Filed Under M for Monster: Anxious Materialists and Taxonomical Anxieties in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


“The jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened,” recorded an attendee of a notorious 1803-demonstration of galvanic electricity’s powers of re-animation (qtd. in Mellor 105). The deceased, the recently hanged murderer George Forster, was made famous when the attempted reanimation of his corpse was widely reported in the British papers. This incident and its haunting description stand as a reminder of the scientific divide that existed among Romantic Britain’s leading scientists in their race to uncover the secret workings of the world around them and the world within the human body. The popularity and macabre interest in this new science seems to have sparked to life a dream that Mary Shelley reports resulted in the inspiration for Frankenstein. In the 1831 preface Shelley claims to have dreamt about a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion… [and opens his]… yellow, watery, but speculative eyes” (196). That very same “dull yellow eye” is one of the first things Victor Frankenstein sees after he infuses the “spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at [his] feet” (38). The publicly displayed reanimation of Forster’s corpse was not a one-time spectacle. Public dissections and attempted galvanic-reanimations were common fare for nineteenth-century Western Europeans (Mellor 106). Fliers were handed out and all were welcome to attend these brutal displays, for there was a scientific debate raging between the materialists and the vitalists. To win the debate scientists such as John Aldini (the nephew of Luigi Galvani, of galvanism fame) sought to prove their merit publicly, rather than in clandestine laboratories.

Vitalists believed that there was “some form of animating power through-out nature” that distinguished inorganic matter, such as plants and rocks, from organic matter, such as animals (Holmes 314).  Such scientific queries that sought to understand this animating power, or “life principle,” trod on what was traditionally theological and philosophical territory, for the search to define the life principle resulted in scientists attempting to quantify the soul (314). Building on Galvani’s theory of “animal electricity,” the prolific vitalist John Abernethy asserted that “the phenomena of electricity and of life correspond” (42). Thus, according to vitalist ideology, the life principle was not seated within the body, but outside it, and it was something that was transmuted into the body, imbuing it with life. On the other side of the scientific schism were the materialists, who did not believe that living organisms were fundamentally different from inanimate entities. The famous materialist William Lawrence—a good friend of the Shelleys—posited that the life principle did not originate from metaphysical phenomena or from vital spark-igniting electricity (Holmes 313). According to him life was generated from within human matter, for “living bodies, or in one word, life, has its origin in that of [its] parents” (qtd. in Butler xix). The idea that the life principle could be observed and understood was something that both the vitalists and the materialists believed was possible; the issue was whether that vital force was flesh-bound or not. Marilyn Butler, Anne Mellor, Richard Holmes and Denise Gigante among others have averred that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein “allegorizes the Romantic obsession” with uncovering the origins of that animating principle (Gignate 160).

In her introduction to the Oxford edition of Frankenstein, Marilyn Butler argues that the novel is not a satire or a critique of vitalism or of materialism but “an impressionistic and composite group-portrait of the established science of the day as [Shelley’s] readers knew it” (xxxi).  I agree with Butler that the novel is a burlesque depiction of Romantic science, but I do not think the tone of the novel is neutral. Frankenstein is one of the first cited works of science fiction (Malmgren 2). Mary Shelley extrapolates what the discovery and manipulation of the life principle might produce and explores the ramifications of man-initiated genesis. Theorist Darko Suvin has argued that science fiction does not comment on some distant tomorrow, but on the “author’s collective context” (Suvin 89). I propose that Mary Shelley is critiquing, rather than simply portraying, the scientific landscape of the early nineteenth century. I plan to explore how Romantic materialists attempted to understand and impose order on the natural world and how Frankenstein expresses anxieties related to their attempts to impose said order. Victor Frankenstein is often associated with the vitalist Abernethy because his obsession with the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus implies that he his anti-materialist, but I will be looking at his similarities to the materialist George Cuvier, who dissected a Khoisan woman (Saarjite “Sarah” Baartman), and placed the pieces of her body, including her genitals, on display. At a time when scientists like Curvier and his ilk “sought to ‘order’ the natural world... [by] assigning to diverse plants, animals, and people a hierarchical position that supported the supremacy of European masculinity,” Baartman became representative of a link between human and animal (Hobson 20). I will be looking at the comparable similarities between Frankenstein’s creature and Baartman, whose biography tells a parallel, but reversed story of how materialists attempt to force deviant bodies to fit into taxonomical categories by deconstructing them into their constituent parts. Like the Creature, Baartman was seen was a monster due to fact that her body was deemed deviant; I believe that the novel illustrates how monstrosity is a construct that is not related to physical deviance, but to social up bringing.

The connection between Frankenstein and the search for the principle of life was made explicit in Shelley’s 1831 introduction. In Shelley’s recount of Frankenstein’s origins she cites a conversation between Lord Byron and Percy Shelley about the “nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated” (195). During that conversation Shelley and Byron spoke about the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, who had cut a polyp (a type of sea worm) into pieces and observed that those pieces all generated into new fully formed autonomous polyps.[1] According to Denise Gigante, “the morphological oddity of the polyp challenged the structural stability of the natural world and redirected naturalists back to the unsettling idea of formative power” (14). It is by contemplating “how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain” that Victor discovers the “astonishing a secret” of reanimation (34). The syntax of this sentence is ambiguous enough to suggest that Victor may be alluding to Darwin’s polyp, for it is not clear whether he is implying that he was simply meditating on decomposition because his thoughts shifted “from life to death, and death to life,” for once cut into pieces the polyp should have died, but instead regenerated itself back into multiple lives (34).

Over a hundred years before The Origin of Species was published, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was already complicating the clear boundaries established by the Great Chain of Being. In Linnaeus’s Systems of Nature, published in 1735, he divided Homo sapiens into two separate species: Homo sapiens and Homo monstrous. The latter taxon was reserved for “wild and monstrous humans, unknown groups, and more or less abnormal people;” Homo monstrous was, in sum, reserved for humanoids who did not fit into the four races that Linnaeus outlined under the taxon Homo sapiens (Willoughby 33-34). Homo monstrous were exempt from the Homo sapien category because their “physical structures excluded them from being recognized scientifically as fully human” (Wilson 7). Thus, even if a person was born of human parents, that did not grant them exemption from being categorized as monstrous. A monster was not defined by its life principle or by its action, but by its physicality. While Caucasians, Asians and some African groups were categorized under the taxon Homo sapien, other races were excluded. Ambiguous figures, such as ‘Hottentots’ (as the Khoikhoi{C}[2]{C} then were called), were categorized under the taxon Homo monstrous because their bodies induced anxiety.

Frankenstein’s monster is born a creature of “gigantic stature,” built up from what Richard Holmes assumes are adult body parts (35). But in stark contrast to his fully developed form, the Creature’s mind is inchoate; it is “that of a totally undeveloped infant. He has no memory, no language, no conscience” (Holmes 331). Upon animation the Creature has no violent urges, nor any urges at all. He is not a prelocutionary being, for how can he understand the consequences of his actions if he hasn’t even the ability to even comprehend his environment: he “saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before [he] learned to distinguish between the operations of [his] various senses,” (80). The Creature’s first introduction to civil society is to be chased by a mob of villagers, despite the fact that the Creature has done nothing malicious; according to his account he has “hardly placed [his] foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted” (83). The immediate reaction of the villagers is based solely on the Creature’s physical deviancy, a description of which the reader is only granted in bits and pieces. The Creature’s monstrousness is strictly visual up until he burns the De Lacey cottage. While living with the De Laceys the Creature learns about civil society through the family’s instruction of Safie. He acts as a shadow member of their community helping to keep them warm by bringing them wood and generally easing their labour. The Creature realizes that it is the “unnatural hideousness of [his] person [that] was the chief object of horror [to] those who had formerly beheld [him]” and attempts to ingratiate himself with the De Laceys through the blind De Lacey, for he recognizes that without sight De Lacey may accept rather than repel him  (107). During their conversation De Lacey refers to the Creature as a “sincere…human,” but when the family sees the Creature they reject him violently (109). It is ultimately a culmination of rejections from civil society, a rejection that stems from the monster’s physical deviancy, which results in the Creature’s malignity.

Kant complicates the notion of monstrosity by defining it as something that is not a simple matter of physical deviance. For Kant an object is monstrous if the imagination cannot comprehend the object as a whole. In Critique of Judgement Kant writes that “[a]n object is monstrous if by its magnitude it nullifies the purpose that constitutes its concept” (109). Frankenstein’s Creature is both huge—he was a “being of gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large”—and cannot be seen, at least from Victor’s perspective, as a whole being. Victor’s creation is also referred to repeatedly throughout the novel as a “monster.” The word monster is derived from the Latin monstrum, which in turn is derived from the verb monstro, to show (OED). Thus the root of the word monster is etymologically intertwined with the idea of spectacle. While the Monster retreated from public view, real Romantic “monsters” where put on display for the public.

Marilyn Butler illuminates a connection between the French naturalist Georges Cuvier and Victor Frankenstein, citing that the monicker Curvier coined for himself, ‘the magician of the charnel-house’ “would also do for Frankenstein” who spends his “days and nights in vaults and charnel-houses” panning for the perfect body parts (xxxi; 34). Three years before the publication of Frankenstein Cuvier became famous for dissecting the body of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, whose biography tells the inverse story of Frankenstein: she began as a whole that was broken down into her constituent parts. Baartman was a displaced Khoisan woman that was exhibited in Paris and London as a freak show attraction under the name “The Hottentot Venus” (“Hottentot” being the derogatory Dutch term for the Khoikhoi, and “Venus” emphasizing her supposed lasciviousness and her ironic irreconcilability with European ideas of feminine beauty). It was not Baartman’s blackness that made her monstrous, but her breasts and buttocks, which were too large according to European standards. Janell Hobson notes that under white surveillance “Baartman’s body [was] only recognized in fragmented parts (focusing almost exclusively on her buttocks) and viewed with pleasure when identified as freakish or exotic” (Hobson 39). Baartman’s sexual alterity was further accentuated after her death in 1815, when the Curvier dissected her and put her skeleton, brain and genitals on display at Paris’ Musée de l'Homme. Curvier was interested in Baartman because of her elongated labia minor (or “apron” as it was referred to by Curvier), was seen as quixotically phallic and irreconcilable with her hyper-feminized rear and breasts. It was Baartman’s paradoxical nature of being both hyper-feminine and ambiguously masculine that made her an object of fear, fascination, and a source of anxiety. Like Frankenstein’s creature she was a monster because she spilled out of a taxonimical and gender classifications due to the fact that her constituent parts were too large.

As Baartman is broken down into parts, Frankenstein’s monster is built up from a potpourri of pieces. In poetry, a blazon is usually used to catalogue a woman’s “admirable physical features”(OED), but when Victor sees his Creature come to life, his description of his “catastrophe” is an anti-blazon, illustrating the Creature’s ugliness, rather than its beauty:

His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips. (39)

What accounts for Victor’s sense that his creation is hideous? The emphasis on the Creature’s yellow skin and black lips seems to hint at an element of racism, but some of the monster’s constituent parts are described very complimentarily: the monster’s teeth are pearly, his hair is lustrous, and yet he disgusts his creator. Victor’s very language creates the effect that he is bemoaning: he cannot see the body as a whole; he can only see the monster in pieces. I posit that this is one of the factors that makes Victor’s creation a monster, not just in Kantian terms but also in taxonomical terms. The Creature is a mistake that cannot be classified by any category human society has to offer. And it is this liminality that is so horrifying for a nineteenth-century European. When Victor says, “I thought of the Creature nearly in the light of my own vampire,” he is articulating identity-related anxiety because if he embodies otherness and the other (the Creature) empathizes with him, then the boundary between self and other has dissolved (57). It is that very fluidity, this lack of fixity, which is monstrous and frightening to Victor. It is this anxiety regarding the instability of man-constructed boundaries between gender, race and bestiality that underlies the demonization of both Sarah Baartman and Frankenstein’s Creature. In sum, the Creature is a taxonomical deviant, but he is also monstrous from Victor’s perspective because his constituent parts do not coalesce to form a harmonious unity.

The form and content of the novel, however, are harmonious, for the novel is about a monster and is structurally monstrous. Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia would not be iterated for another century, but within Frankenstein there is a triple-nested narrative, a cacophony of voices, with a twice-mediated core. The form of the book is deviant and unclean compared to the much-venerated monologic Romantic poetry. There is no one omniscient narrator in Frankenstein. Instead, the reader only gets competing takes on events. If there is no authority then the novel cannot be organized into a hierarchy of truthfulness. The Creature’s perspective is presented as equally valid to Victor’s take on events. In this way Shelley privileges the Creature as a being of equal value when juxtaposed against the other two narrators, whose inhumanity and lack of sensibility only becomes more tangible as the novel progresses. Frankenstein’s monstrousness does not manifest in external body deviance, but through his malignant actions: both he and Walton are willing to give up more lives than the Creature ever took in their mission to chase the Creature through the Arctic Circle. The conclusion of the novel illustrates how monstrosity related to physical deviance can be productive and positive like the novel itself, whereas monstrosity that is derived from malignant actions is deconstructive and dangerous.


Question: Typically, science fiction is set in the future, but Shelley sets Frankenstein in the past. The dates given are 17--, which could mean the novel could be taking place as much as a century before Shelley penned it. Why do you think Shelley sets the novel in the past? And why does she obscure the exact date of the narrative?



Works Cited

Abernethy, John. An Enquiry into the Probability and Rationality of Mr. Hunter’s Theory of Life. London: Longman et al.1814.


Gigante, Denise. Life: Organic Form and Romanticism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Print.


Hobson, Janell. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.


Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. New York: Pantheon, 2008. Print.


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Ed. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub. Co, 1987. Print


Malmgren, Carl Darryl. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.


Mellor, Anne Kostelanetz. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.


Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein, Or, the Modern Prometheus: The 1818 Text. Ed. Marilyn Butler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.


Suvin, Darko. “Science Fiction and the Novum (1977)”. Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology. Ed. Peter Lang. Oxford (2010): 67-92. Print.


Willoughby, Pamela R. The Evolution of Modern Humans in Africa: A Comprehensive Guide. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. Print.


Wilson, Philip K. “Eighteenth-Century ‘Monsters’ and Nineteenth-Century ‘Freaks’: Reading the Maternally Marked Child.” Literature and Medicine. John Hopkins University Press (2002): 21.1. 1-25. Project Muse. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.





[1]{C} Percy Shelley’s 1818 preface also references Darwin: “The event on which this fiction is founded has been supposed, by Dr. Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurrence”, but the 1831 preface makes his discovery a more explicit generative factor that led to the novel’s creation (3).

[2]{C} An ethnic group from South Africa.

Disciplinary Capitalism and Artistic Emancipation in In the Skin of a Lion

While Ondaatje was writing In the Skin of a Lion, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act[1] was being passed through parliament. This was the legal telos of a historical process of struggle and identity building, positing Canada as a patchwork of nationalities. It became Canada’s official mandate to adopt a multicultural policy that would respect Canada’s immigrants and make up for its checkered history in this regard. From this vantage point, In the Skin of a Lion looks back to the situation of the immigrant at the beginning of the twentieth century where new Canadians were denied their languages, their customs and their religions. According to Linda Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction problematizes[3] the notion of a linear and totalizing account of historic events by “pointing insistently to their simultaneity, and to the reductive nature of confining narrative to a storyline."[4] The past can never be truly recovered, says Hutcheon, because it will always be coloured by the lens of the present. Ondaatje tries to break free form the norms of historical fiction by focusing on the untold story of the immigrants who had to give up their languages and their ethnicities, and whose identities and histories were eroded by industrial capitalism. Ondaatje looks at how industrial capitalism stripped new Canadians of their identities by dissolving the physical and psychological boundaries between them and the mode of production they had become a part of, both knowingly and unknowingly. Ondaatje offers his readers the same historical life raft he does certain subversive characters in his novel by deconstructing modes of power, demarcating the past and present, the fictive from the historical and the body from the system that controls it.

In the Skin of a Lion is rife with injured bodies: amputated arms, lacerated necks, exploded abdomens, dislocated shoulders, broken bones, tar burns, infected lungs, men sliced vertically in two, and so on. Immigrants who come to North America, with no verbal skills, have only their bodies and their labour to offer up in exchange for employment. They cannot offer language, because they do not yet speak it. Daniel Stoyanoff, who has lost his arm during an accident in a meat factory, returns to the small village of Oschima armless, but with enough capital to buy his own farm. He tempts his fellow villagers with the North American dream as he laughs about losing his arm, “calling [the Canadians] all fools, sheep! As if his arm had been a dry cow he had fooled the Canadians with.”[5] Daniel Stoyanoff, upon his return to Oschima, is inscribed both mentally and physically by industrial capitalist power. He expresses no sense of loss at losing his arm on the killing floors in Canada. I would argue that his indifference towards his arm stems from an inability to locate boarders between the self and the object of manipulation. His own body had blended with the cows that he killed, and as such he laughs about his arm as if it had been  “a dry cow he had fooled the Canadians with”.[6] The financial compensation has warped Stoyanoff's cognizance, altering his perceptions of the world. His body becomes a piece of meat no different from that which is sold to butcher shops or tanneries.

In order to open his own bakery, Nicholas Temelcoff must give not just his labour, but also his body to the industrial expansion of Toronto.  He is subjugated and rendered into what Foucault describes as a “docile body.” In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explores how eighteenth-century bodies were rendered docile by being “subjected, used, transformed and improved.”[7] Once the body was located as a target of power its activity had to be controlled by being spatially enclosed, partitioned, and ranked.  Reflecting on an eighteenth-century set of instructions for handling a rifle, Foucault states that: “Over the whole surface of contact between the body and the object it handles, power [emphasis mine] is introduced, fastening one to the other,” in this way, Foucault argues, that the body is reconstituted as a “body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine complex,”[8] wherein the body and the rifle are amalgamated into a single entity.

            After five years of working as a labourer, the cadence and rhythm of Temelcoff's movements are perfectly timed. Like a spider, Temelcoff glides through the air with ease as he jumps from beam to beam, “ferrying tools from pier down to trestle”.[9] The ease of his interactions with the bridge is not the product of an innate, symbiotic relationship, but a relationship that was learned through corporal punishment. Nicholas's body is marked with 20 scars, each gash a lesson in proper technique, a symbol of power inscribed on the body, marking its subjugation and docility. The stakes are high for “the correct use of the body”[10]; one wrong gesture can result in death, like Nicholas's predecessor whose body was severed in half by a whipping wire that fell from above. Industrial capitalism has inscribed Nicholas's body, fastening it to the Prince Edward Viaduct:

He does not really need to see things, he has charted all that space, knows the pier footings, the width of the crosswalks in terms of seconds of movement 281 feet and 6 inches make up the central span of the bridge. [...] He knows the precise height he is over the river, how long his ropes are, how many seconds he can free-fall to the pulley. It does not matter if it is day or night, he could be blindfolded. Black space is time.

Nicholas Temelcoff is arguably the model of the body-machine complex; he has been manipulated, shaped and trained into the ultimate bridge builder. His gestures are perfectly controlled down to the second, his work is described as being “exceptional and time-saving,”[11] which is why he rewarded with a salary more than twice that of the other bridge workers.

Industrial capitalism is also inscribed upon the bodies of the workers at Wickett and Craig's tannery.  Like Nicholas, who is inscribed with scars, the tannery workers too are inscribed visually. As the men dye the freshly slaughtered cow skins, so too does their skin absorb the pigments of the dye vats in which they work. They become green men who cannot be separated from the freshly dyed green leather. Ondaatje describes the leather workers as “stepp[ing] out in colours up to their necks, pulling wet hides out after hem so it appeared they had removed the skin from their own bodies”.[12] Like Nicholas, who is “fastened” to the bridge, and Daniel Stoyanoff who cannot separate his body from meat, the dyers too are “fastened” to their work: there is nothing that demarcates the end of their bodies and the beginning of their tools, they have been fused through labour. The inscription of power on the dyers extends beyond the superficial scarring of the epidermal layer.  What Ondaatje describes as “the most evil smell in history,” the odour of the dying vats, will cling to these men's cores, so that “even if they never stepped into this pit again a year from now they would burp up that odour”.[13] This foul odour will seep into their lungs, and without their knowledge, it will be this smell, years later that will ultimately infect them with consumption and kill them.

            The novel is replete with broken and bruised bodies that have been inscribed by capitalism, but many of the characters also suffer physiological inscription; they cannot tell where they end and the object of their manipulation begins. The new language of English also inscribes their minds. Nicholas Temelcoff's obsessive studying of English infects him, changing his perceptions of the world. This change first manifests in his translation dreams. In these dreams “trees changed not just their names but their looks and character. Men started answering in falsettos. Dogs spoke out fast to him as they passed him on the street”.[14] Learning new languages changes the way we think. In a study done by Lera Boroditsky et al. subjects were asked to describe a key and a bridge. In English, a language without grammatical gender, this may seem banal, but in gendered languages such as German and Spanish the simple tasked of describing a key elucidated two very disparate sets of adjectives, which revealed how a grammar shapes perception. In German the word key is masculine, which correlated to adjectives such as “hard,” “jagged,” “serrated,” “useful” and “metal.” In Spanish, conversely, the word key is feminine. Spanish speakers were thus more likely to describe a key as “intricate,” “little,” “shiny,” “lovely,” “golden” and “tiny” To describe a bridge, which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said “slender” “peaceful,” “elegant,” “pretty” “fragile,” while the Spanish speakers opted for adjectives such as “dangerous,” “sturdy,” “towering” and “strong.” This was true even though all testing was done in English, a grammatically neuter language.[15] With this in mind, it becomes evident that aspects of language shape how people think. Learning a new language such as English, therefore, influences mental representations of objects.

            After the proto-union gathering at the waterworks Alice Gull explains to Patrick that the first step towards destroying the fetters of industrial capitalism is to “name the enemy”.[16]  She isolates the linguistic process of naming as a locus of power that endows the namer with the ability to “destroy […] power”[17]. With language's capacity for psychological inscription, I would like to return to the tannery scene where industrial capitalism[18], using the tannery foreman as its human-machine conduit, strips the workers of their given names, and baptizes them with English epithets such as Charlie Johnson and Nick Parker that “[t]hey remembered [like] the strange foreign syllables of a number”. By renaming the workers their national histories are denied and their agency is destroyed. The tannery workers are not choosing to be renamed, for they are not the agents of their metamorphosis, but the subjects of a forced metamorphosis; reduced to docile bodies, these men have become cogs in the capitalist machine who cannot recognize the boundaries between themselves and the objects they manipulate. It is also important to note that not only were these new Canadians denied their names, but also their voices. Police Chief Draper had imposed laws against public meetings by foreigners. If new Canadians were to speak in public, in any language other than English, they would be jailed.

The blurring of boundaries is only negative when the individual is coerced by industrial capitalist power, and becomes a subject, rather than an agent, of the blurring process. If an individual becomes aware of how the boundaries are demarcated and established by power then that person, in turn, can manipulate the boundaries to their own advantage. This is best exemplified in the scene where Patrick, Buck and Caravaggio paint of the Kingston Penitentiary roof. The three prisoners are forced to paint the roof blue, so that they cannot see the seam that separates the roof from the sky. This lack of visual demarcation is at first terrifying because “after a while the three men [...] became uncertain of clear boundaries. [...] They could not move without thinking twice where a surface stopped”.[19] If the men remain oblivious to the newly visually fused boundary that demarcates the sky from the roof “[t]aking a seemingly innocent step”[20] could result in death. But because Caravaggio is aware of the process of demarcation, and names the process, he is able to escape the prison.

            Caravaggio is one of the few protagonists in the novel who does not directly work within the capitalist structure; he is a thief, who works outside of the capitalist mechanism. The novel’s readers are not privy to the origins of Caravaggio's name—is that his true name or a self-bestowed moniker— but the name does bond the figure of the thief to the renowned Baroque Italian artist. Interestingly, it is while the thief Caravaggio is engaged in painting, the act that his namesake is famous for, that he is able to name and locate the demarcatative fetters of industrial capitalism. And it is through the medium of paint that his escape is made possible.  Aware of the newly blurred boundaries between roof and sky, freedom and confinement, Caravaggio exploits demarcation. He literally inscribes himself into the scene by painting his body blue. Visually fused to the roof Caravaggio is able to deceive the guards’ gaze and escape the prison. I posit that throughout the novel it is artistic production and the consumption of art that endows those who make art, and those who experience art, with the ability to see the how power functions allowing them to resist the mechanisms of power.

            At the proto-union gathering, which takes place in the Waterworks, Patrick cannot tell the difference between the dancing Alice Gull and the mob of wooden puppets. Even when Alice begins to “twirl in gestures impossible for wood”[21] Patrick cannot accept the idea that she is human. From his distance he resolves that the male puppet must simply be made of cloth. It is not until Patrick engages with the performance by coming to the stage, in an effort to rescue the puppet as it pleads for help by pounding relentlessly against the wooden stage, that he realizes that the figure is a human female.  Alice's performance demands audience participation. Until an audience member is jolted into action by the absurd, manic beating of her hand against the stage, the performance will continue indefinitely. In Alice's dance she outlines how power has rendered new Canadians docile by denying them their language. The strength of her performance is not simply that she locates power, but that she imbues her audience members with that same ability to see how power functions. And by imbuing her audience the ability to locate power they become able resist its mechanisms. 


Works Cited


Boroditsky, Lera, Schmidt, Lauren and Phillips, Webb, “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.”  In Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition, edited by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow, 61-79. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

“Canadian Multiculturalism Act,” Department of Justice of Canada, accessed October 30, 2011.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Re-presenting the Past” in The Politics of Postmoderism,”(London: Routledge, 1989), 62-92.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage, 1979. 

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Spearey, Susan. “Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje's in the Skin of a Lion.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29 (1994): 45-60.

Tierney, Stephen. Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007.




