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review 2016-04-02 02:48
Moliere's Big Break
Les Précieuses ridicules - Molière

First of all I have to offer out my heartfelt thanks to the friend of mine who purchased this book for me (which actually contains a number of Moliere plays, though I will be reviewing on them individually) as a Kris Kringle present. Basically I asked for a copy of The Misanthrope (and I had in mind the Dover Thrift edition) and after scouring Melbourne for a copy, she ordered the Penguin version on line, so I felt blessed that I got not one, but six Moliere plays.


Moliere was a French playwright who ended up getting on the wrong side of certain church authorities after some of the more farcical plays in his repertoire (this is not one of them). I will speak more on this when I get to Tartuffe (which is the one I am reading now) but I felt that I would mention it.


This his not his first play, but it was the play that caught the attention of the King and pretty much made him famous. He had attempted to break into the Paris scene beforehand (and in those days the major cities, such as Paris, were the equivalent of Hollywood) but had failed, so he went travelling around the French countryside performing in the rural towns and cities. Obviously he was developing his style, and no doubt the Paris scene would have been hard for a first timer to break into anyway.


It was not as if Moliere was poor though, because his father, while being a carpenter, was basically the King's carpenter. Moliere also had a university education (in law) which pretty much meant that even if he didn't make it as a playwright, he would have been living a pretty comfortable life in any case. Remember that in those days being an actor was not a profession that made you bucket loads of money (well, I guess with the exception of a small number that is probably still the case today). Also, they tended to be considered a much lower class than today (the cult of celebrity didn't exist in 17th Century France). It was only if you had royal ascent (as did Shakespeare) that you could actually be considered successful (and having royal ascent was a very good thing because that meant that the king liked your work, and you could be guaranteed that your work would be preserved).


As for this play, well it is a short one act play about two women who are being married off, and they don't like the guys that their parents are marrying them off too. So the suitors pull a swifty by dressing their servants up as noblemen and have them court the ladies. The ladies fall for it, and when it is revealed, well, it is no doubt a very embarrassing situation. Okay, it may seem that in those days women were not supposed to marry below their class, then it was more of a convention, and also since there was much more influence from the family, there was not always the possibility of eloping (though it did happen). Mind you, it is still very much the same these days, though while there is freedom to an extent, there are still some households where the parents have a strong influence over who should marry whom.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/562397628
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review 2016-03-28 10:59
The Jews of Prague
The Prague Golem - Zelezne Lavky

I was wondering around the Prague Castle when I realised that I needed to pick up some souvenirs for friends back home in Australia so I decided to wonder into one of the shops there (and to be honest with you, I have seen more souvenir shops in one city in Europe that I have seen in my entire life in Australia - we Australians really have no concept of mass tourism). Anyway, a friend of mine wanted something arcane, and to be honest with you, I did not realise that you could get any more arcane than Prague. However, as I wondered around this store, I found this book, and simply going on the title I decided to purchase it.


This is a collection of stories that arose from the Prague Ghetto. For those who do not know, the Ghetto is not a slum (as is the common usage of the word) but derives from the island in Venice where the Jews were locked up at night. From this one location all of the Jewish Quarters throughout Europe derived their name, and thus the Prague Ghetto is basically the Jewish Quarter of Prague. However, since the Jews have been pretty mistreated throughout the years, and the places in the cities that they were relegated to were dumps, the connection between a Ghetto and a slum arose.


However, this quaint little book tells the story of how the Jews arrived in Prague and the challenges they faced there. Mind you, these stories are legends and there is a lot of mystical elements surrounding them. The arrival of the Jews came as a prophecy to the first Queen of Bohemia (the land of which Prague was the capital) that if she were to allow the Jews to settle there then her land will prosper. It did.


It also tells the stories of how various Jewish landmarks (such as the Old-New Synagogue, and a couple of streets) came about. Once again, these stories have the elements of legend in them, such as the Jew who upset his patron by praising God whenever his patron gave him money. The patron then withdrew his support, and in the Jew's darkest hour, a monkey full of gold came flying through the window.


It should be noted that all of the Jews are upstanding and moral characters in the legends. They are always honest (well, okay, not always, but the characters that the stories promote are) and are always fair in their dealings. However, they also face persecution, but in these times there is always divine intervention (such as when the Emperor Wenceclaus falls into a deep sleep and signs a document revoking his expulsion of the Jews).


