ENGLISH LITERATURE Optional Strategy for UPSC Mains

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When reading 14th-15th-16th Century [William Shakespeare’s King Lear and The Tempest ] the following questions are very important, and would be useful across both texts. [this is not an exhaustive list].

1) The Renaissance – most important movement, although Shakespeare doesn’t necessarily show renaissance traits in his plays [which are better represented by Christopher Marlowe], but the context will help appreciate how, contrary to authors writing morality plays and miracle plays etc in the 14th century,

Shakespeare’s heroes are human figures, not gods or sons of gods, or gifted by gods.

Their only superpower is their will power, ambition, jealousies etc. Just a hint.

2) Look at Reformation – for understanding the growing positive sense of the human intellect and of human capability

3) Language/failure of language/pressure on language to contain vast emotions about society, [although sonnets not mentioned here, neither by Shakespeare not by others but it’s a good idea to look at them and know why suddenly, contrary to epic-length studies of the previous centuries, authors suddenly turned towards a mere 14-line poem.

4) Elizabeth’s reign – its problems, wars, rivalry with Scotland, absence of an heir, a growing, old, ageing queen with no heir, a sense of fear, apprehensions looming large on nation’s fate, the drifting apart of Catholics and Protestants,

Parliament beginning to display its independence which was very new to the English court [especially, if you Know Spenser’s court poetry where knights subsumes all their devotion to the kings and queens, kings and queens were supposed to be chosen by God to rule over people, Shakespeare shows how human agency resigned to accept that willingly, or at least uncomfortable with this passivity.], and population growing to an unprecedented level.

5) human love creating discord in society, an attempt to maintain, keep stable the social order, but in comedies like The Tempest, this social order gets restored. And that is why they are comedies.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, on the contrary, even when the plays end, one is left with the idea that there is a gap by author’s forceful ending of the play by closing the action by positive/negative ends, and the complex human feelings and hideous desires of ambition, jealousy, hatred etc that motivate people in the first place.

One is alarmed at the human capacity to be a “bad” person. But if you look at Hamlet kind of plays, they make you realize that this pressure to decide, to act, to take revenge etc is something human beings cannot escape.

One is meddled with this constant pressure to decide – something which was not there in the previous century plays where people knew that God will bring peace to everything.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, there is no respite from Gods. So, it’s like human beings are left to themselves, with no assurance, no help, no recourse to god’s comforts etc. Just imagine, how helpless one would feel in that sort of world.

Shakespeare, that is why, is called one of the earliest modernists.

6) Questions about leadership, frailty of order to control a vast population/kingdom, challenges to leadership,

7) The role of women – Look at different types of women in Shakespeare’s comedies as well as Tragedies – they are hardly puppets.

They are capable of having ambitions much like their men counterparts, or sometimes even more.

Call it sexist, call it feminists, women of Shakespeare’s plays can play men like anything: with their beauties, with their disguised games, with their “overflowing” femininity, or, for that matter.

Although these women show conventional hierarchies of white women/black women, courtly lady women/commoner women, “good women like Ophelia in Hamlet who are just too good/ bad women like lady Macbeth, but the very diverse range of women we encounter in Shakespeare’s plays is amazing. Something we don’t see in previous plays. Also remember- in Shakespeare’s time, boys were playing women’s role, so look at that angle as well how women were not supposed to do certain things in public.

So the entire public/private, political/domestic debate, Shakespeare complicates them. He brings the interiority of domestic issues interlaced with political issues such brilliantly. Personal is indeed political.

8) Apart from that psychological development of characters. I guess is a very important angle to look at. Characters are hard to know from their inside.

They are hardly flat or two-dimensional. So, Shakespeare’s character making is a good point to explore.

Now, let us come to 17th -18th Century.When reading Metaphysical Poetry by John Donne (The following poems mentioned in syllabus: Canonization, Death be not proud, The Good Morrow, On his Mistress going to bed, The Relic), keep in mind the following things most importantly.

1) John Donne’s life – look at that – he was a poet and a court person [several duties], so an imaginative writer taking an interest,

in fact, active interest in the public life of the Nation.

2) Twists and turns of the syntax, look at their language, heavy adjectives etc. Why suddenly after the 16th century of simple sonnets [not simple, actually!], suddenly a different language?

Look at the change in the form of the poems.

3) A different kind of love – mysterious, untidy – very erotic as well [although often disguised], physical desires and spiritual dimension. It’s like wanting to have sex with the God – see, how blasphemous! Imagine what kind of torpor it must have led to!

4) Metaphysical conceits: Why would the poet employ them, why at all? The politics and meanings of conceit – explore it.

5) Role of women and sexual desires – look at how poets/period responds to this.

• The Epic
a) John Milton : Paradise Lost, I, II, IV, IX [Originally published in 1667, in ten books]

1) When looking at this book, just explore how Milton was a radical poet for his times. He engages in a fundamental political and religious re-thinking. I think if you do that, you’re done.

Use textual evidence when answering your questions. Look at Milton in line with renaissance – an absolute epitome of individuality – imagine conceptualizing a book in 12 fat, volumes – an act of human ambition and will power ready to devour even God, anything that comes in way of ambition.

2) And look at the way Milton devours classic repertoire of references for his benefit. He is extremely knowledgeable, not a passive person or mediocre person demanding an identity, he is super-prepared to demand a human identity and is willing to fight for it.

Appreciate Milton using this perspective.

3) Role of imagination – Milton became blind eventually, so sometimes people ask you how could a blind person imagine all this – which is a bullshit question, as he talks of heaven and hell and even a man with eyes won’t have access to that!

But anyway, they are the examiners and we are students, so better be prepared.
Satire [an aspect studied within neo-classicism, I divided because Paradise Lost isn’t a satire per se] and the Mock-epic.
a) Alexander Pope. The Rape of the Lock. [Originally published in May 1712]

1) When looking at this, explore the French court angle, its difference to the English court, its whims and fancies, and ladies and knights etc.

2) Their stress on moderation, decorum, urbanity – why, suddenly after the grandness of Milton etc? Explore this.

3) Again, look at the women characters, love as play, a duel to win at, no Shakespearean true “love” but a game of wit where partners need to excel at each other all the time.

This constant business class idea is a good point to explore.

The Romantic Movement
William Wordsworth.

The following poems:
a) Ode on Intimations of Immortality.
b) Tintern Abbey.
c) Three years she grew.
d) She dwelt among untrodden ways.
e) Michael.
f) Resolution and Independence.
g)The World is too much with us.
h) Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
i) Upon Westminster Bridge.

When looking at this, keep in mind the following points:

1) A sense of individuality, development of personal metaphors, personal religion, personal creed.

Not a universal god, for e.g. how the poet imagines the god becomes important.

2) Look at what kind of political social world, the poet imagines and wants. The stress on vision and imagination.

3) Most obviously, role of children.

4) the French Revolution, the sense of human agency, the Napoleonic war where England supplied things and remained involved for like twenty years.

5) Development of Metaphysics in England – an influence from Germany – Kant, Schilling etc.

Read the Previous Posts below: 

ENGLISH LITERATURE Optional Strategy for UPSC Mains Part-1

ENGLISH LITERATURE Optional Strategy for UPSC Mains Part-2

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