{C}{C}{C}[1]{C}{C}{C}{C} Canadian Multiculturalism Act 1988 <> (October 30, 2011)

{C}{C}{C}[2]{C}{C}{C}{C} Stephen Tierney, Multiculturalism and the Canadian Constitution. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007): 196

{C}{C}{C}[3]{C}{C}{C}{C} Linda Hutcheon,  “Re-presenting the Past,” 62

{C}{C}{C}[4]{C}{C}{C}{C} Susan Spearey, “Mapping and Masking: The Migrant Experience in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion,” 50

{C}{C}{C}[5]{C}{C}{C}{C} Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel. (New York: Vintage International, 1997): 44

{C}{C}{C}[6]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 44

{C}{C}{C}[7]{C}{C}{C}{C} Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, (New York: Vintage, 1979): 136

{C}{C}{C}[8]{C}{C}{C}{C} Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 153

{C}{C}{C}[9]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 34

{C}{C}{C}[10]{C}{C}{C}{C} Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 152

{C}{C}{C}[11]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 35

{C}{C}{C}[12]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 130

{C}{C}{C}[13]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 130

{C}{C}{C}[14]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 47

{C}{C}{C}[15]{C}{C}{C}{C} Lera Boroditsky “Can quirks of grammar affect the way you think? Spanish and German speakers’ ideas about the gender of objects,” 930

{C}{C}{C}[16]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 124

{C}{C}{C}[17]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 128

{C}{C}{C}[18]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 132

{C}{C}{C}[19]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 177

{C}{C}{C}[20]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 177

{C}{C}{C}[21]{C}{C}{C}{C} Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion: A Novel, 118

Forbidden Planet’s Forbidden Criticism

Although critics have traced the genealogy of science fiction to its genesis, often citing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first sci-fi work, the genre has had a long history of eluding a concrete definition (Malmgren 2). Hugo Gernsback began by summarizing the qualities of the genre as early as 1926. He defined the new genre of “scientifiction” as “Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe type[s] of stor[ies]…charming romance[s] intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision[s]” (qtd. in Stableford, Clute and Nicholls). By the 1940s Grensback’s “scientifiction” was replaced by a new term, “science fiction,” a genre tied to science and scientific extrapolation. J. O. Bailey’s 1947 monograph, Pilgrims Through Space and Time, argued that “a piece of scientific fiction is a narrative of an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences and consequent adventures and experiences. . . It must be a scientific discovery–something that the author at least rationalizes as possible to science.” (qtd. in Stablefor, Clute and Nicholls). Contemporary SF criticism relies heavily on Darko Suvin’s definition of science ficition.  According to Suvin, what distinguishes science fiction from other genres of literature is the “narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’…validated by cognitive logic” (Suvin 63). Nova is not a neologism, but a re-appropriation of a Latin word that translates to “new things” (nova being the plural and novum the singular). In terms of science fiction, nova are any and all imaginary discoveries or objects that affectively change the course of history such as time travel, mutation, artificial consciousness and faster-than-light travel. These nova, as Simone Caroti explains in “Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, force the reader of SF to engage in the “act of cognition, of rationally making sense of coming to terms with the estranging elements” (Caroti 225). According to Caroti, it is this act of rationalizing the nova that endows the reader with a sense of wonder. The pleasure of reading SF is thus gleaned through scientific extrapolation, the future is alienating in a Brechtian sense, but it is also uncannily familiar because the extrapolation is based on the present reality. In this way the novum, is a “specifically roundabout way of commenting on an author’s collective context.” (Suvin 89)

According to Foucault, épistemes are “the ‘apparatus[es]’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific” (197). A work of science fiction is built upon scientific extrapolation into the future based on the current épistemes of its era. Thus although Forbidden Planet is set some two hundred and fifty years in the future, the anxieties it expresses are a product of the mid-century modern American psyche. After the Second World War, the McCarthy-era had fostered a national paranoia of the socialist left. As a result of this paranoia, Hollywood eschewed making films that could be perceived as pro-socialist, for “any criticism of American society might be taken as an indication of pro-Soviet sympathies” (Booker 53). M. K. Booker avers that because of Cold War paranoia 

American science fiction filmmakers were a bit hesitant to project dramatically different futures because 1950s American society, in the throes of burgeoning social changes that would erupt in the sometimes violent protests of the 1960s, was in the grip of such rapid changes that it had a kind of social vertigo. (Booker 53)

And while Forbidden Planet does extrapolate a world of white, male domination, there are a number of ways that the film is subversive. I do not concur with Booker regarding science fiction’s role as a social Valium that assuaged gender- and race-related anxieties. There is a definite tension within the film the pulls between validating current social norms and exposing them. During an era of apprehension and anxiety, SF was framed as escapist literature, rather than self-reflexive, socially critical literature, as Suvin later categorize it, twenty years after Forbidden Planet’s release. Many critics deemed science fiction unworthy of serious scholarly analysis. Susan Sontag even noted that

[t]here is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanisation which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien it (qtd. in Matheson 331).

I would like to posit that the classification of SF as escapist and non-critical allowed for films such as Forbidden Planet to engage with social issues that would have been considered too taboo to engage with in more “serious” genres.

 None of Forbidden Planet’s promotional material alludes to the Tempest; it wasn’t until five years after the film came out that Kingsley Aims, in his 1961 book New Maps from Hell, noted that film had an incidental similarity to The Tempest (Buchanan 148). Less than a year later, Robert Morsberger, in a Shakespeare Quarterly article, reinforced Aims’s, claims asserting that the play was “beneath all the trappings of futuristic science fiction” an adaptation of The Tempest (161). The promotional material focused not on the 1950s present, or the film’s seventeenth-century Shakespearean inspiration, but on the “magnificent picture of that distant tomorrow” (Forbidden Planet trailer). The adaptive aspects of the film were perhaps diminished to ensure that any perceivable American criticism within Forbidden Planet would not stigmatize film’s box office success, for if the film were to be perceived as an adaptation of The Bard, that would reinforce the film’s scholarly clout and thereby attract unwanted critical attention. Since Forbidden Planet was identified as an adaptation of The Tempest a number of scholars, including Morsberger, Frederick Clarke, Kenneth Rothwell,

Lisa Hopkins, and Steve Rubin among a great many others, have attempted to trace who represents whom. There is, however, as Hopkins notes, no simple one-to-one correspondence between the two casts of characters, save perhaps the cook, who makes a fantastic Stephano. Robby the Robot, takes Caliban’s place in the drinking scenes with the cook, he also functions as the sole labourer carrying heavy lead where Caliban would have carried logs; like Ariel, Robby manifests illusions, in this case he conjures replicas of food and goods such as gems and textiles. Morbius is simultaneously Prospero and Caliban, his acquired Krell knowledge endows him with otherworldly powers, but his Id monster, amplified by that very same Krell technology, is a hyperbolic Caliban: pre-loqutionary, pregnant with incestuous desires and murderous tendencies. A huge deviation between Prospero and Morbius, as Simone Caroti notes, has to do with control, both of the self and of others (225). There are of course, more similarities and difference between the film and the play, but I will leave that for you to puzzle out.Forbbiden Planet might best be characterized as a film that is trapped within, what Deborah Tannen has called, the double-bind of communication. Tannen stipulates that there is a constant tension between individuals to assert both difference and solidarity, or in more tactile terms “a matter of continual self-correction between exuberance (i.e. friendliness; you are like me) and deficiency (i.e., respect: you are not like me” (Tannen 167). In this way Frobidden Planet is continually oscillating between assuaging the 1950s audience that the world they know will remain stable for centuries to come, while simultaneously alluding—quietly, subtly—to the tensions simmering below the veneer of 1950s society.  For the remainder of this presentation I will be exploring how Forbidden Planet portrays feminine mystique and I will conclude by touching on how the film depicts technology ambivalently as it vacillates between technophobia and technophilia.

You may be familiar with the 1940s image of a woman flexing her bicep in a factory jumpsuit with the caption “We can do it,” motivating women to take up typically male dominated professions during the Second World War. After the war, when there were no longer manpower shortages, women were expected to exchange “paid work in the public sphere for house-keeping and child rearing in the suburbs”(Yaszek 79). In 1957 Betty Friedan began to explore a pervasive sense of unhappiness that dominated the Smith graduating class of 1942. In her book The Feminine Mystique, Friedan compared depictions of women in 1930s magazines with contemporary 1950s magazines and noted a regressive shift. Prior to WWII women were portrayed as confident multitaskers balancing both career and family. By the 1950s, however, magazine articles and advertisements presented women as either happy mother/housewives or as unbalanced, depressed career women. In her article “Not Lost in Space” Lisa Yaszek notes that the “rhetoric of domestic patriotism blended effortlessly with that of the feminine mystique, reinforcing [the idea] that women might have either family and career, but that to sacrifice the former for the latter was unpatriotic and to combine the two was profoundly unnatural”  (79).

Raised light years away from Earth, Altaira is depicted as an Eve-like character; with her bare feet and revealing, nude-toned clothing she seems to represent pure innocent naiveté. At least, this is how the crew of the United Planets Cruiser C57-D perceives her. The Eden allusions are reinforced by Altaira’s ability to befriend animals, including a vicious tiger, which is so docile she considers it one of her “friends.” While Eve was born a fully mature woman of Adam’s rib, Altaira, despite being a buxom nineteen-year-old, is presented in an odd infantilized state. During the 1950s little girls’ dresses were short, and as a girl matured the hemline lowered in accordance with her level of maturity (Driscoll). In Forbidden Planet Altaira’s dresses are similar to a child’s, they obscure her décolletage, but barely cover her rear. While many critics (Jane Caputi, among others) have touched on the uncomfortable incestuous tension that bubbles below the film’s surface, no one seems to have commented on Altaira’s infantile dresses. Alta’s extended childhood is perhaps a manifestation of Morbius’s attempts to sublimate his sexual desires, by denying her womanhood through emphasizing her childishness. For ultimately, her clothing is made by Robby, Morbius’s creation. Morbius does not only keep his daughter dressed in 1950s-child-appropriate clothes, but he also stymies her intellectual development. Morbius does not offer his daughter the Krell knowledge mind booster, perhaps because he prefers to keep her “ignorant,” in what I can only call an attempt to imprison her as child subordinate. The dresses, however, have the opposite effect on the crewmembers; they do not dissuade sexual attraction, but encourage it.

 Within the framework of the feminine mystique women were positioned as antithetical to men, lacking drive and supposedly fulfilled by domestic duties. Women were expected to never fully mature into sentient individuals, but were expected to remain stunted, content to cook dinner, vacuum and parent, but nothing more. Outside of the context of Earth, Altaira’s captivity within the child state stirs Commander Adams and Doctor Ostrow to express concern over her “lack of liberty,” which Morbius avers is a non-issue. Morbius, in front of the crewmembers, asks Altaira if she ever feels “lonely or confined,” to which Altaira responds, “well, I don’t know—I have you, Robby and all my friends [the animals].” Without being allowed to experience life away from Altair IV, Altaira, similar to a housewife dissuaded from working, cannot know if she is truly happy.

 As the film progresses, it becomes evident that Alta’s tiger friend is not endemic to Altair IV, but is one of Morbius’s subconscious creations. The tiger is only harmless so long as Altaira behaves in accordance to Morbius’s desires. When Adams kisses Altaira the tiger attempts to kill both of them. M. K. Booker argues that Altaira’s

obvious sexual accessibility arises not from any arrant erotic desires on her own part; it comes from her total innocence and ignorance of sexuality, which not only makes her easily impressed by virtually any man who comes along but also leaves that man in a position of complete mastery, able to tutor his innocent young conquest and to mold her to fit his own sexual style” (53).

Critics such as Booker as well as the film’s male protagonists neglect to acknowledge any hint of sexual desire on Altaira’s part, positioning her as the naïve object of Adams’s and Farman’s desires. Until the tiger attack scene there is no suggestion that Altaira’s activities have disturbed Morbius’s incestuous, possessive Id monster. There are, however, suggestions throughout the film that Altaira is not simply the object of desire, but an agent who stimulates, in her effort to seduce the most eligible of all the “18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6”. Sexual maturity is framed as a state that can only be achieved by a girl with the instruction by an age-appropriate heterosexual male guide. Both Adams and Morbius ignore Altaira’s independently budding sexuality, which culminates with her conniving plan to seduce Adams.

When Adams ‘rescues’ Altaira from the “space wolf” Farman he rebukes Altaira for attracting Farman’s advances. He tells her that her clothes are inappropriate and that if something had happened with Farman beyond the “healthy stimulation” of “hugging and kissing” (Altaira’s words) then it would have “served her right” (Adams’s words). When Altaira returns home she is furious and embarrassed. She tells Morbius that she hopes she won’t see Adamas again if she lives “to be a million,” but shortly after Morbius returns to his study she begins to devise a plan to ensnare the censuring commander. The following scene (which was in the trailer) is one of the only scenes that focuses on Altaira outside of the male scope of vision, she is neither being watched by her father, nor is she trying impress the Earth men. Alone with Robby the genderless robot, Altaira reveals that she is not ignorant, but Machiavellian. She orders a dress from Robby that mustn’t show anything “below, above or through,” but must “fit in all the right places, with lots and lots of star sapphires.” Her coy plan to entrap Adams and escape Altair IV hinges on Adams believing that she is ignorant. In this scene Altaira plays on her presumed ignorance, which is an integral part of her seduction plot. She has teased Adams into thinking she is swimming in the nude, but note how when Altaira exits the pond the camera makes sure to follow her out of the water, revealing that she is in fact wearing a bathing suit.  Ultimately Altaira manipulates Adams into believing that she is innocent and ignorant and that she will be a conquest to be molded and fit to his sexual style, when in fact she, through the rouse of ignorance, has the upper hand.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari work toward a definition of girlhood, asserting that “girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere” (277). They also argue that “the girl is certainly not defined by virginity” (276). Instead of the traditional definitions, based on sex, age, and virginity, Deleuze and Guattari define girlhood as a state of “becoming-woman,” and they assert that this is “the key to all the other becomings” (277). Through Altaira’s shifting personas (between virginal Eve-figure and tempting, irreverent flirt), we can glimpse the figure of the girl as described by Deleuze and Guattari—a figure in a constant state of becoming-woman, but never settling into the “opposable organism” (276). She continually oscillates throughout the film—but fails to settle on a definite state. Morbius, the self-proclaimed and self-made god of Altair IV ejects Altaira from the Eden-like garden when he perceives that she has graduated from girl to woman. The issue is that she, like all girls, does not have a definite moment of becoming woman, she is working throughout the film towards that goal. The feminine mystique relies on blanket states and teloses, a woman is this and wants that, but girls are many things, and girls wants many things, perhaps more than they know, and Altaira is desperate to know more than just the theoretical side of biology, among other subjects.

I want to culminate my presentation with a section I have called technotension. The film presents technology as a threat (it destroyed the Krell, just as nuclear bombs had the potential to destroy the world), but also as a boon. Robby is a benign technovation who abides by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. But Robby also aids in Altaira’s semi-forced infantalization. With Robby there, Altaira does not need to engage in any domestic work. Robby acts like an ersatz mother, creating dresses, arranging flowers, cooking meals, etc. In “Cruising Against the Id” Tim Youngs finds that “[t]he equivilence between women’s and Robby’s roles reinforces ideas of female servitude and therefore of man’s mastery over machines and women” (219). I would like to close by asking if you agree with Youngs; do you think that Robby’s performance of domestic tasks is ideologically sinister? Or is it perhaps a liberating image, suggesting that domestic responsibility is not aligned solely with gender, for as Robby says at the beginning of the film, for him the question of gender “is totally without meaning”


Works Cited

Buchanan, Judith. “Forbidden Planet and the Retrospective Attribution of Intentions.” Retrovision, Reinventing the Past in Film and Fiction. Ed. Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, and Imelda Whelehan. London: Pluto, 2001.148-62. Print.

Caroti, Simone. “Science Fiction, Forbidden Planet, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” in Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia, and Cyberspace, ed. Alexander C.Y. Huang and Charles S. Ross (Purdue University Press, 2009), 218- 230.

Clarke, Frederick and Rubin, Steve. “Making Forbidden Planet.” Cinefantastique 8.2.3 (1979) 4-66.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988. Print.

Driscoll, Catherine. “Plastic Visibility, Visible Plasticity: On the Sexualization of Girlhood.”  York University. Vanier College, North York, ON. October 17, 2012. Lecuture.

Hopkins, Lisa. Shakespear’'s The tempest: the relationship between text and film. London: Methuen Drama, 2008. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Power, Moral Values, and the Intellectual. An Interview with Michel Foucault by Michael Bess. History of the Present 4 (Spring 1988), p. 1.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1983. Print.

Matheson, T. J. “Marcuse Ellul and the Science-Fiction Film: Negative Responses to Technology.” Science Fiction Studies 193.2 (1992): 326-339. JStor. Web. 13 Oct. 2012.

Malmgren, Carl Darryl. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

Morsberger, Robert E. “Shakespeare and Science Ficition.” Shakespeare Quarterly 12.4 (1961): 161. Jstor. Web. 16 Oct. 2012. <>.

Rothwell, Kenneth S., and Annabelle Winograd. Shakespeare on Screen: An International Filmography and Videography. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1990. Print.

Stableford, Brian; Clute, John, and Nicholls, Peter. “Definitions of SF”. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit/Little, Brown and Company. Online.

Suvin, Darko. “Science Fiction and the Novum (1977).” Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010. 67-92. Print.

Tannen, Deborah. “The Relativity of Linguistic Strategies: Rethinking Power and Solidarity in Gender Dominance”. Gender and Conversational Interaction. Ed. Tannen . New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993. 165-188. Print.

Yaszek, Lisa, ed. “Not Lost in Space.” New Boundaries in Political Science Fiction. Ed. Donald M. M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 2008. 78-92. Print.

Youngs, Tim. “Cruising Against the Id: The transformation of Caliban in Forbbiden Planet.” Constellation Caliban: Figurations of a Character. Ed. Nadia Lie and Theo D’haen. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 211-229. Print.


The Flowers of Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is composed of a myriad of different narrative strains that are intricately woven into an elaborate tapestry of interconnection over the course of the eight books that compromise the novel’s whole. Eliot weaves her story not around a single locus, but instead embraces heterogeneity in an effort to capture the realism of mid-nineteenth century life. The reader is presented with a panoramic snapshot of provincial English Midland life (1830-1832) that includes everything from the extension of the railroad networks, to the budding of new professions such as medicine to the women’s post-marriage domestic sphere, which had, up until Eliot, often been glossed over in novels of manners (Spacks 162). However, despite the immense span of the novel, which deals with a multitude of people, as well as political, sexual and social issues, there are certain echoes of homogeneity sprinkled throughout the text, which endow Middlemarch with an uncanny wholeness. One of the fastening agents that Eliot uses to bond her sprawling narrative together are strategically applied patterns of imagery. Throughout Middlemarch Eliot employs numerous different patterns of imagery including images of light, water and flowers; these patterns percolate through out the text and are strategically manipulated by Eliot to subtly communicate a subtext about the novel’s characters that they themselves are often blind to.

Present-day readers may skim over the metaphorical descriptions of a character’s “budding,” “blooming,” “blossoming” or “flowering” as they develop from an inchoate being into their potential, for those idioms have become clichéd staples of English expression. Eliot’s readers, however, would have much more closely scrutinized the text’s botanical references (Shteir 18). During the Victorian and Edwardian eras women were granted admission to the citadel of science on the condition that they study female disciplines; the earliest field of scientific study that women were granted admission to was botany (Higgitt and Withers 12). Women of all classes were encouraged to keep herbariums, which were books where women would keep pressed botanical specimens, filed by taxon, with detailed notes of their origins (where flowers and plants were picked, when they were picked, etc.). George Eliot’s botanical knowledge was expansive; her interest in the subject went beyond the margins of popular books on the subject. In her journal essay “Recollections of Jersey 1857”, she catalogues her botanical education as follows: “I have been getting a smattering of botany from Miss Catlow and from Dr. Thomson’s little book on Wild Flowers, which have created at least a longing for something more complete on the subject” (281). The “Miss Catlow” Eliot admonishes in the essay is the author of Popular Field Botany. Eliot iterates multiple times that she was unsatisfied with Popular Field Botany. In a letter to Sara Hennell from the Isle of Jersey she indicates that she had been taking inland walks with said book. Eliot exclaims in the letter that the woods are full of “distracting wild flowers that Miss Catlow never says anything about, just because they are the very flowers you want to identify” (329).

From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth, women of leisure were encouraged to go out and explore the country side, collecting both known and unknown species of flora (Shteir 36). This drive to collect and classify was part and parcel to the colonial drive to stamp the impression of empire onto the unmapped. Botany, as a prescribed Victorian pursuit for women, can be seen as a locus of bourgeois Victorian power that suppressed outliers and implemented order. Flowers, however, were also a locus of resistance. Although flower collecting and the practice of botany was prescribed for women, and was reflective of the constrictive, empire-driven Victorian society, flowers were also used in subversive communicative acts. For, flowers, in arrangements called “tussie-mussies” or “talking bouquets”, were used to send coded messages to friends or lovers (Laufer 17). Thus, the botanical pattern of imagery that runs throughout Middlemarch is a doubly charged pattern, an antithetical symbol that can refer simultaneously to the resistance and acquiescence to the Victorian hegemony. This botanical pattern of imagery demands further scrutiny, for up until now only Amy King has seriously addressed Eliot’s tactical use of botanical imagery, a topic that demands more academic attention.

An interesting effect of the Victorian botanical frenzy was that botanical terms seeped into the lexicon. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, employed metaphors of sexual courtship and marriage to describe plants. In a post-Linnaean reversal a botanical vernacular was applied to human sexual interactions. The most common botanical trope, found peppered throughout the novel of manners, was the bloom trope, wherein women with marital dispositions bloomed for their respective suitors. In her excellent monograph, Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel, Amy King outlines how by the time Eliot wrote Middlemarch the term bloom had become nearly as stilted and stagnant as it is today. King writes that if in Austen [among others] bloom had primarily accounted for marital dispositions, in Eliot the expansion of the systemic of bloom to a more generally categorized nature corresponds to the way Eliot expanded her novels from linear marriage plots to multistrand narratives”(134). King argues that the “‘departicularization’ of bloom in Middlemarch is in the service of a new realist taxonomization—one that studies the various types of female bloom” (154). King broadly looks at Eliot’s reinvention of the trope as it manifests in Middlemarch but fails to note a disparity in Eliot’s distribution of the term bloom, which is primarily used to describe Dorothea Brooke. King fails to note that while Dorothea is repeatedly referred to as a “blooming girl” or a “bloom” or “in bloom,” Rosamond Vincy is described through more concrete floral imagery. Eliot’s expansion of the systemic of bloom is perhaps more elaborate than King’s monograph would lead us to conclude.

In the prelude to Middlemarch Eliot articulates that one of the novel’s objectives is to expand on the “literary tradition of portraying love,” which has been reductionist in its representations of women (Novy 64). According to Eliot, women’s lives are much more varied “than anyone would imagine from the sameness of…the favourite love-stories in prose and verse” (32). Eliot’s study of provincial life flushes out numerous types of women that have often been pushed into the margins of literature. Eliot locates literary anemia in a certain type of female heroine, embodied by Rosamond Vincy, whose goal was marriage wherein she supposedly bloomed and whose emotional and mental depths were questionable. In an effort to expand the category of heroine, Eliot engages in a project of retaxonimization. Through her use of botanical terminology, Eliot expands the taxon of literary romantic female to include characters such as Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke. By the 1880s, the term “to bloom” had become synonymous with the unvaried heroines of literature that Eliot castigates in the prelude to Middlemarch. Eliot reappropriates the term to bloom and applies it almost exclusively to the character Dorothea Brooke who blooms intellectually and spiritually, rather than physically. While Dorothea’s mind blooms, despite the failures of her Lausanne education, Rosamond Vincy, who is almost exclusively associated with physicality, is described as flowering rather than blooming. The plain Mary Garth, by contrast, is the most fertile of the three women, for she produces both heirs (a litter of boys) and a book, Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch; she, however, is not associated with flora, but with the fecundity of earth.

In the opening chapters of the novel Dorothea is presented as being spiritually castrated. Her Calvinist education at Lausanne has curbed her natural aesthetic longings. Dorothea manages to rationalize her aesthetic indulgences such as her love of riding and her zeal for her mother’s emerald jewellery. The hyper-conscientious Dorothea loves to ride, but she feels that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it” (36). Dorothea never actually renounces riding, but she is uncomfortable with her own unbridled enthusiasm for it and so must validate her actions through self-deception. Jill Matus asserts that Dorothea’s self deception is not a manifestation of her mental struggle to balance the Puritan ideals she learned at Lusanne with her natural aesthetic longings. Matus is adamant that Dorothea’s asceticism with regards to the way she looks forward to giving up horseback riding emphasizes that she was “uncomfortable” with her “displaced sexuality” which prompts her to attempt to “work out a negotiation between ideas and common yearnings” (228). Whether it is an aesthetic hunger or sexual urges that Dorothea struggles to subdue the conclusion is the same: Dorothea is trying to mould herself into a singular type of individual, which is clearly antithetical to her plural nature. Elizabeth Sabiston has noted that there is no one key to unlock Dorothea’s character and no one metaphor attached to her. The patterns of imagery applied to her include botanical images, images of water blocked and flowing, images of extinguished light and the blinding light of God. In a lecture Sabiston stated that “Dorothea is not just some contemporary Saint Therese,” she does not embody a sole allusion, but many, for she is “Saint Catherine forced to stare at her sister’s daughter, Diana when she walks in on Will [Ladislaw], and Eve in quest of the apple of knowledge”. Dorothea escapes the limitations of seizing a single metaphor by juggling numerous metaphors. Ultimately Dorothea is able to grow as an individual, and is able to rebloom, when she becomes capable of acknowledging her attempt to be a singular type of woman was a failed attempt.

In Middlemarch Eliot engages in reformatting the bloom trope. By aligning the term bloom primarily with Dorothea, Eliot associates the term not with the sexual fulfilment of marriage, but with self-fulfilment. Dorothea blooms intellectually and spiritually, rather than sexually, for her bloom is not representative of a physical ripeness, but a mental ripeness. Early on, in the third chapter of the novel, the narrator locates Dorthea’s bloom in her mind: “…the reasons that might induce [Dorothea] to accept [Casaubon] were already planted in her mind, and by the evening of the next day the reasons had budded and bloomed” (47). Eliot makes it almost too easy for the reader to lay the onus of the awful Brooke-Casabon marriage onto the shrivelled, sterile and neglectful Casaubon who “had no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background” (85). This opinion is championed by the Middlemarchers who vocally state that Dorothea “is too young to know what she likes” and that she is being taken advantage of (81). The marriage is, however, the result of mutual myopia; both Dorothea and Casaubon are misinformed with regards to who they both think they are and who they both think their partners are. Dorothea is much less submissive than Casaubon perceived her to be during their courtship; he failed to recognize her independent nature. Dorothea, despite her desire to be the exemplar of the submissive ideal wife, has a natural disposition that is misaligned with the Victorian ideal woman. Dorothea scorns the hegemonic oppression of women (exemplified by her desire to engage in “too taxing” male intellectual pursuits such as architecture and classic tongues) (78).

In “Middlemarch and the Woman Question” Kathleen Blake coyly points out that while Dorothea “casts herself in prospect in a self-subdued role as a wife, as her husband’s lamp bearer and so on, she is hardly so selfless as she thinks” (293). For Dorothea marriage—at least her first marriage—is not a telos in and of itself, but a path that she hopes will lead to self-improvement. Dorothea is mistakenly under the impression that marrying Casaubon will help her have access to the provinces of masculine knowledge—Greek and Latin—that have thus far been barred to her. And through an expanded education that endows her with masculine tools, Dorothea believes that her great desire to aid in bettering the world will become a tangible reality, rather than an abstraction that manifests in the untrained sketching of cottages. Unfortunately for Dorothea, who longs to be an equal partner in marriage, Casaubon does not want an equal partner, but a completely submissive helpmate. Within the confines of Lowick Dorothea is not granted admission to the citadel of masculine knowledge guarded by Casaubon, but is condemned to fade away.

