As some RR members were curious, I’ll blog about the summer grad class I just wrapped up. The main authors included Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra, the Sonnets and Macbeth) and Milton (Samson Agonistes and Comus) along with three women writers: Elizabeth Cary, Mary Sidney and Mary Wroth.
When it comes to structuring syllabi I am a cave man: I like big crude patterns. In this case we looked at work by men and women across some basic genres (drama, sonnets, and masks) and read the resulting entrails as best we could.
So in similar fashion here are some nuggets I took away:
Anthony and Cleopatra is a fascinating example of what Anne Barton calls a “divided catastrophe” because Antony dies to end Act 4 which effectively makes Act 5 “The Tragedy of Cleopatra.” (Barton lists only 2 other divided C's from the period: Ford’s The Broken Heart and Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi). In actuality, A+C is a daring chiasmus (Belle: there’s that word again) where Anthony states his tragic through line at the start of the play (I must break these Egyptian fetters . . .) and we wait till the end for Cleopatra to finally answer his call (Husband, I come . . .).
In our discussion of Lear I pushed heard for a re-examination of the genre of tragedy at its most basic level (ie—stop thinking its about catharsis and a tragic hero who falls). A+C is a great example of why you must throw the rulebook out the window with Will. Here the tragedy feels manically triumphant. The lovers are finally together in death: its an apotheosis.
But this time out I tried to do one for the girls: when I was in grad school I thought the women writers would take over and I would be teaching them left and right. Little did I know that the first time I would devote a class to it, I would be 10 years past my Ph.D.
So let me end with a pitch to read Sidney, Cary and Wroth. Elizabeth Cary's Tragedy of Miriam is a fascinating play (its usually presented as one to be read but not staged) with two fascinating women at its core: Salome and Miriam. Its like the Merchant of Venice in a way. Like Shakespeare Antonio in the Merchant, Miriam (Herod’s wife) is looking to renounce sex and die a martyr and Salome (her sister in law) hates her guts and (like Shylock) is more than happy to arrange her beheading. And unlike the story about the pound of flesh, here Miriam dies. Of course we want to like Salome just as we thrill to Lady Macbeth and we can’t quite believe that we are supposed to feel that the chorus is right when it says Miriam deserves her punishment for not “putting out” for her husband but its even more of a head scratcher when you know it’s a message daringly written by a woman who was far from obedient herself. And in terms of artistry, the prosody here is high.
But I’ll end with a sonnet from Mary Wroth. If there is justice in Parnassus, this sonnet is neck and neck with Shakespeare’s best:
AM I thus conquer'd? haue I lost the powers,
That to withstand, which ioyes to ruine me?
Must I bee still, while it my strength deuoures,
And captiue leads me prisoner bound, vnfree?
Loue first shall [leaue] mens phant'sies to them free,
Desire shall quench loues flames, Spring, hate sweet showres;
Loue shall loose all his Darts, haue sight, and see
His shame and wishings, hinder happy houres.
Why should we not loues purblinde charmes resist?
Must we be seruile, doing what he list?
No, seeke some hoste too harbour thee: I flye
Thy babish tricks, and freedome doe professe;
But O my hurt makes my lost heart confesse:
I loue, and must; so farewell liberty.
As my students taught me, the entire tenor toward the experience of love is different than what we find in Shakespeare. They went at it abstractly: terror, a sense that love is thrust on you in a most horrible way, a compulsion. I listened and then did my spin: What does it mean for a woman to say conquered? Why the creepy evocation about being made to be still? Why the declaration that in the world she lives in love has a Dart, and why does she wish to fly Babish tricks. When a man writes about Cupid can it possibly mean the same thing? This is a “washing up after sex” sonnet written by a woman four hundred years ago with a corporal bawdy undertow that I find astonishing. But for the full effect read the whole sequence, and then if you get lost in her Urania don’t say I didn’t warn you…
1) To read Wroth’s sonnets:
2) Sidney’s Tragedy of Marc Antonie is not as good as Cary’s play but it is still fascinating. Shakespeare undoubtedly had it out before him when he wrote A+C and thinking about the two together is worth doing.
With my Line edit done, I am off for a little vacation but I will be back in Louisville next week and will do a blog upon my return.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports