Looking at Literature in its Historical Context • Based on my experiences and those of my peers, it seems a typical pedagogical practice to accompany the teaching of historical fiction with some historical background. • For example: Looking at conditions of migrant workers in the Depression when reading Of Mice and Men, or presenting a lesson or lecture on the Civil Rights era while reading To Kill a Mockingbird (ok, these two examples are quite specific to my student teaching in particular) BUT…
There also appears to be an unfortunate tendency to do this less with “canonical” Renaissance authors (Shakespeare, John Ford, Marlowe); this is not to say this kind of historical background is never spoken of in class, but has been done much less frequently in secondary classes I’ve attended and observed. • By evading these teachable opportunities-not showing these works in their historical context-such literature can easily seem disconnected with students’ lives and concerns. HMMMMMM……
According to the PA Department of Education Website, by 11th grade, students’ understanding of literary analysis must encompass the following features: • Read and understand works of literature. • Analyze the relationships, uses and effectiveness of literary elements used by one or more authors in similar genres including characterization, setting, plot, theme, point of view, tone and style. • Analyze the effectiveness, in terms of literary quality, of the author’s use of literary devices. • Sound techniques (e.g., rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration). • Figurative language (e.g., personification, simile, metaphor, hyperbole, irony, satire). • Literary structures (e.g., foreshadowing, flashbacks, progressive and digressive time). • Analyze and evaluate in poetry the appropriateness of diction and figurative language (e.g., irony, understatement, overstatement, paradox). • Analyze how a scriptwriter’s use of words creates tone and mood, and how choice of words advances the theme or purpose of the work. • Read and respond to nonfiction and fiction including poetry and drama.
I repeat, HMMMM…. • Note how discussion of understanding the socio-historical context of literature is absent from these standards, though it clearly must be key in understanding texts which students have no background in…
How Can socio-historical context increase appreciation and insightful analysis of authors like Shakespeare? (sorry for the long title) • Analysis of socio-historical contexts from which a text emerged gives way to students understanding various perspectives for interpreting a work. This, in turn, gives way to understanding critical theory on a particular piece of literature (which Appleman (2000) speaks of as a positive exercise in understanding others), while also giving students agency to use historical proof to validate or invalidate critical claims. • Rygiel (1992) points out, perhaps on a simpler level, that “historical information contributes to our understanding of Shakespeare and our pleasure in him” (1, emphasis mine).
Let’s take a look at how historical context can make “boring love poetry” fun ….
Petrarch’s Sonnet XII If from the cruel anguish my life tries To shield itself, and from the many cares,That I may see at the end of the years,Lady, the light extinguished of your eyes, And the hair of fine gold to silver turn, And garlands and green clothes all worn and spent, And the face pale that in my sad concern Makes me timid and slow now to lament, Yet Love will give me such aggressive powers That I shall tell you of my martyrdomThe years, such as they were, the days, the hours; And when the time to kill desire is come, At least my grief will know and recognize The little comfort of late-coming sighs. Shakespeare’s Sonnet III Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest Now is the time that face should form another; Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest, Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother. For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry? Or who is he so fond will be the tomb Of his self-love, to stop posterity? Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee Calls back the lovely April of her prime: So thou through windows of thine age shall see Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time. But if thou live, remember'd not to be, Die single, and thine image dies with thee. Masters of Sonnets: Petrarch vs. Shakespeare
HO HUM…. right?
So What’s Interesting About Canonical Love Poetry? • If we look at these poems in the context of the evolution of the sonnet form and where these two sonneteers intersect and diverge, some interesting things begin to pop up…
A (Very) Brief History Lesson… • Petrarch: Perhaps this isn’t being fair to good old Petrarch (since he does do some lovely things with words of course), but his sonnets might be closer to what many contemporary high school readers might think of as trite love poetry BUT…there are some interesting things going on if we look at some basic historical background and criticism…
Courtly Love • Poetic traditions surrounding “courtly love” involve a poet speaker who has an unrequited passion for an idealized beloved figure. This form of adoration is also prominently featured in many kinds of ancient Japanese love poetry (which introduces some fairly innovative pedagogical opportunities!!)
As Lovely As That Might Sound… • One main feature of Renaissance courtly love poetry was to describe the “beloved,” (always a woman) by enumerating her various beloved parts in metaphor (her ruby lips, sapphire eyes, silk bosom…you get the picture). This tactic was called the blazon (that’s “bleh-zoh”)…
Also, We Must Pay Mind… to the fact that these poems (of which the sonnet was a popular form) were written exclusively by men to be read by men… … … (work with me here)
Thus… Making the exercise of writing a traditional sonnet one of objectifying and devaluing a woman through this objectification. It also makes the exercise of reading these poems a fairly pornographic endeavor. Ok…this might have seemed obvious to some of you, but remember you have at least 3 years of Swarthmore under your proverbial belt.
