Three LITB4 essays, just for fun.

They’re also for half-term homework. But for fun, too.

Complete at least TWO of the following essays by Tuesday 4th November. Click on the title of the poem for a link to the text.

1. ‘Goblin Market depicts the triumph of its protagonists over the capitalist market. It is a paean to consumer power.’ To what extent do you agree with this interpretation of the poem?

2. ‘It is with the male partner that power resides within price relationships, and therefore in society at large.’ To what extent is this the case in D. H. Lawrence’s Last Words to Miriam?

3. ‘Carol Ann Duffy’s use of metaphor in Valentine presents love as a uniquely destructive force.’ How far do you consider this interpretation of the poem to be true?


Upper Sixth! LITB4 Coursework Idea…

Two great things are happening tomorrow.
1. It’s payday.
2. The shortlisted poems for the T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize will be announced.

This made me think, why don’t you have a look at them and see what you think? And whilst you’re at it, why don’t you consider them using some of the ideas in Section C of the the Critical Anthology? Could make for a very interesting coursework essay…

Click on the link below (tomorrow) for the lowdown…

T. S. Poetry Prize – Shortlist


Much Ado About Sex

The following notes are adapted from Alexander Leggatt’s chapter on Comedy and Sex, in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Comedy, ed. Alexander Leggatt, Cambridge University Press, 2002. Any reference you make to them should be footnoted, and the above text listed in your bibliography.


Comedy and Sex

‘Sex brings out the animal in humanity.’ It has a:

‘tendency to deflate our pretensions by bringing us down to the low physical realities that demand our attention when we would rather be declaring love or expounding philosophy: the need to scratch, the need to urinate, the need for food and sex

Sex is also reductive; it reduces humanity to something very basic, primal – the opposite, perhaps, of the civilised, social selves we present to the world. It’s about the relationship between the biological and the social, the animal and the human. If comedy exposes our real, hidden, subconscious selves – the Freudian ‘id’, then sex is just about as near-perfect a topic as there is, and a prime source of comedy.

Much Ado About Vagina

The play’s title is oft-interpreted as meaning a lot of fuss over nothing. Or over what was believed to be something, but was, in reality, nothing – no thing – no true, or real thing. Much Ado About an Illusion. Much Ado About a Lie. Much Ado About a Made-up Thing. However, in Shakespeare’s lexicon, the word ‘nothing’ didn’t just denote nothing. It had a secondary meaning: vagina. Much Ado About Vagina. Much Ado About What You’ve Done With It. Much Ado About Sex. And if you think about it, that is what the play is really about. The ‘Much Ado’ in Act 4 scene 1 isn’t about nothing. It’s about sex. Or, to use Claudio’s words, ‘savage sensuality’.

Sex Makes Fools of us All

For all their protestations of antipathy and avowals to remain single forever and eternity, there is a sexual attraction between Beatrice and Benedick that is evident from the get-go. When you look at the intercourse (excuse the pun) between them, you find that it is littered with sexual innuendo. Beatrice’s first words in the play: ‘Signior Montanto’ refer to an ‘upward thrust’ in fencing. Benedick will not ‘hang his bugle in an invisible baldrick’ (1.1.231) and Beatrice protests that she does not want him to ‘put her down’ 2.1.271). Their language is sexual at the very moments when they are attempting to persuade their listeners (or more pertinently, themselves) that they are not. Whilst seeking to establish decorum, to assert their independence and freedom, they are, ironically, slaves to their own words, which belie the truth and reveal the very opposite. The irony of this is a chief source of comedy; it is rather like my saying that I am speechless, and proceeding to talk about why – the very words I utter are proof that the opposite is in fact the case. When Beatrice claims that she does not want Benedick to ‘put her down’, the joke is on her, for it is clear to characters and audience alike that what she really feels is the exact opposite. In attempting to appear one thing, she is in actual fact its very antithesis. (A similar thing happens in A Midsummer Nitgt’s Dream with the chink in the wall – kissing its holes and stones…)

Moreover, their banter can itself be perceived as a form of intercourse in itself. Leonato raises this idea when he puns on Beatrice’s ‘love letter’ to Benedick in 2.3.135: ‘O when she had writ it, and was reading it over, she found “Benedick” and “Beatrice” between the sheet’. The image captures the inter-relativity of sex and language. Try as we might, whenever we communicate, we are liable to exposure. Our words betray us. They expose the subconscious, hidden selves we would rather keep hidden. Against our fervent wishes to the contrary, (and, often, our belief that such is the case), they reveal our humanity.

