Victorian farce at the New Vic

We were at the New Vic this week for Broadsides’ production of Priestly’s When We Are Married. First Year students Lynn and Cathryn give us their reviews of the show below, and you can get a taste of Broadsides’ very particular northern-ness and their take on Victorian farce here:

Our English and Creative Writing group had the pleasure of attending The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle Under Lyme, to see the Northern Broadsides perform JB Priestley’s When We Are Married. Many of the cast were easily recognisable from various television dramas and soap operas, so we immediately realised we had come to see something special. The New Vic Theatre is a theatre in the round and so there were little effects and props used throughout the entirety of this performance. However a variety of early 20th Century chairs, tables, ornaments and whiskey decanters were used in the staging and this was ample to create a lively living room area. The play is set in the early 1900’s and manifests itself around three married couples – the Halliwells, the Parkers and the Soppitts. This particular evening they were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary as they all got married on the same day, at the same church by the same Vicar. However their evening of celebrations was set to be ruined as there were speculations that the Vicar who married them was not in fact official. This set off a fast-paced, comical chain of events; with a hint of regular disruption from visitors at their door. The three married couples were left wondering whether they were actually better off free from their ‘institution’ of marriage. With their high social standings in jeopardy and bitter home-truths been outed, the three couples eventually joined forces to discover the legalities of their marriage. When We Are Married is a light-hearted comedy that can be appreciated by all ages. Our group thought that the men in the married couples stole the show. They were charismatic, witty and showed us their humorous side to their equally different personalities. This was JB Priestley, performed at its very best. (Lynn Statham)

The Northern Broadsides theatre company presented JB Priestley’s When We Are Married at the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire. Set in the fictional, northern town of Cleckleywyke just after the turn of the 20th Century, three couples who married on the same day, in the same church, by the same parson are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Set around the living room with chairs for the ladies, sherry decanters in abundance and a door for listening at, the celebrations quickly turn sour by the discovery that the parson wasn’t licensed to marry them and they have in fact been living in sin ever since.

The horrified couples suddenly realize that they will become social pariahs and laughing stocks if the news of their predicament gets out. Cue hilarious attempts to keep the news secret: firstly, from husbands to wives, then from the formidable ex-housekeeper Mrs Northrop, who is adept at listening at the key hole.

When it looks like matters cannot get any worse, the local newspaper photographer turns up to take a group photo in celebration of their anniversary. Barrie Rutter, director of the play, delivers an excellent comedic turn and believable drunk as photographer Henry Ormontroyd.

As the couples try and sort out the quandary they have unwittingly found themselves in, each of the characters comes into their own and the tables are turned between each husband and wife.

A rousing song at the end closes an excellent production by the Broadsides.

(Cathryn Hurd)


Careers Week: Graduate Talks

Thursday 9th November 2016 – Careers Week

Today we had talks from three graduates of the English and Creative Writing awards at Staffs Uni

  • Danielle Booker, manager of local PR company ‘Lyme Communications’
  • Sharon Sant – novelist (Romantic fiction under the pen-name ‘Tilly Tennant’, Young Adult fiction as herself)
  • Bram Welch – Entertainment Journalist



The speakers brought a wealth of diverse topics to the panel, which in turn generated many helpful questions from the current undergraduates in attendance.   Having attended the careers talks this week and last, I can see several important linking themes emerging, which I shall summarise here:

  1. All speakers stressed the importance of forming good friendship groups at undergraduate level in order to support and encourage you in the key task of getting through your degree!
  2. Relatedly, there was further emphasis in every presentation regarding the need for networking after graduating.  This could mean any of the following: keeping in touch with your fellow graduates, attending events relevant to your areas of employment interest, letting family and friends beyond the Uni know about your skills set/career aspirations, creating a LinkedIn profile, creating a Facebook page for professional use only.  Get to know people and get people to know you!  Many of the stories we heard at these talks depended upon happy coincidence, and that coincidence was generated by networking.
  3. A degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a job – work on YOU.  Become someone that an employer wants to employ: work on your interpersonal skills, your self-confidence, maybe even your manners.  Learn to cultivate a good presentation of self.  Develop your personality by travelling, possibly even by living and working in other countries (Bram talked very enthusiastically about the TEFL scheme), volunteer – even for things that aren’t directly relevant to what you’d like to do eventually.  If you have no particular career path in mind, then pick some work experience and just make yourself do it; if you hate it, you can at least discount that field.  If you love it you could be making valuable links for later on.   Any work experience will give you life-experience and help you with your personal development.
  4. Find out about Graduate Schemes – you may not even be interested in the field in which any given scheme is based, however, you can be well-paid and given intensive training in a variety of skills which will stand you in good stead for a range of other careers.   This tip was really just from Kerry Ann last week, but it’s such good advice that I had to include it here.
  5. Managing your existing online profile/s: if a potential employer were to Google you, what would they find…?  It’s time to think carefully about what’s out there on the internet and how it will look from a professional context… (Again, this was just from Kerry Ann, but too important to leave out!)
  6. Start the wheels in motion NOW!  This was a common and crucial piece of advice we heard from every speaker.  All 6 of these points can be tackled right now, today, yes – even in the 1st semester of your 1st year!

The talks were – obviously – much richer than this list can indicate.  We are very grateful to our alumni for returning to pass on their pearls of wisdom and inspire our current undergraduates with a lot of food for thought.

Melanie Ebdon.


Broadsides in Stoke

The lovely people at Northern Broadsides theatre invited me to see a read through of their upcoming production, Cyrano de Bergerac. A read through is quite close to a performance, but with the script in hand. This adaptation, from award winning playwright Deborah McAndrew, retains some of the rhythms and rhymes of the original (which was entirely in couplets).


The story is probably best known from the Hollywood version starring Steve Martin, which is played pretty much as a joke about Cyrano’s big nose. Here, Cyrano is a talented Renaissance man who displays equal panache with his sword and his verse. But his ugliness is his curse and is contrasted with the beauty of Roxanne. He can only admire her from a distance, until his skill with words is needed by a handsome but intellectually limited cadet who takes Roxanne’s fancy. McAndrew demonstrates a keen ear for comedy – even in verse – and handles the poignant resolution with… well, with ‘panache’

I can’t wait for the production at the New Vic theatre early next year.

It was fascinating to see, along with a small invited audience, part of the creative process. Director, Conrad Nelson, and McAndrew told me afterwards that performing the play in front of a small audience is part of the ‘alchemy’ that animates a work, and it allows them to get a sense of what needs to stay and be drawn to the audience’s attention, and what needs to be cut. For the creators, showing us a bit of ‘how it’s made’ also allows them to bring friends of the company together and show off interesting buildings in the area.


The Wedgewood Institute, where we were gathered, is about to be renovated as a result of a grant from the Prince’s Regeneration Fund. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century for the education of the factory workers of Burslem and it stands opposite the equally impressive Burslem School of Art, whose famous alumni include renowned artists such as Arthur Berry and ceramic designer, Clarice Cliff (google her stuff if you don’t know it, it’s wonderful).

Nobel Prize for Literature 2016: Bob Dylan

I have a confession to make: I do not like, nor have ever liked, listening to Bob Dylan’s music. This is surely  heresy as today sees the announcement of Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize for 2016-05-25-1464211797-4748536-bobdylanearly1960sLiterature, and it has left me with some mixed feelings.  I have among my friends and colleagues on social media many poets and writers and musicians, and the debate out there is passionate, emotional, fierce. Perhaps what surprises me the most is my lack of resistance  to this news; while I cannot suddenly purport myself an overnight fan of Dylan’s work, I do err on the side of the poets speaking in his defence. What I am certain about is Dylan’s unequivocal talent as a lyricist, and that writing lyrics is not the same craft as writing poems. Each of these disciplines is distinct and comes with its own complexities and challenges; one is not ‘better’ than the other. If I were a songwriter, I’d be proud to have written:

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.” — Tambourine Man

The sonic undulation of sibilance in the second line of this lyric is poetic, as is the clean and unusual imagery (‘diamond’ ‘circus’). Is this a poem? Is this a lyric? Dylan has been awarded the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’, and to my mind, this extract above supports this position.  I would go further and suggest that Dylan also innovated and energised the form of the American song.

