“Politically I find it very difficult – for example that you often have white producers sampling rare black music and then not paying royalties. That feels to me like a form of exploitation. I feel like there’s a political and ethical dimension that rarely gets talked about.” – Matthew Herbert

“Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” – Walter Pater, “Conclusion” to The Renaissance

In the early months of 2015 we seem to be reaching the apotheosis of a politicising trend in music. Post-Ferguson expressions of anger in hip-hop from artists like A$AP Ferg and Kendrick Lamar have spread into the mainstream, with Common and John Legend’s Grammys performance watched by 25.3 million viewers. Iggy Azalea has recently joined the likes of Lana Del Rey and Gwen Stefani in yet another controversy over cultural appropriation; this time over the music itself, rather than an ill-informed photo shoot in Native American headdress. And tonight, as I sit writing, Owen Jones will be talking on stage after the support act for Paloma Faith’s gig at the NIA in Birmingham. The last fifteen to twenty years have seen hip-hop and soul in the US, punk and the free party movement into the UK, subsumed into a seemingly de-politicised mainstream endlessly reproducing inane platitudes like ‘pussy, money, weed’, the sparklingly produced guitars and the whinings of teenage angst, and legitimised but heavily regulated club nights with routine door checks and 3am closing times. But de-politicisation is a political move: by appropriating the popularity of political genres of music and art, repackaging them in sufficiently offensive, but ultimately banal, commercial forms, the revolutionary sting is amputated and these movements are divided into a sanitised and unthreatening mainstream, and a disillusioned but ultimately ineffectual underground. The controversy surrounding Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was perhaps an early indicator of a rising mainstream awareness of issues of identity politics in pop culture. The resurgence of controversy around this song sparked by the recent legal case in which Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found guilty of copying Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, brings me to the focus of this article, alluded to in the quote from Matthew Herbert: sampling or copying in electronic music and its relation to ethical issues of appropriation in general.

At the very basic level here is a debate that stretches back to way before the notion of sampling even existed and one which somehow still goes on: the question of whether art can be divorced from politics. If we define the political as concerning relations of power, then all experience is political, and since art must in some way derive from (though not necessarily represent) experience, it therefore entails its socio-economic background. Even Pater and the aesthetes, with their insistence on ‘art for art’s sake’ were the product of their specific social and historical position – a period of decadence, the decline of traditional moral values and political anxiety as the death of Queen Victoria, with whom empire and power had become deeply associated, edged closer. And yet, with only a few exceptions, this seems to be the attitude taken by most samplers in electronic music today. The argument has been raised, and I think it is a valid one, that what is important here is being informed and respectful of the material reproduced, which explains why artists like The Busy Twist, who spend vast amounts of time in Ghana recording material with local artists, and Romare, who emulates in musical form the collage work of African American artist, Romare Bearden, are not subject to the same criticism as someone like Iggy Azalea, who has been portrayed as displaying a potentially wilful ignorance about the origins of hip-hop (traditionally a very political genre) and, while not sampling it, appropriating from it indiscriminately, often taking what some see as regrettable aspects of that culture. There are two other issues at work here that contribute to her controversy. The first is a lack of originality: while she makes fantastic pop records, Azalea brings nothing new to the rap game, perhaps apart from being both white and female; the second is that she sells far more records than competing black female MCs – the controversy started with Azealia Banks noting that Azalea is happy to capitalise on black culture, but wouldn’t involve herself in race issues following the killing of Eric Garner, comparing her to a black and white minstrel show.
If we are to take Banks’ line, then in the case of sampling, the ethical issues only arise when nothing interesting is done with the samples, the sampler is either ignorant of or wilfully ignores the social context in which the samples were produced, and the economic imbalance is in favour of the sampler (particularly if they come from a privileged social class). The first two conditions here are points of respect and imply a moral duty to understanding the medium with which you are working. The third condition is more difficult. The very earliest uses of sampling can be found in the musique concréte of Pierre Schaeffer and his contemporaries, but in the hands of the early hip hop turntablists, it allowed a generation of deprived African Americans, without access to instruments, to democratise the mode of production and express themselves through their own form of music. Today the ease with which production software can pirated and samples be collected from all over the internet again allows an outlet of creativity to those who cannot afford to pay for it. This democratising element of sampling is something Matthew Herbert seems to ignore; it may well be easy with his studio equipment and regular income through his own label to avoid using samples from other people, but this is not the case for everybody. On the flip side to this, it has recently emerged (and sparked a fundraising campaign) that Richard L. Spencer of The Winstons, whose song, ‘Amen Brother’ produced the Amen Break, the most reproduced sample in electronic music and the cornerstone of jungle, has never received royalties for its use, and the drummer that played the break, Gregory Coleman, died homeless in 2006.
These two sides to sampling – the democratising and the imperial – explain my title. I have called this article ‘Sampling/Stealing/Appropriating’, rather than ‘Sampling, Stealing and Appropriating’ because these terms are equivalent, but arise from contradictory discourses. ‘Sampling’ is value-free and as a result, most commonly used when discussing sampling in music. ‘Stealing’ comes from the discourse of law and if we define a law as a rule made up and enforced, then ‘stealing’ is the language of those in power, as only they can be the enforcers. This legal language is closely tied up with the notion of private property, which, even if we are not to accept it as the root of all imbalances of power, is certainly on very shakey ground when it comes to art and creativity, where influence and intertextuality has always played a big part. Finally, appropriation is the language of the subaltern, the alienation of the self from one’s culture through it’s absorption into the culture industry of the dominant powers. By these definitions I would argue that stealing is good, appropriation is bad, but it is not so simple. Hardline protectionists like Detroit Techno visionary, Kenny Dixon Jr. have been quoted as saying that black music should only be sampled by black people, but without a free interchange of cultures they will merely stagnate.
The issue here then, as we can see, is around money and power. Simply ensuring that royalties go to where they are due is not enough when the dominant powers can impose their culture of consumption and homogeneity wherever they go, and cherry pick the best bits from other cultures to repackage as commodified goods to sell for their own profit. In a hypothetical world somewhere culture is taken on its own terms, without the insistence on reducing it to an economic value. As a result, in this world there can be no hierarchies between cultures, no imbalances of power, and there will be a free-flowing interchange of music and art and cultural information without the nasty connotations of imperialism. This seems impossible for this world. We are backed into a corner by the logic of capitalism, with all its old institutionalised biases. We are forced either to appropriate, or to atrophy. But we should always do this with the necessary respect.

The Death of the Rapper

‘literature (it would be better, henceforth, to say writing), by refusing to assign to the text (and to the world as text) a “secret:’ that is, an ultimate meaning, liberates an activity which we might call counter-theological, properly revolutionary, for to refuse to arrest meaning is finally to refuse God and his hypostases, reason, science, the law.’ – Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author

Hip Hop originated in the block parties of the South Bronx: an expression of subaltern defiance against a society which, seventy years into a century of civil rights campaigns, still left its Black population struggling against poverty, inequality, and institutional racism. The representation of social struggle works its way as a thread through the history of the genre from its beginnings, with ‘The Message’, by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, detailing life in the projects, through N.W.A’s exposition of police discrimination in ‘Fuck tha Police’, to more tender depictions of family life in Tupac’s ‘Dear Mama’ and, more recently, ’25 Bucks’ by Danny Brown. In many ways it reflects trends in ‘postcolonial’ literatures, subverting cultural hegemony by rejecting linguistic norms. The precedent set by early MCs of incorporating street dialects into their lyrics along with the incorporation of these dialects into more mainstream vernacular, exemplifies Homi Bhabha’s ideas on hybridity as a challenge to the essentialist authority of mainstream language. Similarly, the ‘four letter words’ endlessly referenced by Fox news commentator Bill O’Reilly, who has famously started feuds with the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z, and labelled 50 Cent as a ‘pinhead’ in his ‘Pinheads and Patriots’ feature, directly challenge the traditional moral values held within the discourse of white America: a discourse which insists that the word ‘fuck’ is a more important source of moral corruption than poverty. The backlash of right wing commentators like O’Reilly against the ‘life of guns, violence, drugs and disrespect of women’ is the rage of Caliban, looking in the mirror and seeing that this mess is his own fault.

