Monthly Archives: October 2011

Book Burner #2 – Daniel Defoe’s Table Manners

I’ve spent the last three years writing essays as a university undergraduate. Every fortnight on this blog I’ll be burning off a little bit of that stock-pile, those bits and pieces that might interest the general or semi-academic reader, edited and formatted into short blog posts. Follow the ‘Book Burner’ posts for the full series.

Historically corroborable facts, figures, places named, proper nouns and meticulously researched historical events are all features of Defoe’s version of realism. This can be seen in his use of tables. The table is a structure that makes its way into Defoe’s prose from his journalistic work and keen study of economics. It figures both time and space in a form so inherently non-fictional that it must be indicative of a realistic mode.

But this does not mean to say that that realism can be readily trusted. For example Defoe gives us a table in Essay Upon Project in the section ‘On Seamen’.[1] It charts the costs that the navy will pay for various injuries that sailors might contract. The first column of numbers is the price for a one off payment, the second for an annual payment option:

An Eye            25           2

Both eyes        100         8

One leg            50           4

Both legs         80           6

Right Hand      80           6

And so on through another five items before a centralised explanatory note details such things as the maintenance paid to wives if their husbands should be: “Kill’d or Drown’d, 50 l.”

The list is so much of a curiosity for Defoe because of the odd and troubling collision of debilitating injury with formally stringent commodification. The narrator describes the system’s pragmatic function:

the claims to be Enter’d into the office, and upon sufficient Proof made, the Governors to Regulate the Division, and Publish it in Print

The language that Defoe employs very subtly exposes the dangerous lack of sentimentality of the table. What is “sufficient Proof” that one has lost a leg? The whole exercise is one that demands quantification where it does not rightfully belong. Note also the pun on “Division”, which is about division of money where division of limb from body would be more emotionally prominent (to say the least).

This is the framework in which a reader must tackle the abundance of tables in novels such as A Journal of the Plague Year. Here are the figures for the plague as it reaches its height over August and September:

                    Of all Diseases.    Of the Plague

Aug. 8 to Aug. 15   ——   5319   ——-   3880

                        to 22    ——   5568   ——-   4237

                        to 29    ——   7496   ——-   6102

Aug. 29 to Sept. 5   ——   8252   ——-   6988[2]

The table continues through five more periods of time, the death toll rising and then falling again by the middle of October.

The effects of the table are paradoxical: at once it demonstrates the scale of the crisis and the extent of a tragedy that would otherwise be confined to personal incidents. But at the same time the use of number is somehow reductive. The conversion of time and quantity to a table figures on the page in a space that artificially confines it.

What is the difference between the “5319” at the top of the first column and the “8252” three lines below it? On the page, very little. They have the same number of digits and broadly have the same effect on the reader. Grief does not escalate in proportion with the numbers. One does not feel roughly one and a half times as grieved at the number “8252” against “5319”. Yet roughly one and a half as many people have died from one period to another. The difference is two thousand, seven hundred and thirty three. Within the reality of the novel, each one of those people has lost their lives – and they each have their real life analogue in the horrific events of the real plague.

Tables are, in the end, analogous with the novel’s mass graves in which the dead are buried. They cannot accommodate them all and the bodies spill over onto the ground and into the surrounding prose.

[1] An Essay Upon Projects ‘On Seamen’ in Selected Writings Of Daniel Defoe Ed. James T Boulton (Cambridge, 1974)

[2] Defoe A Journal of a Plague Year Ed. Cynthia Wall (Penguin, 2003) p96


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Book Burner #1 – Montagues and Capulets and Banging Tunes and DJ Sets

I’ve spent the last three years writing essays. Every fortnight on this blog I’ll be burning off a little bit of that stock-pile, those bits and pieces that might interest the general or semi-academic reader. As ever, let know what you think in the comments, by email or on facebook/twitter.

