The Poetics of Meaning

“For in verse is both goodness and sweetness, rhubarb and sugar candy, the pleasant and the profitable, wherefore, as Horace saith, omen tulip punctum qui miscuit utile dilci. He that can mingle the sweet and the wholesome, the pleasant and the profitable, he is indeed an absolute good writer, and such be poets if any be such: they present unto us a pretty tale, able to keep a child from play and an old man from the chimney corner.” 

– Sir John Harington


In a time where major aspects of life underwent significant changes, the way in which writers perceived their world began to undergo parallel changes, which necessitated a shift in the ways in which they began to write about their worlds. Born from a period of upheaval, Renaissance literary criticism and poetry began to attempt to define and defend the style and medium previously seen as immoral, pointless, and excessive, among many other negative criticisms. Writers of Renaissance literary criticism sought to defend poetry from critics by pointing to the purposes of poetry, and the various methods through which good poetry was written. One movement that was symptomatic of the Renaissance and the birth of humanism, was the recovery and revival of styles of reading and writing that were characteristic of works of classical antiquity. One Ancient Greek opinion, that was essentially universal, as noted by Dr. Donald Clark, was that poetry inspires, teaches, and makes better men. Sir John Harington posed the question,”for who would once dare to oppose himself against so many Alexanders, Caesars, Scipios (to omit infinite other princes, both of former and later ages, and of foreign and nearer countries), that with favour, with study, with practice, with example, with honours, with gifts, with preferments, with great and magnificent cost have encouraged and advanced poets and poetry?” (Alexander 261). As a consequence of these newly revived beliefs and attempts to restore the integrity that poetry once held, these writers began to ask significant questions about language, symbols, meaning and so on, about literature in general, and poetry more specifically. Their responses to condemnations of their predecessors point to significant ideas and questions about the nature of poetry that continue to linger in such a fashion that students of literature so many decades later are concerned with studying them, even to date.


Literary criticism arising from this period reveals the multiple layers of poetry, as its authors proposed various arguments that revealed what they believed poetry was for, and how it accomplished its purposes. One such revelation that can be drawn from these works is that the purposes of poetry are both vast and numerous. These purposes include attempts to teach, to communicate, to emphasize, to imagine, to record, to praise, and to persuade, to enumerate a few. Underlying each of these, however, is the purpose to mean. Harington, for example, argues that poetry is primary philosophy, the purpose of which is to introduce us to life from childhood, to teach character, emotion, and action in a way that is more interesting and pleasurable than reading a scholarly paper or doctrine. Similarly, Puttenham suggests that the purpose of poetry and rhetorical devices is to beautify language with eloquence and fullness of meaning, for beauty and efficacy. These authors also suggest that poetry provides a pleasurable escape from the realities of the world, whilst simultaneously bettering the mind and morality of their readers.

Nevertheless, a vast selection from the record of poetry written over time suggests that the way poetry functions as a gateway to meaning remains stable. Put in terms of literary theory and semiotics, poetry uses language in a way in which the signifier means something more, points to something greater and deeper, than the individuated signified. This use of language to significant meaning has remained stable as poetry has developed over time. And meaning, as we have all probably gathered from the way our texts look

How my English texts always look when I'm done with them. The thought process behind them always being: "What does this mean...?"

How my English texts always look when I’m done with them. The thought process behind them always being: “What does this mean…?”

after we are through annotating them, encompasses a great deal of variety and and contradiction in individual words alone.

However, poetry aims to do this in a number of ways…

One such way is demonstrated in Sir John Harington’s A Brief Apology of Poetry through his arguments regarding the various levels of meaning. He suggests that there are three levels of meaning, the literal, the moral, and the allegorical. In his defence of poetry, Harington argues for the significant efficacy and importance of allegory as a tool of meaning, noting that “the men of greatest learning and highest wit in the ancient times did of purpose conceal these deep mysteries of learning and, as it were, cover them with the veil of fables and verse, for sundry causes” (Alexander 267). He argues that it is because of this ability to conceal and reveal through different levels of meaning, that all types and forms of poetry are not only allowable, but also valuable to readers for purposes of both pleasure and profit. Harington suggests that, “the reading of a good heroical poem may make man both wiser and honester… [and] if comedies may be so made as the beholders may be bettered by them, without all doubt all other sorts of poetry may bring their profit as they do bring delight, and if all, then much more the chief of all, which by all men’s consent is the heroical” (Alexander 273).

