‘An Infinite Multitude of Chickens’: Reading Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) in 2017

UtopiaThis book is #39 on my Classics Club list.

2017 has dawned with the words ‘dystopic future’ hovering on more than a few people’s lips. ‘Dystopia’ and ‘utopia’ are loaded terms, of course – one man’s ‘post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland created by the greed of power-hungry and irresponsible capitalists and world leaders’ is another man’s ‘strategically-managed relocation solution with wonderful future prospects following the end of the nuclear winter’, although I’m not sure I’d really want to meet the person who thinks like that.

Amidst all this talk of a dystopic future, where greedy capitalists have succeeded in grinding down the poor and middle classes and filling the rising oceans with plastic and ring-pull cans, 2017 seems like a good time to revisit the origins of the terms Utopia, and consequently Dystopia. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, which gave us the term and presented us with one of the earliest examples of a utopian text, is still remarkably relevant today. Continue reading

Advertisements

The Taming of the Shrew: Misogynistic or Just ‘Of Its Time’?

Taming of the Shrew

This post is a response to Pages Unbound’s Classic Remarks meme.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s family-friendly romp about a tough, street-wise hero who falls in love with and marries a fast-talking heroine. They decide to play an elaborate prank on their friends and family, so the pair pretend to hate each other and the hero torments the heroine, in order to highlight the atrociously misogynistic attitudes of early modern England.

Hmm. Maybe not so much. Although there’s been some debate about the extent to which Taming of the Shrew is in fact a misogynistic play (some people even argue that it’s just the opposite) I think it’s fair to say that it’s pretty problematic. It includes a great many jokes about women needing to be ‘tamed’, not to mention scenes of abuse: Katharina, the ‘Shrew’, is abducted and starved by her new husband Petruchio. Continue reading

Death By Cauldron: Plus, Fifty Other Ways To Die in Elizabethan England: The Jew of Malta (c. 1590), by Christopher Marlowe

Jew of MaltaWarning! Dangerous spoilers ahead!

Renaissance drama certainly packs a punch. And Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta is no exception. If you’re ready for scheming, thieving, poisoning, blackmail, more poisoning, and Death By Cauldron, then you’ve certainly come to the right place. It’s hardly surprising that this play was so popular with the Elizabethans – and it’s amazing that Marlowe managed to stuff so much murder and mayhem into just one play.

The Jew of Malta, unsurprisingly, is set on the tiny Mediterranean island, which is being besieged by Turkish troops. The slippery governor of the island decides that in order to pay a tribute demanded by the Turks, he will take the money of Malta’s wealthiest citizen, a Jewish merchant called Barabas. As you can probably imagine, Barabas doesn’t take too kindly to being robbed blind, and sets out to take his revenge on the unscrupulous Christians. With the help of a Turkish slave called Ithamore, Barabas does any number of nasty things, including poisoning an entire nunnery (including his own daughter, Abigail), and tricking his daughter’s suitors into killing one another. As might be expected, the whole situation quickly deteriorates, and double-crossings and murders ensue by the bucketload. Continue reading

Revenge Overload: The Spanish Tragedy (1592), by Thomas Kyd

Spanish TragedyPlease note: there are spoilers ahead. Mostly of the who-kills-whom variety. If you’re a fan of mystery, I’d recommend you get comfy with a copy of Kyd before you read on with my review.

BALTHAZAR
Hieronimo, methinks a comedy were better.

HIERONIMO
A comedy?
Fie, comedies are fit for common wits:
But to present a kingly troupe withal,
Give me a stately-written tragedy,
Tragedia cothurnata, fitting kings,
Containing matter, and not common things.

(IV:i, ll. 155-161)

The Spanish Tragedy is one of those plays that shows up very frequently on college courses and Shakespeare-related reading lists. Yet despite its popularity with Theatre Studies professors the world over, it’s very rarely the first thing to pop into someone’s head when they think of Elizabethan theatre. Or the second thing, for that matter.

I have to admit, this puzzles me a little. After all, The Spanish Tragedy pretty much does exactly what it says on the can: it’s set in Spain; it’s about revenge; and there’s enough tragedy to make even Romeo and Juliet take a break from their incessant adolescent whining to sit up and take notes. Continue reading

Things I Thought About Before I Watched ‘Shakespeare Lives!’

Shakespeare FireworksThis year, the world is going Shakespeare-mad. Or, at least, that’s what British tourism companies and theatre troupes the world over are hoping as we mark four hundred years since the Bard shuffled off this mortal coil, and about four hundred and fifteen years since he wrote the phrase “shuffled off this moral coil”. Last Saturday, the 23rd of April, was the official date, which by all accounts was met with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for football matches or the final episode of The Great British Bake-Off.

In Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company held a two-hour event to celebrate the work of Britain’s best-known playwright. As I settled in to watch a show which featured British theatre royalty (and, indeed, some actual royalty too), I began thinking about the way that Shakespeare has settled into our collective understanding of literature, culture, and art. Continue reading