Reader’s Journal: “Beowulf” Geoffrey Chaucer , “the Canterbury Tales” (“the General Prologue”), “English Literature” by Anthony Burgess: Chap. 9 “Romeo and Juliet”
We all live in the world of popular culture. No one can isolate himself from different trappings of this worldwide phenomenon that is commonly regarded as culture for mass consumption connected with urbanisation and industrial revolution. It was defined and named shortly “pop culture” in the middle of the 20th century. Since we are pop culture receivers, we watch TV broadcasts and commercial movies with famous pop-stars, listen to the pop music on the radio, we are attacked by often offensive advertisements considered by some people as the type of art.
Furthermore, we surf the Internet to read gossip about famous people or get other information as fast as possible – some of us spend on this long hours everyday and become even addicted to mass media that are most important conveyor of pop culture. One of components of pop culture we meet in media are celebrities. As stated Daniel Boorstin in 1961 celebrities are people who are “famous for being famous”.
There is no particular identifiable reason why someone attains celebrity status – he or she does not have any particular talent or ability, does not have to be an authority, sometimes just attending popular places, parties or taking part in scandal is enough to become a celebrity. It is the right moment to explain why I started my “Reader’s journal” with introduction about pop culture. Firstly, when I read Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance pieces of literature, I started to wonder if it is true statement that popular culture emerged just in the 20th century?
Or maybe it started already several centuries ago? Is it possible that some contemporary people were regarded similarly to nowadays celebrities? Through the prism of these issues I considered “Beowulf”, “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, chapter about William Shakespeare’s life and literature and “Romeo and Juliet”. So let’s travel in my “Reader’s journal” to Anglo-Saxon, Medieval and Renaissance times and look for any signs of pop culture of the times. Part one of looking for sings of pop culture : Beowulf Evening… I met him – brave Beowulf – for the first time when I was reading in the vening. The only thought I had after long day of pop culture coming from each side, was that it was just another character of old literature, so strong, so extraordinary, so fantastic and great, that absolutely similar to other heroes from ancient myths and European medieval stories (i. e. Greek Hercules, French Roland etc. ), somehow stereotypical or even boring… Beowulf is the main protagonist of one of the oldest poems in the English language. The poem of unknown authorhip probably originates from Scandinavia and was transmitted in England by people of Geatish origins.
Firstly, it existed as an oral piece of literature, “passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation”, says Anthony Burgess in his book “English literature”. The poem was recorded by Christian monks between the 8th and the early 11th century. Story of Beowulf’s life is divided in two parts. First of them shows us the main character as a young warrior who comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. His mead hall – Heorot – is oppressed by the terrible monster half-devil, half man, Grendel. Beowulf to prove his strength fights with Grendel and wounds him mortally.
The second incredible battle he fights in this part of poem is against equally horrific monster’s mother. They struggle fiercely after her revenge for Grendel’s death on Hrothgar’s most trusted warriors. He defeats her in her lair under a lake using magic sword. The young Geat warrior is generously awarded and honoured by the king for his courage and deeds for mead hall. The second part of the poem happens after fifty years, when Beowulf is himself king of the Geats. His realm is then terrorized by a dragon, whose treasure was stolen from his place.
Once again, Beowulf turns out to be the hero who is to save his country. The great warrior comes to dragon’s lair, kills it with help of his his Swedish relative. Unfortunately, he is mortally wounded and dies. Poem of “Beowulf” is considered an epic poem. As in ancient ones, such as “Illiad” and “Oddysey” , in Beowulf we see society in important, historical moment. When it comes to formal features, story is narrated by narrator in verse. Both language and imagery are absolutely sophisticated. As I mentioned, first meeting with Beowulf was in the evening. It wasn’t surprising, thrilling or exciting.
