Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: classic literature (page 1 of 5)

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real?

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Painting of scene from As You Like It--Jester Touchstone talks to country lass Audrey in Arden forest.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Touchstone the Jester romances Audrey, the country lass.

As You Like It: Is Love Real? Learning and Laughing at  this and other Big Questions

How could a very old play about an imaginary forest where shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks, sing of love, and write poems on trees have anything to say about our lives in the 21st century?

Plenty, as I and my students repeatedly found—because this play, As You Like It, was written by the magnificent William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human heart shows as full and rich today as ever it did when As You Like It was first performed in 1599.

One reason I love this play so much is that it tells us something so many of us modern cynics need to hear today:

Love is real. Yes, it may be complicated, twisted, and strange–but ultimately, love  is good, and can truly be long-lasting.

Here’s another good message in this play:

Simplifying your life, taking it right down to the basics even for a short while, can help you gain self-knowledge and regenerate your soul.

Not that Love, or Anything, is Simple. . .

Of course neither message is presented as just that simple. As You Like It may be high on love, but also illustrates its negative aspects.

For one thing, love is not as nearly so “romantic” as poems and romance novels often describe it. People get mixed up, mistaking obsession, lust, or ambition for love. We call all kinds of relationships “love” that, in truth, really aren’t. And not all loves are going to last.

As You Like It also shows that a “simple” life in the country—living rough and leaving a “small footprint,” as we might call it today–isn’t always that simple, or even very pleasant. However, life in the sophisticated city doesn’t always offer the best life either.

For one thing, civilization isn’t always that civilized. “Civilized” people can treat each other with savagery. The best people struggle to keep their positions in society as the worst people strike out from behind false smiles.

Yet when all is said and done in Shakespeare’s comedy, after many witty dialogues by the characters and much laughter from the audience, As You Like It ends with some clear messages:

  • Though some folk are corrupt and selfish, there are good people in the world.
  • A simple country life, for all its hardships, has valuable lessons to teach.
  • Urban civilization, for all its corruptions, can also enrich people’s characters.
  • And. . . True Love, despite its complexities, is very much worth pursuing.

As You Like It: Part Parody 

It’s doubly fun and interesting that Shakespeare conveys these, and many other themes and ideas, through engaging in a a re-mix of another popular work: Thomas Lodge’s pastoral fiction RosalyndeAccording to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, “Thomas Lodge’s prose romance  Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy  (first published 1590) is best known today as the major source for Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, but its own success is apparent from its numerous reprintings.”   As You Like It, coming along nine years after Rosalynde’s first printing, is both homage to and parody of Lodge’s pastoral fiction.

Shakespeare’s play follows many of the conventions popularized by Lodge’s work and other Renaissance pastoral romances,  in which well-born ladies and gentlemen leave their sophisticated lives at court to wander an idyllic forest and countryside among simple shepherds and shepherdesses.  (“Pastoral” means “country.”) In traditional pastoral, these fictional lads and lasses have little to do but discourse of love and woo one another from morning to night.   Thus,  Lodge’s work is lively and enchanting.    Shakespeare’s version of the pastoral in As You Like It, however, is as gritty, real, and elemental as it is charming and sweet.

Though funny and very entertaining, As You Like It goes well beyond Lodge’s Rosalynde in presenting a balanced view of the elemental questions about life and love.  Let’s take a closer look at As You Like It.

Shakespeare's As You Like It characters painted in forest scene.

Shakespeare’s forest of Arden in As You Like It. 1864 painting by John Edmund Buckley.

 

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Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? And in the end, why would a modern reader want to read it? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost, and makes the case for plunging in to this magnificent work.

Miss Part I? Click here to start at the beginning.

Paradise Lost Part II

As discussed in the post “Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost,” this magnificent epic tale tells the story of how Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God and lose their place in paradise. In that post, you can read about the historical background behind the great poem, and how each major character helps Milton make his case for the existence of individual liberty.

Here, I will take up that theme in more detail, along with three other ideas that Milton promotes throughout the poem. It’s not surprising that such a vast work expresses more than just one big idea. Let’s take a look at four major themes I see in Paradise Lost.

And then, some words about why you would want to read it.

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Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost depicts the same episode from Genesis as this painting, showing God rebuking Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve. Painting by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost Part I

Part II HERE

Voices in Paradise Lost

Some authors become their characters. Charles Dickens is a conspicuous example. Reading a Dickens novel is like watching a one-man play. It’s as if, in the mind’s eye, Dickens himself does all of the voices and each antic and somber gesture.

But not all authors become their characters. Sometimes it’s more like the characters become their author, by becoming spokespersons for his different points of view. In the case of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), the characters we meet—Adam, Eve, even Satan–are various adaptations of Milton the man. Like Milton, they all have rich intellects and strong reasoning skills. They all are persuasive and utterly committed to their causes.

But more than that, just as did Milton the English citizen, all the major characters place great importance on individual freedom.

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Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge: Book Club, Meet Classic!

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Book Club, Meet Classic

Book Club, Meet Classic

My neighborhood book club has read many contemporary works, but what happened when they agreed to read a classic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge?

It was the night of my neighborhood book club meeting, and I was nervous.