While postmodernism’s rejection of ultimate meaning may at first seem bizarre or depressing, we see in the epigraph from Barthes that it in fact liberates us from the authoritarian voices of God and the law. Much of art has resigned itself to the idea that all art is recycled material: none truly original. This liberating rejection of meaning has been present since the beginnings of hip hop, in its constant quotation and re-contextualisation. The first hip hop song to achieve commercial success, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang, used a 16 bar sample from Chic’s ‘Good Times’, along with rapping (influenced by the griots of West Africa and Jamaican toasting – boasts and political commentary in rapping dates back to the 19th century in Trinidadan music). This process of sampling, particularly of disco in the early years, is one of the staple elements of hip hop. To take a few songs by Will Smith as examples: ‘Miami’, sampled from ‘And The Beat Goes On’ by The Whispers; ‘Men In Black’, sampled from ‘Forget Me Nots’, by Patrice Rushen; ‘Getting Jiggy Wit It’, sampled from ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, by Sister Sledge. This intertextuality extends, particularly more recently, to the lyrics, which often compound a plethora of references to popular culture and other hip hop songs, re-contextualising meanings and satirising the image that the genre has built around itself. We need only listen as far A$AP Rocky or ‘Niggaz in Paris’ to see this, but one of the best examples, for me, is the 2011 remix of ‘Huzzah!’ by Mr Muthafuckin’ eXquire. It begins with an intro parodying P Diddy’s opening line in Craig Mack’s ‘Flava in ya Ear’ remix, replacing Diddy’s, ‘Bad Boys, come out and play’ (itself a reference to the 1979 Hollywood movie, Warriors, and the Bad Boy record label on which it was released), with ‘breastmilk, you make my day’, (referencing a scene mocking P Diddy in Chappelle’s Show). While the old theme of social mobility developed, with the commercialisation of the genre, into an obsession with wealth for it’s own sake, Heems mocks this with the line, ‘I’m stupid as shit, but I’m ‘bout to be rich’. He goes on to take Raekwon’s line from C.R.E.A.M., ‘No question I would speed for cracks and weed,/ The combination made my eyes bleed’, bathetically turning it into, ‘I’m at the Pizza Hut, I’m at the Taco Bell,/ The combination made my eyes bleed.’ This playfully parodic pastiche celebrates the genre’s history, while gently satirising the ways in which it has moved from an expression of the struggle of a minority, to latching onto the negative consequences of violence, greed and misogyny, without considering the socially determining factors from which they arose.

Performative Subversions of Social Hierarchies in Shakespeare’s Comedies

In the wake of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, much has been written on the topic of gender cross-dressing in Shakespeare, particularly in the comedies. I would like to extend this study by expanding the category of cross-dressing to encompass inter-class cross-dressing as well as inter-gender cross-dressing, both of which, for the sake of simplicity, I will simply refer to as cross-dressing, unless specific clarification is necessary (the word ‘disguise’ could work, but it entails the idea of aberration from an essential nature, and would therefore detract from my argument). I will explore Shakespeare’s uses of cross-dressing and their implications on the structures of social class and the conventions of comedy. I will argue that the genre of comedy is by its nature essentialist and authoritarian, and that Shakespeare’s ambiguous position in society leads him to a highly complex and ambivalent attitude towards the hierarchies of contemporary society. In ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution’, Judith Butler argues that ‘if the ground of gender identity is the stylised repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style.’(i) In this view the individual is a sort of tabla rasa who performs an arbitrary social identity, which can be subverted or transmuted by a different performance or repetition of acts. Butler thus rids gender of essentialism. It seems to me obvious and unproblematic that this theory can also be applied to other forms of social identity, such as class. At times Shakespeare’s cross-dressing characters come extremely close to exposing the arbitrariness of gender and class hierarchies, but he is never quite able to fully realise such a radical position, as he is working, both literally and artistically – through the medium of comedy – within the ideology that perpetuates these hierarchies.

Peter Holbrook, in an essay arguing for greater attention to issues of class in Shakespeare criticism, helpfully explains Shakespeare’s simultaneous preoccupation with and ambivalence towards rank, by illustrating his position ‘as someone both inside and outside the dominant culture.’(ii) Shakespeare became very wealthy, but this wealth was acquired, rather than inherited, and through a profession that was barely socially acceptable. In 1996 his father successfully applied for a grant of arms, thus making him a gentleman. His success with his company becoming the King’s players meant that he was privy to the royal court, and yet excluded from being a real member of it. From his biography we can see that he was socially ambitious but his simultaneously internal and external position in the social hierarchy also meant that he could view this hierarchy critically. He was educated in a grammar school, but did not go to university, and was therefore highly critical of the intellectualism and book learning of those playwrights and poets who did. On the other hand, his earlier work, such as The Comedy of Errors, was perhaps more rigorously formal than the works of his university educated contemporaries. The rather odd altercation between Touchstone and William in As You Like It is almost certainly a joke on the perception of Shakespeare held by other playwrights. The shared Christian name, along with the location in the forest of Ardenne, which recalls both Shakespeare’s birthplace and his mother’s maiden name, indicates that the inarticulate peasant, William, represents the snobbish perception that these playwrights had of him. Touchstone’s language, while more intelligent than William’s is condescending and pretentious to the point of ridiculousness:

‘Therefore you clown, abandon – which is in the vulgar leave – the society – which in the boorish is company – of this female – which in the common is woman…’(iii)

Holbrook argues that Robert Greene’s description of Shakespeare as an ‘upstart crow’ was likely to have affected Shakespeare somewhat, which explains the ways in which he seems to have simultaneously shown himself to be equal to, and mocked, playwrights of a higher rank.(iv) He later asserts that Shakespeare ‘presents his most attractive characters as those who have struck a mean between courtly virtues of grace, wit, eloquence and idealism and a plebeian grasp of reality’.(v) We see already that Shakespeare had contradictory views on social hierarchy and that in his own life he was exploring the possibilities of performativity and ‘a different sort of repeating’. Along with this complexity in Shakespeare’s personal social position, there were tensions within the social system itself. Rather than viewing themselves as members of a horizontal ‘class’ within society, individuals in the early modern period were more likely to think of themselves in opposition to their superiors and inferiors, in a vertical system of rank. This system of dominance had different strands, the primary one being the hierarchy of God, downwards through men, to the rest of his creation; similarly, the hierarchy of the monarch and their subjects in the feudal system. These two are reconcilable, but tensions arise when we account for the hierarchy of men over women, as the power balance becomes uncertain in the case of a woman of noble class and a man of peasant class. The instability therefore is not only in Shakespeare’s position, but also in the entire social structure at the time. This instability and illogicality in itself challenges the essentialism inherent in the political system and it is easy to see how Shakespeare was able to channel this in a critical way.

