles for human activities . It saw the birth of a new literary movement: Neoclassicism or Rationalism. This movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of John Locke and Isaac Newton. The importance of Newton is clearly seen in the epitaph written by Alexander Pope: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said,’ Let Newton be! ‘And all was light”. In his Principia Matematica the scientist showed that the universe was governed by mechanical principles and exact laws rather than by divine ones as it was believed before. He left little place for God and we may say that he destroyed the traditional religious view of the world making God subject to the laws of science. Newton was elected President of the Royal Society, an association of learned man who wanted to promote scientific studies and to try new methods of experiment. Thanks to the research, new discoveries that religion seemed unable to explain, were made and Science became the new authority. It was believed that science and reason would have improved man’s condition turning   him into a social being who would conform to the rules of civilised life.  Reason , the most important man’s ability, enabled him not only to think but also to act correctly. Man, the only living creature to have it, became important for his power of observation more than for his power of feelings. Reason became the criterion of everything: what could be justified by reason was right  and   what could not be justified or proved by reason was false and rejected.     

famous-gardens-kenrokuen-1Every thing was regulated by reason, nature too. People were attracted by a  ‘reasoned Nature‘, as the one we can find in parks or gardens, a nature that reflected   order and   harmony. To follow nature meant to represent the world as it was, to obey reason.  Rationalism, stressing out the importance of reason and observation, started the beginning of the scientific thought and freed man from ignorance. Enlightenment thinkers mostly tended to atheism. They believed that principles should only be accepted on the basis of reason and not on the authority of sacred texts and tradition. In this Age of reason both government  and the king  had to justify themselves rationally. The belief that the king ruled by Divine Right was questioned. The king and the government    ruled by the agreement of the people, by contract which they had to respect.

The importance of reason was also influential in the literature of the time and English literary standards were reformed. The artistic creation, like science, had to follow exact rules and was to be based on reason. The writers  modelled much of their works on Classical writers and  referred to ancient Greece and Rome using subjects from classical mythology and history. All that brought to  the birth of a new   movement known as Neoclassicism. The reform was helped by the French writer Nicolas Boileau , who published a book, Art Poetique , which provided the key idea of neoclassicism: in good art inspiration must be controlled by judgement. He listed the rules of good writing: writing should be clear, balanced, ordered, elegant and eloquent. Neoclassicism provided the basis for the Augustan school of writing which dominated the 18th century literature.


The Augustans were so called because they compared their period   to that of the Emperor Augustus in ancient Rome, a period of political stability, splendour and tranquillity. They wanted this period of stability to last and attacked everything which threatened to upset it. They thought  that ancient art was superior to modern one and often imitated the great Roman classical authors: Vergil, Ovid, Titus Livius and Horace. The Augustans believed that their duty was not to try to be original but to re-express universal truths about mankind.  Their Age was characterized by the spirit of the Enlightenment which implied a new way of thinking characterized by philosophical, scientific and rational spirit. As to the contents, they mostly used classical subjects   and focused on man in society seen, not as an individual, but as an important piece of a perfect whole, a piece of a perfect mosaic. The artist was seen as he who had to express his knowledge of the world in a rational and objective way. He should not allow his own emotions and prejudices to influence his writing. In order to achieve objectivity , the writer had to write clearly and to use a precise and correct language, a language that all readers had to understand. The language they adopted was the poetic diction, an artificial language which used uncommon and learned words, Latinate and periphrasis. Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary and helped to understand the meaning of words. As far as style the authors were allowed to use “wit”, that is attractiveness, clever invention and humour.

Towards the middle of the century there was a reaction against rationalism and writers focused their attention on the individual and on the people’s feelings. This new interest found its expression in a new prose form, the Novel As far as poetry, we have to say that Augustan poetry was of secondary importance and continued the restoration trend for satire and mock-heroic poems written in heroic couplet  in which a trivial subject was treated with the seriousness of epic for comic effect. The most important representative was Alexander Pope and his finest work was The Rape of the Lock, telling about a quarrel between two aristocrat  families because of a trivial incident: Lord Petre had cut a lock of hair of Miss Arabella Fermor and that action was considered as an insult. Pope wrote it to ridicule the narcissistic attitude of the aristocracy.In the second half of the century new trends started to emerge and the heroic couplet lost its dominant position.