During their courtship and the early portion of their marriage Dorothea mistakes Casaubon’s learning for intellectualism, but it is no more than well-presented rote memorization. For, Dorothea’s sole attraction to Casaubon (his intelligence, which she hopes will fertilize her mind with knowledge) is revealed by Will Ladislaw to be a farce. Even if Dorothea learned Latin and Greek it would be of no help to Casaubon, for his academic project, to unveil the “Key to all Mythologies,” suffers from his ignorance of current German scholarship on his research topic. Ladislaw explains to Dorothea that “the Germans have taken the lead in historical inquiries, and they laugh at results which are got by groping about in woods with a pocket-compass while they have made good roads” (191). Thus, not only is Dorothea’s path to knowledge stymied by a chauvinistic mate who has no interest in an equal partner, her partner does not even have the ability to baptize her into useful scholarship, for his own work is as impotent as he himself is.

The “breathing blooming girl,” Dorothea, must pass through a yew tree-lined path before she enters the matrimonial trap that is Lowick (176). The yew tree is a coniferous tree with tempting berry-like fruits that entice with their vibrant red colour. The tempting tree is, however, highly poisonous just as the marriage to Casaubon is. There is a long history that associates the yew tree with graveyards, which stretches back to antiquity. In the antiquarian Richard Gough’s first work, Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, he notes, “yew-trees in churchyards supply the place of cypress round tombs, where Ovid says they were placed” (102). Daines Barrington asserts that the tradition that aligns yew trees with graveyards was not a relic of the ancient world. In his work Observations on the Statutes Barrington says that “trees in a churchyard were often planted to skreen [sic] the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. (122). The contemporary literature that Eliot would have read also equivocated yew trees with death and graveyards. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: A.H.H.” the yew above Arthur Halla’s grave is addressed: “Old yew, which graspest at the stones/ That name the underlying dead,/ Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/ Thy roots are wrapped about the bones” (II, ln. 1-4). Ultimately, Lowick is equivalent to a graveyard for Dorothea whose “blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colourless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight” (239). It is this domestic prison that causes her bloom to wither, fade and drop.

While I have outlined a direct correlation between the term bloom and Dorothea’s spiritual matriculation, it is necessary to note that Eliot traces the genealogy of the bloom trope throughout the course of the novel rather than starting afresh with a brand new systemic of bloom. Dorothea, whose name can be etymologically traced back to the Greek “gift of the gods,” is granted the Christ-like gift of being reborn, for she does not bloom only once, but twice. Her first bloom is triggered by external factors mimicking the bloom experienced by an Austen novel protagonist, while her second bloom is engendered by her spiritual growth. In this sense her first bloom, ignited by the sterile Casaubon, is of the old variety of botanical taxonomy, wherein a woman’s bloom is defined by external factors such as marriage. When Casaubon dies Dorothea is under the impression that she has evaded his eternal authority over her by never capitulating to the promise that he wanted her to blindly make. Thus, under the impression that she has escaped his post-mortem clutches, Dorothea is reborn again; the faded Dorothea, clad in widow’s black is described as looking “all the younger” with her “recovered bloom” (431). As a widow of means, Dorothea is able to begin in a project of bettering Middlemarch through her patronage.

In The Novels of George Eliot a Study in Form Barbara Hardy notes that the plant image tends to be poignant or pathetic, as when female victims in the novels are so characterized (206-209). Dorothea Brooke, who is consistently referred to as blooming, and who even re-blooms after Casaubon smothers her initial bloom, is anything but the novel’s pathetic victim. The bloom trope is divided into two new taxons: women who flower and women who bloom. Women who bloom, are self-empowered heroines of the new generation of literature; women whose happiness is not necessarily bonded to motherhood and matrimony; women who engage with their own plural nature and are not reducible to a single type of woman. By contrast, women who flower, such as Rosamond Vincy, are of the pathetic orientation because they dwell in the realm of the physical rather than the spiritual. Rosamond, who flowers rather than blooms, is described through the novel as having “delicate petals,” as having a “flower-like head on [a] white stem”; she is “the flower of Mrs. Lemon's school” and the “flower of Middlemarch”.

The narrator makes a point to note, ironically, that Tertius Lydgate “felt himself amply informed by literature” about the “complexities of love and marriage,” which if the narrative ended with the Lydgate-Vincy marriage, may have appeared true (154). However, it is within their marriage that complications arise due to the intransigence of both Lydgate and Rosamond. Their relationship mirrors Dorothea’s and Casaubon, for both partners see the other as they want them to be and not as they are, furthermore both characters are blind to their own motivations to marry. The narrator states this succinctly, “Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing”, and it is this lack of knowledge that determines Lydgate’s lifetime of frustrated ideals. It is through this pattern of noxious marriages that it becomes evident that Eliot’s reformatting of the systemic of bloom does not castigate marriage, but bad marriages. Thus, while Dorothea reblooms into a self-motivated agent unrestrained by social reprobation and is rewarded with mutual love in a healthy marriage to Will Ladislaw, Rosamond’s fate is much less idyllic. Her imbalanced marriage, which is built on a dearth of communication, does not foster Rosamond’s spiritual, emotional or intellectual bloom. Ultimately, Rosamond is not the agent of her own flower, but rather through Lydgate’s gaze she is rendered into a flower. She flowers in the eyes of men and for male attention such as in chapter seventy-five, when Rosamond’s face “looked like a reviving flower” because she was under the impression that Will Ladislaw intended to come to back to the Midlands and feed her with attention (583).

Rosamond, whose name when etymologically broken down to the original French translates to “rose of the world,” is just that, “of the world” rather than of the self. The world around Middlemarch creates Rosamond. What she wants is what society tells her, which is to climb socially by marrying her way out of Middlemarch. Rosamond’s name also calls up a long history of literary love that stretches back to The Romance of the Rose and Chaucer’s poem “To Rasemounde” in which he compares himself to Tristram, the famous lover.  Marianne Novy points out that in an earlier draft of the novel Lydgate bore the name Tristram (Novy 66).  A historical Rosamund from the Plantagenet era, the mistress of King Henry II, also made several appearances in Victorian literary works such as Samuel Daniel’s “The Complaint of Rosamund” and Tennyson’s “Rosamund’s Bower”. Charlote Brontë’s Rosamond Oliver (Jane Eyre) is also seen by St. John Rivers to be too weak to act as a missionary’s wife, which is why he proposes to Jane rather than Rosamond with whom he has been casually in love with for some time. Rosamond Vincy is a product of that long tradition of literary “sameness” that ignores the heterogeneity of female types, which Eliot proposes to combat in the novel’s prelude (32). Thus, one can read Rosamond Vincy as the telos of a long history of homogenous female heroines who win love not because of their intelligence, their autonomy, and their constitutional strength, but because of their enticing veneers, which trap men like a Venus flytrap.

In chapter sixteen the narrator of Middlemarch asserts that Rosamond’s accomplishments are artful entrapments for men, and have only been acquired in order to catch a suitor and not to feed Rosamond’s own aesthetic hunger (Wiesenfarth 363).  After it is made clear that Rosamond Vincy’s piano playing perfectly echoes her teacher’s but has no soul of its own, the narrator proceeds to state that Rosamond “was always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date”(235). According to Jacques Lacan the gaze is a property of the object and not the subject who is looking (Sturken and Cartwright 94). The gaze is a process where the object makes the subject look, and Rosamond, utilizing the siren skills she has honed at Mrs. Lemon’s school entraps the young doomed doctor Tertius Lydgate. In “The Eye and the Gaze” Lacan also notes that recognition of the visual object is always overlaid with misrecognition because the subject’s attempt to view the other (the petit objet a) must pass through the intermediary. Lydgate mediates his perceptions of Rosamond through a discourse of literary love. Thus, if Rosamond is the representative of a flat type of literary heroine as the etymology of her name indicates, then it is only appropriate that her suitor, Lydgate, can only experience their courtship through the literary cliché of the bloom.

When Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy first meet the reader is not granted access to Rosamond’s immediate perceptions of Lydgate. Instead, the free indirect discourse privileges Lydgate’s perception as he examines Rosamond with such scrutiny that “[n]othing escaped” his gaze (119). Despite the intensity of his gaze he cannot see her through human terms, instead he floropomorphises her through a botanical simile that goes out of control: “her flower-like head on its white stem was seen in perfection above-her riding-habit” (119). Prior to marrying Rosamond, Lydgate’s perceptions of “the flower of Middlemarch” are, to his detriment, defined by botanical clichés of the period (that a woman who is seen as blooming is ripe for marriage) (253). It is only later in their relationship, after Rosamond’s selfishness has forced Lydgate to forgo his dreams of ameliorating the medical profession, that he is able to recognize the negative aspects of Rosamond’s floral qualities.

By the novel’s finale, after Lydgate’s aspirations of ameliorating the medical profession have been stymied by Rosamond, he refers to his wife as “his basil plant” alluding to the Keats poem “Isabella; Or a pot of basil” (683). The poem Lydgate alludes to centres on the heroine Isabella who falls in love with a man below her rank. Her brother kills her lover, Lorenzo, and Isabella, in an effort to keep her lover nearby, retains Lorenzo’s head in a pot of basil that she tends to neurotically. By referring to Rosamond as a basil plant, rather than referring to her as the tragic heroine Isabella, Lydgate is commenting on Rosamond’s extreme selfishness and her failure to give in kind. This observation is rather apt because Rosamond does not fit into the old systemic of bloom. She may flower for marriage, or at least Lydgate perceives her to do so during their courtship, but she does not bloom for motherhood. Rosamond gives birth prematurely and loses her first child because she “persisted in going out on horseback one day [to court Captain Lydgate’s praises] when her husband had desired her not to do so” (460). Rosamond is consistently described by other characters in floral terms (by Mrs. Lemon, by the Middlemarchers, by Lydgate), but the narrative seldom describes her as experiencing a blooming moment save in chapter seventy-five when she expects Will Ladislaw to lavish attention on her much neglected self. One could surmise that Rosamond’s flowering is not prompted by matrimony or motherhood, it is prompted instead for two reasons: by male attention and by social climbing opportunities; both factors that poison a marriage, rendering it sterile rather than fertile. Rosamond’s desire to ascend her role and escape Middlemarch is one of her often-repeated goals throughout the novel. Unfortunately for Rosamond, she marries a man who dotes on his career more than he dotes on her, and who stymies her attempts at social mobility.

Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” frames early creative women’s lots as a binary that forces women to choose between biological productivity and creative productivity. In a lecture Elizabeth Sabiston noted that Woolf shunts aside Elizabeth Gaskell, while cataloguing the pioneering female authors that exemplified this binary, because she does not fit the mould of female authors forced to give up motherhood in order to birth novels. Gaskell was the exception that proves the rule, for she balanced the duties of wife, mother and writer. Mary Garth channels Gaskell, for she is the only Middlemarcher to balance—successfully—the duties or wife, mother and author. Despite Mary’s marked three-fold success, she is never described with floral terms, notwithstanding the fact that she is the only protagonist to actually garden and handle flowers. She does not flower for Fred Vincy, she does not bloom when she becomes a mother, nor does she blossom when she writes Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch. Mary Garth is never described in botanical terms. She is, in fact, described in opposition to flowers: “Mary’s little figure, rough wavy hair, and visage quite without lilies and roses” (503). When standing next to Rosamond, the flower of Middlemarch, Mary candidly declares, “What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion”. As a working-class woman without means Mary would not have been able to engage with botany as Dorothea Brooke and Rosamond Vincy were apt to do. Botanical pursuits were “part of polite culture within mid-Victorian bourgeois” circles (Shteir 234).

Mrs. Vincy, who does not want her son Fred to marry below his rank, does not want to think of Mary as a viable wife for her Fred. She sees Mary through the same lens as she sees the governess Miss Morgan: “Everything looked blooming and joyous except Miss Morgan, who was brown, dull, and resigned, and altogether, as Mrs. Vincy often said, just the sort of person for a governess” (TKPG). The colour brown for Mrs. Vincy is the opposite of the fertility, which she associates with her flowering daughter, “the flower of Middlemarch”. Brown, while it is associated with dead plants, is also the same colour as earth. Mary embodies the fecundity of earth. Mary is also demonstrative of how the social etiquette thought to bourgeois women serves only to cloud their self-perception and their perceptions of others, for without the bourgeois myopia, which both Rosamond and Dorothea suffer, Mary Garth knows that a happy marriage with Fred Vincy is conditional on his leaving the clergy. She is keenly aware of what she needs from a marital partner and is more aware than Fred of what he himself needs to achieve happiness. In “A Room of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf argues that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial dependence. Woolf notes, “In the first place, [for a woman] to have a room of her own...was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble” (52). Thus the same lack of wealth that excludes Mary Garth from participating in the popular pursuit of botany should theoretically also exclude her from engaging in creative projects such as writing. Mary Garth, however, is perhaps the most naturally fertile character in the entire narrative. Being brought up outside out the bourgeois circles has not hindered Mary, but empowered her.   She is both active herself and a catalyst that compels Fred Vincy to self-betterment. “[M]ight, could, would—they are contemptible auxiliaries” exclaims Mary, who dwells in a world of action (135). She demands that Fred give up his half-hearted pursuit of a career in the clergy, an ultimatum that could force Mary into spinsterhood should Fred not pick up the gauntlet. Mary thus is not only a fertile writer and wife, but she can also plant the seed of fertility in others by stimulating agency in those prone to sedateness.


Works Cited

Barrington, Daines. Observations on the Statutes, Chiefly the More Ancient, from Magna Charta to 21st James I. London: W. Boyer, 1766. Print


Blake, Kathleen. "Middlemarch and the Woman Question." Nineteenth-Century Fiction31.3 (1976): 285-312. JStor. University of California Press. Web. 12 May 2012. < .>.


West, Clare, and Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.


Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Ed. Gregory Maertz. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2004. Print.


------------. “Recollections of Jersey 1857.” The Journals of George Eliot. Ed. Margret Harris and Judith Johnson, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.


Gough, Richard. Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain Applied to Illustrate the History of Families, Manners, Habits, and Arts, .. London: printed by J. Nichols, for the author; and sold by T. Payne and Son, 1786.


Hardy, Barbara Nathan. The Novels of George Eliot: A Study in Form. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print.


Higgitt, Rebekah, and Charles W.J. Withers. “Science and Sociability: Women as Audience at the British Assoc. for the Advancement of Science, 1831-1901.” Isis99 (2008): 1-27. Print.


Keats, John. Isabella : Or, The Pot Of Basil. Alex Catalogue, n.d. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 9 June 2012.


King, Amy M. Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.


Lacan, Jacques, “The Eye and the Gaze.” The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Sheridan, Alan, New York: Norton, 1978. Print.


Laufer, Geraldine Adamich. Tussie-mussies: The Victorian Art of Expressing Yourself in the Language of Flowers. New York: Workman Pub., 1993. Print.


Novy, Marianne. ""Middlemarch" and George Eliot's Female (Re) Vision of Shakespeare." He Journal of English and Germanic Philology 90.1 (1991): 61-78. JStor. University of Illinois Press. Web. 10 May 2012. < .>.


Sabiston, Elizabeth. “Middlemarch.” Studies in 19th Century British Fiction Henry James and the Ladies: The Evolution of the Novel of Manners. York University. Stong College, Toronto. 28 May. 2012. Lecture.


Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. Oxford University Press,Inc., 2009. p. 94.


Shteir, Ann B. “Two Women in the Polite Culture of Botany.” Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996. 33-58. Print.


Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer. “The Novel of Manners”. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-century English Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. 160-189. Print.


Tennyson, Alfred T, and Hallam T. Tennyson. The Life and Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. London: Macmillan, 1898. Print.


Wiesenfarth, Joseph. "The Language of Art." PMLA 97.3 (1982): 363-77. JStor. Modern Language Association Stable. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.


Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989



A Genealogy of the Hogtown-Born Othello: Three decades of Toronto-generated Othello adaptations

Cultural inheritance: Canada’s Shakespeare Obsession

An Anglophone Québécois education endowed me with two myths that I have spent much of my university career untangling. The first is that Shakespeare was the pinnacle of literary excellence, and that was why, despite the millions of plays published since his death, he dominated the high school curriculum. The second myth was that the English language was stable, there was one correct English, and that was British English with its proclivity for extraneous u’s and words that ended in -re rather than -er. Unsurprisingly, the two myths were related, they both reinforced each other by promoting the notion that English literature and the English language were organized hierarchically; there were monolithic writers such as Shakespeare and proper ways of speaking that we should strive to emulate. In “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization” James Milroy argues that in widely used languages, such as English, there is a standard language ideology that distorts speakers’ attitudes towards language. Standard language speakers, like myself, develop a consciousness regarding the canonical form of the language, which is reinforced by so-called language authorities. These language authorities include literary figures such as Shakespeare, dictionaries and grammars.

According to Milroy, standard-language cultures such as Canada believe that “when there are two or more variants of some word or construction, only one of them can be right...[because] the process of standardization works by promoting invariance or uniformity in language structure” (531). Ironically, Shakespeare’s works are not uniform. The Bard even spelled his own name differently at different times; of his six surviving signatures Shakespeare had signed his name as Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shaksp, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and By me William Shakspeare (Schoenbaum 109). At the centre of a language culture that idolizes a standard built upon literary figures such as Shakespeare there is an unstable foundation, for not only Shakespeare’s name was inconsistent, but so were his plays, which were published in numerous editions both during and after his lifetime.1

Certain Canadian accents are nearly indistinguishable from some American accents, but Canadian orthography demonstrate an allegiance to the Queen’s English, an allegiance that the Americans (thanks to Noah Webster’s reversionary dictionary) rejected through spelling reforms.2 Today, however, Canadian English is a blend between American and British orthographic conventions with little rhyme or reason as to why one spelling variant won over the other (Pratt 65). Trapped between a cultural empire (America) and the historical empire (Britain) Canada has had to carve out its own identity that acknowledges its history, but also establishes its autonomy from these two powers. One of the ways Canada has established cultural autonomy is through adapting and rewriting Shakespeare in a manner that addresses contemporary Canadian issues as well as Canada’s history. Just as Canadian English differs from British English, so do our adaptations of Shakespeare, for indigenous Canadian adaptations engage with our cultural inheritance in a manner that differs from American and British adaptations. However, Canada has not always been the creator of its own Shakespeare, from the eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth century Shakespeare’s plays were imported to Canada by British theatre companies that toured both Canada and the United States (Makaryk 12).

Denis Salter has noted that Canada’s relationship to colonialism is not a clear relationship of colonizer-colonized. Many factors have complicated Canada’s postcolonial condition “including its foundational position under the parent cultures of Britain and France, its constant struggle to define itself in opposition to the omnipresent dominance of the United States, its ongoing role as a coloniser of its own native peoples, and its economic position as a so-called First World nation” (5). Daniel Fischlin has observed that “Shakespearean sites of production have proliferated in Canada across multiple media, diverse ethnicities, and multiple ideologies,” and this proliferation is markedly indigenous to the country from which it has generated, for it engages with the postcolonial psyche in manner that differs from the U.S., which established autonomy from the British Empire, and from Britain, which has historically been the trans-Atlantic colonizer (7). Canada’s veneration of its British history has manifested not only in -our and -re spellings, and Shakespeare-heavy curricula, but also in our country’s theatre history. Canada’s first national theatre, established 1953, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, “was founded by a British director, used British actors, and was dedicated to the works of a British playwright, yet it was celebrated as the culmination of Canadian cultural maturity” (Knutson 10). Ellen MacKay avers that Shakespeare’s plays “initially substituted for a national dramatic literature that had yet to emerge, then set an impossible standard for it to achieve” (72). Contrary to MacKay’s assertion, the Shakespeare-steeped genesis of Canadian theatre, which supposedly set an impossible standard, did not limit Canadian productivity; instead, it encouraged its growth.

Daniel Fischlin acknowledges that there is a distinct difference between Canadian adaptations of Shakespeare and British adaptations, and although he gestures towards how Canadian Shakespeare tends to engage with issues of colonization in a way that British adaptations are less apt to do, there has not been any in-depth work that delves into the issue.3 Linda Burnette avers that “in their adaptations of Shakespeare, Canadian playwrights pay close attention to the marginalized characters in Shakespeare’s plays” (80). This, however, is true of many contemporary Shakespeare adaptations such as Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief (an American play about Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia), Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a British play that pushes Hamlet to the background, and instead focuses on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), and Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (a surrealist German play that focuses on Ophelia’s tragedy). Adaptations that centre on the marginalized characters in Shakespeare’s plays are thus not specific to Canada. A comparative survey that details how Canadian adaptations differ from other international appropriations would be an excellent addition to the current discourse. However, perhaps a survey that aims to distil the essence of what constitutes Canadian Shakespeare would prove too difficult, for every Canadian group seems to use The Bard to further a different aim.

Anglophone Canadian playwrights are not the only Canadians to adapt The Bard. Some Quebeckers, such as Jean Gascon, appropriate Shakespeare to further a nationalist agenda because “doing so constitutes a subversive attack on Anglo-Canadian culture’s colonial debt to Shakespeare as a metonymy of British culture” (Fischlin 6). While First Nations playwrights, such as Daniel David, will adapt Shakespeare in order to “write back to the canon” in an effort to assert native rights to “cultural recognition” (6). Canada is a patchwork of nationalities, with laws in place (such as the 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act) that protect the polyphony of different voices that make up this nation. The glut of different Canadian identities is mirrored in the heterogeneous Shakespeare adaptations produced annually by Canadian playwrights.

In a Twentieth-Century Canadian Theatre lecture Cynthia Zimmerman affirmed that since the establishment of Stratford, sixty years ago, Canadian theatre has come into its own, noting that over the past year alone almost forty new Canadian plays were published, many of which are “extremely good” (Sept. 13, 2012). One subject of playwriting has so dominated Canadian play production that an entire project was established to study it: the Canadian fascination with Shakespeare. The Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), established in 2004 by Daniel Fischlin, has in its database over 500 adaptations that run the gamut from classical high theatre to unorthodox appropriations of Shakespeare. CASP contains plays that date from pre-Confederation to the present, with new plays being added every year. Fischlin notes that while adaptation is not an essentially Canadian phenomenon, Shakespearean adaptations in Canada “reflect on what it means to be Canadian in a way that other adaptations in other national sites do not...Shakespearean adaptation is a highly telling mode of articulating national identity” (3). As noted earlier, different Canadian groups have adapted Shakespeare in different ways to promote specific agendas. Rather than look at how a specific agenda was furthered, this paper will trace the genealogy of Toronto-based adaptations of Othello across three decades in the hopes of comparing how the different adaptations are responding to changing Canadian, more specifically Toronto, realities and a changing relationship with Canada’s history. The three plays that this paper will engage with are Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet), Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet and finally Joseph Jomo Pierre’s Shakespeare’s Nigga.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet)

Commissioned and produced for Nightwood Theatre in the spring of 1988, Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) is a Bildungsroman-modelled play that follows the psychological growth of Constance Ledbelly, an assistant professor of Renaissance drama at Queen’s University. When the play opens Constance is presented as an exploited shell of a person. The products she consumes in the opening scene underscore her lack of character depth: Velveeta cheese, Coors Light beer and Player’s Extra Light cigarettes; all three substances are diluted shadows of the products they are supposed to taste like, just as Constance is a shadow of the person she will become by the play’s conclusion. Constance’s career has been stymied by Professor Claude Night. While Night furthers his own career by exploiting Constance as his ghostwriter, he takes pleasure in diminishing her scholastic efforts. 

Constance’s research is centred on the un-deciphered Gustav Manuscript, which she believes, “when finally decoded, will prove the prior existence of two comedies by an unknown author; comedies that Shakespeare plundered and made over into ersatz tragedies” (397). Night belittles her scholarly efforts, and tells her that she is quickly becoming an academic “laughing stock” (398).

An imbalanced power dynamic is established between Constance and Night, for although the two are described as being the same age, Constance refers to Night by his full title, “Professor Night,” and as “sir,” while Night patronizes Constance, calling her a “titmouse,” his “pet,” and an “old maid” with “an interesting little mind” (397-400). Constance’s lack of fortitude is also evident in her interactions with the university students. Constance allows Jill/Julie to submit her paper a week late without reproaching her (despite the fact that her student is lying about the extension Constance supposedly gave her). Furthermore, Jill/Julie does not address Constance as a professor; instead, she calls her “Miss Ledbelly,” rather than Professor Ledbelly (395). Shortly after Jill/Julie leaves another student, Ramona, berates Constance for drinking a Coors Light beer because it “is part of the right-wing infrastructure that has brought this hemisphere to its knees” (396). Rather than defend her choice of drink Constance apologizes to Ramona and claims that the beer “was a gift” (396). Although the academy has come to know of Constance only as an eccentric who has thus far failed to finish her doctorate, both the audience and Night are aware that she is in fact a talented academic whose “customarily dizzifying standard” of work, which she employs on behalf of Night to “destroy” other academics, is why Night is offered a prestigious position at Oxford and promoted to full professor (399). A promotion that she knows is owed to her, but rather than confront Night, Constance congratulates him only to delve into a self-pitying monologue once Night has left her office. Ultimately, Constance is presented as being stuck in a static state, unable to advance her career and obtain her doctorate. Her refusal to let go of the past manifests in her technophobia (she refuses to learn how to type), as well as the nostalgic mementos of childhood that she clings to: her Brown Owl wings, her appendix (which was removed 21 years ago in the “summer of love”, 1967), and a feather from her dead parakeet, Laurel.

After Constance’s self-pitying monologue, she is magically transported into the Shakespearean worlds of Romeo and Juliet and Othello. It is while navigating Shakespeare’s plays that Constance learns how to be an assertive agent that can propel her life forward, rather than a submissive object suffering from life stasis. Constance obstructs Iago’s psychological poisoning of Othello, she disarms Tybalt by endowing him with the knowledge that Romeo is his cousin-in-law, and thus stops the chain of events that would have lead to Mercutio’s death. Within the alternative reality of the plays Constance is also no longer positioned as a sexless “old maid,” but an object of desire that is sought after by both women (Juliet) and men (Romeo), and respected by figures of high prestige (Othello) as an equal and a confidant.

Juliet and Desdemona are presented as hyperbolic in their drives: Desdemona is too aggressive and Juliet too driven by her sexual impulses. Their defining characteristics are made to seem even more hyperbolic in contrast to Constance whose sexuality is uncharted and who is so timid that even her students bully her. It is through interacting with Juliet and Desdemona that Constance begins to colour in the aspects of her psychological map that have thus far been left blank. In Constance’s first monologue about Night’s exploitation of her, she does not imagine taking action to remedy the situation. In this first fantasy Constance dies a penniless pencil vendor, only to be identified after her death and awarded her doctorate posthumously. Constance is so submissive before she delves into the world of Shakespeare’s plays that even in her fantasies she fails to assert that she has a “noble mind”, she passively hopes someone else will—after her death—simply stumble onto the knowledge that she was an academic prodigy (400). After meeting Desdemona, who is “gullible and violent” and not at all submissive and delicate, Constance is finally able to express her rage. In her second

monologue about Night, Constance no longer deifies her exploiter, but imagines cleaving his “two typing fingers from/ His guilty hands” and wrapping them in a box of chocolates to be presented to Ramona (411). Similarly, Constance’s encounter with Juliet, who tries to seduce Constance, allows Constance to explore her suppressed sexuality. From Juliet’s perspective, Constance is not an “old maid” (as she is in Night’s eyes), but an object of desire. It is only after recognizing that she is the author of her own story that Constance is finally able to decipher the Gustav manuscript, which reads, “one plus two is one not three” (430). The equation that the manuscript refers to is Constance, plus Juliet, plus Desdemona results in one fully flushed out person that is able to take control of her own story.