This award also brings into debate old divisions between supposed high and low culture for some, and I say, perhaps it is time to get over this class war of culture.  For some decades now, those boundaries have been blended, deconstructed, questioned, dismantled–so why are some commentators even calling into question the validity or possibility of the Nobel literature prize going to a songwriter?  I say, why not?  When I wrote my PhD, on sonority in literature by writers who might have ‘once-upon-a-time’ been called ‘minority’,  I included African-American spirituals and Welsh folk songs in my literature review not just as cultural documents, but for their distinct contribution to our literature.  It is about time perhaps to review what we call literature and broaden our consideration of all written cultural artefacts–perhaps we will soon see a Nobel Prize for Literature award to a video-game.

Do I still dislike listening to Dylan’s music? Yes–but to deny him a Nobel Prize for literature as a songwriter would be untenable. This prize is not about calling Dylan a poet; it is about acknowledging songwriting as a legitimate form of literature.

(Image Credit: Huffington Post)

The English and Creative Writing students visit the British Library


We had a fantastic day on Thursday in that London visiting the British Library with this year’s new first years. Hedley and Karen from the library gave us an insight into research using the library’s resources and a fantastic tour – our thanks go to them. While there we saw the original draft of Hardy’s Tess, Austen’s Persuasion, some Dickens and Nelson’s last, unfinished letter to Lady Hamilton (with a note on it from Capt Hardy explaining why it was unfinished). There was also a great little exhibition on punk. And we had a fantastic lunch on the sun-soaked British Library terrace.

We were whisked there (at the uni’s expense!) on the train straight into Euston (right next door to the library). The quiz on the way was won by Amy and Becky with a spectacular 46 (out of a possible 44!). I am quite concerned by the new intake’s lack of knowledge of the home grounds of London’s lower league football clubs, darts and 1970s and 80s sit-coms, but we have 3 years to put that right.

Our thanks go to the students for their great company on the day.


Sam and Umehra with the statue of John Betjeman – the poet of the London’s suburbs, Metroland – at St Pancras Station (which he helped to from the bulldozers)

NUS advice on bank accounts for students

For many students starting university, dealing with finances for the first time can be quite daunting. You need to open a bank account to receive your student finance, and the banks are offering a bewildering array of incentives. Then there are lots of other financial responsibilities like rent, travel, insurance, TV licenses, car tax, and many others.

The SU have done some research and provided advice for students facing these challenges for the first time. Click here to read the NUS advice, and click here for a useful BBC article on first-time finances for students.

The SU Student Advice Centre above the Ember lounge can provide free and impartial financial advice for all students. The SAC can help all students with budget planning, income maximisation, benefits, housing, debt, and any other financial issue you might encounter during your studies.


An evening at the pictures

Does anybody say ‘the pictures’ anymore?

Well, that’s where I went on Tuesday; at the Stoke Film Theatre on the College Road campus for the independent German film, Victoria. This is not the sort of film you get down the local Odeon. Some of the film is in German with English sub-titles and some in English. But the film’s most notable characteristic is that it is one continuous 180 minute take, shot with a hand-held camera. This achieves many effects. It is extraordinarily intimate: the audience does not so much watch the action, as feel like they are part of it. Because it is one take, the film is also in real time, taking us from the depths of Berlin’s underground club scene to the grey urban dawn. The result is that, from when they meet for the first time at the beginning of the film, the actors have to reveal their characters and persuade the audience of their growing bond. Victoria is a Spanish pianist working in a Berlin coffee shop, and the group of men who take her on a roller-coaster tour of night time Berlin are marginalised petty criminals. Victoria’s experiences of unfriendly competition in the conservatoire makes her susceptible to the picaresque appeal of the group of men who are known only by their nicknames; Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuss. Victoria herself is a beguiling mix of curiosity and vulnerability. The intensity of the camera gaze is at its most effective in claustrophobic spaces, and we quickly become entranced by the edgy relationships building between the characters as their personalities are revealed to each other and the audience.

The Guardian, like me, loved this film, giving it 5 stars. You can read the review here, and see the trailer here.

The Film Theatre is an authentic cinema experience. You are not cocooned in king size seats here, isolated from the rest of the audience. There’s also a nice little bar where you can get a local Titanic brewery beer, a cup of coffee or some sweets for the film. Enjoy.