Another way in which poetry endeavours to fulfill its purpose of significant meaning, is through methods such as those suggested by George Puttenham in The Third Book of Ornament. Puttenham argues that as courtly ladies “do think themselves more amiable in every man’s eye when they be in their richest attire…than when they go in cloth or in any other plain and simple apparel, even so cannot our vulgar poesy show itself either gallant or gorgeous if any limb be left naked and bare and not clad in his kindly clothes and colours, such as may convey them somewhat out of sight, that is, from the common course of ordinary speech and capacity of vulgar judgement” (Alexander 134). Two interesting ways in which Puttenham argues poetry decorates itself in such fancy attire are through ‘copious amplifications’ and Enargeia, the concept of compelling descriptions that appeal to the ‘eyes of the mind’ and don’t merely serve to add literary embellishment. Both poetic devices point to a meaning deeper than the one provided by a mere understanding of what’s being said, and rather demands that one understands what’s being meant. The poet, Puttenham holds,

“by that good and pleasant persuasions first reduced the wild and beastly people into public societies and civility of life, insinuating unto them under fictions with sweet and coloured speeches many wholesome lessons and doctrines, then no doubt there is nothing so fit for him as to be furnished with all the figures that be rhetorical, and such as do most beautify language with eloquence and sententiousness” (Alexander 165).

Based on such arguments put forward by critics such as Harington and Puttenham, it can be argued that, while its purposes are vast and varied in kind, the aims of meaning are largely a stable and universal part of poetry as it has developed as a literary form over time. These poetics of meaning and the different purposes they serve are seen being put to use  in both Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and William Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, as both poets endeavour to accomplish meaning on a level that is deeper than ordinary.


One purpose of poetry that each of the critics demonstrate a concern with is the ability of poetry to have an effect on man’s morality. In other words, the poet’s success in conveying a moral lesson to his or her readers. Harington’s argument of the efficacy of allegory and how this system of meaning makes poetry valuable is demonstrated in Book 2 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Spenser aims to communicate his moral lesson via allegorical meaning, in which language means, or points to, something deeper than what is explicitly written on the page. The theme of the second book speaks to temperance, and the idea that in life, nothing should be in excess. His allegory for morality communicated through Guyon’s destruction of the Bower of Blisse as well as hog-men who guard that bliss, is rather poignant. It isn’t exactly as disguised as one might expect for an allegory, but is still communicated allegorically, nonetheless. One way the allegorical system of meaning is demonstrated, is through the very place and setting in which the poem is set. The figurative language and ornamentation in Spenser’s imagery depicts the Bower of Blisse as a beautiful place of paradise. The allegory of the beautiful place of temptation and ignorant bliss is best communicated through the description of one man’s tarnished honour and rank as he succumbed to the temptations of that place:

The young man sleeping by her, seemed to be

Some goodly swayne of honourable place,

That certes it great pittie was to see

Him his nobility so foul deface;

A sweet regard, and amiable grace,

Mixed with manly sternness did appeare

Yet sleeping, in his well proportioned face,

And on his tender lips the downy heare

Did now but freshly spring, and silken blossoms beare. (217. 81-90)

While the stanza is written in elegantly embellished and figurative language, using words such as ‘sweet’, ‘grace’, ‘spring’, and ‘silken blossoms’, it is difficult to reconcile the beauty of the language with what that language describes: the man, being literally consumed by the beauty of the place, as depicted by Spenser’s beautiful language, is questionably unconcerned with the tarnished and blemished state of his ‘honourable

The blissful man, as he sleeps after succumbing to Acrasia’s temptations of intemperance.

place’, or his once noble rank. This use of language allegorically communicates the detriment of immorality, as the intemperance and beauty of the place deprives the man of not only his honour, but more significantly, his entire sense of self.

The most poignant embodiment of the temperance lesson can be seen through the symbolism of Grille; the man turned hog, turned back to man, who then chooses to be turned back into a hog. Grille exemplifies the exact opposite of the moral temperance that Spenser appears to want to communicate; an allegory of what not to be. The Palmer tells Guyon that the hogs were “Now turned into figures hideous, / According to their minded like monstrous. / Sad end (quoth he) of life intemperate, / And mournefull meed of joyes delicious” (218.139-142).  This point is as interesting as it is, like I said earlier, poignant. What better way to argue against intemperance and promote moderation and morality, than to envelop in an allegory the message that, thinking like a pig will result in you becoming an actual pig.

This portion of Spenser’s Faerie Queene demonstrates the stability of the aim of poetry over time, and the multitude of its purposes or methods. Spenser’s purpose of communicating a moral lesson about temperance accomplishes the aim of pointing to some deeper meaning by adhering to the allegorical system of meaning espoused by Harington.