Since what is at stake here is the legitimacy of a system of social organization that relies on an essentialist notion of class, we must find the essential features that categorise each class within the plays. The first distinguishing feature for the contemporary audience would have been each character’s costume. The ‘Statutes of Apparel’ of June 1574 set out very specific rules for which clothes could, or more specifically could not, be worn by members of each rank. Due to the nature of their work actors were exempt from this law, meaning that the majority of costumes owned by theatres were bought from knights, lords and gentlemen who were struggling financially. The specificity of these statutes means that the contemporary audience would have been immediately able to identify very precisely the rank of any given character from their costume. However, cross-dressing immediately removes the possibility that apparel may be the essential feature of social identity. In the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew, the drunken beggar, Christopher Sly, is found unconscious by a lord’s hunting party, who play a trick on him by dressing him in a ‘costly suit’, which would have been illegal under the Statutes of Apparel, carrying him to the lord’s bedroom and pretending that he has merely been dreaming his existence as a beggar and is in fact a lord.(vi) The serving men repeatedly call him ‘lordship’ until he is himself convinced of the truth of the trick. The interesting question raised by the theory of performativity is whether the trick in fact becomes the truth. The repetition of the old ‘style’ (Sly as beggar) is broken and replaced by ‘a different sort of repeating’. That it is so easy for Sly to go from being a beggar to a lord, simply by changing his raiment, acquiring servants and performing the role of the lord, illuminates the arbitrariness of each individual’s social position. Very interestingly, laws began to change around the exemption of actors from the Statutes of Apparel, as it became clear that actors were wearing clothes that had previously been owned by lords and other high-ranking subjects. This subversive element of performativity spilt over from the theatre into real life and was stamped out by the authoritarian system, as I shall later argue, it is suppressed within the theatre by the conventions of comedy.

Clearly apparel cannot be an essential feature of social position; it is too contingent and changeable. We saw from the earlier example of Touchstone and William that language and wit can signify the social class of a character. However, even in this example Shakespeare slightly subverts this notion, through Touchstone’s ridiculous verbosity. While William is truly inarticulate, due to his function as a joke about attitudes towards Shakespeare, there are several instances in As You Like It, when the courtly characters meet those of much lower stations and their expectations are clearly not met, often making the lower class characters appear to be the more intelligent ones. The first instance of this occurring is in Act II, Scene 4, when Rosalind and Touchstone first meet the shepherd Corin. Touchstone immediately takes a condescending tone, calling Corin a clown (63) and responding with, ‘your betters’ (66) when asked who they are. Rosalind is far more polite, but shows herself to be completely ignorant of the workings of peasant society, assuming a monetary exchange system in which she can pay with ‘love or gold’ (70). Corin’s answer is both eloquent and intelligent. He gives a sort of proto-Marxist analysis of the alienation caused by the division of labour in feudal farming (‘I am shepherd to another man,/And do not shear the fleeces that I graze’) (77-78).(vii) In Act III, Scene 5 Rosalind witnesses Phoebe’s rejection of Silvius and interjects to berate her for it. Here we see an instance of a shepherd attempting and failing to perform a noble social position using the discourse of courtly love poetry. His insistence on calling Phoebe, ‘sweet Phoebe’ (1), is not only clichéd, but also imbalances the chiasmus in the line and jars with ‘bitterness’ (3), two lines later. He is unable to control the pentameter, slipping into a hexameter in line three, because of the unnecessary use of the word ‘common’. His vocabulary is as hyperbolized and Hackneyed as the worst of courtly love clichés and it is his insistence on using physical images, such as ‘the axe upon the humbled neck’, to describe a metaphysical pain that fails to impress Phoebe. While courtiers were far enough removed from physical labour to be able to discuss emotional pain in terms of physical torture, those of a working class were used enough to cuts and bruises to see the absurdity in this, and Phoebe with a carefully measured pentameter, witty irony, and far more effective and original imagery, such as ‘eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,/who shut their coward gates on atomies’ (12-13), is able to mock his pretention in a way that once again is very sophisticated for a peasant. The joke also falls upon Rosalind, who takes Silvius’ side. Like Silvius her pentameter slips into hexameter in her third line and her language is crude and insulting (‘what though you have no beauty-/As, by my faith, I see no more in you/Than without candle may go dark to bed) (38-40). Rosalind’s response to Phoebe is remarkably conservative, considering she is widely regarded as being one of Shakespeare’s most free-spirited and anti-establishment characters. This authoritarian streak could be a product of Rosalind’s performance of masculinity, but she seems to take Silvius’ side until the end of the play, and besides, as we shall later see, she doesn’t in general play this part well. Her attitude then is more likely to be a result of the class difference between the two female characters. In Rosalind’s view it is okay to resist patriarchal power only if one is of a noble class, with normal rules applying to those who are not. She is therefore analogous to a feminist like Virginia Woolf, while Phoebe’s resistance is closer to third wave feminism.(viii)

This episode leaves Shakespeare once again in a contradictory position. Through the differences in language we are encouraged to side with Phoebe over Rosalind. This is a very progressive position to have taken, but it comes hand in hand with the mockery of Silvius’ inability to perform the courtly role he attempts to play. The implications of this mockery seem to be an advocacy of class essentialism and a conservative rejection of the possibility of social mobility. However, this contradiction becomes more complicated when we consider Orlando’s love poetry in Act III, Scene 2. Rosalind reads eight lines of a poem that Orlando has carved onto a tree:
‘From the east to western Ind
No jewel is like Rosalind.
Her worth being mounted on the wind
Through all the world bears Rosalind.
All the pictures fairest lined
Are but black to Rosalind.
Let no face be kept in mind
But the fair of Rosalind.’(ix)

The imagery of global exploration and exotic riches such as jewels had, by this time, become as clichéd as that of pain and torture in love poetry. A comparison between the love object and something widely acknowledged as beautiful was another trope, ‘all the fairest pictures lined’ being a particularly unimaginative variation on this. The metre in this extract is based on lines of feminine pentameter, which makes the feminine hexameter in line 3 sound uncomfortable. Perhaps Orlando’s biggest literary crime is his indecision in deciding how to pronounce ‘Rosalind’. Through the eight lines he rhymes it with ‘Ind’ and ‘wind’, but then also with ‘lined’ and ‘mind’. Orlando’s poetry is as bad as Silvius’ attempt at courtly love rhetoric, so the apparent conservatism could be a product of the tensions in strands of hierarchy mentioned earlier. In making a progressive point about the subordination of women to men who are often their intellectual inferiors, Shakespeare is forced into a mocking the social ambition of a working class character.