Tragedy and Sex

What all of this means is that there is much potential for tragedy when it comes to sex. If it is the seat of our hidden, suppressed selves, it is by its very nature where we are most vulnerable. The potential for disaster – for hurt, pain, exposure, suffering, guilt, shame, etc. is huge. Othello is a tragedy motivated by the hero’s belief that his wife is ‘slippery’. The tragic events of The Winter’s Tale are prompted by Leontes’ obsession with the idea that his ‘pond’ has been ‘fished in’ by his best friend, Polixenes. Hamlet becomes increasingly disgusted by what he perceives to be the rampant sexual desires of his own mother. In Much Ado, Claudio accuses Hero of being ‘more intemperate in [her] blood / Than Venus, or those pamper’d animals / That rage in savage sensuality’ (4.1.59-61). Sex is at the heart of the matter.

Let’s Talk About Sex: Much Ado About Words

However, whilst Much Ado has sex as its chief catalyst for action, it does not present us with the disastrous and tragic endings of the plays mentioned above. Unlike Othello, Claudio does not murder Hero and then himself. Her ‘death’ (rather like that of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, is an illusion. Indeed, Claudio’s poetic, rhetorical outbursts in 4.1 border on the ridiculous; there is certainly not much of the tragic about them. They are just words, and rather empty ones at that, not unlike those spoken perhaps, by Margaret and Borachio on Hero’s balcony. As comedy, the diffusal of the tragic potential of sex lies in the fact that, despite all the talk about it, no-one in the play actually has it. Margaret, the most ‘sexually active’ character, is so only in word, not in deed. She jokes about sex on Hero’s wedding morning, when she says that Hero’s heart will soon be made ‘heavier by the weight of a man’ (3.4.25) and again when she puns on Beatrice’s being ‘stuffed’: ‘A maid, and stuffed!’ (line 60). Her dialogue with Benedick at the start of 5.2 is absolutely filthy. But it is just that: dialogue. Hero is made ‘wanton’ though words alone. At the end of the play, Borachio insists upon Margaret’s innocence. It is only ever the words of Don John, and then Claudio, that constitute the ‘sex’ between ‘Hero’ and Borachio. ‘What man talked with you, yesternight?’ Claudio asks Hero (4.1.83). Margaret is sexually active in words alone, and unwittingly so. Thus the ‘Nothing’ of the title is perhaps more accurately interpreted as ‘No Sex’, or: ‘Much Ado About No Vagina’. If the ending were tragic, the very opposite would have been the case.


Language in Much Ado About Nothing: puns, double-entendre and malapropisms

Messina is a wordy world. Its inhabitants like to chatter. Language matters, and right from the get-go. Not even the messenger, whose sole task is to deliver news of Don Pedro’s success in battle and imminent arrival, is exempt from the wit that flows so freely on Leonato’s estate. Words are not merely a means of communication, but a source of entertainment and delight. They are an art. It is no surprise then, that much of the play’s humour is the result of wordplay. From the exaggerated and elaborate epithets of Benedick to the witty ‘poinards’ of Beatrice (not to mention the ridiculous malapropisms of Dogberry and Verges) wordplay is never far away. We should not underestimate its importance.

Firstly, wordplay is one of Shakespeare’s chief methods of characterisation. Let us first consider the character of Beatrice. Her first line: ‘I pray you, is Signior Montanto returned from the wars, or no?’ uses wordplay to undermine Benedick, by playing on the sexual innuendo of ‘montanto’, a fencing term for an ‘upright blow or thrust’. She is then quick to turn the messenger’s words into something altogether different when she quips: ‘A good soldier to a lady, but what is he to a lord?’ again hinting at Benedick’s apparently infamous ways with women. The messenger’s words are a further source of punning in line 53: ‘It is so indeed, he is no less than a stuffed man’, where the original compliment (‘a man, stuffed with all honourable virtues’) is transformed into the stuff(ing) of an insult: ‘but for the stuffing – well, we are all mortal.’ Only seconds before the man himself arrives, Beatrice finds time for another pun, when she responds to the messenger’s diplomatic understatement that ‘the gentleman is not in [her] books’ with: ‘No; and he were, I would burn my study (I.i.73). Such a profound and insistent use of double-entendre establishes Beatrice’s quick-witted nature (in contrast with Don John, who is ‘not of many words’) and we may well admire her for it, as well as anticipate with delight the ‘skirmish of wits’ that will no doubt ensue when ‘Signior Montato’ does indeed arrive. The messenger, with his elaborate formality (‘badge of bitterness’) perhaps serves as a prologue for what is to come later in the scene, with Benedick. He is no match for Beatrice’s sharp wit, and we look forward to meeting the man who is.

When Benedick does arrive, Shakespeare does not disappoint:

Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?
Beatrice: Is it possible disdain should die, while she hath such meet food to feed it, as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come in her presence.

The insult does more than simply pun on his original pejorative; it adds a fresh insult to the mix. In this ‘skirmish of wit’ Beatrice has both seen and raised her opponent’s hand. However, unlike the messenger, Benedick is undefeated:

Benedick: Then is courtesy a turncoat.