Shakespeare, On the Other Hand… • If we look at Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence, we see a lot of similar image threads and poetic tactics. BUT…a closer inspection reveals that Shakespeare is quite cleverly mocking courtly love, the unabashed “master of sonnets” (Petrarch), and gender politics in the Renaissance.
We Won’t Go Over This in too Great Detail, But… Here Are Just Some Places Where Shakespeare is transgressing social lines: -In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is initially characterized by his friends as a figure of ridicule because of his silly lovesick nature; he is even specifically referred to as being a stereotypical figure of Petrarchan love (Rackin, 2005, 98). -Later in the same play, Romeo and Juliet’s meeting and split-second fall into love is written as a sonnet, also commenting on the ridiculousness of “courtly love” (Rackin, 2005, 99). -While the order of Shakespeare sonnet sequence is at the discretion of literary editors, there is large-scale agreement that the first 130 sonnets or so are addressed to a young man. The poet speaker elaborates on the beauty of this man, encourages him to breed, and appears to maintain a sexual attraction to him. This is a huge departure from the traditional sonnet, in which the figure of adoration is always a woman! (Rackin, 2005, 100) -The portion of Shakespeare’s sonnets that literary scholars claim is devoted to a “dark lady” figure is also antithetical to Petrarch’s vision of his beloved “Laura.” She’s not the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, virtuous maiden. Rather, her complexion is described as “dun,” as opposed to being an angel she “treads on the ground,” and her sexual appetite appears alive and well. Nonetheless, Shakespeare’s poet speaker describes this more “down-to-earth” woman as equally or more worthy of love as some over-blown heavenly woman. (Rackin, 2005 101).
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damask'd, red and white, But no such roses see I in her cheeks; And in some perfumes is there more delight Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound; I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground: And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.
“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; Coral is far more red than her lips' red; If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” Notice how this particular quote illustrates Shakespeare’s concrete use of the blazon, but he turns the convention upside down by creating negative metaphorical associations with all of these individual body parts….
“And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.” Well, looking at Shakespeare’s harsh blazon, one might simply come to the conclusion that he’s really rude. This couplet, however, illustrates that Shakespeare deems this “dark lady” equally (perhaps even more) worthy of love than these idealized, unrealistic figures of angelic beauty that Petrarch and several other sonneteers, such as Edmund Spenser, wrote about.
So I hope we learned a lesson here… • Now take a look at the two poems we saw at the beginning again and ask yourself if they mean anything different now…
Petrarch’s Sonnet XII If from the cruel anguish my life tries To shield itself, and from the many cares,That I may see at the end of the years,Lady, the light extinguished of your eyes, And the hair of fine gold to silver turn, And garlands and green clothes all worn and spent, And the face pale that in my sad concern Makes me timid and slow now to lament, Yet Love will give me such aggressive powers That I shall tell you of my martyrdomThe years, such as they were, the days, the hours; And when the time to kill desire is come, At least my grief will know and recognize The little comfort of late-coming sighs. Shakespeare’s Sonnet III Look in thy glass, and tell the face thou viewest Now is the time that face should form another; Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest, Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother. For where is she so fair whose unear'd womb Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry? Or who is he so fond will be the tomb Of his self-love, to stop posterity? Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee Calls back the lovely April of her prime: So thou through windows of thine age shall see Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time. But if thou live, remember'd not to be, Die single, and thine image dies with thee. Second Glance?
Maybe Not Entirely Yet… But perhaps eventually
Questions to Keep in Mind With Implementing Such a Lesson: -Might it be hard to justify pairing Japanese courtly love poetry with Renaissance sonnets in a public school classroom? -Would we be able to discuss how Shakespeare uses gender roles in an English department that might be particularly homophobic? -Would it be enough to discuss the sonnet in Romeo and Juliet, if there isn’t enough time to go fully in depth with Shakespeare’s actual sonnet sequence?
Works Cited and Used • Appleman, D. (2000): Critical Encountersin High School English. Teacher’s College Press, New York, NY. • Rackin, P. (2005): Shakespeare and Women. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. • Rygiel, M.A. (1992): Shakespeare Among Schoolchildren. NCTE Press, Urbana, IL. • Personal Observations and Experience (Shipley and Westtown School English Class observations, 2001-present); schooling in general