The limits of allusion #6: The Duchess of Malfi and Clarissa 
Wednesday, February 29, 2012, 08:11 PM
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I’ve been thinking about parallels between The Duchess of Malfi and Richardson’s Clarissa, and thought these were perhaps almost too obvious to discuss under the heading ‘the limits of allusion’. But Google didn’t seem to throw up any discussions of this possible link.

Perhaps it was the Duchess’ apparent threat to commit suicide by fasting which first made me think of Richardson’s heroine, whose anxiety to know just how little she can eat without being deemed a suicide casts doubt on her commitment to life. ‘The church enjoins fasting:/ I ’ll starve myself to death’ says the Duchess to her tormentor Bosola. Both heroines defy their families over the question of marriage, undergo terrible physical and mental suffering, are kept prisoner, and demonstrate great courage. Both texts end with a protracted aftermath as characters react with horror to the deaths of their central characters, repenting too late the parts they played in the tragedy.

There is a similar sense of domestic claustrophobia at the beginning of both texts. The Duchess is hemmed in by her sinister brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Clarissa is similarly beleaguered. Her whole family, particularly her envious brother, is determined that she should marry the odious Solmes. Both women's relatives covet the heroine's private fortune, a legacy from a godparent in Clarissa's case, her inheritance as a wealthy widow in the Duchess's. Webster's heroine escapes through a secret marriage to the man she loves, Antonio her steward. Clarissa escapes through flight with Lovelace, a rake. Both women demonstrate some recklessness, but don’t forfeit the reader’s/author’s sympathy.

Decent, loyal Antonio has nothing in common with the disreputable Lovelace. It is perhaps in Bosola, the play’s ambiguous malcontent, that we find the character closest to Richardson’s villain. He murders the Duchess, on her brother’s orders, but suffers remorse and dies by the sword, repenting the part he played in her death, as does Lovelace. Like Lovelace, his tragedy lies in the way good and evil are mixed in his character. Both men, like Ovid’s Medea, see the better path but follow the worse.

Perhaps these parallels are just chance ones. But they do invite the reader to wonder exactly why James is so anxious that his sister Clarissa should be forced to marry a man she could never love. (It is generally acknowledged that Ferdinand's feelings for the Duchess are to some degree incestuous.) The Bosola/Lovelace parallel, on the other hand, doesn't make me identify a sexual element in his feelings for the Duchess - if anything it draws attention to the unusual absence of sexual charge in the tense and painful scene they share before her death.
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Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation June 16-17, 2012 
Thursday, February 16, 2012, 07:03 AM
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Together with Dr Berit Åström,I'm organising a colloquium on the subject of allusion in June:

The many ways in which stories are recirculated is astounding – from relatively straightforward retellings of fairy tales and classical myths, to feminist, queer, postcolonial or ecocritical subversions of central themes, to fan fiction’s adaptations of beloved characters and story worlds.

The international colloquium "Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation" is an opportunity to explore the various ways in which texts communicate over borders of space, time, genre and medium. What themes, motifs, backgrounds and details capture the imagination of authors, readers and viewers? How are they recycled and recirculated from one period, or one audience, to another? How and why do they gain currency again and again? Contributors are invited to cast their net widely and consider not only contemporary works, such as The Canongate Myth Series (2005-2011) and Cinderfella (1960, 2013) but also older texts, such as Chaucer’s The Physician’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.


For more details, and information for those who would like to submit an abstract, please look at the full call for papers here.
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John Christopher 1922-2012 
Thursday, February 9, 2012, 07:46 PM
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John Christopher, the British sf writer, has died at the age of 89. I think I first encountered Christopher when I was about 9, and borrowed The Lotus Caves from the library. But it was the Tripods trilogy, which I discovered a couple of years later, which made a far bigger impact. This is the compelling story of young Will, who lives in a future world in which the earth is run by Tripods, machines controlled by alien invaders, the Masters, who have subjugated humanity through the mechanism of ‘capping’. This procedure takes place at puberty, and ensures obedience and compliance. But Will is determined to escape this fate, and wonders whether there is anywhere left on earth where people still live free. He manages to join a resistance movement, and becomes an undercover agent, working for the Masters in their ‘city of gold and lead’ where he discovers that still worse horrors are being reserved for humanity.