Shelley Scott, Marianne Novy and Marta Dvorak all discuss how the Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) engages in dismantling heteronormative gender roles, but what seems to be lacking from the general discourse, at least I discovered a lacuna within the discussion of the topic, is the play’s treatment of race. Ann-Marie MacDonald effaces Othello’s race, and in the first casting of the play all the actors cast were caucasian. The first observation that Constance makes, after exposing Iago as a conniving instigator, is that Othello is “not a Moor”—nothing more is said on the subject, and race is not addressed again for the remainder of the play (403). In the introduction to the Oxford edition of Othello editor Michael Neill points to a long history of anachronistic readings of Othello. Neill notes that in the sixteenth century the “categories that defined human difference” were “unstable” (16). He also states that during Shakespeare’s time there was no “coherent language of ‘race,’” so to interpret Othello through our contemporary understanding of racism is to misunderstand the play as Shakespeare intended it to be understood (16). Neill paints the performative genealogy of Othello as a history steeped in shades of Blackness framed by arguments over defining the nature of said Blackness. The play’s history has been dominated by racial issues, but MacDonald’s adaptation brushes racism to the margins, focusing instead on Constance’s psychological journey from passive object to active agent in charge of her own life’s trajectory, author of her own story, for Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) is not concerned with issues of racism as both Harlem Duet and Shakespeare’s Nigga are, but is instead concern with how one can regain control of their own story.

Shelley Scott and D. A. Hadfield both assert that MacDonald’s play partakes in furthering a third wave feminist agenda. Hadfield avers that “MacDonald engages with humour in an effort to make palatable a feminism that is in line with the third wave of feminism. She is not militant, and she is not engaged in promoting an essentialist agenda, but merely opening up the canon to reinterpretation while exposes the guardians of the canon as relic abusers, who need to be dethroned” (58). The play paints the Stratford Festival as one of those exclusionary spaces:

Those guys remind me of the Stratford shows I’ve seen, Where each production has a Roman bath: The scene might be a conference of state, But steam will rise and billow from the wings,

While full-grown men in Velcro loincloths speak, While snapping towels at each other. (414)

Stratford is depicted as a boys’ club, and part of the play’s agenda is to open the doors of said boys’ club, and to allow women, such as Constance, admission. In a Toronto Star review of the play, Robert Crew noted that MacDonald “takes some wicked shots at a recent, locker-room production of Romeo And Juliet at Stratford, with hearty young jocks punching each other on the arm and making bawdy jokes”. While in a The Province (Vancouver) review Jerry Wasserman argued that MacDonald was not referring to a particular Stratford production, but to Stratford as a whole because even at Canada’s largest theatre festival “the lead women were mostly passive victims,” which was why “she decided to write her own play in which a mousy female academic pursues alternative ideas about Shakespeare.”

The institutions and figures that foster Constance’s stasis are Queen’s University (a university who’s very name is tied to Britain) and a male Professor (Claude Night), who aspires to teach at Oxford and affects a fake English accent. Oxford is painted as a place that is venerated by Canadians (Night, Ramona and Constance all want to be there rather than at Queen’s). Queen’s and Oxford are both part and parcel of a historical legacy that promotes repetition rather than reinterpretation and reinvention. Constance’s doctorate, which revolves around a groundbreaking reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet and Othello, is mocked by her peers rather than praised for its originality. As Constance becomes the author of her own story she unlocks the alchemical key to turning herself from base metal (her last name is Ledbelly, after all) into gold. Constance’s trip through Shakespeare’s plays leaves a deep imprint on her psyche, but there is only one change that manifests within the present reality of 1988 Kingston, Ontario: the transformation of her quill—made from her dead parakeet Laurel’s feather— which has turned into gold and has reappeared behind her ear, despite Constance’s earlier efforts to throw the quill into the garbage. At the play’s conclusion, Constance establishes a balance between appreciating the old (she learns from Juliet and Desdemona), but she is no longer tied to the past, for with her golden quill she can write her story, rather than ghost write Night’s.

Harlem Duet

A decade after Goodnight Desdemona was first staged, Djanet Sears’s prequel to Othello, Harlem Duet, premiered at Nightwood Theatre in 1997. Harlem Duet is a highly theatrical, complexly structured adaptation of Shakespeare that weaves together three chronologically separated narratives (1860, 1928, late 1990s) with the majority of the play set in then-contemporary Harlem, New York. The storyline set in the late 1990s is entirely situated in Billie’s Harlem apartment, which she used to share with her husband, Othello. Othello has recently left Billie for his White university colleague, Mona, but has yet to untangle his life from hers. While well fleshed-out characters such as Magi, Amah and Canada populate the Harlem narrative, the other two narratives (1860 and 1928) have only two characters, and in all three narratives the same actors that play Billie and Othello play the male and female protagonists. All three stories echo each other, for in each one the Black male leaves his Black wife for a White woman. 4

If Goodnight Desdemona (Good morning Juliet) pushes issues of race and racism to the margins, then Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet sets those same issues at its heart. The play takes off, to some extent, from where Ann-Marie MacDonald leaves off. Like Goodnight Desdemona, Harlem Duet is an adaptation of Shakespeare that seeks to situate women at its centre. Harlem Duet, however, is specifically concerned with establishing a space for African American women. In her prefatory comments to the play Sears asserts that “As a young actor, I soon realized that a majority of the roles that I would be offered did not portray me in the way I saw myself, my family, or my friends” (13). Harlem Duet aids in curing the blinding whiteness of the Canadian canon by offering an antidote intended to cure the monochrome quality of the canon as Sears experienced it. Sears’s antidote is a Black antidote. Harlem Duet offers interesting and challenging roles for African Americans, roles that Sears deemed as lacking from the Canadian canon, for as an actor herself she was all too familiar with the dearth of roles open to her. Whiteness is expunged from the narrative. Othello’s White colleague Chris Yago is relegated to a topic of conversation who is not likely to step foot in Harlem let alone on stage, and Mona is pushed beyond the periphery of the stage.

Harlem Duet tells the story of Othello’s first marriage to Billie (short for Sybil), the Greek prophetess mentioned briefly in the third act of Othello. Although the play is chronologically reframed, many of the characters are destined to retrace the steps of their literary forbearers. Harlem Duet closes where Shakespeare begins: Othello leaves his first wife for Mona (Desdemona), and will perhaps smother her after being psychologically poisoned by Chris Yago (Iago) while teaching in Cyprus. While Billie, like Sybil whose prophecies were incomprehensible, spirals into insanity. There is a predestination-like quality that underlies the play, a quality that is further reinforced through the chronological triple narrative. In every narrative—in Harlem of the 1860s (populated by Him and Her), in Harlem of the 1920s (populated by She and He) and in contemporary Harlem—Whiteness is framed as more desirable (at least more desired by the Othello character), and it is this pursuit of Whiteness that destroys Black relationships and propels Black men towards tragic fates. In 1860, when Her cradles the corpse of Him, it is made clear that Him’s grisly fate resulted from his expression of love for the White Miss Dessy (310). A hundred and thirty years after Him is lynched for pursuing a White woman his contemporary incarnate, Othello, is not psychically assaulted by Whites for his interracial relationship, but is culturally suffocated by his own “White respect” (299). Harlem Duet’s Othello is no brave warrior, he is a troubled academic who longs for a time when race no longer constricts his life. He tries to push himself into an ideal future that the world is not ready for, a world where race no longer defines and shapes a person, and in doing so he disavows his own cultural identity when he chooses to “enter the Whiteness” (300). “What does Africa have to do with me?” Othello asks of Billie while asserting that his culture is not Makonde statues and boubous, but “Wordsworth, Shaw, Leave it to Beaver [and] Dirty Harry” (305).

The play’s primary geographic location is Billie’s apartment, located at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards (125th and Lennox). The two philosophies of these men embody the antithetical relationships to race and racial integration held by Othello and Billie. Billie’s intense pride in her culture turns into blind racism directed towards White culture, while Othello seems to want to edit out the concept of race as a factor that affects an individual’s character. Linda Burnett maintains that “Sears explores two extreme responses to the racism faced by Blacks in North American society—integration and separation—and finds each lacking” (78). Othello, like Martin Luther King, aspires for the American dream of the melting pot (integration), where differences fade as individuals strive towards the American dream of equality. Othello asserts that he is “beyond this race bullshit now” (300) because he is “not [his] skin”, (305) but Billie recognizes that racism and race are not relics of the past, but present realities. Billie does not think integration is the answer; her racial philosophies are aligned with Malcolm X who advocated for the separation of Blacks and Whites because he believed that African Americans could not advance in a society dominated by a White majority. Billie struggles with her militant reactionism, which manifests in White-directed racism.

Billie’s landlord, Magi, and her sister-in-law, Amah, balance out the extreme viewpoints held by Othello and Billie. Amah reminds Billie that Billie herself once believed that “colour’s only skin deep” (296), while Magi diagnoses Billie with racism in 2.7. In her diagnosis, Magi poignantly notes that Billie has defined herself in oppositional terms, which has reduced her to an essentialist caricature: “Is everything about White people with you? Is every living moment of your life is [sic] eaten up with thinking about them...Do you know who you are anymore? What about right and wrong” (313). The effects of racism have not only tainted Billie’s perspective of the world, but her self-perception as well. In the following dialogue the scar that White supremacist thinking has left on Billie’s psyche is made evident:

BILLIE. I don’t even believe in Harlem any more. MAGI. Come on. BILLIE. It’s all an illusion. All some imagined idealistic...I dunno. MAGI. When I go out my door, I see all the beauty of my Blackness reflected in the world around me. BILLIE. Yeh, and all my wretchedness by the time I get to the end of my block. MAGI. Billie, he’s the one who wants to White wash his life. (303)

A culture that measures success in terms of Whiteness has stained Billie’s psyche, for she sees her own Blackness as “wretchedness,” rather than as beauty. Magi, on the other hand, expresses a love of Blackness, a love that Billie had at one juncture, but Othello’s betrayal has smothered that love. It is Othello who has taught Billie that Black “success is Whiteness” (300). Billie cannot move beyond blind hatred for Whites before she can learn to love herself again, Blackness and all.

Amah’s race consciousness is established early in the play when she describes the enforcement of a bureaucratic regulation that requires her to learn “foundational” white hairstyling before she is permitted to open a salon for Black women (291). Amah explains to Magi how New York City’s bureaucratic regulations stymie her attempts to become an independent business owner:

AMAH. I can’t rent your ground floor. They won’t give me any insurance ‘cause I don’t have a license. And I can’t get a licence until I get a cosmetician’s certificate. And I can’t get a cosmetician’s certificate until I finish this two-year course on how to do White people’s hair and make-up. I told them ain’t no White people in Harlem. I’d learn how to do work with chemical relaxers and Jheri curls. Now, I do dreadlocks. And do they teach that? Oh no.

Amah acknowledges the absurdity of the “foundational” requirements, given that her salon will cater specifically to Black women, and while the race-centred barriers that block her from achieving her dream of opening a salon evidently upset her, she does not react with venom. Instead, she has found a way to work outside the scope of the system. Amah does hair in private homes, as a result the state, which has put up the regulations that bar her from opening up a brick-and-mortar salon, is denied tax revenues. According to Amah, this missed out revenue has become substantial enough to merit a “crackdown” (291). Amah, however, wants nothing more than to open up a tax-paying, brick-and-mortar salon called “The Lock Smiths,” but it is the government’s own regulations that hurt both itself and entrepreneurs such as Amah.

Amah’s experience mirrors the trajectory of much critical literary training, where studying the canonical works of English patriarchy—Shakespeare in this case—is considered “foundational.” Undergraduate degrees at both York University and the University of Toronto require students to take courses in a number of required literary periods deemed essential by the faculty. These requisite courses are intended to produce well-versed students armed with a broad knowledge of literature, but—at least from my experience—minority literatures, such as African Canadian literature, are almost never including within these core requisites. Instead, they are pushed to the periphery, like Mona with only her arm visible to the audience, the rest of her body obscured. In her introduction to Harlem Duet Sears notes that it was the restricting canon that inspired her to write Harlem Duet, for she felt the need to “exorcise” the demonic white-man-in-black-face Othello that has haunted her for years (14).

At the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference broke down into argumentative factions. Academics reacted to each other with hostility, rather than a spirit of co-operation. In her introduction to The Canadian Theatre Review Ann Wilson laments the spirit of rancour that fuelled arguments put forth by “various feminisms,” arguments that were so hostile they broke out into yelling matches (3). The banner of feminism, which some White participants5 felt was not tied to race or sexual orientation prior to the conference, was torn to shreds by coalitions of minorities who felt that broad-brush feminism failed to represent their perspectives. In Harlem Duet both Billie and Othello recognize that Black feminism and White feminism are different entities. “The White women’s movement is different,” Othello tells Billie some-what sheepishly (304). According to him, White women are vying for to share the “economic and political pants” that White men have historically refused to share (304). Othello asserts that Black feminists are not fighting to share “the pants,” but to “wear the pants” (304). While Billie agrees that there is a fundamental difference between Black and White feminisms, she is, however, offended by Othello’s hostile, over-simplified understanding of “the Black feminist position” (304). Billie explains to Othello that “historically, it has been the labour of Black women, reproductive and otherwise, that has fuelled the economic engines of both Black and White society” (Dickinson 111), and it is because Black women’s bodies have been a locus of labour that they were not granted access to participate in the women’s liberation movement, for while “White women were burning their bras, we [Black women] were hired to hold their tits up. We looked after their homes, their children” (304). For Billie, the White women’s liberation movement is partially responsible for eroding away Black female subjectivity, while they themselves (White women, that is) fought to assert their own subjectivity.

The animosity that besieged the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference disturbed Wilson, but perhaps such a rupture, although unproductive at the time, was a necessary cathartic release. In Harlem Duet Billie’s reaction to White-perpetuated racism is White-directed racism, but the play as a whole does not advocate for Billie’s blind hatred. In fact, it advocate’s against it by showing a broad spectrum of Black identities and perspectives, each with its own positive and negative aspects. The venue to express rage and anger is sometimes a necessary step to being able to over come said anger. Harlem Duet’s female protagonist is fuelled by hostility, but the play promotes healing and forgiveness, for after all, the prodigal father, Canada, stays with his daughter in her time of need, rather than abandoning her. Billie’s community comes together because of her breakdown, and out of her pain is born a fuller community complete with a loving patriarch, who is no longer prescribes to the stereotype of the Black absentee father. Canada stays to play the role of the doting father, the loving grandfather and the caring father-in-law.

The play was written by a Toronto playwright and performed for the first time in Toronto, but Harlem Duet is set in The States and populated with specifically American allusions to famous American Black historical figures. Recognizable segments of speeches from Paul Robeson, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, among others, are played on a soundtrack that ebbs between obtrusive and dissonant to complementary and illustrative. Lacking from the polyphony of voices are the voices of strong Black women such as Maya Angelou and Rosa Parks. In a personal interview I asked Sears if the exclusion of female voices was intended to gesture towards the anti-Black feminist sentiments articulated by Othello. Sears responded, “No, I never intended the clip choices to exclude women. I wanted the clips to be identifiable, and unfortunately Rosa Parks does not have an iconic speech that people could hear and recognize. I did, however, suggest the use of an Oprah clip for one recent staging of Harlem Duet.” I followed by asking Sears why she did not include any black Canadian voices in the voice-over clips. “This play has been accused of being un-Canadian, but Shakespeare set his plays in other countries all the time—Othello’s set in Cyprus!—and no one ever accuses Shakespeare of being un-English! I set it there [in New York] because it is easier for people to digest criticism when they’re not being directly pointed at.”

“Canada Freedom Come” is a line repeated over and over again by Him and Her because for them Canada was the only true salvation from a life of slavery. Her explains, “Up in Canada we won’t have to please no White folks no how...Canada freedom come” (302). When Canada visits Billie does not venerate her father the way Her hallowed Nova Scotia. Canada is a recovering alcoholic that abandoned his children, and is so divorced from his progeny that he has not even met his daughter-in-law or his granddaughter, who is almost six and Canada has “only talked to her on the phone” (307). As an allusion for Canada the nation, Canada the character has failed his daughter, he abandoned her for alcohol, but he has returned in her time of greatest need to care for her. The venerated Great North also disappointed its new black immigrants, for as a nation Canada, like The States, has a history steeped in racism. The 1988 Canadian Multiculturalism Act, which made it Canada’s official mandate to adopt a multicultural policy that would respect Canada’s immigrants, was established to make up for Canada’s checkered history. It was imperative that the government address Canada’s xenophobic history before progress could be made towards mending the wounds that state- sanction prejudice had allowed.

Canada tells Billie the story of a man that was struck by the arrow of an unknown attacker, and died—not because of the arrow—but because he refused “remove the arrow until the archer was found and punished” (308). The festering wound that caused the man to die is a metaphor for how hatred poisons. Trying to combat bigotry with more bigotry is like allowing a wound to fester “until finally the poison infect[s] [the] entire body” (308). The arrow of hatred must be removed before the healing process can begin. At the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference the pain of a history of marginalization needed be 17 addressed, perhaps without such a venue for minority playwrights to express their issues a play like Harlem Duet would not have been written in Toronto, for although Billie is injured, the play as a whole promotes forgiveness, healing and second chances. Billie may not be able to remove the arrow herself, but her community and family close ranks around her to help extract her arrow.

Shakespeare’s Nigga

Joseph Jomo Pierre’s Shakespeare’s Nigga, which premiered February 2013, wears its literary inheritance proudly, for it is the literary telos of a history of Toronto-born Othello adaptations. Like Goodnight Desdemona the play fuses two of Shakespeare’s works (Titus Andronicus and Othello, rather than Romeo and Juliet and Othello), allowing for characters to interact across play boundaries, and like Harlem Duet the play is recontextualized historically. While there are never any specific geographic or chronological details given, the Southern plantation setting and the enslavement of the African American characters situates the play in the nineteenth-century United States. There is thus a second resonance between Harlem Duet and Shakespeare’s Nigga: both are Canadian plays set on American, rather than Canadian, soil. The highly stylized prose text never veers into iambic pentameter like Goodnight Desdemona, but like its literary predecessor Shakespeare’s Nigga is peppered with lines plucked from the original Shakespeare plays. Pierre was inspired to write Shakespeare’s Nigga after being cast to play Titus Andronicus’s Aaron in a theatre school production of the play. Pierre recalls that the director wanted him to play Aaron as though he were “pure evil,” but for Pierre Aaron had much more depth to him than that, which was why “right there [he] swore [he] would tell Aaron’s story” (Hague).

In Shakespeare’s Nigga Aaron and Othello are black slaves that work on Shakespeare’s plantation. Othello is a house slave that enforces Shakespeare’s authority, and is treated as an intellectual equal. Othello paints with Shakespeare, reads his poems and even asks Shakespeare for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Aaron, unlike Othello, is a field slave who refuses to acquiesce to a life of slavery. In the 2013 production of Shakespeare’s Nigga, when Aaron first appears on stage he is shackled on all fours and a whip is cracked with such painful loudness that it startles the audience. Othello is whipping Aaron as penance for his attempted escape, but rather than repent Aaron meets the crack of the whip with the imperative “Hit me!” (3). The play is framed around Othello and Aaron’s different relationships to racial oppression. Othello, like Othello in Harlem Duet, promotes an integrationist approach. He has been raised by Shakespeare to believe that he “may hold court with any learned man” regardless of race because he is “the equal of any man [his] age” (36-7). Aaron believes that Othello seeks “whiteness,” an accusation that Billie lobs at her own Othello in Harlem Duet (34). According to Aaron, Othello is a “negro” and not a “nigga” because he “can look into a mirror and deny the very thing that reflects back” (33). Like Billie, Aaron reacts to racial oppression with rage, and raises a violent rebellion that will “kill all those complicit [in slavery], without remorse” (39).

The first character to minister to Aaron after his beating is Shakespeare’s daughter Judith. Although she is attracted to Aaron, and even claims to love him, she fails to understand him, and as a result she can only love her idea of who he is. Judith does not understand why Aaron cannot be “content” within the limitations of slavery (6). Judith, although headstrong, does not seek to change her situation—she does not fight to gain more agency, instead she throws tantrums and calls her situation “unfair” (19). When asked why he cannot be content Aaron responds, “Content, in the mouth of a slave that word is so disparaging it has no peer. To be Content is to give way to the belief that I have been given my just deserves [sic]. Maybe you believe that” (6). Judith considers Aaron to be an exception. According to her he is the “strange fruit,” an “anomaly of some sort,” she excuses her sexual attraction to Aaron by asserting that he is somehow not like other Black men. Judith does not see beauty in the Black race as a whole; she is only attracted to Aaron. Aaron opines that his Blackness defines him: “The trunk the branch the fruit; there is no separation for me, it is all one” (25). Thus, Judith’s claim that she loves Aaron, but not Blackness reveals that her love is disingenuous, for she wants to deny the very aspect of Aaron’s identity that he himself venerates. Despite being enslaved because of his skin colour, Aaron never bemoans the unfairness of his plight. The only two characters who find their situation unfair are the most privileged: Judith says it is “unfair” (19) when her father insists she marry; and Shakespeare has the nerve to tell Aaron that his words against him are “not fair” (50).

Throughout the play Aaron is having an affair with Judith, but Othello (who has no idea that he is Judith’s half brother) covets her and hopes to marry her. Rather than explain to Othello that he cannot marry Judith because the union would be incestuous, Shakespeare resorts to using Othello’s race as the reason for stymieing the marriage. “Marriage can never happen...You are Black Othello,” explains Shakespeare, rather than divulging to Othello that he is his father (37). Othello, who has been brought up as Shakespeare’s equal, is confused and pained by Shakespeare’s refusal to allow him to marry Judith. Othello’s dejection is amplified when he walks in on Aaron and Judith making “the beast with two backs”, for she has chosen, what Othello sees as, the lesser man, “a base creature” (29). It is at this juncture that Othello releases Aaron from the bonds of slavery. After Aaron is released and given his freedom he quickly realizes with the help of supernatural winds there is no place for him to go, he is not actually free because “there is no freedom for one without freedom for all” (31). In the following scene Aaron grows closer to freedom by claiming ownership of his title, he refuses to use the language of the oppressor, he is not a “negro” or a “kneegrow,” but a “nigga” (32). Aaron uses “nigga” in the same way that hip hop culture has appropriated the word to mean something exclusive, used between Black individuals and not dared uttered by the oppressor.

Although the play is set over a century in the past, its title, Shakespeare’s Nigga, has already stirred up quite the current controversy. When I tell people about this play most people furrow their brows and repeat the title back to me as “Shakespare’s N-Word”. At the play’s  first preview the White Passe Muraille usher referred to the play exclusively as “Shakespeare,” completely omitting the problematic word from the title, and since there was no problematic object the title’s subject was striped of its possessive. While the usher may have been showing respect through his omission, it was an interesting Freudian slip, for without the word “Nigga” in its title the play becomes repossessed by the very same White ghosts that Shakespeare’s Nigga seeks to exorcise. This is not a play about Shakespeare’s story, his story has been told and retold countless times, it is Aaron’s story—a story he has been smothered for centuries. Pierre is highly aware of the power of the word “nigga,” but he does not think it “should be buried” simply because it is “soaked in so much pain” (Hague). In an interview with Obsidian’s dramaturge, Mel Hague, Pierre explained why he chose to use the word “nigga”:

What is great to me is that my relationship to the word isn’t static, I still sometimes question how I use it, how others use it. I am prone to squirm when I’m not cool with the context it is sometimes used in. But my character claims it and that opens the door for a discussion about language. Thus in a contemporary context the audience experiences how words have the power to unsettle us, to hurt us, to control us, while Aaron discovers their same power within the play.

While escaping for his second time, after Othello has liberated him, Aaron is followed by a supernatural wind that sings a fragmented chorus of the children’s ditty “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” (31). The irony of the wind’s message is that words can be more painful than the crack of a whip, for within the play’s very title there is a word with such power that many dare not utter it. There are but a handful of English words as powerful as “negro,” words that have been historically used to force others into submission, to paint others as less than. Aaron reappropriates the word “negro” by transforming it into the word “nigga,” and by doing so he ingests the word’s oppressive power by making it a word that he can use, rather than a word such as “negro,” which can be used against him. For Aaron, then, Othello is a “negro” because he rejects his Blackness, whereas “nigga” is a positive, empowering term that demonstrates a love of Blackness (33).

In A Room of One’s Own Virgina Woolf invented the fictional character Judith Shakespeare. (In A Room of One’s Own Judith is William’s sister rather than his daughter.) Judith is born with the exact same literary gifts as her brother, but trapped within the confines of the expectations of women she is never given enough agency to reach the potential that her brother achieved. “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school,” she was also forced to marry, and ultimately she committed suicide because it is her only escape from her social incarceration (47). Despite her natural gifts, Judith dies having never had the opportunity to write a single play let alone poem. In Shakespeare’s Nigga, Judith is endowed with privilege because she is White and the daughter of Shakespeare, but because she is a woman she has no true agency. Shakespeare even notes that “[h]ad she been born a man [he] would be proud of her qualities. As it is they are not very becoming of a lady” (16). Shakespeare’s Nigga’s Judith has even less agency than her literary forbearer, for she does not take her own life, it is instead taken from her. At the play’s conclusion, when Judith tells Aaron that she loves him, Aaron responds by stabbing her both verbally and literally as he reacts to her declaration of love with the turn of a knife coupled with a matter of fact, “You love me not” (45). Aaron believes that Judith’s proclamation of love is false because if she loved him she would not desire to kill their mix-raced baby, Naliyah. But Judith struggles with her decision, and never actually presses the knife to her illegitimate daughter’s flesh. If given more time she may have changed her mind, she was, as Tyrus pointed out to Aaron, in the post-traumatic shock of giving birth to an unexpected baby (41). Aaron is unforgiving of Judith, and kills her in an effort to save Naliyah, but the killing of Judith is arguably premature, even if it was born of paternal love.