Like Spenser, Shakespeare aims to communicate something deeper in his work The Rape of Lucrece. While what he intends to communicate differs from Spenser’s intentions, Shakespeare demonstrates the vast variation in the methods poets use to accomplish the aim of meaningful communication. In our excerpt of Lucrece, he uses Puttenham’s beloved ornamentation and figures in order to say something more significant about art. Shakespeare’s communication of some deeper meaning is accomplished in such a way which can’t be communicated as effectively in any form other than poetry. It is from this communication through figures and ornamentation, (I believe) that the popular complaint about William Shakespeare, which I’m sure we’ve all heard over the years since we started studying his works in our pre-university years, has arisen: WTF is W.S even talking about right now…

Well, our literary critics once again can provide clues to answering that question. Shakespeare’s Lucrece is exemplary for demonstrating how he communicates a more meaningful message through poetry, by applying Puttenham’s arguments that poetry operates through ‘copious amplifications‘ and Enargeia.

For example, Shakespeare writes:

In her the Painter had anathomiz’d

Times rhine, beauties wracke, and grim cares raign,

Her cheeks with chops and wrinkles were disguised,

Of what shed was, no semblance did remain:

Her blew bloud chang’d to black in everie vaine,

     Wanting the spring, that those shrunk pipes had fed,

     Shew’d life imprison’d in a bodie dead. (299. 85-91)

The essential point contained within Shakespeare’s painted lines, put more simply, is that Priam was dead, so Hecuba was pissed. The poetic method, put towards achieving the aim of meaningful communication then, is obvious. From the simplified version of this stanza, the method of ‘copious amplification’ becomes apparent; as a fellow student once complained to me, “he uses, like a million words, to describe something that could just as easily be described in five.” Shakespeare uses enargeia, painting a picture for the ‘eyes of the mind’, to make the point sound far better, more eloquent, and more vividly imaginable, than my obscene bastardized statement of the same basic idea. We see here the communication of something more, of poetry accomplishing what prose may not be able to accomplish as effectively.

Furthermore, what’s interesting in this excerpt of Lucrece’s lament, expressed through her narrative of what she sees in the painting of the events leading up to the Trojan War, is that Shakespeare gives voice to Lucrece, who gives voice to figures in the painting. In reality, paintings don’t speak unless they are given a story be their viewers, and neither do characters in poetry unless they are read. Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical devices, figurative language, and enargeia more specifically in these stanzas give voice to Hecuba’s rage, by giving voice to Lucrece’s rage. Shakespeare lets Lucrece speak, as “to pencel’d pensiveness, and colour’d sorrow, / She lends them words, and she their looks doth borrow” (301.132-133).

It is interesting to ponder whether, if Lucrece’s situation wasn’t as tragic as it is, she would have interpreted the position of those painted figures in a way different from the way she interprets them now. As she remembers Tarquin while she interprets the painting, her vision of that painting shifts. Looking at Sinons’ face in the painting, “Such signs of truth in his plaine face shee spied, / That shee concludes, the Picture was belied” (302. 167-8). Relating it to the way she believed Tarquin’s face to be innocent and honest, her vision of Sinon likewise shifts, as she reflects that:

For even as subtil SINON here is painted,

So sober sad, so wearie, and so milde,

(As if with grief or travails he had fainted)

To me came TARQUIN armed, to beguile

With outward hones tie, but yet defild

   With inward vice: as PRIAM him did cherish,

   So did I TARQUIN, so my Troy did perish. (303. 176-182)

Providing Lucrece with her own voice, with which she ascribes the painting with her own suffering, her own rage, and her own experience, Shakespeare’s poetry communicates something far deeper in his verse than the mere image of a woman observing a painting. His use of enargeia communicates to readers the experience of her pain, and the very human way in which our interpretation of art is coloured by our experiences in life. Through his own art, Shakespeare uses different poetic methods to accomplish the aim of poetry to communicate something deeper and more meaningful about the nature of art itself.


Poetry aims to use language to communicate ‘meaning,’ not as in mere communication, but ‘meaning’ as in communicating the meaning or significance of something using language in unique ways. What’s communicated, however, is not always the same. Poetry can be used to communicate for example, a moral message, a historical event, or a mere visual image using beautifully decorated language with figurative speech and rhetorical devices.

The underlying all these various purposes is the common intention and desire to mean. Poets of the Renaissance wrote poetry with the desire to endow, ascribe, embellish language with meaning, not ordinary to common use. They make language meaningful in a way that can and does suit many and multiple purposes, intending to mean in ways that prose necessarily cannot.