But it changed the very next day in the morning. Morning… Breakfast, coffee, checking e-mail, and morning news on TV before going to work – usual, ordinary morning. When I was changing channels, on one of them I noticed scene quite similar to those I imagined just evening before, when met Beowulf from the poem. Surprisingly, it was some cartoon on children channel. The same colours which saw Anthony Burgess in “Beowulf”: “grey of the northern winters, shot by the red of blood”; the same loud sounds: “snapping of fangs, the crunching of bones”. Then I started to think of another similarities…
To begin with, I realised, that poem in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval times played the same role as today’s popular broadcast in TV – to entertain, to amuse, to shock and to terrify. Moreover, some researchers on pop culture claim that even fictional characters, such as Superman, Batman and Spiderman, can be regarded as pop icons or celebrities. Frankly, Beowulf with all his extraordinariness, great strength and behaviour is really similar to these contemporary heroes of comics and cartoons, isn’t he? So maybe pop culture began many centuries earlier and the only reason why it was not so common was lack of mass media… It is really possible…
Part two: Dr. House and Paris Hilton several centuries earlier Rainy, autumn afternoon with “The Canterbury Tales”… With idea of looking for pop culture sings, inspired by pop cultural conclusions after “Beowulf” reading, it was time to meet thirty pilgrims from “The Canterbury Tales”, a collection of 24 stories written in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer. There should me more stories – as many as number of pilgrims, but the author died before completing work. The tales are contained inside a frame tale – prologue and told by persons on a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
The structure of “The Canterbury Tales” is based on “Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio in which 10 young people from aristocracy meet secretly in a church because of the plague. They start thinking about some activity to amuse each other. They decide to tell stories every evening. In “Decameron” there are 100 different stories that present all kinds of people in society. Chaucer’s Tales are written in Middle English and are believed to be a masterpiece of English literature. The author of this composition was neither peasant, nor priest or aristocrat. He belonged to merchant class since he was the son of man engaged in trading wine.
He married a women form upper class, so he learned a lot about aristocracy – observed polite manners, had opportunity to study sciences, arts, French and Italian literature. Another opportunity to observe people was his job as a custom officer. Chaucer was known as an author of great sense of humour who established modern English we know today. Furthermore, English literature researchers add that he gave something special for literature – “pictures of people who are real and a view of life which, in its tolerance, humour, scepticism, passion an love of humanity, we can only call ”.
The panorama of contemporary society is presented in “The general Prologue” of “The Canterbury Tales”- the introduction of each of the pilgrims making their journey to Canterbury. These pilgrims presented by the narrator called Chaucer include a Knight, his son the Squire, the Knight’s Yeoman, a Prioress, a Second Nun, a Monk, a Friar, a Merchant, a Clerk, a Man of Law, a Franklin, a Weaver, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Tapestry-Maker, a Haberdasher, a Cook, a Shipman, a Physician, a Parson, a Miller, a Manciple, a Reeve, a Summoner, a Pardoner and the Wife of Bath.
Meeting at the Tabard Inn, the pilgrims decide to tell stories to pass their time on the way to Canterbury. They are an unusual collection of different human beings of various types, social positions. Chaucer presents them with all their virtues and defects using descriptive method of characterisation in “The general Prologue”. According to Burgess, thanks to autor’s scrupulous description of people, he achieved one more aim: he created the picture of the world. I focused my reading on few of the pilgrims from “The Canterbury Tales” who resemble me in a way some nowadays celebrities or pop cultural lifestyle.
First of them is Knight. He is ideal medieval Christian man-at-arms. He – “truly perfect, gentle knight” – believes in his chivalry and always behaves in tune of his values: truth, honour, courtesy. Some readers may say that this kind of people do not exist any more which is probably true. Nevertheless, there are still some present characters who are embodiments of good, always fight for right, justice and truth, seem to be just flawless. They are policemen, detectives, medicine doctors and are character of popular TV series. So maybe they are today’s versions of knight and have something in common with Chaucer’s character.
Next one is the Squire, the Knight’s son. He is about twenty and he looks attractive. He has curly hair. He is tall and well-build. What is more, he is really fashionable. In addition, he is talented. He plays the flute, he is good at horse-riding, he writes songs and he can dance. He seduces women with his charm. He is a popular with women. Isn’t he type of modern Brad Pitt? Would not he be called “ciacho” nowadays? I am sure he would… Is it not exactly pop cultural picture. I think it is indeed. Another person who I associated with modern character immediately when I was reading “The Tales” was Doctor of Physik.
His knowledge is wide. He knows the cause of every malady and can cure most of them. But he is not as flawless as the knight. Although he keeps himself in perfect physical health, the narrator calls into question his spiritual health. This description fits to Gregory House from popular TV series as well. Dr. House is the best diagnostician, he can always find the reason of disease, he looks for sophisticated metaphors, unusual comparisons which means he is really eloquent. On the other hand, he believes that everybody lies and do it sometimes himself.
So, both our characters, medieval and from 21st century prove the truth that nobody is perfect, They prove one more thing, that both epochs could entertain people with the same type of personality. The last person among Canterbury collection of character that I find to be a pre-celebrity is The Wife of Bath. Any reader can not read about this woman without flushed face. She can not be unnoticed. Though she is a seamstress by occupation, she seems to be professional wife. She has been married five times and had many other affairs in her youth, making her well practiced in the art of love.