Judith thinks she is making a choice by “fuck[ing]” Aaron, but as a woman her very anatomy restricts her from any real freedom in the act because the likely consequence of a woman in her position, as the play depicts, is pregnancy (23). In the 2013 production of Shakespeare’s Nigga the costumes render the female body a prison. When Judith comes on stage with her pregnant belly the artificial belly is constructed to look like a cage and in the cage the audience can see a baby nesting inside her bulge. Aaron may be shackled, but he is never imprisoned behind bars, and as a woman Judith is born imprisoned by her sex. Although Shakespeare never recognizes Othello as his son, he keeps his illegitimate son close, while Judith’s first instinct is to have her baby killed for fear of realizing the consequences of her actions. Judith’s death at the hands of Aaron is foreshadowed when Aaron says, “When the time calls we will head to the house and kill all who are complicit, without remorse” (39). But could she have learned to love her mixed-race child? Did Aaron act out of love in an effort to protect his daughter or was his action one of “revenge” (49)?

The ending of Shakespeare’s Nigga is a bit perplexing and Aaron’s disappearance is a little too sudden, but it is perhaps intended to be an extended metaphor about the complexity of the Black condition. There are no words that Aaron can say in response to Shakespeare when he asks, “tell me how to fix your slight” (50). Language in this instance fails, for Aaron cannot articulate a solution. The question posed by Shakespeare literally ties Aaron’s tongue even though the question is not an assault, but a genuine effort on Shakespeare’s part to remedy Aaron’s predicament. The solution, however, cannot come from Shakespeare; it must be generated by from the Black community. Naliyah’s birth should be representative of a union between the two races, but it is her birth that drives Aaron to murder both Othello (the integrationist) and Judith. Although Aaron has appropriated the oppressor’s word, and he has made that word his own, he has not yet been able to articulate what the solution should be: integration, separation or some not-yet-articulated third option.

When Shakespeare looks upon his granddaughter, who represents both union and discord between Blacks and Whites, she has turned into a book that reads, “There is music from the most crude of instruments. Complex melodies, each searching for their own resonance. Volumes hidden between each beat, masquerading as silence” (51). This metaphor about the crude instruments adds further layers of complexity to Aaron’s inability to articulate a solution because the metaphor’s aim is to show there is no single solution to the strife of those who have been silent and complacent for so long. In the last line “beat” can be a triple entrendre referring to the musical beat, the experience of lashings, and finally the dramatic beat, for hopefully this quizzical ending has produced a noticeable change in the audience. Thus perhaps the audience, that has been static for the hour and twenty-minute duration of the play, will be propelled to action by the play’s words. In Harlem Duet each character has a different way of coping with a history of White domination: Othello tries to integrate; Billie becomes a hate-fuelled Black separatist; Amah recognizes the injustice of a racially biased system, but works around the bureaucratic red tape; while Magi revels in her cultural heritage by wearing boubous and proclaiming her love of Blackness. In Sears, however, the ultimate message of the play is that to liberate oneself from the stasis of hate, forgiveness and love are necessary for healing. The wound caused by a history of racial oppression has left a scar, but to obsess over that scar is to be blinded to a world of possibilities, hatred fuels stasis, whereas forgiveness fuels forward momentum. Similarly, in Goodnight Desdemona Constance Ledbelly is trapped in a static state. Constance’s stasis, however, is due to her inability to communicate; she lacks self-reflection and while she excels at analyzing literary texts she must learn how to think analytically about her own life. Desdemona’s Amazonian fire ignites Constance’s fuse, which propels her towards her first moment of self-reflection: acknowledging that she has been intellectually and emotionally extorted by Claude Night. Once she recognizes her anger, she can move forward, but it is not hate that propels Constance, but the awareness that the power of self-authorship is self-bestowed, and no masculine figure has the authority to strip her of this power.

The ways in which Othello has been adapted over the past three decades demonstrates a shifting relationship between Torontonians and issues of oppression, be it the oppression of women, the oppression of African Canadians, or the oppression of female African Canadians.

Theatre is alive and connects with its audience now, and each incarnation of Othello connects with different contemporary social issues. In the eighties MacDonald was empowering women through a distinctly Third Wave Feminist approach that sought to gain a canonical foothold for women through the use of subversive humour. In the nineties Djanet Sears addressed how the fragmentation of the Black community (divided by integrationists and separatists) needed to be reversed. Harlem Duet promotes the healing power of the community. In Shakespeare’s Nigga there is still a discord between separatists and integrationists, but the play ends with no community: Aaron kills the mother of his daughter, he kills his fellow slave Othello, and then abandons his daughter leaving her with her grandfather. When Shakespeare reaches out to connect with his granddaughter he removes the blanket that swaddles her only to realize that she has turned into a book and he is left alone. Shakespeare’s Nigga suggests that through words the Black experience can be excavated from a history that has sought to smother it, and it is perhaps through historical and fictional excavation and extrapolation that the Black community can come together, through shared stories and histories and shared words such as “nigga.”

End Notes:

1 Quarto and Folio editions of some plays, such as Hamlet, are markedly different from one and other and have promoted centuries of scholarly debate. There are three editions of Hamlet that have survived; each text is strikingly different from the others. For example the First Quarto contains only half the text of Second Quarto. A mere 200 lines are identical between the two quartos. Lewis Theobald (an eighteenth-century editor) combined the different editions in an effort to establish a more comprehensive text. In his introduction to the Oxford edition G. R. Hibbard notes that the editing practice of conflating various editions of Hamlet remained unchallenged for centuries. The recent Arden edition (2006) of Hamlet has published the different versions, rather than conflating the versions of Hamlet, demonstrating an editorial shift away from constructing a full, or authentic, text from the disparate versions of the text.

2 In 1890, in an effort to establish autonomy from our southern neighbours, the federal government passed an Order-in-Council, which stated, “In all official documents, in the Canada Gazette and in the Dominion Statutes, the English practice of -our endings shall be followed” (qtd. in Pratt 67). This decree was passed because after Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), both the Canadian press and the Canadian government began to implement the American spellings, for American written English mirrored Canadian spoken English more so than written British English.

3 As this paper is concerned with Canadian works, I will not be hypothesizing with regards to British adaptations, which may be less free to experiment because of Shakespeare’s status as a cultural icon. Because Canada is a patchwork of nationalities not all groups—indigenous (Quebecois and First Nation) and immigrants—venerate Shakespeare with the same verve.

4 The resonant aspect is emphasized even further when Othello repeats lines spoken by He in 1928 verbatim in the present. While kissing Her Him says “I’m exploring the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. The curvaceous slopes of California. The red hills of Georgia, the mighty mountains of New York” (294). In the present Othello repeats those exact lines while bedding Billie one final time. Othello then compels Billie to repeat what her says in 1860 (“I don’t come cheap you know”), but Billie fails to repeat the words of her historical sister (301). When the play concludes, however, Billie like 1860s Her also contemplates leaving The States for Canada.

5 In a Twentieth-Century Canadian Theatre lecture Cynthia Zimmerman stated that she was one of the many white female participants that were startled by the lack of sorority at the Second International Women’s Playwrights Conference


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Note to the Reader

I approached this topic with much trepidation. I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be an authority about black Canadian culture. With this article, I aimed to sketch out a genealogy of Othello adaptations by Toronto-based writers, and I hope I have done sone in a sincere manner, while treating these complex heterogenous subjects with respect. There will always be problems with write critics writing about black struggles.  Hopefully, this article will spark a conversation that will be productive and positive because that was the spirit in which this was written. 

Hortus Conclusus Soror Mea, Sponsa: An Ecoconscious Analysis of the Hortus Conclusus in Richard II and The Two Noble Kinsmen


Many of Shakespeare’s plays—Hamlet, Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen to name but a few—are populated with almost as many flowers as they are populated with people. The botany frenzy ignited by the Victorian period drove swaths of scholars to write about the myriads of trees, shrubs and flowers that grow all throughout the Bard’s canon. Similar environment- and nature-focused essays were crafted well into the 1980s. Nature-focused texts such as Sidney Beisly’s Shakespeare’s Garden (1864), Leopold Grindon’s The Shakespeare Flora (1884), Alan Dent’s World of Shakespeare: Plants (1971) and Lucile Newman’s “Ophelia's Herbal” (1979) analyze the environment in Shakespeare’s works, but according to contemporary academic taxonomy, these texts are not ecocritical in nature.  Simon Estok asserts that texts which deal with the environment, but are not “ecologically revolutionary, or explicitly geared toward effecting change in the way we think about and produce the environment” are not “properly ecocritical” (Estok quoted in Jones 349). Gabriel Egan exemplifies Estok’s concept of a revolutionarily geared ecocriticism in his book Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism. Eagan’s 2006 monograph takes a presentist stance when approaching Shakespearean analysis. Egan’s ecocritical readings of Shakespeare’s plays focus on extorting contemporarily applicable environmentalist morals that will change the way we think about the world we inhabit. In “Recent Ecocritical Studies of English Literary Renaissance” Karen Raber articulates her wariness with regards to this presentist approach to ecocriticism, which she believes distorts early modern scholarship because “ecopolitics can tend either to erase inconvenient aspects of past ecological thought or to view that past with an overly critical and dismissive eye’’ (168). Raber is not alone in her wariness, Sharon O’Dair is equally mistrusting of presentists, who she casts as goal-oriented non-scholars “who don’t really know any history, they’ve just picked up bits and bobs from Natalie Zemon Davis and Christopher Hill’’(470). I concur with those weary of presentist analyses that distort facts in an effort to promulgate ecodogma.

         In Sharon O’Dair’s 2008 essay on the current state of Shakespearean ecocriticism she purports that there are currently two antithetical streams of ecocritical analysis. The first stream she identifies as the presentists; O’Dair does not supply the second stream with a name. I, however, would like to coin this second stream of ecocriticism as the “ecoconscious” stream. The presentist stream is epitomized by Simon Estok and Gabriel Eagan, both of whom believe that ecocritical texts are defined by their telos; according to these presentists the goal of ecocritical scholarship is to spur changes that will reshape the way we think about the imperilled twenty-first century environment. Robert Watson’s monograph Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance exemplifies the ecoconscious stream of ecocriticism in its exploration of how people in the past “came to care, in politically and intellectually responsible ways, about present and future life on this planet as a collectivity’’(5). Heidi Scott is another ecocritic aligned more with an ecoconscious approach rather than a presentist approach to ecocriticism. In her article, “Ecological Microcosms Envisioned in Shakespeare's Richard II”, she analyzes “Shakespeare’s intelligent use of nature’s systems as complex metaphors for human situations” (Scott 267). In sum, ecoconscious critics are concerned with illuminating a historically apt picture of how writers such as Shakespeare understood their own environment, while presentist ecocrtics are concerned with catalyzing environmentalist activism.

         This essay takes an ecoconscious approach to analyzing two of Shakespeare’s plays: King Richard II and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Both plays contain scenes that allude to the medieval enclosed garden, the hortus conclusus. The concept of the hortus conclusus is derived from a line in the Song of Solomon[2]. The line in Latin reads “Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus,” which translates in English to “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up ” (4:12). The image in the Song of Solomon of “the enclosed garden, shut off from the earthly world” is “symbolic of virginity, and all its plants testify to the purity of the virgin’s enclosed womb” (Ostovich 23). By the fifteenth century the hortus conclusus was an emblematic attribute and a title of the Virgin Mary (Jones 355). For the past five centuries virgins and enclosed gardens have become conjoined twins, for our cultural history has made one image synonymous with the other. Women and nature have been historically bound through the iconography of Nature who has been traditionally personified as a woman[3], but within the trope of the hortus conclusus it is a girl that is bound by iconography to nature. Throughout this essay I plan to explore the intersections between the subjugation of nature, in the form of the enclosed garden, and the subjugation of girls in King Richard II and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

          The pith of my argument centres on Shakespeare’s derogatory portrayal of the traditional, impenetrable hortus conclusus. In The Two Noble Kinsmen the impervious hortus conclusus it is not a paradisiacal reprieve from a tainted world, but a restrictive space that perpetuates subjugation. The impenetrable hortus conclusus is depicted as a stilted unfertile locus, while penetrated the hortus conclusus in Richard II is rendered a fecund space that endows its uncloistered girl, Isabella, the opportunity to become her own agent. Despite the fact that in The Two Noble Kinsmen there are no men who trespass into Emilia’s enclosed garden, the very architecture of the space allows the two Theban cousins to objectify Emilia from their prison cell-enclosed vantage point. In Richard II a number of common men have penetrated the enclosed garden and it is because of their presence that Queen Isabella obtains the necessary information that endows her with sufficient agency to catalyze Richard into action. An ecoconscious reading of the text reveals that Shakespeare and Fletcher’s negative portrayal of the hortus conclusus in The Two Noble Kinsmen is perhaps a reflection on the evolving status of the garden in Elizabethan England; for, gardens were becoming heterogeneous spaces that promoted dialogue and provided private privacy for subject formation, thus to portray a garden as a space of protective purity was an outdated concept.  

         Judeo-Christian mythology has established a four-millennia-old history whose very beginnings are rooted in the image of the enclosed garden, Eden, with the pre-sin Eve at its centre. Gardens and the notion of paradise are not only conjoined by mythology alone, they are also tied etymologically. The word paradisederives etymologically, through Greek, from the Persian pâlïz and suggests an ‘enclosed park, orchard, or pleasure ground’” (Jones 353). The image Eden, however, evokes conflicting emotions, for while the proto-Hortus Conclusus is an idealistic paradisiacal utopia that can possibly be recuperated and thus evokes hope in the form of redemption, it also simultaneously alludes to the fall from grace, which evokes feelings of isolation and loss. Interestingly, the negative connotations associated with gardens seem to have dissipated by the early modern period. These negative nuances of immorality, alienation and loss seem to have been pushed outside of the protective garden walls. In “The Garden and the Scene of Power” Laura Verdi asserts that the primitive sociopolitical function of gardens is “founded essentially on an obsession with limits (spatial and cosmological). This logic is intrinsic in gardens, a model of rationality that is sacred, limited, and protected: in short, Apollonian logic.” (367-368). According to Verdi, within the confines of the garden Nature is tamed and made elegant,” while the forests and deserts outside of the protective garden walls are places that “are inhospitable to humanity…where the impulses of an entire collective conscience skulk” (363). Thus, the garden represents order achieved through subjugation, while unsubjugated nature outside of the enclosure is representative of libidinal chaos.

         During the Elizabethan period gardens were cultivated for aesthetic reasons, but they were also cultivated for pragmatic reasons such as to provide private spaces as well as homeopathic cures. Thus, while on a macro level gardens represented the subjugation of nature, on a smaller scale plants represented the subjugation of the body’s rebellious humours. For, plants were commonly used as medicinal cures, which restored order to the chaos of the human body. The medicinal importance of plants contributed to making the cultivation of gardens one of the defining characteristics of the Elizabethan landscape. Sidney Beisely observed that the “plague epidemics and other debilitating diseases required people for their own safety to know as much of therapeutic plants as was possible” (quoted in Newman 228). People were ravenous for botanical knowledge, which explains the glut of herbals published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Herbals were typically large illustrated tomes that detailed plants’ medicinal uses, plants’ growing climate, plants’ flowering period and plants’ folk names. The first true British herbal that fit this description was printed almost forty years before Shakespeare was born (Richard Banckes' 1525 Herball). The popularity of herbals, however, exploded during the Elizabethan era. Five major herbals were published during Shakespeare’s life time: Turner (1568), Gerarde (1597), Batman (1582), Langham (1579), and the Grete Herball published by Treviris, issued in ten editions between 1525 and 1560.

         The early modern era was a period of scientific revelation and political revolution; ultimately, it was a period of quick-paced change wherein the relationship between people and their environment was being redefined dramatically. Mark Jones asserts that “[t]hese developments were at times inscribed in the physical organization of the landscape itself, most notably in the cultivation of gardens…[which] remained an essential feature of the age” (351). In her essay “Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces in Early Modern England,” Mary Thomas Crane proposes that the historians who have linked the development of subjective interiority to increasing possibilities for domestic privacy in the early modern period have been mistaken. While she concurs that early modern spaces were in the midst of transforming—withdrawing chambers, closets, private bedrooms were all new to the era—she is adamant that new interior layouts did not provide truly isolated spaces, and thus did not provide “places for the new ‘individual’ subject to create itself” (Crane 4). Spaces such as closets were not truly private because of the bevy of servants that worked in noble houses. Ubiquitous servants meant that so-called private spaces were never truly secluded and never truly private. Such a lack of privacy in the aristocratic early modern household is exemplified in Hamlet, where spying behind arrases is the norm and privacy is the exception.

         Crane agrees with literary critics that the early modern period did birth the individual subject; she, however, believes that it was spaces such as gardens that provided adequate privacy for subject formation. According to Crane, gardens offered

enclosed spaces which seem to have been less ‘open’ to the observation of servants and other household members than the inside of the house. Private gardens represent a space that blurs the distinction between concepts of inside and outside; indeed, gardens share terminology with new private interior spaces such as chambers and closets: ‘bowers’ and ‘cabinets’ could be found in both house and garden. Many large houses designated a ‘privie garden,’ close to the house and containing enclosed spaces such as bowers, arbors, and covered walks. Derived from the medieval tradition of a hortus conclusus. (5)

The same privacy that allowed for self-reflection and the formation of the interior subject also provided a space for illicit activities such as sex.{C}{C}[4]{C}{C} Crane sums up the situation eloquently, explaining that “[a]longside the developing sense of privacy and interiority that brought subjects under the disciplinary scrutiny of the patriarchal household, early modern people also had desires that drove them outdoors, away from enclosure and surveillance.” (Crane 17-18). An interesting paradox develops during this period. For, while gardens were associated with order and purity they were also spaces where carnal desire could bloom.

         One might think that the hortus conclusus was a relic with little emblematic power by the late-sixteenth century, for it was predominantly a medieval trope. The image of the hortus conclusus was, however, reinvigorated during the Elizabethan period. Roy Strong observes that Protestant England, freshly alienated from Catholic Italy by Henry VIII, was uncomfortable with the worship of the Virgin Queen, which prompted the Elizabethan cult to recast the hortus conclusus of the Virgin Mary “as the symbolic garden of Elizabeth of England” (49). Elizabeth was identified with the eglantine rose, such imagery “identified the queen with the Golden Age and eternal spring, while it also echoed and replaced the symbol of the hortus conclusus or enclosed garden of the Virgin Mary” (Bushnell 118). Elizabeth’s appropriation of the Mary cult enacts a synthesis of sacred and secular elements, strengthening her position as queen by aligning her rule with the godhead, not through political decrees (i.e., divine right), but through divinely inspired imagery (i.e., proto-propaganda).

         In Elizabeth’s appropriation of the Mary cult to her own public image, England became the enclosed garden and at its centre was the infallible virgin queen, Elizabeth I. In Shakespeare’s King Richard II the same metaphor is used by the fourteenth-century characters who refer to England as a “sea-walled garden” (3.4.34), a “demi-paradise” and an “other Eden” (2.1.42). The Arden edition’s editor Charles Forker argues that the garden scene (3.4.) is “strategically placed” at the middle of the play in order to reinforce the “symbolism of England’s earth into a national emblem, projecting an ideal nature, fertility, happiness and political-moral order through the comparison to Eden, yet commenting pointedly on the corruptions of Richard’s misrule through the horticultural details” (69-70). The garden that is England is unhealthy and “full of weeds, her fairest flowers chok’d up, / Her fruit-trees all unprun’d, her hedges ruin’d, / Her knots disordered, and her wholesome herbs / Swarming with caterpillars” (3.4.43–47). Both Heidi Scott and Madhavi Menon agree that the garden metaphor acts as a gloss for the state of England; both scholars, however, take antithetical stances with regards to what makes Richard an inadequate gardener. According to Scott, King Richard’s gardeners articulate what is necessary to maintain an ecosystem, which is to “to keep the isolated system at a high-energy input state” by weeding out unwanted growth of weeds that would leech the energy from fruit-bearing species like the apricot (268). Both Scott and the King’s gardeners conclude that Richard is an impotent gardener because he has failed to “[k]eep law and form and due proportion” in his “sea-walled garden” (3.4.41-43). Instead of keeping law and order, Richard has allowed “Bushy, Bagot, and their complices, / The caterpillars of the commonwealth” to flourish while the commonwealth suffers (2.3.165-166). Menon, conversely, reads King Richard to be an over-zealous, compulsive gardener because of his efforts to get rid of both his “enemies and his friends: Mowbray is banished so he can no longer remind King Richard of his crime, and Bullingbrook so he cannot challenge him for it. In the play’s dramatic structure, King Richard’s mistake, far from being insufficiently bloody-minded, is to have been far too ruthless.” (663). Neither Scott’s conclusion nor Menon’s takes into account the incredibly well-tended and well-ordered garden that stands at the epicentre of the play’s turmoil. For, in a play peppered with metaphors of unhealthy gardens, what does it mean for said play to be constructed around an exemplar of a healthy, ordered garden?

         At the epicentre of the play’s political chaos is an enclosed garden that is a microcosm of order. King Richard is perennially cast, by his own gardeners and by academics such as Scott and Menon, as a bad gardener, thus it is not surprising that the nation’s gardener is absent from the play’s only garden. Instead of the King, the only characters permitted into play’s sole “semi-paradise” are servants, gardeners and the ten-year-old Queen Isabella. In “‘Here in this garden’: The Iconography of the Virgin Queen in Shakespeare’s Richard II” Helen Ostovich claims that “[o]nce Shakespeare places Isabella within a model garden in which planting, flowering, and fruition are unseasonally simultaneous, it is virtually impossible to dissociate her from spiritual values traditionally understood in a hortus conclusus” (24). Roses were emblematic attributes of both the Virgin Mary and Queen Elizabeth{C}{C}[5]{C}{C}, which is why it would be logical for Shakespeare to describe Isabella as a rose, as he does Emilia in The Two Noble Kinsmen. In Richard II, however, it is not Isabella who is equated with a rose, but Richard. In their final scene together Isabella refers to her husband as her “fair rose” (5.1.7). Isabella’s comment is made ever more significant because of the play’s dearth of actual floral references. The garden allegory stipples the entirety of Richard II, even Bolingbroke’s closing statement carries the agricultural rhetoric beyond the Plantagenet line, when he laments that blood from Richard’s death “should sprinkle me to make me grow” (5.6.46). Despite the ubiquitous gardening discourse, the only two flowers mentioned throughout the entirety of the play are the rose (5.1.7) and the violet (5.2.53), both of which are only mentioned once.

         As I articulated earlier, gardens are nature structured, ordered and subjugated. Gardens are representative of the taming of the collective id by the collective ego. If the virgin at the centre of the hortus conclusus is traditionally emblematically linked to the rose, what does it mean if she if that link is broken? In Richard II that very emblematic link is broken, for it is not Isabella who is described as a rose, but the King. Richard is portrayed as the subjugated, impotent ruler who is incapable of action. The Coventry lists scene (1.3) establishes Richard’s preference for pomp and ceremony over action. His deferral of action is made clear when he throws down his warder in an effort to stymie the confrontation between Mobray and Bolingbroke. Throughout the play Richard fails to take action, unlike the usurper Bolingbroke. By transferring the traditional associations of the rose, which would have been implicitly associated with Isabella, onto King Richard, Shakespeare deconstructs the traditional associations of the hortus conclusus. The image of the hortus conclusus implied that the girl at its centre was the locus of subjugation. In Richard II Isabella is the catalyst that motivates Richard’s sole moment of active rebellion against the usurpers. It is Isabella that imparts onto Richard the notion that a king should not die “transformed and weaked” (5.1.27). According to Isabella, a true king should die like “The lion dying thrusteth forth his paw,/And wounds the earth, if nothing else, with rage/ To be o’erpowered”(5.1.29-31). Charles Fokker agrees that Richard’s violent resistance in 5.5, when he attacks Exton in a final moment of insurrection, “conforms to the Queen’s idea of how a king should die” (473). The ten-year-old Isabella, is not subjugated by her status as a girl or her position within the garden, she is instead the locus of power that propels Richard to action (although belatedly).

         Helen Ostovich approaches Richard II as triptych, wherein the central panel of the garden scene (3.4) is used to contextualize an earlier (2.2) and a later event (5.1) featuring Isabella. Ostovich argues that Richard II is purposefully structured to allude to the Wilton diptych in an effort to encourage the play’s audience to engage with the play as a work of sacred art. The Two Noble Kinsmen mirrors Richard II’s triptych structure. The central panel in The Two Noble Kinsmen is also the garden scene (2.2), wherein Emilia, as the virgin at the centre of the hortus conclusus, is emblematically linked to image of the rose; Emilia even tells her handmaid that a rose is the “very emblem of a maid” (2.2.137). The lifecycle of the rose is presented as a triptych. A thornless rose is presented budding in the Boy’s wedding song (1.1), blooming in full in the garden (2.2) and dying at Diana’s altar after it is plucked by the invisible hand of the chaste goddess (5.1). From Emilia’s perspective, the rose is a locus of agency that “paints the sun/ With her chaste blushes,” rather than the usual idea that it is the active sun that gilds the passive rose (2.2.139-140). Emilia’s desire to link the rose with agency rather than subjectivity is, however, quashed by courtly domestication. For, as a member of the Athenian court and no longer an Amazon, Emilia has no “base briars” to lock her “beauties” behind in an effort to protect herself from unwanted advances (2.2.142-143). A domesticated rose is defenseless, for “their sharp spines [are] gone” and it is this defenseless quality that makes a rose all the more beautiful according to courtly standards (1.1.1). It is not until the final act, where the rose, symbolic of Emilia’s virginity, is plucked by Diana, that Emilia is able to understand that she has no agency, for she is no longer a thorny Amazonian warrior, but a defenseless subject of royal decrees.

         The walled garden (2.2) in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen is uncannily similar to Isabella’s garden (3.4) in King Richard II. Both Emilia’s and Isabella’s enclosed gardens allude to the hortus conclusus, both are populated with men and both host phallic “apricock” trees at their respective centres. The main difference between the two gardens is that Isabella is aware of the men who toil in her garden whereas Emilia is left unaware that she has just ignited a familial rivalry that will ultimately subjugate her, reducing the once fearsome Amazon into an acquiescent housewife. Emilia’s exposes the impotency of the impenetrable hortus conlususes, for the supposedly protective wall fails to protect its valuable virgin cargo. In The Two Noble Kinsmen it is the very structure of the enclosed garden that provides a space for the Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite, to fall in “love” with Emilia. Palamon and Arcite are Theban prisoners whose cell looks down onto Emilia’s garden. It is the architecture of the garden that allows the cousins to objectify Emilia with their male gaze. The cousins are incapable of interacting with her, but the structure of the space feeds their perverse lovesickness, for they are able to romanticize Emilia without the stain of reality to ruin their imagined perfect woman.