The Age of Neoclassicism was followed by a transitional period also known as Pre-Romanticism. It developed during the last decades of the 18th century. There was a reaction against classicism and reason and a search for new models of poetry taken no longer from ancient Rome and Greece but from the Middle Ages. The period was greatly affected by the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.  They provided literature with new themes which began to develop side by side with the old ones. First of all there was a new interest towards the poor and the children, who lived at the margin of society during the Augustan Age. Satire and realism were respectively replaced by sentimentalism and imagination, paving the way to the flourishing of Romanticism. The Age preserved its main features with its emphasis on reason, precision, order, clarity and harmony, but some other features appeared in opposition to them: interest in country life, new way of seeing Nature, different role of Art, new themes based on feelings and so on.

imagesCAJAHP96Poetry was no longer concerned with “wit” but with simple feelings and nature. Poetry was pervaded by a melancholic tone and was often associated with meditation on Death. This kind of poetry was remembered as Graveyard Poetry. The poets of the Graveyard Group were melancholic and seek for solitude. Their thoughts were directed towards Death, or the fear of Death, suicide and graves. The settings of their poems were often medieval ruins, caverns, coffins and skeletons. The most important poet of the group was Thomas Gray and his most famous poem was Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, based on the concept of the levelling power of Death. Other poets were Edward Young and Robert Blair, both church ministers. The Graveyard poets influenced the Gothic Novel and the Ossian Poetry which became very popular literary forms especially among they who were unsatisfied with classical novel and poetry and looked for Gothicism, a mixture of both medieval features(ruins, ancient castle and so on) and supernatural. Both poems and novels of this kind were melodramatic, full of horrors and supernatural and set in a medieval context. The most famous Gothic Novels were Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Castle of Otranto by Walpole.

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The 18th century: from the Restoration to the industrial revolution -essential historical and social background

borghesia  e proletariatoAfter the Glorious Revolution, Parliament grew of importance, increased its power and became the real ruler of the country. All that happened with the consent of the King. Some laws which limited the Royal powers were passed. Among them the most important were The Bill of Right (1689) and The Act of Settlement (1701), which ensured that future monarchs should have been protestant because the Catholics were excluded from succession.

As far as politics, there were two political parties, The Whigs and The Tories which gave rise to the modern two-party parliamentary system. The division between them was not so clear and groups in Parliament acted according to their own interests and not to any political programme. The Whigs, however, wanted to maintain the power of Parliament against the King, supported the interests of trade and finance and did not condemn the Dissenters while the Tories wanted a stronger King, protected the authority of the Anglican Church and supported the rights of the landowners. In 1707 The Act of Union was passed by the parliament of England and Wales and the parliament of Scotland. The Act stated that there was to be one parliament for the three countries thus forming Great Britain.

During that period a new social class began to emerge: the middle class, also known as the Bourgeoisie. It grew rich, thanks to the exploitation of the colonial trade. As England became richer, English people became more tolerant and  less obsessed with religion. The influential   philosopher John Locke  expressed this new attitude   in  his Epistola de Tolerantia ,published in 1689, in which, after pointing out that religious controversies easily can lead to a civil war, he argued that the state should not interfere in religion, which was a matter of private conscience, and religion should not interfere in government matters. In the same year Parliament passed The Toleration Act, which recognized freedom of worship to all dissenters, excluded the Catholics. Freedom of trade increased  in the same way as religious tolerance. In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published On the Wealth of Nations.  He  thought that if people were left free to follow their own commercial interests, more goods and money would circulate and all society would get richer.  According to Smith’s Laissez-faire theory, the State should not interfere too much in economic matters and the individual should be able to decide for himself.

