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Showing posts from November, 2016

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare.

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Antony and Cleopatra is one of William Shakespeare's later plays, first performed in 1606. It's a tragedy and also one of his Roman plays (along with Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus), based on Mark Antony (83 B.C. - 30 B.C.) and Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.).
The action takes place following Caesar's murder (in this respect it's almost like a sequel to Julius Caesar, 1599) and begins during Sicilian revolt (44 B.C. - 36 B.C.). Antony is a triumvir, one of the three rulers of Rome (along with Octavius Caesar and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus), and spends his time in Egypt with Cleopatra, with whom he is having an affair despite being married to Fulvia. When he learns of Fulvia's revolt against Octavius (known as the Perusine War, 41 B.C. - 40 B.C., during which time Fulvia died) he must return to Rome despite Cleopatra's entreaties.
Though he does return, Antony's reluctance and his interest in Cleopatra leads Octavius to accus…

Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall.

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Ralph Roister Doister is a comedy by Nicholas Udall, and it's possibly the first English comedy. Quite when it was written is unknown: Ashley Thorndike, the editor of my edition (The Minor Elizabethan Drama vol. II: Pre-Shakespearean Comedies, 1968) suggests that it was sometime around 1540, others suggest in the early 1550s. Whatever the case, Nicholas Udall was a schoolmaster and it seems Ralph Roister Doister was written to be performed by his pupils. He had taught in a London grammar school, Eton (where he taught Latin; one of his pupils was the poet Thomas Tusser), was a vicar for a period (having been sacked from Eton for sexual misconduct), then returned to teaching as headmaster of Westminster School. Udall was also a translator, most notably of Erasmus, but he also produced in 1534 Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered out of Terence; Terence, and indeed Plautus, were great influences on Ralph Roister Doister.
It's said that this play went on to influence …

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.

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Slater's Points Have No Pins, also known as Moments of Being, was written by Virginia Woolf as she was preparing to write The Waves (1931), but it was not published until after her death when it appeared in A Haunted House (1944), a short story collection prepared by her husband Leonard Woolf (which also includes the stories first published in Monday or Tuesday, 1921). Slater's Pins Have No Points and other stories from around this period were, as Woolf told Ethel Smyth, little sketches written every morning "to amuse myself".
The story begins, “Slater’s pins have no points—don’t you always find that?” said Miss Craye, turning round as the rose fell out of Fanny Wilmot’s dress, and Fanny stooped, with her cars full of the music, to look for the pin on the floor. Fanny Wilmot imagines the moment Miss Julia Craye bought the pins:
Did she stand at the counter waiting like anybody else, and was she given a bill with coppers wrapped in it, and did she slip them into her p…

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

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The Duchess of Malfi is a tragic play by John Webster (written around 1612-13) based on the life of the Italian aristocrat Giovanna d'Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi (1478 - 1510). Her life indeed seems to have captured the imagination of Renaissance writers; aside from The Duchess of Malfi, there is a story in William Painter's The Palace of Pleasure (1566; from which Webster got his inspiration) and the play El mayordomo de la Duquesa Amalfi (The Duchess of Amalfi's Steward) by Lope de Vega (late 16th / early 17th Century). She was married at the age of 12 to Alfonso Piccolomini, who became the Duke of Almalfi in 1493. He was killed just five years later at the age of thirty. In 1499, a few months after his death Giovanna gave birth to their son, Alfonso, who with his birth became the next Duke of Almalfi. She later fell in love with Antonio Beccadelli her steward, and the two married in secret, unable to tell her family for fear of disgrace. Eventually, in 1511, she left Alm…

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope.

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I've said this before but it needs repeating for this post: Anthony Trollope's Palliser series is quite the roller coaster for me. The first novel Can You Forgive Her? (1865) I loved. The second, Phineas Finn (1869) - hated. The third, The Eustace Diamonds (1873): the best one yet. The fourth - Phineas Redux (1874): hated. Now here we are at the fifth: The Prime Minister, first published in 1876. Quite liked it. Quite. And it is this point I ought to conclude that despite two successes, it might be a good point to give up reading the Pallisers, given how much I dread reading them (yes, despite those two successes). But it's far too late anyway, there's only one more to go: The Duke's Children, 1880; I'd be mad not to read the final one. We're not there yet, but I am happy that I am now likely to finish one of my last 2016 goals: to finish the Palliser series, which I've been reading since March '15.