In The Taming of the Shrew eloquence and intellect once again do not reflect the social status of many of the characters. Christopher Sly may be drunk and illiterate, but the relationship between Lucentio and Tranio is far more complex than what we would expect from a master-servant relationship. The play begins with Lucentio expressing his intention to undertake ‘a course of learning and ingenious studies’ (9) in Padua. Tranio replies with the warning, ‘let’s be no stoics nor no stocks, I pray,/Or so devote to Aristotle’s checks/As Ovid be an outcast quite abjured’ (31-33). Lucentio’s reply is grateful, saying ‘gramercies, Tranio, well dost thou advise’ (41), so Tranio’s intellectual superiority is made clear from the start.(x) The relationship between the two seems to be one of friendship, rather than a simply professional one. Lucentio asks Tranio to ‘counsel me, Tranio, for I know thou canst./Assist me, Tranio, for I know thou wilt’ (155-156) and Tranio later says, ‘I am content to be Lucentio/Because so well I love Lucentio’ (214-215).(xi) The fact that Lucentio decides to swap costumes with Tranio shows that their relationship is built on mutual respect. It also raises once again the question of performativity. Tranio plays the part of Lucentio so well that it takes the arrival of Vincentio to reveal his identity. This is perhaps understandable, as a servant to a wealthy master is likely to be educated. More interestingly, perhaps, the pedant empolyed by Tranio to play Lucentio’s father is equally adept at the task, to the extent that when Vincentio arrives, Baptista believes the pedant and Vincentio is almost taken to jail.(xii) This challenges the essentialist view of class structures by showing us that given the correct attire anybody can, not only perform, but be of any class. It is significant that before changing clothes Lucentio does not tell Tranio that he shall pretend to be Lucentio, rather he says, ‘thou shalt be master, Tranio, in my stead;/Keep house, and port, and servants, as I should./I will some other be’ (my italics). (xiii)
This would have been an incredibly radical position for Shakespeare to take and he is not able to fully realise it. While Shakespeare had the distance of a form of exclusion from the society that he kept company with and was therefore able to view it critically, he was still not fully external to its hierarchies and was still subject to the pull of ambition and the will to conservation that accompanies wealth. However, he was not only working within an authoritarian society, but also an authoritarian artistic medium. The genre of Renaissance comedy was highly conservative mostly due to its insistence on marriage, which at the time was an authoritarian institution designed to perpetuate the existing social hierarchies; both in terms of class or rank, and gender. Marriage in this period was based on succession and the desire to retain social position, and as a result was heteronormative and confined to within classes (women had the ability to be somewhat socially mobile, but men certainly could not marry above their own rank). It is often noted that Shakespeare’s comedies occur in the world of the aristocracy, while his tragedies are about royalty. I would argue that this is because royal lines are regularly broken and replaced. The true ‘old blood’ is to be found in the nobility, as we can see by the fact that there have been three royal families since Elizabeth I, whereas the descendents of Robert Cecil, whom Elizabeth made Earl of Salisbury in 1605, still retain their title and family name. Women during this period were little more than a vehicle for reproduction and we can see the marriage rite as a binding economic exchange between men – the father ‘giving away’ the bride to the groom. This explains Celia’s reluctance to read the rite, but when she does it is an extremely subversive act. She is a woman and is not ordained, overseeing the marriage of a man with a woman dressed as a man. It was also illegal to enact the rite anywhere outside a real marriage ceremony, so this was a risky move on Shakespeare’s own part.
We need only examine the consequences of cross-dressing in the plays to see the ways in which comedy seeks to reinstate the social hierarchies. The noble characters face no consequences by dressing down in class and are easily able to return, which implies that they retain some essential nature. On the other hand, Tranio and the Pedant are forced to flee upon the arrival of Vincentio as the logic of comedy requires that Lucentio be the one to marry Bianca. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is punished and mocked for his wish to marry Olivia. We know nothing of Viola’s and Sebastian’s parentage other than Viola’s assertion to Olivia, as Cesario, that ‘I am a gentleman’ (xiv), until upon hearing who his father is, Orsino says of Sebastian, ‘right noble is his blood’.(xv) This is an instance of what Stephen Greenblatt calls comedy’s tendency to ‘swerve’.(xiv) He draws attention Sebastian’s line after Viola’s revelation. He says to Olivia, ‘lady, you have been mistook./But nature to her bias drew in that’.(xvii) This points to the authoritarian mechanism of comedy, whereby a swerve in the narrative aligns the conclusion to ‘nature’s bias’, or more precisely, the bias of renaissance social order. This bias requires that Viola be a woman in order to marry Orsino, and that Sebastian be a gentleman in order to marry Olivia.
Shakespeare himself seems to have noticed this authoritarian tendency to swerve in the conventions of comedy and satirises it by exaggerating it to absurdity in As You Like It. In the final scene of the play the marriages required by convention do occur, but in order for that to happen gratuitously convenient swerves are abundant. Oliver decides for no given reason to side with Orlando, the tyrannous duke decides to give up the court to Duke Senior, and Hymen arrives out of nowhere to ensure that Rosalind’s anti-patriarchal meddling ceases and the marriages that will continue the social order occur. Thus, Rosalind and Phoebe marry within their social class to their intellectual inferiors, to become their subordinates for the rest of their lives. This is even darker in Phoebe’s case as she has been tricked into marrying somebody that she does not want to. The ending is deliberately bad, showing us that comedy’s drive towards marriage is so strong as to sacrifice good writing and the happiness of the characters. Similarly, Kate, in The Taming of the Shrew, is forced to give up her individuality to be subordinated in marriage to a man that, not only did she not want to marry, but is also abusive. In the same play, however, there is a much more hopeful and progressive parallel storyline – that of Christopher Sly. The induction is never resolved, meaning that Sly remains on stage throughout the play and finally walks off stage and out into the world, still dressed as a lord. Shakespeare is forced into an extremely strange plot device, in eliding the ending to the Sly story, and only by doing this is he able to save Sly from comedy’s inevitable swerve. In Twelfth Night, there is a similar, if far more subtle subversion of comic convention. In a play full of homoerotic undertones, comedy appears to win again; the issues of social class are resolved with previously discussed swerve, and the two heterosexual couples are engaged to be married. However, performativity once more rears its head. Viola does not immediately remove her ‘masculine usurped attire’, instead promising to retrieve her ‘maiden weeds’, but does not do this during the remainder of the play.(xviii) This means that Orsino decides to marry her while she is still dressed as a man, and she leaves the stage in this way.
Why then are Sly and Viola allowed to remain in their new socially elevated roles? I think the answer can be found once again in a quote from Butler, in which she says, ‘significantly, if gender is instituted through acts which are internally discontinuous, then the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief’, again expanding gender to any sort of social identity.(xix) It appears to be their belief in their performed roles that makes those roles their reality. Sly is convinced out of doubt that he is in fact a lord and Viola meets Orsino, falls in love with him and has that love returned, all in the guise of Cesario. Her flirting with Olivia shows us that she has become the character that she was previously performing. Thus when she promises to change back into her ‘maiden weeds’, it is clear that this is another costume, rather than any essential self. Rosalind is not able to resist the logic of comedy, as her own disguise never convinces her. She falls in love with Orlando as Rosalind and even while pretending to be Ganymede, pretends to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind while with Orlando. In fact, it seems that her disguise is barely a disguise, otherwise it would be incredibly strange for Orlando to go along with the pretence of calling Ganymede Rosalind and wooing him. Rosalind never becomes Ganymede, but instead remains Rosalind in disguise, hence her fainting in Act IV, Scene 3, and ceasing the pretence whenever talking with Celia in private. These ideas of performance and authoritarian resolution can be expressed in terms of festive comedy. I have argued that comedy, as a genre, is an authoritarian mechanism of the existing social order, allowing for a festival period of chaos and freedom, before returning to the original position. Shakespeare, while not being able to defeat this aspect of comedy, through his use of cross-dressing, hints at a more hopeful, Bakhtinian vision. While the return of social order is inevitable, we can choose our identity for ourselves, providing we perform our chosen roles with belief and conviction.

i) Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution (1988), in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Rivkin & Ryan, 2nd ed. 2004. Oxford: Blackwell
ii) Peter Holbrook, ‘Class X: Shakespeare, Class, and the Comedies’, in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works: The Comedies, ed. Dutton &Howard, 2006, Oxford: Blackwell, p.69.
iii) As You Like It, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. V.I.45-48, p.676.
iiii) Peter Holbrook, p.72.

v) Ibid, p.79.
vi) The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Induction, p.27.

vii) As You Like It, II.4.63-99, p.664.

viii) Ibid, III.5.1-41, p.671.
ix) Ibid, III.2.86-93, p.667.
x) The Taming of the Shrew, I.1.1-46, p.30.
xi) Ibid, I.1.155-218, p31.
xii) Ibid, V.1, p.49-50.

xiii) Ibid, I.1.119-202, p.31.
xiv) Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, William Shakespeare, ed. Stanley Wells & Gary Taylor (2005). The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works,. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. I.5.269, p.725.
xv) Ibid. V.1.262, p.741.
xvi) ‘Fiction and Friction’, Shakespearian Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, Stephen Greenblatt, 1988, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
xvii) Twelfth Night, V.1.257-8, p741.
xviii) Ibid. V.1.248-253, p.741.
xix) Judith Butler (1998)

What is Literature?