I have just included this video in my Unessay, but I feel like sharing it on the #Engl410 blog too. Why? Because I, too, came to a similar conclusion. I found that poetry is imitation and invention as exemplified through various poets and critics, arguably throughout time and space.

Start at 2:38:

“But in truth, I don’t think individuals really make stuff, so much as they process their influences and try to build upon them in the hopes that they can make stuff that will be helpful to others… I don’t think art is really a story of great individuals trying to make their mark upon the world. It’s really lots of people working together across time and space trying to make the world suck less for ourselves and for each other. That’s my definition of art” (John Green).

So, what do you think? What is your definition of art? Or your definition of poetry?


  • I know, I know, I’ve used a lot of John Green references this semester. But, I have one more: The Art Assignment. The Art Assignment is a weekly video series produced by PBS Digital Studios and hosted by curator Sarah Urist Green that challenges everyday people to make interesting art. Check it out here.

From Twitter!

‘The job of academics is to make knowledge accessible to everyone.’

Tiffany (@academictivist) tweeted this during our class discussion today, and I jokingly tweeted her back that she should write a blog post about it so I could comment — and here I am writing a blog post.

First of all, I must provide the following disclaimer: I think trying to define “the” job of academics is impossibly ambitious. I refuse to accept the idea that academics (of all disciplines and cultures) have one job and one job only. So perhaps I am responding instead to the statement: ‘It is important for academics to work toward making knowledge accessible to everyone.’

That picky disclaimer dealt with, I do understand what Tiffany was getting at, and it is a thought-provoking idea. As with everything, I suppose, accessibility is a spectrum, not a line.

One end of the spectrum:

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the internet phenomenon Buzzfeed. I love it because what else do I want to read (if looking at captioned GIFs counts as reading) when not working on my Unessay but 26 symptoms you’re in your fourth year of university?  And I hate it because, well, let’s just say that the quality of most of its content is decidedly, uh, light. But it’s popular for a reason; it’s very, very, very accessible.

The other end:

I’m a philosophy minor, and some of the things philosophers write are not even English, I swear. Do I think that those utterly unintelligible texts are valuable? Certainly, once someone explains what he or she is even arguing.

So perhaps the goal is not complete accessibility, but accessibility for those who are interested? I really do want to know what Derrida was saying in his whole decentering the centre essay, I really do, I just can’t leisurely spend 10 hours on it this week. So reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on the essay makes a wonderfully accessible substitute. Those articles were written by academics, making something they are extremely knowledgeable about accessible for those who are interested already.

But what about the point raised in class, that perhaps accessibility is the ‘gateway drug’ for the uninitiated? If my dad loses a game the first time he plays, he probably won’t ever play that game again. (Yahtzee is practically a profanity in our house.) And I think that’s how a lot of people are with literature, especially. So maybe I never would have become an English major if I hadn’t had high school teachers who gently introduced me to some really great literature.

So should we be writing Buzzfeed articles on Puttenham, then? Or GIF series that represent Queen Elizabeth’s inner anxiety?

Here’s where I stop saying nothing and open the floor for heated discussion: is part of your motivation for being an English major helping friends and family discover and love the same literature that you do? When you write papers, do you write to be accessible, or to be academic (your answer is academic if your sentences are like this . . )? How do you negotiate the line between remaining respected inside academic circles and actually being read outside them?




The Importance of Roses

George Peele writes of the “day of Englandes happines” in the poem Anglorum Feriae (17). There are many interesting thoughts to remark on from this poem about good ol’ Queen Bess, but there is one that attracted my personal interests.

The House of Lancaster (pictured): Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, Edward of Westminster.

This past summer I fell for a wonderful English time frame called The War of the Roses. For more than 30 years, the Houses of Lancaster (Tudor) and York (Plantagenet) fought in civil war for the English crown. The House of Lancaster was the House of the Red Rose defending the throne from the House of the White Rose. The civil war saw the reign of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII. This battle for the crown ended with the death of tyrannous Richard III (yes, the Shakespearean character and the skeleton found in parking lot) led to an intertwining of families. Henry VII (the apparent Lancastrian heir) married the first daughter of King Edward IV, Elizabeth of York.

The House of York (pictured): Richard III, Anne Neville, Cecily Neville, Richard Neville, George Plantagenet, Isabel Neville.

This marriage led to the dominance of the Tudors for the next 118 years. From their wedding day onward, the Tudors were marked by the Tudor rose.