So then, The Prime Minister. It is the fifth of t…

A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire.

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The 18th Century was a good century for encyclopedias. In the early 1700s (1704-10) Lexicon Technicum was published; in 1728, Chamber's Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences; later came Diderot's Encyclopédie (1751-72), Encyclopædia Britannica from 1768-71, and then Brockhaus Enzyklopädie 1796 - 1808), and finally not forgetting Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary appeared somewhere in the middle of it all - 1764.
The Philosophical Dictionary (Dictionnaire philosophique), first published as Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, almost immediately went on the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is usually where Voltaire ended up (it's not, after all, his only work on that list), because of it's anti Roman Catholic sentiment. In his short articles Voltaire writes on God, the concept of God, religion, religious figures, morality, and other religious concepts such as the …

The Phoenix and the Turtle by William Shakespeare.

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1601 saw the publication of Robert Chester's Love's Martyr, or, to give it its full title:
Lᴏᴠᴇ's Mᴀʀᴛʏʀ:  ᴏʀ Rᴏꜱᴀʟɪɴs Cᴏᴍᴘʟᴀɪɴᴛ. 
Allegorically shadowing the truth of Loue,  in the constant Fate of the Phoenix and Turtle.  A Poeme enterlaced with much varietie and raritie;  now first translated out of the venerable Italian Torquato  Caeliano, by Robert Chester.  With the true legend of famous King Arthur the last of the nine  Worthies, being the first Essay of a new Brytish Poet: collected  out of diuerse Authenticall Records.  To these are added some new compositions of seuerall moderne Writers  whose names are subscribed to their seuerall workes, vpon the  first subiect viz. the Phoenix  and Turtle.
Following Chester's poem are "Poetical Essays on the Former Subject viz. The Turtle and the Phoenix", including poems by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, John Marston, and William Shakespeare, most notably his The Phoenix and the Turtle.
Chester writes of the signi…

Chapters XXIV - XXVI of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

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This morning I woke up to the hardest frost yet of the season: not spectacular, mind, I'd say an average late autumn frost, but still remarkable in that it's not been this cold for many months. I smashed the water of the chicken's water bowls, attempted to put their jumpers on (they flat out won't wear them) and now I'm sitting at my desk in front of the fire. November 1836, however, puts any chill I might have into perspective: October 1036 marked the start of one of the coldest winters on record; by November the gales had begun; several trees had even been blown down in London. The winter would get more brutal yet and it lasted even through to May of 1837, that spring also breaking records. But readers of the ninth instalment of The Pickwick Papers weren't to know that; it was just the beginning.
Chapter XXIV Wherein Mr. Peter Magnus Grows Jealous, and The Middle-Aged Lady Apprehensive,  which Brings the Pickwickians Within the Grasp of the Law
Mr. Magnus, who we…

News from Nowhere by William Morris.

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News from Nowhere is a utopian novel by William Morris, first published in 1890. William Morris I think is perhaps best known as a painter and textile designer, closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founded in 1848. But Morris was also a writer, his works including the epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), The Well at the World's End (1896), and of course News from Nowhere.
William Morris has been very much influenced by Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle (1843) and grew increasingly against Victorian capitalism, finding refuge in Medieval culture with its art, literature, and even architecture. He became a socialist, involved with the Social Democratic Federation and then founding the Socialist League (1884 - 1901), though abandoning it in 1890. Socialism contains a myriad of movements - Morris, in his university days, began to associate with Christian socialism, which is a socialism base…

The Years by Virginia Woolf.

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About five years ago I made it my mission to read all of Virginia Woolf's novels, and since then, I've been re-reading them. The Years was the final novel on the list, and not by coincidence; this, and it's 'non-fictional sister' Three Guineas have always been my least favourite of Woolf's works. I'm happy to say with a second read I came to like The Years
Rather than focusing on women's creative lives as she had done in the brilliant A Room of One's Own (1929) Woolf focused in this novel and Three Guineas on their social and economic lives. In The Years Woolf follows the lives of the upper middle class Pargiter family from 1880 to 'the present day', which, my Penguin edition suggests, is about 1931-33. Each year has some relevance, for example 1880 was the year  William Ewart Gladstone (Liberal) succeeded Benjamin Disraeli (Conservative) as Prime Minister; in 1910 Edward VII died, to be succeeded by George V; in 1914 the First World War …

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.