However, I wish to finish with the story that caused me to purchase this little book: the Golem. I have always known the golem as something that came out of Dungeons and Dragons, and may have originated from some early fantasy book (such as say [book:Frankenstein]). However, it turns out that it did not. It was a Jewish myth. I had only just discovered that, so when I found a book about the Golem I quickly snapped it up. I won't go into any further details of the Golem (and for those who are interested I am sure you can easily find it on the internet), but this book was a fascinating read, if you can find it (and hopefully that does not involve a trip to Prague).

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/215599679
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review 2015-09-14 23:00
Rationalising the Greek Myths
Iphigenie - Jean Racine


Anybody who is familiar with the Ancient Greek plays will know that this is a modern retelling of the story of Euripides Iphigeneia at Aulis. However it is told from a more rationalistic, secularist point of view rather than a direct translation from the original. For those who do not know, the story is set just prior to the Trojan War when Agamemnon is preparing to set sailed with a Greek armada to 'rescue' Helen from Paris, who had kidnapped her (or did she go willingly because Paris was a much more romantic person than Menelaus) and taken her to Troy. However the winds were not blowing favourably so Agamemnon asks the gods what the problem is and they tell him that unless he offers up his daughter as a sacrifice the winds will not change. This play is about the personal and social struggles that Agamemnon faces between his wife (Clytemnestra), who does not want to see her daughter sacrificed, and the Greek kings, who want to sail off to Troy and are looking for any sign of weakness in Agamemnon so they they may depose him.


The problem with this play is that there is a happy ending, which no doubt would have impressed the original audience (who were probably not that familiar with the story, in the same way most of us moderns are not familiar either). Unfortunately it does not work because the whole reason that Agamemnon was murdered by his wife when he returned from Troy was because he had sacrificed his daughter at Aulis. One could also argue that this was simply an excuse to get rid of a troublesome husband and for Clytemnestra's lover to take over the mantle of kingship. There are also further problems with Euripides' version where Iphigeneia was replaced by a cow and then spirited off to Tauris by Artemis, but this is probably not the forum for it to be discussed (though I don't actually discuss it in my treatment on Iphigenia in Tauris).



The other thing I should note with this play is the political undertones that are evident. The issue is raised as to Agamemnon's real reason for going to Troy: to extend his empire across the Aegean to Asia. However, it should be remembered that his hold on the Greek alliance is tenuous at this point in time, though as it turns out it is only Agamemnon and Menelaus who have a problem with the Trojans (though no doubt this is an aspect of Greek nationalism in that while they may not have been united under one king, the fact that a foreigner – a barbarian – kidnapped a Greek princess, would have set the hackles of all the Greeks on edge). There is only one other Greek king that plays a major role in the play: Achilles. Achilles is also torn because he has been betrothed to Iphigeneia, but he also wants the glory of going to war against the Trojans. He forms the catalyst of the whole mission, and is also the key to Agamemnon's power: he is the king that can pretty much decide whether Agamemnon remains overlord.


The other interesting thing is that the whole nature of this event reminds me of another story; one of the foundational stories of Christianity: Abraham and Isaac. In this story Abraham, after waiting a very long time and growing to an age that nobody could consider him to be fit to have a child, gives birth (or his wife does) to a son. God then tells him to take his son up onto Mount Moriah and to offer him up as a sacrifice, something that Abraham dutifully does. However, at the last moment God intervenes and sends a lamb. I wonder whether, in producing this play, Racine is causing his audience to remember this Bible event (which no doubt the audience would be much more familiar). It is difficult to tell, though I suspect that since we are in an age of rationalism at the time of the writing of this particular play, Racine is probably questioning, and using the fickle Greek gods as a platform, the nature of the Christian god.


Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/687386136
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review 2015-04-22 13:23
7 things you probably knew about Pilgrim's Progress
The Pilgrim's Progress (Dover Thrift Editions) - John Bunyan

Well, I will have to thank the Classics of the Western Canon discussion group for selecting Pilgrim's Progess for this month's read because otherwise it would have continued to sit on my shelf until such a time as I got around to reading it. Okay, I probably don't follow the readings of many of these groups as closely as some do, but they can be good to spur me on to reading a book that I probably wasn't thinking of reading at the time. The discussions on this book have also been interesting to follow as well, though I do note the comments do tend to come quite thick and fast and I end up getting left behind.