Film Theatre Programme

Sonnet 65: ‘Paint it Black’ – Back to Black, on occasion of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary

The Sonnets are Shakespeare condensed into small scale poetic form. Their performance space is not on the playhouse stage, but in the more expansive theatre of the mind, portable Shakespeare, therefore, for the modern bookreader, to be accessed anywhere and whenever. Compiled inside the covers of one book, the 154 poems, 14 lines each, provide a lyrical backdrop to Shakespeare’s theatre, a sort of engine room or microcosm of nuclear ideas that power the universe of the plays. Of course they also demand to be enjoyed in their own right. For, first and foremost, this is great poetry: something else Shakespeare, the playwright polymath, was exceptionally good at, even though various juries are still out whether all of The Sonnets are of equally high artistic quality. As is the case with numerous other aspects of Shakespeare’s work,The Sonnets carry some unanswered questions regarding sources, origins, authorship, publication, purpose, sexual orientation even, order of arrangement of the sequence and of individual poems in the collection, its dedication, addressees etc.. To pick out but one area: who, for example, was the dedicatee of the collection, the enigmatic ‘Mr W.H.’ (the most recent research-based claim suggests he was a friend of the author, a London publisher called William Holme), or, in another contentious area, who was the young man the first 126 sonnets are addressed to (was there even a physical role model, and what, if there was?); and who was the mysterious ‘Dark Lady’ of the last 28 ones? As first port of call, introducing some of the ins and outs of the text, W. H. Auden’s ‘Afterword’ to the Everyman’s Library edition may serve: a poet’s perspective on the poems…

The sonnet as a new poetic form originated in 13th century Italy. Its invention can be regarded as one of the most substantial literary achievements of early modern culture, with a first peak of artistic perfection in the Canzoniere of Petrarca (written between 1327 and 1368). In fact, it has been argued that the sonnet as an artistic landmark points to the beginning of the Renaissance as  such… Since then the form has enjoyed several high points along the way to later modern writing, Shakespeare’s collection of 1609 being one of them, of course; also, Elisabeth Barrett-Browning’s 1850 Sonnets from the Portuguese needs a mention, and, most recently, in 2015, Don Patterson’s excellent collection of  40 Sonnets. Almost everybody who was (and is) anybody in the world of poetic writing has at some stage used the sonnet. Its specific formal features demand of the poet a high degree of skill and good craftsmanship; it lends itself particularly well to the display of poetic virtuosity. You can make a good name for yourself, even aspire to enter into the afterlife of everlasting poetic fame, or become a Poet Laureate, if you manage to compose  decent sonnets. Contemporary likenesses convey Petrarch as the bearer of the laurel wreath, the ancient Apollonian crown for heroes and champion poets. The other reason is that owing to the peculiarities of its intricate structure and patterning, the Petrarchan sonnet and its Shakespearean modification have served as a model form for expressing complex  thoughts, sentiments and feelings: the sonnet is a modern poetic form because it allows particularly well for an expression of the issues that are on the modern mind.

The modernity of the sonnet as a form lies in the fact that it is eminently suitable to deal  with questions of conflicted human identity in an increasingly confusing world of post medieval secularisation, a world we are still living in today. The discourse-oriented, bipartite structure of the Italian sonnet (Octave – two Quatrains –  followed by Sestet – two Tercets) and the possibilities of fugue-like intertwining of rhymes (across the different intersections) allows for great flexibility in expressing condensed, complex ideas, often of an antithetical, or oxymoronic and paradoxical nature, and encourages the development of a complicated argument, that may extend from initial statement via discussion in the Octave down to a resolution at the end of the Sestet. Shakespeare modifies the Petrarchan model. Replacing the two-part structure (Octave and Sestet), he introduces three Quatrains and one final Couplet, which, it can be argued, even increases the sonnet’s propensity for intellectual disputation and the charting of thoughts as a ‘dialectical’ process, with negation, self-doubt, and contradiction as ingredient elements. Arguably, through its essentially tripartite structure (plus concluding couplet), the Shakespearean paradigm of the sonnet, even more so than the more binary-based Petrarchan, caters even better for the requirements of dynamically developing, modern thought and a fluid argumentation. Like most of his plays, Shakespeare’s sonnets use iambic pentameter, the metrical line that hides its own constructedness and aims at giving the illusion of life-like speech. It also brings The Sonnets in proximity to the plays in that it enhances the dramatic positioning of the ideas discussed in them. Their rhyme scheme mostly follows the pattern of abab cdcd efef gg.

