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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900
Rice University MS-46
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Maurice Charney
Abstract: The phrase "unpoetic poetry" indicates intensely felt poetic effects that cannot be separated from their dramatic context. In King Lear, Cordelia's "And so I am, I am" (4.7.70) is a climactic moment in the action of the play, but has no distinctive poetic meaning outside of that action. It is dramatic poetry, not lyric. Thus, many of the great lines of the theatrical tradition are "unpoetic poetry," without any separable, anthologizable significance. Lear's "Pray you undo this button" (5.3.309) is an utterly banal request, but in the play it expresses a remarkable concentration of poetic energies. We may extend the argument to Shakespeare's gestural poetry. In Coriolanus's yielding, for example, the poetic effect is in the gesture-"holds her by the hand, silent" (5.3.182 s.d.)-rather than in the accompanying words. The quarrel scene in Julius Caesar (IV,iii) also depends for its impact upon gesture and an utterly simple, taut, and non-metaphoric language. A more theatrical approach to Shakespeare's poetry is needed in order to modify the prevailing notion that all poetry aspires to the condition of the lyric on the printed page.
J. Dennis Huston
Abstract: When Bottom awakens alone in Act IV of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare focuses many of the themes and actions of the play into a moment of dramatic and thematic intensity. First, by raising Bottom up from a formless mass on an apparently empty stage, Shakespeare makes his audience aware of the basic challenge facing any dramatist, who must find some way to fill a stage with life. Then, as he moves Bottom frantically about in search of lost companions, Shakespeare bodies forth the raw energies of imaginative excitement which the artist must harness within the limits of his form and medium. Finally, when Shakespeare brings Bottom at last to a stop, alone in the center of the stage that he has been trying to seize for himself since his initial entrance, the language of his subsequent soliloquy suggests visionary experience. Fleetingly the themes of love, dream, revelation, and art - themes which treat of nothing less than Shakespeare's play as a whole - are gathered together in a dramatic moment of vision which passes all understanding, which has "no bottom."
Carl Dennis
Abstract: Much Ado About Nothing works on a distinction between two modes of perception: the mode of "wit," which relies on prudential reason and a practical evaluation of sensory evidence, and the mode of belief, which rejects reason and reliance on the senses for intuitive modes of understanding. The drama of the play resides in the protagonists' moving from one way of seeing to the other; and their practical and moral success is determined by their willingness to lay down their wits and approach the world through faith, through irrational belief. The anti-idealistic wit-play of Beatrice and Benedick, which mocks the excesses of love as irrational madness, is based not on any experience of human nature but on fear of the emotions and on foolish pride. When this witty couple submit to the censure of their friends, they reject the authority of autonomous reason and use the eyes of other to discover each other and themselves. This act of irrational belief in each other's love helps bring their repressed love for each other into being, and later helps them keep faith in Hero when all appearances inform against her. Claudio, on the other hand, moves from love to hate because his initial commitment to Hero is never deep enough to make appearances irrelevant.
Julian C. Rice
Abstract: Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Pyrrhonism play an integral part in Julius Caesar. As illustrated by their representatives, Brutus and Cassius, both Stoicism and Epicureanism prove to be inadequate as definitions of human capability and as guides to human conduct. Ironic references to the senses echo the Pyrrhonic tradition exemplified in such Shakespearean contemporaries as Montaigne and Samuel Daniel. Attention to the Renaissance background of Pyrrhonic epistemelogical skepticism accounts for certain comic incongruities in the characters and enhances an anti-heroic reading of the play.
Katherine S. Stockholder
Abstract: Othello's downfall derives from his willingness to accomodate himself to the flux and uncertainties of time-in short, to chance and fortune in the world. His fierce desire for certainty and stability-portrayed in the night-brawl scene as well as in his rage for material proof of Desdemona's innocence-makes him incapable of living relationships in a real world which demand inward trust and patience toward the complex and confusing outer forms of life. Because he demands certainty he equates Desdemona with absolute goodness, and fails to remain aware of her real approximate goodness. Because he wants material proof, he equates love with a handkerchief which in its very material certainty is most subject to chance. Thus the plot ironically emphasizes that his desire for certainty renders him most subject to chance, operating on the most trivial levels, as well as to lago's malevolent manipulation of it. The extent to which his desire for certainty is life denying appears when he consummates his marriage to Desdemona on their death bed.
Michael C. Andrews
Abstract: There are two accounts of the handkerchief in Othello. In the first, Othello warns Desdemona that it is a love-charm with "magic in the web," given to his mother by an Egyptian; in the second, he tells Gratiano it was "an antique token/ My father gave my mother." Contrary to current opinion, the first version carries conviction. As with Othello's suicide speech, Shakespeare gives his protagonist such hypnotic eloquence that an actor would have great difficulty making the audience realize Othello is not telling the truth. There is no indication that Othello is lying, nor is he elsewhere characterized as an able dissembler. Unwillingness to believe that Shakespeare could have conceived of Othello as genuinely superstitious may reflect the same racial self-consciousness that has on occasion led to a denial of the importance of Othello's racial background. A close examination of the text suggests that Othello does indeed impute magical properties to the handkerchief. The first version is not discredited by the second; the differences may be explained on the basis of the dramatic context, or as a careless error on the part of Shakespeare.