         The two cousins impose a glut of culpability onto the unaware Emilia. They accuse her of being at fault for their smarting love pains, despite the fact that she is completely unaware of their presence. In the face of being a locus of subjugation, Emilia does her best to shed the bonds of hegemonic male domination. She continually repudiates the gender roles of the Petrarchan system by repeatedly reminding all who will listen that it is not she who is spurring these cousins to action. When her Hippolyta attempts to shame her sister for not stopping the feuding between the two cousins, Emilia reminds Hippolyta that it is “The misadventure of their own eyes kill 'em,” and not her beauty (3.6.188). The Petrarchan system puts Emilia into a double bind that positions her as an agent that ignites the Theban cousins; in reality, however, Emilia is a powerless subject of this tumult. While Emilia has enough agency to rebuke the Petrarchan conceits imposed upon her she is unable to stop the feuding between the cousins. Perhaps if Emilia had been aware of the cousins’ removed presence in her garden she could have stymied their love interest and would have been able to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. Ultimately, it is the very architecture of the hortus conclusus that seals Emilia’s fate.

         For any reader or playgoer fooled by the false sincerity of Arcite and Palamon’s conceits, Shakespeare and Fletcher make it evident that the Theban cousins’ “love” is not motivated by pure intentions. Despite all their endless pronouncements of love, the two cousins are still just bawdy boys driven by carnal lust. If one were to take the garden scene (3.4) in The Two Noble Kinsmen as an allusion to Eden via the genealogy of the hortus conclusus, it is most fascinating then that Palamon wants to play the role of both tempting serpent and forbidden fruit:

…would I were,
For all the fortune of my life hereafter,
Yon little tree, yon blooming apricock;
How I would spread, and fling my wanton arms
In at her window; I would bring her fruit

This passage is a thinly veiled bawdy comment, wherein Palamon is dressing up the fact that he wants to have intercourse with Emilia. His supposed courtly love is nothing but a veneer for his lust, which is obscured by fancy tournaments and eloquent wording. In Douglas Bruster’s essay, “The Jailer's Daughter and the Politics of Madwomen's Language,” he states that “[i]t seems significant that no character [other than the Jailer’s Daughter] in The Two Noble Kinsmen uses any form of either cock or prick or any words that contain them” (281). Unfortunately, Bruster’s thesis is completely derailed because of his failure to note Palamon’s ribald metaphor. This is a grievous error, for if one fails to take the bawdy language shared by the Theban cousins and the Jailer’s Daughter into account they might miss the connection between the Jailer’s Daughter and the Theban cousins.{C}[9]{C}  The primary difference between the two gardens of The Two Noble Kinsmen and Richard II is that Isabella is aware of the men who populate her garden, while Emilia is naïve to the men that populate hers. In Richard II it is the male gardeners who are unaware of Isabella’s presence. Why Isabella is not abreast of the political turmoil is never made clear; however, by engaging in the girlish activity of eavesdropping she is able to procure the information that is denied to her. Within this passage it is clear that Isabella does not passively overhear the gardeners, she actively seeks out information:

But stay, here come the gardeners:
Let's step into the shadow of these trees.
My wretchedness unto a row of pins,
They'll talk of state; for every one doth so
Against a change (3.4.24-28).

The Queen actively seeks to procure political information by employing girlish strategies. Isabella’s deceitful method is not in line with the representation of a subjugated girl that tacitly obeys instructions. Within the garden, Shakespeare presents the girl as a locus of power, for by employing girlish tropes to retrieve information, Isabella becomes more aware of the kingdom’s situation than the King himself.           


  Gardens, and particularly the hortus conclusus, have a rich, complicated history that is deeply embroiled in the British collective conscious. The fecund, variegated history of the hortus conclusus endows it with the potential to evoke a plethora of allusions including the simultaneous fall and redemption of Eden, the purity of the Virgin Mary, man’s subjugation of Nature and the chastity of Queen Elizabeth. The pragmatic uses of gardens—as a private space for plotting, reflecting and copulating—seem to be diametrically opposed to their allegorical virtues. Shakespeare exploits this powerful paradox to endow agency onto the girls at the centres of the enclosed gardens. I propose that Shakespeare deconstructs the hortus conclusus in two ways. First, by endowing girls with a rebellious agency that is antithetical to the symbolism of the enclosed garden. Second, by allowing men into the inviolate gardens.

The early Church Fathers made “obvious allegorical identification of Mary’s inviolate womb with the sealed garden of the Song, penetrated only by God” (McLean 130). The wall around the hortus conclusus was supposed to be a “closed gate, through which only Christ could enter,” but numerous men including gardeners and servants penetrate the garden in Richard II. It is because of the men in Isabella’s garden that she able to glean information about the commonwealth’s state. Had Isabella not been able to obtain said information then she would not have been able to give the King her final motivational speech; a speech that endowed Richard with the energy to die a lion and not an anemic rose.       


In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari work toward a definition of girlhood; the duo expand the constrictive traditional category of girlhood by asserting that “girls do not belong to an age group, sex, order, or kingdom: they slip in everywhere” (277). Deleuze and Guattari propose that girlhood is not a finite state based on age, sex, and virginity; instead, it is a state of movement, flux and plasticity, a state of “becoming-woman,” and they assert that this is “the key to all the other becomings” (277). An ecoconscious approach to analyzing The Two Noble Kinsmen and King Richard II reveals that portraying the traditional enclosed garden in a negative light is not to deride girls who opt for chastity over libidinal urges. To portray an inviolate, static hortus conclusus as a negative locus can be read as a meta-social comment on those members of society who refuse to adapt and still cling to the past, like the Theban cousins in The Two Noble Kinsmen who would prefer to battle to the death blindly in the courtly tradition with the unfortunate Emilia as their causality. For without movement, without growth and without evolution there is stagnation and ultimately, death.


Works Cited


Bloom, J H.  Shakespeare's Garden. London: Methuen & co, 1903. Print.


Beisley, Sidney, and Sidney T. Fisher. Shakspeare's Garden: Or, the Plants and Flowers Named in His Works Described and Defined: with Notes and Illustrations from the Works of Other Writers. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts and Green, 1864. Print.


Bruster, Douglas. “The Jailer's Daughter and the Politics of Madwomen's Language.” Shakespeare Quarterly 46:3 (1995). 277-300. Print.


Bushnell, Rebecca. Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens. Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2003. Print.


Comito, Terry. “Caliban’s Dream: The Topography of Some Shakespeare Gardens”. Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 23–54. Print.


Comito, Terry. The Idea of the Garden in the Renaissance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1978.


Crane, Mary. ““Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces in Early Modern England.” The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9:1 (2009): 4-22. Print.


Dent, Alan. World of Shakespeare: Plants. Reading: Osprey, 1971. Print.



Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus Trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987): 276-77.


Egan, Gabriel. Green Shakespeare: From Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.



Estok, Simon C. “Conceptualizing the Other in Hostile Early Modern Geographies: Situating Ecocriticism and Difference”. ELLS 45 (1999): 877–98.


Floyd-Wilson, Mary, and Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr., eds. Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.


Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Ed. Charles R Forker. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2001. Print.


-----------------------. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. Gwynne Blakemore Evans.

         Boston: Houghton, 1974.


Fletcher, John, and William Shakespeare. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Ed. Lois Potter. Walton-on Thames: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997. Print.



Grindon, Leo H. The Shakspere Flora: A Guide to All the Principal Passages in Which Mention Is Made of Trees, Plants, Flowers, and Vegetable Productions; with Comments and Botanical Particulars. Manchester: Palmer & Howe; [etc., 1883. Print.


Hadot, Pierre. The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2006. Print.



Hunt, John Dixon. Garden and Grove: The Italian Renaissance Garden in the English Imagination, 1600–1750. 1986. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.


Jones, Mark. "Some Versions of the Hortus Conclusus in Elizabethan Landscape and Literature." Literature Compass 6.2 (2009): 349-61. Print.


Lawrence, George H. M. 1965. Herbals, their history and significance. In George H. M. Lawrence & Kenneth F. Baker, History of Botany. The Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, and The Hunt Botanical Library, Carnegie Institute.


McLean, Teresa. Medieval English Gardens. New York, NY: Viking, 1980.


Menon, Madhavi. "Richard II and the Taint of Metonymy." ELH 70.3 (2003): 653-75. JStor. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <>.



Newman, Lucile F. "Ophelia's Herbal." Economic Botany 33.2 (1979): 227-232. JStor. Springer on Behalf of New York Botanical Garden Press. Web. 4 Mar. 2012. <>.


O'Dair, Sharon. “The state of the green: A review essay on Shakespearean ecocriticism”. Journal of the British Shakespeare Association 4.4 (2008): 459-477. JStor, Routledge, 13 Feb. 2009. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.


Ostovich, Helen. "'Here in This Garden': The Iconography of the Virgin Queen in Shakespeare’s Richard II." Marian Moments in Early Modern British Drama. Ed. Regina Buccola and Lisa Hopkins. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Pub., 2007. 21-35. Print.


Phillips, Dana. The Truth of Ecology: Nature, Culture, and Literature in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.


Raber, Karen. ‘‘Recent Ecocritical Studies of English Literary Renaissance.’’ English Renaissance Literature 37.1 (2007): 151􏰀71.



Scott, Heidi. “Ecological Microcosms Envisioned in Shakespeare's RICHARD II.” The Explicator 67.4 (2009): 267-271. JStor, Routeldge. 7 Aug. 2009. Web 16 Mar. 2012. <>



Strong, Roy. The Renaissance Garden in England. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.


Verdi, Laura. “The Garden and the Scene of Power.” Space and Culture 7.1 (2004): 360-385. ProQuest, Sage Publications. 12 Nov. 2004. Web 7 Mar 2012. <>


Watson, Robert N. Back to Nature: The Green and the Real in the Late Renaissance. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.



[1]{C} In his article “Some Versions of the Hortus Conclusus in Elizabethan Landscape and Literature,” Mark Jones states that there has been “a lack of bona fide ecocritical work” in Renaissance and early modern studies before 1999 (Jones 349).

[2]{C} Also called Song of Songs or Canticle of Canticles.

[3]{C} See Pierre Haddot’s The Veil of Isis for an in-depth history of the figure of Nature icnographized as a woman.

[4]{C} A number of Shakespeare’s plays locate sex or the possibility for sex outdoors. Plays that locate the outdoors as a carnal space include A Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream (“One turf shall serve as pillow for us both, / One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth” (2.2.41–42)) and Measure for Measure (the bed trick, which takes place in a “garden circummur’d with brick” (4.1.28)).


[5]{C} Teresa McClean observes “with the cult of the Virgin and the rose growing to include such a wealth of symbolic meanings and flowers, it was not long before Mary began to be hailed as the Flower of Flowers. Nor was it long before she figured in many stories of saints’ lives, especially those in which she intervened directly to help her faithful, taking the form of miraculously appearing roses” (131).


[6]{C}Roses their sharp spines being gone,/ Not royal in their smells alone,/ But in their hew” (1.1.1-3).

[7]{C}It is the very emblem of a maid./ For when the west wind courts her gently,/ How modestly she blows, and paints the Sun,/With her chaste blushes!” (2.2.137-140).


[8]{C} “[Here the hind vanishes under the altar: and in the place ascends
a rose tree, having one rose upon it.]

…but one rose:
If well inspired, this battle shall confound
Both these brave Knights, and I, a virgin flower
Must grow alone, unplucked.

[Here is heard a sudden twang of Instruments, and the rose falls
from the tree (which vanishes under the altar.)]” (5.1.165-168)


[9]{C} For more on the connection between the Jailer’s Daughter and the Theban cousins please see “Genealogy of Girls in Theban Narratives: Emilia, Emelye, Emilia and the Jailer’s Daughter” (2012) by Caroline Aksich. 

Unity in Multeity: Multiple Origins in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

It is no light undertaking to separate what is original from what is artificial in the present nature of man, and to know correctly a state which no longer exists, which perhaps never existed, which probably never will exist, and about which it is nevertheless necessary to have precise notions in order to judge our present state correctly.

–Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality


 The mechanization of printing changed the nature of publishing dramatically between the generation that preceded S. T. Coleridge and his own. The ramifications of mass production included formal changes to textual layouts such as the gradual replacement of the marginal gloss by the footnote. Ultimately, capitalistic incentive pushed the marginal gloss into extinction because “[f]ootnotes, gathered in one place on the page, cost less than marginal notations, and the mass production of books inevitably pulled glosses down to the cheaper method” (Lipking 622). Coleridge witnessed margins shrink as “readers (unlike [himself]) lost the habit of filling them with notes” (Lipking 622). Between the 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts” published in Lyrical Ballads and the 1817 version (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in Seven Parts”) published in Sibylline Leaves the poem under went numerous revisions, the most striking of which was the addition of what had become, during Coleridge’s lifetime, an outdated marginal gloss.

            If the 1817 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” is analyzed without historical contextualization the gloss appears—at least from my contemporary perspective—to be an awkward commensal parasite straddling the margins of the poem. When the poem is contextualized, however, the gloss appears to no longer act as a superfluous voice, but rather a voice that comments on the poem’s Lyrical Ballads origins and reinforces the issues of origin that the 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” dealt with implicitly. The gloss addresses some of the issues that eighteenth-century critics such as Robert Southey and Charles Burney took up with the piece (its archaism, mimetic quality and immoral tone), but the gloss cannot be read without considering the text that it straddles, or the previously published editions of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The addition of a marginal, seemly clarifying, gloss to a poem filled with impeded speech acts (at one juncture the ship’s crew’s tongues are so dry that they “wither’d at the root” and they “could speak no more than if/[They] had been choked with soot”), but centred on a the Mariner who is compelled to tell his “ghastly tale” frames a stark contrast between the inability to communicate and the imperative to communicate; I hope to establish how this tension demonstrates that misinterpretation is not only inevitable, but also productive and positive (Coleridge ed. 1817 L135-138; 585).

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Formalist movement (established by Boris Eichenbaum, Viktor Shklovsky and Yury Tynyano) encouraged defamiliarzation of literary works from their contexts. This movement steered literary criticism away from the biographical context of literary works in an attempt to position literary criticism as a science; for, as Eichenbaum articulated in “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’”, the aim of Formalism was to produce “a science of literature that would be both independent and factual” (1062). While the influence of the Formalist movement on literary criticism has shaped the analytic practices of many academics, there are a number of poems in the Western literary canon that cannot be properly analyzed without referring to their particular horizon of meaning (Hirsch).[1] Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Seven Parts” is one of the many poems that when analyzed without any biographical contextualization results in an incomplete understanding of the affected gloss; however, relying too much on biographical details to extract meaning can also result in a skewed analysis. In a paper that explores the Romantic notion of origins, and Coleridge’s relationship to said Romantic cultural interest in origins, a breath of conjecture is a some-what fitting gesture. For, as Ian Balfour has noted in his Romantic Texts: The Language of Origins lectures, the Romantic period was at a crossroads: people had enough scientific knowledge to know that the Biblical story of Genesis was lacking, but failed to have sufficient knowledge to unearth the “true” history of mankind (Sept. 7, 2012). Thus, to excavate the facts of humanity’s origins writers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith had to extrapolate about what those origins were through conjecture.

In Romantic Origins Leslie Brisman avers that the Romantics believed that origins come into being in two phases, through a “double birth” (15). “[T]he first birth” is from nature, it is the birth of the human organism, “the second birth” occurs later, during the adolescent period, and ignites the “growth of a consciousness that stimulates…the development of symbolic language and poetic experience” (16-17). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was born three times, with each edition substantially edited. William Empsom and David Pirie have argued in favour of privileging the 1798 edition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” over the 1800 and 1817 editions, but this paper does not view these three editions as independent works, but as a poetic trinity. A year before publishing Sibylline Leaves, Coleridge published his Theory of Life (1816) wherein he defined the “living form as ‘unity in multeity’ or ‘the power which discloses itself from within as a principle of unity in the many,’ emphasizing that ‘the former, the unity to wit, is produced ab intra’” (Gigante 23).  The three editions of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” are seldom treated as a single poem separated under different book titles, but in order to understand how they relate to Coleridge’s High Criticism-informed theories they must be considered as a unity in multeity, a whole composed of pieces. This essay will first touch on how the gloss represents a dialogue between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s different approaches to poetry, and will outline how the gloss serves as a rebuke to the many critics who lambasted the first edition of the poem for its archaic diction, its supposed amorality and the poem’s confusing narratological structure. The gloss also serves to illustrate what would have been lost if Coleridge had attempted to assuage their criticisms. Should the plot of been more linear, the morality more flagrant and the diction less daunting, the connection the poem makes between the Mariner who is “[a]lone, alone, all, all alone” and Romantic anxieties of community and self would have evaporated (Coleridge ed. 1817 L231). Ultimately, the 1817 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” foreshadows modernist concerns of fragmentation as well as modernist techniques. The tandem narrative accounts (gloss and body) accentuate the function, or rather disfunction, of communication. For, no one in the poem, not the Mariner, not the Wedding-Guest, not the Minstrel or the glossator seems capable of saying precisely what they mean. The people that populate the poem cannot communicate properly with each other, but the Mariner is necessitated to ceaselessly repeat his autobiography, and those he confesses to are compelled to listen. The final section of this paper will consider how the poem promotes a notion of origin that is not finite, but some-what postmodern and Foucauldian; Coleridge paints historical narrative (be it an autobiography, a ballad or a critical interpretation) as an act that is shaped by its present moment of telling. The original becomes an ephemeral unexcavatable object, but something that still is still present, for with every re-telling the original is reincarnated.


Context, Form and Text

            In the first edition of Lyrical Ballads “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” appeared anonymously as the first poem in the 1798 volume. Both Lyrical Ballads and “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” began as a collaborative effort between Coleridge and Wordsworth. There were two primary goals behind the Lyrical Ballads project. The first objective, according to the preface of Lyrical Ballads, was artistic innovation. In the introduction of Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth writes that the poems within the volume are to be “considered as experiments [...] written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure” (7). The second objective of the project was monetary compensation. What Wordsworth fails to disclose in the preamble to Lyrical Ballads was his ancillary goal of financing a walking tour with the profits. When Lyrical Ballads began to show promise of turning a large profit Wordsworth seized the opportunity “to mold a recognizable persona that would interest the public enough to continue buying his poems” (Wallen 101). The camaraderie and equality between Coleridge and Wordsworth seems to dissipate in correlation with the success achieved by the volume. It should be noted that there were a number of factors that lead to the deterioration of the Wordsworth/Coleridge partnership that included, but were not limited to, Coleridges increasing dependence on narcotics, his increasing ill health and marital tensions (Lawder 87).

            The 1800 reprinting of Lyrical Ballads omitted a number of Coleridge’s contributions to the poetry collection and reordered the sequence of the texts. In an effort to alleviate the “injury” that “The Rime of the Ancynet Marinere” had affected on the sales of Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth demoted the poem from “its original place as the first poem in the 1798 volume to its subsequent position as the twenty-second and penultimate poem of the first volume of the 1800 edition” (Lawder 86). In this second edition of Lyrical Ballads “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was modernized at the behest of Wordsworth and framed as “A Poet’s Reverie” with a stronger emphasis on morality; the original amoral epigraph now contained a moral. Wordsworth’s recommended edits to the epigraph, which attempted to impose Christian morality and modernity upon the text, are echoed in the 1817-affected gloss. Bearing Wordsworth’s textual and narratological alterations in mind, the gloss can be interpreted as Coleridge’s response to Wordsworth’s amendments to the poem.[2] When reprinted in Sibylline Leaves (1817) Coleridge placed the poem at the head the collection (the very same position the poem held in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads), and restored the poem’s original 1798 title, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, In Seven Parts”. Coleridge, however, did not reintroduce to heavy-handed anachronism to the poem, for although the “Seven Parts” was appended to the title, the archaic spellings were not reinstated. The positioning of the poem (at the head of the book) and the restoration of the poem’s full title suggest that Coleridge’s changes (which included the fifty-seven marginal glosses) are commenting on the textual history of the poem.

The edits that Wordsworth made to the original poem, especially in the summarizing epigraph, changed the nature of the narrative. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was no longer a narrative that focused on “the strange things that befell […] the Ancyent Marinere,” but a poem about how “the Ancient Mariner cruelly, and in contempt of the laws of hospitality, killed a Sea bird; and how he was followed by many […] Judgments” (Coleridge ed. 1798; ed. 1800). This attempt to impose morality on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” seems to be reflected in moralizing glossator who injects a orthodox Christian viewpoint into seemingly amoral verse. The gloss embraces the imbued morality imposed by Wordsworth’s pen. Sarah Dyck argues that the “question of morality [...] [does not] enter the tale directly [...] through the Minstrel, the Wedding-Guest, or Mariner, but through the editor of the gloss” (551). There are numerous junctures in the poem where the glossator jumps to a Christian interpretation of the narrative that is not expressed in the Mariner’s account. In the Mariner’s report of events the shooting of the albatross occurs without judgement or interpretation. The first section ends abruptly: “[w]ith my cross-bow/ I shot the Albatross,” there is no room for the recounting of ramification (Coleridge ed. 1817 L81-82). The glossator, however, interprets the Mariner’s action as the “inhospitab[le] kille[ing] [of] the pious bird of good omen” (Coleridge ed. 1817). William Empson and David Pirie vituperatively note that for the gloss to tell the reader that the albatross is “a pious bird of good omen” is ridiculous because “the succeeding stanzas demonstrate how impossible it is until too late to tell whether it is of good or bad omen” (215). For Empson and Pirie, the fact that the gloss would cast the albatross as a good omen “is to make nonsense of the poem at its very core” (215). By comparing the two editions of the poem, it would appear that the gloss is reflective of Wordsworth’s Christian reframing of the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. But, as Empson and Pirie have argued, such changes may also be related to Coleridge distancing himself from his youthful beliefs, as he grew progressively more orthodox in his religious beliefs with age.

Revisions to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” were not the only changes made to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Bruce Lawder notes that in the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads the “Advertisement’s (in)famous phrase, ‘the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society,’ vanishes,” is replaced by a “‘selection’, and by implication one made by a ‘selectman’ who is ‘superior’ to those ‘middle and lower classes of society’ that served as a source of his poetry in the initial volume” (83). It is as if the lower classes can produce language suitable “to the purposes of poetic pleasure” only when edited by the critical eye of a gentleman. This new focus on the “selectman” can be interpreted as an effect of Wordsworth’s attempt to promote the sales of Lyrical Ballads among “gentleman [sic], persons of fortune, professional men, ladies, persons who can afford to buy, or can easily procure, books of half-a-guinea [10.5 shillings] price, hot-pressed and printed on super fine paper” (Wordsworth qtd. in St. Clair 201). For, although “Wordsworth may have believed that the rural poor were more sensitive to literature than gentlemen [...] he did not number [them] among his readers” (St. Clair 201). This change of focus from the real speech of rural people to the gentleman’s superior ability to identify the difference between “poetic pleasures” and posies is echoed in Coleridge’s glossed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

            Perhaps Coleridge wrote the glossator to, in some ways, be a reflection of the effect of Wordsworth’s edits; through this lens the gloss can be read as embodying, in some sense, the voice of this selectman. For, the glossator acts as a filter choosing what to interpret and what to omit from his exegesis. There are points in the poem where the gloss strays drastically from the Mariner’s narrative because the glossator supplements details and imposes interpretations that are not present in the analogous verse. The 1817-affected gloss begins by classifying the ambiguous three figures in the first stanza of part one. The original text is enigmatic with regards to identifying the class, race or sex of the bridegroom’s kin. The gloss, however, identifies them as “three Gallants” thereby imparting onto the wedding guests a sense of social hierarchical superiority over the “grey-beard loon” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L11).  The other primary manifestation of the glossator’s textual additions to the Mariner’s narrative manifest in the imposition of morality onto the Mariner’s killing of the albatross. Interestingly, the gloss omits as well as adds―it is as if the gloss is tailored to suit the palates of critics such as Wordsworth and his fellow gentle selectmen. This is poignantly demonstrated by the glossator’s interpretation of the following passage:

Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, A sail! a sail! (Coleridge ed. 1817 L159-161)


The Mariner’s act of “autovampirism” connects the act of communication to the “Albatross’s blood,” and the “bloody sun,” for despite being a gory tale filled with animated corpses, blood is sparsely spilled (Williams 1120; Coleridge ed. 1817 L514; 112). The homophone sun/son can be interpreted as an allusion to the bloody body of Christ. In Romantic Origins, Brisman argues that the “bloodsucking is a perversion of the communion the albatross brought,” but this perversion is productive, for it is one of the few times within the poem where the passive Mariner takes action (41). The bloodsucking is the Mariner’s “feeble attempt to take salvation in his own hands, to make the restoration of language a restoration of communion” (41). Part III is one of the few concrete connections in the Mariner’s narrative between Christianity and Mariner’s penance, and yet the glossator merely states that “at a dear ransom he freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst” (Coleridge ed. 1817). It is interesting that the glossator is so willing to ignore a possible moment to reinforce his Christian exposition of the text in exchange for a more proper, gentle interpretation.


In the Gloss’s Shadow: Non-Substantive Edits and their Effects

                        The gloss is perhaps the most obvious difference between the 1798, 1800 and 1817 editions of the poem, but there are another less substantive edits made by Coleridge that also affect the religious tone of the piece, one of which is the capitalization. The 1798 publication the poem had consistently capitalized all elemental and voyage related nouns such as “Sea,” “Storm,” “Tempest,” “Mist,” “Snow,” “Ice,” “Thunder,” “Breeze,” “Ship,” “Helmsman,” and “Ocean” giving the poem a Deist undercurrent where all aspects of the material world are on par with the metaphysical world (Coleridge ed. 1798 L30; 36; 45; 49; 57; 68; 90; 113; 69; 395). By contrast, in the 1800 publication the amount of capitalization was seriously reduced to celestial bodies, the albatross, and Christian related words such as Christ and God. Thus, the “Albatross,” capitalized like “Christian,” became a blatant metaphor promoting Christian doctrine thereby making the shooting of the albatross an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus (Coleridge ed. 1800 L61; 63). The verse portion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” consistently anthropomorphizes the material world. The ice “cracked and growled, and roared and howled,” the “wind did roar,” and the “sails did sigh;” there is life all around the Mariner, and yet the glossator states that in this “land of ice, and of fearful sounds” there were “no living thing[s] to be seen” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L62; 318-319). Empson and Pirie, in their introduction to Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection, have even gone so far as to object to the gloss and the 1817 emendations, arguing that it is reflective of Coleridge’s later Christian orthodoxy and that it obscures the radical views that Coleridge held in the 1790s, which were clearly expressed in the 1798 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (42-54). Ultimately, the glossator refuses to acknowledge the Deist undercurrent by interpreting the text in a Wordsworthian manner. Thus, the glossator concludes out of ignorance that the moral of the tale has been “to teach […] love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth,” neglecting to acknowledge that, despite being “shrieve[d]” by the hermit, the Mariner is still condemned, marring any possible strictly Christian reading of the text, for there is not absolution (Coleridge ed. 1817 L610-614; 574).

