Macbeth may well be the most terrifying play in the English language, but it hasn’t always been seen that way. It has divided critics more deeply than any other Shakespearian tragedy – and the argument, in essence, has been about just how terrifying the play really is and about how we should react, or do react, to Macbeth himself. No Shakespearian tragedy gives as much attention to its hero as Macbeth. With the exception of Lady Macbeth, there is much less emphasis on the figures round the hero than there is in Hamlet or Othello. Unlike King Lear, with its parallel story of Gloucester and his sons, Macbeth has no sub-plot. And its imagery of sharp contrasts – of day and night, light and dark, innocent life and murder – adds to the almost claustrophobic intensity of this most intense of plays. So why are critics so divided about Macbeth? Why is it so disturbing? Why do we feel compelled to admire its hero even as we condemn him? How reassuring is the last scene, when Macbeth is killed and Malcolm becomes king? Do we see this as the intervention of a divine providence, a restoration of goodness after all the evil? Or do we see instead signs that the whole cycle of violence and murder could be about to begin all over again? And what does the play really tell us about good and evil? In this book Graham Bradshaw answers these questions, and shows how it is only in recent years that the extent of Shakespeare’s achievement in Macbeth, and the nature of his vision in the play, has really been grasped.
With the exception of Hamlet, Othello is Shakespeare’s most controversial play. It is also his most shocking. Dr Johnson famously described the ending as “not to be endured”, and H.H. Furness, after editing the Variorum edition of the play, confessed to wishing that “this tragedy had never been written”. No play in performance has prompted more outbursts from onlookers: there are many recorded instances of members of the audience actually trying to intervene to prevent Othello murdering Desdemona. It is a more domestic tragedy than Hamlet, King Lear or Macbeth, and it is the intimacy of its subject matter which gives it its dramatic power. Othello is a faithful portrait of life, wrote one anonymous Romantic critic. “Love and jealousy are passions which all men, with few exceptions, have at some time felt.” Othello has also prompted more critical disputes than any other play except Hamlet. How could the hero possibly believe his wife had been unfaithful within a few days of their marriage? Is the marriage consummated (as it is usually assumed to be)? Is Othello a noble hero or is he really just a self-deluded egotist? And in this play about a disastrous inter-racial marriage, how important is the whole issue of race? Is the play itself racist? This book looks at what Othello is really about and why it has such power to move us. It aims to offer a clear, authoritative and fresh view of Othello, while taking account of the many fascinating insights other critics have had into the play in the four centuries since it was written.
Lear is too much. There’s too much to stomach, an overdoing of massive wickednesses which rightly provoked perhaps the most famous reaction to King Lear ever, Dr Samuel Johnson’s horror in his Prefaces to his Shakespeare (1765) over the blinding of Gloucester –“an act too horrid to be endured in dramatick exhibition” – and the death of Cordelia: “contrary to the natural ideas of justice, to the hope of the reader, and, what is yet more strange, to the faith of the chronicles”. There are indeed just too many awful enhancements of the Lear stories Shakespeare drew on, a superfluity of terrible things – and of course these, as Valentine Cunningham says, are uneasily central to a play which teaches the immorality of the well-off having a “superflux” of money and things when the poor have so little. So what explains the dramatic success of Lear? The great critic A.C. Bradley had grave reservations about it, but he conceded, this play was the “fullest revelation of Shakespeare’s power” – up there with Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s symphonies and Michelangelo’s statues; the most moving and daunting of tragic experiences the world has ever known promoted by a greatly trashy plot, or, as the poet and critic D. J. Enright puts in his lively book about teaching Shakespeare, Shakespeare and the Students (1970): “It is possible that Shakespeare never did anything more awe-inspiring, more improbable-seeming than this – to take a petulant old retired monarch, drive him mad and stick flowers in his hair, and still end with a figure of tragedy.”