I bring this history into light because of one line from Peele’s poem. Whether or not it is intended, “wreathes of Roses red and white” seem to signify the past’s two feuding Houses (24). I would argue that Henry VIII (the literal product of the two Houses) never truly signified the intertwining of the two houses. I argue this because until the middle of his reign, Henry VIII was threatened by Yorkist challengers for his throne. And then there was Bloody Mary… Well, her nickname issues understanding on its own. She had enough problems with her reign to really be considered the intertwining gem of York and Lancaster.

Ultimately, it was the goodness of Elizabeth I that signified the two Houses. A good English queen who embodied the roses of “red and white” and the Tudor rose gave hope to her people (24). She signified (far better than her father and half-sister) the beginning of something different, but with an amalgamation of the past within her.

Elizabeth I – Queen of the Golden Age

This change (her difference with a touch of her past) is only one suggested reason why Elizabeth was a golden monarch.

I hope that Elizabethan writers, like Peele, would add in these signs from the past to define Elizabeth at the time of her reign. Because they are significant to the society of the time – who simply wanted rest after the changing monarchs.

Also, from Peele to the film Elizabeth I , I hope #Engl410 can learn more of what made Queen Bess and Golden Age so great.


  • The Shakespearean Histories cover some of this time frame: Henry VI (1-3), one on Richard III, and of course, Henry VIII.
  • The Norton Anthology of Shakespeare (which we all have from English 205) contains the family tree of the Tudors and Plantagenets. And you only have to flip 3 pages (of that massive book) to see it!
  • I discovered the history of the War of the Roses through the fictional (history-based) novel series, The Cousins’ War series by historian/author Philippa Gregory.
  • There is a TV-series based on the above series called The White QueenThe York and Lancaster gifs are from this series and found here.

Work Cited:

Peele, George. “27.  Anglorum Feriae.” The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse 1509-1659. Ed. H. R. Woudhuysen. Comp. David Norbrook. London: Penguin, 2005. 121-122. Print.

“Words, letters, numbers, lines!”

Before we officially move away from William Shakespeare, I want to share my admiration for Shakespeare and pop culture. Culture is one of the absolute best things we have in this world (for its good and bad parts). I personally like critiquing culture, discovering more about it, and having Saturday nights of fangirling over Geek Pop Culture, like Doctor Who (I can’t be the only Whovian English Major).

Now, we know of how:

    • Disney’s The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet (here).
    • She’s the Man is a modern twist on Twelfth Night (here).

Malcolm (a Malvolio-Feste combo) creepily sings to Viola and Oliva.

    • In 2004, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged Venus and Adonis with marionettes (here).
    • Shakespeare in Love was a (weird) fictional biopic of Shakespeare’s life (here).
    • And many, many, many more (here)!

Doctor Who has used several literary characters in episode plots before! You check them out here.

But, one of my favourite pop culture and Shakespeare mash-ups is from “The Shakespeare Code” episode of Doctor Who (synopsis here). The reason why I enjoy it so much is because:

  1. It’s Doctor Who
  2. There are Harry Potter references
  3. And of course, it’s all about Shakespeare

My favourite scene comes from the middle of the plot where the Doctor, Martha, and Shakespeare analyse the Globe Theatre (no spoilers, I swear):

The Doctor
The columns there, right? 14 sides. I’ve always wondered but I never asked… tell me, Will, why 14 sides?  … Why does that ring a bell? 14…

There are 14 lines in a sonnet.

The Doctor
So there is. Good point. Words and shapes following the same design.
14 lines, 14 sides, 14 facets…Oh, my head.  Tetradecagon… think, think, think! Words, letters, numbers, lines! 

This is just a theatre!

The Doctor
Oh, but a theatre’s magic, isn’t it? You should know. Stand on this stage, say the right words with the right emphasis, at the right time… Oh, you can make men weep, or cry with joy, change them. You can change people’s minds just with words in this place.

Dean Lennox Kelly as William Shakespeare

I think the Doctor makes a modern argument – one that Shakespeare (real or fictional) would have never known. That is, Shakespeare’s choice of “right words” with “the right emphasis” did “change people’s minds”. We can see the way poetry changes our outlook on a topic or how poetry has developed to be more than a playwright’s occupation.

In an odd way, the scene kind of juxtaposes modern (alien) thought from Shakespearean thought. Shakespeare sees his writing and the Globe as “just” theatre. But, the modern acknowledgement of how important the Elizabethans are or how important words and theatre are, contrasts Shakespeare’s comment. In our modern understanding we know that Shakespeare’s words changed people’s minds. I mean, why else would we have Shakespearean scholars? But, I assume that that’s not something Shakespeare would have thought of. He just saw himself as a creator of entertainment – just doing his job.