‘Anything can be literature, and anything which is regarded as unalterably and unquestioningly literature – Shakespeare, for example – can cease to be literature’


The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines ‘literature’ as  ‘a vague term which usually denotes works which belong to the major genres: epic, drama, lyric, novel, short story, ode (qq.v.). If we describe something as ‘literature’, as opposed to anything else, the term carries with it qualitative connotations which imply that the work in question has superior qualities: that it is well above the ordinary run of written works…’[i].  The inclusion of genre into this definition causes problems, as genres are established retroactively and are in a state of constant flux, being constantly transformed and challenged by new literary works, which can often generate new genres. However, the definition does well to immediately draw attention to the status of ‘literature’ as a ‘term’ rather than a concrete object. ‘Literature’ is an abstract category that has been appropriated to a certain body of writing within the last two hundred years. It is also important to note that the term has ‘qualitative connotations’ as this definition seems to be implicit within Eagleton’s statement. But if literature has ‘superior qualities’, what are they?

Literary theory in the first half of the 20th century generally aimed to find an objective set of criteria with which to define ‘literature’, beginning with the Russian formalists, who argued that literature is set apart from ordinary writing by its formal features. Lev Jakubinskij first argued that literature is characterised by connotative, rather than denotative language, or language, not purely for communication, but in which the ‘practical aim retreats to the background… and language resources acquire autonomous value’[ii]. Viktor Shklovsky developed this theory by arguing that ‘the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’[iii]. This led to a focus on the construction rather than the motivation of a work, its form rather than its content. He believed that through the process of habituation we fall into a routine of recognising, rather than seeing our surroundings, and that literature ‘defamiliarises’ us from them, through ‘the slowness of perception’ created by innovative form, much like Wordsworth’s view that in poetry ‘ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’. In Art as Technique Shklovsky backs up this view with a persuasive reading of Tolstoy. Related in ideas to the formalists was the American school of New Criticism as exemplified by Cleanth Brooks. In The Language of Paradox[iv] Brooks exemplifies the view that literature is ambiguous and paradoxical language that concretises universals, much like Jakubinskij’s view that literature is connotative language. The New Critics believed that through close reading of literature we learn moral lessons and gain insight into universal truths. However, these theories fall apart when applied to the works of other canonised writers. Hemingway’s language in the extract in Appendix A, for instance, is both denotative and incredibly simple in its description. Hemingway’s use of adjectival description is sparse, and when it is used, limited to the most basic adjectives possible to express an idea (‘old’, ‘good’, ‘sad’). His description is entirely concrete and lacks metaphor. This draws the reader’s attention away from the form of the writing to its actual content, which according to the rules of the formalists makes this extract ordinary writing rather than literature.

It could be argued that rather than defamiliarising us from reality, Hemingway defamiliarises us from a decadent, defamiliarising trend in literature prior to his own. This is not an argument in favour of the formalists as their focus was entirely on the distinction of form over content (not form over previous forms), however it does tie in with the theory of Jan Mukarovsky, who argued that literature is writing that subverts and breaks away from the literary status quo. This is an interesting idea as innovation is often respected and admired in works of literature but it does not account for the fact that any writing can unintentionally subvert the literary status quo, and still not be classed as literature, for example if it is a piece of journalism or advertising, and equally writer who are considered to be canonical have followed others in style. TS Eliot proposed a similar idea, which managed to avoid this problem. Eliot saw literature as writing that both influences and is influenced by the ‘literary tradition’. Both of these arguments suffer from circularity. How can one know which texts constitute the ‘literary tradition’ without first being able to define literariness. Indeed, Eliot seemed to believe that the ‘tradition’ could be chosen arbitrarily, and he made popular the metaphysical poets, whose work reflected his own aesthetic ideals, and attempted to discredit widely respected writers such as Milton (whose work did not) by arguing that they suffered from a dissociation of sensibility.

I will now run through some other potential definitions. It could be argued that ‘literature’ is written stories. However this definition is a two-fold failure. Literature can also be the expression of a moment, a stream of consciousness or a description of a landscape or scene. Equally a written story can be ‘non-literary’, as in a piece of journalism (though some journalism is thought of as literature). The idea that literature is fiction is refuted by the presence of diaries (Samuel Pepys), historical works (Bede’s Ecclesiastical History) and journalistic works (Hunter S. Thompson). Literature as ‘creative’ writing is based upon a linguistic flaw, as all writing is in essence an act of creation. The argument that literature is aesthetic rather than utilitarian writing is true in the case of a lot of canonised works, but it does not account for the numerous polemics, satires, philosophical dialogues and other motivated writings that can be found within the canon. Literature can be either aesthetic, or aesthetic and utilitarian, but it is also true that ‘non-literary’ writing can contain aesthetic qualities. The conversational style of the extract in appendix B plays on the contrasting of long streams of adjectival description, with short abrupt sentences. The adjectives in the first line convey a sense of warmth and companionship, creating a metaphor

Appendix A

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Appendix B


Friendly, comfortable, generous and together; you could happily pour this all-rounder any time. Straight merlot is not normally my thing: a little dull; I like a twist of interest from another grape. I was convinced I could smell a little something undeclared else in here though, giving it a bewitching scent of redcurrant leaves over ripe June strawberries. “Yes,” said Jean-Claude Mas when I bumped into him by chance a few days later, “It has some cabernet franc in it.” Aha. Magic ingredient.

Appendix C

The fridge will be

emptied of all

expired items

every Friday evening

[i] J.A Cuddon (1977). The Penguin Dictionary of Litarary Terms and Literary Theory. 3rd ed. London: Penguin . p505-506.

[ii] L. Jakubinskij (1917). On Sounds in Verse Language (quoted in The Formal Method, B. Eichenbaum (1926)), Petrograd.

[iii] V. Shklovsky (1917) Art as Technique (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)

[iv] C. Brooks (1947) The Language of Paradox (in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. J. Rivkin and M.Ryan (1998), 2nd ed. Oxford)

Contrasts and Comparisons in ‘Paradise Lost’

Paradise Lost is built upon comparisons and oppositions that colour our reading of the poem. Milton uses these oppositions and subverts them by blurring their delineations allowing us to experience almost first hand the vertiginous complexity of moral experience and human existence.

The most obvious theme in a poem about sin and the fall of man is that of good and evil. God and the angels represent the good while Satan and the devils represent evil, and Adam and Eve are the metonymic representatives of man-kind, who occupy a middle ground, caught in the struggle between the two opposing sides, and who feel the attraction of each. However, this opposition is far from simple or concrete. Milton’s supplication to the muse ends with an exposition of his purpose: to ‘justify the ways of God to men’[i]. This immediately puts into question God’s legitimacy as a pure representative of Good, as if this were an accurate epithet, his ways would not need to be justified. In fact, when God first appears, in Book III, his character appears irate and unmerciful, rather than good. He has seen Satan approaching Eden and in his omniscience realises that Adam and Eve will eat from the tree, but rather than expressing sorrow or pity, he seems to use their free will as an excuse for their damnation, turning the blame on to them, and he angrily exclaims, ‘whose fault? Whose but his own? Ingrate, he had of me all he could have; I made him just and right, sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’[ii]. Immediately prior to this outburst God has been discussing the fall of Satan and his crew, and the complex Latinate syntax makes it difficult to realise at first that he is now talking about Adam. This irascibility is only emphasised by the fact that the first character we encounter in the poem is Satan, and that he appears to be far nobler in character than we would expect from the reification of evil. Satan’s conviction in his opposition to God seems to be a result of a passionate political belief in democracy, rather than an evil disposition, as can be seen in this passage:

Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,                 

Said then the lost Archangel, this the seat                 

That we must change for Heaven?—this mournful gloom                 

For that celestial light? Be it so, since he                 

Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid                 

What shall be right: furthest from Him is best,                 

Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme                 

Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,                 

Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,                        

Infernal World! and thou, profoundest Hell,                 

Receive thy new possessor—one who brings                 

A mind not to be changed by place or time.                 