She presents herself as someone who loves marriage and sex, but, from what we see of her, she also takes pleasure in rich attire, talking, and arguing. For me it sound like description of a bit older Paris Hilton or other pop star. Is it shocking or weird? For me it is not, it is just rather another evidence, that people are always the same. But let’s stop looking for sings of pop culture among fictional characters. There is one Renaissance author, who with no doubt can be considered as celebrity of his times. Part three: Shakespeare who we do not know Evening show…
Some studies of Shakespeare, for example by Barber, find the author to be one of the most important Renaissance popular culture creator. Anthony Burgess, who devotes whole chapter to life and works of Shakespeare in “English literature”, begins it with words: “This chapter should begin and end with the title. For what more can I say about Shakespeare than has already been said? (…) This chapter can contain nothing new”. But the chapter is quite provocative and shows Shakespeare in a bit different way. Shakespeare is said to be the greatest playwright of all time.
He and his plays are immortal as each age can find some new aspect of them, the reception of his dramas is always different. Nowadays we mostly read his dramas. But were they composed to be read? Burgess claims that Shakespeare when writing his works thought only of performances in the playhouse. What was surprising for me was Burgess’ explanation of Shakespeare’s motivation to write his play which according to him allows us better understand and “get inside” the dramas. So if it is true that Shakespeare’s main aim in life was to become a gentleman and not an artist, his plays can be considered as a means to achieve this aim.
Other Shakespeare’s motive was gathering property and writing plays was good occupation to acquiring money. To do this he tried to delight the Elizabethan audience which consisted of aristocrats, wits, gallants, sailors, soldiers, schoolboys. That makes great impression on me, because for me it means he knew how to manipulate audience’s emotions, likes and dislikes. The audience had to be given what it wanted, and, being so different, it wanted a variety things. Love for ladies, fine phrases and wit for the gallants, thought for the more scholarly etc. He was consistent in his way to achieve his goals.
Some writers, designers and painters who live in 21st century act the same… and they become, no matter whether they want it or not, celebrities… Part four: Amor vincit omnia Sunny afternoon… Last part of my “Reader’s journal” is going to be personal and Shakespearean. As a matter of fact, I was inspired to chose the topic by my fiance – love. He proposed me. It was really romantic. There were all pop cultural attributes of proposal, gold ring, flowers, surprise, my tears and of course word “Yes! ” as an answer. I realised, how happy are people who do not have any obstacles to love and are loved.
Their story in not as happy – “Romeo and Juliet”, play by Shakespeare. Two very young people from Verona come from two quarrelled families: Montagues and Capulets. The young lovers Romeo and Juliet meet at the first time on Capulet ball. Romeo attends the ball at the Capulet house in hopes of meeting Rosaline. Instead of Rosaline he falls in love with Juliet. For both it is love at first sight, they talk metaphorically then. They do not know that their families hate each other. They realize it too late. The second scene is the most popular one, when Juliet declares her love on the balcony and does not realize she is heard by Romeo.
But her father wants her to marry another man. Juliet visits Friar Laurence for help, and he offers her a drug that will put her into a death-like coma for “two and forty hours”. The Friar promises to send a messenger to inform Romeo of the plan, so that he can rejoin her when she awakens. On the night before the wedding, she takes the drug and, when discovered apparently dead, she is laid in the family crypt. The messenger, however, does not reach Romeo and, instead, he learns of Juliet’s apparent death from his servant Balthasar.
Heartbroken, Romeo buys poison from an apothecary and goes to the Capulet crypt. He encounters Paris who has come to mourn Juliet privately. Believing Romeo to be a vandal, Paris confronts him and, in the ensuing battle, Romeo kills Paris. Still believing Juliet to be dead, he drinks the poison. Juliet then awakens and, finding Romeo dead, stabs herself with his dagger. The feuding families and the Prince meet at the tomb to find all three dead. Friar Laurence recounts the story of the two “star-cross’d lovers”. The families are reconciled by their children’s deaths and agree to end their violent feud.
The play ends with the Prince’s elegy for the lovers: “For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo. ” Why this sad story became so popular? It is regarded as an archetypal story of young lovers. It had large influence on culture. Verona became cult place, characters’ name metaphor of young lovers. Is is quite catchy story, and contains a lot of words that can by said instead of “I love you”. It gives a lot of pleasure for readers. It appeals to everyones emotions, and it is so close for everyone who has loved somebody as it conveys the truth “Amor Vincit Omnia”.