Oh, how sadly we try to speak in Early-Modern English.

Also, I really enjoyed the line “Words, letters, numbers, lines!“, for isn’t that what we celebrate in literature? George Puttenham‘s treatise correlates to this through the explaination of the “members of language” (150).  Puttenham argues that we look to “whole sentences”, “clauses” and “every word of letters and syllables” (150). It seems trivial, but the Doctor’s emphasis on words and letters are just like the analysis of poetry. We look at diction or changes in words (like neologisms). But then, we also look at numbers in our metre and syllables.  And at the lines that contain the words, letters, and numbers! I am willing to state that this four-word exclamation summarises (and praises) how we presently look at poetry.

Anyways, that is why I enjoy pop culture and Shakespeare – because there is so much of a reflection of who we are (and arguably who Shakespeare was), like our habits of analysis, in our culture’s use of Shakespearean works (or the Bard himself).

So, tell me, what is your favourite Shakespeare and pop culture experience? I’m sure we’ll have a lot to comment upon.


  • The transcript of the episode can be found here.

Work Cited:

Puttenham, George. “The Art Of English Poesy (1589).” Sidney’s ‘The Defence of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism. Ed. Gavin Alexander. London: Penguin, 2004. 57-148. Print.

Twits & Tweets

Twitter is supposed to be for thoughts we can’t or won’t say in class, and it often is used that way – but to the detriment of quality. Sometimes there is a reason that one couldn’t or wouldn’t say it in class – and not because of time constraints or personality but because it is off-topic, unsupported, or just not meaningful.

This cannot be blamed entirely on the individual, because there may be cases where the format is just too limiting. 140 characters to say what I want to say, and actually less than that if I want anybody to ever see it – #AbusiveArbitraryLimit anyone?

I am not pointing fingers at anyone. I fall into this trap just as much as anyone. People tout twitter as an easy way to communicate, but I often find it just the opposite. Its immediacy can be a real hindrance, because often you are just rushing to get something out before the conversation is too many moves ahead for you to be relevant – and then because you have people typing at the same time, with no knowledge of anyone else, there are usually multiple threads of conversation at any one time. It is actually more like multiple simultaneous fragmented monologues. Of course the quality of my contribution is lowered due to this pressure, and the fact that I am isolated by a format that does not achieve dialogue most of the time. I don’t really want to use it, so after using it I feel like I am the real twit.

I think twitter detracts from meaningful dialogue with classmates, because we end up with a good portion of the class distracted by tweeting or checking tweets instead of interacting face-to-face. And if one goes by the things we pull from our live interaction to tweet, are we picking out the most significant, the most relevant, and the most resonant piece, or just the most tweetable?

Then there’s the egotistical aspect.  Dr. Ullyot called context collapse one of the major problems with Facebook, which I think is fair, but for me the bigger problem is motivation. Jakob said “People have lost all decorum!” and I think he’s right. Tweeting condolences? Publicity is so not supposed to be the point of condolence; it’s not supposed to have anything to do with the person expressing it, really. “It’s informational, like news!” I hear some people argue.  But there is a major difference – utterances which are meant to be news often at least purport to be objective, whereas tweeting on a public issue is a self-aggrandizing show of subjectivity.

People either lose sight of the point of their communications, or they just don’t care that they are being mutated. For instance, saying “Congratulations” or “Happy Birthday” to someone is supposed to be about a personal connection. You are expressing your wish for good things for that person. But mediums like Facebook and twitter allow this expression to become more about the giver than the receiver. How many times have you seen a tweet or status update where you know the subtext is actually “look at what a nice/cool/popular (insert infinite adjectives) person I am because I am expressing this”? What do people do on Facebook and twitter other than make everything all about themselves?

(Related problems not discussed here: People get a rush from feeling in-the-know, especially if they are one of the first people to know something. People start to act as if everything about them should be interesting, and they definitely forget to filter a lot of the time.)

Now, just in case you thought this was going to be all modern rant and no renaissance content, think again. What about some of the sonnets we have been reading? Brief texts, ostensibly about the beloved, but which
actually expresses the ego of the poet/speaker in the wish to immortalize their own view/writing above all else.

My love shall in my verse ever live young.” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 19, Line 14, my emphasis)

“The living record of your memory… /Shall you pace forth, your praise shall stil finde roome,/even in the eyes of all posterity” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 55, Lines 8 and 10-11)

I don’t actually hear any desires for the object of affection, just a wish for literary immortality.