It is also been interesting that my evening church has been studying the Book of Hebrews (or at least the last part of the book) because there are connections, and references, in that part of the Bible to Bunyan's work. Mind you, Bunyan draws heavily on the Bible in this book, but the exploration of the struggles of the Christian life is a central theme to this work.

Anyway, instead of simply dumping my thoughts onto the page as I normally do, I thought that I might discuss a number of ideas that came to me as I was reading it. Also, since this is probably one of the most well known books in the English Language, I probably don't need to give a synopsis, or a background, and if you want one there is always Wikipedia. Oh, and I should also mention that Pilgrim's Progress is listed as number two on The Guardian's list of 100 best novels of all time.


1) Allegory is dead

Okay, there might be some debate about this, but after a couple of comments on the lack of allegory in use today I realised that people simply do not write like this anymore. In a way the last great allegorical novels were Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (as well as the subsequent books in the Chronicles of Narnia) by :C.S. Lewis. Mind you, I'm not really sure if allegory was actually all that big simply because there are very few allegorical novels that come to mind – Piers Plowman and Gilliver's Travels are two more, but other than that I really can't think of any others.

The main reason that I suspect that people don't write allegory is simply because it is really hard to read. However there are a couple of reasons why authors occasionally do so:


a) The literature is subversive: One of the reasons is because if they were to say what they were saying directly, and the literature fell into the wrong hands, then the author would land up in an awful lot of trouble. This was the case with some of the more difficult books of the Bible, such as the book of Revelation (as well as Gulliver's Travels and Animal Farm). By writing the way that they did the authors were able to challenge the system, or criticise the ruling authorities, without fear of retribution. As with the case of Revelation, John the Baptist was able to continue to promote his religion in an environment that had effectively banned it.


b) The concepts are difficult: This is probably the main reason why Bunyan wrote using allegory (and in a way borrows the style from Jesus who used parables for a similar purpose). What Bunyan was trying to do was to paint a picture of the Christian walk, and to simply write like your standard, everyday theologian would have probably put quite a lot of people off and the book would never have become as well known, and as popular, as it did. Thus through the use of allegory Bunyan is able to turn a dry, and somewhat very heavy topic, into a form that is not only accessible, but also quite enjoyable.


2) The text is very theological

Sure, Pilgrim's Progress is a story about a man, in fact a person whom is referred to as an 'everyman' (namely a type of character that anybody and everybody can relate to), who leaves his family and goes on a journey to the Celestial City, but that does not mean that there is no actual discussion of Christian theology. In fact there is quite a lot of discussion about the nature of faith and spirituality. As Christian travels on his journey, not only must he overcome obstacles, but he also meets various people, some good, some bad, and enters into conversation with them. Through these conversations we learn about quite a few aspects of the Christian faith and concepts such as grace, the nature of God, and salvation, are all explored. While the book does paint a number of pictures, Bunyan to does resort to simply explaining a number of concepts through the mouths of his characters.


3) You have a lot of time in prison

Okay, according to Wikipedia there is a debate as to whether this book was written during his twelve year stint in goal, or the much shorter stint a little later, however it is generally agreed that it was written while he was in prison. Okay, while prison is probably not a place that any of us should ever aspire to spend the rest of our lives, at least what it does give us is a lot of time, which means we can sit down and write stuff without having to be interrupted with work. It is also a place of solitude meaning that you are less likely to be disturbed.

Okay, it probably wasn't a prison like this one:





or this one:


San Quentin



but that does not necessarily mean that it was any better, or any worse. I'm not sure whether he had to wander around wearing orange overalls, or even if he was given three meals a day (if you were in prison back then you were not guaranteed any of the things that prisoners these days are guaranteed – well, yes, a roof over your head, but that didn't necessarily mean that the place was dry), however he did have time to write, which meant that he must have had access to writing materials.

One person even suggested that quite a lot of books were written in prison, but once again that is not surprising because, as I mentioned, you do have a lot of time on your hands in there. Mind you, not all of them were good, or even popular, though I must admit that [author:Mark Chopper Read] did generate a decent income from his writings (and even boasted about how he, an uneducated illiterate became a best selling author while all of these university types, such as me, can't get a single book published – but then people like books about crime).

