Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature’

2018: My year of reading

December 27, 2018

A bit more reading than last year: I’ve managed to slow down the number of acquisitions slightly and have passed on quite a lot of books to Amnesty International this year. So far I’ve read 68, and can also report that unlike last year, I don’t seen to have given up on any. Out of the total, 21 were novels, half of those science fiction, and most were re-reads; I’ve read almost no new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature for some reason.

A resolution for 2019 is to read more fiction, as is to continue with clearing out books I shall never read again, trying to buy fewer books, and trying to read more of those on the waiting pile, which I think has probably stopped growing(just as well) but hasn’t shrunk appreciably…

Awards for 2018: most disappointing read was Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point, his autobiography completed shortly before he killed himself. I struggled with Thomas Mann as a student and his son’s book sat on my shelf for over 30 years. His daughter Erika’s collection When The Lights Went Out, a collection of short stories about life in a small town under the Nazis, however, I did enjoy, and wrote about it here last year [?]

Again there is no award for weirdest book: I haven’t read anything weird this year.

Best new novel: an easy choice, this one, as there were so few to choose from, but it would have been my choice anyway – Stefan Brijs’ masterpiece set in the early days of the Great War, Post for Mrs Bromley. I do hope someone is out there working on a translation into Englsh.

Best novel (as in not one published recently) I think has to go to Ernst Weichert’s The Jeromin Children, although Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre Au Noir comes a very close second.

I have a difficult choice to make for the next two categories, Best non-fiction and Book of the Year, as they are both non-fiction. Since it’s my blog and I’m allowed, I’ll cheat. I award Best non-fiction title to Alberto Angela’s Empire, a really good example of the popularisation genre that actually works: the story of the Roman Empire told through the travels of a one sesterce coin. That allows me to give my Book of the Year title to Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, one of the most horrifying and depressing books I’ve ever read, but which absolutely needed to be written and published, as such things must never be forgotten.

I’ll finish by thanking all my readers for your interest in my thoughts, and for your comments if you’ve made any; I hope you’ll continue to visit and find worthwhile things to read here in 2019…

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Shakespeare: King Lear – a Thatcherite play?

March 29, 2016

51k02psI2sL._AA160_It was the tidy-up, and coming across Danby‘s book on Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature, that sent me back to King Lear, which I haven’t read for many years. There was only one opportunity to teach it as an A Level text, many years ago, after which it largely disappeared from the syllabus, another of those texts perhaps deemed too difficult for most sixth form students… Certainly, the madness scenes do take some unravelling. I’ve only ever seen one, rather poor, stage performance of the play.

My perspective on King Lear has certainly changed over the years: this time, I had a much stronger impression of the chaos the kingdom immediately falls into as soon as Lear gives up his regal powers to his daughters, whereas in the past, the sense of it’s being a purely family conflict had been more powerful. There was also a sharpening, for me, of the sense of loss of control over his world by an ageing man, and the vulnerability of his mind to disruption and madness. And I found myself thinking ‘Thatcherite’ every time Edmund, Goneril or Regan outlined any of their plans or ideas: there is no such thing as society, what I want I will go out and take, no matter who gets trampled along the way. I was quite shocked, initially, to find myself reacting like this, but as I persevered, the adjective made more and more sense. And the last time I taught the play, Thatcher’s reign was only halfway through!

In the early stages, the younger generation’s way of dealing with their fractious and cantankerous father seemed almost reasonable, until it came to abandoning him out in the storm; then the true, harsh and unfeeling nature of their behaviour was patent. A bit like the cheese-paring of benefits currently going on, not really noticeable by outsiders until the foodbanks are widespread and despairing claimants are taking their own lives… then suddenly we are outraged, and wonder how things got to this, as well as asking ourselves just what sort of a person could do this to another human being?

Chaos and strife do beset the kingdom instantly; the nasty party are almost at once at loggerheads with each other, the daughters colliding with each other against their father at the same time as scheming for advantage and for Edmund’s body – again, this hadn’t been quite so foregrounded las t time around, at least not in my memory of the text.

I found it a very powerful and convincing portrayal of the incipient and developing derangement of Lear, with the moments of sharp and tragic lucidity interspersed. Somehow the jarring nature of the Fool’s frequent interjections heightened the sense of madness, as well as the king’s suffering. And I was struck by just how masterly the whole flow and structure of the play is, with its various sub-plots so skilfully knit together. It was a play that could move me to tears when I studied it, and still can, I found: I remember now why I always used to say it was the best of Shakespeare’s tragedies.

John F Danby: Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature

March 7, 2016

31M42iJdaRL._AA160_I’ve been having a tidy-up and clear-out, and rediscovered this, which is one of those books that you come across once in a while, that do a superb job in explaining key concepts and background material in cultural and literary works. Danby’s work, although more than half a century old, seems to me to sit alongside other such classics as Huizinga‘s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Tillyard‘s The Elizabethan World Picture: essential reading for students who need to have a clear understanding of the ideas and thinking of another age.

I’ve found, over years of reading and study, that many books, particularly history and literary criticism, are rewritten by each generation (academics do have to make a living, after all), with new interpretations and updated expression and examples replacing those of a former age, but I haven’t yet come across what could replace any of the books mentioned above.

Danby’s book is certainly an excellent key to making sense of the word ‘nature‘ in King Lear, two diametrically opposed meanings of which are illustrated and explored both through the action and in certain key characters in that play; that is where I first came across the book more than forty years ago. The explanations and the illustrations are precise and clear, and Danby widens his scope by bringing in aspects of, and characters from, Richard III, King John, Henry IV (both parts) Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello and Macbeth, to flesh out his thesis and illustrate developments in Shakespeare’s overall thinking. Through his close focus on Nature, we can also perceive more clearly how what Shakespeare has to say in his plays remains relevant to us today, even though we may nowadays use different words to articulate our feelings and fears.

Danby has also sent me back to the play King Lear itself, which I haven’t read for many a year; though I studied it at A level a long time ago, and have always liked it, I only ever had one opportunity to teach it as a text – it’s now another of those that examiners seem to regard as ‘too difficult’ for today’s students…

 

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