“You live in this” (Shakespeare, Sonnet 55, Line 14). I see echoes of what I discussed earlier – people find a way to make it all about themselves. Ditto with Astrophil & Stella – it’s really about Astrophil, not Stella.

Something rings false about the way sonnets are presented. If you really wanted to tell someone how much you loved them, you could just say it. Even if you wanted to write it in a poem, you don’t need to publish it. Sonnet sequences really aren’t about desire for the silent women (or men) they are supposedly written for, they are a platform for the attention-seeking desires of the ego of the poet/speaker. As we have seen, the sonnets cover a wide range of ideas – it’s basically about whatever the poet was thinking about.

Does that mean tweeting is just a new manifestation of an old literary issue? I can see how both are frequently used to make something ostensibly about others, all about yourself.

You say sonnet, I say status update.

Fly like a Lark and Use an old Nokia

Upon glancing through the reading list for English 410, I was happily surprised to see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29. In high school, I was a little interested (obsessed) with the BBC show Spooks (MI-5). And, the main protagonist of Spooks is 2005’s Mr. Darcy – Matthew Macfadyen. During lunch time (in high school), while googling Macfadyen, I found a video of Sonnet 29. Though it is admittedly dated (check out the Nokia), I understood the sonnet without even reading the words.

For your enjoyment and preparation for the exploration of Shakespeare’s sonnets next Thursday, here is the video:

Thanks to my (not yet complete) English Degree.

Over reading week, Nalanda and I attended the suggested Shakespeare productions at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University. Unfortunately, this won’t exactly be a review of either. Although The Winter’s Tale was truly excellent, I will leave it up to another to write about it. And as far as reviewing Measure for Measure, I will leave that to the facebook and twitter comments English 410 students have previously posted.

These two productions were simply excellent.

Here is something different instead:

I ended up attending Measure for Measure on opening night (with Nalanda) and for another performance, a few days later (with a close friend). I experienced great acting and an interesting adaptation twice.

Although, the performances made me think about two things:

The Audience


English Majors

The Audience:

I realised that the audience really does make the play. As English students, we are reminded to always think about the reader or the audience that the author is writing for. I believe it is an important factor to understand literary meaning. We also know, Shakespeare’s intended audience since we are Shakespearean scholars (You know you are).

Yes, you know the primary intended audience. Nalanda noted it while we were leaving Measure for Measure.

That’s right…

University students.

I can guarantee that the audiences on both nights did laugh, even at moments of true Shakespearean complexity. You could hear the audience with their enjoyment of the crude jokes and fanciful acting.

Ultimately, it made me question:

Have audiences really evolved over time?


Would we still enjoy the Bear Gardens, like Globe Theatre Audiences did? I mean those were their two side-by-side choices for a day out.

I think that they haven’t evolved dramatically. Maybe we can tweet about a play afterwards, but the reactions haven’t changed. Most people still laugh at the jokes. They still understand the passion. They still understand the choice Isabella must make between her brother and losing her virginity. They still
relate. And sometimes, they still don’t understand what the lines actually mean . And that’s exactly what makes Shakespeare timeless and applicable. We cannot change so dramatically as a species in the way of passions and pathos.

English Majors:

When I went to Measure for Measure for the second time, I went with an old friend. In high school, she discovered that really disliked Shakespeare. She wasn’t excited for the three hours the performance would take. And she was apprehensive about understanding the words. But, after seeing Measure for Measure, she said that she wanted to watch it again.

Father Lodowick (The Duke, whose was transformed in to The Duchess in this adaptation) played by Riah Fielding-Walters.

In comparison to my friend, I found myself lost in the words rather than the acting. In those moments when others were laughing, I didn’t find the lines funny. I found them to be poetic, or deep, or simply wonderful lines. I analysed the lines, the context, and the choices. Rather than laughing at the crude jokes, I noticed the overuse of euphemisms, physical gestures, and innuendos. I shared these developments with my friend. When I did, she understood the plot and characters better. She enjoyed Measure for Measure even more.

In the end, I questioned:

Why was I so analytical about the play?

I’m blaming thanking my (not yet complete) English degree for this one. We learn so much from our developed skill of analysis. An English major cannot see something, hear something, or sit through something like Measure for Measure without trying to deconstruct it. It doesn’t make us appreciate anything less, but rather let’s us appreciate more. English majors have this skill and I’m thankful for it. Why? Because by sharing my interests, thoughts, and admiration for Shakespeare with a (non-Shakespeare-loving) friend she can appreciate Shakespeare more than ever before. In my eyes, introducing someone to literature, giving it a new light, is totally worth it.