The dramatic impact of this is significant, for we all love a ‘merry war’, but so is its comic effect. Whilst their sparring is based in wordplay, it remains merry indeed, for it is just that: play. Thus it is essential not only in its establishing characters, but, moreover, in establishing the relationship between those characters. Their ‘war’ can never end in tragedy whilst it is so firmly rooted in wordplay, for play is, by its very nature, a game, a bit of fun. We would be wrong to take it too seriously when they themselves are not.

If we are to believe in the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, it is essential that we like them. For a modern audience, Benedick’s views on women may prove something of an obstacle in this regard, perhaps in the same way that Kate’s eventual submission at the end of The Taming of the Shrew seems a rather dissatisfying conclusion to the play. In this respect, Benedick’s use of language is certainly worth exploring, for it is difficult to take his views on women seriously when they are littered with hyperbole such as: ‘I will die in it at the stake.’ Don Pedro’s response: ‘Thou wast ever an obstinate heretic in the despite of beauty’ (I.i.217-8 – my emphasis) serves to mock such an oath – only a matter as serious as heresy could result in one’s pledging to be burned at the stake for their beliefs. Interestingly, Benedick continues in a religious vein when he responds: ‘That a woman conceived me, I thank her…’ Ketteredge has suggested that here, ‘Benedick speaks with mock solemnity, as if he were reciting his heretical confessional of faith.’ The point is clear: we would be wrong to take Benedick’s views on women (like his views on Beatrice) too seriously. He certainly isn’t, and later on admits that they were nothing other than ‘paper bullets of the brain’. They are insubstantial, weightless; they do not hit the mark. Nor are they from the heart, but the ‘brain’; such is clear from the language. We would do well to agree with Don Pedro when he declares that, before he dies, he will see Benedick ‘look pale with love’. He is certainly not taken in by Benedick’s exaggerated oaths to remain a bachelor. Neither should we be.

(By means of contrast, it is interesting to note the way the form shifts from prose to verse when Benedick leaves this scene. It is almost as if, now that the frivolous and lighthearted comedy of Bachelor Benedick is over, the mood grows, by contrast, far more solemn. Shakespeare indicates this by adopting the use of verse for the more serious discussion between Don Pedro and Claudio which follows.)

Finally, a note on structure. We cannot underestimate how important this is to the success of the comedy. If we are to fully appreciate the lighter scenes, it is important that they are thrown into relief by those of a darker, more serious nature. (The opposite is also true, of course.) This is where Dogberry and Verges play a role that is of the utmost importance.


Much Ado About Nothing: Thoughts Specific and General



Below are the key scenes we’ll be focussing on when we start to look at Much Ado About Nothing next term:


Note that these are the only scenes we’ll be reading (performing) in class.
You’ll find the first few lessons a lot more fun if you’re already familiar with the play and its characters, so do have a little look at it in advance. The Kenneth Branagh film is a triumph.

Additionally, below are the topics we’ll be focussing on once we’ve made our way through the set scenes:

1. Structure and Rom-com: Much Ado About Nothing and Anchorman
I.i, II.i, II.iii, III.i, IV.i, V.ii
In what way does the structure of Much Ado About Nothing contribute to its effectiveness as a comedy?

2. Dis/order in Much Ado About Nothing
II.i, II.iii (B&B) IV.i, IV. ii, V.i, V.iv
Explore the relationship beween order and chaos in Much Ado About Nothing.

3. Tragicomic? Links with Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Othello.
I.iii, II.ii, II.iii, III.ii, IV.i, V.iv
Write about some of the connections between Much Ado About Nothing and Shakespeare’s other plays.

4. Language: Puns, Double-entendre and malapropism
I.i, III.v, IV.ii, V.ii
Explore Shakespeare’s use of language to create humour in Much Ado About Nothing.

5. Seriously funny: The darker side of Much Ado About Nothing
I.iii, IV.i, V.i, V.iv
Explore the effect of the above scenes on the play as a whole.

6. ‘Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.’ The Folly of Love in Much Ado About Nothing.
II.i (Benedick) II.iii (Benedick) III.i (Beatrice) III.ii (Benedick) V.ii, V.iv
Much Ado About Nothing suggests that ‘love makes fools of us all’. To what extent do you agree?

7. ‘Strike up, pipers!’ Revelry in Much Ado About Nothing.
II.i, II.iii, V.ii, V.iii, V.iv
Explore the ways in which music, dance and revelry contribute to the action of Much Ado About Nothing.

8. Practically hilarious: Slapstick and practical jokes in Much Ado About Nothing.
II.i, II.iii, III.i, V.iv
In what ways do practical jokes contribute to the action and humour of Much Ado About Nothing?

Brace yourselves.