In the 400 years since The Tempest was first staged, millions of words have been written about it. Critics, directors and actors have interpreted it in widely different ways and developed theories ranging from the more-or-less plausible to the eccentric and the completely outlandish. It is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, and as well as its bewitching music, its hallucinatory quality and its enchanted island setting, it contains some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry and most famous lines. From Caliban’s “The isle is full of noises” to Prospero’s “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on”, The Tempest haunts our collective imagination. But what is it actually about? Is it about British colonialism, as so many modern critics, especially modern American critics, firmly maintain? Is it a Christian play? Or is it, as Sir Peter Hall believes, the “most blasphemous play Shakespeare wrote”, about a “man on an island who’s allowed to play God and who doesn’t just dabble in witchcraft but actually performs it”? Is it an anti-feminist play, as some feminist critics believe? Or does it, on the contrary present a softer, more feminised view of the world than his earlier works? And what does The Tempest, the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, tell us about his view of art, and of the human condition? This short guide, drawing on the most interesting and arresting criticisms of the play, explains the issues which have perplexed and divided scholars through the ages, and offers a bold, incisive and authoritative view of its own.
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, comes an unforgettable edge-of-your-seat mystery that is at once heartbreakingly tender and morally courageous about what it means to be human. Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it. Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is. Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.
In the four centuries since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, Hamlet has almost always been regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play. This is not surprising. As Barbara Everett has observed, Hamlet was not only “the first great tragedy in Europe for two thousand years”; it was, and still is, “the world’s most sheerly entertaining tragedy, the cleverest, perhaps even the funniest”. The character of Hamlet utterly dominates the play he so reluctantly inhabits to a degree that is rivalled only by Prospero in The Tempest. Even when he isn’t on stage, speaking nearly 40% of the play’s text, the other characters are talking and worrying about him. This is the most obvious reason why Hamlet criticism over the years has been so Hamlet-centred: many critics, from Coleridge through to A. C. Bradley and beyond, see the play and its other characters almost entirely through Hamlet’s eyes. In this book Graham Bradshaw sets out to correct this. For in his view the play is no exception to – and indeed can be seen as an extreme example of – Shakespeare’s usual dramatic method, which was never to press or even reveal his own view on controversial issues like the divine right of kings or honour or ghosts and purgatory, but to “frame” these issues by assembling characters who think and feel differently about them. With Shakespeare it is hard, even impossible, to know what he thinks about (say) revenge or incest or suicide – and Hamlet’s view is often strikingly different from the views of those around him. If the doubts about whether the Ghost in Hamlet is the messenger of divine justice or a devilish instrument of damnation were ever finally resolved, the play would be diminished, or shrivel into a museum piece.
Despite the astringency of her writing, Austen is often thought of as the mother of romance. She has made the Regency period (1811-1820) almost synonymous with modern popular notions of the romantic. Directly or indirectly, she has influenced romantic novels by authors such as Georgette Heyer and Daphne du Maurier and supermarket fodder of the sort published by Mills and Boon. Of all her books, though, it is Pride and Prejudice which comes closest to delivering the fairytale story of the ordinary girl who catches and marries a prince. As Janet Todd shows in this entertaining guide, however, it is not just the most inventive and ebullient of her works, but also the one which closes with the heroine most in the ascendancy and least controlled by either parent or husband. Here, for the only time in Austen’s novels, the romantic dream of bourgeois individualism taming aristocratic authority actually does come true. But if, on one level, Pride and Prejudice is a reworking of the Cinderella story, it is a fiction of much greater depth than Austen’s ironic, self-deprecating description of it as “rather too light & bright & sparkling” would suggest. “Beneath the light, bright and sparkling surface,” says Edward Neill, “it investigates the social heart of darkness.” In Pride and Prejudice, Austen explores not just what it is like to be a girl in search of a suitable husband, but what it is to be human, brilliantly illuminating the difficulties of the individual living within society and the necessity constantly to reconcile personal needs with those of the wider world around one.