So, what do you think about these two questions?

Have audiences (readers) really evolved over time?

Why can English majors be so analytical about plays?

I’d love to read your replies. And if you did see either one of the two plays, do post a review on the English 410 blog.


  • Photo (gif) credits are hyperlinked to the images themselves.

Lastly, welcome back from Reading Week, English 410.


Good luck with the rest of the semester everyone! Lift those textbooks!

Whenever you’re in need of an English Major humour-boost click here

The Future is Now…or Then?

"We have selected...setting our production in the future" - Measure for Measure Program

“We have selected…setting our production in the future” – Measure for Measure Program (Middle Trio Left to Right: Escalus, Duchess, Angelo)

To those of us who saw Measure for Measure at the U of C last week, this is a familiar image. For those of you who missed it…this still might be a familiar image. Isn’t it interesting that in trying to create futuristic costumes, we end up using so many elements from the past?

Shakespeare’s play was originally set in his own time, but the drama department gave us a fun new twist when they decided to change things to take place far in the future. Best part about this addition? Futuristic costumes! (Oh Yeah!) How do we speculate on future fashion? By stealing past looks and recreating them with modern fabrics and a slightly edgier sensibility, of course.


Victorian Coat – notice the collar!

If the collar of this coat rings a bell, it’s probably because you saw Angelo sporting a highly exaggerated version of it in Measure for Measure. The Victorian gentleman on the right and Angelo are also both wearing a highly tailored and layered look. On the left below, you’ll see a coat with a cut very similiar to that of Angelo. It looks to me like an early incarnation of the mullet idea, which in modern fashion translates to what we call a mullet dress. Thus, there are distinctly Victorian elements to several of these costumes, but there are also suggestions of the present day.


It’s the mullet dress! No wait… too early… wrong gender…




What about the length? That to-the-knee look is also worn by Escalus throughout the play.Speaking of Escalus, if you find his coat reminiscent of this Early Modern example, I agree with you. It is a simple look with bold details, including over-the-top sleeves, and it even comes with extra volume below the waist.

Renaissance Coat? Future Coat? It’s hard to tell…


Is this a criticism of costume in Measure for Measure? Certainly not. Can anything be created without reference, directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, to what came before it? I don’t think so.

All that’s missing from that coat on the right is that signature red colour. A highly significant colour, as it turns out. Even a colour scheme comes with history!

For more about the history of the colour red, you can check out this link:

Finally, the Duchess. It’s can’t tell in the top picture, but if you were there in person you might have noticed the cushion sewn into the back of the Duchess costume. It’s alot like this traditional bum roll:

Yes, that’s what it’s called.

But it was larger, and created the effect of the bustle in the back of her outerwear, like this  dress:

I admit it, all I hear when I look at this is "I like big butts..."

I admit it, all I hear when I look at this is “I like big butts…”

It’s what all the cool Duchesses are wearing.

I’m probably not alone in seeing the echoes of the Duchess-wear in the elaborate garment above, either. If there were pants instead of a gold underskirt, I think we’d have a winner.

Remember, Renaissance clothes often look huge and exaggerated to us as well. The futuristic look of Measure for Measure is slimmer and sharper, but still overstated.

It's all about drama! No wonder Shakespeare wrote "All the world's a stage", right?

It’s all about drama! No wonder Shakespeare wrote that “All the world’s a stage”, right?

Now you may be wondering, is there a point to dragging you through the fashion of this play and some of it’s historical elements? There certainly is! Not just because it’s fun for me (although it is that!) but also because when I look at an attempt at futuristic fashion, I see the past and the present. I see how history builds on what came before. Most of all, I see why we have historical requirements for our English degree. You can start to understand the tradition that surrounds something as simple as a colour or a collar, and maybe gain a new appreciation for it in the process. Looking back is important for that reason, but it’s also necessary for looking to the future. Our concept of the future is usually built on exaggerated elements from our past and our present.
Who really knows? The future is the Undiscovered Country after all...

Who really knows? The future is the Undiscovered Country after all…

So the next time you feel a groan coming on about one of your historical literature courses, I suggest you think about all the signficance that you might be missing in the world around you each and every day without them. If you don’t think it will be relevant in the future, consider that speculation about the future has no choice but to look through the lens of what we know now, and what we think we know about then. Maybe the best thing we could do to prepare for the future is to make sure we understand how we got here, in the hopes that it will help us get there.