Jarold Ramsey
Abstract: One of the organizing themes of Macbeth is the theme of manliness: the word and its cognates reverberate through the play. Where it is deeply affirmative for Hamlet to say of his father. "He was a man....", in Macbeth Shakespeare exposes the ambiguities and the perils in a career premised upon "manliness." At the first of the play, Macbeth's "manly" actions in war are not contradictory to a general code of humaneness or "kind-ness" irrespective of gender: but as the play develops, his moral degeneration is dramatized as a perversion of a code of manly virtue, so that by the end he seems to have forfeited nearly all of his claims on the race itself. Lady Macbeth initiates this disjunction of "manly" from "humane" by calling Macbeth's manhood (in a narrowly sexual sense) into question: he responds by renouncing all humane considerations, and, when he learns that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born, this renunciation of human kinship and its moral constraints is complete. Other figures in the play - Banquo's murderers, Malcolm, Macduff - to some extent follow Macbeth in his disjunction of aggressive manliness from humaneness (the virtues that distinguish the race). The play ends with Macbeth restored as a tragic villain to human-kind, and Shakespeare's question remains open for the audience if not for Macbeth's killers: what is a man, and of what is he capable as part of his sex and of his race?
Ralph Berry
Abstract: An undercurrent of sexual images helps to establish the issues of Coriolanus. Coriolanus' military victories are presented as reflexes to his relationship with Volumnia, who regards her son as a kind of sexual surrogate. He images victory as a sexual triumph; and the related images of acting imply that war provides him with an identity. Coriolanus's tragedy is that he cannot forge a new identity without destroying his mother. Coriolanus and Aufidius see each other not only as rivals but as models for emulation, and there are hints of a quasi-homosexual relationship between them. The final charge, "boy", is in the deepest sense a sexual insult. The best internal view of the play is provided by the servants' dialogue in Act IV, which suggests that sex and aggression are profoundly linked.
Eugene M. Waith
Abstract: Court masques were "spectacles of state" in that they celebrated political order; and that order emanated from another "state" where the king sat enthroned to watch the masque. The various devices used by Jonson and his contemporaries to glorify and even transform the royal patron relate the politics of the masque to heroic poetics and correspond closely to the strategies of certain heroic plays and operas. The masques only make it more apparent that these other dramatic entertainments were often also "spectacles of state."
Malcolm H. South
Abstract: When Surly appears disguised as a Spaniard, his attire, particularly his huge ruff, angers Ananias. Ananias compares Surly's ruff to ruffs worn by "the vncleane birds, in seuenty-seuen." Although Jonson does not identify these "birds," evidence shows that the "birds" were Catholic priests: men trained on the continent in seminaries and sent to England. Because the Government considered them traitors, they wore disguises to avoid capture. They came to be called birds on account of a controversy that started in 1580. In that year Robert Persons, a Jesuit in England, anonymously published a book defending Catholics. The book was signed "I. Howlet." Attacks on Persons's book satirized the term "howlet" (an owl) and called the priests unclean birds. During the next few decades it became commonplace to describe seminary priests as birds. In mentioning ruffs, Ananias is alluding to the fact that priests sometimes wore ruffs as a part of their disguises. Ananias singles out 1577 because ruffs of the larger kind first appeared about that time and because priests began wearing ruffs about 1577. The year was also notable because the Government began a campaign to check the priests' activities. These facts explain the significance of 1577.
G. A. E. Parfitt
Abstract: Jonson's formal translations are usually-and generally rightly-discussed as bad, but his habit of adapting borrowed material in original poems is more important and impressive in its effects. The range of borrowings is considerable, running from poems which are virtually mosaics of such material to others in which the influence is largely on framework rather than on specific detail. The poems discussed show Jonson's ability to assimilate borrowed matter, to draw a variety of material together to create a convincing and English artifact: they also reveal the naturalness of Jonson's habit of borrowing, a considerable freedom in the handling of this material, and a strong tendency to borrow ethical ideas rather than images or classical allusions. The quality of the assimilation indicates poetic tact, a high level of craftsmanship and how fully classical material became part of Jonson's personality. The poet's willingness to use such material is completely in line with Renaissance theory of imitation, but his practice is unusual in the range of borrowing, in the stress on assimilation, in the accuracy of his use of texts, and in the ethical emphasis. The result is that only in Jonson does the use of classical material seem a natural and essential aspect of the poet's creativity.
William W. E. Slights
Abstract: Marston achieves a comic resolution in The Malcontent (1603, rev. 1604) through the complex dramatic function of his double character Altofronto-Malevole. The malcontent disguise both exposes the corruption of the Genoese court and teaches Altofronto to mitigate his loathing for worldly power, thus preparing him to accept his princely responsibilities. The disguise is not simply a cunning ploy to regain political sway, but a self-educating experience that results in the spiritual regeneration of major and minor characters. The banished duke learns to extend his function as public steward to include the ministerial role of facilitating penitence (confession, contrition, and satisfaction) in Pietro and Aurelia. Pietro in turn becomes "an excellent elder" in Malevole's "deform'd church" and aids in cleansing the court. The successful fusion of a comic pattern of regeneration with a satiric pattern of exposure and correction is the result of Marston's careful manipulation of the malcontent disguise.
Mark Eccles
©William Marsh Rice University 1973