            Another non-substantive edit made to the 1800 version of “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner” was the modernization of the Middle English diction. The 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts” contained many Middle English anachronisms such as “een,” “yspread,” and past tense contractions (Coleridge ed. 1798 L458; 270).  In the second edition, Wordsworth attempted to modernize the poem, updating many of the archaic terms and contemporizing the past-tense structure (a change that Coleridge does not efface when he republishes the poem seventeen years later). This attempt to impose modernity on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” seems to be reflected in the anachronistic voice that Coleridge bestowed upon his glossator. Lawrence Lipking explains that the voice of the glossator was borrowed from

Renaissance travel books, especially those of Purchas. As the early traveller’s report their immediate, often confused experiences, which Purchas’ gloss relates to other sources, so “The Ancient Mariner” recounts a wild voyage that a gloss restores to context; the margin brings the truth of the voyage home. Coleridge deliberately contrasts the primitive wonderworking of the ballad with a later and wiser reader skilled in hermetic doctrine. (618)


Rather than concede to Wordsworth that the anachronistic diction was purposeless, the gloss reinforced the concept that the poem was intended to disconcert its readers. The gloss demonstrated that the verse was intentionally disorienting by paralleling “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to a narrative of an early traveler’s report.[3] Wordsworth claimed that two of the great “defects” of the poem were “that the events [have] no necessary connection [and] do not produce each other,” and that “the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated” (276-77). The gloss, however, illustrates that the poem’s meandering plot and archaic diction are intended to induce upon the reader a sense of disorientation thereby fostering an empathic connection between the Mariner lost at sea and the reader lost in chronologically foreign words—a connection that is further reinforced by the poem’s allusions to Romantic anxieties of the self in relation to a new globalized community.

            The gloss with its almost anaphoric, but ultimately soporific, subject-verb-object structure achieves the coherence advocated by critics of the poem. However, what the gloss gains in coherency it loses in denotive allusions to Romantic anxieties related to the self in relation to the greater global community. When accumulated, the poetic devices of the main text serve to form a bridge between Romantic ideas and the “fragmentation of a modern, market-driven” world, a connection that is unachieved by the gloss (Stillinger 426). A particularly poignant poetic device that the main text of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” employs to bridge the gap between the poem, set in the literary past, and present Romantic reality is repetition. Although repetition is found consistently throughout the poem, the following stanza epitomizes these Romantic anxieties:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide side!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
(Coleridge ed. 1817 L231-236)


Without directly addressing issues of societal fragmentation, this stanza illustrates germinating concerns that would appear a century later in Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock”; that is, how does one retain a sense of community in an increasingly globalized world where members of your community are nothing more than a concept? The Mariner is not on English land when he shoots the albatross; as a sailor he represents the maritime bridge that connects the colonies that lay oceans away with Britain. The ship, however, is not a bridge representative of communication, instead it embodies the failure to communicate as all those on board lose their ability to speak. The above stanza, which emphasizes the lack of community and the isolation of the Mariner, portrays a society where the only common linkage between people is that they are “alone, all, all alone” (Coleridge ed. 1817 L231). Interestingly, the gloss does not attempt to translate this sentiment of solitude expressed in the main body of the text. Thus if the gloss to some degree is responding to Wordsworth’s edits by framing the gloss as unable to express how to cope or communicate pressing anxieties of alienation and social deterioration; the gloss illustrates how an aspect of the 1798 poem that many critics griped about (its lack of clarity) was purposeful. In a tour de force of subtle comedy Coleridge makes the poem even more confusing, by adding an archaic gloss that contradicts the ballad narrative, in an effort to demonstrate how the original 1798 poem’s obscurity was intentional, rather than a failure on his part as an author.


Communicating Alienation: Cross-Textual Meaning

            Dialogue and communication are prevalent themes throughout the poem and manifests in three separate structures of the 1817 edition of the poem: the manner in which the poem is framed, the internal dialogue between protagonists, and the external narrative and its latent dialogue with the verse body of the poem. A different mode of communication is explored in each manifestation of dialogue throughout the text. The poem is framed as an imbalanced dialogue between the Mariner and the Wedding-Guest, with a dominant orator and a submissive listener (with the former being dominant and the latter passive, even arguably submissive, for the Wedding-Guest is compelled to listen, “spell-bound by the eye of the old seafaring man, and constrained to hear his tale”). The second appearance of dialogue in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is between the two voices in Part VI. Unlike the dialogue that frames the poem, this dialogue is not hierarchical―there is equal communication between participants:

First Voice: “But tell me, tell me! speak again,         
Thy soft response renewing—         
What makes that ship drive on so fast?        
What is the Ocean doing?”    

 Second Voice: “Still as a slave before his lord,
 The Ocean hath no blast;      
 His great bright eye most silently     
 Up to the Moon is cast—    

If he may know which way to go;    
For she guides him smooth or grim.  
See, brother, see! how graciously     
She looketh down on him.”   

First Voice: “But why drives on that ship so fast,   
Without or wave or wind?”

Second Voice: “The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind.       

 Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!       
Or we shall be belated:          
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner’s trance is abated.”           
(Coleridge ed. 1817 L410-430)

The two voices are presented as a dramatic dialogue and are not described by the Minstrel. This disorienting technique destabilizes the reader once again, for there is no explanation as to why the exegetic mode shifts from recounted ballad to dramatic dialogue. Like the use of the archaic diction, this technique is employed in an effort to foster a connection between the reader and the Mariner by removing the poem’s narrator. The unexpected exegetic shift forces the reader to submit, some-what unexpectedly, to this forced empathy. In a way the poem is acting out its narrative through its form, for as the Wedding-Guest is forced to listen to the Mariner’s tale, the reader is forced into the role of the Mariner sans stage directions. Finally, there is an external dialogue between the gloss and the text; external in the sense that it relates to the world beyond the text and is aesthetically outside the body of the text. In the external dialogue both speakers are essentially saying the same thing, but ultimately there is lack of fidelity with regards to the gloss’s summary of the poem. This lack of fidelity, and this failure of the glossator to fully interpret the poem, is not necessarily an unfruitful product, for miscommunication can be productive.

            The gloss’s significance has perplexed critics for decades. Before Huntington Brown iterated that the speaker of the gloss was not from the same era as the speaker of the verse portion of the poem, interpretations of the gloss varied immensely. While the critic B. R. McElderry Jr. argued that the gloss was a “tour de force [...] added in 1817 to provide ‘artistic restatement and ornament’” others such as R. C. Bald argued that the gloss was a “fairly straight-forward prose commentary” (qtd. in Dyck 595). And still, despite a general consensus with regards to the voice of the glossator, the purpose of the affected gloss is still very puzzling. Biographical contextualization does not necessarily clarify the gloss’s purpose, however, it does add another dimension to the way one can interpret the gloss. By biographically contextualizing “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the glossator’s voice becomes more than the voice of an “early modern scholar, a bookish antiquarian” (Dyck 595). What was once a seemingly extraneous echo of the verse becomes, through contextualization, a strong and very contemporary critique of the poem’s reception by critics such as Wordsworth. The affected gloss elucidates how the jarring imagery, narrative, and diction of the original 1798 version of “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere in Seven Parts” was not sloppy writing, but perhaps writing that channeled techniques beyond its time.


Multiple Origins, Multiple Conclusions

            “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a publicly unstable work with three separate editions, each markedly different from the next. Susan Eilenberg has commented on Coleridge’s compulsion to revise the work stating that “as the Mariner is subject to a ‘strange power of speech’ that forces him to repeat his tale endlessly, so the poet himself lay under a similar though more limited compulsion to repeat him-self, revising the poem in 1800 and again in 1817” (39). The first time Coleridge’s name was publicly affixed to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was when he published Sibylline Leaves. The collection’s title alludes to the prophetess Sibyl whose prophecies were incomprehensible if not instantly gathered. Brian Bates avers that the collection’s title, Sibylline Leaves, gesture towards the “textual instability [that] occurs whenever an author’s works leave his personal control and are circulated in public… like those people who were disappointed by the counsel offered through the disordered leaves of the Sibyl, Coleridge’s readers run the risk of departing from his leaves disgruntled with their author because he has provided neither sustained nor systematic counsel” (87). Coleridge’s choice of a poem centred on a protagonist compelled to look back to the past, ceaselessly repeating his autobiography, was a peculiar choice to head a collection entitled Sibylline Leaves, with its allusions to prophecies, which typically look to the future rather than to the past. Although anti-revisionist critics, such as William Empsom and David Pirie, have advocated to privilege the 1798 edition of the poem, privileging one version of “Rime” over the other defeats the poem’s cumulative purpose, which is to illustrate that truth is not something stable that can be excavated, but rather, something that is affected by the lens of history.

            In Jerome McGann’s highly influential essay “The Meaning of the Ancient Mariner,” McGann argues that Pirie and Empsom’s anti-revisionism misses much of the meaning that Coleridge imbues in the piece through historical layering. The poem, according to McGann, is replete with references, allusions and diction choices that stretch back centuries and reach right into Coleridge’s present, for the poem was intended to  “illustrate a significant continuity of meaning between cultural phenomena that seemed as diverse as pagan superstitions, Catholic theology, Aristotelian science, and contemporary philological theory, to name only a few of the work’s ostentatiously present materials” (51). In this High Critical light the albatross is not a symbol of Christ, but the entire poem is representative of the way Western culture has preserved the history of Christ through narrative (both through speech acts and through literary acts). According to McGann,

For Coleridge, the crucial importance of a work like the Bible lies in its continuous historical existence. Because it must be read through the mediation of its transmitters, that is, through the Church, readers cannot receive its words except through acts of faith or, as we should say, through tendentious interpretations, acts of conscious commitment to the received materials. The Bible comes to us bearing with it the history of its criticism; it is a writing which also contains its own readings and which generates the cumulative history of its own further retransmissions and reinterpretations.


“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” illustrates how meaning shifts through time. The added gloss,

which represents an approximate 100- to 200-year gap between the ballad-penning Minstrel and the glossator, reveals how analytical understanding of a text is influenced by a specific time period. According to Michel Foucault, epistemes are “the ‘apparatus[es]’ which makes possible the separation, not of the true from the false, but of what may from what may not be characterised as scientific” (197). In effect Coleridge is demonstrating that there is no one “‘true’ narrative of certain fixed original events,” for every generation, shaped by its particular epistemes, approaches history (and its documentation) through a specific lens, by adding and subtracting from it as the glossator does (48).

Like the Scriptures, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a text that exhibits “marks of its historical passage (in the form of later interpolations, glosses, and other textual additions and ‘impurities’) retains its ideological coherence despite the process of apparent fragmentation” (49). If for E. D. Hirsch the scholar must interpret a work by looking to the “author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations,” then Coleridge is saying that we can never fully access this unmediated viewpoint, for our present defines us, however, to better understand the text the reader must understand its context (1693).

 “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” frames a stark tension between the desire to communicate and the inability to communicate. The glossator’s failure to accurately summarize the ballad is but one of many moments of failed communication within the poem. However, the failures of communication are demonstrated to be productive because once the narrative is interpreted any ill-understood information simply adds to the rich tapestry of meaning. For Coleridge, when errors are introduced into the Bible “the sting is taken out” of whatever errors are introduced “by the existence of [the interpreter’s] faith, by their enthusiasm for the Word and the diffusion of the Word, and by their participation in the continuous historical process of incarnation” (44). McGann notes that one need only look to the 1817 edition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to see the imprint of High Criticism, but all three editions of the poem are legitimate origin points that inform our contemporary understanding of the poem. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the chronological gap between the glossator’s understanding and the Minstrel’s re-telling of the Mariner’s tale is purposefully unharmonious; the gloss, however, also serves as an albatross worn by the ballad, an albatross imbued with the Wordsworth’s 1800 edits. Thus, while the multivalent poem demonstrates the communication failures inherent in the process of historical inheritance, the 1817 edition also echoes with biographical resonances that allude to the poem’s own textual history.

[1]    With reference to Edmund Husserl, E. D. Hirsch defines the present in the form of a horizon that may be defined as a “system of typical expectations and probabilities” (1692). For Hirsch, then, the scholar interpreting a work must “posit the author’s horizon and carefully exclude his own accidental associations” (1693).

[2]{cke_protected_1}   William Empson has argued that Coleridge’s “over-riding impulse” behind publishing Sibylline Leaves “was an anxiety not to be jeered at any more, and not to give any handle to insinuation” (51). The 1817 version of “Rime” may have changes made to it that reflect or address the criticisms of critics other than Wordsworth, but as I am only interested in looking to the poem’s textual gensis I have limted my focus.

[3]    Huntington Brown was one of the first critics to note a chronological schism with regards to the difference in language. In “The Gloss to the Ancient Mariner” Brown notes that the language of the ballad is that of Henry VII, whereas the language of the gloss is that of a late-seventeenth or early eighteenth century speaker. Thus both ballad and gloss are written in an anachronistic diction (319). 

Works Cited


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Deviant Bodies, Deviant Books: Gender and Genre Bending in Letitia Elizabeth Landon's Monstrous Poem "The Fairy Of The Fountains"

Over a hundred years before The Origin of Species was published, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was already complicating the clear boundaries established by the Great Chain of Being. In Linnaeus's Systems of Nature, published in 1735, he divided Homo sapiens into two separate species: Homo sapiens and Homo monstrous. The latter taxon was reserved for “wild and monstrous humans, unknown groups, and more or less abnormal people;” Homo monstrous was, in sum, reserved for humanoids who did not fit into the four races that Linnaeus outlined under the taxon Homo Sapiens (Willoughby 33-34). Homo Monstrous were exempt from the Homo sapiens category because their “physical structures excluded them from being recognized scientifically as fully human” (Wilson 7). Thus, even if a person was born of human parents, that did not grant them exemption from being categorized as monstrous. Ambiguous figures, such as 'Hottentots' (as the Khoikhoi then were called), were also categorized under the taxon Homo Monstrous because of their fluid identities that resisted codification and induced anxiety.

During the Romantic period, mermaids were considered monstrous liminal creatures, interpreted as oddities that defied categorization—neither male nor female, human nor beast, real nor imaginary. They invoked anxiety, but they were also approached with enthusiastic fascination. Mass culture was captivated by mermaids and their “scientific and sexual significance as indeterminate beings, in terms of both sex and species” (Craciun 215). Throughout this paper I will be exploring Letitia Elizabeth Landon's appropriation of the Melusine myth in her poem “The Fairy of the Fountains.” I will first discuss the early nineteenth-century relationship between the public and mermaids, after which I will connect this fascination with mermaids to a cultural obsession with “missing links” that predated Darwin's theory of evolution by nearly half a century. I will then return to the poem “The Fairy of the Fountains,” which is a poem about the changeling Melusine who was cursed by her mother to turn into a reptilian, rather than Piscean, mermaid every Saturday. With a cultural backdrop that associated mermaids with the monstrous missing links, I will then turn to the poem and demonstrate how Landon utilizes the monstrous image of the mermaid to bring female essentialism into question and to divide the inner self from the externalized self, in an effort demonstrate that physical normalcy does not imply psychological virtue.

From the middle of the eighteenth century until the publication of The Origin of Species, liminal beings, more specifically missing links (both mythical and real, such as the platypus), consumed the attention of both the general public as well as taxonomists.The OED defines a missing link as “[s]omething lacking to complete a series or to form an intermediate between two things, esp. in an evolutionary process; a hypothetical animal assumed to be an evolutionary link between man and the anthropoid apes, esp. as sought by early evolutionary biologists”. During this the first half of the nineteenth century missing links referred to all liminal creatures that were seen as intersections between species, for example the platypus was seen as a connection between duck and seal, while the flying fish was seen as a connection between bird and fish; both of the former missing links are mentioned on a 1850 advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid and other liminal curiosities being displayed at the Boston Museum.

In The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Arthur Lovejoy writes “[n]o one was a better judge of what the public wanted than that eminent practical psychologist P.T. Barnum; and it appears that one of the things that the public wanted in the early eighteen- forties [...] was missing links” (236). Lovejoy refers to Barnum as a practical psychologist because of his uncanny ability to read the public and divine what would interest people and draw them to his museum. By displaying a curated selection of “freaks” and curiosities that piqued public fascination he was able to become a hugely successful businessman. One such oddity that Barnum profited greatly from was the Feejee Mermaid, which upon going on display in Barnum's American Museum, tripled the establishment's takings from what they had been previous to the mermaid's inclusion in the museum's menagerie of curiosities (Bondeson 53). The curiosity, billed as a “missing link” that connected man to fish, bore no semblance to the thick-locked, large-breasted sirens pictured on Barnum's Feejee Mermaid advertisements. It was nearly three feet in length and had the head of a monkey, the incisors of a canine, and the tail of a fish; all been woven seamlessly together into a single creature by an unknown taxidermist. The mermaid was in fact the very same specimen that had instigated a frenzy in London twenty years prior, writes Jan Bondeson in The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. In 1822, Captain Eades's Mermaid was displayed on St. James street; three- to four-hundred people paid a shilling daily to see the creature, according to estimates made by the Mirror newspaper (Bondeson 41). In The Fatal Women of Romanticism, Adriana Craciun purports that Landon would have at least known about Captain Eades's mermaid, even if she had not gone to see it herself; for, one of her poems, “The Castillan Nuptials,” was printed directly next to an advertisement for Captain Eades's Mermaid in the Literary Gazette in September of 1822.

Thus, while the Feejee Mermaid was undoubtedly the most famous of these publicly displayed missing links, they were not a new phenomenon. The public fascination with missing links was ripe was early as 1820 when Francis Lambert, whose body was covered with half- inch-long scales, was exhibited on Fleet Street. The bill that advertised his exhibition described him as “a new species of man” (Thomson 111). Missing links like Francis Lambert and Captain Eades's Mermaid inspired public fascination as well as public anxiety because “these liminal creatures, straddl[ed] [the] boundaries between categories ... and threw all conventional definitions into chaos” (Todd quoted in Wilson 7). The fluid identities of these “missing links” resisted codification and complicated the once clear divide between God, man, and the rest of the natural world. The protagonist of Landon's “The Fairy of the Fountains,” the changeling Melusine, would be the epitome of liminality, for she was born of a “mingled dower,/ Human passion—fairy power”; it is not that Melusine simply looked human from the waist up; she was half human (L141-142). To complicate matters, for six sevenths of the time Melusine was not a monster; she had a perfect human shape and it was only on Saturdays, when her curse transformed her into a mermaid, that she was monstrous. This complicates Linnaeus's concept of the Homo monstrous; unlike the Khoikhoi or Francis Lambert, who were defined by their “abnormal physiology,” Melusine induced a new kind of anxiety because she eschewed categorization even more readily due to her shifting bodily form that oscillated between normal and deviant.

Despite her relative contemporary obscurity, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known to her public by the initials L.E.L., was one of the most famous poets of the 1820s and 1830s. Her position in her family placed her in a unique bind. Due to the early death of her father, Landon was “obliged [...] to dedicate her literary talents to the support of her mother and brother for the rest of her life”(Osman 150). From the age of twenty-three on, Landon was forced to assume the role of patriarch within her familial structure. She financed her brother's education and her mother's living expenses while simultaneously supporting herself in a small, but private, apartment. Unlike her married contemporaries such as Lydia Sigourney, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, and Julia Ward Howe, who were scorned by their husbands when they sought to supplement their family incomes by publishing poems, and who faced violent reprimands should they not observe their subservient position within the familial hierarchy, Landon was free from these imminent patriarchal constraints (Walker 35). Until her late thirties Landon maintained her independence. This independence, however, came at a cost. Because of her patriarchal family position as provider, Landon was forced to pander to the masses, to over-feminize her works, or as Germaine Greer states, she was “forced to write puerile trash by the new, male-run print culture industry, who then trashed her for it” (Greer quoted in Armstrong 3). Landon lived a contradictory life. While being fiercely independent, she had to present a complementary image to the public that was the embodiment of feminine ideal in order to be successful as a commercial writer. Thus, much as mermaids symbolized a physical liminality that fascinated and simultaneously horrified the public, the social liminality of Landon's position, as an independent, unmarried woman who provided for her family, made her critics and readers uncomfortable. 

Landon began to write in the early nineteenth century. At this time, there were societal dictums entailing the very “themes, subjects, and even poetic forms” that were socially acceptable for female poets to write on (Behrendt 20). Women writing during this period were paralyzed by a double bind: if women attempted to appropriate the form or diction of a male poet, critics would argue that their verse was “unnatural” because of the notion that women occupied a “separate sphere” in the social schema (Behrendt 30). However, when female poets complied with the acceptable feminine forms, such as by writing lyric poems that dealt with themes that were in accord with Rousseau-Burkean concept of the Beautiful, writers like Wordsworth, Lamb, and Thackeray “regarded [their writings] as blatantly exploitative and lacking in both 'taste and artistic merit'” (Osman, 132).

In the case of Landon, “The Fairy of the Fountains” appears in the annually published gift-book The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook; annuals were deemed “most appropriate for women writers because it placed so much more emphasis on the image than the word” (Osman, 136). And while annuals were more appropriate for women writers, they were also intended primarily for a primarily female readership. Much of Landon's popularity was derived from her association with the annuals, which dominated the literary market from the 1820s until the 1840s. Annuals were gift books that were published each autumn and were intended to be given as Christmas presents. Landon contributed to three of the most commercially successful English annuals: The Keepsake, Heath's Book of Beauty and the Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, which she edited and wrote exclusively from 1832 until her death in 1838. The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook was typical of annuals: it contained preselected engravings, complemented on an opposing page by a short poem, or “poetical illustration” that would echo that preselected engraving. In the preface of the first edition of The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook, published in 1832, Landon expresses the difficulty of her creatively limiting task stating that “[i]t is not an easy thing to write illustrations to prints, selected rather for their pictorial excellence than their poetic capabilities” (3). In the fourth edition of The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook published in 1835, she deviates from the conventional annual format, which she found so constrictive. This edition ends with the inclusion of “The Fairy of The Fountains,” an eight page, 600-line poem that echoes no image, and would have startled many readers who typically bought the annuals for the expensive engravings and not for their poems. Here, there is a parallel between Melusine and the poem “The Fairy of the Fountains”: as Melusine is a categorical error, whose variable identity defines her monstrousness, the poem's inclusion within the annual genre is also an aberration of categorization. Not only is the poem's protagonist a liminal being, but the poem is also composed in a hybrid diction that blends modern English with Middle English. Furthermore, most poems in annuals were lyrics, which was perceived as an acceptable verse form for women to write in, however, “The Fairy of the Fountains,” is a long verse narrative, which was one of the very few poetic forms that was not considered more or less appropriate for a certain gender. While poetic forms were not pristinely divided into gendered genres, there were certain forms, such as the ode and the epic, that were reserved for male writers, while women were expected to write primarily in the lyric form (Behrendt 17). Thus, not only does the poem's protagonist exist between the delineation of clear categorizations, but the poem as a whole rejects codification on the level of its diction, its protagonist, and its form.

“The Fairy of the Fountains” begins with an epigraph that is not a selection quoted from another author's text, like a typical epigraph, but a short paragraph which states that “[t]he legend, on which this story is founded, is immediately taken from Mr. Thom's most interesting collection” (57). The year prior to the publication of the fourth edition of The Fisher’s Drawing- Room Scrapbook, thus the year that Landon was composing the poems for said annual, William Thom published Lays and Legends, which related myths and legends from Germany, Spain, Ireland and France. The “Story of Melusine” is found under the “Legends of France” section of the book. Thom primarily bases the legend on the Chronique de Melusine, a 1393 prose account of the myth as written by the French author Jean D'Arras, although Thom also references other authors who have written about the Melusine myth, including the French historian and biographer Pierre de Bourdeille. After Thom summarizes the myth of Melusine, he includes long tracts of text from original documents about Melusine; he keeps them in the original French “believing that the raciness of the Old French will prove delightful to our readers” (Thomas 89). The fact that Thom assumes his British readers read French (which Landon did fluently), let alone Old French, is indicative of the upper-class readership that Thom intended for his folkloric compendium. It is no surprise that such a book would have piqued Landon's interest. She was living in Paris for much of 1834, when Lays and Legends was published (Sypher 148). In 1826, rumors that Landon had mothered three illegitimate children by the Scottish journalist William Jerdan were published in the periodical press. These rumors circulated vehemently for almost a decade, and were no doubt exacerbated by Landon's familial status as provider. The real reason behind Landon's trip to Paris was not pure pleasure, nor was it solely to research her in-progress novel about the French revolution, but to recover from her recently broken engagement to John Forster, who had fallen prey to the rumors about Landon's tarnished integrity (Sypher 155). In her essay “Receiving the Legend, Rethinking the Writer” Tricia Lootens writes that “[n]ineteenth-century critics could never entirely agree” about whether or not Landon's “writing was to be read as confessional;” however, there is an uncanny parallel between Landon's poetic fall from public grace—which came to a climax when she left for her year abroad in Paris—and her many famous poems that “elaborate upon a tragic romance of literary reception: an account of the fall of a female poet who is flattered, seduced, and ultimately betrayed by her public” (243). “The Fairy of the Fountains” follows the same narrative structure of a woman who is flattered, seduced, and ultimately betrayed.

In Thom's version of the tale, the fairy Pressine marries Elinas, the king of Albania, who has given his oath never to look upon her while she birthed or bathed her children. Elinas has three daughters by Pressine—Melusine, Melior and Palatyne—but upon hearing that Pressine had given birth, he forgets his oath. As a repercussion Pressine must leave her husband to live with her daughters in seclusion. At fifteen, Melusine pioneers a plan to kill her father. For the murder of the king, the three sisters are punished by their mother. As Melusine's guilt was of the highest degree—it was her idea to kill their father—she receives the greatest punishment; she is cursed to spend every Saturday as a creature that is half serpent from the waist downwards “till she should meet a man who would marry her under the condition of never seeing her on a Saturday” (Thom 85). According to Thom, this man would “deliver” Melusine from the curse on the condition that he not break his oath for the first seven years of their marriage (85). In a meeting that parallels the meeting of Pressine and Elinas, Melusine meets her future husband Raymond as she stands naked in a fountain. Raymond has just accidentally killed his uncle with his boar-spear during a hunt. Melusine agrees to conceal the murder. The two marry and Melusine then bears Raymond ten children, all of whom are horribly deformed. The ten deformed children, compounded by Raymond's cajoling cousin, convince him that he must be a cuckold. Melusine is betrayed by her husband, just as her mother was betrayed by her father, for they both break their oaths to their wives by intruding on their privacy. In Thom's version, Raymond does not let his wife know he has seen her monstrous Saturday form; however, upon hearing that his son Geoffroi (who had a “boar's tusk projected from his mouth”) has burned down an entire abbey that housed the abbot, a hundred monks, and his brother Freimund, Raymond is driven into a frenzied fury. He tells Melusine that she is a “pernicious snake and odious serpent [...] contaminator of my race” (86). After which, the curse forces Melusine to become a banshee and Raymond, in his grief, retreats to the wilderness where he lives out the remainder of his life as a hermit.