Which brings me to:


4) Bunyan didn't go to school

Well, maybe he did, but apparently he didn't stay there long enough to be considered educated, and he certainly wouldn't have had the education that many of the other great writers of the time would have had, yet much like Chopper Reed, while many of them were writing rubbish, he not only wrote a best seller, he wrote a classic (which sort of outclasses Chopper's efforts in my books).

Another reason I mention this is because there has been some suggestions that he was inspired by [author:Dante] (hey, another allegory, I forgot that one) but there is one big problem with that – he couldn't read Italian, and it wasn't translated into English until the 19th Century. Sure, Dante goes to sleep and has a dream, as does Bunyan, but that does not necessarily mean that he copied Dante, or was even influenced by him (how could he have been). Rather, what I suspect both authors are doing is bringing the reader on a journey with them, and by placing themselves into the text and then turning it entirely into a dream sequence I suspect gives more credence to what they are trying to say.

Anyway, here is a picture from Wikipedia:


Dante's Poem



The other thing that I want to mention are references to classical literature – there aren't any. A lot of writers at the time where returning to many of the texts of the Greek and Roman world and were drawing inspiration from them. However Bunyan wasn't one of them, which is not surprising since he didn't have a classical education. Rather, the only book that he draws upon is the Bible. In fact there are quite a lot of Biblical allusions in the text, many of them being quite obscure. What I suspect Bunyan is doing is drawing upon the parables of Jesus, as well as other Biblical allusions, to paint his picture.

For instance there is a section where Pilgrim passes Mount Sinai, which is on fire, while travelling towards Mount Zion. This is taken straight out of Hebrews 12, where Mount Sinai represents the law, and Mount Zion represents grace. What Bunyan is doing here is showing how Christians can be tempted to earn their salvation by being good, however that is not actually how salvation comes about. One cannot be so good as to earn their salvation, and even if they are, there are still deeds that have been done that cannot be wiped out by a few good deeds. It is sort of like me going and robbing a bank and then giving all of the money to a charity. Sure, I did a noble thing by giving it to charity, and sure, the bank may (and probably did) deserve to be robbed due to the fact that the money that it has was no doubt earned through nefarious means – but that does not exonerate me from my act of violence. Even if one could say that the bank itself was bad, there are still innocent people working in the bank (such as the teller in whose face I stuck the shotgun, or the old granny who was cashing in her pension cheque). In the end, the law does not care whether I robbed the bank to give the money to the Salvos (who wouldn't accept it anyway), or that they bank had committed fraud and were laundering money, I still committed a crime, and no act on my behalf will be able to exonerate me from that crime. I have to be punished, and the only way that I can escape that punishment is for somebody else to takes that punishment on my behalf.


5) Bunyan did not live in the 20th Century

Yeah, I know, that's a no-brainer, but there is a reason why I have raised that point, namely because there are churches out there that like to try and claim Bunyan as one of their own. The problem is that the Christian sect that Bunyan was a practitioner of, and was eventually gaoled for, no longer exists. The thing is that Bunyan was what was termed as a 'non-conformist', and honestly, that classified an awful lot of people. Milton was a non-conformist as well (though I believe the word puritan is more appropriate to him – another sect that no longer exists). The thing about non-conformists is that they were not Anglicans (Epsicopalian or Church of England). In Bunyan's day the only place you could worship, and the only people that were allowed to preach, were Anglican churches. If you live in England and you were not an Anglican you could get yourself into a lot of trouble, especially if, as Bunyan did, you were holding regular church services. However, the thing about non-conformists is that they were not: a) Baptists; b) Methodists; c) Assemblies of God; or d) Pentacostal either. Okay, those denominations may have eventually emerged from the non-conformist movement, but that does not mean that a non-conformist subscribes to any of those particular denominations – they simply did not exist.


6) Not everybody in Bunyan's day were Christian

One of my pet peeves is when Christians talk about how we live in a post-Christian age, yet in many cases that is not really true. You see, if everybody in Bunyan's day were Christians then he wouldn't have needed to write this book, or his others (such as [book:A Journey to Hell]. Okay, while the multitude of faiths that we have today (think Hinduism, Buddhism, etc) didn't exist in Europe back then, and the only religion you would find was Christianity (though there were Jews), and everybody went to church, it did not mean that they actually believed it. In fact many of the people who went to church went there because it was expected of them, and even then it was mostly a middle and upper class phenomena.