Sonnet 65 is one of my favorites.



Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


To me it stands out as one of the most radically modern of Shakespeares utterances, through its imagery, for a start, which seems to point forward as far ahead as Victorian Industrialisation and Darwinian Geology. But also through the depth of what is being discussed in it: at the root is a central question still asked in a similar way (and sometimes  answered), perhaps asked again for the first time in this radical way since Shakespeare’s days, in European art and thought around the middle of the 19th century and beyond. Art, poetry to be precise, holds out the faint hope of permanence and constancy in the face of the great ravisher Time who causes all human life and its products to be annihilated. The human counts for nothing in a world of raging natural devastation where even rocks erode over time, let alone brass and steel: hope against hope, the poet writes against the inevitability of natural decay, and perhaps there is a slim chance for poetic passion, codified in the black ink of the written text, to survive the tumult of destruction and shine through it.

The notion of transience of life is as widespread in the European literature of the Baroque as that of teatrum mundi  (‘All the Word’s a stage’, in the words of one of Shakespeare’s plays), both ideas feeding into the modern notion of tragic absurdity of life. Thus, as Walter Benjamin emphasised in his  study of Baroque tragedy, the literature of Shakespeare’s period paves the way into our own time. However, Sonnet 65 seems to me to go particularly deep in its modern concerns, perhaps further than other discussions of the matter in Shakespeare and other contemporary writers, such as Cervantes, Calderon or Grimmelshausen. This sonnet strikes me particularly through its visionary qualities, enhanced  by its peculiar network of metaphors, directly anticipating, down to the phrase almost, many later expressions of the same dilemma from poets and writers who were neck-deep embroiled in the battles for orientation and identity during Industrial Revolution and later Capitalism, the worst times of turmoil and change of the whole period. Marx, no poet, comes out with the stunning well-known poetic line, ‘All that is solid melts into air’ (1848), a fact, he maintains with the characteristic optimism of the early freedom fighter, that we can, waking up to realising our own situation, turn into our advantage. From Sonnet 65, links can be drawn to Darwin who propagates the notion of  ‘geological time’ in Origin of Species (1859); The sentence from the same source: ‘How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature during whole geological periods’, chimes with the sentiments of the Sonnet. It also anticipates late-19th century Aestheticism which, counteracting the pessimism of Darwin’s biological determinism, identifies a faculty in the make-up of the human that may provide a reason to live in a devastating world of destruction, by resisting ‘Nature, Red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson’s phrase from In Memoriam, 1850). In the famous Conclusion to The Renaissance (1873) Walter Pater says that

‘we have an interval, and then our place knows no more. … Great passions may give us a quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which comes naturally to many of us. … Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.’

There is a variety of connections that can be made between Sonnet 65’s desperate vision of hope that art may resist the destruction of time to similar reflections in 19th century poetry. Canto V of Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) echoes the Sonnet’s idea of fragile ink set against overwhelming devastation. Tennyson, who thinks of his own poems as ‘lullabies of pain’, holds that

But for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

If at all, it is only through art that the human has any significance, any distinct part to play in the grand scheme of things. In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 the dim glow of the black ink of poetry is the only light source in a world of cosmic devastation and universal darkness. The same black sun of poetry shines from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (1857), and more, powerfully black even, from James Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night (1874). In an early poem called ‘Hap’ of 1866, Hardy calls Time a ‘purblind Doomster’: this is the major ingredient also in all of Hardy’s novels. Time in Hardy is the modern equivalent of ancient fate in a post-mythological and post-Christian age, the main agent (together with chance, or ‘Happenstance’ – the shortened title of the poem ‘Hap’) that turns human life into tragedy, even under the most modern of conditions.




King Lear at Manchester’s Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange in Manchester has a reputation for staging Shakespeare plays in a way which demonstrates the Bard’s relevance to the now. Maxine Peake’s Hamlet in 2014 was a stunning example of relevant and inspiring Shakespeare. As the programme for Lear tells us, there are 3 productions being staged, in this 400th anniversary year of the playwright’s death, which cast black actors in lead roles: Don Warrington as Lear here, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet at the RSC and Ray Fearon as Macbeth at the Globe.