The club usually reads and discusses contemporary genre fiction and bestselling nonfiction. In recent months we had discussed Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, Lansing’s Endurance, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad,  Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls (a love story set in Syria at the time of the Armenian Genocide), Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife (based on the Anne Morrow Lindbergh story), Mundy’s Code Girls (on the role women played in codebreaking in WW II), and more.

But this time was different. This time I had persuaded them to read a classic. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was to be the one.

The club members are smart people with rich career backgrounds who love to read, and they read a lot; but no one was in the habit of reading older works. Great works from earlier times often differ enough from current writing to make the reading experience significantly different.

How would they respond to a work written not just about an earlier time, but in an earlier time?

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Reading the Renaissance: English Literature from 1485-1660

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Painting of Queen Elizabeth shows her from the waist up, reddish hair in elaborate close waves, wearing elaborate Elizabethan gown with lace, gold, pearls, and gems.

Queen Elizabeth I, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, essence of the English Renaissance era..

From its beginnings during the 14th century, Renaissance ideas based on classical learning and a focus on all things human–including art, literature, culture, and politics–spread from Italy throughout Europe. Luckily for today’s lovers of English literature, when the Renaissance came to England, it inspired a flowering of magnificent English literature throughout the 15th and 16th centuries that readers still revere and thrill to read today.

This Renaissance era in England (also known as the Early Modern Period), from about 1485-1660, is freighted with famous writers and treasured texts. Spenser, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, Donne, and the incomparable William Shakespeare are just a few names that appear on the Renaissance Writer Roll of Honor.

You can find out about the best-known works of these and many other Renaissance English writers by checking out latest literary timelines focusing on Renaissance English Literature, HERE:

Tudor/Sixteenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1485-1603.

Jacobian/Early Seventeenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1603-1660

Before you head to the  Renaissance English Literature timelines, you can stay here for a few minutes to read some background on Renaissance life and literature. It will help you understand, appreciate, and enjoy these beautiful, enduring works in the Western tradition.

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Dickens Talk: A Fun Conversation on Social Media

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Color photo up close: smartphone screen showing social media icons, Facebook in center.

Classic literature comes to Social Media

If you are a Facebook member, you may have seen this challenge going around on people’s Timelines: a friend nominates you to post the cover of a book that is significant for you, one book cover for each of seven days—just the cover, with (I quote) “No Explanation.” With my reputation for loving books, it’s not surprising that this challenge came around to me. With my penchant for talking about books, it’s also not surprising that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (or my keyboard silent) to follow the “No Explanation” rule.

In short, I explained.

I commented briefly on why I chose David Copperfield as one of my “significant to me” book selections. I’m glad I did, because the comment gave rise to a fun and interesting conversation about Dickens with several of my friends.

This was so much fun, I wanted to share it with my blog readers as well. My friends kindly gave me permission to post our Dickens chat here, just to show how much fun it can be to have shared experience and love of a classic author. Several different topics come up, as you can see, the usual case when readers discuss an author of sufficient depth and accomplishment to be valued as classic.

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Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

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Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.

In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.

As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.

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How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

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20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

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Trollope’s “The Warden”: Empathy v. The Media

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View of Medieval almshouses in yellow stone with roofed walk and row of arched supports.

St. John’s Almshouses in Sherborne could be a model for Hiram’s Hospital in “The Warden.”*

Do you like taking quizzes? Try this one:

  • What famous novelist attacked false news and the unbalanced power of a money-driven mainstream media, and in what novel?
  • What famous novelist, in this same novel, faulted popular storytellers for creating blind emotion and simplistic portrayals of “good” or “bad” people?
  • What famous novelist attacked a famous public intellectual for his bombastic cynicism about everything in the modern world?
  • What novelist thought the central character of a work should be neither a faultless victim nor a morally pristine super-person, but rather an ordinary man, weak but well-meaning, a “mixed” character with good and bad, noble and foolish characteristics all mixed together?

As contemporary as these ideas may sound, the answer to all these questions is not someone writing today, but a writer whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 2015, along with his novel that was published in Victorian England back in 1855: writer Anthony Trollope and his sweet little gem of a book, The Warden.

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How to Read American Modernist Literature from Our New Reading List

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Kandinsky's abstract image in bright pinks, yellow, whites, and greens is a good parallel to the freer written forms of American Modernist literature.

Kandinsky’s 27-Garden of Love. This image was printed on the postcard commemorating the Armory Show of 1913, the art show that introduced Modern Art to the American public.

What is American Literary Modernism?

When most people hear the term “Modern Art,” certain styles and images spring to mind: Cubism and the lyrical fundamental forms of Picasso, abstract lines and child-like bright colors of Kandinsky or Miro, the raw emotional expressionism of Munch in “The Scream.”

But how do the tenets of Modernism translate to literature? In honor of the unveiling of our new American Modernist Literature Reading List, covering American literature from 1915 – 1945, let’s touch on some of the qualities we’ll find in the works on that list—things like rejection of older forms of literature, invention and experimentation with new forms, minimalism and pastiche, streams of consciousness in narrative, impressionism and subjectivism, a new interest in primitive art and forms of belief, and a drive to make reality appear “new” and “strange.”

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