Christopher wrote several other memorable dystopian YA books, including the Prince in Waiting trilogy and the wonderfully depressing Empty World. But, after the Tripods trilogy, my own favourite is The Guardians. The future world of this novel is a little less grim than that of that of the Tripods, but still bad enough. Like many other near future sf novels it encourages the reader to think about existing class/culture divides by presenting them in exaggerated form. The country is split between The Country, in which the rich and nearly rich (and their servants) live out their lives in neo-Victorian tranquility, and the Conurbs where the poor and the poorish jostle together in overcrowded towns, their lives dominated by holovision, shopping and the odd riot. Rob lives in the Conurbs, but escapes to the Country in search of buried family secrets.

Also well worth reading is the profoundly depressing Death of Grass, one of two Christopher novels in my post-apocalyptic top ten, so described briefly here. Finally - if you are reading this because you googled ‘John Christopher’ do, if you haven’t already discovered it, and can get hold of a copy, read Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, one of the best ever sf novels about rebellion against conformity. It’s ridiculous that it’s been out of print for so long.

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What ‘you’ can do. 
Saturday, February 4, 2012, 09:53 AM
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Last semester, after listening to Ian Burrows’ excellent paper, ‘”What’s the Point?” The study of punctuation marks and other characters in early modern drama’, I started to look out for significant commas in all the Renaissance plays I was teaching, and elsewhere, despite not having previously given them a great deal of thought. I think Tory Young’s recent paper on second person narratives will make me similarly attentive to the word ‘you’.

‘You’ can be used to create such a range of effects. Many narratives will include the odd direct appeal to the reader. ‘Reader, I married him’, from Jane Eyre, is one of the best known examples. It’s a sufficiently vague apostrophe to make all readers, whether 19th or 21st century, feel included. But other narrators, though they may use the second person, clearly aren’t addressing us – perhaps because, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, they are writing in our future.

A more obtrusive example of a second person narrative, cited by Tory, is Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Here we may at first feel that the narrator is speaking to us directly, and rather uncannily:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed.

although gradually ‘you’ turns out to be less securely the ‘you’ who are reading the book, particularly if ‘you’ happen to female.

Tory analysed several other ‘you’ narratives addressed, not to us as readers, but to distinct imagined characters. Outside epistolary fiction, extended use of the second person is rare. One unusual example is Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death in which the narrator exhorts ‘you’, a man, to fulfil his desires with a woman. (Apparently it reflects the author’s wish to convert a homosexual man to heterosexuality.)

However this novel is untypical of ‘you’ narratives which are more usually associated with a fluid, open attitude towards both gender and sexuality. Thus in Ali Smith’s ‘May’ two lovers take it in turns to narrate the story, addressing each other as ‘you’, and it is impossible to say with certainty which sex(es) they are. (We heard how some readers adduce the fact the first narrator goes out to buy a drill as proof he is male, while others thought that this in fact proved she was female – because any man would have a drill already.)

It has been claimed by some that the second person creates an atmosphere of intimacy. But I agreed with Tory’s suggestion that, in fact, ‘you’ can have the opposite effect. This is slightly counterintuitive but is perhaps paralleled in the fact that some find 3D films - which ought to be more immersive - more distancing, more distracting, than conventional 2D.

I found myself reflecting that two of Ovid’s major works are written in the second person. The Ars Amatoria is a kind of advice manual for lovers (both male and female) and the Heroides is a collection of ‘letters’ by legendary women to their lovers. Having heard Tory’s talk I’d be interested to go back to the Heroides and try to spot examples where ‘you’ is used ambiguously – denoting both us, the real readers, and the more obvious narratee – Aeneas, Odysseus etc. Exhortations to the reader to remember, for example, might refer equally well to the lover’s memories of real events or to our memories of earlier treatments of the same mythical material.