Author: Andrew James Hartley
Publisher: Connell Publishing
Release Date: 2018-09-01
Genre: Literary Criticism
Julius Caesar stands at the changing of the tide in Shakespeare’s career. By 1599, when he wrote the play, he had penned only two experimental tragedies (Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus), neither of which had the profound richness of those he would write next – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. There is a scale to Caesar which is unmatched by anything he had written before it and it lays the groundwork for the master works to follow. As such, it stands not just at the turn of the century, but at the point in which its author emerged as the language’s foremost writer. Our sense of the play has evolved over the centuries, and we tend to be less overawed by all the characters’ claims to personal nobility and quicker to see the darker side of their political machinations. We are also less likely to see the Roman model of life and virtue as something being offered up for emulation. Indeed it now seems to most critics that Shakespeare was deeply critical of ancient Rome, seeing much of what its characters celebrate as principle as the root cause of all that goes wrong in the play. But that is the nature of scholarship and the theatre – each period finds in the play what interests it most – Julius Caesar remains a powerful study in political gamesmanship, the morality of assassination, and the ways in which people build a sense of who they are.
Romeo and Juliet is routinely called “the world’s greatest love story”, as though it is all about romance. The play features some of the most lyrical passages in all of drama, and the lovers are young, beautiful, and ardent. But when we look at the play, the lyricism and the romance are not really what drive things along. It is true that Romeo, especially early on in the play, acts like a young man determined to take his place in an immortal tale of love. Everything he says is romantic – but rather like an anniversary card is romantic. His words propel nothing, or nothing but sarcastic admonitions from his friends to forget about love and to treat women as they should be treated, with careless physical appetite. The world we have entered is rapacious more than romantic. Everyone knows something of this, from the film versions of the story if nothing else. Romeo and Juliet must fight for their love inside a culture of stupid hatreds. But it is not a simple case of love versus war, or the city against the couple. If it were, it would nicely reinforce clichés about true love, fighting against the odds. In this book Simon Palfrey suggests that the play Shakespeare actually wrote is more troubling than this. Juliet’s passion – for all her youth, for all its truth – is at the very cusp of murderousness. Juliet is the world’s scourge, in the sense that she will whip and punish and haunt it; she is also its triumph, in the sense of its best and truest thing. The deaths her love leads to are in no way avoidable, and in no way accidental. They are her inheritance, the thing she was born to. Of course she takes Romeo with her. But it is at heart her play.
Author: Adrian Poole
Publisher: Connell Publishing
Release Date: 2018-09-01
Genre: Literary Criticism
Writers, playwrights and philosophers have alike been fascinated by Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The contradictions in her character, said the writer Anna Jameson, fuse “into one brilliant impersonation of classical elegance, Oriental voluptuousness, and gipsy sorcery”. When Henry James sought to suggest the charm cast over an impressionable but repressed American by a glamorous Parisian countess, it was Cleopatra’s “infinite variety” to which he had recourse. There are two obvious reasons, says Adrian Poole, why the play has enjoyed a great leap in popularity and interest since the early 20th century. One is changing attitudes to gender and sexuality, and the relaxing of some of the taboos impeding the liberation of women from the confinements and distinctions in force at least since the Restoration. The other is changing conceptions of theatre. The advent of cinema encouraged lighter, swifter and more flexible forms of staging. One can scarcely think of a Shakespeare play that benefits more from such a liberation. But there are other less obvious reasons. One is the opposition between love and romance on the one hand and politics and war on the other – the play’s complex re-working of some age-old myths about Venus and Mars. As our own media daily insist, at least in the anglophone world, the love-affairs of the top dogs are matters of public interest. The fate of all those men and women sacrificed “to solder up the rift” between Antony and Caesar does hang on what happens, or fails to happen, behind the scenes. No play conveys this better than Antony and Cleopatra.