The mind is its own place, and in itself                 

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.


The first line dramatically increases in pathos, due to the repetition and shortening of ‘is this the’ in the sequential references to ‘region’, ‘soil’ and ‘clime’. It is important to note that Milton did not use speech marks, so we are unsure whether the first line is being spoken by the narrator or Satan, and in this case uses Latinate syntax to delay the revelation until the second line, which means we are drawn into feeling the building emotion ourselves. The use of ‘lost’ as an epithet to archangel brings up an issue of scale, as we cannot comprehend the immensity of space that could make a being that is closer to Godliness even than the majority of angels feel lost. This is a tension created by Milton’s attempt to describe the metaphysical in the language of the physical, or expressed differently, to explain in man-made language something that is beyond the comprehension of man. This is a recurring theme throughout the poem that I will return to later. Milton tries to make us comprehend the dismal nature of hell by creating a binary opposition between its ‘mournful gloom’ and heaven’s ‘celestial light’, and the contrasting of ‘this’ and ‘that’ sets up the ideas of immediacy and distance. These first three and a half lines convey the deep misery of the setting that Satan has found himself in, so his stoicism and principled defiance that we see when he suddenly cuts in with ‘be it so’ in the middle of line 4, is surprising and endearingly noble. ‘He who now is sovereign can dispose and bid what shall be right’ is, in my opinion, one of the most important lines in the poem. It explicitly highlights the arbitrary nature of objective morality. We see from this line that the only reason that Satan decides that ‘to do aught good never will be our task, but ever to do ill our sole delight’, and the only reason that he can be seen as evil, is because he disagrees with God, and it is God who decides what is good and what is evil. Satan argues that according to reason God is equal to the other angels, but it is only ‘force hath made (him) supreme above his equals.’ His following farewell to heaven and embrace of hell along with his assertion that ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven’ is incredibly stoic and is more the admirable resistance of a social revolutionary than a malevolent spirit.


In fact, this view of Satan as a freedom fighter for democracy against a tyrannical autocrat highlights another comparison, this time external to the text, which can, and, dubious as authorial readings tend to be, in this case I think should be made, and that is the parallel between Satan’s rebellion against God and the English civil war, which we know Milton to have been very actively involved with. In this reading Satan and his followers represent Cromwell and his anti-royalist army, while God represents the tyrannical king, Charles I. The most compellingly analogous sections of the poem, which support this idea are the two counsels held; the first in hell to decide on the actions of Satan’s army in gaining vengeance on God, and the second in heaven, when God sees that man will fall and somebody will have to be made mortal and die to redeem them. During the council in hell, Satan is the last to speak, allowing Moloch, Belial and Beelzebub to pitch their ideas first to be decided on by general consensus. In comparison, the voice of God dominates the council in heaven, with only Christ replying. This meeting is conducted as a despot’s declaration, rather than a democratic counsel. Linguistically, Satan speaks humbly and nobly, asserting that ‘I should ill become this throne, O peers, and this imperial sovereignty, adorned with splendour, armed with power, if aught proposed and judged of public moment, in the shape of difficulty or danger could deter me from attempting’. In comparison to this, God rants bad-temperedly (‘ingrate, he had of me all he could have’) and then asks, ‘which of ye will be mortal to redeem man’s mortal crime, and just the unjust to save(?)’ A variation of this reading could also be made, in which Satan, as well as representing Cromwell, could also represent Milton himself. The powers of Satan and God once again form a binary opposition. God’s power, according to Satan, derives from ‘force’, whereas Satan’s own power is in his rhetoric. Before the poem even begins he has used his powers of persuasion to build an army with which to rebel against God, and his power over their minds is clearly incredibly strong, as they remain loyal to him even after their defeat. He again manages to convince Eve to disobey God, not through force but by persuasion. Milton’s role in Cromwell’s revolt was not as a fighter, but as the Secretary of Foreign Tongues, in the Commonwealth parliament, and he wrote important tracts and polemics in support of the deposition and execution of the king, such as Areopagitica. Milton also studied classical rhetoric while at school and was required to participate in regular debates at Cambridge, so he clearly understood the importance of persuasion as opposed to force in a political uprising.

Related to the opposition of God and Satan, is that of heaven and hell, and just like man Eden acts as a middle party, prone to shifts and changes. We first see hell, which is characterised by darkness (‘darkness visible’), fire (‘as one great furnace flamed’) and depth (‘bottomless perdition’). Heaven, in contrast is characterised by light, and Milton emphasises the absolute nature of this light through repetition, when he says ‘since God is light, and never but in unapproachèd light dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee, bright effluence of bright essence increate’. Eden is subject to a cycle of day and night, at first undisrupted, but after the fall suddenly subjected to eclipses and storms. However, it is Milton’s use of light and darkness with regard to heaven and hell that I find most interesting. Milton was completely blind by the time he wrote Paradise Lost and his use of visual imagery takes on a abstract and sublime character, which melds together the physical and metaphysical in a way that must necessarily transcend or be limited by the human imagination. Rather than shying away from these descriptions Milton is content to use oxymorons and paradoxes, such as ‘darkness visible’, or simply images that can’t be comprehended like ‘thou from the first wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast abyss.’ This use of incomprehensible imagery emphasises the sense of the sublime and allows Milton to show that ‘the ways of God’ are far beyond our comprehension.



[i] John Milton, Paradise Lost, Oxford, 2008; Book I, 26



Frailty thy name is Hamlet (A silly and unconventional reading)

Lacan tells us, in ‘Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet’[i], that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set apart from previous versions of the story by the central role given to Ophelia. In fact, female sexuality in general plays a vital role in understanding what is generally seen as Shakespeare’s most deeply psychological play and I will argue that in following the psychoanalytical readings expounded by Freud, Ernest Jones and Lacan, and taking into account some of the play’s inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a new political reading, of Hamlet as conspirator to the throne, can be made. Hamlet’s hamartia, or tragic flaw, is usually seen as his incapability of decisive action and vengeance for his father. Goethe attributed this to a sensitivity, which is unequal to the task[ii] (‘conscience does make cowards’). Coleridge similarly claimed that Hamlet has ‘an overbalance in the contemplative faculty’[iii], which leads him to deliberate over everything and makes him incapable of decisive action. It has been argued against this view that Hamlet’s indecision is inconsistent. His murder of Polonius occurs in an instantaneous moment of passion, which it may be argued overrides his cowardice, however, the manner in which he sends Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths is carefully pre-meditated. When the role of female sexuality is taken into account, however, an entirely different explanation for this paralysis can be expounded. Hamlet’s state of depression and madness (feigned or otherwise) is caused by two factors: Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father and his incestuous marriage with Gertrude. Criticism prior to Freud generally saw these as distinct reasons contributing to Hamlet’s psychological state, however, using the tools of psychoanalysis and particularly the theory of the Oedipus complex, Freud argued that the combination of the two factors outweighed the sum of their parts[iv]. Ernest Jones points out Hamlet’s differing reactions to Claudius’ two crimes – moral indignation and the wish for vengeance for the murder of his father, and a disgusted horror at the marriage – and then explains the issue thus, ‘it has to be borne in mind that the perpetrator of the crimes is a relative, and an exceedingly near relative. The possible interrelation of the crimes, and the fact that the author of them is an actual member of the family on which they were perpetrated, gives scope for a confusion in their influence on Hamlet’s mind that may be the cause of the very obscurity that we are seeking to clarify.’[v] Freud’s argument, later developed by Jones, is that Hamlet’s closeness to Gertrude, which comes through in lines such as ‘let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, I pray thee stay with us’, is indicative of an Oedipus complex, whereby he had repressed wishes to kill his father and gain his mother’s full attention. According to Freud the marriage of Gertrude to Claudius brought those repressed feelings to the surface, causing Hamlet’s neurosis. It is significant that he contemplates suicide before the ghost tells him that his father had been murdered (‘O that this too, too sallied flesh would melt’). This reading places a far greater emphasis on Gertrude’s sexuality as a factor behind the events of the tragedy, as it shows that Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius is due to his guilt at wishing to commit the same crime. Both Freud and Jones later go on to argue that Hamlet’s neurosis is a reflection of Shakespeare’s own, however this sort of authorial reading is one that has lost it’s credence over the last century, particularly with Barthes’ declaration of the ‘death of the author’.