coffeeThe growth of the middle class also helped the appearance of newspapers. Their desire to be informed helped the boom of journalism. Being literate and more involved in politics, they wanted to read about political matters. To satisfy their need, regular daily newspapers began to appear. They circulated mainly in the big cities and were   often read in the Coffee-houses, where men used to meet to exchange ideas and opinions, discuss about local latest news and read newspapers. Even if newspapers had existed since the 17th century, it was only in the 18th century that they began to become influential. The Tatler, The Examiner, The Spectator and The Daily Universal Register, now known as The Times, were some titles. The most important  was The Spectator, edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The industrial revolution began in the late 18th century and made England the richest country in the world. The label may lead to a misunderstanding because the changes in the industry were not sudden, but were the result of long, gradual developments; they were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. In the long distance, however, they brought a revolution in the British life. The label was used by scholars during the 1830s. Looking back into the recent past, they were struck by the many changes that had occurred between 1760 and 1790. They saw that changes had completely altered man’s way of living. Someone (J.A.Blanqui) spoke of the changes as an “industrial revolution” and the term entered the language use to indicate that period.

Before the 1760s, farming was the most important occupation of all people. The ordinary man was a farmer and lived in a village. He raised his own food, made cloths, furniture and tools at home utilising what he produced in the farm: wool, wood, leather and so on. In the towns, which were generally quite small, some manufacturing was carried on. Some goods were manufactured under the domestic system, which was then a new and revolutionary idea:an organizer distributed raw materials to workers in their homes and collected the finished products. He owned the raw materials, paid for work done and took the risk of finding a market.

Town products were exchanged for food from the country districts. They were also exported in payment for luxuries imported from abroad, traded for slaves or sent to the colonies to pay for raw materials which they sent to Europe. This trade was in the hands of a small numbers of merchants and mercantile companies; profits were enormous and some persons grew very rich.

The Revolution was started by the invention of the steam-engine and by the introduction of textile machines which made handwork unprofitable. It brought many changes in every field and turned England in an industrial country. The agriculture was abandoned and people began to move towards the new industrial towns where the new factories were built. The consequence was the overpopulation of these towns and its effects on the workers’ way of living; they were housed in unhealthy districts called slums and lived on very bad conditions; they were forced to work hard for 12 to 19 hours a day; women and children were exploited and the wages were very low. All that brought to the development of two different social classes, the capitalist bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and to the first form of Trade Unions, organizations that defended the workers and helped them to better their lives.

This new Age was not all negative and on the whole it was considered an Age of progress and prosperity. Average people approached science and the development of the new middle class provided the reading public for literary works and, for the first time, prose became a new strong force to influence the readers’ thoughts.

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john_miltonJOHN MILTON ( 1608 – 1674 )

John Milton is the most important poet and the most representative of the Puritan Age. His poetry was influenced by the historical events of his time. From a literary point of view,  he was not a man of the age. He was very much interested in the Latin, Greek and Italian culture. In 1638 he made a tour on the Continent  travelling above all in France and  Italy where he  met Galileo Galilei. During the Civil War between Royalists and Republicans he became involved in the religious debate of the time and  he took an active part  on the side of the Puritans. He supported Cromwell but he had very little of the strict Puritan. He wrote for the liberty of the press while the Puritans forbade free discussion. He chose the Puritans only because he believed that in a Republic, more than in a monarchy, there were the ideal conditions for independent religion.  When the Puritan power ended, he was first arrested and then released. In the meanwhile he had troubles with his eyesight. It was during this period that he started to write his best poetry.

Works: we may divide his works according to the three periods of his life: a period devoted to study, a period in which he took an active part in the political struggles of his time and the last period in which, completely blind, he retired from public life. To the first period belong some Italian poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso,written under the influence of Petrarch, in which he shows an excellent knowledge of the Italian language, and some Latin and English poems:   Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (defending the execution of Charles I and supporting Cromwell’s regimeOn the Morning of Christ’s Nativity , Lycidas (a lament for a drowned friend) .

