Friday, September 21, 2018

Gender switching In Shakespeare

An issue that has intrigued me for some time is gender switching in Shakespeare’s plays. As everyone knows, since women could not appear on the Elizabethan stage, the female roles were played by adolescent boy actors. An additional complication occurred when the male playing a woman switched back to a male: the so-called double-disguise gambit. 
Of the several examples possibly the most interesting is Viola aka Cesario in Twelfth Night. Her cross dressing enables Viola to fulfill several male roles, such as acting as a messenger between Orsino and Olivia, as well as serving as Orsino's confidant. She does not, however, use her disguise to enable her to intervene directly in the plot (unlike other Shakespearean heroines such as Rosalind in As You Like It and Portia in The Merchant of Venice), remaining someone who simply allows “time" to untangle the plot. 
Viola's persistence in transvestism until her betrothal in the final scene of the play has fostered a discussion of the possibly homoerotic relationship between Viola and Orsino.
Having a male actor play Viola enhanced the impression of androgyny and sexual ambiguity. In keeping with today’s concerns some modern scholars believe that Twelfth Night, with the added confusion of male actors and Viola's deception, addresses gender issues with particular urgency They also hold, more dubiously, that the depiction of gender in Twelfth Night reflects the era's pseudo-scientific theory that females are simply imperfect males.
Famously, Judith Butler once held that sexual orientation was highly malleable in the way that on arising each morning one decides what clothes to wear. The attraction of further exploring this theme is its contemporary nature. For me, though, that is a signal that caution is required.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Observations on French literature

Some notes on why French literature is important. Let us start with the Middle Ages, oddly omitted from one recent "comprehensive" history. As with most nations it begins with an epic, the Chanson de Roland. Yet there are other epics, the most resonant being the Arthurian cycle, imitated in other national literatures. The era sees the emergence of vernacular drama. Also, the first secular lyric poetry in Europe, the Troubadours (though technically this is written in Occitan). One way or another, most people are acquainted with the searing poetry of Franc,ois Villon. Marco Polo chose to write In French, as did a host of writers in Norman England. 

Continuing my rapid survey of French literature, I turn to the sixteenth century. Like all major literatures, that of France was receptive, as appropriate, to foreign influence. As Italy was the homeland of the Renaissance, so it supplied a number of significant features. In lyric poetry the foremost contribution was the sonnet. Around Ronsard (1524–1585), Joachim du Bellay (1522–1560) and Jean Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589), there formed a group of radical young poets (generally known today as La Pléiade), who began producing, among other forms of verse, Petrarchan sonnet cycles (centering around an amorous encounter or an idealized woman). They also introduced many allusions to classical mythology stemming from the new humanist emphasis on careful study of the Ancient Greek and Latin authors.
Orientation along these lines was afforded by Du Bellay's manifesto, the "Defense and Illustration of the French Language" (1549), which maintained that French (like the Tuscan of Petrarch and Dante) was a worthy vehicle for literary expression. In addition it promulgated a program of linguistic and literary production (including the imitation of Latin and Greek models and purification of vocabulary).
Classical allusions also abound in the Essays of Montaigne, though arguably he introduced a new genre, the free-wheeling essay.
While his endeavor is sometimes termed Menippean satire, the unique works of Rabelais, concerning Gargantua and Pantagruel, seem to derive almost entirely from indigenous popular sources. They have given rise to an adjective, Rabelaisian.

Continuing our itinerary, the French 18th century was dominated by the giants of the Enlightenment, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau, who require no embroidery from me. It also saw the rise of oppositional fiction, such as Dangerous Liaisons of 1782 by Pierre Chodelos de Laclos, an epistolatory novel several times filmed in recent years. Possibly the most important development, though not always recognized as such, was the clandestine literature, which I have discussed elsewhere in “French Erotic Writings of the 18th Century.

More on this theme later.