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Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети, also known as Fathers and Children) is a novel by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. It marks the beginning of an effective trilogy: when Fathers and Sons was published in 1862, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, a philosopher, critic, and socialist responded to it with a novel titled What Is To Be Done? (Что делать?) in 1863. In turn, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1864) is a response to that. As I haven't read Chernyshevsky yet I think it's wise to leave it there, but it's interesting; I'll certainly read Chernyshevsky when I get the chance.
Back to Fathers and Sons: it's set in Maryino, a district of Moscow, and Turgenev tells the story of Arkady Kirsanov, recently graduated from the University of St. Petersberg, who returns to his father's home along with his friend Eugene Bazarov. Arkady's father Nikolai has recently freed his serfs and, trying to make money, has sold off much of his land. In the meantime he has married…

All for Love by John Dryden.

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All for Love is a Restoration tragedy by John Dryden, written in 1677. It was written in imitation of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (1606), a play I have recently read but unfortunately not got around to writing about yet.
It begins with the prologue: What flocks of critics hover here today,
As vultures wait on armies for their prey,
All gaping for the carcass of a play!
With croaking notes they bode some dire event,
And follow dying poets by the scent.
Ours gives himself for gone: y' have watched your time!
He fights this day unarmed - without his rhyme; -
And brings a tale which often has been told,
As sad as Dido's; and almost as old... This tale is of course that of the doomed love affair of Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII. Act I begins full of dark omens: Portents and prodigies have grown so frequent,
That they have lost their name. Our fruitful Nile
Flowed ere the wonted season, with a torrent
So unexpected, and so wondrous fierce,
That the wild deluge over…

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.

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The Knight of the Burning Pestle is only the second work I've read by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (the first being Philaster, composed a little later). It was first performed in 1607 and first published in 1613, making it one of their earlier collaborations. However: some do believe that Francis Beaumont wrote The Knight alone, others argue it was indeed with Fletcher. As my edition (Oxford World Press' Six Plays by Contemporaries of Shakespeare, 1915) states it is Fletcher and Beaumont, I shall go with that, though it must be stated that there is a good argument for saying it was Beaumont wrote it alone.
The play is a comedy that begins with the start of another play, 'The London Merchant': Several Gentleman sitting on Stools upon the Stage. The Citizen, his Wife, and Rᴀʟᴘʜ sitting below among the Audience.
Enter the Speaker of the Prologue. Sᴘᴇᴀᴋᴇʀ ᴏꜰ ᴛʜᴇ Pʀᴏʟᴏɢᴜᴇ: 'From all that's near the court, from all that's great,
Within the compass of the city…

Piers the Ploughman by William Langland.

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Piers the Ploughman is a poem by William Langland, a 14th Century cleric born around 1332 in Shropshire and who died somewhere around the end of the 14th Century. It's thought Piers was written between 1370 and 1390.
It's a dream vision, something Langland's contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer was particularly fond of (I'm thinking of The Parliament of Foules, The House of Fame, Romaunt of the Rose, the Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women, as well as The Knight's Tale, the Tale of Sir Thopas and The Nun's Priest's Tale from The Canterbury Tales, and Boece, Chaucer's translation of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy). The poem is divided into two parts, which are then subdivided: Part I is 'William's Vision of Piers the Ploughman', consisting of a prologue and seven books, and Part II is 'Willaim's Vision of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best", consisting of a prologue and twelve books. 
It is of course written in M…

The Debacle by Émile Zola.

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The Debacle (La Débâcle, also known as The Downfall) is the penultimate novel in Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels and was first published in 1892. In these novels Zola aimed - ... to explain how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws. This "given society" was France during the Second Empire (1852 - 1870), so the novels not only explore this idea of heredity, but also serve as a critique of the Second Empire. The Debacle, which is about the Franco-Prussian War (1870), a war that effectively ended the Second French Empire, is thus the beginning of the end of the Rougon Macquart novels.
In it, we return to Jean Macquart, the main character of The Earth (1887),  the son of Antoine and Joséphine Ma…