The Most Dangerous Game is a short story by Richard Connell, first published in Collier's on January 19, 1924. The story features a big-game hunter from New York City who falls off a yacht and swims to an isolated island in the Caribbean, where he is hunted by a Russian aristocrat. The story is inspired by the big-game hunting safaris in Africa and South America that were particularly fashionable among wealthy Americans in the 1920s. The story has been adapted numerous times, but most notably for the 1932 RKO Pictures film The Most Dangerous Game, starring Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks, and for a 1943 episode of the CBS Radio series Suspense, starring Orson Welles. Sanger Rainsford and his friend, Whitney, are traveling to Rio de Janeiro to hunt the region's big cat: the jaguar. After a discussion about how they are "the hunters" instead of "the hunted", Whitney goes to bed and Rainsford remains on deck. While Whitney returns to his quarters Rainsford hears gunshots and climbs onto the yacht's rail to get a better view of the nearby Ship-Trap Island, and falls overboard. After he realizes he cannot swim back to the boat, he swims to Ship-Trap, which is notorious for shipwrecks. He finds a palatial chateau inhabited by two Cossacks: the owner, General Zaroff, and his gigantic deaf-mute servant, Ivan. Zaroff, another big-game hunter, knows of Rainsford from his published account of hunting snow leopards in Tibet. After inviting him to dinner, General Zaroff tells Rainsford he is bored of hunting because it no longer challenges him; he has moved to Ship-Trap in order to capture shipwrecked sailors, whether due to storms or by luring vessels onto the rocks. He sends the sailors into the jungle supplied with food, a knife, and hunting clothes to be his quarry, although he also runs a "school" of sorts to prepare sailors for this hunt should they be out of shape or disoriented from being washed ashore. After a three-hour head start, he sets out to hunt and kill them.
Adapted by Terence O'Connell from award winning writer Siobhan McHugh's book, Minefields and Miniskirts brings to life a collage of true stories: the extraordinary experiences of the hundreds of women who played a part in the war in Vietnam.
When The Great Gatsby was first published, in 1925, reviews were mixed. H.L. Mencken called it “no more than a glorified anecdote”. L.P. Hartley, author of The Go-Between, thought Fitzgerald deserved “a good shaking”: “The Great Gatsby is evidently not a satire; but one would like to think that Mr Fitzgerald’s heart is not in it, that it is a piece of mere naughtiness.” Yet, gradually the book came to be seen as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – of American novels. Why? What is it that makes this story of a petty hoodlum so compelling? Why has a novel so intimately rooted in its own time “lasted” into ours? What is it that posterity, eight decades later, finds so fascinating in this chronicle of the long-gone “Jazz Age”, flappers, speakeasies and wild parties? It is, after all, scarcely a novel at all, more a long short story. But it has a power out of all proportion to its length. It is beautifully written, making it feel even shorter than it is, and is full of haunting imagery. It is also, perhaps, the most vivid literary evocation of the “Great American Dream”, about which it is profoundly sceptical, as it is about dreams generally. In the end, however, as D.H. Lawrence would put it, it is “on the side of life”. Gatsby’s dream may be impossible, so much so that the book can end in no other way than with his death, but up to a point he is redeemed by it and by the tenacity with which he clings to it. It is this that makes the novel so moving and so haunting.
Great Expectations is one of the best-selling Victorian novels of our time. No Dickens work, with the exception of A Christmas Carol, has been adapted more for both film and television. It has been as popular with critics as it has with the public. In 1937, George Bernard Shaw called the novel Dickens’s “most compactly perfect book”. John Lucas describes it as “the most perfect and the most beautiful of all Dickens’s novels”, Angus Wilson as “the most completely unified work of art that Dickens ever produced”. Great Expectations has been so successful partly because it’s an exciting story. Dickens always had a keen eye on the market and subscribed to Wilkie Collins’s advice: “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, above all make ‘em wait.” From the violent opening scene on the marshes to the climax of Magwitch’s attempted escape on the Thames, the story is full of suspense, mystery and drama. But while these elements of Great Expectations have ensured its popularity, it is also a novel which, as this guide will seek to show, raises profound questions not just about the nature of Victorian society but about the way human relationships work and the extent to which people are shaped by their childhoods and the circumstances in which they grow up.