Hamlet’s Oedipus complex manifests itself in a madness, which we cannot be sure to be feigned, as Hamlet claims, or real. This madness is most famously expressed through Hamlet’s soliloquies on the subject of suicide. In the ‘to be, or not to be’ soliloquy Hamlet is questioning whether suicide or endurance is ‘nobler in mind.’ The idea of nobility ‘in mind’ can be seen as an attempt to compensate for what he feels are ignoble and vile thoughts.  He conflates the ideas of death and sleep (‘to die: to sleep’) and therefore runs into the fear that checks his drive towards suicide, ‘to sleep, perchance to dream’. In Freud’s theory of the unconscious the subject’s superego represses socially unacceptable thoughts, but these often come through in dreams through the processes of condensation and displacement, or in Lacan’s terminology, metonymy and metaphor. Hamlet’s fear of dreams, and his statement elsewhere that ‘I have bad dreams’, show that the repressed feelings that so horrify him resurface in his dreams, and his fear of the ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ is a fear that those dreams may continue in the eternal sleep of death.

Hamlet’s treatment of Gertrude throughout the play is scornful and disgusted. He tries to overcompensate for his knowledge of his hypocritical position by emphasising his mourning in a performative manner and contrasting it with what he sees as her indifference. In Hamlet’s first scene he aggressively takes issue with her use of the word ‘seems’ when describing his mourning. He sets up a binary opposition between ‘seems’ and ‘is’, which he then undermines by saying, ‘tis not alone my inky cloak’, implying that the black cloak and suit are indeed part of his act of mourning – seeming and being are conflated rather than opposed. ‘Customary suits’ and ‘forced breath’ are what Hamlet calls ‘but the trappings and the suits of woe’, and contain implication of insincerity the words ‘customary’ and ‘forced’. Hamlet, however, says ‘I have that within which passes show’, again contradicting himself by asserting that ‘passes’ do actually ‘show’ rather than ‘seem’. His inconsistencies show that his mourning ‘seems’ far more than he would like to admit. In the closet scene, after the murder of Polonius, Hamlet’s treatment of his mother is still more scornful and accusatory in spite of her pleas of remorse (‘thou turnst my eyes into my soul and there I see such black and grieved spots as will leave there their tinct’), and it becomes clear that his disgust at the surfacing of his desires towards her has led him to violently reject and abhor sexuality. This can be seen from the dirty and sickening language he uses in 3.4.90-92. ‘The rank sweat of an enseamed bed stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty’ is an incredibly sordid and potent picture of the way in which he views her marriage, which so closely reflects his own repressed desires.

Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia likewise reflects his Oedipus complex. Jones argued that before the death of his father Hamlet’s superego was successful in repressing his Oedipal tendencies, and that he had transferred his feelings of attraction from Gertrude to Ophelia (‘I loved you once’), who in her modesty, chastity, devotion and simplicity can be seen as the polar opposite of Gertrude. Lacan developed this idea further by arguing that after the murder of Hamlet’s father Ophelia loses her status as the love object, and in a separation from Hamlet’s subject becomes excluded and rejected. Hamlet’s disgust towards Gertrude becomes a more general misogyny, and he sees Ophelia merely as a ‘breeder of sinners’ and propagator of life (and therefore misery). He sees all women as sexually insatiable and corrupting, as seen in lines such as ‘wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them’. He likewise appropriates to Ophelia unpleasant general stereotypes of women – ‘you jig and amble and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance’. His imperative, ‘get thee to a nunnery’ has a double meaning, as in Shakespeare’s day nunnery meant both what it does today and was also used euphemistically to mean a brothel.

There is one more implication of the Oedipus complex in relation to royals such as Hamlet, which was relevant to Oedipus himself, but doesn’t factor in Freud’s formulation, and this is of succession to the throne. Hamlet throughout appears to be disinterested in politics and the state of affairs in Denmark, however some inconsistencies regarding the ghost of Hamlet’s father bring this into question. In the first scene when the ghost visits Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio they discuss the old king with a reverent air – ‘that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march’. At no point in the play do they speak of Claudius in the same way, and it seems significant that they go to Hamlet with their news rather than him. Another question raised by consideration of the ghost is why does it appear to them, but not to the queen? If it merely appeared to Hamlet, but not Horatio and the guards then it could be explained away as madness, however this is not possible under the circumstances. At no point throughout the play is Hamlet able to confirm absolutely that Claudius killed his father, even while Claudius is praying, as Hamlet arrives too late to hear his confession. Hamlet’s play is presented as an attempt to prove Claudius’ guilt by presenting him with the act that he supposedly committed, and Claudius does indeed leave in horror. However, this is not conclusive evidence. What Claudius has just witnessed, whether it is indeed a representation of his own crime or not, is a play, put on by his nephew, in which a nephew kills a king and marries the queen, his mother. Could it be that, rather than being wracked with guilt by the scene, Claudius has instead seen within it an elaborate threat engineered by Hamlet (who is, of course, the next in line to the throne). My argument is that Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio are conspirators who wish to depose Claudius and instate Hamlet to the throne. They win over Hamlet to this plot and he feigns madness in order to portray Claudius as an incestuous tyrant and to generate the implication that Claudius killed his father. This appears to leave the ghost scenes unreconciled, but this is not the case when we consider that Horatio is the only character left at the end to tell the tale.

[i] Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet

Author(s): Jacques Lacan, Jacques-Alain Miller and James Hulbert

Source: Yale French Studies, No. 55/56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise (1977), pp. 11-52

Published by: Yale University Press

[ii] J.W. von Goethe, in The Romantics on Shakespeare. p. 306


[iii] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, Capricorn, New York, 1959. pp. 164-5


[iv] Freud, S, The Interpretation of Dreams (excerpt) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Vol. 4, Ed. and trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-74), pp. 258-266.


[v] Jones, E, ‘The Oedipus-Complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive’, The American Journal of Psychology, 21.1 (Jan., 1910), pp. 72-113.


A Marxist Reading of ‘The Plundered Grave’, by Taras Shevchenko

With particular attention to the uses of metaphor, analyse ‘The Plundered Grave’, by Taras Shevchenko, from a Marxist perspective

Taras Shevchenko is seen as a symbol for the people of Ukraine and few poets can claim to have been the figurehead for a nationalist and social revolutionary spirit in the same way. Testament to this is Elisée Reclus’ observation, in the late 19th century, that the pilgrims to Shevchenko’s grave greatly outnumbered those at the grave of Voltaire, the most renowned French poet, despite the fact that France far surpassed Ukraine in terms of cultural development[i]. It is therefore impossible, in any analysis of Shevchenko’s work, to divorce his poetry from his socio-economic and cultural background.