In the second part he  spent his time writing political pamphlets and taking part in the political activities. In his prose works  he defended religious, civil and domestic liberties, freedom of the press, Parliament and divorce. In Areopagitica  he defended the freedom of speech even against the Puritans who had  re-imposed censorship by an Ordinance for the regulation of printing which stated that “no book….shall be henceforth printed unless the same be first approved and licensed”. He chose this title because he wanted to compare the British Parliament he was appealing to, with the Athenian  Upper Council which assembled on the hill Areopagus to make decisions about matters that were not to be discussed by the people. He believed that truth was possible only through the open conflict of ideas. His conclusion was that only tyrannies indulged in censorship of the press. He wrote:” Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely, according to conscience, above all liberties“.

In four tracts in favour of divorce ( he had been abandoned by his first wife a few weeks after the wedding)  he maintained that just as the marriage tie can be dissolved on account  of physical impediments, it ought with more justification to be possible to dissolve it because of incompatibility of characters and feelings between husband and wife.

In the last period he spent the rest of his life in blindness and poverty, dictating his verses to his daughter. To this period belong Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, a short epic poem which tells of Christ’s victory over the temptation by Satan in the desert,  and Samson Agonistes, a tragedy dealing with the biblical story of Samson and the Philistines.

Paradise Lost is a secondary/literary epic poem ( primary epic is oral, for instance Beowulf, Iliad and Odyssey). It is about Satan’s rebellion against God. He believed God was a tyrant. It retells the story of the loss of the garden of Eden as narrated in the book of Genesis and revolves around one great theme: the  rebellion against God.  It consists of two dramas linked with the failure of the Puritan Revolution:  the divine drama of the fall of the Angels and the human drama of the fall of Adam and Eve.  Milton wants to warn against the sin of pride. Both Satan and Adam and Eve had the ambition to become equal to God. They challenged God and were defeated.The whole meaning of the divine drama is summoned up in the figure of Satan.

                                                          SATAN’S SPEECH


`Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,’
Said then the lost archangel, `this the seat
That we must change for heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: furthest from him is best
Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewell happy fields
Where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest hell
Receive thy new possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder bath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in hell:
Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.

These lines are taken from Book I.  Satan is  surveying   his new home trying to become aware of the new situation after his downfall.  Satan and the Rebel Angels had fallen down  through space   “Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night”  before landing in hell.    Satan compares the new world to Paradise and feels lost  because everything is different here: “the region, the soil, the clime“; there is only “a mournful gloom” all over the place instead of the “celestial light” of the Paradise. He is not glad at first to be there, but he soon rejects despair and accepts the new situation: “Be it so…. Farewell happy fields where joy for ever dwells: hail horrors, hail infernal word”.  In the following lines   Satan shows all his ambition, all his self-confidence and determination. He realizes that now he is the “new possessor” of a place where “ farthest from him( God)…. at least we shall be free….and….may reign secure”. His ambition is to have a reign somewhere, no matter if that place is gloomy and horrible. He is great in the self-assurance of his strength:  he has got “a mind not to be changed by place or time”, a mind that “ can make a Heaven of Hell, and a Hell of Heaven”.  Then hell and heaven are only states of  mind.  Milton’s hell is not a real place! Hell is in the mind because the mind can change the external world:  if we live in a Paradise but our mind perceives it as a hell, that place  will be hell and viceversa.

Satan is the real hero of Paradise Lost; he shows all the characteristics that Milton admired: courage, pride, oratorical power, self-confidence, ambition and so on.He is great in the self-assurance of his strength and in his contempt of the pain that has been inflicted on him. He also embodies Milton’s Puritan ideals of independence and liberty since he is seen as a rebel fighting against the absolute power of a tyrannical God, just as Milton, defender of liberties, struggles   his battle against a despotic king. As Blake said, “Milton is on the Devil’s party without knowing”.  He feels equal to God in reason and inferior only in power. When God banishes him from Heaven, he feels himself injured and wants to take a revenge against him, corrupting His new creation: man.  He succeeds in his task and in the form of a snake, he persuades Eve to eat an apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge. Satan is ambitious.  He is very proud and his boundless pride makes him believe that it “is better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”.   He has got the traits of the great military leaders and tries and succeeds in giving courage to his depressed soldiers after a defeat. The rebellious element in Milton’s Satan was later to influence the Romantic poets in the conception of the “satanic hero”, a lonely outsider who struggles against everything and everybody, isolated from the rest of mankind. In the Byronic Hero we can find many traits of Milton’s Satan.