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The Limits of Allusion #5: The Malcontent and The Tempest 
Sunday, November 13, 2011, 09:49 AM
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I recently read The Malcontent for the first time since I was an undergraduate. The influence of Hamlet on Marston’s play is unambiguous – and unmissable – but I also spotted some possible links with The Tempest.

Now if these links are more than chance ones, then Shakespeare must have been drawing on Marston, as The Tempest, unlike Hamlet, was written after The Malcontent. Somehow it seems easier to think of Marston being influenced by Shakespeare than vice versa – but Shakespeare was attached to The King’s Men, the company which took over the play, so is seems perfectly possible that echoes of The Malcontent might have found their way into his own works.

The plot is complicated. ‘Malevole’, the malcontent, is really the usurped Duke Altofronto. His main antagonist is not the original usurper, Pietro, but the much more villainous Mendoza, who wants to usurp Pietro in his turn. The first scene proper (the play opens with a metatheatrical induction added later by Webster) introduces Pietro, impatiently demanding that Malevole (heard offstage) come out and stop making a racket.

Pietro, Come down, thou rugged cur, and snarl here;
I give thy dogged sullenness free liberty : trot about and
bespurtle whom thou pleases.

Mal, I'll come among you, you goatish-blooded
toderers, as gum into taffata, to fret, to fret ; I'll fall like
a sponge into water, to suck up, to suck up.

Pietro then describes him as a ‘monster’ and compares him with Lucifer. There seem to be some parallels between this relationship and Prospero/Caliban – interestingly such a parallel would work to remind us that Prospero is a usurper (of Caliban’s isle) as well as a usurpee. (Logically one might expect Malevole to be the Prospero figure.) Later, again like Caliban, Malevole is embroiled in a plot to murder the Duke (on behalf of evil Mendoza) although he only pretends to go along with the plan, and alerts Pietro to the danger.

Towards the end of the play, disguised as a hermit, Pietro has to give an account of his own death to Mendoza:

Oh, then I saw
That which methinks I see: it was the Duke,
Whom straight the nicer-stomached sea belched up.

I was reminded by this of Ariel’s words:

Ar. You are three men of sinne, whom destiny
That hath to instrument this lower world,
And what is in't: the neuer surfeited Sea,
Hath caus'd to belch vp you:

as well as of other various reports of (supposed) drownings and rescues in The Tempest. Is it farfetched to hear an echo of Marston in Miranda's 'O, I have suffered. With those that I saw suffer'?

Pietro is much more like repentant Alonso than the more villainous Antonio, and he is treated gently by Malevole when he finally reveals his true identity:

Pietro. Pardon and love. Give leave to recollect
My thoughts dispers'd in wild astonishment.
My vows stand fix'd in heaven, and from hence
I crave all love and pardon.

Mal. Who doubts of providence,
That sees this change? a hearty faith to all!
He needs must rise who can no lower fall:
For still impetuous vicissitude
Touseth the world; then let no maze intrude
Upon your spirits: wonder not I rise;
For who can sink that close can temporise?
The time grows ripe for action: I'll detect
My privat'st plot, lest ignorance fear suspect.

The mood, the sense of events coming to a head, the relationship between the two men, seems close to that in the scenes towards the end of The Tempest when Prospero reveals his identity and seeks reconciliation. It is tempting to find some significance in the word ‘maze’ – ‘maze’ and its cognates loom large in The Tempest.

Even the most villainous character, Mendoza, is forgiven at the end of the play, despite the fact that, like Caliban, his enemies have little hope he will improve, as neither nature nor nurture have made him avoid evil:

Pietro. Ignoble villain! whom neither heaven nor hell,
Goodness of God or man, could once make good!

Pro. A Deuill, a borne-Deuill, on whose nature
Nurture can neuer sticke: on whom my paines
Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost

If The Malcontent is just one of the many texts behind The Tempest its influence perhaps lay in its moral ambiguity, an ambiguity which is reflected in the way both its malcontent hero and its evil villain seem to have something in common with Caliban.
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