In ‘The Plundered Grave’, Shevchenko uses the metaphor of Ukraine as a mother, who speaks for the majority of the poem between an exposition and a concluding second stanza of seven lines, mourning the loss of her freedom and that of her children, the people of Ukraine. He presents ‘the Muscovite’ as a grave robber ‘plundering utterly’ the graves of Ukraine, which shows the loss of freedom and extreme degradation faced by the Ukrainian people at the hands of the Russian empire. ‘Plundered’ is a very apt choice of wording in this context, as it holds connotations of the looting of a captured settlement, following a military victory, and implies that the oppressors take the best parts of Ukraine’s belongings, while leaving the rest. Clearly then, it is easy to see that the poem is an angry and mournful portrayal of social class and oppression, from the perspective of the oppressed. An analyst seeking evidence of Shevchenko’s Romantic nationalism needs look no further than the poem’s first couplet-

‘Peaceful land, beloved country,

O my dear Ukraine!’[ii]

This second line, with it’s anguished ‘O’ and its exclamation mark, exudes the patriotic pathos for which he is renowned. Shevchenko sustains this anguished tone throughout the poem, particularly in the lines in which the mother accuses Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who signed the Treaty of Pereyaslav with the Russians, for her downfall-

‘… O Bohdan,

O my foolish son!’

An overuse of impassioned ‘O’s and exclamation marks, the least subtle of all punctuation marks and one often avoided in poetry, can very easily slip into the ridiculous and give the impression of over-exaggerated emotion, much like an overly enthusiastic thespian. However, Shevchenko successfully retains a tone of dignified melancholy. The familial relationship with the people of Ukraine and its landscape created through the metaphor of ‘my mother’ and ‘My Brother, Dnipro’, again shows how strong the connection Shevchenko felt with the country which was his natural home and which he only saw for a short period of his difficult life. This metaphor also allows Shevchenko to emphasise his regret for the loss of Ukraine’s freedom, due to Khmelnytsky’s mistake, in the lines-

‘Bohdan, O my little Bohdan!

Had I known, in the cradle

I’d have choked you, in my sleep,

I’d have overlain you.’

This plays on our expectations of women and their nurturing qualities, as the thought of a mother wishing that she had killed her child in the cradle is shocking and unnatural to us and therefore shows how strongly Shevchenko felt about Ukrainian freedom. The repetition of ‘I’d’ personalizes the sentiment and shows us that these extreme feelings are in fact Shevchenko’s. He emphasises the feeling of oppression through his repetition of ‘and’ in the lines-

And my sons at foreign toil,

Far in foreign lands;

My brother, Dnipro, now runs dry,

And is deserting me;

And my dear graves the Muscovite

Is plundering utterly.’

Much like the Romantic German nationalists, Shevchenko took a great deal of influence for his poetry from Ukrainian folklore and folk poetry, as another act of defiance against the oppressive Russian regime, whose systematic process of Russification threatened Ukrainian culture, eventually leading to the Ems Ukaz of 1876, forty three years after the poem was written, which restricted the printing of books in the Ukrainian language. This influence can be seen in the poem’s metre, which is known in Ukraine as ‘kolomayka’ verse and uses couplets with a line of trochaic tetrameter, followed by a line of trochaic trimeter, as well as it’s rhyme scheme, which follows an ABCB pattern, with either rhymes or pararhymes on the second and fourth line ending. This Romantic nationalist nostalgia for past glory days can also be seen when the mother (Ukraine) tells us-

‘And there was a time, indeed,

When in this world I ruled.’

It is clear that Shevchenko saw Ukraine and its people as a once glorious and powerful nation, which had begun to ‘wane’ due to Russian oppression. This idea of the ‘fall from power’ enhances the misery of the poem. In the exposition section, he asks the mother-

‘Did you to your unsure babes

Neglect to teach the way?’

To which she replies-

‘I watched over my small children,

Teaching them the way,

And my flowers throve and grew,

My children true and good’

The metaphor of the flowers thriving and growing gives the impression of a prosperous and honourable people and when combined with the image of digging and excavating emphasizes the brutality of the Russian oppressors.

‘Let him dig and excavate’ is a polysemic metaphor, however. A second meaning could refer to the ploughing and tilling of the land. Ukraine is famous for it’s richly fertile soil, and has been referred to in the past as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’. In this meaning, Shevchenko could be referencing the fact that the Russians took the crops and resources from Ukraine for their own use and sale. This idea of the wastage of the land is reinforced by the lines-

‘And from their mother her old smock,

Patched and worn, to tear!’

This is a highly emotive metaphor and refers to those Ukrainians of a higher social class who helped the Russians and did well out of this oppressive system (‘let the renegades wax in strength and grow’). The mother’s old smock would be a very nostalgic and sentimental item, so the idea of tearing it implies treachery against one’s closest relation, the person who gives birth to you. Shevchenko shows clearly that these people are as much to blame for Ukraine’s suffering as the Russians, by linking the two through the twinned lexis, ‘wane’ and ‘wax’. These words are commonly associated with the moon, which was often used symbolically by Shakespeare, who greatly influenced Shevchenko, to imply fickleness and unreliability. Shevchenko shows his contempt for these people through hyperbolic language such as ‘renegades’ and ‘you brutes’. The fact that the smock is already ‘patched and worn’ shows the brutality and lack of mercy.

Although Shevchenko has been seen primarily as a Ukrainian nationalist, he was also a social revolutionary, a side to his poetry that was emphasised by the Soviets in the early years after the 1917 revolution. Shevchenko was, unusually for a poet, born a serf, and he aligns himself with the lowest classes in most of his poetry. With this in mind, if we return to the metaphor of digging and excavating, we can see that it bears connotations of hard labour, specifically the forced labour imposed on the Ukrainian people by their Russian oppressors. Marxist theory tells us that the exploitation of labourers leads to the alienation of the workforce from their labour[iv]. This alienation is intensified, for Shevchenko, by the fact that the bourgeoisie in this system are foreign and the land being laboured on is not Ukrainian land. He emphasises this alienation through the repetition of ‘foreign’ in the lines-

‘And my sons at foreign toil,

Far in foreign lands’

Although he is speaking through the mother, it is clear that, by saying ‘my sons’, Shevchenko is associating himself with these serfs, who, like him, had to serve foreign masters, far from their homes. Likewise, when the mother says-

‘Now my steppes have all been sold,

In Jews’ and Germans’ hands’

it is in fact Shevchenko who feels that he has been robbed of his own possessions, by foreign oppressors. The idea of taking what is not one’s own is a key concept in the poem, shown particularly by the line-

‘He does not seek his own…’

which is emphasised by its ellipsis.

The final meaning of the digging and excavating metaphor is that of the struggle for freedom. In the concluding stanza, Shevchenko asks the question-

‘What have they been seeking there,

What was buried under

It by the old fathers?’

The idea that freedom can be found in the tomb of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, once it has been excavated is a recurring one in Shevchenko’s works, notably in ‘The Great Vault’. It is clear that the search for freedom is the key theme of the poem for a number of reasons. Central to the mother’s soliloquy is the line-

‘Looking out for freedom!…’

It’s central positioning in the poem, along with the exclamation mark and the ellipsis, emphasises the importance of this line. Like wise, the final two lines break from the metrical scheme, becoming essentially the same metrical couplets, diminuted into single lines.-

‘If they had but found what lay hidden there beneath it,

Then the children would not weep, the mother cease her grieving.’

This gives the effect of a concluding moral message and given that we know the answer to be freedom, we see that the struggle for freedom is that moral.


Word count: 1580

[i] Taras Shevchenko – Song Out Of Darkness, from the introduction by V. Swoboda

[ii] Taras Shevchenko – ‘The Plundered Grave’, Song Out Of Darkness, translated by Vera Rich

[iv] AQA Critical Anthology