Even if Satan is the central figure in the passage, the presence of God is always felt. Satan never directly names him, but God is always in his thoughts. He feels to be equal to God in reason; he is inferior to him only in the power because God possesses  the strenght:” what reason has equalled, thunder hath made greater”. He considers himself to be only “less than he”. Satan despises the pain inflicted on him, but he seems frustrated because he is aware of God’s superiority: he refers to God calling him “ the Almighty” ,he admits that “ he who now is Sovran can dispose and bid what shall be right”.

The language of the passage, direct and forceful, has the characteristics of the best oratory full of memorable phrases.


When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

This sonnet was written when Milton had become blind. It consists of an octave and a sestet like a Petrarchan sonnet , but differs from it in the rhyme scheme of the sestet which is CDE CDE instead of CDC DCD. Further, he made no separation between the octave and the sestet. The Volta is stressed by a run-on-line: “ But Patience, to prevent/that murmur…”  (ll. 8-9).

The sonnet illustrates the importance of religion in the Puritan Age .The main theme of the poem is of course blindness. Milton’s attitude to blindness in the octave is different from the one in the sestet: in the former there is complaint and despair about it while in the latter there is acceptance and   resignation. In the octave Milton complaints about blindness, even if it has been given by God, because he can’t serve Him well. He feels frustrated because he is aware that he has got talent  lying  inside him,but he is also aware that he can’t use it because of blindness “one Talent …. lodg’d with me useless”  . He complaints about that because his “ soul is more bent to serve therewith My Maker”. He wants to “present a true account of myself” for fear that God “returning” on Doomsday may reproach him. The question he asks is whether God requires day-labour even of those who are blind.  The answer is given in the sestet. Man is not saved by works or good actions as for Catholics but by his faith alone:”God doth not need either man’s work or his own giftsthey also serve who only stand and wait”. According to the Puritans, men’s purpose in life is to serve God. The   best way to serve God is to accept “His mild joke” , that is to do   His will.   Following His directions, their joke becomes mild  and they can be directed in the right way and “serve Him best”.  The term “Talent” in the third line alludes to the Biblical Parable of the Talents in Saint Mathew’s Gospel: three servants were given some coins by their master. The first two doubled them, while the third buried them in the earth and was punished for not using them. Milton identifies himself with the third because his “Talent …..lodged with me useless”.

The sonnet contains some figure of speech. There is a personification of Patience in line 5 and an alliteration in /d/ (days-dark) and in /w/ ( world-wide) in line 2.  There are also some metaphors:  light which stands for sight in line 1, Talent which stands for genius in line 3 and day-labour which stands for work in line 7. The octave has got a particular syntactic structure: the main clause,  “I fondly ask”, which is in line 8, is preceded by  subordinate clauses.

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Christopher Marlowe – Doctor Faustus

marloweChristopher Marlowe  was the first of the English dramatists. He was one of the so-called “University Wits”, a group of writers and young graduated from Oxford and Cambridge who helped the development of English drama. He was an atheist and a rebel , impatient with conventions and authority. He was a secret agent of   Elizabeth’s secret service and worked on diplomatic missions. Marlowe had a controversial life and died at the age of 29, murdered during a quarrel in an inn. There are some voices about his death: someone said that he was in risk of life and he himself arranged his false death.  Many scholars give for sure that he had homosexual inclinations, but no evidence explicitly demonstrates it. This belief was based on the fact that   in Edward II, he  had defended the   gay king: “”The mightiest kings have had their minions; Great Alexander loved Hephaestion, The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; And for Patrocles, stern Achilles drooped.”