When he approached his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet Zeffirelli knew who the stars were. Not the leads, but the celebrities. In an interview with The Guardian during filming in 1968:

Zeffirelli described his view of Tybalt – ‘in the position of being a villain, but he has a lot of justification… He’s the golden playboy of the period’ – and Mercutio, ‘a rebel fascinating and charming…’[1]

They are young, both glamorous and glamorised: they are stars. The Montagues and Capulets are not two families in conflict so much as two gangs of youths. In fact their cockpieces and violent verbal flamboyance, which they use to facilitate and excuse male aggression is remarkably similar to Kubrick’s adaptation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange three years later (Kubrick’s fight choreography is indeed similar, even directly referential in fact, to Zeffirelli’s).

As gang leaders, Tybalt and Mercutio are the celebrities of this world, always the centre of the spectacle and surrounded by, but never subsumed within, other people. In fact Jackson quotes many reviews of the film on its initial reception, most of which are negative, including Variety magazine’s observation that:

Whiting [who plays Romeo] lacked presence, and ‘among his street friends there [was] really nothing to single him out as the male lead’.[2]

This is precisely because, at least when he is amongst his “street friends” he is not the male lead, Mercutio is.

This relationship is demonstrable in Act 1 Scene 4, a performance that sticks largely to the original text of the play. John McEnery as Mercutio takes on an almost ritualistic, prophet-like quality as his mask, which he dons for the Capulets’ ball is the only one that is skull-like. It’s  a death mask, basked in the scene’s dazzling torchlight. It’s concurrent with physical promotion as hero – a promotion that is enacted by gaining superior height to his fellows (by jumping onto a raised surface); a dominance of screen time, profile close-ups and a command of those around him earnt by his flamboyance and sheer verbal dexterity. Celebrity and death are symbolically linked.

Mercutio is led away from the scene proper by Romeo and finds himself out of the torchlight, as if out of the scene itself as Romeo tells him(1.4.95-6):

Romeo                     Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.

Mercutio                True. I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy, / Which is as thin of substance as the air

McEnery looks blank, almost characterless. Away from his celebrity he is a non-entity. The meta-theatricality of the lines transforms to a meta-cinematic statement on the notion of stardom. The crowd sweep Mercutio back up into the scene, their hero. But McEnery’s eyes stay fixed on Romeo, warning him away from the hollowness of celebrity – a refutation rather than an assertion of self.

When Zeffirelli casts Mel Gibson in his 1990 production of Hamlet, then, the background of Romeo and Juliet instantly makes Gibson a marked man. Gibson was most famed for the Lethal Weapon films, an action hero of even greater prowess than McEnery’s Mercutio or Michael York’s Tybalt. In many ways this film of Hamlet is the reverse of Romeo and Juliet. Gibson’s Hamlet has star status, he has the “great love the general gender bear him” (4.7.18) but he finds himself adrift from it, isolated in the suspician and petty whisperings of Elsinore.

Just as Gibson must survive without the pyrotechnics of the action sequence and contend instead with the intimacy of monologue and the primacy of word; his Hamlet must sustain his sanity through celebrity within a small populous in which reputation confronts him at every turn.

The casting continues Zeffirelli’s particularly masculine sense of celebrity, creating a world in which the gravitas of a central character is such that a conventional action movie romance plot – the leading man and woman having sexual tension, transcends even the taboo of incest as Hamlet and Gertrude (Glen Close) share their infamous kiss in the closet scene (3.4). This is often interpreted as sensationalism loosely justified by oedipal theories about the original text. Yet surely it also demonstrates the deep unnaturalness of the late century’s notions of stardom.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet demonstrates the instability and unatainability of the masculine ideals of its age. Likewise Zeffirelli’s Hamlet undermines a new unattainable male aspiration: the movie star.

[1] Russell Jackson – Shakespeare Films in the Making: Vision, Production and Reception (Cambridge, 2007) p.195.

[2] Jackson, p.215.

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