While Don Warrington is clearly the star of this show, the whole cast are impressive. Warrington is an imposing actor, who gives great presence to Lear in all his manifestations: as patriarch, deluded parent, mad man, and tragic father-king. Special mention, however, must go to Miltos Yerolemou as Lear’s wise Fool and to Fraser Ayres for his terrifying Edmund. But it is unfair, I think, to pick anybody out. This production emphasises the humanity of the three tragic characters (Lear, Cordelia and Gloucester), rather than the politics of a state divided.

The Royal Exchange is a brilliant theatre. Playing in the round, with only the most essential of props (a throne for the king, a chair each for the sisters) creates a genuinely intimate experience of the play. We booked these tickets way in advance, and since opening the production has received rave reviews (“as close to definitive as can be”, according to the Guardian). As a result, tickets are hard to come by; but if you can get one it’ll be worth the struggle.


Staffs Uni paid for the tickets and the coach, while Manchester offered us different city experiences: some set off for a gallery, others to the shops, and some of us to the bohemian shabbiness of Affleck’s Palace. And for lunch: you cannot beat the Northern Soul grilled cheese café and their magnificent Philly cheese steak sandwich – probably the best outside of Philadelphia and one of Manchester’s coolest street food experiences.


Inside the building. Is it a theatre or a spaceship?

As an added bonus, Sally bumped in to and instantly recognised 2 of the actors (who played the Fool and Oswald) at ComicCon in Stoke the next day.


Visiting Lecturer, Jonathan Day, offers his thoughts on Coriolanus

My selection comes from Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. Our hero is Caius Martius, who has earned his honorific title, ‘Coriolanus’, from his actions fighting the enemies of Rome, the Volsces, in their city of Corioli. Throughout the play Coriolanus has been a singular figure, in conflict with the public of Rome. Rejected from the city, Coriolanus turns on Rome and approaches the leader of the Volsces, Tullus Aufidius, and demands that Aufidius either kill him or use him to conquer Rome. Here is Aufidius’s response to that ultimatum:
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sigh’d truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.

This is a play that has seemingly consistently triumphed traditional conservative Roman values. Coriolanus is the warrior who literally forms his identity through war (note the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’), who subjugates his own welfare to the good of Rome, the warrior who fights to honour his mother and wife and for a future for his son, and is undone by a spirit of resentment that rules amongst a faceless mob. Above all this, the play would seem to suggest the successful man is a figure of magnificent isolation.

Within thirteen remarkable lines however, Shakespeare deflates all of this. These lines demonstrate none of the martial restraint one might expect of a warrior leader; they are not end stopped, that is to say, they are examples of enjambment. Each line does not contain a single complete phrase or idea but runs on in a stream. The whole speech consists of only four sentences, one of which, ‘Why, thou Mars!’ serves to disrupt the hypnotic rhythm and prevent monotony. This speech is frankly, almost explicitly, homoerotic in the language of dancing hearts at the appearance of Coriolanus, unbuckled helms, being ‘down together’ and nocturnal ‘encounters’. Again, this stands against so much else in the play. Finally, Shakespeare’s language subverts the idea of singularity into duality and interrelationship. The final magnificent sentence has six self-references to ‘I’ or ‘me’, six references to ‘thou’ or ‘thee’ and two ‘we’s. This sheer bulk in such a short span of text, combined with the fluid lines, serves to confuse the issue; who or what is being discussed here? This is most clearly present in the final five lines, in which the subject of the sentence is Aufidius himself; due to the dream-like flow of the language, by the time we come to the conclusion, it seems as if the subject is the ‘we’ of ‘we have been down together’. It is is Aufidius’s dream, but it seems as if they are both dreamers and have somehow both ‘waked half dead with nothing’. Why half dead, and what was the ‘something’ they might have had?

At the conclusion of the play Coriolanus returns to his identity model of isolation and independence; before his death he proudly recalls his actions in Corioles and remarks ‘Alone, I did it’. In the section above however we see Shakespeare’s art. It is the characteristic ‘volta’ or turn, of the sonnet writ large; within a few trance-like lines Shakespeare challenges the seeming grounds of his whole play. In its own way, this passage is as daring as Puck’s suggestion at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that if we disliked the action, we should assume that we have been dreaming. Perhaps we ourselves might awaken half dead with nothing?