His best works are his tragedies. Among them we have to remember Tamburlaine the Great, The Jew of Malta, and above all The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. These tragedies deal with the same theme: the will to power. For Tamburlaine it is the lust for power and the power of an earthy crown; for Barabbas, the hero of The Jew of Malta, it is the power of wealth and money; for Doctor Faustus it is the power of unbounded knowledge. The typical marlowian heroes aspire to rise themselves beyond all human limits, reaching the condition of the Superman. They are dominated by a  strong aspiration that will eventually destroy them.    Unlike Shakespeare’s characters, Marlowe’s ones are generally placed within a recognisable moral framework. These tragedies are all “one man play”, that is they focus upon one main character.

Doctor Faustus is considered his masterpiece. Marlowe took the idea from  a German book published anonymously and translated into English with the title of The Historie of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus . It talked of a magician  who had made a pact with the devil. Doctor Faustus deals with a scholar and a necromancer, Doctor Faustus, who sells his soul to the Devil in return for 24 years of supernatural powers and unbounded knowledge. He also wants to have access to the magic and thanks to it, he can lead  a life of pleasure and do whatever he likes. He regains  his youth and conquers  the beautiful Helen of Troy (actually a demon disguised as a woman). As time passes, he understands that it is all an illusion and realizes   the emptiness of his bargain. In the end he is still a man bound to die and his own reality is  damnation.

folder_558In the passage given below, Faustus’s last hour , we are at the moment when Faustus has to pay the price of his contract to the devil. It is the final scene:  the 24 years  of  limitless knowledge he had received   are going to end. It is eleven o’clock in the evening and the devil is coming within an hour to take what they had agreed: Faustus’s soul.

It is one of the most touching monologues in all the Elizabethan theatre.   Faustus is alone; he is a prey to terror, in despair  and fears the wrath of Gods. He tries a way out to escape his fate and implores God for mercy. The Faustus who is speaking here is the reverse of the proud scholar of the first part. The man who was a superman realizes he has been cheated by the Devil and is now desperately trying to become less than a man.   

[The clock strikes eleven.]

FAUSTUS: Ah, Faustus.                                                                                                                  

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,

And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!

Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,

That time may cease, and midnight never come;

Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make

Perpetual day; or let this hour be but

A year, a month, a week, a natural day,

That Faustus may repent and save his soul!

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!–Who pulls me down?–

See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ!–

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him: O, spare me, Lucifer!–

Where is it now? tis gone: and see, where God

Stretcheth out his arm, and bends his ireful brows!

Mountains and hills, come, come, and fall on me,

And hide me from the heavy wrath of God!

No, no!

Then will I headlong run into the earth:

Earth, gape! O, no, it will not harbour me!

You stars that reign’d at my nativity,

Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus, like a foggy mist,

Into the entrails of yon labouring clouds,

That, when you vomit forth into the air,

My limbs may issue from your smoky mouths,

So that my soul may but ascend to heaven!

[The clock strikes the half-hour.]

Ah, half the hour is past! ’twill all be past anon.

O God,

If thou wilt not have mercy on my soul,

Yet for Christ’s sake, whose blood hath ransom’d me,

Impose some end to my incessant pain;

Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years,

A hundred thousand, and at last be sav’d!

O, no end is limited to damned souls!

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?

Or why is this immortal that thou hast?

Ah, Pythagoras’ metempsychosis, were that true,

This soul should fly from me, and I be chang’d

Unto some brutish beast! all beasts are happy,

For, when they die,

Their souls are soon dissolv’d in elements;

But mine must live still to be plagu’d in hell.

Curs’d be the parents that engender’d me!

No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer

That hath depriv’d thee of the joys of heaven.

[The clock strikes twelve.]

O, it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air,

Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell!

[Thunder and lightning.]

O soul, be chang’d into little water-drops,

And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!

[Enter Devils.]

My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!

Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!

Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!

I’ll burn my books!