If everybody was Christian then, as I have suggested, you would not have had Bunyan writing his book, or even characters such as the Wesleys going out and preaching to the people of England. Even then, the Anglican church was not necessarily a place that would teach evangelical Christianity, and there were quite a lot of people out there that simply did not like the way the church operated. What Bunyan is showing in his book suggests that even though people would go to church, they were not necessarily saved, and in many cases simply left standing in the City of Destruction.

Also, consider the fact that Christian leaves his wife and children suggests that even when one was living in an apparent Christian country, one would still be mocked and ridiculed for their faith. It is interesting that they don't follow him on his journey, in a sense rejecting what he believes. In the end though, what the book does in a way is to challenge an apathetic society into understanding more about the faith to which their nation allegedly adheres.


7) There is a sequel

You know how there will be this really good movie, and the movie is so good that they go out and make a sequel which ends up being rubbish. Well, that is the case with Pilgrim's Progress. Okay, I probably shouldn't be that harsh on the second part, but it is interesting that a lot of people and commentators seem to ignore this second part and only focus on the first. I never even realised that there was a second part until I picked the book up in university and read it then, because I have only ever thought that the story was about Christian's journey. However, I have never been able to get into the second part and have found it somewhat more difficult than the first. While I might suggest that it simply repeats everything in the first, it has been suggested that this part complements this first through its use of having Christian's wife take the journey, and that it also paints the picture of how the journey is open to all.


So, I think I will leave it at that, though I did want to mention a more disagreeable aspect that would probably make us in the modern world a little uncomfortable. There are sections where we have black people representing evil, and in one instance this black person is cleaned and becomes white. While this is allegorical, I did find it a little confronting, particularly since it could be read as suggesting that white people are holy and righteous, while coloured people – depending on their colour, are not. I also didn't get to mention that this is probably one of the books that spurred the creation of the modern fantasy genre, but it is late so I will simply mention it, and then go to bed.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1251867296
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2013-05-30 23:13
A farcical attempt to climb the social ladder
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme - Molière

This is a play about a middle class merchant whose goal in life is to become a member of the aristocracy and he tries many things, including arranging his daughter's marriage, to achieve that goal. In a way this desire is almost an obsession, and his friends take advantage of this by playing a joke on him: they pretend to be members of the Turkish court and bestow him with the title of Paladin.

The desire to better oneself socially and to raise oneself up the social ladder as been with us since time began and while we no longer have the aristocracy, we do have an elite ruling class of which many people desire to be a part. In a way it is a middle-class phenomena with somebody not happy with the fortunate lot they have in life and desiring more, and doing whatever they can to get there. In some cases, such as this play, there are rather comic results, but in other places, such as The Great Gatsby, the results are disasterous.

The desire to be a member of the aristocracy is purely a social desire. People of the middle class tend to have their luxuries (I know I have) while not having ridiculous amounts of wealth. The wealth is only a part of it, the desire is to be noticed among the people that matter, and to be looked at with envy by those who do not.

I can't say that I have necessarily interacted to a large extent with the ruling elite of my society, though in the corporate world they do come and go, and they do throw parties for us. I have sipped champagne at the races in a marquis with high profile lawyers, and have hated it. I have also sat on buses travelling through the fashionable streets in Naples and have felt a depression come over me that I would never be wealthy enough to shop there, yet not realising that there are many people here in Australia that will never have a chance of going on a bus ride through Naples.

I have spoken to people who drive expensive cars, and have even been in them, and an envy rises up inside of me until I realise that I don't actually want to spend money that I don't need to on a car that I don't want. Okay, some of these cars are really nice, but others of them are simply horrible. Somebody once proclaimed that they had spent $70 000 on a new BMW and I resisted the temptation to reply with 'well, that'll teach you,' or 'I guess you won't be doing that again in a hurry.' Buying expensive things and going to expensive places is all about status and looking good, however when the money runs out we discover that these idols desert us just like all the others.

When I was in Milan our travel agent had booked us at a five star hotel and I thought it was simply way over the top. To me huge marble foyers and chandeliers don't make me feel important, but rather take resources away from people who need them. For instance, when we went to breakfast I saw a smorgasbord of food and a handful of people eating it and I said to myself, 'is that all going to waste'. My brother looked at all the food and then did what he always does: poured himself a bowl of cornflakes. Mind you, the only thing I like about diamonds is that people will pay ridiculous amounts of money for them, and they are a good store of value. However, the catch is that they don't pay any interest, therefore you have no income stream.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/627469119
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