Landon takes Thom’s tale of the abandoned woman and changes it. In the epigraph to the poem, Landon writes “I have allowed myself some license,” but then quickly exonerates her changes to the myth by stating that “fairy tales have an old-established privilege of change; at least, if we judge by the various shapes which they assume in the progress of time and by the process of translation” (57). Landon is therefore drawing the reader's attention to both her poem’s source and that she has made purposeful, strategic changes to the original in order to suit her purposes. The two most evident changes to the original narrative, as penned by Thom, are how Landon prunes the myth by strategically omitting Melusine's two sisters and her ten deformed children. Landon also places a greater emphasis on the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Pressine and Melusine. The erasure of Melusine's two sisters, Melior and Palatyne reinforces the narrative's uncanny doubling—two fairies, two unfaithful knights, and two stories of love, betrayal, and exile. The speaker in the poem often describes Pressine in death-related and inanimate terms, and as the narrative progresses the very same adjectives are transferred to Melusine. Melusine is born not as a copy of her mother, but becomes her through socialization. The omission of Melusine's ten deformed children also paints Raymond's jealousy as unprovoked and illustrative of his distrust of his wife. The deformities of the children would have implied unfaithfulness, for it was a common belief throughout the Middle Ages (when Jean D'arras wrote the Chronique de Melusine) that a woman's sin would manifest itself on the body of her unborn child. According to Merry Wiesner-Hanks, monstrous births “were sometimes interpreted as signs of God's wrath against the individual sinners, often the parents or the mother” (161). With no cousin to tempt Raymond to break his oath, and with no deformed children to suggest infidelity, Raymond's breaking of the curse becomes a horrific act of distrust that paints him as a monster despite his normal human form.

At the beginning of the poem a young Melusine witnesses her mother's betrayal by her father. Unlike like the Thom or D'Arras versions of the tale where the King Elinas breaks his oath due to an overzealous happiness upon hearing that his wife has give birth to triplets, Landon's Elinas is driven to break his oath due to “suspicion's vain endeavor” (36). Not only does Landon's adaptation of the Melusine myth reinforce the doubling, but there is also a suggestion of predestined ending. The second stanza of the poem describes a “voice on the gale” that sounds like a “lost soul's heavenward cry” that foreshadows Melusine's banshee fate (10). The rhyme scheme even more tightly ties Melusine to the voice on the gale. There are only two instances where the rhyme scheme is broken, and both times it is the same couplet of “cry” and “agony” that break the scheme. That couplet is first used to describe the “voice [that] is on the gale,” which sounds “[l]ike a lost soul's heavenward cry,/ [h]opeless in its agony” (9-10) and is later used to describe the cry that Melusine produces when her mother curses her: “Sudden with a fearful cry/ Writhes she in her agony” (277-278). Throughout the poem, the similes used to describe Pressine all compare her to death. Her dark eyes burn with a “funeral flame,” her cheeks are as “pale as death,” her breath is “cold” and her black hair is “like a shroud” (90- 91;253). But interestingly, she is not necrotic like a corpse, but is perhaps more similar to a statue. The speaker describes her brow as “marble” (255). Melusine's in her youth is described as a “child as fair/ As the opening blossoms are” (19-20), but as the narrative progresses towards its tragic ending Melusine description begins to mirror her mothers:

Like a statue, pale and fair; From her cheek the rose has fled,

Leaving deeper charms instead. 
On that marble brow are wrought
Traces of impassioned thought (369-372)

Melusine's transition from a brimming-with-life girl into a marble statue, that is drained of vitality, is representative of the socialization process which demanded that women abide by very strict social edicts. These social pressures imprinted essentialism on the individual, stripping them of their multi-dimensionality and rendering them two-dimensional. Female poets, especially Landon who's familial position of patriarch forced her to over-feminize her work in order to cater public favour, were coerced by public tastes to write doggerel lyrics that dealt with concepts that were in accord with the Rousseau-Burkean concept of the Beautiful (acceptable topics included domesticity, love and motherhood). Thus, although Melusine is not born a statue-like individual like her mother, she becomes one as she grows up and is forced to marry, should she wish to be “delivered” from her curse.

The    pseudonymous    Aristotle’ s    Master-piece    (a    popular    four-part compendium    of domestic medical knowledge) popularized the concept of the power of “maternal imagination” for three consecutive centuries. The text claimed that women who were frightened during pregnancy would transmit their fright in the form of a physical marking onto their unborn child. During the nineteenth century these “maternal marks came to be read as indelible marks of moral character [...] monstrosity was written both upon the physical body and within the moral fabric” (Wilson 7). Throughout “The Fairy of the Fountains” Melusine, who wears her deformity visually in the form of a serpent tail, is juxtaposed against her husband and father who bear no scars of external deformity, but whose virtue is questionable. In “The Fairy of the Fountains” Melusine does not give birth to the ten monstrous children that lead Raymond to believe he is a cuckold; her adultery would have been a probable cause for the deformities according to maternal imagination logic. In Landon's adaptation of the story it is Raymond's “jealous fancies” that inspire the “dark inquiring thought,” which leads to his transgression (580-456). Landon's Raymond has no justification for his evil, save the distrust of his wife. While Melusine is the one that visibly wears the tail of a serpent, it is Raymond whose mind is marked by the “fire within the brain” sparked by the ember of jealousy (467). Thus, while Melusine looks the role of the snake, the “serpents skill,” which is associated with sin in Judeo- Christian mythology, is equally marked upon Raymond's mind, if not on his physical body (456).

In the penultimate stanza, the reader is privy to a description of Melusine's monstrous Saturday form, but despite the disgusted “mute despair” of Raymond (L560), Melusine is not described as cold monster, but an enchanting creature with “glittering scales” that begin “[d]ownwards form [her] slender waist” (L548;556). In the second stanza, when King Elinas breaks his oath to Pressine, he is described by the speaker in the following manner:

Curiously inlaid, each scale Shone upon his glittering mail;
His high brow was cold and dim,
And she felt she hated him. (L25-28)

The juxtaposed descriptions mirror each other in terms Elinas’s gold, scaled armor which is similar Melusine's scaly gold tail. There is also a parallel in their humoral description, which describes the king as “cold and dim”, and while the text does not expressly verbalize that Melusine was cold, it would have been implied by her sex (27). According to Aristotelian humoral theory “humors varied from person to person, but were sex-related, with men generally believed to be hotter and drier and women colder and wetter”; heat was viewed as the most positive humoral quality because “it rose naturally towards the heavens and towards the brain which explained why men, being hot and dry, were more rational and creative; women being cold and wet were more like the earth” (Weisner 32). Interestingly, while the poem's speaker projects Melusine's description onto her father, the speaker does not try to completely masculinize the heroine by describing her as hot and dry. There is an under current of a proto- existenialism here that rejects the notion that the body defines the person. By emphasizing the liminal rather rather than the unambiguous, the poem suggests that the body and the self are not sutured together. An individual born into a particular sex, or into an abnormal body, does not have their life's trajectory defined by these external, predetermined forces.

The sibilance of “the subtle serpent's shape” puts a serpent's tongue into the reader's mouth rendering them serpentine as well (L551). The serpent imagery is leaving its mark on Raymond, Elinas, and on the reader. It is not until the end of the poem that the speaker describes Melusine's monstrous Saturday form. Her “subtle serpent's shape” is “[b]right with many- coloured dyes” that “colour the waves below” with a “red and purple glow” (L551-555). It is almost as if the red and purple scales that make up her tail are bleeding out like unfixed dyes into a pool of water. Visually she is diffusing into the water, becoming an indefinite object that rejects definition both literally and figuratively. It is perhaps her liminality that imparts anxiety and leaves its mark on all those that come in contact with it. Like the dye that disperses in the water in all directions, the anxiety that Melusine induces is spreading throughout the narrative onto the male protagonists and onto the reader's lips.

The descriptive connection between Melusine, Elinas and Raymond can perhaps also be read as dispelling the binary that has been in place since before the Judeo-Christian fall from grace, the binary that positions women as less than and irrational, and men as more than and rational. The speaker is perhaps projecting the negative, sin-infused connotations of the serpent onto both sexes; both men and women, including the readers, who would have been predominantly women, since this was published in an annual, need to stop perpetuating the cycle of essentialism. It is not a simple equation of male oppressors and female oppressed; for, both parties reinforce these hegemonic norms that outline what is and is not natural, which is why “the serpents skill/ [i]s amid our gardens still” ( L556-557). “The Fairy of the Fountains” iterates refutes this kind of logic, which positions women as lesser; it challenges the notion that women are lesser, and equally challenged notions of categories and induced anxiety.

“The Fairy of the Fountains” would have resonated with a nineteenth-century readership obsessed with liminality and the monstrous. Landon would have been aware of the public's simultaneous abhorrence and fascination with missing links. “The Fairy of the Fountains” exploits the liminal status of mermaids in an effort to throw off the millennia-old Judeo- Christian notion that women are inherently born sinful and less rational than men. The poem's focus on the liminal Melusine, whose shifting body defies the label Homo monstrous, the poem's hybrid diction that combines Middle English and modern English, the poem's long verse narrative form (which not associated with either sex) and the poem's place of publication all defy clear codification. Nothing about this poem is easily categorizable, even the narrative of the poem is both faithful to, and subverts the William Thom version of the Melusine myth published in Lays and Legends. Adriana Craciun in the Fatal Women of Romanticism and Anne K. Mellor in Romanticism and Gender are the two predominant critics that write about Letitia Elizabeth Landon's often neglected poem “The Fairy of the Fountains”. And while Craciun does speak about nineteenth-century annuals, she never delves into the annual format's relationship to the poem itself. When approaching an analysis of “The Fairy of the Fountains” it is imperative to keep the poem's publishing context in mind. A 600-line poem sans engraving would have startled the predominantly female readership that encountered it. The fact that this poem resists clear categorization on so many levels—structural, linguistic, thematic—and was published in an annual, a publication format that demanded a derivative lyric poem based on “illustrations to prints, selected rather for their pictorial excellence than their poetic capabilities,” seems to be a battle cry to the female readership of the annuals (Landon 3). A battle cry to those women unaware that they were socially situated into the constricting category of woman. A battle cry that says “our bodies do not define us, our socialization does.”

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The Looking Glass: A Lacanian interpretation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

            Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a quintessential late Victorian gothic novel that reads “like Watergate transcripts. The story does get through, but in a muffled form, with a distorted time sense, and accompanied by a kind of despair about and direct use of language” (Sedgwick, 13). The “muffled” quality is in part a trope of the gothic genre, but also an effect of the novel's dream vision origin. That is, of course, if Stevenson's claim is truthful. According to Stevenson, the “the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers” (Stevenson). For Stevenson, the unconscious mind, what he terms the 'Brownies,' is not associated with eminence and the creation of great art, but with the creation of profitable art. Published as a shilling shocker, the modern day equivalent of a drug store paperback, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not written as high literature, but with an “eye to the bankbook” (Stevenson) as both his publisher and his Brownies pushed him to write what would sell (Brantlinger, 165).  In a letter Stevenson wrote to Grosse in 1886 he claimed that “[authors] are all whores, some of us pretty whores, some of us not: whores of the mind, selling to the public the amusements of our fireside as the whore sells pleasures of her bed” (qtd. in Arata, 49). Thus, while Stevenson's financial “fluctuations” and “worries” were quelled by indulging popular tastes for the gothic, he was perturbed by this. For Stevenson the writing of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was basically equivalent to turning a profit like a common “whore” (Stevenson).


            By comparing Stevenson's private discourse against his public it becomes evident that there is a tension between his public and private images. Stevenson presents himself as a sellable commodity that caters to the base desires of the late Victorian print industry: the gothic. The connection between Stevenson's public image and the gothic is particularly evident in his “Chapter on Dreams” in which he equates his unconscious mental faculty, the Brownies, with the gothic literary genre. In Gaelic lore Brownies are  “benevolent spirit[s] or goblin[s], of shaggy appearance, supposed to haunt old houses”; thus by stating that they dwell in his mental faculties Stevenson sets up a simile between the process of dreaming and the act of haunting (OED). Furthermore, since Stevenson claims that his novels are formed by the Brownies who “dream in sequence” and “tell [...] a story piece by piece, like a serial” the simile can thereby be extended to writing (Stevenson). In effect, if one subscribes to Stevenson's explanation of the unconscious, to write is to exorcise the ghosts in one's haunted head. However, this waggish explanation of the creative process is in total contrast to Stevenson's private stance on authorship. As quoted previously, he felt that catering to base literary demands was simply prostitution under a different name. There is little whimsical or gothic in this realistic interpretation of the publishing economy.


            If The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were the result of a dream, it can then be interpreted as the sublimation of unconscious anxieties stemming from the fiction of the unified self, Stevenson's public image, and the reality of the fragmented self. Slavoj Zizek in The Sublime Object Of Ideology states that:

The symptom arises where the world failed, where the circuit of symbolic communication was broken: it is a kind of 'prolongation of communication by other means': the failed, repressed word articulates itself in a coded, ciphered form. The implication of this is that the symptom cannot only be interpreted but is, so to speak, formed with an eye to its interpretation [...] in the psychoanalytic cure the symptom is always addressed to the analyst, it is an appeal to him to deliver its hidden message. (73)


Working under the assumption that Stevenson actually did dream the premise of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the division between the base desires of Hyde and the moral obligations of Jekyll seem to reverberate in Stevenson's own mental anxieties between base desires, such as profit,  and moral desires, such as high literature. If one applies a Lacanian interpretation to the novel, there is no cure for the symptom, because Henry Jekyll fails to acknowledge and verbalize what he desires. Jekyll continues to speak of his desires in “coded” and “ciphered form[s]” refusing or unable to utter that what he actually desires are the base pleasures enjoyed by Hyde and forbidden to him by bourgeois convention; however, his desire for acceptance into the homosocial bourgeois society is in conflict with his libidinal Hydian desires. Henry Jekyll attempts to rid himself of the petit objet a, the seed of Hyde, in an effort to return to the state of the Ideal-I by “hous[ing] [the petit objet a] in [a] separate identit[y]” under the impression that without the inner conflict he would be returned to a state of mental unity and “life would be relieved of all that was unbearable” (Stevenson, 107). Jekyll, however, does not fully wish to extinguish the petit object a, but wants to maintain two divided selves: one that is fully indulgent in base desires, and the other fully submissive to social dictums, or in his words, one that is entirely “moral” (Stevenson, 106). Only by returning to the Imaginary order through the ingestion of the elixir can Jekyll delude himself into achieving two separate ideal egos where desire is not described by lack, but fulfillment.


             In “On the Representation of Infantile Sense-Making Processes and the Art of Characterization,” Garrick Duckler argues that Edward Hyde represents the “internal development during early childhood [that Margaret Mahler] call[s] rapprochement, when sometime during the middle of the second year of life the child's growing awareness of its own separateness reaches a peak and what had been a gradual perception of two-ness precipitates 'somewhat suddenly' anxieties of separation”(45). However, unlike a human being that is born prematurely without motor control or language, Hyde is only deprived of the latter. By turning into Edward Hyde, Jekyll is effectively devolving to an ur-human, pre-linguistic state. Hyde is described as being “hardly human,” “troglodytic,” and “dwarfish” (Stevenson, 25). Furthermore, his movements are described as being “like a monkey['s]” or “ape-like” (Stevenson 77, 37). Hyde gives the “impression of deformity without any nameable malformation” because he is the evolutionary link between animal and human. In Symbol and Language Jacques Lacan states that “[m]an speaks [...] because the symbol has made him man" (39). Hyde, however, does not speak fluently because he has not yet been castrated by the Name of the Father and is not yet entirely man.


             The very first depiction of Hyde is orally narrated by Enfield to Utterson. Enfield acknowledges that his narrative “sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see” perhaps because of the sheer incoherency of the event. How could a man trample calmly over an eight year old girl without so much as acknowledging the incident? Furthermore, as Duckler iterates, how does one trample calmly? The docile adverb seems to be at odds with the aggressive verb. Was it perhaps not so much the effect on the girl that was “hellish,” but the blatant disregard for social dictums (Stevenson, 25)?  Ducker argues that when Hyde “trampl[es] calmly” over the girl, in Enfield's narrative of “Story of the Door,” “his assault scene recalls a child's temper tantrum” (Stevenson, 6; Duckler, 45). At the moment of the calm trampling, Hyde is a prelocutionary being with a “broken voice” that cannot fully exist in either the Symbolic or Imaginary order (Stevenson, 25).  Hyde can calmly trample because he does not recognize the difference between himself and the exterior world. The child is trampled calmly by “the damned juggernaut” not because Hyde is so filled with violence that it does not perturb him in the slightest, but because he does not even recognize that the girl is another sentient being, for he himself is not yet a fully formed autonomous being (Stevenson, 11).


            Henry Jekyll believes that upon expelling the little other from his consciousness he will finally be able to be the entirely “moral” man, a man that no longer wrestles with the libidinal little Hyde. Unlike Hyde who has not acceded to the Law of the Father and who therefore cannot fully speak, Jekyll is a competent language user who is fully castrated by social law and convention. While Hyde symbolizes more of a proto-linguistic ur-human than a child, the relationship he has to Jekyll is undeniably filial from Jekyll's perspective, for one is the product of the other. As Jekyll states in his final letter: “Jekyll had more than a father's interest; Hyde had more than a son's indifference” (Stevenson, 122). Jekyll acts as both parental figures to Hyde by carrying out his needs (arranging for lodging and food), but also enforcing order by attempting to police Hyde's ability to take physical form. This relationship, however, is not entirely filial. Perhaps their relationship is not a pure representation of the father-son dynamic, but Jekyll's categorizing it as such. Jekyll is pushing Hyde into the role of son, but is it not possible that he is doing this out of insecurity? Could Jekyll perhaps be the son, and Hyde the father? The exorcized seed of Hyde is pre-mirror, but he also does not exist solely in the Imaginary order. He is in effect a liminal being that represents the Real and can move, though perhaps not comfortably, between the Symbolic and Imaginary orders.


            Like a pre-mirror state infant, Hyde's existence is in essence a fragmented being with libidinal needs. The mirror stage, according to Lacan, is:

 [...]as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image. [...] This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infant stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject. (1286)


Because Hyde exists in the Symbolic order it is only a matter of time, six to eighteen months, before he recognizes his imago and is no longer able to return to the Imaginary order (Evans, 118). Jekyll hopes that “Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror,” however, it is the very act of looking into the mirror that stabilizes Hyde's existence while simultaneously jeopardizing Jekyll's (Stevenson, 115). The “glass [that] has seen some strange things” was brought in “for the very purpose of these transformations” (Stevenson, 85; 110). Notably, the mirror is not a small one that would fracture the image, but a large cheval-glass that could reflect a man's entirety. It is not until Hyde encounters his own image and develops an independent fiction of a unified self, the Ideal-I, that Jekyll begins to have difficulties suppressing Hyde.


                The elixir in effect produces two different egos: Hyde's is powerful, but unequipped to maneuver in the world of laws and language, and Jekyll's is completely castrated, weak, and unbalanced. Once Hyde develops linguistic skills, as demonstrated by his ability to write, and a unified sense of self, he can then fully inhabit and navigate the Symbolic order without Jekyll's aid. It is in the locutionary post-mirror stage that Jekyll loses the ability to suppress Hyde because there is no room in one body for two egos. Jekyll explains in “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” that “in the beginning, the difficulty had been to throw off the body of Jekyll, it had of late gradually but decidedly transferred itself to the other side” (Stevenson, 121). Jekyll is deluded into believing that he has found a solution to the divided self. There can be no consolidation between the actual self and the ideal-I because “the unconscious is structured like a language” and as a result of its structure the self is denied any point of reference to be restored following an identity crisis (Evans, 99). As a result, Hyde grows in strength as Jekyll's ability to speak wanes. Jekyll's voice is described as “harsh and broken” because once Hyde develops the ability to navigate the Symbolic world without guidance, he is then able to consume Jekyll (Stevenson, 68).


             In “In Service of Narration: Servants, the Rhetorics of Class and Narrational Politics in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Autobiography” Jean Marie Fernandez argues that in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the orality of the servants “contest[s] the master's writ [by] exposing the failure of writing, and its supposed power for asserting will and consciousness through the recurrent tension it establishes between the logocentric and the graphocentric” (198). While there is certainly an underlying tension between orality and script, I do not believe that “Jekyll's fiction of writing his own conclusion is the final instance of bourgeois efforts to impose its own phallic authority upon events [...]through the pen” (Fernandez, 211). The final letter is demonstrative of Hyde's near-mastery over the narrative and Jekyll's attempt to cling to autonomy and power. At the end of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the reader is left with only two documents; there is no longer an omniscient author, or even a surrogate reader, Utterson. The final letter breaks the frame tale leaving the reader with only Jekyll's words. However, as indicative by the shifting pronouns, there is confusion between the dichotomy of Jekyll and Hyde. At some points the author of “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” describes waking up as Hyde as though it were “himself” waking as Hyde, but at other times he describes Hyde as a different person. This if further complicated by how the two can share the same memories. There are two main ways to identify a hysteric by their narratives. The first is through the repression, or denial, of an event that results in gaps within the narrative, and the second is through disavowal which results in an over-regulated, over-rationalized narrative of events (Charitini). In “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case” the latter manifests in Jekyll's inability to articulate his narrative coherently. Jekyll's ego is attempting to reject “the incompatible idea together with its affect and behaves as if the idea had never occurred to the ego at all” (Freud, 50). However, because he is verbalizing the experience in a letter his attempt to deny he that is intrinsically inseparable from Hyde fails. The gaps in the letter manifest in the confused pronouns of “he” and “I” when referring to the acts of Edward Hyde.  In effect, the letter reveals that Jekyll and Hyde are not two, but one, and have never been fully separate beings.


               There is something very peculiar about Hyde, something that cannot be articulated. At least those who gaze upon him cannot articulate what exactly it is that induces in them a repugnant anxiety. Perhaps what is so perplexing, what evades every character that attempts to describe Hyde, is his liminality. Because Hyde has the use of “broken language” he is neither prelocutionary or locutionary, he does not dwell fully in the Imaginary order or in the Symbolic order. Ultimately, Hyde is a nomad trapped between the two orders. Aspects of Hyde's physicality seem to embody the Real, at least in regard to the anxiety his physical form induces on onlookers. The Real is “the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic” (Miller, 280). This is perhaps why no one can articulate what exactly Hyde looks like; as Enfield puts it, “I can't describe him. And it's not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment” (Stevenson, 11). Doctor Lanyon who was once a healthy “rosy man” is reduced to a state of decay after witnessing the transformation from Hyde to Jekyll:

 his flesh had fallen away; he was visibly balder and older; and yet it was not so much these tokens of a swift physical decay that arrested the lawyer's notice, as a look in the eye and quality of manner that seemed to testify to some deep-seated terror of the mind (Stevenson, 53).


The transformation in effect voids Lanyon's comprehension of the Symbolic. As a man deeply attached to empirical knowledge he has dedicated his life to understanding the rules and regulations that restrict human existence. However, by witnessing the transformation all categories fail to explain and rationalize. The horror of the breakdown of order is not merely the reversion to a known type of disorder, but a breakdown of order itself, of the ability to make the categorical distinctions. Witnessing the transformation is the equivalent of a hyperbolized gazing on Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors where the gaze is returned. Hyde, like Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors, induces in the observed the “uncanny feeling of being gazed at by the object of our look”, which “affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye's look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order” (Felluga). Thus, while Hyde simply induces an uncanny feeling in casual observers, Lanyon witnesses the Real within the Symbolic and is traumatized indefinitely as a result.


              All organic life was once inorganic matter. The transition from inanimate to animate was a violent shock and trauma. All animate matter and all living things retain within themselves some drive to return to an antecedent state of death or inanimation. This is even more deep and fundamental a drive in human beings than the pleasure principle. The death drive is the drive that the conscious mind is least equipped to come to terms with and master. It is the one drive that we can never encounter in an isolated form. It is always somehow connected with sex, sadism, or we see it extroverted into aggression (Douvaldzi). According to Lacan, if the libidinal principle were really to follow its own bliss, and if it were ever to achieve its jouissance, that jouissance would be death. Total bliss would result in self-annihilation (Harrison). This is ultimately what happens in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in an attempt to achieve the pure bliss of having both social love and base gratification Henry Jekyll propels himself towards death. Furthermore, the death drive would perhaps explain why Hyde's violence escalates from calm trampling of the eight year old to cold murder of Carew as the death drive becomes extroverted in raw aggression. It is in Jekyll/Hyde’s self-destruction that the binary of the pleasure of gratification and the pain of death and suicide collapse.


            The whole dichotomy of Jekyll versus Hyde, of order versus chaos, pleasure versus death, civilized versus barbaric or childlike, etc., is itself a form of order. We try to order our world by creating these dichotomies. By placing Hyde within a category, that of the uncivilized or the libidnal, he becomes something that can be managed and analysed but, in fact, there is something even more terrifying about Hyde: that he cannot be easily pinned to a single category -- he defies clear categorization, and therefore control. Jekyll himself ultimately fails in his attempt to place bounds around Hyde; trying to house him in his own apartment, buying him clothes, giving him a name, but in the end Hyde bleeds outside all of these boundaries. In “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”, we see the confusion in Jekyll's use of pronouns, at times referring to Hyde as “I” and at other times as “he”. Furthermore, we see that the supposedly uncivilized Hyde is capable of forging a coherent letter in Jekyll's own hand. Ultimately, he is not merely uncivilized, libidnal, child-like, or immoral, but indescribable. There are two kinds of terror, terror of the known and terror of the unknown; Hyde is not merely representative of chaos, he becomes representative of that which cannot be contained or categorized or described. Perhaps, ultimately, that is what is so uncanny about this story; the fact that neither the characters nor the reader can clearly nail down all the meta-levels and dichotomies in it; the story, like Hyde himself, eludes both control and ultimately, even a definitive description.



















Works Cited


            Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.


            Brantlinger, Patrick. The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth- Century British Fiction.Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998.


            Douvaldzi, Charitini. “Freud & Psychoanalysis”. Entitled Opinions. Narr. Robert Harrison. KZSU: Stanford University Radio, May 27 2007.


            Duckler, Garrick. “On the Representation of Infantile Sense-Making Processes and the Art of      Characterization: Archaic Thought and its History in the Works of Stevenson, Hardy, and Wilde”. Illinois: The University of Chicago, 2005.


            Evans, Dylan.   An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1996.


            Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Lacan: On the Gaze." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Nov. 23 2003. Purdue U. Apr. 10 2009. <>.


            Fernandez, Jean Marie. “In Service of Narration: Servants, the Rhetorics of Class and Narrational Politics in Nineteenth-Century Fiction and Autobiography”. Iowa, The University of Iowa: 2004.


            Freud, Sigmund. "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence", 1894a: SE III, 58


            Lacan, Jacques. "Symbol and Language." The Language of the Self. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956.

            Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leitch, Vincent B. New York:  W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2001. 1285-1290.


            Miller, Jacques-Alain. "Translator's Note." The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc

            Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Bwteen Men: English Literature and Homosocial Desire. York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

            Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Chap ter on Dreams”. 1892. Berkley Digital Library SunSITE. 8 Jun.  1998. <>


            Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1888.


            Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object Of Ideology.London: Verso, 1989.