The monologue starts with Faustus   synthesizing the situation. “ Ah , Faustus. Now hast thou but one bare hour to live, And then thou must be damn’d perpetually!”. As we can see, he does not  fear death but he fears to die without having the possibility to repent.   As when we are confused and in despair and we do not know what to do and think of  a safe way out and try irrational attempts, Faustus thinks of  solving the situation  asking the stars   to stop their run, thus avoiding the coming of midnight:” Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, That time may cease, and midnight never come ”(according to the Ptolemaic system before Copernicus, the earth was at the centre of the universe and  stars and planets went round it). Then he has a second thought and asks the Sun to rise again and “make perpetual day” or  if it cannot stop its running, it may run slowly and prolong the night” O lente, lente currite noctis equi!”  ( quotation taken from Ovid’s Amores; Ovid thinks that when we are with our beloved, time runs quickly while we wish to prolong the night).

He soon realizes that it is a vain attempt: “The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, the devil will come …  “.  What to do then? He has contrasting opposed thoughts: may he ask God or Lucifer? He may “ leap up to ….God” or ask Jesus Christ’s intervention, “See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament! One drop would save my soul, half a drop” ; he may   ask Lucifer to spare him, “O, spare me, Lucifer!”. But he soon realizes that it is impossible. He knows that God is angry with him and wishes  to “run into the earth” so that   mountains and hills may fall on him to hide him “from the heavy wrath of God” or   to turn into “a foggy mist … that my soul may but   ascend  to  Heaven” .

The clock strikes half past eleven in the night and he has not found a way out yet. He addresses   God again and implores him to “Impose some end to my incessant pain; Let Faustus live in hell a thousand years, a hundred thousand years and at last be saved”. But he soon loses heart again: “No end is limited to damned souls!”, and complaints about his human condition. He regrets not being a soulless creature:” Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?”. He also regrets that Pythagoras’ Metempsychosis is only a theory, because if it was not, he could be saved: “were that true, These soul should fly from me and I be chang’d unto some brutish beast” (Pythagoras was  a Greek philosopher and mathematician. He believed that he had inhabited bodies of earlier men and worked out a the theory of “Metempsychosis” according to which the human soul transmigrates, after death, into a soulless human living body ( reincarnation) or into the body of lower animals or even into a plant). When the clock strikes midnight ,he does a last desperate attempt to obtain mercy: “ I’ll burn my books”, he promises, that is he would renounce his magic practices….. but Lucifer comes to bear him to hell.

From the beginning we are conscious of the inexorable passing of time. Dramatic tension is increased by the clock striking the hours: eleven, eleven-thirty and twelve.  The final punishment reminds us of a typical medieval morality play: sin will be punished.

There is an analogy between Faustus and Lucifer: they both tried to rebel against God and they both were defeated and fell into the hell.

God is seen as   the God of justice and vengeance of the Old Testament, while Jesus Christ is seen as the Saviour of the New Testament.

Faustus may belong  to all times. He has been seen as a modern hero, a man in a spiritual crises and in contrast with himself.  His modernity is testified by the fascination he had on various dramatists who took up his myth: Goethe, Wilde and Thomas Mann.He has also got some characteristics of the medieval man: he believes in astrology  and gives the fault of his fall to the “stars that reigned” at his birth, “whose influence hath allotted death and hell”.  He may represent the new spirit of freedom that began with the Renaissance: a man who can decide his own destiny.

There is a theological element to discuss: Christian doctrine teaches that even a great sinner can save his soul from hell through an act of sincere repentance.  Then why doesn’t God save him? I agree with those people who maintain that Faustus’s repentance is not true and that he is forced to ask for mercy by the situation he was in.  Offering to burn his books to save his soul is a last desperate attempt because he still believes in magic. He only tries to make another pact with God as he had done with the devil: if you save me, I will drop   magic. Then there is no sincere repentance.

I feel pity on the poor   Faustus. He is only a man who has been deceived by the devil. How many men, greater than he, have fallen under Satan’s temptations? So many! Even Christ was about to fall  when he was tempted by the devil in the desert: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Jesus saved himself from temptation because, being God’s son,   he was endowed   with a strong spirit. Faustus, instead, is only a poor man with a weak flesh. I would certainly have saved him.

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 , | 2 Comments